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To Catch a Thief

On the trail of the embezzling business manager at In These Times

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By Tori Marlan

To Catch a Thief

On the trail of the embezzling business manager at In These Times.

When Paul Obis took over as publisher of In These Times last year, the 21-year-old lefty publication seemed in serious trouble. Circulation had been steadily declining since the late 80s. Revenues had dropped by half. Bills hadn't been paid in months. The phone and electric companies were threatening to cut off service in three days. Employees were three weeks behind in pay. To some extent, all this was par for the course. In These Times was always "scrounging for money," according to its founder and editor, James Weinstein. But the cash-flow problems weren't entirely of its own making. For the past two years the beleaguered publication's business manager had been pocketing about 8 percent of its income.

One might wonder what Robert Larson, the business manager, was doing at In These Times in the first place. Why would a lawyer, certified public accountant, and MBA with Republican leanings take a $21,000 job at a liberal political magazine? "Ironically, money is not important to me," says Larson, who now admits to embezzling over $100,000 from the publication. Nor, he says, are politics. "I'm not a political ideologue."

Larson says he took the job because he wanted to work for a small company and have a flexible schedule with short hours. Weinstein allowed him to work half-days, take Wednesdays off, and use his office to build a private practice in law and accounting.

Shortly after arriving at the publication in March of 1992, Larson developed a reputation as someone who had difficulty dealing with the women on staff and--perhaps even worse--as a Reagan Republican. Larson does admit to voting Republican at times--and to having voted for Reagan in college--but he says he's actually a registered Democrat who strongly believes in social programming.

It's not surprising that no one knew this. Larson never talked much about politics at work--or about anything else, for that matter. He kept to himself, declining to join the staff on daily lunch outings and withholding even the most basic information about his life. "He was a quirky kind of a strange guy," says Weinstein. "He was awkward and secretive. He wouldn't even tell us his sisters' names or tell us his birthday."

Since alternative publications tend to attract eccentrics--In These Times had had plenty over the years--Weinstein thought Larson's strangeness was, well, nothing that strange. Larson seemed to be getting the job done. He developed the first real budget the magazine ever had and kept track of incoming and outgoing funds.

For the first three years, Larson didn't steal a cent. Which isn't to say he didn't think about it. "It's always a temptation when you can write checks and you can sign them," Larson admits. But he managed to keep the temptation at bay until August 1995, when he got wrapped up in the idea of putting out a publication of his own--one "centered on radio programming," sort of a TV Guide for listeners. He planned to call it "RadioActive Chicago." He needed start-up money. On August 24, 1995, he began to take it. According to Obis, Larson wrote himself two checks, one for $500 and one for $3,700. And then he wrote another check. And another. Typically, says Obis, he stole between $1,000 and $2,000 a week.

"It was never a casual thing," Larson says. "It was a nervous thing, an unnatural thing, a guilty thing." When he stole, he felt as if he'd downed "ten cups of coffee." There were a number of nerve-racking moments when he narrowly missed getting caught, like the time someone walked into his office as he was stuffing a check into his pocket. "Oh, man, the adrenaline was really flowing," he says. Despite the scares he kept stealing. "It got to be kind of easy to take it and then it got to the point it became necessary," he says. He had hired himself a staff of writers and artists to work on a prototype of "RadioActive Chicago." "I had a business," he explains, "and I had to pay the bills. It was hard to stop." When Weinstein asked how he could afford such an ambitious venture, Larson said he'd inherited money from his grandfather, who had recently died.

Weinstein thought Larson's concept was ill-conceived--"People just don't need a radio schedule"--but he understood why someone would be willing to pump big bucks into a few sheets of paper. In 1986, after his father died, he had spent "quite a bit" of his own inheritance on In These Times. Weinstein had founded the publication ten years before that to be a labor of love. He had funds to survive for only six months but he told himself, "If you're doing something worthwhile, the readers won't let you die." In his case, he was right. In These Times has persisted in large part because of subscriber donations over the years, though not without long periods of suffering and a few near-death experiences.

To some extent this is why Larson's misdeeds went undetected. Nobody thought it odd that In These Times had money problems, that checks bounced, that red utility notices arrived in the mail. Nobody who'd worked there long thought it odd that Larson asked the staff to take a 10 percent pay cut for the good of the publication--or that even after docking their salaries he occasionally pulled them aside on payday and said something like "We don't have any cash this week. But if you absolutely need some, I'll see what I can do."

To this day Weinstein says there was no reason to suspect Larson of stealing. But he noticed that Larson became preoccupied with "RadioActive Chicago" and began slacking off on the job. "I was not happy with what he was doing," says Weinstein, "and that's one reason we initiated a search for a publisher."

Paul Obis joined the staff as publisher in the summer of 1997. He knew the magazine biz inside and out. He had started Vegetarian Times in 1974 as a newsletter with three subscribers and turned it into a slick, successful magazine. Its circulation had reached 300,000 by the time he sold it in 1990. It didn't take Obis long to realize that Larson had to go. "He was unable to provide me with monthly operating statements," he says. "It was June and he had not yet filed 1996 taxes. He had an accounting system that nobody else in the office understood. Within two weeks I told Mr. Larson he should seek employment somewhere else."

Obis planned to manage the business affairs himself, but he needed Larson to get the bookkeeping in order. He says he offered Larson a "generous" deal: if Larson would produce current financial statements and file the taxes within two months, he would receive four weeks' severance pay, two weeks of earned but unused vacation time, and continued use of his office space--rent free--for an unspecified period.

"After we had that conversation," recalls Obis, "he turned around, left, and never came back."

Larson departed so abruptly that he left behind his computer, his briefcase, his Walkman, and evidence that would eventually expose his crime. "There was a pile of bills that went back five years," Obis says. "I couldn't tell which had been paid and which hadn't." In the course of sorting out the paperwork, Obis came across a letter from the state saying that In These Times owed several hundred dollars in taxes. But an entry in the magazine's check registry indicated that the taxes had been paid. Obis called the bank to see if the check had cleared. He learned that it had--and that it had been made out to Larson in the amount of $1,005.

Obis says "forensic accounting" then identified 150 instances of theft by Larson over a period of 24 months, for a total of $125,000.

Upon hearing the news, Weinstein was angry at Larson, of course, but he was also somewhat delighted at what this might augur for the publication: "I thought, 'Hey, we must be doing better than we thought we were.'"

Obis notified the police, the FBI, and the state's attorney's office and filed a civil suit against Larson to recover the money.

By this time Larson was long gone. Nobody could have imagined where he was. Larson fled, he says, because "I knew I was in big trouble. I knew at some time there would be a knock on the door for me with law enforcement agents on the other side. I was pretty sure I'd be incarcerated for this." So he decided to embark on "one last adventure" and "have my fill of open air." He says, "I pretty much knew that the timer was going."

The Appalachian trail winds from Maine to Georgia for 2,100 miles. About 1,700 people hike the trail each year. Larson started off in Maine in August of '97. He was equipped with 13 maps, a few trail guides, a tent, a sleeping bag, a one-burner stove, and some books. He hiked an average of eight miles a day and survived on Ramen noodles, oatmeal, and what he calls "slop," a 15-ingredient concoction that included beans, brown rice, and such spices as cumin, turmeric, and coriander. Like other hikers, Larson bought his food in small towns and sent it ahead to post offices along the trail to free himself of the burden of lugging it.

Sometimes he hiked all day without seeing another person, and when he eventually ran into someone, he says, the encounter was intense and rewarding.

He was in Tennessee in late February when he came across a number of "blowdowns"--fallen trees that obstruct the narrow trail. Rather than wait for someone to clear them away, Larson paid a guy with a VW van to take him to Hot Springs, North Carolina, where he met a woman whose trail name was Treasure. She accompanied Larson to the southernmost part of the trail, in Georgia, and there they began to hike north.

At this point Obis had been tracking Larson's whereabouts for about a month. Larson's W-2 form had been returned in the mail in January, with postmarks on the envelope indicating that it first had been forwarded to a couple of different post offices. Obis called the post office in Port Clinton, Pennsylvania, where it had been forwarded last. He spoke to the postmaster, Carolyn Hafer.

"Along the way, hikers stop at post offices near and on the trail and send their supplies back and forth," Hafer explains. "He [Larson] passed through here one day and picked up a package and left his forwarding address. But his mail was returned to me unclaimed, so I returned it to whoever sent it." After talking with Obis, she says, she decided to do some investigating on her own. "I was worried that nobody knew where he was," she says. "The hikers keep a log at a pavilion in town where they camp out, and a man in town--a saint--brought the log in to me. I compared the handwriting in the log with the change-of-address form he gave me." Sure enough, she found a match and told Obis that Larson was traveling under the trail name GypsyMan. For the next three months, Obis kept tabs on Larson by following a map of the Appalachian trail, calling shelters and campgrounds along it and asking if anyone had seen GypsyMan lately.

It wasn't clear which law enforcement agency had the authority to apprehend Larson, who moved from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and nobody made an effort to nab him on the trail. But the Chicago Police Department had issued a warrant for his arrest. In the meantime, detective Eugene Klich found out that Larson had been arrested for stealing traffic signs in 1977, as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (charges had been dropped), and he obtained a copy of the old arrest report. It contained the unlisted phone number for Larson's parents out in the western suburbs, and Klich called to inform them about the warrant. "They weren't sure if they could reach him," says Klich, "but they said they'd pass the information on to him if they could."

It was May and Larson was in Massachusetts when he called his parents and learned that the jig was up. He called Klich and asked for a week to finish hiking the trail. He returned to Chicago the first week in June and surrendered. After Klich read him his rights, Larson says, he "sang like a bird."

"He seemed sorry he did it," recalls Klich.

"It was a despicable thing to do," Larson admits. "I don't know why I did it and why I didn't stop. I think my magazine--I had such big hopes for it."

Larson can see the bright side. "I don't think I'll ever forget this big screwup and how it's going to change my life. But change is good sometimes. There are ways for me to turn this into a positive experience." He remembers the kindness of strangers. "People were so nice on the trail," he says. "I'd like to be a nicer person."

He says he learned how to be content with a simple life, how "to live on less and be satisfied."

It's a lesson that should serve him well, since on August 19, after he pleaded guilty to theft by deception, a criminal court judge ordered him to pay back $118,508 to In These Times. He also was sentenced to three years' probation. Though he says he was ready to do time, he was "relieved and surprised" at the leniency he received.

"Everyone's relieved we got a judgment against him," Obis says. "People here feel really betrayed. He looked his coworkers in the face, told them they had to take pay cuts, and then stole their money."

Obis continues to pursue the civil suit. He alleges that Larson actually stole $125,000 and believes that In These Times should be able to recover his wages for the two years he was stealing. "It seems self-evident to me," says Obis, "that if a person whose job is to be financially responsible is stealing money then he's not doing his job." Obis points to other damages resulting from Larson's theft. "Larson stole so much money from us that he bounced a lot of checks and caused the company to incur lots of bank expenses for not having sufficient funds."

Larson says he sank everything he stole into the failed "RadioActive Chicago" but that he plans to "definitely pay it back." That might take a while. For the time being, he's out of a career. He assumes he'll lose his law license. "And accounting is a matter of trust," he says. "People would be pretty leery of me."

Larson now works in a restaurant, hopes to become a chef, and lives a pared-down life in a Near North transient hotel, putting to use the lessons he learned on the Appalachian trail. Was his crime an unconscious sabotage of his professional career, a way to force himself to step back and focus on what's important in life? "I hesitate to psychoanalyze it," he says, though he claims to have looked at the lawyers on both sides of the civil suit and asked himself, "Are they doing something productive? Is that something I'd want to do?"

As for In These Times, Obis says it's doing better than it has in a decade. "Everybody has received their back wages, there's been a salary increase of between 25 and 30 percent, we paid off the debt we owed, we're not in danger of the electric service being disrupted, and we have several talented new people on staff." Obis says new checks and balances should prevent any future thefts from going undetected. And morale is up.

Larson too must be pleased that the publication is doing well. He has nothing but kind words for In These Times and the people he ripped off. "It's a terrific place," he says. "A one-of-a-kind place. There are good people there--very interesting people. Jim Weinstein is one of the best people you'd ever meet."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert Larson uncredited photo/ Paul Obis, James Weinstein photo by Paul L. Merideth.

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