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

Open house seeks public input on proposed lease for piece of Victoria High property

Open house takes place at Vic High on Nov. 12 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Son of Second World War veteran returns to Norway to see site of rescue, repatriation

Six-man crew crash lands in Nazi occupied territory, only known instance of entire crew surviving

Colwood house helps homeless veterans get back on their feet

Cockrell House has helped more than 100 people since it was established in 2009

Colwood veteran recalls harrowing experience during Second World War

The 95 year old one of 32 survivors after German sub sinks warship

Legions help keep the memories alive

Legions offer many services for the community

VIDEO: Pups in the pool: West Shore rec centre’s Dog Swim a success

West Shore Parks and Recreation goes to the dogs Sunday night

Greater Victoria 2019 holiday craft fair roundup

Get a jump on your holiday shopping

Sportsnet fires Don Cherry after negative comments about immigrants

Don Cherry had said immigrants don’t wear poppies like other Canadians do

Trudeau’s new cabinet: Gender parity because it’s 2019? Or due to competence?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will soon appoint his new cabinet

Canada among three G20 countries least likely to hit emissions targets

It says Canada, South Korea and Australia are the farthest off

Conservatives’ Scheer wants Trudeau to open Parliament Nov. 25

That’s five days after Justin Trudeau is scheduled to swear in a new cabinet

Last remaining Centurion tank from the Korean War makes its journey ‘home’ to B.C.

Tank arrives in B.C. the day before Remembrance Day after a more than 4,500-kilometre transfer

Canadians mark Remembrance Day this morning

This year exactly 101 years to the day after the end of the First World War

Devils strike early, hang on for 2-1 win over Canucks

Vancouver now 0-8-3 in last 11 games versus New Jersey

Most Read