Reflecting on the Death of San Diego's Biggest Swindler

J. David Dominelli's fleeced investors out of $80 million

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    NEWSLETTERS

    At the time he probably thought those glasses looked good.

    I took my money down to Jerry D.

    You know that broker with the XKE

    He's got a place

    Down at Trust & Savings Bank

    He says 'What I do is --

    Trade dollars for the franc

    I wrote those words in February 1984, the first stanza of a song-spoof sung to the tune of "Love Potion #9."

    I had  intended it for a San Diego Press Club dinner-revue production later in the year but  soon got too consumed with the Jerry Dominelli saga to devote time to amateur show business. The implosion of Dominelli's $80 million Ponzi scheme touched off a media feeding frenzy that was sustained, on and off,  for the better part of three years -- occasionally grabbing national and international ink and airtime.

    The fallout from the J. David & Co. scandal cost then-San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock his job, and hundreds of others their fortunes.

    Now, a quarter-century later, Dominelli is dead at the age of 68, his passing belatedly publicized in San Diego after a family-placed Chicago newspaper obit came to light.

    Now, my memories of that era have come flooding back, memories of chasing Dominelli and his posse to and from courthouses, to and from investors' meetings. Memories of tailing him to Rancho Santa Fe to get video of his largest estates and luxury car collection, then calling in a helicopter for aerial footage. Memories of spending a week on Montserrat -- the Caribbean banking haven where Dominelli and his inner circle had fled -- and taking part in a toxic media ruckus of such proportions that island officials expelled Team J. David into the waiting cuffs of the FBI. Memories of interviewing people whom Dominelli had swindled.

    "I put every spare nickel I had into his company," one investor told me. "Didn't even have a beer for two years."

    On April 23, 1984, Dominelli gave me a half-hour, one-on-one interview in his rented villa on Montserrat the day after my photojournalist, Dan Diaz, and I landed on the island.  He seemed surprised at how much background research I had done.

    I was surprised at how ill-prepared he was to spin a credible tale of having stashed enough assets around the world to convince J. David's bankruptcy trustee that he deserved more time to cobble his empire back together.

    Days later, he mumbled and stammered through a news conference that attracted journalists from CNN, the Wall Street Journal and Business Week, as well as members of San Diego's press corps who had followed him to Montserrat.

    Island police learned his posse had weapons but no permits, and an expulsion order quickly followed.

    It was the last time he would be a free man for nearly 12 years. 

    In 1994, while I was working on a series about "country club prisons," I spotted Dominelli in the library at the federal prison camp in Boron, Calif., where he was the librarian.

    With my field producer, Paul Krueger, and photojournalist, Lisa Berglund, occupying our media handler, I sidled up to Dominelli's desk.  

    "Jerry Dominelli?" I asked.

    He looked up briefly, paused, and nodded -- looking as though he had aged 20 years over a decade's time.

    Knowing he'd suffered a stroke while awaiting trial in San Diego, I reintroduced myself:  "You doing OK?"

    Pause.  "Yeah."

    "When do you get out?"

    "Uh, few months."  

    He obviously didn't want to be engaged, and I saw the prison's media coordinator approaching -- no doubt to break up this conversation with an "unauthorized" inmate.

    "Here's my card," I said. "If you're ever inclined to talk once you're on the outside, gimme a call."

    Without making eye contact, he tucked the card in his shirt pocket and went back about his librarian duties.

    I never heard from him.

    But since then, while passing the Boron lockup many times during drives north up state Route 395  on vacation getaways, I've always looked over and thought of  Dominelli, and wondered how different things might have been had he really -- legitimately and successfully -- traded dollars for the franc.