An Associated Press investigation concurrent with Gazette reporter Ruffin Prevost's research into Michael Hilton's past revealed a long reputation for deals gone bad.
"Such schemes you cannot believe," said Joseph Carella, an Orange County, Calif., doctor and co-defendant with Hilton in a real estate fraud case that resulted in a civil judgment against Hilton and several others.
"The guy's brilliant. If he had been able to do honest work, he probably would have been a gazillionaire," Carella said.
Court documents show Hilton has outstanding judgments against him in three civil cases totaling more than $840,000.
Of Hilton's military expertise, including his claim to have advised forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, those interviewed knew of no such feats. Instead, Hilton was described alternately by those who know him as an arts dealer, cook, restaurant owner, land developer, loan broker and car salesman - always with a moneymaking scheme in the works.
One attorney who dealt with Hilton in a fraud lawsuit referred to him as a "chameleon" with a reputation for winning people over with his charm.
His criminal record goes back to at least 1988, when Hilton was arrested in Santa Ana, Calif., for writing bad checks.
Charges that sent him to prison in California included stealing $20,000 in a real estate swindle in which Hilton convinced an associate to give him a deed on property in Long Beach, ostensibly as collateral on a loan. Hilton turned around and sold the property to another party but was caught when the buyer contacted the original owner.
After his release, he became entangled in at least three civil lawsuits alleging fraud or misrepresentation. Those included posing as a fine-arts dealer in Utah to convince a couple to give him a $100,000 silver statue; and, in the case involving co-defendant Carella, seeking investors for an assisted-living complex in Southern California that was never built.
Carella said he was duped into becoming a partner in the development project and that Hilton used Carella's status as a physician to lure others into the scheme.
Those involved with Hilton say he is an accomplished cook - wining and dining potential partners, showing up at the Utah couple's house to negotiate for the silver statue in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes.
"This is the way we got taken," said Carolyn Call of Provo, Utah, who said she gave Hilton her family's silver statue to sell on the open market.
According to court documents, Hilton gave the statue to an attorney to pay for his services.
Two California attorneys said Wednesday that after learning of Hilton's latest activities they planned to seek payment on the outstanding judgments against him.
"Once I know that there is an asset or some sort of funds to go after, we'll go after it," said Call's attorney, Roger Naghash.