Real Name: Barbara Helga King
Aliases: Marie Louise von Costel, The Countess
Wanted For: Fraud
Missing Since: April 19, 1991
Details: The Countess Marie Louise von Costel was born in 1947 in post-war Germany. She told people that she had inherited $45 million from her parents; few doubted her story. She lived the good life; she wore expensive designer fashions, priceless jewels, and flaunted her wealth around the rich and powerful. In March of 1990, the Countess came to Cleveland, Ohio. She quickly became well-known throughout the city. Within a few months, she had raised $1 million from investors to back her in a business venture. What no one knew was that the "Countess" was a con artist.
Before arriving in Cleveland, the Countess began to concoct an elaborate scam. She started by purchasing a popular waterfront restaurant called Shooters. She agreed to pay several million dollars for the restaurant. The first $600,000 was due in thirty days. The remainder was due in sixty days. She even offered to pay in cash using funds wired from Germany. In the interim, she took over day-to-day operations at Shooters. She convinced an old friend, Oleta Celin, to help run the restaurant and buy a 5% interest in it. Although this was her entire life savings, Oleta trusted her friend.
The Countess seemed to have a genuine interest in running the restaurant. She had top attorneys and accounting firms working for her. Oleta felt that the Countess wanted people to believe that she always had money "to burn". She purchased all of her clothes at the most expensive stores; she tipped excessively; and she even had a cellular phone (rare in 1990). She made several calls to "Germany". Her friends and associates had no reason to doubt her legitimacy.
Shooters became the Countess's exclusive domain and business was booming. Although none of the promised money had arrived from Europe, the owners were not concerned. She had raised nearly $1 million in working capital by convincing thirty investors to become limited partners. The first small hint of suspicion surfaced when the Countess had to have her fingerprints taken in order to obtain a liquor license. Oleta recalled that she was nervous about having it done, but she did not understand why.
A few days later on March 23, the Countess told Oleta that to retain her share of the business, she had to come up with an additional $60,000. Oleta was unable to come up with that much, but claimed that she could at least give her $20,000. The Countess agreed to give her $40,000 which would allow Oleta to keep her 5% share of the business. She told Oleta that their money would soon be coming out of an escrow account. She assumed that the money was always there.
On the day the money was due, the Countess called a special meeting with the restaurant's owner, Roger Loecy. However, she refused to speak with him directly. Her representative told him that they did not have the money to purchase the restaurant. Roger decided to end the deal at that point. The Countess told Oleta that the owners had altered the original agreement, leaving her no alternative but to walk away. She claimed that she would do everything she could to have their money released.
By the fall, it became clear to Oleta that the money was not coming. She made several inquires and learned that there had never been any money in the first place. She went to the police and discovered that other investors had filed complaints against the Countess. By the time the authorities had enough evidence to issue a warrant, the Countess had vanished. $1 million had been lost.
Investigators searched through her past and found that almost everything she told people was a lie. The only true thing she said was that she was born in Germany. Along with not being a real countess, it was discovered that her name was actually Barbara Helga King. King is a well known con-artist with an extensive record dating back to 1966. She has been arrested and convicted on at least two occasions for perpetrating similar scams. She has used at least eighteen different aliases and eight different social security numbers. She has conned people in Memphis, New Orleans, and Virginia.
King was last sighted at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City on April 19, 1991. An employee at the hotel recognized her as the "Countess of Cleveland" and called the FBI. However, she fled before agents arrived.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the May 1, 1991 episode; the update aired on the January 12, 1994 episode.
Results: Captured. Following a re-run of the broadcast, several viewers called the tele-center and said that King was living in the Los Angeles area. On October 2, 1993, FBI agents staked out a house in an upscale neighborhood in Pomona, California. At 1:30PM, the agents noticed the house's garage door opening and a man and two women exiting. The agents identified one of the women as King. She and her companions sped off in a van. FBI agents followed them. A two-and-a-half mile chase ended at an intersection when the van collided with an FBI agent's car. No one was hurt in the collision. The agents successfully stopped the van from fleeing and took King into custody.
Following King's arrest, she was extradited to Cleveland, Ohio, to face charges of aggravated grand theft. She faced up to a twenty-year sentence. However, it is not known what sentence she received.