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Sale Of The Century
  • May 13, 2013 : 15:05
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In a daze, the Browns went to the house they'd sold Cox, and what they found was chilling. It looked like a model home that had been staged, since of course Cox didn't actually live there as he'd claimed. There was some spare furniture. Upstairs, they found a bed made with a comforter and pillows, but when they pulled back the blanket there were no sheets underneath. The bathroom contained clothes and toiletries, as if a woman lived there, but the Browns noticed the clothes still had price tags on them.

By early 2005 Cox's relationship with Hauck had become volatile, and one morning after an argument he walked out for good—just as she was threatening to call the cops on him. The investigators were already close on Cox's trail, however. To help legitimize his fake identities, he also created fake voice-mail systems for his fake employers—just in case anyone checked his references. But now when he dialed the voice mail, Cox heard a message from the Secret Service looking for one of his fake identities.

Soon after, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Cox was buying coffee at a Starbucks when he noticed two employees of the nearby apartment complex where he lived. They were eying him so intently that Cox assumed he owed them rent. He was wrong. One began shouting, "Right here! Right here!" Cox turned to see two men in suits running toward him. He had always loved crime films, and now he was living the part for real, hopping in his car and flooring the gas pedal.

He escaped this close call, but he wasn't in the clear. He was addicted to the scams, the adventures, the sprees—and the women. He soon fell for a new single mom he'd found online, Amanda Gardner, a pretty blonde who'd recently left the Army and had a young son. This time Cox refused to reveal his real name and instead passed himself off as the latest homeless person whose identity he'd stolen, Joseph Carter.

Gardner didn't know Cox's real name or that he was a wanted criminal, but he was falling hard for her. Using the fake passport he'd created for himself, the two traveled to Italy and Greece, buying Cartier jewelry and Dolce & Gabbana clothing. Dreaming of a life with Gardner, Cox hatched a plan: As soon as he got $2.5 million in cash, they'd run off together. "I thought I'd get a chunk of money and leave the United States," he told me. "I was in love."

He and Gardner found a new home in Nashville, and they met a sexy and fun-loving blonde computer saleswoman. Cox had had his share of sexual adventures, but he was soon living his biggest dream yet: a three-way relationship with two women. He began to suspect the blonde was falling harder for Gardner than for him, but he put it out of his mind—until one afternoon when he got an urgent call from Gardner.

Gardner had just gotten off the phone with their friend, who was "acting really strange," she said. "She started telling me about how much I mean to her. I think she might have done something."

On November 16, 2006 Cox felt as if he were in a movie again, but this time it was the inevitable ending. He heard squealing tires. Saw a black car pulling up. Another car blocking his way. The agents with their guns trained on him. The firm hands on his shoulder. His face slamming the pavement. But it was a face that, after all the plastic surgery, even the feds couldn't be sure they recognized.

"You think it's him?" he heard one Secret Service agent ask another.

"It's him," the agent replied. "Look at his eyes. It's him."

Cox wasn't the only one crashing hard by 2007. So was the overheated housing market he personified. After years of easy credit, the American economy finally buckled under the weight of all the bad and unpaid loans. The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression was soon upon us.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—which owned almost half the country's $12 trillion mortgage market—were collapsing. Nearly 10 percent of mortgages were said to be either in default or in foreclosure by late 2008. As the ripple effect took down Wall Street stalwarts such as Lehman Brothers, the so-called global financial crisis became a reality, and the party, for Cox and everyone else who had lived high during the bubble, was over.

When asked later about his capture, Cox said, "I was relieved briefly. I didn't realize how much stress I was under." He remained convinced that the blonde turned him in out of jealousy over Gardner. All his plans and ploys couldn't overcome something truly uncontrollable: a threesome gone bad. Facing 42 counts of fraud and more than 400 years in prison, Cox copped a plea that got him a 26-year sentence and an order to pay almost $6 million in restitution. Authorities estimate he stole as much as $26 million. He wasn't the only one who went down. Both Hauck and Arnold have served time, and the two have since met and traded stories about Cox. "He always had a fantasy of being wanted," Arnold told me. "He found it more exciting than living this boring life."

Cox has dealt with the boredom of prison by writing a memoir and teaching a real estate class to the prisoners in his plentiful spare time. He has been in demand outside the walls too. Denis Kelly, a former bank partner and the founder of ID Cuffs, an identity-theft protection service, has consulted with Cox to improve his product. "It's surprising that we're working together at all," Kelly told me. "Here's the guy who was our nemesis for so long."

The Florida Mortgage Broker School, which administers required exams and education for industry hopefuls, has also worked with Cox to improve student training. According to Jim Montrym, head of the school, Cox's insights were essential and the moral of his story remained clear: "That you can go to jail for 26 years when you pull this bullshit."

But the "bullshit" is still being pulled by others, experts say. "As far as the scams I was running," Cox told me, "nothing has changed that could have stopped anything I did."

Before I left the prison, I broached the touchiest subject for Cox: his dad, who was suffering from Alzheimer's and couldn't tell his side of the story. Cox glazed over as he recalled the day his father had come to visit him in prison. The two sat across from each other, awkwardly trying to connect over the din of vending machines and shuffling guards.

Since his childhood, Cox had desperately craved love and respect from a man who never seemed able or inclined to give either. The son's memories of his father were of drunken nights and insults. But on this day, his father had surprised him. "The things you know how to do are incredible," his dad had told him. "You lived an incredible life. I'm proud of you."

As Cox recalled this story, his eyes welled up and his shoulders slackened. These were the words from his father that he'd been waiting for his whole life. He just never expected it would take going to prison to hear them.

"So how did you feel when he said this to you?" I asked.

"Horrible," he said.

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read more: News, issue may 2013

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