WHERE THE BODIES ARE BURIED
I had planned to take Karon Cohen’s deposition ever since I called her on my cellphone just before sunrise one morning in mid-summer 1999. I’d risen early after a few hours sleep on the couch in Gary’s living room. I went to the unused back bedroom, and dialed the Florida phone number I’d gotten from my private investigator Paul Nyland. As I gazed down into the overgrown garden behind Gary’s apartment, a suspicious Karon answered the phone. She asked how I had gotten her unlisted phone number. I was chatty and friendly, but she was dead serious, and asked quite a few other questions before she decided I really didn’t work for Cohen. Once she decided I was the lawyer for one of Steve’s enemies, she turned talkative, and entertained me for nearly an hour with Cohen stories.
She told me how Cohen had stolen her life savings from a brokerage account while he was in prison, forcing her to hire a lawyer to get it back. Cohen hadn’t forgiven her for daring to keep her own money, either. After he got out of prison, he stalked her for years. One time she discovered him sitting right next to her on a barstool in Florida. She didn’t recognize him at first, though, because he had grown long hair and a beard, and was wearing sunglasses. When she realized who he was, she left the bar and went back to her car. When she reached it, she discovered all four tires had been slashed. Cohen, she said, had kept turning up in unexpected places, causing her problems in myriads of ways, until she made a committed effort to disappear and cover her traces. She hadn’t heard from him in years.
Karon spoke with the honest accent of a lower-middle class southerner, sounding like someone who had never thought she was smart enough to outsmart Steve Cohen, and had just hoped she could outrun him. My phone call was an awkward reminder of a painful past, an opportunity to vent, and a reminder that Steve was still casting a shadow over her life. She was willing to give testimony, if the case required it, so long as her current whereabouts could be kept a secret from Cohen. She knew all about The French Connection, and the lawsuit by the software-makers. She had been there when Cohen was arrested for bankruptcy fraud. As for Sex.Com, she had never heard of it, or heard Steve talk about it. These were just the things I had hoped to hear from Karon, so I added her to the short list of people who had known Cohen back in the day, and weren’t either dead, bought off, or unwilling to talk.
I went across the street and bought coffee for both of us, and went back to the apartment to wake Gary with fresh java. Gary had a voracious appetite for positive information, and the news that I’d just chatted with Karon was better than breakfast. On that particular day, however, funds were still in short supply, so actually deposing Karon remained on the list of things we’d do when we got money. Now that Diestel and State Farm were on the case, the time had come. Diestel’s private investigator contacted Karon. She had suffered some health setbacks since we had spoken, and was less willing than before to give a deposition, but after some negotiation, she agreed to give a deposition at Volusia Court Reporters, in Daytona Beach, Florida.
I had only been to Florida twice before. During the summer of ’74, Tara and I had hitchhiked from Colorado to Florida, up to Michigan and back to Arizona, a rolling courtship we carried on in other people’s cars and houses, concluding in marriage back in our hometown of Tempe. During our trip through the south, a top-forty hit by David Bromberg haunted the airwaves, recounting the tale of a “sweaty, stinking trip through southern hell.” The song could have been our soundtrack. On our way to Mississippi to see Tara’s relatives, a cracker dry-fired a revolver in my face from a passing car, causing me to think I was imminently dead. So we skipped Mississippi and detoured to the beach in Pensacola, Florida. In Pensacola, we cooked fried shrimp and hush puppies, sang songs in the campground with a couple of young dudes, and tried to make love in a sleeping bag in our pup tent. David Bromberg was right -- even sex feels like work when you’re sweating that much. When we woke up, we turned our thumbs north, only to narrowly escape death in a nightmare ride on the wrong side of Green River in Tennessee with a crazy cracker who fortunately repented of his ways before raping Tara and killing me. We made it to Memphis alive, and after a day of bird watching in Audubon Park, continued hitchhiking north, getting a ride on the single bench seat of a blue 396 Chevy Ranchero next to a fat, slightly depressed, but utterly harmless, white boy. He did ninety all the way to Michigan, and it wasn’t too fast for me. I had returned to Florida only once, in the early nineties, to defend the deposition of an elderly plaintiff in an accounting malpractice case. That turned out depressingly enough. My client, a holocaust survivor who lost a bundle in Texas residential real-estate bonds, also lost his malpractice lawsuit, and died when he got my letter telling him he’d lost.
Florida, named “the flowery place” by Spanish explorers, has apparently been entirely taken over by developers who scrape off the vegetation, line the coasts with high-rise hotels, drain swamps, build homes on bogs, and cover the rest with a thick layer of asphalt and concrete. Daytona Beach is a car drive away from Orlando, so I scheduled myself to fly in the day before Karon’s deposition, after which I would drive to Miami and meet an investigative reporter specializing in Caribbean money scandals. The next morning I would fly out of Miami. When Ana gave me the tickets, I stuffed them in my briefcase without a second look.
At the Orlando airport, I rode a train from the flight terminal to the main airport. Disembarking from the train after sailing through the gleaming tunnel, I was momentarily surprised to be greeted by the most famed diplomats of the Magic Kingdom -- Mickey and Pluto. I suddenly remembered -- Disney owns Orlando! The airport was essentially an embassy manned by ‘toons, where life-size statues of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and the Tasmanian Devil remained on guard against an invasion of reality. The airport shops and restaurants were uniformly decorated with movie memorabilia, dulled by a thin layer of condensed cigarette smoke. Walt Disney himself, a stickler for pristine clarity, would have been livid to see the magic dimmed by a lack of white-gloved attention. For at least one jet-lagged lawyer, the unity of civic reality and Hollywood fantasy was existentially nauseating.
After a quick pint of cold beer, I walked to the rental car area. Diestel was standing in the Hertz line, litigation case in one hand, a soft suit-bag slung over his shoulder. He upgraded his rental to a sharp-looking gold Mustang GT without comment. My car was reserved with Avis, and I had no upgrades to apply, but the little blushes of jealously passed as I realized I didn’t care what I drove, as long as it had a CD player and was big enough to survive a collision with an SUV. In my plain vanilla four-door, I drove down two-lane blacktops, past white clapboard buildings, east toward the Atlantic coast.
Daytona is a little town with a big racetrack that lives for NASCAR. Walk into a bar during the off-season, and you have the entire floor to yourself, all four thousand square feet of it. As I entered one of these barn-like enclosures, the absence of the race fans was palpable. I missed them myself, and felt I should apologize for not being one. It required no imagination to visualize the place stuffed with hundreds of guys in race caps, jostling each other in a masculine fashion, swilling twenty-ounce cups of Bud Lite, shooting pool, and talking about fuel injection. This place was for them, I realized. The pert waitresses and sports bar decor made me thirsty, but I had no cause to linger. I could get swozzled in my hotel room on a six-pack of yuppie beer or some Stoli, for the price of two plastic cups of Lite. And in my motel room, I wouldn’t have to sit there like a bar-stool ornament while the bartender flipped from one cable sports channel to another, working his way through his cigarette slowly, one eye squinched against the smoke curling past his slick dark hair, until at last he deigned to ask me what I wanted, and painfully poured me a draft. One beer, extracted from the unwilling, consumed in my role as the unwanted, was all the southern hospitality I could stand.
After leaving the sports bar, I cruised the empty streets of Daytona briefly, looking for some “there” to experience or observe. Since my quest for something, anything to hold my attention, was utterly fruitless, I headed out to the motel row down by the beach, separated from the rest of Daytona by a long, watery inlet. I drove across a narrow bridge to the windswept coast, a narrow finger of land pointing south, looking vulnerable lying alongside the enormous Atlantic. Diestel and I had rooms at the same place, a circular concrete and glass high-rise with a big lobby, plush restaurant, and rooms overlooking the sloshing gray-green sea. Diestel and I had dinner together in the restaurant downstairs, mulled the next day’s prospect like the grizzled survivors we were, and retired early to our separate lodgings. Upstairs in my room, I got my materials organized for the next morning and went to bed early, teased into sleep by the murmuring ocean, barely audible through the sealed window-glass.
The next morning, Diestel, Dorband, Karon, and I met at Volusia Court Reporters. Karon said she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to finish quickly, so we started immediately.
Karon married Cohen in Las Vegas in 1990, moving from West Virginia with her adolescent son into a two story house on Via Pardal in Trabuco Canyon, where Cohen mysteriously enjoyed free rent. Chandra Boydstun, Cohen’s daughter from a previous marriage, joined them, and there on Via Pardal, all three were held prisoner by Cohen’s paranoia. They weren’t allowed to have visitors, and were forbidden to answer the door, to prevent the Sheriff from serving papers. Cohen used video surveillance to protect himself from unwanted intrusions. As Karon testified, “He had a camera set up in his office in the bedroom and he could see who was at the door. I mean, we could go in and out. But we wasn’t to answer the door to anybody. If you saw parcel post, something like that, he had to answer the door, he answered it himself.”
Cohen held multiple licenses to perform security and property-recovery business. He was licensed as a locksmith, a repossessor, a private investigator, and a contractor. He got into business repossessing cars through Action Auction, owned by a fellow named Heitz. Using his repossessor’s license, Cohen wormed himself into some sort of partnership with Heitz, but ruined Heitz’s relationship with the Highway Patrol. I related this with LA bankruptcy court filings that revealed Cohen’s use of YANTA (not a misspelling of YNATA, but rather another shell company) to buy and loot a towing company. Perhaps the YANTA name was a play on the Spanish word for tire, which is “llanta,” pronounced “yahnta.” The joke would be apt, because tires are made of rubber, so they bounce, and after some use, wear out. Karon had been officially designated in corporate filings as the Director of YANTA, and when I showed her the documents, she was not surprised, although she laughingly declared that she had nothing to do with the company, had never gone to a board meeting, and knew nothing about the company. It was just like Cohen, she explained, to include her in the paperwork without telling her.
Cohen never paid the bills -- they went straight to the trashcan. He had five telephone lines, but paid no phone bills, because they were billed to the names of other people. Cohen procured stolen cell phones from thieves and reprogrammed them with telephone numbers he plucked out of the air with a scanner from cars driving by on the freeway. He sold the hacked phones, that worked “free” until the cell phone companies disconnected them. Although this left some of Cohen’s buyers irate, he shrugged them off. I suspect many of his customers were happy with their purchases, and knew exactly what they were getting. Stolen cellphones are perfect communication vehicles for criminals, just like stolen cars are always used by experienced holdup men.
Despite knowing he was involved in illegal doings, Karon believed Cohen to be a lawyer. Early on in their relationship, he had shown her his suits, and his name in a book full of attorneys. He sometimes got up in the morning to go to court, to appear in his own cases, and sometimes to make appearances for other lawyers. Sometimes he would have papers laid out in the morning that were signed with Frank Butler’s name, but she couldn’t remember seeing Cohen actually forge the signature. Since the topic of Frank Butler had come up, I asked her if she had ever heard of Butler having a heart attack, as Butler had apparently sworn in a declaration filed by Cohen.
CARREON: Did you ever hear him say that Frank Butler had had a heart attack?
KARON: I don’t recall. Just that he’s out of the country one time. I don’t recall.
While Karon had no recollection of a heart attack by Frank Butler, she seemed genuinely bemused by my question about whether Steve himself had had a heart attack, as he had sworn in court filings.
CARREON: Did you ever know of Steve having a heart attack?
KARON: Steve Cohen?
CARREON: My husband? (In a tone of confusion)
KARON: No. I didn’t know he had a heart attack.
CARREON: Had you ever heard that he had a heart attack back in ‘87, like in maybe April or May of 1987? I know you didn’t meet him until a few years later but did he ever tell you ‘I had a heart attack back in ‘87?’
KARON: He didn’t tell me about that. I never heard anything about that.
CARREON: Did he ever go to a cardiologist or heart doctor?
KARON: Steve never went to the doctor. He’d go just because he could get prescriptions pills one time free. He had Kaiser insurance and he got the pills, brought them home and didn’t take them.
Life with Cohen was not very exciting: “He was always at home all day long. Every evening we went out to get the mail, out to eat. That was pretty much the regular routine all the time.” Another part of the routine was cleaning up after the sex parties Steve hosted at “The Club,” a suburban playhouse for swingers in the City of Tustin that Cohen once described to me as a business where he “got paid by rich guys to fuck their wives.” Well, in LA, that’s probably a job that needs doing.
The Club boasted a mailing list, newsletter, and all-night parties replete with finger food, drinks, lubes, and acres of rumpled sheets. Members of the club got free memberships to the French Connection BBS. Karon cleaned up with help from young Latinas, many of whom were shocked, and sometimes unwilling to clean up the wreckage of a gringo orgy. Disgusting! Somehow I doubt that Cohen provided rubber gloves. Eventually, neighbors complained, and the DA charged Cohen with running a house of prostitution. Apparently, Cohen didn’t tell the jury, as he told me, that he was in fact screwing women for cash, which would be prostitution, albeit it of the pleasant sort, and walked out of the courthouse a legally not-guilty man. The story had gone out on TV, though, and while Steve was proud of his visibility as a free love entrepreneur, Karon was humiliated, and lost the companionship of her son into the bargain. The young man returned to West Virginia rather than share a roof with a man who had been charged with running a whorehouse.
Eventually, the free ride came to an end. The cops came to the Trabuco Canyon house, looking to arrest Cohen.
KARON: He told me not to be scared. Because the police had come and surrounded the house and someone was ringing the doorbell. Which we couldn’t answer. He wouldn’t allow us. Then I guess they left. He tried to get in his car and leave. The way he was doing it was very suspicious, trying to sneak out. They surrounded the house and I saw him get arrested.
CARREON: They surrounded the house and then demanded he come out and he went?
KARON: He wouldn’t come out. They left and went down the road a little bit. He got in his car to take off and they got him.
CARREON: Oh. So he actually attempted to escape?
After the arrest, the unhappy family moved out of Via Pardal, and Cohen hired Mike Mayock to fight the charges. At trial, Cohen was convicted of bankruptcy fraud and related crimes, and remanded to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. Judge Keep denied Cohen’s request for bail pending appeal, prompting Cohen to call her a “cunt” on his way out of the courtroom. He immediately received a set of handcuffs and a yellow jumpsuit as a reward for his eloquence, and began serving his sentence at low-security Lompoc Federal Penitentiary, where according to Karon, Cohen pretty much had the run of the place.
CARREON: Did you have strange experiences regarding Mr. Cohen and his use of the telephones at Lompoc?
KARON: I called that Lompoc prison one night . . . and I told them my husband just got through calling me on the phone.
CARREON: About what time of night or day was this?
KARON: I don’t know. It was dark. I’m really not sure what time. Nine. Ten. I’m not sure. Eleven. It was dark. And they say there is no possible way. They are only allowed like five minutes a day on the phone and there is no way he could be on the phone and I said I know his voice, it was his voice and he was on the phone. So I guess eventually they went and checked and said he was in bed. Later he told me - when I went in to the last visit in Lompoc and told him it was over. I said “You’re not getting any better at this situation.” He laughed and said that they came to his room and he acted like he was sleeping when they come to check on him.
Inmate status posed no serious obstacle to Cohen’s larcenous schemes. When Karon married Cohen, she deposited the $75,000 death benefit from her first husband’s life insurance into an account in the name of Repossessor’s Inc. Without explaining how his creditors would attempt to seize Karon’s money, Cohen moved the account to a Shearson securities brokerage in North Carolina “to avoid creditors.” But when Cohen went to prison, Karon learned she had no signature authority on what she thought was her own account. When she called Shearson, they told her Cohen had removed her name from the account using a fax authorization. When she questioned him about it during a prison visit, he told her she didn’t know what she was talking about.
KARON: And I called the company myself. And they said, ‘I think it was faxed over, as far as I can remember’ and I go, like, he’s in prison! How can he be faxing you over information? So I told them, I threatened them with my attorney, that I wanted my money, and I wanted it back in my account. That’s how I had to pay my bills. He was in prison. If they didn’t -- he didn’t tell them about being in prison. I said if you don’t believe me you call Lompoc. I give the number and everything. He’s in prison, doing this from prison. Because I did not give him authority to do it.
CARREON: Did you get your money back?
KARON: After about two, three weeks, yes, threatening them.
CARREON: Who paid you? Shearson Lehman?
KARON: Uh huh. He later went on to tell me that well, when I come out of prison I won’t have any money. I told him that didn’t give you no right to take my money!
The Shearson caper was the last straw for Karon. She filed for divorce. I knew both Karon and her divorce lawyer had been sued in the RICO lawsuit that Cohen filed from prison. I thought Karon would recognize the RICO complaint, but she had never seen it before. She had never been served and knew nothing about the lawsuit that alleged she and various others conspired to “purloin” the French Connection.
Karon didn’t have to hear more than a few lines of the complaint before she declared confidently: “Basically what I think is happening here is he’s too embarrassed about what had happened and he’s trying to throw the blame on me...”
Even though Karon hadn’t seen this particular frivolous lawsuit, she was painfully familiar with Cohen’s tactics for hijacking the judicial process: “You have to miss work. You have to go to an attorney. Then he pulls up all kinds of stupid stuff in here you didn’t do, didn’t say, it didn’t happen, but he’s representing himself so it doesn’t cost him any fee. But a person like me, you’ve got to keep taking off work. You’ve got to pay your money. And it’s no fun. And the judge told me at one point. ‘He has the right as a citizen to sue whoever he wants,’ but he can keep throwing it out if it’s not true. So basically he can sue me all he wants or anybody else.”
Karon was very familiar with The French Connection, on which Cohen, under the screen name “Tammy,” played Systems Operator, “sysop” in bulletin board parlance. Karon had been a French Connection member, and regularly chatted with people online, but had never heard of Sex.Com. Her testimony confirmed my belief that Cohen had forged the French Connection screen printouts attached to the Sex.Com trademark application. Karon recognized Richard Klaus’s video of the interface, but had never seen the screen captures Cohen filed in support of the Sex.Com trademark application.
Karon recalled that Cohen did not easily surrender his hold on her, often calling from prison to urge her to keep The French Connection running. It was hers now, he told her, for everything she had done for him, and she should keep it going for the profit potential. Cohen was a true pioneer in the era of prison labor out-sourcing, but typically turned the concept on its head, getting a free person to work for a convict. Karon remembered: “he would call me from prison and have me on the line the whole time until it was finished.” But Karon couldn’t deal with the complexity of it all -- phone bills in the names of people she didn’t know, technical issues, and the whole mess. One day users started calling to say the system was down. Karon looked in the room where the computers had been stored, and the whole system was gone -- computers, modems, and all. I asked her if that made her feel better, but she had her own response to the disappearance:
CARREON: You probably breathed a sigh of relief?
KARON: I could care less.
CARREON: And after that you never logged on to The French Connection again in your life?
KARON: I didn’t want to log on to Steve, The French Connection, or anything that had to do with him.
As the deposition wound to a close, Diestel, Dorband, and I were all of the same mind. We had invaded Karon’s privacy long enough, and she had given us all she could. Dorband quickly abandoned his cross-examination when it became apparent that Karon was incapable of saying anything helpful to Cohen. In response to one of Dorband’s last questions, Karon explained how she came to give up on Cohen: “I gave him a chance, if he would go straight, and stop doing things like that. I could forgive for the past. But he just continued to do things illegal.”