Thursday, March 19, 2009

Confidence: A natural history of the con man

Wheatleigh, Lenox, Massachusetts
Presented to the Club in April, 2007 by Martin C. Langeveld

NOTE: New information has been added to the original post from time to time in Epilogues I-IV, as various bits and pieces came to light. The author would like to hear from anyone else who may have additional information about Thilo Rethmann — please contact Martin Langeveld by email at

In the summer of 1982, a young man arrived in Berkshire County [Massachusetts] from California and began a lengthy sojourn as a guest of one of our quiet local celebrities. He was a native of Germany, but while in California, he had done quite well for himself as a screen writer, and had gotten a start in the movie production field. He had written the script for a film to be called “Taipei”, and found financing for it. John Huston and Poncho Kohner were to co-produce the film; Charles Bronson was signed for the starring role. Our young guest had come to find some peace and quiet, and to work on his next script, a film called “Project Mankind.”

As his hostess and her friends soon learned, the young visitor’s family back in Germany was wealthy, and he was about to come into an inheritance of several million dollars. After a few months, he let it be known that he was interested in settling in the Berkshires, and he looked at a number of large estates with a real estate broker. The one that struck his fancy was Wheatleigh, the upscale hostelry [in Lenox], then being leased by Mr. and Mrs. Linfield Simon. The Simons had an option to buy the place for $500,000, and our young screenwriter offered them $2 million. They hadn’t planned on flipping the place, but accepted, amazed at their good fortune. The preparation of contracts began, and dragged on for some time, but meanwhile the Simons began shopping for another home.

By this time, it was December. Our visitor made the rounds of holiday parties in fashionable circles, impressing everyone. He dropped by for a drink at the Fitzpatricks [owners of the Red Lion Inn and Country Curtains in Stockbridge]; afterward Jack said that his guest didn’t brag about his past accomplishments, and all in all he found him to be an “attractive young fellow.” Stockbridge musician Ed Flower ran into the new Berkshire luminary at various gatherings and gushed, “The charm beamed on to me.” When the young man’s hostess found herself stranded at JFK airport after returning from a tour of Europe because her connecting flight to Albany had been cancelled, he gallantly chartered a small plane and flew down from Pittsfield to pick her up, along with her friend, [author] William Shirer, who also admired the younger writer. The Reverend Carl Stevens of Bible Speaks had him as a guest on his radio show, where he professed to be a born-again Christian and discussed the spiritual climate of Hollywood. He engaged a Berkshire Community College professor, Jurgen Thomas, to assist him in the development of his screenplay. He asked his real estate agent to look into the purchase of properties abutting Wheatleigh.

Meanwhile, the young man visited Henry Williams, the president of the Berkshire Bank – the original one -- whom he had met at the Fitzpatricks’ Christmas soiree, to ask about bridge financing so that he could acquire Wheatleigh before his own funds would become available. Henry took down the particulars and said he’d get back to the young man, shortly. Something didn’t seem quite right to Henry, and he decided to order a background check. “Finally we came up with a tilt,” is how he described it later.

Thilo Rethmann. Photo by Joel Librizzi
of The Berkshire Eagle
The screenwriter’s name was Thilo Rethmann. As it turned out, he been convicted in Germany on 57 counts of fraud, mainly writing bad checks for things like a sports car, cameras and other goods. He skipped probation and came to the U.S. In California, he met Blake Champion, the son of dancer Marge Champion of Stockbridge, and also, apparently, Val Bronson, son of Charles Bronson, and Carroll O’Connor’s son Hugh. Along with two accomplices, he swindled his landlady out of $40,000 with the story of the movie to be produced by John Huston. When his friends were arrested, he called the police to say he was coming to turn himself in, but instead he came to Massachusetts and looked up his friend Blake. As a long-term houseguest, he began to borrow money, mentioning the trust fund, from Marge Champion’s secretary, Helen Goff. Helen was flattered by the attention and by Rethmann’s promise to employ her at Wheatleigh. She wrote larger and larger checks to cover Rethmann’s expenses, including funds drawn from her employer’s household account, eventually totaling $20,000.

Our man Rethmann was, of course, what has long been known as a confidence man, a resonant tradition in American history.

The term itself originates in a story published in The New York Herald on July 8, 1849, called “Arrest of the Confidence man”, which describes the arrest of one William Thompson. I quote: “For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped.” The story goes on to mention that Mr. Thompson was a graduate of the college at Sing Sing, and he would no doubt shortly return to his studies there.

The neologism confidence man caught on, and by 1855, when Wilson was again released from prison, it was fully part of the lexicon. Wilson headed north to try his luck in Albany, where the Albany Evening Journal reported on April 28, under the title “The Original Confidence Man in Town – A Short Chapter on Misplaced Confidence”, that he was up to his old tricks (quoting):

“He called into a jewelry store on Broadway and said to the proprietor, “How do you do, Mr. Myers?” Receiving no reply, he added “Don’t you know me?” to which Mr. Myers. replied that he did not. “My name is Samuel Willis. You are mistaken, for I have met you three or four times.” . . . “I guess you are a Mason,” – to which Myers replied that he was – when Willis asked him if he would not give a brother a shilling if he needed it. By some shrewd management, Myers was induced to give him six or seven dollars.”

The new story made the rounds, and the Evening Journal followed up with “A brief history of the Original Confidence Man”, which included an identification by a New York detective: “Here is No. 1, the Original Confidence Man. I arrested him the first time in New York, and afterward in New Orleans.” This line was enough to inspire Herman Melville to pen the last novel he published during his lifetime, The Confidence Man, which came out in 1857. The real No. 1, original Confidence Man, was of course Satan tempting Eve in the Garden of Evil – Melville drew heavily on Milton’s Satan. And the reference to New Orleans suggested to Melville his setting – a Mississippi riverboat as a ship of fools.

A confidence man can be defined as one who swindles another by persuading his victim first to place confidence in him, and then induces the victim to part with goods or money while still trusting the swindler. It is the manipulation of a sucker by non-violent methods. The thief, as we have seen in the case of Mr. Rethmann, must be an excellent actor skilled in improvisation. In Melville’s novel, the protagonist is engaged in a continual masquerade, deceiving a series of fellow passengers during the course of a single day, April 1st – shifting shape all the while like Milton’s Satan. The book's cons are an encyclopaedia of the cons being perpetrated on trusting citizens around the country: a deaf-mute who pleads for donations by means of a slate quoting St. Paul on charity; a black man without legs begging for coins; a merchant with a story of hard times; a representative of the Seminole Widow and Orphan Society operating a bogus charity scam; a man selling stock in a non-existent firm, the Black Rapids Mining Company; a purveyor of a patent medicine called Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator; a procurer of young boys into indentured labor; and a cosmopolitan named Frank Goodman, who simply wishes his fellow passengers to place their trust and confidence in all of humanity. The real mark of Melville’s confidence game, however, is the reader, who is constantly pulled in one direction and another, never sure where Melville is taking him, and discovering, each time a truth seems to be presented, that it is in fact another mask in the masquerade. The novel, itself – perhaps every novel – is a con of the reader who places his trust in the author hoping to be rewarded.

While Melville’s novel received little notice on publication, sold poorly and received virtually no critical attention until a century later, the confidence man motif became a standard in American literature, and later film – and the confidence scheme would return again and again to lighten the wallets of Americans in real life – not surprisingly, because in some ways, the qualities that made a good 19th Century American confidence man – gumption, originality, smoothness, entrepreneurship – were the qualities that won the West and built America. Moreover, antebellum American society provided a rich substrate for the con game – teeming, growing cities, easy anonymity, confusion, portable wealth in the form of paper money. New York police in the 1860s estimated that one out of every 10 criminals was a con man.

The professional con men of the era developed a repertoire with colorful names such as the gold brick, the green-goods scam, the sick engineer, the glim-dropper, the fiddle game, the two red aces, the badger game, the match box, the pigeon drop, the Iron Hat, the Puff Racket, the Tat, the Silver Fox Fur—and its variant, the Cat-and-Rat Farm.

For a con to be successful, it is usually necessary for the victim to be something less than honest. In the words of one professional confidence man, “If there was no larceny in a man, and if he were not trying to get something for nothing and rob a fellow man, it would be impossible to beat him at any real con racket.” And another: “A confidence game will fail absolutely unless the sucker has got larceny in his soul.” In the tale of Thilo Rethmann, the owners of the option on Wheatleigh were lured by the prospect of quadrupling their money in a single transaction; the various lawyers, realtors and engineers involved in the deal all saw a windfall payday ahead as well; and the prospect of a lucrative job running Rethmann’s household motivated Helen Goff to dip into Mrs. Champion’s checkbook.

The typical 19th century and early 20th century con could be elegantly simple. Take for example the glim-dropper, which requires several accomplices, one of whom must be a one-eyed man. He goes into a store and makes believe he has lost his glass eye. Everyone looks around, but the eye can’t be found. He declares that he will pay a thousand-dollar reward for the return of his eye, leaving contact information. The next day, an accomplice enters the store and pretends to find the eye. The storekeeper, thinking of the reward, offers to take it and return it to its owner. The finder insists he will return it himself, and demands the owner’s address. Thinking he will lose all chance of the reward, the storekeeper offers a hundred dollars for the eye. The finder bargains him up to $250, and departs. The one-eyed man, of course, can not be found and does not return.

Similarly, in the fiddle game, one confederate, shabbily dressed, eats a nice meal in a restaurant, finds himself without cash when the check arrives, and leaves a violin as collateral for payment owed. Later, his accomplice comes in, notices the fiddle, declares it to be a rare and valuable instrument, and offers a large sum for it. The restaurant owner then buys the instrument from the first man upon his return, thinking he has an offer on the table from man No. 2, who, of course, never returns.

And the best-known scam of the information age, the Nigerian oil scam, is really a version of an age-old trick called the Spanish prisoner, which dates from the 16th Century. The con man, accompanied by a beautiful young lady, approached British nobles with the story that a fellow noble, the lady’s father, has been imprisoned in Spain. A letter from the prisoner, smuggled back to England, is shown as evidence, but the prisoner’s identity is concealed, allegedly to prevent the Spanish from realizing they have a valuable prisoner. If the noble would pay the ransom, the letter promised, the jailed father would issue a rich reward upon his release, and perhaps even offer the daughter’s hand in marriage. Money in hand, the con man and his lady friend would disappear, never to return.

While there is some amusement in this kind of scheme, in truth, we have more appreciation for the elaborate con jobs pulled off in movies like the Sting and in novels like Tom Sawyer. We require our confidence artists to do some serious work for their money.

A good con man must be a good actor, a good salesman, have good manners and a good appearance. He must also have a yen for the good things in life, but be too lazy to work for them, and he must have a sizeable ego and be able to think on his feet and live by his wits. And, a genuine con man is a habitual liar, addicted to pursuing one con after another, motivated by the challenge of pulling off another one. One con man described it to an interviewer like this: “Half of being a con man is the challenge. When I score, I get more kick out of that than anything. To score is the biggest kick of my whole life.” But of course a con man also needs to have his end game planned out, which is where Rethmann’s plans unraveled. A protracted scam like Rethmann’s usually requires multiple players to be in on the game, to collaborate by lending credence to one another. But Rethmann, who did learn a few things in the course of getting himself arrested for much smaller scams, in the end could not fool all the people all the time all by himself, and so it was the uncorruptable banker, Henry Williams, who smelled a rat and exposed the scam.

After being arrested for his larceny of Helen Goff’s money — he was never charged in connection with the Wheatleigh caper — Rethmann continued to maintain that funds would imminently arrive from his German trust fund, that his mother would pay his lawyers. Several sets of lawyers accepted this story and then saw through it, before Rethmann ended up with a public defender. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 18 months in the Berkshire House of Correction. While he was serving that sentence, Berkshire Eagle reporter Stephen Fay, who had covered the affair from beginning to end, got a collect call from one Tony Valano, another guest of the sheriff. It was a credit check. In a jailhouse poker game, Rethmann had ended up owing Valano $10,000, and Rethmann had told Tony to call Fay, who, he had assured Valano, would vouch for him.

Finally Rethmann wrote Fay a 26-page letter from his cell, explaining that he had been framed by the FBI, Secret Service and CIA as a victim of a top-secret government plot, launched by President Nixon in 1969 to prevent the fulfillment of events foretold in the scriptures. The story of the trust fund, he wrote, was something he told in order to conceal the fact that his movie ventures were actually being bankrolled by an Arab sheik named Al-Fassi, whom he had met in Paris in the course of delivering Ferrari sports cars.

The simplest explanations for what motivates con men may be the best. Clifford Irving was the perpetrator of a fraudulent autobiography of Howard Hughes some decades ago. More recently, he cashed in again by writing a book about this affair, called The Hoax, now made into a movie starring Richard Gere. About the first book, Irving told the interviewer: “It wasn’t about the money. I wasn’t broke. I did it for the adventure.” He added that he was just “a forty-year-old guy who loves adventure and doesn’t think too clearly about what he is doing.” Except for the age difference, that probably describes our larcenous Berkshire visitor pretty accurately.

But at this point in the tale of Thilo, unfortunately, we lose track of our talented young screenwriter, because he had served enough of his Berkshire sentence and was whisked away to face his California charges, and thereafter, the U. S. Immigration Service. Stephen Fay never heard from him again, and Google comes up dry, but I somehow doubt that Wheatleigh was the last mansion he schemed to acquire. But in any case, as long as there are victims who think they may get something for nothing, there will be con artists willing to pull the wool over their eyes.


A few subsequent events in the life of Thilo Rethmann turned up after the original delivery and publication of this paper. About 10 years after the events related above, apparently after dealing with his issues in California and with the Immigration service, in 1994 Rethmann — now using the name Thilo Timothy Newman — was arrested in Nashville, Tennessee on six counts of passing forged prescriptions for the pain killer Percocet. He pled guilty in February, 1995 and was sentenced to two years of probation on the condition that he serve 60 days in jail and obtain full-time employment. He then appealed the jail term and the employment requirement, on the grounds that he was a self-employed. Amazingly, he was able to convince a three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals that he was a screen writer, using many of the same claims that he had previously used to dupe his friends in California and the Berkshires, right down to the title "Project Mankind."

The prosecutor and the original trial judge had not fallen for Rethmann/Newman's stories, As the appeals court decision lays out: 
The remainder of the testimony at the hearing [after covering Rethmann's drug dependence] focused on Appellant's occupation. He testified that he had gone to the Munich University Film School in Germany for a masters degree in cinematography and finished film school at UCLA. Appellant told the court that he was a screenwriter and the president of a holding corporation for a film company. He referred to a screenplay he had written called "Project Mankind" and stated he was currently negotiating with Stephen Spielberg to direct the production of the screenplay. On cross-examination, Appellant admitted that no producer had yet agreed to back his screenplay. 
The only witness besides Appellant was William Halbert, a friend and business partner of Appellant. Mr. Halbert corroborated Appellant's testimony about the business they shared and about the screenplay "Project Mankind." He was optimistic about the future of the business and contradicted the State's attorney when he suggested that Appellant was currently experiencing some financial problems. 
The trial court seemed to share in the State's concern that Appellant's business was not legitimate. The trial Judge made the statement that "you can dream about hitting the lottery or making a movie, and you can dream on; but I think it's time to get a job." The trial Judge added that he "want[s Appellant] to have a job. . . . If it's at the carwash or at the Krystal, . . . he needs to put in eight hours a day, forty hours a week awhile, if he's going to be put on probation." In response to the court's skepticism, Appellant introduced a copy of his 1993 tax return showing an adjusted gross income of $106,136 as well as bank statements indicating that an average of $13,000 was deposited in his account each month from July of 1994 through February of 1995, the time the hearing was held. 
At the close of the hearing, the trial Judge made it clear that he did not believe much of Appellant's testimony.
In rejecting the trial judge's findings and overturning the jail term and the employment requirements, the presiding judge wrote:
We also reject any requirement that Appellant obtain full-time salaried employment other than the apparently legitimate business in which he is already engaged. The Appellant asserts in his brief, and we agree, that the trial court "seemed to indicate some disenchantment with the music or video concept in general." Referring to some of Appellant's testimony, the trial Judge expressed his opinion that "having offices in the . . . third biggest studio in the country and being a major player in the world and all this we've been hearing . . . . that's the kind of stuff that these Music City people defraud people with everyday." As stated above, all of the evidence presented at the hearing indicated that Appellant is a successful self-employed business person. We think it unreasonable to require Appellant to leave his successful business in order to secure a job at, as the trial court suggested, the carwash or a fast food restaurant. Furthermore, as this was not a crime born out of Appellant's need for money, but rather a medical condition, we fail to see the relationship between Appellant's rehabilitation and his occupation.
After this, Rethmann's trail truly goes cold. After this story was first posted on the Monday Evening Club blog, one commenter wrote:
When I was in high school, I dated the son of Thilo's neighbor and witnessed much of this first-hand. Unfortunately, I had no clue what was really going on at the time. The last I heard from Alex (the neighbor's son) was that Thilo committed suicide. 
Another wrote:
He ruined my husband's life in Nashville - stole millions of dollars from banks, medical equipment companies and the like - I never liked Thilo and found out through the FBI that he was, indeed, a scoundrel - He and my husband at the time were inseperable, taking painkillers and trying to figure out ways to scam people - Of course, Thilo told everyone that he wrote the script for "Aliens" and many other movies - he brought his script of "Project Mankind" around everywhere to show people that he was legit - He wore makeup, lied about his age and told people that he was dating Ashley Judd - He was the truest form of a sociopath that I have ever known - I divorced Bill [presumably William Halbert, mentioned above by the judge] and wound up with the FBI at my door looking for Bill and Thilo - Thilo was due to show up in court, and fled the country (supposedly) to Germany - He and my husband figured up a crazy plot to fake his death, so Bill  would not have to stand trial in Nashville - I have since moved on, but I still talk to the FBI from time to time - As my mother put it when she met him "He is the Devil"
Somewhere along the way, Rethmann, or an associate, managed to get himself (as Thilo Timothy Newman) listed in various movie databases as one of the screenwriters on the movie Alien, a "fact" that still survives in spinoffs of those databases, apparently by inserting his "Newman" alias as a fake alias for Ronald Shusett, an actual writer on Alien. In fact, Shusett's page on Wikipedia still lists Thilo T. Newman as an alias. A 1997 Google Groups post, possibly by Rethmann himself, turns the tables by suggesting that Ronald Shusett was actually a pen name for Thilo T. Newman.

Finally, "Tim", developer of the movie "Project Mankind", turns up again in 2003 in a book called "I Heard the Sounds of Silence: Are we related?" by Livia Schneider, indicating that Rethmann died of a drug overdose. The book is apparently a family memoir; Livia is actually Olivia Schneider Newman, a Nashville artist. Tim was her son; he had persuaded her to move from Germany to Nashville, but in the end he went back to Hamburg. In her book, she writes, "Pretending was something he was always good at. Make believe was his middle name..." Thilo and/or Timothy Newman, it appears, was Rethmann's real name. In the book, Livia doesn't acknowledge Tim's exploits as Thilo Rethmann — but she had to have known about them, if only because of Stephen Fay's telephone call to her in Germany back in the 1980s.

Still, the feds believe that Rethmann/Newman may still be alive. I received a call a few years ago [2010], after originally posting this story on the Monday Evening Club blog, from an agent in the Fugitive Division of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service based in Nashville, who was still keeping an eye out for Thilo, inquiring whether I knew anything further.


In February, 2017, I heard from Carlton Drumwright, a lawyer in Nashville. He had reminisced with a friend about his involvement in Rethmann/Newman's Nashville legal troubles, and found this blog post after Googling our friend.

In 1995, Drumwright was working as a Community Corrections Officer in Nashville, and Thilo Timothy Newman's case was assigned to him. (That was the name Thilo was using at the time.) As noted above, Newman had been arrested for passing forged prescriptions for the pain killer Percocet, and appealed his jail sentence to a three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which swallowed — hook, line and sinker — his story that he was a hard-working screen writer, and commuted his sentence.

The judge involved in the case was Tom Shriver, described by Drumwright as having been "an old school DA" who "could spot fraud a mile away." In assigning the Newman case to Drumwright, Shriver had said, "watch him like a hawk."

As part of his watch on Newman, Drumwright learned of his German birth, and contacted a local Immigration and Naturalization Service agent he knew, to ask him to check out Newman. The agent got back to him saying, “He does not exist.” That is, there appeared to be no available INS files on Newman.

Drumwright and the INS agent developed a theory about why there were no records: To get out of some other troublesome situation with the law before the Percocet case, Newman had “snookered” his way into the federal witness protection program, which means that all his files at INS (which is now ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and other federal agencies had been sealed. But then, when Thilo “absconded” from the witness protection program and got into his Nashville legal trouble, the INS failed to unlock the files — so the search on his name came up empty. The witness protection program being what it is, however, they were never able to confirm this for sure.

In any event, eventually the agent did get the files unlocked and learned of Thilo’s California exploits and the 50-odd warrants outstanding against him in Germany. Drumwright doesn’t recall hearing about the Berkshire episode — it’s possible that the INS had not yet connected those dots at the time. Learning about this, Shriver, the judge, decided to nail Newman at his next court date and lined up representatives of the INS, IRS, and Secret Service, all of whom had an interest in Newman, to be present. When the case was called, everyone was in the courtroom, except Newman. Newman’s lawyer, a leading Nashville criminal attorney named Pat McNally, told the judge he had just received a call from Newman saying that he was “on his way,” but had been delayed by having to meet with a “friend in the federal government.” The INS agent rose and told the judge he could “guarantee that Newman has no friends in the federal government.”

Newman never showed up, and was never heard from again. Drumwright said that he also heard the story that Newman had returned to Germany and that he had died by hanging himself. (There are three versions of his death: that he hanged himself; that he died from a drug overdose, as related by his mother in her book; and that he died in a car crash, which is what the ICE agent who contacted me in 2010 had heard. Possibly all three stories emanated from Olivia, Thilo’s mother.)

Drumwright said that eventually, the INS agent was told to leave the case alone. He speculates that Thilo may have talked his way back into witness protection, with the death in Germany story as a cover. But if so, Thilo may have re-absconded, which would explain why ICE was again looking into his case in 2010.


The tale of Thilo inspired at least one novelist, Andrew Pincus, a longtime editor at The Berkshire Eagle, who published his novel Night Work in 2010. It included a character named Thilo, described as follows in a book review by Leith F. Cohen:
Other characters of some interest include Red's two daughters; her ex-husband, Philip, who is still messing with her life; and a handsome young man named Thilo (as in Tea-low), who appears out of nowhere. 
With a German accent and dreams of bringing the arts and culture back to the city, his plan is to rescue an abandoned movie house and restore it as a year-round performing arts center. 
As an interesting aside Thilo appears to be, at least partly patterned on a real-life Berkshire newsmaker, Thilo Rethman, who came here in 1982 from California, where he was wanted by authorities for grand larceny. 
Over a year's time, he charmed his way into, and lived off of Berkshire society, borrowing money and pretending to be a screenwriter. He was arrested when California authorities caught up with him here in the Berkshires and was ultimately tried, convicted and jailed. 
In the book Thilo makes himself known by attending every venue in town including artist receptions, City Council meetings, the country club, and school pageants. 
He flatters star-struck society women and gains the confidence of high rollers with deep pockets excited about his proposal to bring culture and economic salvation to the city. 
Then there is Miranda, a dated celebrity, who came to the Berkshires as an artist-in-residence at the elite college. Falling under Thilo's cagey spell and totally unaware of his modus operandi, she welcomes him into her home, naively to help defray the cost of Thilo's fund raising efforts. 
Back at the newsroom (one of the highlights of the book is its newspaper jargon, smell of ink and the urgency of the deadlines) Dan and "Chief," the city editor, don't like what they are hearing about Thilo's plans for the city's salvation. 
"I dunno," Dan tells Chief. "I think we should call in the cops, if they're not already there. The guys a three-dollar bill." 
As Dan and Chief suspected Thilo absconded in the middle of the night leaving his supporters with nothing to show for their money spent. 
EPILOGUE, PART IV (Nov. 13, 2017):
We've received the following story about the younger Thilo Rethmann from "GarBen," a correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous:
I met Thilo Rethmann (TR) in my late teens in The Bahamas.  He was on vacation when he befriended me and several friends of mine.  He seemed [then] to be a pleasant, well-mannered, well-educated and well-traveled individual while at the same time cunning and conniving.   I do remember him this way.  In all, he was a very good conversationalist for a teen and impressed many people he met including our parents.  Our first meeting was in a beachfront restaurant called the CafĂ© de la Mer and subsequently it led to a friendship and him hanging out with our group.  We were all from middle-upper class families with shared teen interest.  We welcomed TR into our homes introducing him to our parents and that led to sleepovers.  He accompanied us to inner circle gatherings (i.e., parties and dinners) and we never really suspected him or anything about him that would call into question his motives until his vacation kept ‘extending’, per se, and eventually we learned it was for good reason.

TR was staying at the Emerald Beach Hotel located on the western side of the island of Nassau.  We had become suspicious something was amiss as his time spent with us increased much to the extent of overstaying one’s welcome and that fact he did not always carry a clean or complete change of wear – basically he became un-kept as well as an annoyance.  Then there were excuses and requests to place long distance calls to his home in Neumunster, Germany, to request funds from his parents.  I believe he told us his family were socialites and his father a well-known professor (I believe this was
his story).  
At any rate, we learnt he had an absorbent room bill that he kept charging to but never paying in full.  This finally led to his being locked out of his hotel room, possessions confiscated (held as collateral) and was temporarily jailed by the authorities.  He had no one to turn to for help or money and later bounced between our homes until our parents wised up and things went south for that point forward.

Fortunately, his family did come through and he made good on arrears and was released.  I believe he had been told to leave The Bahamas, and understandably so, and by this time he had become desperate and somewhat destitute and without recourse.  I want to say he moved into a much more moderate inn, The Ocean Spray Hotel, and sadly he resorted to the same tactic of payment (or the lack thereof).  I suppose this was the making of a con-man.  Sad.

As for me (at age 19), I was preparing to go abroad to begin a career.  He left The Bahamas shortly before I did and had written several letters since that were later forwarded to me – two of which I had kept for no particular reason.

But what a coincidence this has been!  For some reason he had suddenly popped into my mind, in turn, I Googled him.  By happenstance I came across this post by the Monday Evening Club was dumbfounded when I read the article.  The similarities were eerily accurate and the rest as they say is history.  One word to describe this is … WOW!!

Well, that’s my story and I hope you found it interesting.

Footnoting, Thilo and I lost contact sometime in the late 70s and I had wondered whatever became of him?  I have never heard from or about him until now.  I was surprised to read in someone’s response in the article above that he had died – but that was quickly debunked.  All said, I do wish him well.
Here is a letter that GarBen sent along, written by Rethmann in 1979, redacted to preserve anonymity:


  1. Martin,
    I enjoyed this paper when you read it, and once again reading it here. You mention The Sting, but there are a few other great con movies, notably The Grifters, with John Cusack, Annette Benning and Angelica Huston, and a couple of David Mamet films, The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games. All worth seeing.


  2. Amazing!!!! Do you know how I know Thilo Newman??? He ruined my husband's life in Nashville - stole millions of dollars from banks, medical equipment companies and the like - I never liked Thilo and found out through the FBI that he was, indeed, a scoundrel - He and my husband at the time were inseperable, taking painkillers and trying to figure out ways to scam people - Of course, Thilo told everyone that he wrote the script for "Aliens" and many other movies - he brought his script of "Project Mankind" around everywhere to show people that he was legit - He wore makeup, lied about his age and told people that he was dating Ashley Judd - He was the truest form of a sociopath that I have ever known - I divorced Bill and wound up with the FBI at my door looking for Bill and Thilo - Thilo was due to show up in court, and fled the country (supposedly) to Germany - He and my husband figured up a crazy plot to fake his death, so Bill would not have to stand trial in Nashville - I have since moved on, but I still talk to the FBI from time to time - As my mother put it when she met him "He is the Devil" - Wow, I still cannot believe this article - Michelle Sechrist

  3. Hello Michelle, that's fascinating. Could you contact me by email?

  4. What a fascinating story. I wonder...this Thilo Rethmann...did he grow up in Neumunster, Germany (north of Hamburg)?

  5. Hi Anonymous Sept. 7:
    It's possible. There are a few tenuous Hamburg connections in the story but I have no info on where Thilo grew up.

  6. I cannot believe I am reading this. When I was in high school, I dated the son of Thilo's neighbor and witnessed much of this first-hand. Unfortunately, I had no clue what was really going on at the time. The last I heard from Alex (the neighbor's son) was that Thilo committed suicide. Michelle, I remember Bill, and I'm so sorry for all you must have gone through. I am 36 now, and I am shocked to finally know the whole story. And I don't know how in the world I didn't end up in serious trouble by simple proximity to this lunatic!

  7. Oh, and there's this:

  8. thanks, Jenni - yes, in that findacase link, it's clear that Thilo conned the court into believing his name was Newman and that he actually had substantial income as "a successful self-employed business person." I'm not inclined to believe any report of Thilo's suicide or death by other means unless corroborated by several reliable sources.

  9. Heads Up! Thilo has risen from the dead and has set up a LinkedIn account! And, not even under an alias . . . His alias include: Thilo Rethmann, Thilo Timothy Newman, and, of course, the always entertaining and famous writer, Ronald Shusett..

  10. Very interesting story on Thilo Rethmann. One of my personal favorite con men, Soapy Smith of Skagway Alaska, operated several confidence games in the 1890's. I'm having a drink and giving a toast to these fine fellows right now, as I write these words in front of my fire. Thanks for the pointers.