Joe Chatlain displays his Vigiliance Award as well as his new book, The Illusive Highwayman, recounting his efforts to catch a con artist. Photo by Mike Chouinard

Book tells tale of how B.C. office fax led to U.S. con man

Island man spent a few years tracking down victims listed on faxes

Some 20 years ago, while working as operations manager at the Lafarge office in B.C., Joe Chatlain started to piece together faxes coming in from the western U.S.

The messages had nothing to do with the business in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. They weren’t even for Lafarge but rather a man with no connection to the company, and they helped Chatlain catch a con artist.

Now, he’s captured his incredible story down on the page, publishing a book, The Illusive Highwayman, which recounts the case that he helped crack.

Jozsef Rezsofi, occasionally using an alias or two, spent the better part of 30 years as a grifter and a drifter who conned countless people in seven western U.S. states.

“He was a very intelligent person,” says Chatlain, who now lives in the Nanaimo area.

For years, Rezsofi would wander the highways and look for help, saying he’d been mugged and his identification had been stolen. People would give him money, typically small amounts like $50 – maybe a few hundred – or they’d pay for meals or hotels or buses, or take him in overnight. He said he had a business in Prince Rupert and a home in Sidney. He’d leave the same number for these Good Samaritans to get in touch later, once he was back safe and sound in Canada, or so they’d been led to believe.

That number turned out to be that of the local Lafarge office, and Chatlain started collecting the faxes coming in. Often, they’d be wishing Rezsofi well, hoping he got back safely.

“Nobody but me knew that this was actually a fraud and a scam,” Chatlain says.

Rezsofi could spin a good story. He’d actually been in Canada, including B.C., after fleeing Hungary in 1957 following the revolution in the Soviet-run state. However, he was to be deported because of auto theft and skipped over the border to the U.S. There, he got married, had kids, got divorced, then started his life on the run probably in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

On the faxes, some people checked about getting their money back. One was a woman whose husband had cancer and was in bad need of funds, which was when Chatlain got serious about tracking down Rezsofi.

“That’s what sparked me at that point in time,” he says.

For a few years, he’d spent hours each week, going over correspondence, talking to victims, marking points on a map of the U.S. to estimate Rezsofi’s whereabouts based on where the faxes had been sent from and when they’d been sent.

Finally, in the spring of 2000, one of Rezsofi’s victims named Terry Churchill and local law enforcement in Montana managed to track the con-man using information provided by Chatlain. The con artist was arrested after a chase between Great Falls and Missoula, Mont. He did time behind bars in the U.S. and after his trial, for which Chatlain was subpoenaed as a witness, he was deported to Hungary. As a result, both Chatlain and Churchill received Vigilance Awards from Department of Justice officials in Montana.

Court records indicated Rezsofi had swindled a total of almost $5,000, but the authorities figured this was only a fraction. They don’t know how many people he bilked, Chatlain says, but they guess he could’ve brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars, all tax free. The faxes sent to Chatlain’s office only covered a small portion.

“There would be hundreds more that wouldn’t have contacted me,” he says.

By conning people out of relatively small amounts, Rezsofi almost had the perfect crime, one for which many victims wouldn’t even bother coming forward.

“The reason he was never caught is because he did small amounts,” Chatlain says.

Rezsofi’s one mistake though was that fax machine in Courtenay. It not only helped Chatlain track him down, but it provided enough evidence of the scale of Rezsofi’s crimes for prosecutors to make a case.

For a couple of years there, Chatlain says his fax machine was the talk of the town in coffee shops around Courtenay. Chatlain spent a year after trying to sort out more information and decided to start working on a story. He wrote out a draft by hand and had an editor develop it.

“I decided I should write a book,” he says.

The project fell by the wayside for years, but he recently decided to revive it and get it to print.

“I’m getting to be the age I need to do something with that,” he says.

Now he’s published it in book form, which he has made available on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com, and also as an e-book, a republished version of which should be ready by November.

READ MORE: BC Hydro telephone scam making the rounds

He’s also hoping to hold some book events and would like to see the story take on another life, perhaps as some kind of TV series or movie. He’s even hoping to draw some attention in the U.S., and maybe even get the word out to others there that had fallen prey to Rezsofi’s charms.

Through it all, Chatlain was motivated by a sense of doing right for the victims, all of whom opened their hearts and wallets to help out a man they believed to be in distress. Many thought Rezsofi would never be caught.

“I’d been told and told and told he’d never be captured,” Chatlain says.

Some even refused to believe this was all the work of a real person, but Chatlain held out hope all his work would pay off.

“I believed in what I was doing, and I just wouldn’t give up,” he says. “I knew he’d be caught.”



mike.chouinard@comoxvalleyrecord.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Lord Tweedsmuir cruises to big playoff win

Panthers down the W.J. Mouat Hawks 57-7, advance to quarterfinal game

White Rock to ‘embark on a new direction’ for city’s management

Dan Bottrill has been the city’s chief administrative officer since 2012

‘Slight’ arsenic increase noted in White Rock water: city

Challenges in plant commissioning cited, testing underway

Coastal FC Walking Soccer program takes first steps

South Surrey recreation program held weekly at BMO Coastal Soccer Centre

Thousands attend Remembrance Day ceremony in Cloverdale

Veterans, politicians, Surrey residents lay wreaths at cenotaph

‘We love you, Alex!’: Trebek gets choked up by ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant’s answer

The emotional moment came in Monday’s episode when Trebek read Dhruv Gaur’s final answer

Birthday boy: Pettersson nets 2 as Canucks beat Predators

Vancouver ends four-game winless skid with 5-3 victory over Nashville

Judge rejects Terrace man’s claim that someone else downloaded child porn on his phone

Marcus John Paquette argued that other people had used his phone, including his ex-wife

Petition for free hospital parking presented to MP Jody Wilson-Raybould

What started as a B.C. campaign became a national issue, organizer said

Bargaining to resume in Metro Vancouver transit strike as bus driver overtime ban looms

Both sides might be headed back to the table to prevent new overtime ban

Petition to ‘bring back Don Cherry’ goes viral after immigrant poppy rant

Cherry was fired from his co-hosting role for the Coach’s Corner segment on Nov. 11.

B.C.’s high gasoline prices still a mystery, Premier John Horgan says

NDP plans legislation this month, seeks action from Justin Trudeau

Group walking on thin ice at B.C. lake sparks warning from RCMP

At least seven people were spotted on Joffre Lakes, although the ice is not thick enough to be walked on

VIDEO: Don Cherry says he was fired, not sorry for ‘Coach’s Corner’ poppy rant

Cherry denies he was singling out visible minorities with his comments

Most Read