Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Mayo conman branded himself for life
The swindles grew more audacious as he crossed continents, €70 million passing through Kevin McGeever’s nuanced hands as he seduced investors in Australia,the United States, Europe, and the United Arab Emirates.
Along the way, there was a fake bank in Liechtenstein, a fake Austrian one in Feldkirch, a fake paradise in Dubai, and a fake kidnapping or two.
Some things, of course, were all too real.
On January 29th, 2013, a dishevelled man shuffled from a remote Irish roadside into the lights of an oncoming car. Through sleet rain, electrified on a black night, Catherine Vallely suddenly saw a red glow, and for a moment mistook McGeever’s red trousers, his gaunt face and his billowing white beard for a traffic bollard, blurred in the lights.
People, all over the world, frequently mistook Kevin McGeever for something he was not.
In the course of making We Need To Talk About Kevin, an RTÉ One television documentary, I spent the past three years tracing the intricate sidesteps of McGeever. In a 30-year career, conning his way across four continents, the Mayo man has claimed to be many things: a developer, a roofing contractor, a Harvard-educated doctor of arbitration, a psychologist, a bestselling author, and president of the fictional World Trust Bank in Liechtenstein, where he purported to deal exclusively in $100 million trades.
I discovered a pattern of deception that began in 1973, when, aged 29, he abandoned his first convertible Jaguar sports car at Dublin Airport and, overnight, left behind astonished friends and a small, unfinished housing development that he had been building in Naas, Kildare.
The trend continued through the 1980s in Australia, where he abandoned his De Tomaso sports car at Sydney Airport in 1985, leaving behind his wife, Valmai, their two young daughters, Renee and Shanelle, and the four-bedroom luxury waterfront home, complete with swimming pool, they shared in the southern suburb of Kareela. He also left behind at least five investors who had each been conned into buying the same roofing business.
Fake bank scam
In 2000, with the FBI on his trail over an $8 million fake bank scam, McGeever abandoned leased sports cars and the home he shared with his second wife, Jeany Nicole Chhay, in Lawerenceville, Georgia, and came to Ireland to reinvent himself as a Celtic Tiger property developer. Ms Chhay eventually secured a divorce 10 years later, after court papers stated that McGeever could not be traced.
In the meantime, McGeever had taken millions from more than 60 Irish investors who thought they were buying dream homes in Dubai. Instead, McGeever double-sold properties; sold other apartments which were entirely fictitious; and used investors’ money to buy commercial property in Dubai for himself. He then sold the same commercial floors to multiple buyers in a scam that involved 48 transactions with buyers from Ireland, Russia and China. Some got their money back; many did not. At least €70 million passed through McGeever’s hands, much of it unaccounted for. He spent €4.5 million buying and refurbishing a mansion in Craughwell, which he named Nirvana.
While making We Need To Talk About Kevin, we encountered as many characters as countries in McGeever’s convoluted and captivating story. But in the end, even after interviewing victims in Australia, in Palm Beach, in Dubai, and in Ireland, one essential question remained. Yes, Kevin McGeever had been lying, cheating and conning people for 30 years. But this time, was he the victim? Was he really kidnapped by disgruntled investors in his Dubai scam, or was McGeever the man who kidnapped himself?
Catherine Vallely occasionally picked up hitchhikers from the hippie camp and the Buddhist centre dotted along an old smuggling route linking Swanlinber (200 yards from the Border with Northern Ireland) to Ballinamore, 19 kilometres south in Co Leitrim. Vallely, a former Sinn Féin local election candidate, was returning from a Tuesday-night writing class with her friend, Peter Reihill, when she spotted what she thought was a bollard on the road ahead. The moment they stopped, shortly after 10pm, for a frail, sodden, yet unfailingly polite, 68-year-old stranger, a bizarre plotline began to unfold before the aspiring writers’ eyes.
Dripping socks stepped into the back seat and McGeever’s eyes, huge like a hungry child’s, looked out. Wrapped in some kind of plastic sheeting, he was holding a new flashlight and a mobile phone containing just one preregistered number in the contacts list.
His body still shaking with the cold, he spoke in a rasped voice of how he had been kidnapped, and starved for eight months in a secret underground container. He said he had been dumped in the area by three men in a van, but said he didn’t know where he was or what day it was.
He looked the part. Weighing about eight stone (51kg/112lb), he had “thief” – misspelt “tief” – written in indelible ink on his forehead. His discoloured fingernails were more than an inch long.
“He had a pair of enormous eyes in a very thin face. He was rubbing his beard with fingers that had long nails. The beard was coming away in his hands. He was well-educated, well-spoken and polite,” Vallely said.
For 30 years, McGeever had taken a feline pride in his appearance. His expensive Baroni suits, tanned skin, sunglasses, jewellery and Church’s leather shoes spoke as much for his inner narcissism as the pulled and pinched plastic surgery lines either side of his eyes.
Every scam and con he’d pulled – from selling the same business five times in Sydney in 1985 to convincing investors worldwide in 1998 to lodge $8 million into his fake bank in Liechtenstein – was always predicated on his charismatic, constructed persona of wealth and success. Yet here he was now, starved and gaunt, shoeless and grey. If this was all just another con, it was being perpetrated in a way that was entirely out of character.
Vallely didn’t know that the man in her back seat was wanted by the FBI and Interpol, or that he had recently spent time in prison in Dubai and Germany. She did find it odd, however, that he didn’t seem to smell; at least, not badly, for a man held underground for the past eight months.
McGeever asked Vallely to ring directory inquiries and get a number for a friend. That didn’t work, so he called the single preregistered number on the phone, supposedly given to him by his kidnappers. His friend, John McNevin, answered. Shortly before his alleged kidnapping, McGeever had left his Porche and other luxury cars with McNevin for safekeeping.
Vallely arranged to bring McGeever to McNevin at a Tesco car park in Carrick-on Shannon, 27 kilometres southwest of Ballinamore. However, as they passed through Ballinamore, Peter Reihill, who was driving, decided against the detour and parked outside the Garda station instead. It wasn’t what McGeever was expecting, but he appeared calm as a female Garda checked out his story. Vallely noted how he retained a dignity, even as he devoured biscuits and warm tea, and then the curry chips he’d ordered from a nearby takeaway.
McGeever’s kidnapping claims initially rang true. Gardaí in Gort, Galway, confirmed they were investigating his disappearance. McGeever was taken to Mullingar general hospital, where doctors noted some muscle wastage and minor injuries but were relieved not to find the eyesight issues they had expected in someone who had been kept in the dark for eight months.
It wasn’t until days later that Vallely discovered that Kevin Michael McGeever was a multimillionaire with his own fleet of 13 luxury cars, with personalised licence plates, such as the MR KMM which adorned his Hummer and the SL55 AMG on his Mercedes. She was startled to see photographs of a 14-stone McGeever standing before a helicopter liveried with KMM, which was both his property company’s name and his initials.
Like all of McGeever’s stories, there was some truth in there somewhere. He did own some luxury cars, but most were leased, just like the helicopter. He had hired it, just as he had hired a photographer to come and capture him standing in front of it, all decked out in KMM livery just for the day. McGeever pulled stunts liked this all the time.
His biggest con was establishing a fake bank in Liechtenstein, using a PO box in Salem, Massachusetts, a shell company registered in the British Virgin Island, and a phoney lawyer named James Sexton. The scam duped lawyers and investors across the US and in Mexico, Canada, the UK, and Ireland.
Together, they invested $8.8 million in McGeever’s fake bank. More than $2 million disappeared before investors managed to freeze the accounts. The FBI established that McGeever had bought himself a $67,000 Mercedes and an $18,000 church organ from the proceeds, and traced the rest to accounts set up by the fake lawyer, James Sexton, in Panama and Belize. Sexton initially claimed he had handed over the $2 million to an Austrian named Kurt Schemed in Feldkirch. Mr Schmied was, like so much in McGeever’s life, a fiction.
Sexton eventually died in prison, while another accomplice, Doug Johnson, entered a plea and agreed to give evidence against the fugitive McGeever. An FBI arrest warrant remains active for McGeever. The FBI confirmed to RTÉ that he would be arrested should he return to the US.
McGeever’s various cons had allowed an uneducated man to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, driving a Lamborghini Murciélago, a Ferrari 360, a Porsche GT2 and even, at one point, a Formula One car he claimed to have bought from Eddie Jordan. (In fact, it was repossessed by a friend of Jordan’s. McGeever never paid for it, but did try to get Jordan to become a business partner in a fictional attempt to buy the London soccer club Queen’s Park Rangers.)
After a six-month investigation into his kidnapping, McGeever was charged with wasting Garda time. He was also charged with knowingly making false reports and statements to gardaí on various dates in 2013, relating to allegations of false imprisonment, assault and threats to harm.
If his kidnapping claim was just another con, it meant McGeever had permanently defaced himself. The ink is still visible on his forehead, even beneath the layers of cosmetic concealer he applies daily.
It appears that the overriding aspect of McGeever’s character is his vanity. Could someone so vain, and so at ease with fleeing countries, really have done that to himself?
On Tuesday, we found out the truth. He wouldn’t give an interview on camera over the past three years, but we met and spoke at length on several occasions and had numerous hour-long phone calls, during which he appeared to suffer from wild mood swings, his initial aggression giving way to tears and an insidious charm which left you liking him immensely, despite all the lies and broken promises.
He would promise wholeheartedly to produce documents which would clear his name, or to set up interviews with people who could prove his claims, but always, he would do a U-turn, or deny making such promises in the first place.
He told me he had had 14 sessions with a tattoo removal specialist to burn the skin and fade the word “tief” permanently inscribed on his forehead.
“I was buried alive for eight months and a day. I was starved and beaten. Do you really think I’d do that to myself, write that word on my forehead forever?” he asked me.
He promised to allow me to film and interview him as he underwent the treatment to remove the word “tief”, yet, as with all the other commitments, this never came to pass.
Could a man so irrevocably narcissistic truly have done that to himself? Could he have starved himself, lost more than four stone, hidden himself away from everyone, including his dying partner, Siobhán O’Callaghan? And if so, why?
On Tuesday at Galway Circuit Criminal Court, McGeever pleaded guilty to wasting Garda time, and faced with a maximum sentence of five years, he was sentenced to two years in prison, with the sentence suspended for five years.
Gardaí suspected from an early stage that McGeever was lying about his abduction. He allegedly that he was abducted on May 27th, 2012, by three masked men at his Galway mansion, Nirvana. Yet O’Callaghan didn’t report him missing until the end of June, and gardaí were asked not to make a public appeal. Three texts were sent from McGeever’s phone while he was supposedly kidnapped. The texts, telling O’Callaghan not to worry, were sent from Germany and Northern Ireland. Then house-to-house inquiries in Clontarf, where McGeever’s partner owned an apartment, unearthed a neighbour who claimed to have seen McGeever in June 2012, more than a week after he was supposedly kidnapped.
The court heard that he was being pursued by Irish investors who had lost millions buying properties in Dubai. Kevin Cook, a hard-nosed multimillionaire businessman, handed over €800,000 for seven apartments in Dubai. As with scores of other Irish clients, Cooke made multiple payments. McGeever would personally call to Mr Cooke’s home, in Carragh, Kildare, befriending him as he collected the stage payment cheques.
And just as he had done in the Liechtenstein scam, where McGeever sent fake bank statements to victims, the Mayo man appeased his Irish investors in Dubai with fake construction shots, showing completed bathrooms in the apartments and everything seemingly on schedule. The reality was that many of the apartments didn’t exist in Dubai, others were double-sold to multiple clients, and others were sold without McGeever actually owning them.
As if McGeever’s kidnap claims weren’t bizarre enough, there was to be another twist. Kevin Cooke was himself kidnapped by two masked men, who brought him to see McGeever in captivity, where Cooke was told that the kidnappers wanted $10 million for McGeever’s release. Gardaí believed Cooke was brought there to reinforce McGeever’s claim that he had been kidnapped and to get the message to other disgruntled investors that he had no money, even to pay for his own release.
Det John Keating told the court that McGeever eventually admitted in the last of four interviews with detectives that he had concocted the abduction.
“Over the course of the investigation he made eight statements alleging kidnap, assault, and ill-treatment,” he said. “A six-week investigation commenced, and certain anomalies appeared in his story. We arrested him on March 28th, 2013. He was interviewed on four occasions, and stuck to his stance for the first three, that he was kidnapped and assaulted in Craughwell, and held in a steel container for eight months, about 20 feet underground, with no lighting, heating or sanitation.”
On the fourth interview, McGeever admitted he had made it all up. In a recorded statement to gardaí, he said: “I am very relieved to have gotten this off my chest. I wish to offer my sincere thanks to the gardaí for their work. I’m very sorry that I have wasted Garda time.”
The Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) has been investigating McGeever for several years, and four High Court judgments have been secured against McGeever, with his Galway mansion the sole available asset for recovery. The CAB believes he has money overseas, possibly in Belize, Panama, Queensland and the Canary Islands.
I spoke to one investor who managed to get money from McGeever – two cheques totalling €9 million, both of which cleared. At one point, McGeever was a multimillionaire and at least €70 million went through his hands. Whether any of it is left, or can be recovered by duped investors, remains to be seen.
By Brian Carroll
We Need To Talk About Kevin will be broadcast on RTÉ One later this month