Monday, March 29, 2010

Confessions of a Master Scammer

I first met Chuck Walton in 2000 when I was researching a series of stories about the homeless. He was no longer homeless -- he was staying in an inexpensive motel in Barstow, Cal.

We spent countless hours together over the period of the next two years. At one point, he allowed me to interview him on camera about his life and his adventures on the road and occasionally in jail.

As a storyteller, he was as loquacious as he was entertaining, so it's difficult to find short-enough stories to post here.

I've included one that requires little set-up and also includes a demonstration of Chuck's most successful, secret weapon.

I was saddened to learn that Chuck passed away in April of 2009. He was prone to lying about his age, but the official records indicate that he was 82 when he died.
Here's the video, but I recommend you first read the story below that I wrote about him way back in 2000.

Here's the story that ran in 2000:

If he were to carry business cards they would read, “Chuck Walton, Bum, Retired.” After nearly 50 years of hitchhiking, sleeping along the highway, panhandling, dumpster diving and scamming good-hearted people out of their money, Walton decided to hang up his knapsack.

Odd jobs along the way somehow qualified him for minimum Social Security benefits. To him, it’s a fortune.

“What do I need money for?” he said. “I can pay my rent and phone, buy cigarettes and groceries and still have money left over to shop for clothes at the thrift store.”

He stands barely 5 feet tall and measures his weight in double digits. He buys boys clothes. He’s remarkably well groomed and always wears the cleanest of threads. He tells people he’s 75, but if they were to check his identification, they’d see he’s only 73. He’ll be 74 in December.

“I like telling people I’m 75. It has a nice ring to it.”

He tells people he’s living the straight life now. He doesn’t drink much, doesn’t take people’s money anymore and the only thing he lies about is his age. But in his lifetime, Walton has pulled off just about every kind of scam imaginable, he said. If they gave out awards for best performance by a hobo, he’d have a shelf of Oscars.

“The key to scamming people is to put on a good act,” he said. “You have to prepare for it, and you have to live the character you’re portraying. You have to be that person.”

The targets are almost always trusting, caring people with big hearts, he said. In a sense, Walton believes he’s doing a favor for the person who helps him, he said.

“This guy works downtown in a high-rise office building. He just drove away from a $200,000 home. His dog eats better than I do. And waiting back there is a beautiful wife and two kids. So I give him something to talk about when he gets back home. He can scare the wife and kids when he tells them he picked up a hitchhiker this morning and took him into the city.”

But Walton really wasn’t trying to go anywhere in particular. He was hitchhiking to make money. He talks about it unashamedly with a devilish grin and a no-doubt-about-it East Coast accent — a blend of his native Philadelphia, some New Jersey and a lot of New York City.

“If you do it right, you can hitch a ride and end up with some nice cash in your pocket,” he said.

Walton said he would typically make up a handwritten sign with the name of the next big city. Then he would find the best freeway onramp and stand with his head down.

“You don’t want to make eye contact that makes it look like you’re soliciting,” he said. “I always look down toward the ground. It’s a psych thing. He has the car. He sees you with your dirty thumb out there in the morning sunlight and he thinks you have been standing out there all night.”

When someone would pick him up, Walton would shyly say, “Thanks.” Nothing more.

Then, he would look out the window and wait for the inevitable question.

The first would be “Where are you headed?” Walton said. “If I were hitching from Barstow to San Bernardino, I’d tell them I’m going to Palm Desert to see my granddaughter. I promised her I’d be there for her birthday tomorrow.”

Then the person would likely ask where he slept the night before.

“Oh, I didn’t sleep at all. It’s too dangerous for an old man. I just walked around Barstow all night,” he would say. “After that I’d just remain quiet and let his brain go to work. Then when we get near San Bernardino I’d give him a sob story about how hungry I am and would he drop me off at a restaurant where I might find some kind of work even for a couple of bucks and a meal.”

Walton would never directly ask the driver for money, he said. Instead, he would sit quietly and hope the driver would stop at a shopping center.

“They’d almost always ask me to stay in the car while they ran an errand,” he said. “I knew what they were going to do, but I didn’t want to act too excited. They would go to an ATM but they wouldn’t give me the money until they dropped me off at a restaurant.”

As he would get out of the car, the man would shake his hand and, at the same time, place one or two folded $20 bills in Walton’s right hand, he said.

“I’d act surprised and say, ‘God bless you, Sir.’ Then I’d go into the restaurant and sit where he could see me. You see, the guy would always drive around the block a few times to make sure I was telling him the truth. After a while, I’d leave the restaurant and head back to the freeway onramp and hold up a ‘Barstow’ sign. On a good day, I could make two round trips and end up with $60 or more.”

On Sundays, Walton would target another group of caring people, he said.
“I’d put one of those fish symbols on my sign and, sure enough, I’d get picked up by a good Christian family,” he said. “The only difference is I’d have to pray with them in the car. A lot of times they’d actually pull off the road and we’d all hold hands and pray.”

If they were on their way home from church, he said, he could count on a big Sunday dinner and a clean bed. Maybe they’d even hand him a few dollars following the big breakfast.

But if they were on their way to church Walton knew it could be a bonanza, especially if it was a small, country church, he said.

“They’d ask me if I wanted to join them at church. I would always reply, ‘Of course.’ We’d all walk in together but I’d sit in the last row, all by myself, in my dirty clothes with my backpack. Sure as ever, they’d whisper something to the pastor and, somewhere during his sermon, he’d point back to where I was and welcome me, a brother just passing through.

“When the sermon was over, I’d gather my things and walk out before anyone else and slowly head for the road,” Walton said. “I had to time it right because a handful of the people from the congregation would call out to me or chase me down and start giving me money, sometimes lots of money. And, again, someone might offer to take me home for that hot meal.”

Another favorite scheme would unfold in a fast food restaurant at lunch time or dinner time when it was busy and people were in a hurry, he said.

“I’d order an average meal, nothing too big or fancy,” he said, “and then when the clerk would tell me how much I owed I’d start fumbling through all my pockets and even in my backpack looking for the money I knew was in there somewhere. It would drive the people behind me crazy. After a while someone would step up and pay for my meal just so they could get to the front of the line quicker.”

He had good luck with a scam he used on bigger restaurants, he said.

“I’d go in the kitchen door and look for the lowest-level employee I could find, usually the dishwasher. I’d tell him I was hungry and willing to work. He’d get the manager and the manager would always tell the chef to cook me a good meal,” Walton said. “They’d sit me at that little table in the kitchen where the lowly employees eat. I’d make sure the waitresses all saw me there.

“Then I’d go outside where everyone could see me through the windows, and I’d start cleaning up the parking lot. No one asked me to, I’d just do it. When each waitress would get off work, she’d come outside and give me a big hunk of her tip money. It never failed.”

There were times when he would get caught and he would be forced to stand in front of a desk sergeant, a judge or even an angry priest or pastor, he said.
That’s when he’d turn to his secret weapon: he calls it “The Lip.” He’s done it a thousand times, he said, and can turn it on in an instant. He nervously wrings his hands, drops his head, lowers his eyebrows and nervously looks down, then up, then down again. He even creates tears. The most convincing part, however, is the quivering lower lip. It quivers like that of a 3-year-old.

“Then I say, hesitatingly, ‘Sir, I, I’m an alcoholic and I can’t get work and I’m hungry and I was just trying to eat.’ Ninety-nine times out of 100 they send me off with a severe tongue lashing.”

The other 1 percent of the time Walton would find himself in jail or prison, he said. His worst stint was in the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas.
“You don’t want to go to prison in Texas,” he said. “It’s just like it was in the movie ‘Cool Hand Luke.’ At least it was when I was there.”

Walton usually ended up behind bars for passing bad checks, he said.
“Back when banks left stacks of blank counter checks lying all around I could sign in to a hotel, stay three or four days and pay with one of the bad checks,” he said. “But if I got caught, it was hard to avoid going to jail.”

Today, Walton just observes, he said. He lives not too far from where the homeless congregate and is able to watch them pulling the same scams he pulled for years.

“Every penny you give them goes to booze or drugs,” he said. “And if you give them food, you’d better watch them eat it or they’ll sell it and buy their wine or drugs."

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If you haven't watched the video, now's a good time. Of course, I don't condone his actions -- that's not my job. He was honest with me and he allowed me to see his many sides.

If anyone coaxes me in the slightest manner, I'll post some additional video clips in which he discusses the price he paid for all of his crimes and misdemeanors, and maybe some of his other interesting stories.

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