The old Aristotle Onassis yacht Christina O is for sale again and it reminded me that today’s swindlers ain’t what they used to be. Gone is the panache, gone is the joie de vivre.
The successful con man of the past was a great actor who thought big and lived large. These guys created a persona, stepped into the role and proceeded to talk otherwise intelligent people out of their savings. No one creates a persona anymore. Instead, anonymous vermin steal our identities and max out our credit cards.
Blame the Internet. Blame Google. You can’t fake being a gazillionaire mover and shaker anymore. Anyone that prominent can’t help but leave an Internet trail, the absence of which raises red flags. Not so 20 years ago.
Let me take you back to 1993. Some grad student working out of a trailer was creating a business that would be called Yahoo; Google had not been imagined. The Greek government had put the Christina (sans Oback then) up for sale. After Onassis died in 1975, his heirs had donated Christina to the Greek government; she lay alongside a quay for years, deteriorating.
For much of the ’90s, I was the editor of New Hampshire Sunday News, a statewide paper, and I had done quite a bit of reporting prior to that about some of the Granite State’s home-grown swindlers. (New Hampshire was a Red State back then, and her con men seemed to share a trait; their pitches invariably incorporated an element of religion and/or patriotism.) Blastos was a different animal.
My Christina story began at the dentist’s office, where I noticed a brief item in a yachting magazine announcing Christina’s sale and identifying her buyer as a resident of Keene, N.H. Keene is a small landlocked city known for its state college and very little else.
“Keene Man Buys Onassis Yacht.” That’s a headline for the paper, I thought, especially since Onassis had been widely reviled in New Hampshire for having tried to convert the Isles of Shoals, a scenic archipelago four miles off the coast, into a terminal for offloading his oil tankers.
Supersized and circumcised
Christina was a converted World War II-era Canadian destroyer named after Onassis’ daughter. This rakish 325-footer was a floating backdrop for postwar history. JFK met Winston Churchill aboard her in 1954, and JFK’s widow, Jackie, celebrated her marriage to Onassis in a reception aboard the vessel in 1968. Along the way, Christinahosted some of the world’s most famous people, including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas and King Farouk. Onassis enjoyed telling sexy women that the barstools on which they sat were upholstered with foreskins from whales.
I assigned the story to Amy Vellucci, a smart and aggressive reporter. Working the telephone, Vellucci quickly identified the Christina buyer as Alexander Blastos, 28. She set up an appointment to interview him at his uncle’s restaurant in Keene. And guess what, she said, her sources claimed that young Mr. Blastos works at the restaurant as a busboy!
A busboy at the Hungry Lion has bought the Christina for $2.1 million? Hummh. What’s more, Vellucci says one of the great political operatives of the 20th century is involved in the deal, a Greek-American named Chris Spirou. In the home of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Spirou has been a confidant to a succession of Democratic contenders for the U.S. presidency.
As you read on you will recognize in Alexander Blastos (or A.J., as he likes to be called) a resemblance to one of history’s most accomplished impostors, Frank Abagnale Jr. Abagnale’s story was told in the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale. (In case you haven’t seen it, Abagnale successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer for the Louisiana State Attorney General’s Office, among others)
Unfortunately for Blastos, who is probably every bit as talented as Abagnale, his scam never got past second base. In a way, I regret the role I played in its demise. It would have been hugely amusing to see how far Blastos might have gone, had he been a little more publicity-shy. I sent him an email last week to strike up a dialogue about his experiences, but received no reply. It was my second try. I think he bears a grudge.
Mr. Spirou, the pol, had met Blastos through his restaurateur uncle, Michael Blastos. The uncle was also a politician, then serving as city councilor, later as the mayor of Keene. Spirou’s interest in the Christina purchase was to manage the ship’s $40 million overhaul once the purchase was final. Blastos and Spirou were not mariners, but they had a business plan for the boat. Once restored, Christina was to be put into service as a charter yacht.
I told Vellucci that we had to audio-record her interview with Blastos and Spirou. And keep asking them about the money, I said. Where is Blastos getting the $2.1 million? Don’t stop asking until we get an answer. Below is a partial transcript of the interview as it appeared in the Feb. 27, 1994, edition of the New Hampshire Sunday News. Remarkably, it contains not a single checkable fact.
Where’d he get the dough?
Vellucci: So, how much are you worth?
Blastos: Well, that's the third time today somebody's asked me that question. A lot less now that I'm doing this.
Vellucci: Can you give a range?
Blastos: I couldn't even begin to.
Vellucci: In the tens of millions?
Blastos: (laughter, silence)
Spirou: He says he cannot begin. You say begin (pause). As his (adviser), I have to object to this line of questioning. (Laughs)
Vellucci: How many pieces of property do you own across the country?
Vellucci: Under 10, over 20?
Blastos: Geez, to be perfectly honest with you, I'm trying to run it through my head right now. I don't know.
Vellucci: I'm trying to do a profile. I'm trying to find out who he is.
Spirou: Well, he's the guy who doesn't know how many pieces of property he has (laughs).
Vellucci: Do you have an office? Do you work out of your home?
Blastos: Whatever it takes. ...Yes, there's an office.
Blastos: There's an office in New York, in the Caribbean, and there's an office in Athens.
Vellucci: How many staffers do you have working for you?
Blastos: That depends. I'm not a big fan of having a huge, unproductive staff. So you bring in the experts when it's time to bring them in.
Vellucci: So how many people do you have working for you right now?
Blastos: As far as the boat thing goes?
Spirou: (Interrupting) Lots.
Blastos: Yes, lots.
Vellucci: Like 30, 50, 100?
Spirou: There aren't that many right now, but there will be, I think, 30 to 40 people.
Vellucci: Do you have your own private jet or do you fly commercially?
Blastos: Well, I flew back from Greece on Olympic Airways.
Vellucci: You're not even going to answer that?
Blastos: (Laughs) Well, you're going to get me in trouble.
Vellucci: How is that going to get you in trouble?
Blastos: Because, because, because ... (laughs) ...I want everybody to focus on my boat.
Vellucci: You said you're not a long-term planner. But do you have any long-range goals, for next year or the year after?
Blastos: In two years, my goal is the christening of the boat in the Aegean [Sea].
Vellucci (to Spirou): How did you get involved?
Spirou: He has knowledge. I have knowledge. I have connections.
What fun! The following Sunday, a photo of Blastos on Christina’s bridge, provided by Blastos himself, was displayed prominently on the front page beneath the skeptical headline: “But Where’d You Get the Dough, Skipper?” Quoting Blastos’ own words, Vellucci’s article painted a picture of Olympian evasiveness.
Two days later, an Athens newspaper called and asked me to fax that front page. The next day, the Greek paper approximated my headline with the phrase, “Captain, Where Did You Get The Filo?” Thus an American idiom was introduced to an ancient language.
‘Ultimate con man’
Unlike his vague answers to Vellucci, Blastos had made very specific representations to Greek officialdom. Calling Blastos “the ultimate con man,” federal judge Hugh Bownes later wrote:
“The defendant posed as a man of great wealth by falsifying loan agreements, investment statements and his net worth. When in 1993, the defendant bid $2.1 million on the yacht, his bid was accepted by the Greek government. Over the course of the next year, his charade continued. He used “his” yacht, which in reality he did not yet own, as collateral for other business ventures and engaging yacht decorators and designers. The facts make clear that Blastos was far from the wealthy man he pretended to be; for the years 1991 through 1995, the defendant reported income totaling only $2,600.”
Blastos had secured an agreement with the German government to have Christina refurbished at a German shipyard in exchange for a multimillion-dollar “incentive payment,” a legal kickback. He intended to pay the Greeks with German money and worry about how to pay the German shipyard later.
Early in the deal, Greek officials had confidence in Blastos and they even turned away another bidder, but all the “filo” talk had awakened their lizard-like survival instincts. Athens refused to release the Christina until Blastos paid, and the Germans refused to hand over the “incentive” cash until Christina arrived at their yard.
So the deal imploded, but not before Blastos, otherwise penniless and living with mom, was wined and dined across Europe by a marine industry hungry for his business.
As the law closed in on him, Blastos exhibited his chutzpah one last time. While waiting for his arraignment on wire fraud charges he happened to be staying with friends in South Florida. When the time came for his hearing, Blastos hired a private jet to fly him back to New Hampshire, writing a worthless check for $9,672 to pay for the flight.
After a four-day jury trial, a federal judge in New Hampshire in August 2000 sentenced Blastos to five years in prison.
Where are they now?
The politician Chris Spirou, who apparently had been taken in by Blastos’ story, too, suffered no more fallout from the association than the many others who also had been duped. He also played a role of some sort in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, brokering peace in the Balkans. More recently he took credit for delivering the Greek-American vote to Hillary Clinton in the November 2008 New Hampshire primary; her Granite State victory set the stage for an eight-month slugfest against Barack Obama for the presidency.
Amy Vellucci still works for my old outfit. She is managing editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper group and the publisher of its Manchester-area weeklies.
Like his family friend Aristotle Onassis, John Paul Papanicolaou earned his wealth in the shipping business. In 1998 he purchased the Christinaand lovingly restored her over a three-year period. Renamed the Christina O, she has plied the Mediterranean in charter ever since. And, yes, the barstools have the same unique upholstery. She (and they) can be yours for $32 million.
Blastos did his time. He won’t talk to me, so I can’t tell you what he’s doing to stay busy, except that he is a big fan of social networking. His Twitter motto, however, suggests a certain pride in the past: “Before anyone did anything, Blastos did everything.”