Comic Book Cover

Comic Conman

A true crime tale of comic books, corruption, and a $9 million vanishing act

By Russell Brandom & Colin Lecher | Illustrations by Jun Cen




Y
ou don’t see an All Star Comics #3 every day.

Published in 1940, it’s a milestone in what’s known as the Golden Age of comic books: the debut of the first bonafide superhero team, the Justice Society of America. There’s hardly a plot, only a meeting of some of DC’s biggest stars — Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman — taking turns sharing tales as if they were telling ghost stories at a campfire. Spectre recounts a battle with a monster from the moon; Hawkman remembers a crisis on the island of Krakatoa. The masked vigilantes on the cover are a friendly lot, decades removed from the gritty realism that would come to dominate the industry later. The Flash wears a slightly over-sized long-sleeve shirt, emblazoned with a yellow lightning bolt. His face is as pleasant and plain as a dumpling, and on his head sits a helmet that brings to mind an overturned colander.

So when an All Star Comics #3 surfaced at Heritage Auctions’ first big sale of 2012, collectors took notice. The copy was off-white, its condition ranked at 8.5 out of 10 by the Certified Guaranty Company. CGC knew of only two higher-ranked All Star #3’s in the world, one of which (a 9.6) had sold for $126,500 back in 2002. The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide — the bible on such matters — estimated an 8.5 copy to be worth somewhere between $36,500 and $70,750.

But someone bidding at the Heritage auction was willing to pay significantly more. The comic had been low-balled at first, going for $49,293.75 during the auction itself. But after the official bidding closed, private offers flooded in: $65,000, then $75,000. In the end, it sold for $200,000, putting it in the same class as a record-breaking debut Spider-Man that had sold a few years earlier.

All Star #3 wasn’t the only mid-tier comic suddenly going for outrageous prices at the 2012 sale. A Sub-Mariner #14 (in which the aquatic hero Namor twists apart a Panzer tank at Normandy) sold for $4,182, more than three times its estimated worth. In the very next lot, someone shelled out $5,676.25 for an off-white 6.5 Sub-Mariner #17 (in which Namor struggles with the Japanese fleet) even though Overstreet pegs an 8.0 copy of the same book at just $1,158.

"Absolutely insane!" podboy66 wrote the day after the sale in the Collector’s Society forums, a common online hangout for comics buyers. "I paid $450 for my Subby 17 in 6.0." "What’s up with some of these buyers anyway?" Agent 007 asked. "Makes you wonder if it’s simply a case of bidding fever."

Whoever was after the Sub-Mariners and All Star Comics at the Heritage Auction wasn’t a collector. Their bids were too erratic, they didn’t know the market, and chances were, they weren’t terribly smart. It was also clear that they had a lot of money on their hands — too much money, maybe — and they were eager to spend it. Through months of interviews and hundreds of pages of public documents, The Verge reconstructed what they were seeing: a multi-million-dollar embezzlement scheme that would ensnare a crooked lawyer, a multinational corporation, and some of the most sought-out comics in the world.

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"WHACK JOB"


In 2004, Anthony Chiofalo had nearly 20 years of corporate law behind him and a political career in his future. Married with two sons, Chiofalo was squat, clean-cut, and brusque. He’d spent his formative years in the Bronx, and when an assembly district seat opened up in the area, he decided to make a run. "He was pretty determined," says Joe Thompson, a Bronx community activist who also ran in the election. But running as a Republican in the heavily Democratic Bronx was hopeless, and Chiofalo lost badly, pulling a little more than 30 percent of the vote. Thompson can’t remember seeing Chiofalo around the community much after that.

The failed campaign marked a turning point in Chiofalo’s life — a defeat that precipitated a gradual unraveling. According to state records, his wife served him with divorce papers in August of 2005, followed by an order of protection. Chiofalo broke the order within a few months, and by the next year he was writing notes that would later be described as "hostile, obscene, and derogatory," sending them to his wife, to the children’s guardian — even to a clerk for the judge presiding over the divorce case. Chiofalo eventually sued his wife and about 30 others involved in the divorce proceedings, alleging that they had infringed on his civil rights. The argument was thrown out in court.

By 2008, the state court’s disciplinary committee decided to take action against Chiofalo, on the basis that his letters and frivolous lawsuits proved him unfit to be a lawyer. A letter from a psychiatrist quoted during Chiofalo’s disbarment proceeding said he experienced "trends of grandiosity and episodic impulsivity and poor judgment"; that he would "regress at times of stress and duress, particularly around financial, legal, and family issues." When he did, "his narcissistic defenses come to fore, often to his detriment." One of the dozens of individuals involved in Chiofalo’s civil rights lawsuit put it even more simply: "He’s a whack job. Bad news."

If there was one bright spot in his life during that time, it was Susan, a university health professor living in Texas. (Susan requested her maiden name not be used in this piece.) The two had been high school sweethearts and reconnected during Chiofalo’s divorce. In 2007, Susan invited Chiofalo to join her in Texas. Eventually, they moved into a cozy rental at 5802 Oakmoss Trail, in Spring, Texas — a small, green piece of the Houston metropolitan area, with wide open spaces and a population of about 50,000. By 2010, the two were married. Chiofalo seemed to have left his problems behind — he found a new job as in-house counsel for a Japanese construction company called Tadano, a gig that came with a $110,000 salary and new responsibility. Disciplinary Committee records show he lobbied to keep his New York law license, saying that he was seeking psychiatric help, but in October 2010, he was suspended from practicing law in the state for two years.

It was around this time that Chiofalo’s job at Tadano hit a snag. Tadano was the world leader in rough-terrain cranes, selling huge tank-treaded trucks capable of lifting 160 tons to construction companies from London to Dubai. That globe-spanning business came with a river of legal work, and Chiofalo’s job was to coordinate local firms hired by Tadano, drawing up contracts, reviewing service agreements, and approving payments. But in the months after Chiofalo came on board, Tadano seemed to be involved in more and more litigation.

In March of 2012, the company ordered an investigation into the spike in legal costs. "Our approach initially was trying to ask exactly what went on, and then immediately trace the money flow," says Philip Hilder, a lawyer for Tadano. An employee eventually came across an expenditure that looked off. The bill was from Seidner & Virdone, LLP — a business supposedly located at 5802 Oakmoss Trail. According to a Tadano lawsuit later filed against Chiofalo’s wife, the company only existed in New York — it was the firm Chiofalo retained to work on his divorce proceedings.

Another company Chiofalo submitted invoices from wasn’t real at all. Tadano alleged it was requesting payments be sent to the address on Oakmoss Trail — the firm’s manager and registered agent was Anthony Chiofalo.

Chiofalo had created a byzantine structure of revolving transfers to conceal his tracks, laundering money through bank accounts, third-party payments, and the purchase of collectibles. Tadano alleged that in one particularly daring trick, he sent a retainer letter to the company requesting $15,000 for an attorney. The "attorney" was Chiofalo’s landlord. Tadano had cut a check that paid six months of rent.

The "attorney" was Chiofalo’s landlord. Tadano had cut a check that paid six months of rent

Tadano assessed the damage, adding up all the suspicious checks that had flown from the company’s accounts to each of Chiofalo’s fronts. Nearly $9 million had vanished.

Two months after the start of the investigation, a higher-up at Tadano approached Chiofalo, asking him to explain himself. Chiofalo produced records — spreadsheets, with billable hours — but the law firms listed would turn out to be fakes. Chiofalo told people he had enlisted the services of Michael Maio — whom he touted as a "super lawyer," licensed with seven State Bars. But Maio never existed; he was no more than a resume, cobbled together from an East Coast lawyer’s accomplishments and a photograph of a West Coast lawyer. Maio was Chiofalo’s mother’s maiden name.

But the company never had a chance to ask about all of the inconsistencies. The day after he was confronted, Chiofalo didn’t show up to work and stopped answering his phone. As soon as he knew he’d been caught, the lawyer disappeared.

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THE MUSEUM


Where do you stash $9 million if you don’t want anyone to find it?

Tadano hired a private investigator named Bryan Vaclavik to follow the money. A 15-year veteran of the Harris County District Attorney’s office, Vaclavik specialized in fraud cases. He discovered wire transfers from Chiofalo to a "Heritage Auctions," and when investigators at Tadano checked the records for Chiofalo’s work phone, they found that he had been making regular contact with a local storage facility.

On June 8th, the police arrived with a warrant to search seven climate-controlled units in Spring, Texas’ Four Seasons Self Storage facility. The compound sits on a flat, sunny stretch of concrete just a few miles west of Interstate 45. What they uncovered there was astonishing: The first unit was packed with sports memorabilia, signed helmets, and baseball cards. The second unit had a makeshift study space, full of furniture and books. The third unit had six framed Texas flags and a shadowbox arrangement of photographs of Mussolini, among the flood of other memorabilia. The fourth had more figurines, sports photographs, and paintings depicting scenes from the Bible and World War Two. The fifth unit was mostly baseball cards, along with photographs of Robert De Niro, Phil Jackson, and Mussolini. The sixth unit had statuettes of Batman, Iron Man, Conan the Barbarian, and, again, Mussolini.

Then, in the seventh unit, there were the comics: nearly 50 boxes of them, drawn from every era and genre with seemingly no logic to the collection. The Monkees and Star Wars comic books  — worth a few dollars, if that — sat next to nine different early Detective Comics issues, a 1940 Batman #2, a Young Allies #1, and a specialty comic from the 1940 World’s Fair. A later search turned up a copy of Action Comics #1, where Superman makes his first appearance — one of the most coveted and expensive comic books of all time. Tadano’s money had been transformed, taken from legal bills and embezzled into merchandise. The haul was worth millions.

Investigators weren’t convinced Chiofalo had spent all of that cash on his own. Tadano alleged that Chiofalo’s wife had been in on the scheme. Harris County DA investigator Dustin Deutsch called Susan a few weeks after Chiofalo disappeared. She said she didn’t know where her husband was and hadn’t seen him in a month. Through what Deutsch described as an anonymous tip, he discovered she had a one-way plane ticket to New York leaving the following day. Was she flying back to meet her husband in the Bronx? He rushed to get a warrant and searched the Chiofalo home the same day.

The home resembled an extension of the storage unit: it was "overrun with stacks and piles of boxes and packages," addressed to one of Chiofalo’s fictitious companies, a civil complaint from Tadano would allege. "The interior of their rental home was so crowded that it resembled a museum more than a residence." Investigators said they found checks and other financial documents made out to Chiofalo, Susan, and the fictitious lawyer Maio, while "forged invoices" were found "in clear view."

Together, Tadano would allege, the Chiofalos used the embezzled funds to buy a $48,000 Lexus, a $44,000 Toyota pickup, and a 10,000-square-foot home for $609,000 that they would remodel. One Chiofalo-linked cashier’s check for $21,000 had gone straight to a furniture store.

The police moved to arrest Susan, with Chiofalo still on the run. (Susan filed for divorce the following month.) Chiofalo was charged in absentia with felony theft, with bail preemptively set at $18 million. Under the criminal complaint against him, the "ARREST DATE" section said simply, "TO BE."

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PLASTIC COFFINS

Like a famous painting, a rare comic is hard to fence. Only a handful of buyers in the US handle big-ticket sales, and most shops keep scans of every comic for simple safety reasons. Even the most pristine comics are unique, marked with subtle wrinkles, stains, and clouds of mold known as "foxing." Those marks make it easy to follow a single comic as it moves from sale to sale. "It’s almost like fingerprints," says Buddy Saunders, who operates Lone Star Comics in Dallas. "If it shows up on eBay and it was stolen from us, we know." Big auction sites do the same, in part because of return fraud, in which a scammer will purchase a valuable comic and try to return a forgery. If the wrinkles don’t match the scan, the buyer is in serious trouble.

In recent years, a business called the Certified Guaranty Company (or CGC) has made fraud even harder. If you bought a comic book from an auction house within the last decade, it probably came in one of CGC’s distinctive plastic shells, complete with a two-digit condition rating, a serial number, and a hologram for authentication. The shells make it impossible to read the comic (critics call them "plastic coffins"), but they offer strong protections against damage and theft. Barcodes make for easy tracking, and "de-slabbing" a comic will make almost any buyer suspicious. If that buyer wants to look the comic up, it’s easy to find recent sales in an auction site’s database.

Deutsch’s specialty was evidence: he taught forensics classes at a nearby community college

If officials were going to use comics to catch and prosecute Chiofalo, investigators needed to know which comics he had taken with him, and which he had left behind — a task that fell to DA investigator Dustin Deutsch. Deutsch’s specialty was evidence: he taught forensics classes at a nearby community college, and his cases made him a regular on the local TV news. His team spent a full week at the sprawling storage complex, cataloging more than 3,600 separate items. Some of the haul entered into evidence as whole boxes, as if the investigators had simply given up on counting it all.

Locked away in one of the storage units Deutsch was searching was an All Star #3 — the one that had cost Chiofalo $200,000. Somehow, that comic never made it onto the evidence list. No one noticed the omission. By the time the investigators closed the doors on the storage units at the end of the week, the comic wasn’t there. It was missing, along with an All Winners #1 and a box of other titles that had mysteriously dropped off the list.

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ALL WINNERS

On August 11th, 2012 — three months after Chiofalo vanished — a man named Lonnie Blevins walked into Wizard World’s Chicago Comic Convention looking to unload a box of comics. He worked with Deutsch as a DA investigator in Harris County, sporting the same tight-cropped haircut and square build as his colleague. He was part of the team sorting through Chiofalo’s storage units, although it would be another two weeks before they turned in their official report. But today, he was at the con on personal business.

Every year, Chicago Comic-Con takes over the the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, a stadium-sized concrete box sandwiched between airport hotels on the northwest outskirts of Chicago. This was the third day. William Shatner and Stan Lee made appearances, along with the world’s largest playable Pac Man machine. But for comics, the real action was in the booths, where buyers came from across the country to check out any interesting books that might be for sale.

Blevins brought with him a full box of loose comics, none of them in CGC slabs. Some of his comics were real gems, like an All Star #3 and an All Winners #1, but the box was all over the map in terms of condition and quality. Without slabs, buyers were suspicious, but he reassured them. He was a cop back in Texas — he showed them his badge, and let them scan it in case they needed to find him later.

Besides, how often do you see an All Star #3, let alone an unslabbed one? The Flash! The Green Lantern! Johnny Thunder! Dr. Fate! It was a rare book and an expensive one, too: after all, just a few months earlier, an All Star #3 had sold for $200,000 in a private Heritage sale. There was some light foxing — a cloud of mold toward the bottom of the front cover — but otherwise it was in good condition: an 8.0 or even an 8.5 by the look of it.

In retrospect, maybe buying such a big title without a CGC box was asking for trouble. "It was very strange," one of the buyers remembered later. "Nobody would crack that book out and sell it raw." But the book was going cheap. Maybe Blevins just didn’t know what he had. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Blevins left the con with $30,000 in cash and another $40,000 split between nine checks. The investigator said he was going through a nasty divorce, and was worried his ex-wife might raise trouble over any checks for more than $10,000.

But what about that foxing? When the buyers took their comics home, they noticed something strange: the All Star #3 that had sold in February had the same imperfections. In fact, it was the same book. But that book was slabbed — it had a barcode and provenance, sold to a private buyer who wouldn’t have deslabbed it without a reason. Had they bought stolen property?

It was worse. They had bought stolen evidence. The book had come direct from Chiofalo’s storage unit, smuggled out under the nose of the Harris County DA — and according to prosecutors, Blevins and Deutsch worked together to smuggle them out. More than $150,000 in comics had disappeared from the storage unit, and Blevins had spent the summer selling them at comics conventions across the country. The books were deslabbed to throw investigators off the trail, but even without the barcode, the cover gave it away. Collectors search for flawless comics, but it’s the imperfections that give them an identity, and this imperfection placed Blevins at the scene of a crime.

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A SUITCASE

Meanwhile, Chiofalo spent the summer on the run. Months went by, and leads dried up. He had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars with him — with that much money, maybe he never needed to come back.

And then, one day in December 2012, just after 2PM, a man in a black sweatshirt walked into the police headquarters of Newport, Rhode Island, carrying a large black suitcase. He told an officer at the counter that there was a warrant out for his arrest. Police ran a search: "Chiofalo" — wanted for aggravated larceny in the state of Texas. He had been on the run for seven months. He told officers that he was carrying cash, although "he wasn’t sure about the amount of money he had," Lt. William Fitzgerald told The Verge. $100,000? $125,000?

He was arrested, booked, sent to Cell No. 1, and had his possessions processed: a Rolex watch, two cellphones, a laptop, a bag, and the suitcase. In the bag, they found $55,000. In the suitcase, $95,000.

Chiofalo was eventually extradited back to Texas, but in the seven months since he’d fled, the case against him had gone to shambles. Evidence had gone missing, one of the investigators was under federal indictment, and a special prosecutor had to be brought in to press the case impartially. When Chiofalo appeared in court, he looked haggard, barely recognizable as the fresh-faced lawyer who had run for office 10 years earlier. Under his orange jumpsuit, intricate sleeve tattoos ran down both his forearms. His lawyer blamed the DA’s evidence thefts for trial delays, and pushed for reduced bail. It was hard to disagree. After the hearing, Chiofalo’s bail was reduced from $18 million to just $150,000.

Eager to avoid trial, the prosecution arranged a plea deal, and in May 2014, a Harris County Court judge sentenced Chiofalo to 40 years in prison, up for parole in about eight. According to reports, he would’ve had a better deal, but decided against giving up millions that are still unaccounted for.

Caught red-handed, Lonnie Blevins plead guilty to federal charges of evidence tampering. Deutsch quit the DA’s office as soon as the charges came down, and is currently standing trial for felony theft and tampering with evidence. The DA put 125 cases the officers had worked on under re-examination.

Comic All Star No 3

The All Star #3 copy originally purchased by Chiofalo at auction for $200,000 in its CGC slab

Then there are the comics. The three Chicago buyers, having purchased stolen goods, are now out $70,000. ("It was a bad and expensive experience," one buyer told The Verge. "That is all I will say.") Tadano retrieved most of the material from the storage facilities and sold them back through the same auction houses where Chiofalo had first bought them. The only exception were comics like All Star #3, which had been sold by Blevins and were kept for evidence in Deutsch’s trial.

Susan had the charges against her dropped for lack of evidence and her criminal records expunged. The civil lawsuit, Susan wrote in an email, "was merely a legal formality, designed so I could sign over to Tadano all the property acquired post-marriage; and for intimidation purposes. As I recall, there is quite a bit of embellishment in the narrative."

In correspondence, Susan was eager to close that chapter of her life. "He left a trail of destruction in his path and caused a great deal of pain and suffering to all his loved ones," Susan said. The experience left her with what she called "lifelong PTSD-related scars."

It can’t be said if Chiofalo, Deutsch, or Blevins ever read All Star #3, but if they did, they might have read a tale about a daring heist, foiled by the chapter’s hero, The Atom. In his earliest appearances, The Atom wears a wrestling corset and yellow leotard, armed with no superpowers except a strong sense of morality. In the story, soldiers are transporting a stockpile of government gold to a vault when they’re intercepted by a group of gangsters packing Tommy guns. The gangsters overpower the soldiers, disguising themselves in the stolen uniforms, and drive into the government compound. The guards greet them, and in one small, single panel, guards and crooks are framed together. Dressed the same, their faces void of definition, it’s impossible to tell them apart.


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A note on sourcing: This piece was researched over six months, with public records confirmed by subject interviews wherever possible. The bulk of the information was drawn from court records, particularly the criminal cases against Blevins and Deutsch, as well as the criminal and civil cases against Chiofalo on the civil case against his wife. We also drew from the New York State Departmental Disciplinary Committee’s action against Chiofalo, which resulted in his temporary disbarment in that state. Where warranted, we have removed the names of parties involved so as not to inflict further harm.

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Design by Dylan Lathrop

Edited by Michael Zelenko

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