Editors note: in the wake of the ruling against Jeff Cassman, we’ve received several new and interesting comments regarding this post. Therefore, we’re sticking this one to the front page for the next week so nothing gets buried!
HERMOSILLO – I went to sleep with this gnawing feeling of being betrayed and lied to and I woke up with the same feeling. It was a feeling I knew well from having been around so many crooks, liars and scammers most of my life which forced me not only to develop a radar for these things, but to always seek the balance at the other end.
At midnight we checked into the Colonial Hotel in Hermosillo after yet another 12 hour day of driving to get us back on schedule with our travel itinerary. We’d stayed at this hotel before so I bargained them down to $60. Still pricey but we had WIFI, great food, pool and awesome rooms. Worth the splurge and Brad was doing the zombie walk, barely able talk so it was time to unpack our bags somewhere.
Once in the room both of us immediately started checking our emails – starved people come in from the desert of data famine. The first email I opened was one from my friend Rudy Giron with the PrensaLibre headline: “Capturan en Antigua Guatemala a estadounidense buscado por FBI“, American wanted by the FBI captured in Antigua, and right below was the big picture of our friend Mark Francis. I thought it was a hoax, one of those online websites that creates a phony newspaper front page just for laughs. I was frozen after reading the entire article.
“Cross reference it on the Prensa Libre page,” Brad tells me half-heartedly while clicking on his own email. “I already did,” I told him. “I’m reading the story from the Prensa Libre website.” At which point Brad stops everything he’s doing and we both drop our mouths in bewilderment. Brad tries to decipher the story from Spanish to English and so I read it to him and then we both continue to do google searches which brings up something from the Nashville post, email all our Antigua friends, look on Facebook, go to Mark’s GuateLiving bog, read the comments, and, yes, it’s true though truth did prove stranger than fiction in this instance: our friend is a scam artist. His name wasn’t Mark Francis, it was Jeff Cassman, wanted by federal agents for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme and about to face trial for mail and securities fraud charges that could put him behind bars for decades.
Here’s some of the articles we found:
Guatemalan National Police video of his arrest:
The first day we met Mark Francis was the week we’d arrived to La Antigua after driving 10 days from Oakland, California. I’d found him through one of my Google alerts for Guatemala where we were preparing to live for a year and his blog, GuateLiving, came up as the most popular blog in Central America. Both Brad and I became instant fans: he was witty, smart, funny and cocky. So cocky at times that it pissed off a lot of people as was evident from the comments. He often came across as making fun at the expense of others and purposely incendiary. “He’s a man’s man,” Brad said when he first read him. “And he doesn’t feel a need to be politically correct.” It was a rare combination in Guatemala to have an expat, pundit, contrarian and unabashedly critical voice on Guatemala.
I looked him up, tried to find pictures of him, learn more about him and his background, but nothing. That meant there was only one way to get to know him, to email and talk to him with the ultimate goal of eventually meeting him in person. We exchanged a few quick emails about how much time he’d been in Guatemala and any travel tips he might have. Soon we were regularly in contact and I asked him to be on the HablaGuate BlogTalkRadio show on “Migrations”. It was a show I had asked Rudy Giron, a Guatemalan who immigrated to the US and then back to Guatemala to be on. Rudy was already showing his suspicion of him and didn’t want any kind of association with Mark Francis whose broad strokes were too broad for the meticulous, detail-oriented, accuracy-driven Guatemalan returnee.
It was an hour-long interview during which Mark shared the story of how he had worked in the financial sector in the United States, originally from Tennessee, and got tired of what he forecasted as the market downturn and the stressful, soul-less life. He and his wife wanted something different, so they sold their large house in Arizona, told their nine kids to pack up a duffel bag each and then got on the bus, all the way to Guatemala. That’s an 11-person family on a public bus. They stopped off in Mexico for six months (the details of why or where he did not reveal) and then decided to move farther south to Guatemala. They loved La Antigua and originally they wanted to live in the small exclusive mostly expat colonial town 40 kilometers from Guatemala City, but since there were so many of them, it was less expensive to live in Ciudad Vieja. They rented what was once a small hotel past the cemetery and on the road to Acatenango and home-schooled all their children.
When I asked him about what he was doing for work in Central America, he said he was looking at options, but that he didn’t need to rush things because he’d invested enough and got our early enough to be able to take care of his family comfortably for a few years. I remember doing the math in my head and thinking, even in Guatemala that’s at least $100,000 a year for what would end up being 12 family members near La Antigua living a US standard. He laughed when I referred him back to the original 11 figure he mentioned for the number of people in his family. “We’ve had our anchor baby,” he said. “Maria was born in Guatemala and so we’re not leaving anytime soon.” An anchor baby, from what troubled seas I wondered.
In talking to mi mama that night and sharing his story, she said in her usually skeptical way: “There’s only one reason anyone leaves the US by bus with so many kids.” “Why?” I asked her. “Because they’re running away from something.” I always took mi mama’s comments with a grain of salt because she’s seen and lived among the underbelly for a while, a survivor, with survivor instincts and the general principle of everyone is guilty until they prove themselves innocent.
“Hay ma, but isn’t it cheaper to travel that way when you have so many kids?” I retorted. “I thought he didn’t have any money problems?” She reminded me. I let the matter drop, I wanted to believe his story, it appealed to my literacy fascination with journeys.
Either way, the guy was, likable. In the car this morning as we make our way to Nogales, I ask Brad why he liked Mark: “He was likable friendly, charismatic, he was an extrovert, funny, he made me feel comfortable around him. He was a good storyteller, a good listener and I liked some of his cheeky opinions about politics even though I didn’t always agree I respected his forthrightness.”
But not everyone liked him. He’d received threats both via email, and now people were coming around his house and throwing rocks in his windows and at his kids. He blamed it on people misunderstanding where he was coming from on his blog. But mostly people were envious of him, had a chip on their shoulders or just felt a need to gossip. The thing that made him laugh the most was conspiracy theories on him just because he was different or had a story unlike anyone else’s. There were stories circulating about him being part of the CIA or that he was part of the Mossad- the Israeli secret service.
Sitting across him at Hector’s restaurant across from La Merced church, it seemed appropriate that we were in a stuffy cave-like restaurant serving hot Italian food in the hot afternoon. He had walked in after us and immediately recognized us sitting by the window facing the church. He was tall, husky, pale with black hair, a goatee and lovely green eyes. On a TV show he would have been Toni Soprano’s younger brother from Italy. He immediately introduced himself, kissed me on the cheek and adjusted his pant legs so his pants wouldn’t get wrinkled before he sat down, legs open and the heft of his belly hanging comfortably under his crossed arms.
“I was expecting someone with more American looks, way more clean cut American, I wasn’t expecting the big Semetic hockey player looking guy,” Brad said in remember that first meeting. Now it doesn’t surprise me, Brad says while driving us the last stretch to Nogales, that he was growing out his mustache and his hair was getting long and greasy. Whenever I’d see him in the park I would say ‘Wow, dude, you’re looking more Chapin everyday.'”
We ordered lemonades, he got a martini. We talked about life in La Antigua, chatted about his new house in Ciudad Vieja, his kids, his blog, Rudy walked into the restaurant for lunch business meeting. He stiffened when he saw Mark, gave him a formal handshake, kissed me on the cheek, patted Brad on the back and moved to the corner of the restaurant. He told us about his threats which he took on with bravado because he had just the same right as anyone to be here. “I’m adding to the economy,” he said. We treated him to lunch for all his help with travel tips and just for being a good person who helped us in our lives and transition down.
“It’s refreshing to spend time with Mark,” Brad said when we left the restaurant. “He’s so direct and straight forward.” At least in the way he expresses himself, I told Brad. You just never know where people have been. The day we met him he’d been to his first Catholic mass in Latin in Guatemala City (the only place where they held it in Latin) in his new used Mercedes Benz that he loved to speed in all the way down to Escuintla.
Over the next few months we stayed in contact via emails, back linking to each other’s blogs, invitations to trips (trips we never made because we were always working) and then the anniversary drinks to celebrate Mark and his family’s first year in La Antigua. We met his wife Sarah and beautiful baby Maria who slept through most of the meetup. There were about 15 of Mark’s friends, mostly online bloggers, expats, students and just funny characters who demonstrated the wide swath of Mark’s eclectic taste in people from different walks of life. It was then that I started to trust Mark more and stopped asking him so many questions to explain some of the inconsistencies.
Christmas and New Year’s rolled around and we got a personal invite to come over to his house for a small dinner with friends and family. We were flattered in a way that our friendship was solidifying. Mi mama was visiting for the entire month so we took her along. On New Year’s eve we found ourselves among a small group of friends and all of Mark’s children, mostly boys, bouncing off ever nook and crevice of the small hotel that had become their home and school. The bathrooms doors still had “Damas” and “Caballeros” printed on them and I got a small tour of each kid’s house, the small school room, the shared bedrooms for the boys and the girls and the living room which was spartan in furniture but full of handmade wooden toys, swords, and shields all in hand-crafted in dark wood. It was a clean, well-organized crew where the roles were well-defined and traditional.
Mark was the father and patriarch and Sarah was the wife and mother who looked after all the children and the new brownie recipes. Sarah was quiet, nurturing and a bit unsure of herself. She tripped over the stairs going up to the boys’ room and she turned completely red and was confused. The rest of the evening we watched the children light up fireworks and throw them in to the empty lot next door. “Matthew don’t throw fireworks at your brother,” the patient patriarch would say and then one of the younger children would come crying and screaming to get fatherly love and understanding. I got to see Mark in action as the central figure of his family and it was refreshing to see how he communicated with his family, maintained order and shepherded the flock. We left early because my mother was feeling uncomfortable, she wasn’t sure why, she said, but she just wasn’t comfortable there.
Last week, I had my farewell drink with Mark. It was originally a coffee to talk about the HablaCentro project I had recently been awarded an Ashoka fellowship to implement. He was very curious about it, what did it entail, did I have a business plan, how much was I going to invest into it. I appreciate that he was interested in learning more about it, but I was suspicious. I guess coming from a Guatemalan family, I’m always suspicious when someone cares enough to ask these types of questions. I met him at the bar across from Rikki’s where he was the center of attention amid this group of expats laughing loudly and drunkenly. We pulled out of the group and sat one table over. I did the Guatemalan chit-chat which I can do for hours, but he immediately steered the conversation.
“Tell me what you’re doing. Why are you driving back, what’s this project?” I explained to him that we were driving back because he needed to sell the car back home and because we both appreciate a good road trip. “Why didn’t you just sell the car here?” I told him the taxes had been quoted at more than $1,200 dollars on a $3,000 car and he said smugly: “That’s because you don’t know the right people at customs.”
I told him I thought that comment was funny because I did have family that worked at Puerto Barrios customs and I knew exactly what they did and I didn’t want to be part of the larger problem in Guatemala. I wanted to model the Guatemala I wanted to see. “Oh, I get it,” he told me with his usual charming, sarcastic gallantry. “You want to do good in Guatemala and since you have that chip on your shoulder about your family, you’re going the extreme trying to do things the hard way.” I laughed, yes, I said you could say that I went a bit to the other extremity.
There was no doubt about it, he was charming and an incredible storyteller. When he told you a story, he had this way of bringing you right in the middle of the action, you didn’t bother with details like what were you doing in Cuatro Caminos at 2 AM with a drunk British woman in your Mercedes Benz yelling obscenities who you just tied up to the passenger seat so the local indigenous people wouldn’t lynch you both for being so insulting? He would wave off my questions and continue on with his story, he had an endless supply of them and Guatemala seemed to be eating out of the palm of his hands.
He bought his way through the bureaucracy, paying for people to wait in line for him and paying the next person’s turn, he bought restaurants without any real source of income, thought of news businesses like bi-diesel run tuk-tuks, ran up against walls and then walked around them. He just had a way of getting around things. And so that evening, two days before Brad and I were about to head back to Oakland by land, I felt uncomfortable by his questions regarding my project. I felt that familiar feeling of someone wanting something from me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so instead I cajoled him into tell me stories.
It worked and so the rest of the hour, I listened to Mark, perhaps for the last time, animated, expansive and full of life and waving at every person who passed who saw and knew him through the window. He was like Cool Hand Luke, cool as can be. The hour went by quickly and so I took leave of him. He kissed me on the cheek and I rushed to meet Brad. In my rush I left my umbrella by his table. I called to him from the window and asked him to slip it between the window bars. “Here you go,” he said. “You should never leave things behind.” Not the ones you care about, I said to him and ran up the street.
Last night my friend Mark Francis died for me in a way that public personas die, in the way that people fall before our eyes who we care about and want to believe in because they show us a certain strength perhaps we never thought possible, a certain invincibility and lightness of being. I never knew Jeff Cassman the fugitive, but I knew Mark Francis who was making a new life for himself and his family in La Antigua, Guatemala. Whether that involved becoming a more ethical person, we may never know.