The Long Con
This article appeared in the June 2013 issue and is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s celebration of longform journalism.
Of all the stories I’ve written, this is my favorite. I like the story because it hinges on a surprise, and building toward that revelation without spoiling it took a lot of thought and care on the writing and editing end. I wrote it that way because I wanted the reader to experience a taste of betrayal, which I hoped would help them better empathize with the characters. -Michael Rubino
The day Phil Ferguson killed Vern Cox, late spring was turning to summer in “The Big Empty,” an expanse of high desert in Eastern Oregon where the earth stretched lonesome and wide. By midmorning, temperatures near the remote outpost of Burns, the Harney County seat, were in the 70s, even as the Steens Mountains clung to their snowcaps off in the distance. Center-pivot irrigation systems watered fields of alfalfa. Sagebrush filled the unworked land. Here, a man could see things coming for miles: people, possibilities, trouble.
Work, too, was heating up on Vern Cox’s 320-acre ranch. It was May 30, 2012, the Wednesday after Memorial Day weekend. Cox, 62, and Kenney Bush, his young friend and ranch hand, were collecting stray lumber left over from the construction of a new corral. That coming Saturday, the men, along with a small group of neighbors and friends, aimed to brand 30 head of cattle. Afterward, they planned to celebrate with barbecue, beer, and, once the stars grew big and the night long, maybe some of Cox’s homemade coffee liqueur.
It was a simple existence, but the idea of making anything other than an honest living tickled them. Can you imagine wearing a suit and tie to work, sitting at a desk? They’d laugh. Suckers.
For Bush, 24, working with the older Cox never seemed like working at all. Cox had a talent for disguising the drudgery with stories, humor, and teasing—“flicking the shit,” they called it.
Almost a decade had passed since Bush and his mother first met Cox, a tall, thin man with a bearded face often hidden by sunglasses and a ball cap—because of his glaucoma, he would say. Bush rarely saw his father, and Cox stepped in. He taught the boy how to handle a baseball bat, and, later, when Bush ran into trouble with the law, Cox gave him a wad of money to help out, no questions asked.
More recently, Bush and his fiancee, Shawn, had moved into a small camper on Cox’s property, replacing one of his ex-girlfriends. While Bush worked on the ranch, Shawn earned her keep by running errands and buying groceries for Cox, who also set her to the task of removing evidence of the ex-girlfriend from his single-wide trailer.
The young couple paid little mind to Cox’s recent strange behavior. In previous weeks, he had moved his stash of hay money from inside the never-used dishwasher to the air filter of an old tractor to a pistol case. And just last night, Shawn had found the door to Cox’s trailer locked and barred with a two-by-four. He said he was writing a journal entry on his laptop and didn’t want to be disturbed.
Cox was due some privacy, they thought. After all, life had taken the widower from Arkansas by surprise. He had a hard-luck story of losing a wife to leukemia, a company to bankruptcy, and his driver’s license to DUIs. Over the last decade, he had worked to leave that man behind. He had befriended Bush’s mother, played father to Bush, and turned acres of sagebrush into a profitable ranch. In the void of Oregon, Cox had found a life.
But just before noon on that Wednesday morning, as Bush and his fiancee went about their chores, Cox noticed two vehicles coming down the dirt road that ran the length of his alfalfa field. And he must have sensed that Phil Ferguson—a man from his past he had hoped never to face again—was about to steal it all away.
“Take the tractor,” Cox said, instructing Bush to drive around to the rear of the trailer. “I’ll be right back.”
As Bush disappeared, Cox climbed into his white flatbed Ford, where he kept a rifle on the passenger’s seat. Then he sped away, past the property’s outbuildings, to meet the visitors.
About a quarter-mile from the trailer, Cox stopped the truck and got out, leaving the rifle on the seat. He walked toward a chest-high barbed-wire fence that ran the length of the ranch and separated it from the dirt road. On the other side of the fence, a familiar man approached, carrying a gun.
For the last time, Vern Cox began to run.
Phil Ferguson made quite a name for himself in northeastern Indiana. As a boy, Ferguson had worked on his family’s farm near Alexandria, helping his father, mother, and sister tend to corn, beans, and a few spotted Appaloosa horses. At Alexandria High School, he was active in the AV club and Future Farmers of America. “Above-average student, worked hard, well-liked, good parents,” says Orvis Burdsall, Ferguson’s high-school principal. “He was the kind of kid you never had to worry about.”
Ferguson was also a versatile athlete, lettering in track, football, and—like any good Hoosier schoolboy—basketball. A photo caption in his senior yearbook depicts him as the kind of lunch-pail player who took opponents by surprise: “The Hustler” Phil Ferguson speeds past an opponent who didn’t even see him go by.
After graduating in 1968, Ferguson married his high-school sweetheart, Vicki, and the couple had two children, Brian and Angie. For the next few years, he applied the same hard-working approach that made him a memorable basketball player to his job as a financial consultant with K.J. Brown Brokers in nearby Marion. In 1985, he took his portfolio and clients downtown to a red-brick storefront with a large picture window on 3rd Street. At Ferguson Financial, he developed a following among modest, good-earning folks like teachers, farmers, and factory workers.
Harry Craw, now 92, was a retired World War II veteran who had worked 40 years at the Delta Electric Company in Marion when Ferguson approached him with a financial opportunity in 1988. Craw liked that the advisor was plainspoken and that, when he paid a visit to Craw’s home, he talked about the local high-school baseball team nearly as much as he did certificates of deposit. “Seemed like a nice guy,” says Craw, “a regular guy.” Craw invested that day, and over the years entrusted $56,000 to Ferguson.
Not only did Ferguson have the common touch, but he also projected a command of the complicated financial world. He ran a satellite office in Cincinnati and another at the nexus of the commodity markets in Chicago, within walking distance of the Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. To his unsophisticated clients, “The Hustler” Phil Ferguson seemed to know how to speed past the big-city investors, who didn’t even see him go by.
Individual buy-ins ranged from $2,500 to more than $1 million. For the risk-averse, Ferguson provided a humdrum collection of investments in the securities market, including bonds, mutual funds, and variable annuities. With CDs, he sold clients on a reasonable rate of return—usually just a quarter- or half-percentage point better than the local banks. Ferguson never missed a payment.
But for those with an appetite for something juicier, Ferguson offered membership in the First Investors Group, which dealt in commodities—investments tied to the prices of raw materials and agricultural goods such as pork bellies, corn, and soybeans. In FIG, investors would pool their money and trade commodities as a single entity under Ferguson’s direction. Thanks to his Chicago connections and a down-home grasp of human nature, he was able to anticipate the swings of the high-risk commodities market to make millions for himself and his clients.
While Ferguson experienced professional success, his personal life fell into disarray. In 1993, he divorced Vicki, his high-school sweetheart; later that year, he married a woman named Elizabeth. Through it all, though, Ferguson’s business thrived, and returns skyrocketed. In 1997, Ferguson and his commodities pool of about 500 investors made a respectable $798,000; a year later, the gains jumped to $7.4 million. Then, in 1999, Ferguson sent out a letter to clients indicating he had scored a partnership with commodities firm Archer Daniels Midland, the agri-giant that billed itself as “supermarket to the world.” FIG’s clients, sold on the ADM letter, collectively made $61 million that year alone.
Based on Ferguson’s boffo performance, many clients rolled traditional investments like IRAs into the FIG kitty. Few of them ever cashed out, even when it came time to buy cars, make down payments on new homes, or pony up for college tuition. Given Ferguson’s claim of creating two to three millionaires per month, it made sense to let the Ferguson-invested money ride.
The gamble seemed to pay off. For a 13-month period starting in February 1999, Ferguson’s fund made $91 million.
But Ferguson’s personal life was in tumult again. Though he never flaunted his money—he usually wore a simple shirt and dress slacks to work and drove understated vehicles—he went on a spending spree shortly before filing for divorce from his second wife, Elizabeth, in April 1999. During the contentious divorce proceedings, she alleged that her estranged husband had been wasting and hiding marital assets—and making numerous out-of-state trips. He owned a farm close to Marion and another in nearby Summitville, and began sinking cash into expensive farm equipment, a big “dually” pickup, and high-dollar livestock. That February, he had spent $42,000 on a new Chevy truck and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the span of a few days.
And why not? By May 2000, FIG was on the way to yet another record showing, with a year-to-date profit of $31 million.
Neighbors shared earning statements. Co-workers bragged at break-room tables. Phil Ferguson had made them rich.
On paper.Kenney Bush’s mother, Lillian Ramge, has hundreds of photos of Vern Cox on her desktop computer but doesn’t seem happy with any of them.
“Here’s one,” says Ramge, 55, a warm and chatty mother of six. Her face is ruddy after spending a nippy March morning on her 160-acre farm outside of Burns, Oregon, checking on cows and watering her horse, with at least eight dogs running underfoot. “Nah, that one’s no good.” She wiggles the chair in her home office and clicks on another image.
Ramge is a full-time corrections officer, and this is her day off. On mornings like this, when her husband is at work and there’s no one to help with a broken machine or a stubborn animal, or to chat with over a cup of coffee, her thoughts turn to Vern Cox. He was her cover bull.
“Cover bull” is farm-speak for a male that a rancher pairs with a female without a herdmate—a companion for one that has none. When Ramge met Cox 12 years ago, she was coming off a 20-year marriage to a man in Utah who woke up one day and decided he no longer loved her. Aside from her children, Ramge was all alone, but she decided to pack up, move to Oregon, and give ranching a try. “Me and Vern were related by horses,” she says. “That’s how we first met—he had the studs to my mares. Vern got them when he bought the property.”
Cox first came to Oregon in 2002. In Wagontire, a tiny oasis at the crest of a hill an hour southwest of Burns, he walked into a rickety motel across the highway from a bent mile-marker and talked up the elderly woman who owned it. As it happened, she also had land near Burns, and he plunked down cash for a scrub-covered plot he planned to reshape with alfalfa and cattle.
Lillian Ramge’s land, anchored by a modest home that was once a barn, lies catercorner to the ranch Cox bought. If he wasn’t visiting to help her put out one fire or another, the two friends were gossiping on the phone. “We were instant buddies,” she says. “Girlfriends, really—we talked for an hour almost every day. I loved him. Everyone did. Men, women—it didn’t matter. Everyone wanted to be around him. He was a force. He was fun.”
In 2003, the year after Cox arrived in Burns, Ramge was laid off from her job, and she spent the entire summer with the widower from Arkansas, learning how to hay, drive a tractor, move irrigation lines, and shoot rabbits. She recalls working in 104-degree heat that summer, tossing hundred-pound bales onto a trailer by hand. “I damn near had heatstroke and had to go into the truck and turn on the AC,” she recalls. “Vern just laughed and laughed, even when I dumped 14 bales on him.”
Ramge’s kids liked Cox, too, especially Kenney Bush. Ramge and Bush’s father had divorced when the boy was only 8, and Cox filled the void for the then-14-year-old. “When I went back to work, my kids were over there every day, shooting or setting gopher traps or whatever,” Ramge says. “I really think Vern was here just kind of collecting a family.”
Cox shared stories of his dead wife and past troubles. To return his generosity and ease his pain, Ramge helped him establish a new life. Since he had lost his driver’s license, she put her name on titles to new vehicles for his ranch. And because his credit was shot—he had made poor business deals in the past, he said—she opened and operated a checking account for Cox in her name. She felt that intertwining their financial affairs was the least she could do; that way he could move beyond making cash deals or working in trade.
She also didn’t mind running his errands in town or picking up his groceries, because Cox hardly ever left his ranch. Plus, Cox paid her in alfalfa for her efforts (and their shared cellphone plan). The arrangement simply made sense. While their relationship never rose to a romance, Cox remained the constant in Ramge’s life, even after she remarried; he and her husband worked together on an addition to Ramge’s home.
Now, more than a year after the last time she saw Cox, the project remains unfinished, with nails and sawdust on the floor, and empty rooms framed with bare wood studs. Sheetrock covers some of the walls, but not others. Ramge’s husband stopped working on the job in Cox’s absence. “It’s very quiet here now,” she says.
She partially blames Cox—and his weakness for women—for his own downfall. “He liked ’em young—anything that walked, talked, and breathed,” she says. “To tell the truth, Vern was a whore. He could seduce just about anyone.”In June 2000, during a routine audit, a National Futures Association field agent named Heather Rankin-Sendera began pulling on the string that would unravel one of Indiana’s largest-ever frauds.
As the agent inspected checks from an NFA-member broker in Chicago, she found that one investor had deposited $15,000 by endorsing a third-party check from First Investors Group of Marion, Indiana. Curious, the agent called the customer, who explained that the check represented a withdrawal from an account operated by Marion-based Ferguson Financial.
The names didn’t match any in the NFA database, and the agent discovered that neither FIG nor Ferguson Financial was registered with the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
On June 21, the NFA paid a surprise visit to Ferguson Financial. Phil Ferguson was out of the office, so the auditors interviewed him by phone. They found his story dubious and alerted the CFTC. When the NFA called Ferguson again, he declined comment.
A few days after that, Ferguson stopped showing up at work.
Eventually, a host of other organizations—the Indiana Secretary of State’s office, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission,the National Association of Securities Dealers, and the FBI—began making inquiries into Ferguson. What they discovered was a massive, yet simple, Ponzi scheme.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Ferguson had taken money from clients and sold them nonexistent financial products—like “Indiana Toll Road Revenue Tax Free Bond,” “Coca-Cola Rev Bond,” “Australian Dollar Note,” and a host of others.
Investigator Rick Neff, a 21-year veteran of the Indiana Secretary of State’s securities division, was amazed at the scope, organization, and patience of the scam. Similar schemes that Neff encountered had lasted only a few years, but he found Ferguson had bled investors for longer than a decade by never missing a dividend payment, never raising a red flag. “I think he would have done this until the day he died,” says Neff. Though there was never a full forensic accounting of the money, Neff estimates that, on the securities-fraud end, Ferguson took in $22 million and never invested a dime. After selling the phony securities to clients, he supplied them with fictitious earning statements. He dipped into the money to pay fake dividends or reimburse those who cashed out, but otherwise kept the money for himself. Even so, his lifestyle wasn’t out of line for a successful financial consultant: He lived in a nice house outside of town but refrained from flashing the kind of extravagances that draw suspicion.
Investigators found that at the same time Ferguson was selling bogus securities, he was also running an illegal—and largely fraudulent—commodities pool. He either pocketed money from investors, lost it with lousy trades, or used it to reimburse those lucky enough to pull out their stake before his scheme collapsed.
Gil Hirschy, a now-retired special agent from the FBI’s Fort Wayne office who worked the case, says the staggering gains posted by FIG, Ferguson’s commodities pool, turned out to be losses—$579,000 in 1997, $1.1 million in 1998, $328,000 in 1999, and $122,000 in 2000. What’s more, in the 13-month period Ferguson told investors he’d raked in $91 million, from 1999 to 2000, he hadn’t made a single trade. The only one who actually got rich was Ferguson; Hirschy believes FIG netted Ferguson about $14 million. Its investors, like Ferguson’s securities clients, received fabricated earnings statements.
As investigators looked deeper, they found that Ferguson’s offices in Chicago and Cincinnati were simply mail drops. They also uncovered evidence of multiple bank accounts in a variety of names, along with a cache of forged documents and counterfeit identification.
In September 2000, the prosecutor in Grant County, Indiana, charged Ferguson with an almost unprecedented 90 counts of securities violations, and federal authorities later brought mail- and wire-fraud charges. “This guy was Bernie Madoff before Bernie Madoff,” says Neff.
The charges didn’t come as a complete surprise to Ferguson’s son, Brian. The bravado, the bluster, the lies—those had always been at the core of his father’s identity. And they had helped endear him to others. “People loved him,” Brian says. “He was a showman. I mean, you’re not going to give your money to someone you don’t like, right?”
“But,” he continues, “I knew that things weren’t on the up-and-up.” He remembered a period when his father was trading under the name of another man, whom he claimed lived in Saudi Arabia and therefore didn’t have to pay taxes. As a high-school student in the late 1980s, Brian joined his father at a meeting with an elderly woman who spread plastic baggies filled with pre-1964 coins—minted with 90 percent pure silver—across her kitchen table. At her feet, six five-gallon buckets brimmed with old “wheat” pennies. Neither she nor her now-deceased husband had ever trusted banks, but Ferguson assured her the money would be safe in his vault at Ferguson Financial. When father and son returned to the office with the woman’s treasure, Ferguson instructed his son to put the silver currency safely in the company vault, just as he had promised. But he had other plans for the vintage copper coins. “Take those to the pawn shop,” he said. “We can get two cents for every penny.”
Later, when Brian Ferguson was in college in Indianapolis, he spent his summers working for Ferguson Financial, observing the blueprint for his father’s house of cards. “Dad’s trades would lose tons and tons of money,” he says, but his father would never admit defeat. Instead, Phil Ferguson would scapegoat an older employee, blaming the man for making poor trades. Then he would make a big show of disappearing to the computers in the back office and returning, triumphant, after having magically outperformed his colleague. “Dad was basically a chronic liar, and he wanted everyone to think he was a big, high-rolling investor,” says Brian. “He liked that air of mystery around him.” In his free time, the elder Ferguson would hang out in dive bars and, over White Russians, slap backs and fabricate colorful tales about being involved with the Mafia and drug dealers.Sometime after his father’s first divorce, Brian noticed that business at Ferguson Financial seemed to be slowing down. The office was often empty, save for Ferguson making trades on the computers in the back room. At home, he had three separate phone lines installed in his bedroom, each connected to an answering machine. No one was allowed to touch the phones. Brian did hear one of the messages, though; the caller was asking for a man he’d never heard of.
By the time the Grant County prosecutor got around to filing charges in 2000, Ferguson had gone missing, without so much as a goodbye to Brian or his sister. For a few weeks that summer, Neff, the securities investigator, paid occasional visits to the Marion area. He intercepted Ferguson’s mail and staked out the con man’s home, but he realized catching Ferguson was a longshot. On one of his first visits to Ferguson Financial, Neff interviewed a secretary who, shortly after the NFA phone call, had seen her boss doing research on his office computer. She caught a glimpse of a few words on the screen: HOW TO DISAPPEAR.
In Colorado, Roy Vernon Cox often went by his middle name—the widower was just “Vern,” a guy who knew a fair bit about horses and cattle and, if the situation warranted it, could handle a gun.
Cox owned a concierge service called “About Time” in Broomfield, a suburb of Denver, where he ran a variety of errands for clients in the area. Sometime in 2000, he got a call from a man named Al Russell.
Russell explained that he had recently broken his ankle, was wearing a cumbersome cast, and needed someone to help him with a few odd jobs and shop for groceries. He lived 30 miles away in Morrison, but offered to pay Cox handsomely for mileage and his time.
Cox jumped at the job, ran the errands, did the shopping (his new client wanted plenty of alcohol and chocolate), and returned to Russell’s mountain estate—a vast spread with domesticated animals as well as wild game prowling the property. Russell paid in cash and gave Cox a $50 tip, and then offered his new friend an opportunity to make even more money. Was he interested? Well, hell yeah.
Russell explained that he had been injured in a construction accident in Florida while he and his father were repairing bridges between Miami and Key West. He told Cox he was receiving under-the-table compensation for the accident—a huge cash payout to keep an insurance company in the dark. Money wasn’t a problem, but Russell admitted he was lying low. He had recently split from his wife and made off with her little sports car, just to piss her off.
For the next six months or so, Cox made monthly shopping runs for Russell, pocketing $1,200 every two weeks for the service. The payments always came in cash.
Soon, Cox took on bigger tasks. He picked up corral fencing in Oklahoma and acquired Russell’s Dodge van for $1,000 and trade. And not long after that, Russell gave Cox and another man $10,000 in cash and one-way tickets to Minneapolis to buy two vehicles from a discount lot and deliver them to Denver.
Russell and Cox became trusting associates, so much so that when Russell needed to buy an unregistered weapon, he turned to Cox. “I know a guy who can get you a .22,” Cox offered. Russell, though, wanted something bigger. “You want something bigger? Get a Colt .45,” advised Cox. “They’ll go down—I don’t give a shit if they’re wearing armor.” The conversation weighed on Cox for a while, but Russell dropped the request, and Cox eventually forgot about it.
Russell turned his attention to buying real estate and livestock, and he offered Cox an opportunity to form a partnership. The men started the Morrison Livestock Company and ordered business cards for their wallets and magnetic signage for the doors of their trucks. One of Russell’s first purchases was a trailer and a $5,000 cutting horse. Cox completed the paperwork for a new company bank account bearing his name. But before opening it, Cox attempted to call Russell. The line was dead. Fearing his friend was in danger—the gun?—Cox raced to Russell’s home. Inside, he saw that the place had been picked clean, and a handful of Russell’s other associates were gathered in the kitchen.
“He’s gone,” said one of the men, as the others dug through stray papers and receipts Russell had left behind. Cox was playing catch-up. He looked around the room and noticed a Xerox machine and other office equipment. Just like that, he was missing his business partner—and he wondered if he would ever see him again.By the end of 2011, distrust between Lillian Ramge and Vern Cox’s new girlfriend was complicating life on the ranch.
Cox had been living with a 44-year-old woman from town, Honey Schatz, and she had taken on some of the domestic duties that once belonged to Ramge. When Schatz’s daughter became pregnant, she moved into Cox’s trailer as well.
Ramge couldn’t understand the connection. As far as she was concerned, Schatz was a thief and a drug addict—at least, that was her reputation. But Ramge’s disapproval didn’t resonate with Cox, who responded by limiting contact with Ramge to the handling of his business affairs.
The relationship between Cox and Schatz was romantic—at first. But she eventually settled for a more platonic partnership, partly because she was annoyed by Cox’s lies concerning their financial situation. Once, when he handed her a shopping list, she turned it over to find the other side was a bank statement—one of the accounts Ramge operated for him.
“Eight thousand dollars?” she asked, miffed that she’d had to scrape together money for her granddaughter’s birthday gift. “I thought we were penniless.”
“I’ll do what I damned well want with my money,” he said. “I’ve got five more accounts just like that one.”
Schatz found Cox’s secrecy extended to late-night computer usage as well, and often spied him banging away on his laptop keyboard in private. Curious, she thought, for someone who often claimed not to know how to use a computer.
Ramge, too, was growing puzzled by Cox. He had begun showing up at her home again, bemoaning Schatz’s drug use and lying. “Kick her out,” Ramge advised. But he didn’t. Instead, he had Ramge write checks to Schatz—one for thousands of dollars—and bought her a vehicle.
Ramge’s misgivings about Schatz were confirmed when Schatz and a group of friends were rounded up by the Harney County sheriff’s department for a string of burglaries. When the authorities returned Schatz to the ranch, Cox was waiting.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“The cops,” she said.
“Are they going to be back?”
In 2002, two years after authorities uncovered his Ponzi scheme, Phil Ferguson’s whereabouts remained unknown. But tips were trickling into the FBI office in Fort Wayne thanks to a segment on America’s Most Wanted.
The FBI knew Ferguson had money. They knew he had been in Colorado, where he landed for a time after fleeing Indiana and did business with a man named Roy Vernon Cox while using the name “Al Russell.” They narrowly missed apprehending him. Later, they received a tip that Ferguson had brazenly returned to Marion, from someone who claimed to have seen him in a drugstore.
The rest was just guesswork. How much did Ferguson have? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?
A decade passed, and Ferguson’s trail had gone cold. Then, in early May 2012, a tip originating from an America’s Most Wanted rerun crossed the desk of special agent Gil Hirschy, the FBI agent who had unsnarled Ferguson’s commodities fraud. He normally dismissed those kinds of leads on principle, believing some people had way too much time on their hands. But this one was different.
The details were intimate.
Dave Glerup, the Sheriff of Harney County, Oregon, was going to have to drive back out to the Cox ranch. And he wasn’t sure what to expect.
By now, the characters at the isolated compound were a familiar lot.
First, it was Kenney Bush. A few years back, Bush’s vehicle had been towed to an impound lot in Burns after a drunk-driving arrest. Several months later, he broke into the lot and soaked the office and numerous vehicles with fuel, running a fuse from one to the other. Before igniting a stove and leaving the scene, he broke into an apartment above the impound office and stole several firearms. The plot failed; Bush was apprehended and charged with multiple felonies.
And then there was Honey Schatz, whom the sheriff had dropped off at the Cox ranch after her recent burglary arrest.
This time, however, on May 30, 2012, Glerup needed to see Vern Cox.
Glerup turned onto the dirt lane that ran alongside Cox’s ranch and approached a barbed-wire fence about a quarter-mile from Cox’s trailer. He saw Cox driving out to meet him in a white Ford truck.
“What do you want now?” Cox asked.
“I just want to talk, Vern,” said Glerup.
A tall thicket of sagebrush stood at Cox’s rear flank, and his irrigation pivot loomed in the distance.
A deputy pulled up and joined Glerup. Fifteen feet and a fence separated them from Cox. Glerup spoke again.
“We know your name’s not Vern.”Sheriff Glerup stood facing Vern Cox across the fence, and the two stared each other down.
Earlier in the month, the FBI had contacted Glerup with a request. An anonymous tip—the one the FBI had received from America’s Most Wanted—alleged that Phillip Ferguson, an Indiana financial consultant accused of stealing millions from his clients, had been living in Glerup’s county for almost a decade, posing as a poor rancher named Vern Cox. The FBI sent the sheriff a photo of Ferguson and asked him to see if he could make a positive identification.
Glerup’s department then made two visits to Cox’s trailer under the guise of looking for stolen property from Honey Schatz’s burglary case. Even though Cox was thinner than in the old pictures of Ferguson, and wearing a beard, Glerup was certain he had the FBI’s fugitive.
Now, Glerup, accompanied by a deputy and a field agent from the FBI, was back to pick up Cox before he could escape again. In 30-plus years of law enforcement—25 as sheriff—Glerup had never fired his weapon. But as he stood across the barbed-wire fence from Cox, a peaceful resolution seemed unlikely.
“Look, we know who you are,” said Glerup. “We know you’re Phil Ferguson.”
“No, I’m not, and I can prove it,” Cox said. “I have my ID in the truck.” He whirled around and broke into a run.
Glerup and his deputy ordered Cox to stop. Cox ignored the warning, hopped into the truck, and began driving away.
The lawmen fired at the truck’s tires but missed. Cox sped toward the sagebrush.
Glerup jumped into his SUV and gave chase. But by then, Cox’s truck had rolled to a stop.
From back on the ranch, Kenney Bush had seen the sheriff’s SUV and a white unmarked vehicle parked on the dirt lane, and Cox driving out to meet them. He called into the trailer to Shawn—“I think they’re arresting Vern”—then mounted a dirt bike and sped toward them.
When Bush arrived, the deputy intercepted him. Bush yelled for the man who’d been like a father to him—“Vern!”
“He’s not Vern,” said the deputy.
A few feet away, Glerup, gun drawn, approached the still truck. It appeared empty. He scanned the sagebrush to see if Cox had escaped, but when the sheriff looked at the truck again, he saw Cox’s leg dangling from the open cab door.
Glerup called out, but there was no reply. He crept closer to gain a better view.
Slumped over in the driver’s seat, Vern Cox gurgled his last breath. Phil Ferguson, the man Cox wanted to avoid facing at all costs, had put a bullet in his head with a .22-caliber rifle.
That night, as they mourned the death of the man they knew as Vern Cox, Kenney Bush and Shawn began untangling Phil Ferguson’s deceptions on Lillian Ramge’s computer.
A quick search revealed an FBI wanted poster. It featured his photo, a list of his crimes (millions of dollars? they marveled), and a register of aliases he had used, including Roy “Vern” Cox, which he had stolen from his business partner in Colorado while posing as Al Russell. The fugitive was from Indiana, not Arkansas, as he had told them. Then they watched an online video about the man they thought they knew on the website of America’s Most Wanted.
In retrospect, it wasn’t difficult to believe that Cox had been on the lam. He rarely left the ranch. He avoided banks. The women ran his errands and did the shopping. He wore a hat and dark sunglasses whenever he was outside. Bush once saw Cox accidentally break his jaw pulling an infected tooth so he wouldn’t have to go to the dentist. They wondered what happened to all that money. He couldn’t have spent it, they reasoned. He lived like a Carhartt-clad pauper.
Ramge and Bush cleaned the blood out of Cox’s white Ford and kept the ranch running for a few days, until the woman from the motel in Wagontire, who’d sold Cox the property, claimed it for her own. In his haste to get rid of Honey Schatz and hide the scope of his wealth, Cox had manufactured a phony set of papers that indicated the woman from Wagontire still owned the land. Since Cox dealt in cash or by trade—and legally speaking, didn’t exist—no one could prove otherwise. Neighbors and friends who had used Cox’s outbuildings for storage were out of luck, as were those to whom Cox owed money or hay.
The prospect of missing money, along with tales of the violent standoff, have made Cox’s ranch the subject of local legend. “There’s been a million conspiracy theories,” says the sheriff. “He’s got his money here. No, he’s got his money there. You know, he may have, I don’t know, but he was always late making his payments.”
Bush and Shawn collected their belongings from the ranch and stuck around Burns for a few months. Eventually, figuring there was nothing left for them in Burns without Vern Cox, they moved to Portland.
Even a year after Phil Ferguson’s run from Indiana to Colorado to Oregon came to an end, the truth of what happened remains hard to grasp.
Lillian Ramge believes Honey Schatz, Cox’s ex-girlfriend, discovered his true identity and used the information to extort him (which may explain why he had given her cash and bought her a car). Or maybe when Cox’s money ran out, Schatz called America’s Most Wanted looking for a reward. (Schatz was interviewed by the Oregon State Police but did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.)
Long before the FBI tracked Ferguson to Oregon, at least $3 million was recovered from the sale of his Indiana property and the liquidation of his bank accounts and paid out to victims of his scams. It’s possible that the rest of Ferguson’s ill-gotten millions were spent to perpetuate the Ponzi scheme, fund his lifestyle, and cover his bad investments. Still, when Ferguson was pretending to be Al Russell in Colorado, says the real Roy Vernon Cox, it appeared he had plenty of money. “He didn’t spend it like crazy, but he didn’t seem worried about it, either,” Cox says. About a month before Ferguson left Colorado, Cox adds, the man offered to take him on an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas: “He wanted me to gamble with his money. He said he was just going to stay in the hotel room and drink the whole time. I think he wanted to stay away from all those cameras [on the casino floor].” Shortly after the offer, Ferguson stole a copy of Cox’s birth certificate and disappeared.
When the FBI was on Ferguson’s trail in Colorado, they found he had escaped in a hurry, leaving behind driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and various forms of false identification. “He was probably a master of identity theft before it became a term,” says Hirschy, the FBI agent. Initially, that ability helped Ferguson elude capture and perhaps instilled a false sense of security that he could stay on the run indefinitely. But after 9/11, which occurred about 14 months after Ferguson fled Indiana, proof of identification received closer scrutiny from authorities. Hirschy speculates that tighter security at airports and border crossings hamstrung any plans Ferguson might have had to leave the country. If any of Ferguson’s loot is still floating around, it appears the authorities have stopped looking for it.
Whatever the case, the manner of Ferguson’s disappearance—and the eccentric lifestyle he adopted in remote Oregon—still puzzles investigators. “One of the things that struck me the most was the way he left,” says Neff of Indiana’s securities division. “Told his girlfriend he was going away for the weekend, and then he left everyone—girlfriend, ex-wives, his children—and never looked back. Completely cut all ties. That’s cold. What kind of guy does that?”
But Harry Craw, the 92-year-old World War II vet from Marion, couldn’t stay angry at the affable con man who bilked him out of $56,000 and skipped town. “Did the people in Oregon say he was a nice guy?” Craw wonders. “I liked him. I bet they did, too.”
For Ramge, trying to separate fact from fiction has only led to more questions—some without easy answers. She began her quest last year, finding Ferguson’s first wife, Vicki, and his son, Brian, in Indiana. Long phone calls helped Ramge establish Cox’s true backstory, and last June, Brian spent a few days in Burns for a quiet memorial service at Ramge’s house, where they shared beers in the addition Cox’s death left unfinished; Brian sat on a barstool his father had marked as his own.
Like just about everyone else who knew Phil Ferguson, Brian Ferguson has unanswered questions. Did his father ever wake up in the morning and have something remind him of his real family? How could you completely forget about your past? “I wish he would have been a man and not killed himself—not taken the easy way out—and told his story,” he says. “But then again, I don’t know if I’d even believe him.” Brian says the trip to Oregon helped him fill in some of the gaps of his father’s time on the run, but really, he had already figured his father for dead, anyway.
Ramge is having a more difficult time making peace with the deceased man. “You do something for someone—you love someone—and it blows up in your face,” she says. She’s worried she could be audited for helping Phil Ferguson—lose her house, her farm. She’s already lost so much: hay, equipment, a friend.
“Right now, it would be calving season, and me and Vern would go walking through his herd and talking about the calves he was going to have,” she says. “It’s such a loss, and it’s just so stupid. One part of you hates him because you invested in a friendship, and you loved the person—he was like family. And you invest those hours and days and months and years—and it’s just all a lie, betrayal. And then you have to answer questions from the fucking sheriff’s office.”
Does she feel like she was conned?
“Well, yeah,” she says. “I think the whole 12 years was a con.”
Her sweet “cover bull” relationship with Vern Cox turned out to be bullshit. Kenney Bush sits on a queen-size bed watching the television, looking for a man in a home movie. It’s a series of patched-together scenes from a small gathering on a ranch in the middle of nowhere—nothingness as far as the eye can see. One scene ends. Another begins. Gusts of wind rustle the camera mic.
There he is. The man on the screen steps from the shadows, wearing a beard, a baseball cap, and sunglasses. He stays in the camera’s eye long enough to crack a joke and then disappears, teasing.
“Vern loved to flick the shit,” Bush says.
A laborer with a copper-colored goatee and thick arms, Bush is in a cramped bedroom in Portland, Oregon, surrounded by a few meager belongings—coffeemaker, mini-fridge, microwave—and memories.
Stale cigarettes and wet dog foul the air. Shawn, now Bush’s wife, sits at the head of the bed and brushes ringlets of hair from her face to get a better glimpse of the frayed cardboard box and rumpled manila envelope her husband is arranging on the bedroom floor.
“This is pretty much what’s left of Vern’s,” Bush says.
Shawn scoots forward, and Bush opens the box for inspection.
About a dozen sweat-stained ball caps fill the interior, along with a film of dust from the alfalfa fields of southeastern Oregon.
A pair of dogs paces outside the bedroom door, their nails clicking and clacking against the tattered hardwood of the home the Bushes share with about a half-dozen other people.
“Don’t know what all’s in here,” Bush says as he empties the envelope.
It’s stuffed with 70-odd pages of a book manuscript with color-coded charts, some abbreviations scrawled on scrap paper, and handwritten shopping lists. Shawn loves the way Cox used to write his A’s: “They’re backwards, see?” She plans to get a tattoo replica of the character as a tribute.
“The best man I ever knew,” she says.
Bush nods. “I feel lost without him.”
They vow to keep Vern Cox’s story alive. The two recently told the Portland Oregonian that they thought the sheriff and his men killed Cox, intimating that they’d executed him for money. The pair followed that up by sounding out on a Portland-area radio show, telling listeners that they had heard Ferguson returned millions to his financial victims. (Although he never did.)
The 70-page manuscript at their feet presents a less valiant version of Cox. Bizarrely, he was writing a book about commodities trading, of all things, with short, cryptic passages about his flight from justice, which he accurately predicts will end in suicide. “I wish to God that I could be available to you through the Internet and help you along with your journey,” he wrote. “Maybe I will not kill myself and turn myself in and help all of you with The Count and answer all of your questions from a jail cell.” In explaining “The Count,” the name Ferguson gave to his trading philosophy, he likens investors to bugs drawn to the glow of an electric bug light. “My dad didn’t really like people,” says Brian Ferguson.
Yet, even in death, he inspires fierce loyalty. “Shit, he’s still my hero,” says Bush. “Taught me how to work. Taught me how to do everything.” If they had known the truth, both Bushes say, they would not have turned Cox in.
“We’re always going to think of him one way—to us, he was Vern Cox,” says Bush. “And with the people in Indiana, you’re going to have the same thing—to them, he’s always going to be Phillip Ferguson. They’re not going to change and we’re not going to change, because the experiences we had with the man? Fucking awesome.”
“He was someone I could always talk to, no matter what,” says Shawn.
They hope to carry on his legacy and pass it along to the two-week-old baby sleeping in Shawn’s arms. She had a doctor induce labor in February so the newborn and Cox would share a birthday. The boy’s name? Vernon Phillip.
They say they will make sure the boy knows that his namesake was a great man.
Others will always remember Phil Ferguson as a guy who stole money, ruined lives, and broke hearts.
Some won’t admit it, but Vern Cox was, too.
Photo of Cox and Ramge courtesy Lillian Ramge; trailer photo by Michael Rubino.
This article appeared in the June 2013 issue.