Giuseppe Viola, the man accused of bilking North Beach residents of some $17 million in an elaborate Ponzi scheme, spent 20 years as a fugitive. Covering one’s tracks and successfully evading detection for so long is exhausting, and a private gumshoe’s account of his days spent tailing Viola in March through the streets of North Beach, the canyons of the Financial District and the bowels of the underground transit system sheds some light on just how elaborate and at times cunning Viola’s tactics were.
“This was one of those tails that don’t happen very often,” says Tim Schmolder, a Cal graduate with a degree in psychology who has been in this line of work for two decades. “It was like a movie, really cat-and-mouse.” Schmolder never did succeed in his main objective, which was to discover where Viola lived.
Schmolder’s assigned target had served jail time in Arizona in the 1980s. In 1990, facing another fraud trial there, the man born Joseph Viola skipped bail and disappeared. In the mid-1990s, he surfaced in North Beach, now calling himself Giuseppe Viola, a self-touting attorney and investment whiz. By 1999, he had managed to open up a Citibank trust account with an early investor named Ralph Napolitano, who disappeared shortly thereafter. Viola used Napolitano’s bank accounts, credit cards and driver’s license, and cashed his pension checks, until he was arrested on the old Arizona warrant in March. Even Viola’s cell phone was in Napolitano’s name. No one has been charged with a crime in connection with Napolitano’s disappearance.
Viola now sits in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix awaiting trial on the old fraud charges, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, angry investors, attorneys and private investigators are trying to piece together the full scope of his activities over the many years he lived large as a wheeler-dealer of North Beach.
How did he manage to evade arrest and function under an assumed identity for so long, with investors who grew to count him as a friend never learning any real personal details or even where Viola lived? An angry Viola investor earlier this year hired an attorney, who in turn hired a San Francisco private investigator. “Viola had no way to plug into the world, because he was a fugitive,” which is why his stealing of Ralph Napolitano’s identity was so crucial, said the investigator. This investigator, who declined to be named, hired Schmolder, a surveillance expert, to start tailing Viola in February. “Good surveillance men are rarer than diamonds. I’ve only known three or four in 40 years,” said the investigator.
What Schmolder found in his wild days chasing Viola cast some light on the elaborate and exhausting subterfuge that allowed Viola to escape detection for so long.
When Schmolder began, all he knew was that Viola had possibly scammed some people of some money, and that he hung out at Caffe Roma and other spots in North Beach. Schmolder had a couple of photos, but there was no sign of Viola when Schmolder first worked on the case one day in February.
Then, on Monday, March 1, a lucky break came. The first of the month was the day Viola would distribute checks and statements to investors who met him at Caffe Roma, and Schmolder watched with some amazement as Viola came in and worked the crowd. “I [began to] realize the scope,” he recalls. “He was running some sort of investment group scam. He walked into Caffe Roma. He knew everyone, was on very friendly terms with everyone there. It seemed like a big family of sorts, everyone laughing, in good spirits, catching up. I saw him passing out envelopes.”
Even though Viola had not distributed checks as usual on Jan. 1 and Feb. 1, Schmolder did not get the sense that the crowd at Caffe Roma was upset with him. “Nobody was pressing him. Everyone seemed cordial and getting along, having coffee and talking.”
A curious routine
From there, Schmolder shadowed Viola as he made his neighborhood rounds. The North Beach post office. Washington Square. A stop-and-chat with a couple of men in front of Stella Pastry on Columbus. Then back to Victoria Pastry, where Viola had his small windowless office in the basement. “He seemed pretty slick,” Schmolder says. “I could tell he was a confident man. There was a certain arrogance about him.”
When Viola left his pastry-shop office for the day at about 5:45 p.m., he picked up his mail from a UPS mail drop at 268 Bush St., bought some food at a little snack shop at 151 Montgomery St., and then walked into the office building at 100 Montgomery St. Schmolder believed that Viola shared an office at 120 Montgomery St., Suite 2290 with an attorney, but he did not yet realize the two buildings were connected.
Schmolder spent the next several hours looking inconspicuous in front of 100 Montgomery St., waiting for Viola to emerge.
Is it difficult to not attract attention, hanging out in front of an office building for five and a half hours? Apparently not. “There is activity up and down the Montgomery corridor,” says Schmolder. “You could be shot, or stabbed, and no one would even care. I blend in very well. I got a PowerBar from 24 Hour Fitness to keep my spirits going.”
But when 11:30 p.m. came around and there was still no sign of Viola, Schmolder conferred with the private investigator who had hired him, and they agreed to throw in the towel for the night. Tonight, Viola had beaten them.
But Schmolder felt he had learned a great deal about Viola in the meantime. “Whatever he was running from, this guy was pretty clever making sure that whenever he does head home, no one is trailing him,” he said. “This guy is very clever. [For 20 years], I don’t think he ever went home in one direct shot. There is a whole routine to go through every time he goes home. ‘Cleaning’ himself, that’s what we call it. That’s what you have to do, the life you have to live, if you are on the run.”
“It certainly gave me a lot to digest for the next round,” Schmolder said.
Schmolder picked up again on Saturday, March 6. That day, he didn’t see Viola, but he did find that another man, a foreboding-looking older Italian man in a fedora and suit, was looking for Viola as well.
Following the man in the fedora
It’s midmorning, and Schmolder is sitting in Victoria Pastry, nibbling at one of the many Italian pastries he will consume while on the case. The man in the fedora “asks the waitress for Giuseppe by name, with a very thick Italian accent. There was an urgency in his desire to find Giuseppe that caught my attention,” Schmolder said.