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Catch Me If You Can

Giuseppe Viola vanished into the blur of San Francisco's rush hour
//yeti-cir-test.s3.amazonaws.com/uploaded/images/2010/6/montgomery-bart/original/GVMontgomery_adi_web.jpg
Giuseppe Viola vanished into the blur of San Francisco's rush hour
 
Alleged North Beach grifter likely developed evasive tactics over decades

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.

Practiced evasion

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.

The man in the fedora
Photo by Tim Schmolder
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The man in the fedora
Photo by Tim Schmolder

The woman behind the counter said that Viola did not come in on weekends, and the man in the fedora responded with a reference to “the americano,” says Schmolder, “some hidden third party.”

So Schmolder decided to tail the mystery man in the fedora, hoping that he would lead him to Viola. “This is someone I would not want to cross,” Schmolder says of the man in the fedora, whose identity he never discovered. The man walked two blocks to Green Street, where a woman was parked, waiting in a rented Volkswagen, and the pair had a heated conversation. The man got into the Volkswagen, and the pair drove away on Kearny Street. Schmolder, on foot, soon lost them. “I realized the plot was thicker than I had realized, and the tentacles of this are starting to reverberate in North Beach. It took something big to get this distinguished gentleman out of bed to go searching North Beach for Giuseppe.”

Now knowing that the suspected grifter did not work weekends, Schmolder next shows up in his car, parked in front of Victoria Pastry at 8 a.m. on Monday, March 8.

Giuseppe Viola (right) talks with the man in the fedora, now hatless, inside Victoria Pastry
Photo by Tim Schmolder
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Giuseppe Viola (right) talks with the man in the fedora, now hatless, inside Victoria Pastry
Photo by Tim Schmolder

But the man in the fedora wouldn’t bite, saying something about a judge having tied up his money until March 20. “Mr. Fedora was the one holding the cards, the person in power,” says Schmolder. “Viola was trying to appease him, mitigate whatever worries he might have.”

The man in the fedora left after about 45 minutes, and when Schmolder tried to follow him, he seemed to have vanished just a few feet from Victoria Pastry’s front door.

The chase escalates

A few hours later, a rather short, middle-aged man came to see Viola at Victoria Pastry. The pair went to the building next door for a few minutes, then parted ways. Schmolder, who on this day had brought a partner who could remain with Viola at Victoria Pastry, followed the unidentified short man back to 120 Montgomery St., the building where Viola shared an office suite with a lawyer. Schmolder does not know if this man was the attorney.

The "unidentified short man" Schmolder tailed back to 120 Montgomery St.
Photo by Tim Schmolder
https://citizen-media.s3.amazonaws.com/uploaded/images/2010/6/viola-short-man/original/IMG_1051.JPG?Signature=wvNDSPcZCGcjq1fwpdIyGL0EtLg%3D&Expires=1359072810&AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAICY2ZBGLHCXTSKJA
The "unidentified short man" Schmolder tailed back to 120 Montgomery St.
Photo by Tim Schmolder

At around 5 p.m., Viola once again picked up his mail from the mail drop, then scooted into 100 Montgomery St. Schmolder, a bit wiser now, spotted him three minutes later coming out of the building’s doors at 120 Montgomery St. “It’s spooky, it’s not making any sense. He’s not acting in a fluid way,” says Schmolder. “Everything is very calculated. He’s doing it just to clean himself again.”

At this point, Schmolder is “on very high alert. I still have him. The whole thing is taking on another level; he is so unpredictable. I know the whole focus is to get him home.”

Viola then sauntered very slowly down the east side of Montgomery Street. He walked well past the entrance to the subterranean BART station at Montgomery and Market, and then abruptly doubled back, so that anyone following him would have to do the same. Schmolder had to wait above ground until Viola had slipped underground before turning around and following him.

Schmolder, hiding amid the crush of commuters, soon spots Viola walking very slowly through the station. “He walks past the turnstiles to the opposite end of the BART station, and he is just lingering. He goes up to the advertising kiosks as if he is looking at an ad, but he is looking at the reflection of the people behind him. He’s trying to figure out who might be following him,” Schmolder said.

“It’s just cat-and-mouse that that point. He lingers, mopes around for about five minutes, an eternity under the circumstances. He deliberately chose the Montgomery-Mission underground tunnel, to cut off the [cellular] communications” of anyone following him. “This man is calculating beyond belief. Maybe he did it every day. It makes it impossible for people to follow him.”

After Viola popped back up onto Market Street from the BART station, Schmolder followed as closely as he could, but Viola had vanished in just a few seconds. “I was in a panic at this point. How did that little guy disappear so quickly? Then I saw an entrance on Market to the Palace Hotel. Sure enough, that is where he was. The hotel has one huge long hallway, very grand.”

The corridor runs a full city block from Market Street to Jessie Street. Anyone entering after Viola would easily be spotted. Schmolder could see Viola lingering at the far end of the hallway, looking at some art. Schmolder, at the opposite end of the hallway, was the only other loiterer there, and he knew at this point Viola was on high alert. “I knew I would not be able to hold the tail any longer. I had to get my partner and switch roles. Viola is probably onto me, and very suspicious of any activity.” Viola began walking, still slowly, along the corridor, back to the Market Street entrance, toward Schmolder. “I have to let him walk. I cannot let him walk past me, to get that close.”

And that is where it ended. Viola, victorious again, vanished into the blur of San Francisco’s rush hour.

The world some people live in

Schmolder thinks it was no accident that Viola chose that particular spot. “There’s no better intersection in San Francisco to clean yourself than that intersection,” Schmolder says. You can take BART, go underground, go down long corridors in hotels into alleyways, catch a taxicab. Everything is spontaneous.”

The alleged con man may have stuck to this routine for years, in a bizarre daily commute from his workaday life of alleged scams in North Beach to perhaps a “normal” life lived somewhere else in the Bay Area.

“I think it speaks to his level of sophistication,” Schmolder said. “Of all the people who knew him here, nobody knew anything about him, his personal lifestyle. He took great effort to protect that vital information, and this [cleansing] was part of it, developed over many years. That’s what happens when you go on the run like that. That is the world some people live in.”

Schmolder never saw Viola again. He was staking out the stretch of Montgomery Street between the Financial District and North Beach on March 10 when he heard that Viola had been arrested, after putting up a spirited resistance, in front of the Victoria Pastry shop by police executing that 20-year-old Arizona warrant.

Is Schmolder disappointed that he didn’t get his man in the end? “I’m not disappointed he was arrested. It’s unfortunate he was not arrested sooner. He has destroyed a lot of people’s lives,” says Schmolder. Besides, given the murky fate of Ralph Napolitano, the early Viola investor who disappeared shortly after opening up a trust account for Viola in 1999, Schmolder says he is under no illusions that this was just a cerebral game for Viola.

“When you get up into high stakes, with a lot of money at stake, it brings out a whole other element of personality,” Schmolder says. With such people, “anything is possible. If he is aware he is being followed, and he knows where he is going, and I don’t, he could set me up, and there wouldn’t be much that I could do. If this is the kind of person who can make Ralph Napolitano disappear, do you think he is going to care about me?”

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