LARGO — Their car broke down on the side of the road in Shreveport, La. It was Joseph Wesley Torma, his wife and their two kids. They were down to their last few bucks.
Desperate, Torma walked into the local Wal-Mart and bought a company baseball cap. Then he found a sucker.
He walked out with a few hundred bucks. He didn't use a gun or a knife. Just words.
The con was on.
"Now I'm scared," he thought to himself. "Jesus Christ, this thing worked."
It worked for almost three decades, if the word of a professional grifter can be believed. Torma said he's swindled thousands across 43 states out of $2.5 million.
But the life of a con man, it turns out, is no life at all.
Now 60, Torma said he's broke. He said his wife is dying in a Tampa motel room. He said his daughter hasn't talked to him since his photo was on TV weeks ago. That's when police labeled the con artist "Plasma Pat" for pulling off a series of scams in Pinellas County in which he promised people expensive TVs for cheap, but never delivered.
The only friend he has in the world is a man named David Drake, who turned him in at the Largo Police Department on Tuesday. But he has ripped off Drake, too.
"If I could get away with it, I'd kill him," said Drake, 84. "But I'm the closest thing to a friend he's got."
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Here's how the scam worked:
After years of practice, Torma perfected his look as a Wal-Mart employee. He made sure to frequent the area around a store for a few days.
Then he'd go to a local restaurant or bar and make sure everyone heard him pretend to talk on the phone:
"Joanne, ring Larry in the back. No, man, I'm at Applebee's. No, I'm not drinking a beer. Let me ask you something, the guy who brought the five TVs back, how much you want for them?"
Torma fooled people into thinking he could buy them expensive electronics — first it was VCRs, then flat-screen TVs, once it was even PlayStation 3s — for a fraction of the cost.
They'd pay him cash and watch him walk into Wal-Mart.
They never saw him exit out another door and disappear.
Few have reported him to authorities over the years. Torma thought maybe they were too ashamed.
"The secret to conning people," he said, "is their own greed."
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Yet Torma has just a few misdemeanor arrests on his record. He said he's never been caught for the scam that he claims made him a living legend among con artists.
When he talked about his criminal past, he did so proudly.
"They say I invented the greatest short con ever invented," Torma said.
It's also why he had such a hard time turning himself in.
"He doesn't think he did anything wrong," said Drake, the Dade City man who also fell prey to Torma.
Drake said he helped bankroll a civil suit Torma was involved in. But on settlement day, Torma skipped out and cost his "friend" a lot of money. Drake said he's too embarrassed to say how much.
But Drake confirmed that Torma's wife, Judith Anne, 66, is dying of leukemia and urosepsis. She has maybe a month left.
Torma knows he might not see his wife again before she dies. Drake said it's more important that he answer for his crimes.
"She needs this," he said. "All this has been hurting her, too."
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Largo police can't confirm all the tales Torma has spun. But they suspect he's the man wearing the Wal-Mart ID badge who has ripped people off outside a Wal-Mart in their city, as well as the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Oldsmar. They suspect he has pulled off similar scams in Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
The con came to an end on Tuesday when Largo detectives escorted him inside police headquarters for a little chat. Torma turned himself in, but not before calling a St. Petersburg Times reporter and telling his story, first on the phone and later in front of the police station before officers came down to get him.
He later was booked into the Pinellas County jail. Largo police said he was arrested on 13 counts of organized fraud filed by the Florida Attorney General's Office for a series of scams.
"My wife's dying, and I'm embarrassed for my kids and my grandkids," said Torma, tears in his eyes. "I'm trying to teach them that if you do something wrong, you pay the fiddler."
But how can anyone ever believe the word of a con man?
"What am I gonna lie about?" he said. Then he turned to his only friend in the world: "Ain't that right?"
Replied Drake: "He's never told the truth in his life."
Times staff writer Rita Farlow and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.