A con man conned in Winona

Carl Fratzke fell for one of the oldest cons in the book. Then he came up with one of his own.

As it turned out, that was Fratzke's last con. By May 2001, five of Fratzke's victims had finally had enough, swallowed their embarrassment and marched down to the Winona Police Department to file complaints.

As the legal net began closing in on him, Fratzke realized that he too had been taken, even though it required a fair amount of persuasion for the message to sink through. "We didn't find out about any of this until about four months before it all came to a head," the family member says. "Finally I did some research and showed him all the articles about these Nigerian cons. After reading all that stuff, he just said, 'Oh, shit.'"

How could Fratzke, by all appearances a reasonably intelligent, educated and competent businessman, fall for the con in the first place? That remains a mystery. No one, even in his own family, seems to have much insight, other than to suggest that he had a gambling streak and liked the idea of a big score.

To fool or be fooled: Carl Fratzke learned that Winona can be one lonely place
City Pages Photo Illustration
To fool or be fooled: Carl Fratzke learned that Winona can be one lonely place

Having squandered his life savings and stolen from his friends, he simply kept believing. In one journal entry written shortly before his arrest (and cited in the criminal complaint), Fratzke despaired, "At least three times I was within a hairs breath [sic] of getting my money."

As it turns out, it's not uncommon for victims of fraud to maintain an irrational belief in the con. In the new book Drake's Fortune, author Richard Rayner details the case of Oscar Hartzell. During the 1920s and '30s, Hartzell scammed as many as 100,000 Midwesterners out of their life savings, claiming he could get them a piece of the Sir Francis Drake estate in exchange for an up-front investment.

When Hartzell's fraud was revealed, many of his victims stood by him. They were unable to accept that they had been duped, the facts be damned. As Raynor observes, "The con man's will to deceive is matched and enabled by his suckers' urge to believe."

The parallels don't end there. Like Fratzke, Hartzell started out as a victim of the con before becoming a swindler himself. Unlike Fratzke, however, Hartzell proved especially adept. He stole the con out from under the noses of his victimizers, improved it, and then strung out his own victims for more than two decades.

According to FBI special agent Paul McCabe, it is not uncommon for victims of financial fraud to turn to crime themselves. "We see it all the time. When you arrest these people, they know they've done wrong but they're frustrated because they've lost so much money," he observes.

In the end, Fratzke pleaded guilty to one felony count of theft by check and two counts of felony theft by swindle. Judge Collins sentenced him to a minimum of 240 days in the Winona County Jail, placed him on 20 years' probation, and ordered him to adhere to an as-yet-unspecified restitution schedule. Whether he will be able to pay off his debts is unknown. After his arrest, Fratzke and his wife Rosalie divorced. She got the house in the settlement. The rest of his assets were squandered in the scam. According to MacLean, Fratzke has only worked sparingly since the fraud was uncovered two years ago.

Ironically, the Fratzke family member says incarceration may prove to be something of a relief for Fratzke. "This pretty much destroyed him, so I don't think going to jail is going to be that big a deal for him," he says. "For the last three years, he's been serving a prison sentence in his house. You know, Winona is a small community. After you've had your name plastered all over the newspaper, you don't even want to go out in public any more."

As wretchedly as events turned out for Fratzke, it could have been worse. During the endgame of some Nigerian-based cons, marks are urged to travel to the capital city of Lagos to seal the "deals." Once there, they are sometimes kidnapped, bribed, even murdered. Since 1995, according to a U.S. Secret Service report, at least 15 Americans have been killed or disappeared after being sucked into such cons.

McCabe says he recently heard the story of one unlucky American victim who traveled to Nigeria in an effort to recoup some losses. "He wound up at the front gates of the American embassy, completely naked," he says. "They'd taken everything: passport, money, clothing. Everything."

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