At the heart of any good con ... is plausibility.
The biggest misconception about fraud is that the victims are stupid. The truth is, con artists prefer intelligent people.
First, smart people are more likely to have money. Second, smart people are easier to fool precisely because they think they're too smart to get scammed.
Linda Tischler, Fast Company magazine
Chauffeured in the passenger seat of his black 2002 Lexus 470 SUV, John Heintz sets his sights on doctors, lawyers, bankers, real estate magnates. Smart people, monied people.
Over $200 bottles of Opus One Napa Valley red wine and steak dinners at the likes of St. Petersburg's Parkshore Grill or Chateau France, he makes his pitch.
He offers to create Web sites for the half-dozen business owners and their wives who gather for the pricey meals. To some, he suggests an investment in one of his businesses, offering a stack of references.
Dozens have bought in, to their eternal regret. Investors have forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars without ever seeing any accounting, stock certificates or returns; employees took him to court to get their wages; clients have complained of unfulfilled contracts and services.
Heintz says he has done nothing wrong, there are simple explanations for all the trouble. The 58-year-old St. Petersburg man, who has clients throughout the Tampa Bay region, says he is a misunderstood, well-intentioned businessman who has suffered too many setbacks.
But those who say they have been victimized — and the list is long — say Heintz can be most endearing, a lovable cad, who leaves them holding the bag and somehow manages to blame them for their misfortune.
"He's basically a con artist, a very good con artist," says James J. Mitchell, a former bank executive who says he forked over more than $250,000 to Heintz.
Law enforcement could have cut short the path Heintz blazed from Illinois to Michigan to Florida. Instead, for almost 20 years, he burned friends, neighbors and others while authorities gave him a pass.
• • •
With the truly gifted con artist, even after the mark realizes she has been taken, she still holds great affection for him.
In the mid-1990s Heintz was trying to develop software that would help companies process invoices and electronic payments for vendors. He called it "payware" and told potential investors it was set to be sold for millions to Pizza Hut.
Pam and Don Angerhofer, who live outside Chicago, were excited about the possibilities. They had known Heintz for years. Their daughter, Carissa, had performed in horse shows with Heintz's daughter, and Heintz's wife had been Carissa's riding instructor.
The Angerhofers bought into Heintz's plan, big time. Carissa, now grown up, even lived with the Heintzes in a multimillion dollar beach house in Union Pier, Mich. She worked for Heintz as a computer programmer.
Then, in May 1997, Heintz's software company, Integrated Businessystem Techologies, was "involuntarily dissolved." Heintz had left Illinois without providing investors written documentation about what happened to the business — or their money.
The Angerhofers lost $400,000 — Don's retirement from 47 years with the Sante Fe Railroad.
Mitchell, the former banker, lost more than $250,000 in the same deal. He says he saw big possibilities in Heintz's idea of "payware,'' which as it turned out, was a precursor of Paypal.
"It was the way computers were going to go,'' says Mitchell, except that Heintz never delivered what he proposed. "I gave him the money and off he went.''
Heintz says the Angerhofers and Mitchell are both mistaken, they did not invest in his company, they gave him loans to help him with living expenses while he developed the software, loans he just couldn't pay back.
To top it all off, Carissa was never paid for some of her programming work.
Heintz says he always made sure he took care of Carissa, even if it was providing other compensation, such as free room and board. "It was very, very difficult for us to make ends meet," Heintz says. "We did give her money, the room and board."
Carissa won a $105,000 judgment against him for unpaid wages from the Illinois Department of Labor. He never paid.
Carissa is 32 now and married, Carissa Means. When she thinks of Heintz, she sighs with the dismay of a broken-hearted daughter.
"It's really sad because they are the sweetest, most wonderful people," Carissa says of Heintz and his wife. "The people that I knew and I loved, I don't think those people exist anymore."
And yet Carissa finds it difficult to have hard feelings about him. "If he goes to prison,'' she tells her mother, Pam Angerhofer, "I'm going to visit him.''
"No, no!" her mother chides, trying to get Carissa to let go — but still admitting her own affection for the man. "We loved him so much."
Heintz is glad to hear that though the Angerhofers say he took them for more than a half-million dollars, they still have warm feelings for him.
"I'm a nice guy,'' he says. "They're nice people.''
• • •
The trail of civil lawsuits and criminal charges goes back as far as 1989, three years after Heintz started the first of his businesses, a software company called ERA Development Corp. Dozens of victims in and around Chicago lined up with claims that Heintz and his company had defaulted on payments, left contracts unfulfilled or outright cheated them.
In one case, he acquired a new Lexus 400 through ERA and traded it without paying off the lien, leading to a lawsuit for more than $30,000.
Heintz says it was a misunderstanding. He thought he could trade the car as long as he continued making the payments on the loan — though he never did.
When the case came to civil court, the plaintiff's lawyer, William J. Bryan, says Heintz handed him a gallon bottle of Crown Royal to give to the loan officer and tell him, "no hard feelings."
Only, there were hard feelings.
The bank had chased Heintz for a year before getting back the Lexus, standing in line for its claim with more than 100 other creditors in ERA's bankruptcy filing. On Jan. 4, 1993, Heintz reported in the bankruptcy case that ERA owed almost $700,000, including $40,000 in federal and state taxes.
Ten days later, his wife of 23 years filed for divorce. He says he was devastated and became depressed.
Civil cases began turning criminal, leading to charges for theft, theft by deception, deceitful practices and bogus checks. Heintz got picked up for aggravated assault, impersonating a police officer and illegally brandishing a firearm.
He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft in one case and theft by deception, a felony, in another. In a third case he was convicted of aggravated assault and served 61 days in jail.
A year after his divorce, he married Tania Untulis, the horse riding instructor who taught his daughter and Carissa Angerhofer.
Along with sharing a house in Lockport, Ill., where their neighbors included baseball player Carlton Fisk, Heintz and Untulis bought an $875,000 beach house in a resort community on Lake Michigan. They bought it just days after Heintz filed for personal bankruptcy, owing $100,000 to the IRS and more than $200,000 to other creditors.
• • •
The beach house in Union Pier, Mich., was not only where they slept, it became home to Heintz's latest company, Coastal Datalink Corp.
In the late 1990s, his company focused on the soaring Internet business. One contract called for Heintz to sell and design Web sites, and Triton Technologies owner Steve Hale would host them on his company's computer servers.
Heintz promised Hale he would develop 5,000 sites but did no more than 100.
"He just wasn't doing the volume he said he was going to do, and he wasn't paying his bills," Hale said.
When Heintz's overdue bills reached $40,000, Hale filed suit. The case came to trial Nov. 21, 2002, in South Haven, Mich.
Heintz came to court in a late model Lexus, dressed in his signature navy blue, pinstripe suit (picked up on sale at Nordstrom) and Rolex (picked up at discount on a trip to Hong Kong).
Heintz ignored the hearing and focused on other business at the courthouse. He says he didn't have money for a lawyer to argue his case, which would have been that Hale had overcharged him and failed to send invoices on time.
The judge ruled that Heintz owed Hale $45,000.
"He was chuckling out in the parking lot, got in his Lexus," Hale says. "That's the last we saw of him."
Next stop, St. Petersburg.
• • •
In addition to the $45,000 owed to Hale, American Express was after Heintz and his company for tens of thousands of dollars.
American Express tried to put a lien on the Michigan beach house, but Heintz and Untilis already had sold it.
They had paid $875,000 for the home; it sold for $2.25 million. Less than a month after selling the Michigan home, Heintz and Untulis paid cash — $855,000 — for a house on Dolphin Cay in St. Petersburg.
Why didn't Heintz pay off his debts with the huge windfall from the sale of the Michigan home? His answer: "I only netted enough money to buy a house down here.''
St. Petersburg offered a new beginning for Heintz — and a new set of marks.
To get his Web site development business going, he borrowed $40,000 from neighbor and new friend David E. "Van" Williams, money Heintz began to repay only after he was sued for it.
He persuaded William Nelms to invest $25,000 in his business in exchange for 1.25 percent of the company; over the past two years, Nelms has received no accounting or documentation, other than a letter acknowledging the investment.
Heintz went to work to find new clients. He often would gather doctors, lawyers and other potential clients and host dinner parties at a place like Chateau France, which he touted as one of his Web site customers. He had a stack of references that few would check. The appearance of his own personal wealth surrounded by intelligent, wealthy people, gave him credibility.
He promised to build quality and even sophisticated Web sites. His fee could range from $3,000 to more than $30,000 for a complicated design and coding — well worth it to the business people, doctors and lawyers for whom building a Web site was daunting.
Heintz often used the program Front Page, software available online for about $140.
When it came to producing basic sites for law firms and restaurants such as Parkshore Grill and Chateau France, Heintz delivered. But more sophisticated jobs sometimes landed him in trouble.
Dava and Greg Baez, of St. Petersburg, wanted to create a business they called honeymoondreams.com. Their site would allow couples to create registries and list items for their honeymoon that friends and family could buy for them.
The couple solicited three bids for the project. They felt comfortable with Heintz's proposal, in part because he told them he and his programmers attended the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (He told the St. Petersburg Times he attended Columbia University. Neither school has records of him attending. He attended but did not graduate from Southern Illinois University.)
Heintz produced the basic honeymoon site but never developed the critical coding to make it interactive with viewers. The Baez's business collapsed.
"He promised the world," Dava Baez said. They lost $10,000 in the deal, their life savings.
Heintz blames Dava Baez. He said she wanted him to plagiarize material from another site. Baez said she just wanted him to look at their competitors so he would understand what they wanted to do.
Dr. Dan Mountcastle, of St. Pete Beach, paid Heintz $20,000 for six Web sites, including one to help sell the artwork of poor Kenyans. Mountcastle says some 700 Kenyan families lost a year's wages because of long delays developing a workable site. Heintz says he completed the job.
Dr. Scott Plantz, of St. Pete Beach, had a business, Pearlsreview Inc., that spent $56,000 through Heintz for a Web site to train nurses.
Heintz blames Plantz for the problem-plagued site, saying that the doctor wanted him to include computer coding he was not authorized to use. Plantz says his company had the rights to coding used for his new Web site.
In September 2007, Plantz filed a fraud complaint with the St. Pete Beach police; in February, his company, Pearlsreview, sued Heintz's company, Dalmoworks.
It's been a year since Plantz filed his police report, and he wonders if law enforcement makes such cases a priority. "What's it going to take to get the guy off the street?" Plantz asked.
State prosecutors are investigating. No charges have been filed.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe would not comment on Heintz, but he said contract disputes are difficult. Law enforcement often defaults to declaring cases civil matters because of the trouble sifting through the he-said, she-said between contractor and client.
Investigators have to decide, said McCabe: "Was it bad business, or was it stealing?"
Anticipating this story in the Times, Heintz's lawyer, Grady Irvin, sent letters to Heintz's customers, reassuring them that Irvin's Tampa-based firm had conducted its own investigation that "at this time has not revealed any irregularities, fraud, etc.
"We say this not only as attorneys for Dalmoworks/Heintz, but also as a customer."
• • •
No one, it seems, has held Heintz accountable for long. In Illinois, he served no time for two separate theft convictions and 61 days in jail for aggravated assault.
In at least three civil cases, the plaintiffs won judgments against Heintz and requested prosecution, but no charges were brought. He frequently avoided paying judgments.
Heintz blames many of the problems on circumstances beyond his control. Technology evolved as he would put forth innovative software ideas. The Gulf War in the early 1990s dampened business. After his wife divorced him, he plunged into a downward spiral of misdeeds that led to his criminal history and his need for mental health treatment.
"I had an emotional breakdown," Heintz says. "I didn't want a divorce. I just went down a rabbit hole. I became horribly depressed."
Why does he buy million dollar homes when he owes dozens of people tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars?
"I can't live in the streets."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.