An irony: The book Books in Print has been largely replaced by booksinprint.com, which indicates that more than 14,000 nonfiction books on crime-related themes are now available from publishers, 3,300 on murders alone.
Many of those books are likely read by people who just want to know what they are up against. Concern about street crime is widespread, although often misplaced: In surveys in the United States and the United Kingdom, near-majorities of respondents report strong fears of being victims of violent crime—many times the number who actually will be.
Few, however, say they fear becoming victims of white-collar crimes. Most of us enjoy stories about con men getting away with a scam. It is fun to snicker at W. C. Fields as he sells patent medicine to the rubes, to whistle along with the Music Man, to root for Paul Newman in The Sting and Ray Liotta in Goodfellas and Warren Beatty in Bugsy. As we do, we place ourselves vicariously on the side of moral ambiguity.
Is that bad? Not when the victims are themselves fatuous, nefarious, and—most importantly—fictitious. In real life, the victims of fraud are often decent and trusting individuals, and their losses are often substantial enough to damage the quality of their lives and the lives of their heirs. That is certainly the case among many victims of Tom Petters and his co-conspirators, one of whom, Michael Catain, is the subject of a feature story.
Catain ran the Enchanted Family Buying Company, which professed to acquire the closeout merchandise that Petters Company, Inc., told investors it was selling at a strong and predictable profit. Last fall, federal investigators determined that Enchanted was a shell company set up (in an Excelsior car wash) solely for the purpose of money laundering. Catain pleaded guilty in October, acknowledging that he received more than $3 million in “commissions” for his crime.
As writer Jack Gordon reports, Catain had at least one strong role model in his selection of a career. His father, Jack Catain, was a central figure in the biggest American stock-market scandal of the 1980s. The elder Catain, who was married to Paris Hilton’s maternal grandmother, was a loan shark who the Wall Street Journal labeled a mobster. It was from Jack Catain that the CEO of a company called ZZZZ Best borrowed funds at 5 percent per month while claiming that his company’s revenues were 20 times their actual size. Investor losses totaled $1 billion.
For a while, I wanted to title our story about the Catains “The First Time as Tragedy”—an allusion to a quotation from Karl Marx, who wrote: “Hegel informs us that all great events occur twice in history. He has forgotten to add, ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’” We picked a different title because the quote is obscure; Marx was wrong, as usual; and calling Michael Catain’s activities farcical seemed insulting to his victims.
There were undeniably comic aspects to the Petters Company crimes. In one newspaper, Tom Petters was reported to have speculated that “divine intervention” was protecting his associates from detection by authorities.
A more plausible explanation might lie in one of the few “true crime” books that I have read in recent years: Five Families, a history by New York Times reporter Selwyn Raab of the rise, decline, and recent resurgence of America’s mafia empires.
At the dawn of this century, Raab writes, America’s crime families had been decimated by a numbing barrage of indictments, and seemed at the edge of extinction. But after the September 11 attacks, the FBI and regional police forces became dedicated “to one paramount mission: guarding against terrorist attacks.” Hundreds of FBI agents were repositioned from fighting organized crime to fighting Al Qaeda. In New York, a contingent of 450 FBI agents and police investigators working against organized crime was reduced by two-thirds.
Is it surprising that in Minnesota, authorities were not able to watch every money launderer’s car wash?