Con man paved a path of lies

Published March 7, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

Joe Bujan spun the most amazing tales. He talked of wealth, his grand adventures, his powerful friends. And all the guys at Derby Lane believed him _ all but an old oil field worker named Johnny Boyd.

One day at the track the conversation turned to how much money greyhounds earn. Bujan claimed one dog had won $3-million.

Impossible, Boyd said. No greyhound had ever won that much.

But even when Boyd showed his friends a book that proved Bujan wrong, the other guys refused to believe it. To them, good old Joe was a family man with eight children and a million-dollar house on Tampa Bay, a well-connected home builder, a smart bettor who often won big. He must be right.

"He had them so bumfuzzled they would believe anything he told them," Boyd said. "But I was always telling them, "He's the phoniest sumbitch that walks!' "

Boyd was right, and not just about the dog.

Last week Bujan stood exposed in a Pinellas County courtroom as a man with an astounding talent for persuading naive friends to swallow a string of lies, a thief who has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars armed only with his vivid imagination.

Although Bujan said he owned a house on the bay, he actually lived in a duplex in a scruffy part of St. Petersburg.

Although he said he had eight children, he really had six _ two with his wife, Jean, and four with Ella Collins, the woman he married while still wed to Jean.

Bujan was not a builder. He wasn't even much of a gambler. A lot of the cash he flashed around came from another Derby Lane regular, George "Pop" Ashwell.

Everyone at Derby Lane thought Bujan was taking care of Ashwell, 75. It was the other way around. Ashwell says he gave Bujan $130,000, most of his life's savings.

Ashwell thought he was lending money to Bujan's corporation. All he got in return was a business card for a non-existent company.

"I look at it now and say, "Jiminy Cricket! Why did I believe him?' " Ashwell said.

His only consolation is that over the years Bujan's fantastic stories have fooled plenty of others.

Bujan once told a Tampa race-car driver he could swing a $30,000 sponsorship deal with Radio Shack if the driver gave him a $5,000 kickback. The driver had painted "Radio Shack" on his car before he learned Bujan was a fake and had no connection with the company.

Bujan persuaded several St. Petersburg bankers to give him $10,000 to finance a racing team he said he managed. He didn't repay the loan, but persuaded them to give him another $20,000 before they learned the truth.

He made a Thonotosassa businessman believe he held $90-million in bonds spirited out of Cuba when Castro took over, and needed help converting them to cash. The businessman gave him $20,000 and a new Mercedes-Benz before figuring out the story was fiction.

And when Bujan was arrested for swindling a Clearwater car dealer out of a brand-new Lincoln, he made bail, swiped the Lincoln from the dealer's lot and disappeared. Months later he was pulled over in Alabama doing 85 mph in the stolen car.

The police officer who stopped him nearly let him go. The fast-talking Bujan almost convinced him the whole thing was a silly mix-up.

"If you met him today he would tell you the most outrageous lie in the world, and he'd tell it to you so emphatic that you'd have to believe him," Boyd said. "Nobody could think up lies like these."

Pushing buttons

Once when a scam landed him in court, Bujan sobbed, "I was just trying to make it . . . to be somebody."

But which "somebody" he is depends on whom he's talking to.

At various times he has called himself Jose Bujan, Jose Bulan, Jose Latti and Joe Bulah. He says he was born Nov. 29 in either 1942 or 1944. He sometimes claims to be from Spain, sometimes from Cuba.

He told the guys at Derby Lane he was a professional jai alai player whose career ended when an injury left him unable to raise his right arm. But his wife told a judge his arm has been like that since birth.

When Bujan befriended Ashwell at Derby Lane, he spun a new identity, tailored to appeal to the older man.

A retired welder, Ashwell was the richest of the retirees who hung out together at the track, with a nice nest egg from selling some family property in Ohio. But Ashwell lived simply, and because his family was still up North, alone. He savored the camaraderie he found at the track.

Bujan presented himself to Ashwell as a family man with a problem. His three oldest sons ran his business, he said, but their bank account had been frozen by the savings-and-loan crisis. Bujan & Sons needed money to stay afloat. Could his buddy throw him a lifeline?

Ashwell gave him a few thousand, then a few more, then still more. Bujan promised to build him a home. Ashwell took him at his word.

Bujan began driving Ashwell around _ to Lake Tarpon to see a house Bujan said he had been hired to build; to Interstate 75 in Tampa to look over property that Bujan said belonged to him; to Miami's Calder Racetrack to bet on horses Bujan said he owned. Ashwell didn't suspect he was lying.

Bujan also offered to introduce Ashwell to his friends _ Tampa's top FBI agent, Calder's hottest jockey. Ashwell, a shy man, always said no, thanks. It didn't occur to him Bujan didn't know them.

Bujan made Ashwell feel like part of his family, even giving him pictures of his children _ although Ashwell never met them.

"The more I dealt with him, the more I trusted him," Ashwell said. "He had me programed."

Another retiree Bujan met at the track was Ernie Giannini. In their modest home Giannini and his wife, Marie, cared for their mothers, both suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Bujan told Giannini that he too was caring for ailing parents. Even their Alzheimer's symptoms were the same.

"He really played up the paternal instincts and all that American pie stuff," Giannini's daughter Pat said. "He must have been a really good judge of character to know just which buttons to push."

When the Gianninis decided to add a room to their house, Bujan offered to build it, presenting himself "as a very rich man who was doing us a big favor," Mrs. Giannini said.

But Bujan said he needed money to buy materials, so the Gianninis gave him $9,000. Days passed. No construction crews showed up. On the phone, Bujan was full of excuses.

"The last time he spoke to me, it sounded like he had a grin on his face," Mrs. Giannini said. "He said, "Do you know what's going on?' And I said, "I got a feeling, Joe.' "

Homemade checks

Crushed, Ernie Giannini complained to Gulfport police. They charged Bujan with grand theft.

But when the con man went to court in late 1992, "he walked in there just as cocky as if he owned the joint," Boyd said.

Bujan's attorney told the judge his client would like to plead no contest and be put on probation. But Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer said no. Because of Bujan's past record, she said, he would go to prison.

The con man started crying.

Bujan pleaded innocent and arranged with Largo bail-bondsman Frank Kopczynski to get out of jail. As collateral, Bujan handed Kopczynski the title to a new car.

Then Bujan disappeared, and Kopczynski discovered that the car belonged to a rental agency.

Judge Schaeffer put out a warrant for Bujan. If caught, she said, he should be brought before no judge but her, and his $50,000 bond should not be reduced.

Kopczynski began hunting the fugitive, who was spending his way across the South. He ran up a $75,000 tab on stolen credit cards, then switched to a more creative financing method.

On a piece of paper, Bujan drew a picture of a check. Then he ran off hundreds of photocopies and used them to rent cars, buy groceries, even stay at fine hotels, the bail-bondsman said.

Although fleeing the law, Bujan and his girlfriend, Ella Collins, stopped off in Butts County, Ga., to see a judge.

The judge married them.

But there were two problems. Although Jean Bujan was seeking a divorce in St. Petersburg, Bujan was still married to her.

And, according to Kopczynski, Bujan paid the judge with one of his homemade checks.

Caught in a lie

Bujan knew Kopczynski was chasing him. He told Collins his pursuer was a Mafia hit man, Kopczynski said.

One night, while Collins was staying with relatives in Gadsden, Ala., a bomb exploded by the house, Kopczynski said.

Bujan was in Atlanta at the time, and called Collins to blame the blast on the "hit man." But Collins hadn't told him about the bomb. The only way he could have known about it is if he had staged the explosion.

Realizing she had been duped, Collins told Kopczynski she would help nail Bujan. She told Bujan to meet her at an interstate rest stop near Pell City, Ala. When he pulled in, deputies grabbed him.

When Kopczynski went to fetch Bujan, Alabama authorities were glad to be rid of the con man. Complaining of chest pains, he had run up a big medical bill for the jail.

As they started back, Bujan wailed that without medication he would die. Kopczynski, a former hospital administrator, scanned the list of pills. They were all for high blood pressure.

"Blood pressure is a silent killer," Kopczynski told Bujan. "Shut the hell up."

"You're trying to con me'

Kopczynski brought him back to the Pinellas County Jail in October, but Bujan didn't stay long.

Despite Schaeffer's order, Bujan's bond was reduced by another judge two weeks later, after prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed to it.

"I don't know where the state attorney's office was on this one," Kopczynski said. "This guy was a fugitive, for God's sake!"

Assistant State Attorney Evan Brodsky, who prosecuted Bujan, couldn't explain the mistake.

With his bond lowered, Bujan arranged with another bondsman to get out of jail. As collateral Bujan gave him title to some land _ land that turned out to belong to someone else.

Bujan disappeared again, and Schaeffer again put out a warrant for him and ordered that he be brought back only to her.

This time Bujan was not hard to find. After a month he was nabbed in Gadsden, buying a used car with a bad check.

Now sporting a beard, Bujan walked into Judge Schaeffer's court in December chewing his lip, looking worried. In addition to the grand-theft charge, he had been accused of swiping a rental car in St. Petersburg Beach, writing bad checks in Georgia and ducking a court hearing.

But his attorney sailed ahead with explaining why his bond should be lowered. Bujan didn't show up for court, he said, because the notices were sent to the wrong address.

Kopczynski sat in the back row of the courtroom with Boyd, Ashwell and Pat Giannini, whose father had died while Bujan was on the lam. The bondsman glared at Bujan and muttered, "He's a lying sack of s_-!"

The judge gazed down at Bujan. "I wonder what Mr. Bujan thought was going on down here in Pinellas County while he was up in Alabama," she said. "Did he think his charge was just going to go away?"

"I never have run from the law," Bujan said. "Nobody ever told me I was supposed to be here."

The judge exploded.

"You conned your lawyer, you conned the bondsman and now you're trying to con me!" she snapped.

Bujan didn't make bail again. He pleaded guilty to all the charges Wednesday. Schaeffer sentenced him to 10 years in prison and ordered him to pay back what he stole from Ashwell and the Gianninis.

Before he left the courtroom, Bujan looked at the judge with a straight face and, sounding wounded, told her, "I think you have the wrong opinion of me."

_ Staff researcher Debbie Wolfe contributed to this story.