Tim Heidingsfelder was a nondescript, mousy little feller who had no charm, but he found a way to channel those characteristics into some real money. His physical flaws eventually led to a fatal flaw to Tims’ plans, when he successfully attracted the attention of a young, attractive, and unusually charismatic woman.
Tim Heidingsfelder probably considered his unremarkable characteristics a curse for much of his life. He was not an ugly person, not even during puberty. He never had acne, freckles, or notable blemishes on his face, but there was something about his bone structure that just wasn’t strikingly attractive. He had no chin, no discernible cheekbones, and no attributes we would call remarkable. As he grew into a man, Tim probably found his dating opportunities somewhat limited. They weren’t non-existent, but the rejections he received in high school surely helped shape the man Tim Heidingsfelder would become.
When Tim Heidingsfelder decided to commit his first act of fraud, however, he found his unremarkable characteristics conducive to thwarting capture. As a fraudster who planned to live the high life and buy the most expensive items he could with other people’s money, he didn’t want people to notice him. He didn’t want people to remember or recall his features.
No one remembered Tim Heidingsfelder when he checked into our hotel, but the entire front desk staff was skilled in making guests feel welcome. We would welcome every guest with a hearty, “Hello!” when they check into their hotel. We learned how to strike up a casual, fun conversation with every guest who walked in, “Hey, you’re from Michigan? Go Blue!” Our fellow, front desk employees did whatever they had to do to make every guest feel welcome and special. Yet, if those Michiganders ran into that friendly employee, hours later, even the best hotel employees probably wouldn’t remember them. We were just so good at making our guests feel welcome that they were shocked when we didn’t remember them. The problem for a hotel employee working at a large hotel is that there are just so many faces we saw in a day and so many conversations we had that if a guest didn’t say or do anything remarkable, chances are we wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a police lineup. It’s the perfect climate for anyone seeking anonymity.
Tim Heidingsfelder wasn’t an outgoing type, but from what I heard, he wasn’t a quiet, loner either. (I only had one interaction with him, as I’ll detail below.) No one noticed Tim Heidingsfelder in the course of that day, and his daily routine allowed him to remain as anonymous as every other guest in our hotel. Throughout his elongated stay, however, Tim Heidingsfelder couldn’t help noticing how attractive the young women working behind the front desk were every time he passed.
It’s all about the money, is the first cardinal rule of fraudsters, and those who attempt to try to catch them. A fraudster needs to keep their crimes small and unremarkable, so they don’t hit the queues of investigatory agents. As most fraud investigators will tell us this might seem relatively easy, but it’s hard for a fraudster to fight greed. The second cardinal rule for fraudsters, based in part on the first one, is don’t bring unwanted attention to oneself. For Tim Heidingsfelder, and his unremarkable features, this was a relatively easy rule to manage. The man could slide in and out of just about any room unnoticed. Yet, when a late 40’s/early 50’s man stands face to face with an extremely attractive young woman, and that young woman looks through him, it can cause that man to do things he may not otherwise do.
The traveling businessman is the bread and butter of most hotels. Depending on the needs of their business, some businessmen can stay at a hotel 100 days a year. “First of all, you can forget the idea of having a family,” a traveling businessman informed me one day as we discussed the plusses and minuses of his profession. “Why?” he asked, repeating my question. “What kind of child would I raise being on the road an average of 100 to 150 days a year. What kind of marriage would I have? The life of a traveling businessman has its perks of course, but those of us who have done it for any length of time know it’s a lonely, sometimes grueling lifestyle.” I witnessed the effects this lifestyle could have on a person secondhand, and I saw them gather at the front desk to have conversations with front desk employees just to have some normal, non-business conversations in a day. I also noticed most of them centered their focus on the attractive women behind the front desk. It dawned on me, after the traveling businessman told me about the pratfalls of the profession that making an attractive young woman laugh could provide them a needed respite from their empty, relatively meaningless existence.
Tim Heidingsfelder was not a traveling businessman, but he was apparently as lonely as they were, and this otherwise unmemorable man needed to try to make one of these young women behind the front desk laugh. Based solely on his appearance, we later guessed that Tim Heidingsfelder probably had few opportunities in life to do so.
When he stopped by the front desk for whatever reason he dreamed up, Tim didn’t just stop to say hello, he didn’t just pick up a fax, or engage in the various business-related conversations that occur between hotel employees and guests. Tim Heidingsfelder stopped to chat. He stopped to shoot the stuff with some of these attractive, young women. He stopped to get to know them, so they could know him.
The best looking young employee at the front desk also happened to be the friendliest. Cheri Lee was so attractive and so skilled at engaging in short, friendly conversations with guests that she quickly became a favorite among the hotel’s businessmen and long-term guests. It took some of us naively stepping into these conversations —to do our job and add to the guest’s enjoyment– to realize they weren’t stopping by to chat … with us. They only wanted to chat with Cheri Lee, to impress her, and hopefully, one day, make her laugh. After a few of these chats, Tim Heidingsfelder asked the other front desk employees where Cheri was one day. When they told him that she had the day off, he was visibly disappointed.
As with most of the lonely, nondescript, and homely looking traveling businessmen who stayed at our hotel, Tim Heidingsfelder’s sole focus in life became Cheri Lee. According to the law enforcement officials on the scene, he spun a decade long, elaborate web of fraud and deceit. They couldn’t elaborate on the details, of course, but the little tendril he dropped to impress Cheri Lee proved a fatal flaw to his scheme.
He probably didn’t fully appreciate the fact that the hotel paid Cheri Lee, and everyone else on their staff, to laugh at guests’ jokes. Some of the guests we talked to on a daily basis were genuinely funny. Some of the times, we laughed politely to fill the void after their punchlines, and some of the times, we laughed because it was good customer service to let guests think they were funny. Cheri had a gift for making all of her laughs sound the same. Tim Heidingsfelder enjoyed this so much that he pursued their professional relationship to its fullest extent. We don’t know if he had romantic plans with her, but after a couple of conversations with Cheri, he did everything he could, every day, to leave an impression on her.
“I’m a writer for The Simpsons,” Tim told her one day. “The Simpsons creators sent me to your city to scout it as a probable location for a future episode.” Was this lie something he dreamed up before he made the hotel reservation? Did he scheme it out beforehand with an algorithm of answers should anyone question him, or did he develop it for the sole purpose of impressing Cheri? How many lies did he think up before he landed on this one? Did he nix some, because they weren’t impressive enough? Did he nix others, because they were too grandiose and subject to fact-checking. We don’t know, but we think he locked in on The Simpsons’, Goldilocks lie, because it didn’t violate the cardinal rule of bringing too much attention to himself. He dropped the line matter-of-factly, and he didn’t elaborate too much. Yet, this seemingly harmless lie would eventually prove to be a depth charge that once detonated would expose all of his plans.
Cheri Lee was undeniably attractive and charming, but if Tim was better looking, richer, more successful, or more charming he may not have tried so hard with Cheri Lee. A man who looks like Tim just doesn’t make people who look like Cheri laugh very often, and when they do they want to do it more often. A man like Tim doesn’t know what it’s like to impress women who look like Cheri, and when they do it’s intoxicating, and it becomes the sole focus of their life.
When Tim dropped that line on Cheri, he accomplished his shortsighted goal of impressing Cheri. When I arrived at work the next day, Cheri was all a twitter about it. “Did you know we have a celebrity in the hotel today?” she said artfully spooling out the scoop she had. “I know you’re a fan of The Simpsons, and I know you’re a writer,” she told me. “Well, we just happen to have a guest who is both a writer and a writer for that show.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“His name is Tim Heidingsfelder,” Cheri Lee said. She told me that he was at the hotel on an elongated stay to scout our city as a probable location for a future episode.
“You’re kidding me?” I said. “That is so cool.” I thought about how cool it might be to meet him. I thought about how cool it would be to see our city depicted in animation, and I thought about how cool it would be to talk to a paid writer to learn from his path to success.
When I finally met Tim Heidingsfelder days later, he didn’t look like a writer, but what does a writer look like? Do they all look like James Joyce, professorial and bespectacled with patches on their elbows? Tim Heidingsfelder didn’t look that way, but either did Ernest Hemingway. I was not the least bit suspicious in other words. I talked with Tim Heidingsfelder with a co-worker standing over my shoulder listening. He unsuccessfully hid his laughter while two writer nerds talked craft.
“This is just so cool meeting you,” I said, “and I love what you, and the Simpsons’ higher-ups, plan on doing for our fair city.” The man was cordial and apparently as impressed with me as I was with him. Throughout our introductory conversation, I told him that I was a writer and a huge fan of The Simpsons. “As a writer, I always pay attention to the credits that list the writers of the show,” I said proudly, “and I don’t remember ever seeing your name.
“Well,” Tim said. “You probably pay attention to the opening credits. Right? Yeah, I’m what you call an uncredited writer. I have yet to have one of my episodes aired,” he said with some chagrin.
“Shows, like The Simpsons,” he furthered, “have a number of staff writers, and most of us have never had one of our episodes picked up.” That was a great answer, because I read and watched a number of “behind the scenes” and “the making of …” stories about my favorite TV shows. I knew about writers’ rooms and head writers, and it wasn’t much of a leap for me to believe that most writers on staff don’t receive accreditation. I figured that if I really wanted to find his name, I could look at the long list of names that appear at the end of the show. I never did. I was never that interested or suspicious.
While Tim and I talked about the craft of writing, I could tell he wasn’t as into our conversation as I was. I figured that was the natural order of things. I figured he was one of the lucky few who someone paid to write, and I wasn’t. I also figured that by the time I met him, he had been a paid writer for so long that it was no longer special to him. Tim Heidingsfelder gave me no reason, at this point in our conversation, to suspect that he was anything less, or anything more than a writer for The Simpsons.
At one point in our conversation, I feared that I was playing the role of the fan, an annoying, uninformed and pathetic fan. I thought my end of the conversation was mundane, in other words, and I searched for a way to impress this man. I wanted a knockout blow. I wanted some little nugget of information that would prove I wasn’t just a fan. I don’t know what I hoped to see this man do, raise an eyebrow, smile an appreciative smile, or what, but I didn’t think my question would gain me anything. I just wanted to make an impression.
I searched for that knockout blow while asking him other, insignificant questions, such as what he thought was the best joke he submitted, and he said, “Oh, there have been so many. It’s hard to pick one.” I asked him what it was like to be in a writing room, and I thought of a couple other nerdy, fanboy questions, but I couldn’t come up with that one big question that would blow him away. After a few more exchanges, it hit me.
What I didn’t know in the moment I spent waiting for him to stop talking was that the question I had would eventually reveal Tim Heidingsfelder’s harmless lie for what it was. The moment after it dawned on me, I couldn’t wait to ask it, as Tim continued to answer my previous question in a congenial manner. The moment he finished, I launched into what I considered a knockout question that I thought might lead to one of those curious/impressed smiles that allowed him to launch into a discussion of his memories of the years he spent writing next to Conan O’Brien.
“Do you know Conan O’Brien?” I asked him. “Do you know him personally, or have you worked with him in any capacity?”
I don’t remember what he said, or if he decided to leave it blank, but I remember he began backing away to the elevator. That should’ve raised a red flag, but it didn’t. I didn’t think there was anything suspicious about that at the time. He was a guest at our hotel, and he had to take the elevator to get to his room. I thought he was signaling that his interest in our conversation was beginning to wane, or he had to get back to his room for a phone call or what have you. This happened on a daily basis at our hotel. With the benefit of hindsight, I now remember how uncomfortable that question made him. I remember his face turning three sheets of red in the aftermath of that question, but it meant little-to-nothing to me at the time.
My co-worker, who had been listening to this conversation throughout, noted the uncomfortable silence between Tim and I following that question and he capitalized on the moment to embarrass me.
“Conan O’Brien? He’s a talk show host, on an entirely different network,” my co-worker said. “What do you think all Hollywood people know each other?” He began laughing at me. He thoroughly enjoyed the moment. Tim Heidingsfelder joined in on that laughter, in a good-natured way.
“No,” I said looking Tim in the eye, seeking to have him join me in informing my irritant friend of Conan’s early days. “Not many people know this, but Conan used to be a writer for The Simpsons.” This might be common knowledge now, but in the nascent days of Conan’s talk show, it was knowledge only fans of both parties had.
Unbeknownst to either of us, this innocent question spelled out a cautionary tale for all fraudsters and potential fraudsters. A fraudster might think they’ve worked hard to prepare themselves for every scenario. They might think they’ve built a mental algorithm to prepare for any scenarios that might come their way. They might even sit down and write out an algorithm out to prepare for anything and everything that might expose them. As even the most gifted fraudsters will probably tell anyone who’s interested, a fraudster cannot prepare for every situation. “You just have to learn to roll with the punches, but if there’s one thing you take from our discussion today let it be this, don’t create your own situations to unwind. Don’t create your own spider webs.”
Tim Heidingsfelder could’ve said something as simple as, “No, Conan O’Brien and I never worked together,” or “No, we never crossed paths.” He could’ve said something simple as, “I don’t know what years he worked on the show, but I never had the opportunity to work with him.” It wouldn’t have taken much to throw me off a trail I wasn’t on in other words. I thought I was in the vulnerable position, trying to impress a man I never met before. If he characterized my question as one coming from a nerdy, fan boy, I would’ve slinked off with my tail between my legs, but he didn’t know enough about The Simpsons, or his lie, to throw me off a trail I wasn’t on. Knowing everything I know now, this would’ve been a perfect place for The Simpson’s character Nelson Muntz to say, “Haw Haw!” as Tim Heidingsfelder all but sprinted to the elevators.
Most fraudsters are smooth talkers, and we think that a late 40’s/early 50’s fraudster should know when to push and when to pull out of a conversation. We think that every fraudster, but particularly a seasoned fraudster, should know how important it is to say something, some of the times. Some of the times, we have to fill the blank before others do. Some of the times, it’s just as important to leave the blank alone, to allow the other party, or parties, to fill in the blank for them, as my co-worker did when he attempted to portray me as a Simpson’s nerd who knew more about the show than the actual writer.
Fraudsters learn how to fool people at a very young age. Deceiving the people who know and loved them most is excellent training. Salesmen learn such things in training classes. Trainers tell trainees to try to sell the product to their intimate friends and family first. “Not only are they great potential customers,” trainers say, “but the interaction allows you to work on your sales pitch.” Fraudsters follow the same methodology, as they try to see if they can fool their good friends, their aunt Gladys, or their own mother first. Doing this, is a way to practice the art of deception to see if they have any talent for it.
As a former liar, I often wonder what separates those who lied, stole and deceived in their preteen years and those who continue to do so well into their adult years. Lying, stealing, and deceiving those who loved me most almost felt like a rite of passage in my early teen years, but I hated it when they caught me in an act of deception. The embarrassment and shame that followed proved almost physically painful to me. No one trusted me. They called me a liar and a thief, and the only way I found to avoid that was to stop lying and stealing. It sounds so simple, and it is, but some people enjoy deceiving people so much that they keep doing it. Perhaps I’m approaching this from an autobiographical stance, but I believe that caring provides a dividing line between those who lie, cheat, and steal in their youth and those who will make a career out of it. Do you care what your friends, your mother, or your aunt Gladys think of you? How much do you care? Lying, cheating, and stealing will test what they think of you, and how you react to their findings will define you.
Lying, cheating, and stealing are almost a rite of passage. Most kids do it just to do it. They want to fabricate to boost their self-esteem, they want to cheat to win, and they want to steal so they can have more items or money. They also want to test those around them to see if they’re good at it, or if they can get away with it. We’re awful at it, in the beginning, but we learn, from trial and error, the various nuances required to pull them off. We learn from getting caught, and what we do after that defines us. Fraudsters don’t want anyone to catch them, of course, and they don’t want to go through the embarrassment and shame of their acts, but if they don’t find a way to deal with the shame, in their youth, it will impede their progress. “I only steal from the rich,” thieves say in the movies to rectify their immorality. This keeps the audience on their side throughout their depravity, because the rich are a disembodied boogey man that we’ve been conditioned to hate. Is that the excuse fraudsters use to defeat the guilt and shame of stealing money from others, ruining their lives financially, and depriving them of the greater joys of life. How much did you steal, and what happened to the victim in the aftermath of your crime? How many of your victims were so loaded that they were largely unaffected by your crime? Most fraudsters not only wouldn’t know the answers to those questions, they wouldn’t ask them. They prefer that we join them in their disembodied characterization.
If the fraudster doesn’t use the movie characterization to disembody their victims, they need something, some sort of mechanism that permits them to avoid caring about what their initial victims, their loved ones, think of them, and once they clear that hurdle, they will feel free to lie to and steal from total strangers. The proficient fraudster will combine that lack of concern with some effort put into covering their trail. No matter how prepared the fraudster is, no matter how smooth they are at fooling their mother, their aunts, and all the men in their life, a situation for which they are unprepared will find them.
Those who discover they have some talent for deception, but find that can’t go on knowing what others might think of them, use whatever talent they have in ways that are more productive. They might use that knowledge or talent to catch other fraudsters and liars for law enforcement, or they might go to work for a fraud department in a fortune 500 company. They might even become magicians, actors, or writers. These three crafts call for a mutually agreed upon level of deception and lying. Some unusually good liars never search for a productive way to deceive people, but they still have a need, a compulsion to feed the need for the thrill of it all, and anyone who has successfully lied, cheated, and stolen from another knows that thrill. They probably went through everything we did with the guilt and the shame, when they weren’t very good at it, but like a great wine, or a great bottle of scotch, they got better at it through will and desire.
The man who called himself Tim Heidingsfelder engaged in larger acts of fraud, and in doing so, he probably had prepared answers for larger questions, but he didn’t do his homework on the meaningless lie he told a young, naive front desk employee. Who would? We could say that what a fraudster does in that moment for which they are unprepared defines them, but who would think that a simple lie about writing for The Simpsons to impress a young, naive woman might start unraveling a complicated yarn of deception they worked years to build?
The only thing I knew in the aftermath of my interaction with Tim Heidingsfelder was that the man was not sufficiently impressed with my knowledge of The Simpsons that day in the foyer of the hotel. I didn’t think about it too much, until I began seeing him in the foyer of the hotel. I had numerous opportunities to correct the record, but this man ducked me, constantly. I didn’t think he heard me a couple times, and I didn’t think he saw me a couple others. Over time, a troubling pattern began to emerge, until I found his evasion somewhat noteworthy.
“Why does he always do that?” I asked Brian, the front desk manager at the hotel. Just prior to that question, Brian was speaking with Tim Heidingsfelder. The moment Tim spotted me coming to the front desk he moved the elevators.
“Because you’re a nerdy fanboy, and no one wants to talk to nerdy fanboys,” Brian said. It was a great answer, as Brian unknowingly tapped into my vulnerability on the manner, and he put the onus back on me.
“Ok, but I thought he and I had a great conversation a while back,” I said. “I was beyond polite to the man, and I think he should enjoy talking about how jealous I am of him, but every time I walk into the room, he runs away.”
“Well I know you pretty well,” Brian asked, “and if I saw you coming, I’d walk away too.”
“I’m serious here,” I said.
“You think it’s suspicious?”
“It’s odd,” I said. “That’s all I’m saying. It’s odd.”
“Does everyone have to love you?” Brian said. “Maybe he just doesn’t enjoy talking to you.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “but you know me, I’m not the type who has to be involved in every conversation. As you said, I’m kind of a quiet guy, and when I walked up to this desk tonight, I had no plans of saying anything. I was just going to stand here and let you two talk. If I was rude, or an overbearing person, perhaps I could see it, but this guy jets like I have a communicable disease any time I enter the room?”
Brian did not begin investigating Tim Heidingsfelder that night, but Brian did not view the man with the least bit of suspicion before our conversation, and soon thereafter, he began spotting some unsual dots that he thought might lead to come connections. I might have initiated the suspicion, in other words, but Brian did all of the investigative work. He dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s to find Tim Heidingsfelder’s alleged criminal activity. Brian examined the credit card history on Tim Heidingsfelder’s account history, and he found that Tim Heidingsfelder switched credit cards a number of times. That, in and of itself, was no reason to call in the cavalry. Guests, particularly business travelers, regularly put a number of business cards on their account. At times, and for a variety of reasons, those cards max out. This is particularly the case with extended stays such as Tim Heidingsfelder’s. The company furnishes their business travelers with a number of cards, and some of the times businessmen puts their personal cards on the account and the company reimburses him. Long story short, a guest switching cards in the middle of a stay is no reason to investigate on their account. When Brian analyzed Tim Heidingsfelder’s account, however, he found that an inordinate number of the previous credit cards placed on his account that were declared stolen, but he probably wouldn’t have investigated Tim Heidingsfelder’s account if Tim didn’t initiate the chain of events that led to his downfall by trying to impress an attractive, young woman.
When I saw Tim Heidingsfelder sitting in the manager’s office, I knew he wasn’t there to discuss his stay at the hotel. His face was three sheets of red again. Brian caught him. Seeing those three sheets of red, I recalled the look Tim gave me after my Conan O’Brien question.
The local police soon followed and frog marched Tim away in handcuffs, and I sensed the script flip from a Simpson’s episode to one of Scooby Doo as I watched the police walk him off in handcuffs. I waited for a “And I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you, the meddling fanboy” exit, but it never arrived.
The police later informed us that Tim Heidingsfelder was a pseudonym he used, and they managed to locate his real name. They informed us that two other states wanted him on credit card fraud.
If he could’ve avoided the fatal flaws in the design of the human being, the need for attention, and the need to impress our fellow humans, particularly the cheerleaders and football players of life, Tim Heidingsfelder probably could’ve engaged in fraudulent activity for years. He could still be doing it, but for his need to have someone notice him and take note of him. The line on Tim Heidingsfelder is that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting victims, but that could’ve been nothing more than a good start for the man. He could’ve increased that total exponentially. He could’ve destroyed people, and left true carnage in his wake, if he could’ve just managed to control his need for human contact a little better.