San Diego Donald Marquis Bickerstaff was a big wheel at the Del Mar track. The 38-year-old investment advisor from Poway and his 20-something bride were regulars around the Turf Club with its free-flowing booze, gourmet cuisine, and well-dressed La Jolla establishment. He owned a string of prize thoroughbreds, wore extravagant gold jewelry, and sported about in a flashy Dodge Viper, the latest in a collection of cars that included a Mercedes and a Porsche. But when Del Mar's season ended last Wednesday, the elegant Bickerstaff was not among the revelers. Instead, he was at the top of the FBI's financial fugitives list, one more name in the string of accused San DiegoPbred scam artists to take flight in the face of fraud charges.
Bickerstaff, who said he was Scottish born and claimed to have a degree in high finance from London University's Birbeck College, stands accused of fleecing millions of dollars from hundreds of unwary pensioners who had invested their life savings in his various get-rich-quick schemes. Three weeks ago, federal authorities in San Francisco issued a warrant for Bickerstaff, charging him with bank fraud and making false statements to obtain a loan. A New York stock brokerage has sued the vanished investment counselor, accusing him of counterfeiting its documents to fool Bickerstaff's investors into thinking their money had been safely deposited.
San Diego sources say that many investors here haven't caught up with the fact that Bickerstaff, who owns a multimillion dollar house in a gated community near Lake Poway, has gone on the lam. Messages have begun to pile up at the answering service that picks up calls for Bickerstaff's Rancho Bernardo office. The phones at his office in San Rafael, near where he also owned two other expensive homes, have already been disconnected. Once local investors understand what has happened, sources expect the lawsuits to fly. But, as in San Diego's many past financial scandals, not much money is expected to be found. Federal authorities speculate that Bickerstaff might have fled to Scotland and is attempting to take on a new identity. Others claim that he may have met a darker fate, perhaps linked to the mob.
The top official at the Del Mar track, where Bickerstaff was a popular and honored figure who mixed easily with San Diego's highest rollers, says he thinks he's heard of Bickerstaff, but has no positive recollection of having met the fugitive. "There's a real good chance I met this guy, but I meet a lot of people. If you're an owner in good standing, licensed by the state of California, and are racing horses here, you have complete run of the Turf Club. He might have been in there," says Joe Harper, the track's general manager. "If he is a person who is ejectable, then we would do that - if we knew about it."
Harper says the track tries to monitor whom it lets into the Turf Club and other exclusive areas of the complex, but can't always catch violators. "If we don't know the person, and they want to join the Turf Club, we usually do a background check on them just to see if there is anything in the court files here - not deep background checks, but we do run a check on them. For licensed owners, we go ahead and admit them. If this guy or anybody comes in and has a valid California horseracing license, and has horses running, he could get into the enclosure. We don't do the checking on a license of an owner."
Harper says it isn't unheard of for ex-cons to frequent the Turf Club. "We had an individual here who had served time on some tax matters, and he was released after he did some time, and he is on the grounds. He is not licensable as an owner, and we would not allow him to get into the backstretch, but we treat him as a normal patron. He did the crime and did the time and now he's out. We don't eject them unless it's a crime involving moral turpitude or some kind of gaming violation, touting or bookmaking, or something like that.
"We've had a few cases in the past, fellows who have been convicted of stock manipulation, served their time, and then got out, and showed the horseracing board that they were rehabilitated and are allowed to come back. I guess there are degrees of desirability. If this guy [Bickerstaff] has a warrant out for him, he's definitely excludable, and maybe he already has been, I just haven't heard of it yet."
State horseracing regulators will only confirm that Bickerstaff's owner's license is current and still in good standing. Rumors abound that the smooth-talking Bickerstaff acted as an investment advisor and conduit for some of La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe's wealthiest gamblers. Many local big names are sweating out the prospect of further public revelation about their ties to the Scotsman.
Local scandal-watchers compare the case to that of Clifford Graham, another famous San Diego fugitive still on the lam, an accused swindler and confidante to many members of the local establishment, including ex-Charger player and New York Republican Congressman Jack Kemp. When Graham disappeared in 1985, many of his associates and fellow investors, including Kemp and San Diego Union-Tribune "editor in chief" Herb Klein, quickly distanced themselves from his legacy. As in the case of Bickerstaff, there was also speculation that underworld forces linked to gambling might have played a role in his disappearance.
Neighbors near Bickerstaff's two-story Poway mansion say they haven't seen the financier for at least a month. Before that, they saw him only rarely. "There were always a lot of very expensive cars coming and going," says one neighbor, "but we never talked to them." Lately things have quieted down, she added, except for one curious occurrence. "Just the other day, I heard their alarm going off. I sort of expected to see some police or somebody coming up, but I never saw anyone come by. Maybe it was the fbi checking out the place." Since then, the neighbor says, there has been "dead silence" at the house. "I hope he isn't dead in there or something."
Another neighbor says that shortly after Bickerstaff moved into the gated neighborhood two years ago, he threw a welcoming party for himself and his wife. "They were very nice and cordial. She seemed a lot younger than he and was very attractive, nicely dressed. I wouldn't say overly flashy, but you can tell when people have money. She was very nice, an outgoing lady. I remember she mentioned that 'one reason we can't have kids is because of our lifestyle.' Traveling all the time and not being in one spot or something like that."
Reports from the Bay Area say that Bickerstaff's wife, Traci, claims to know nothing of the alleged scam her husband was running and is still living in their five-story home on a hill in Mill Valley. A report from a Scottish newspaper said the mansion last week appeared to be empty.
Bickerstaff's previous spouse, Mary Beth, lives in nearby Tiburon with their two children in another house owned by Bickerstaff. According to a 1986 report on the society pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Bickerstaff and Mary Beth Greisofe were married in September of that year in a ceremony at the now-defunct Atlantis restaurant near Sea World. The account said Mary Beth, whose parents lived in El Cajon, was attending ucsd at the time. The paper also reported that "the bridegroom, a 1982 graduate of London University's Birbeck College in England, is the son of Mr. and Mrs. David Bickerstaff of London. The couple took a wedding trip to Mexico. They live in La Jolla." Messages left for Mary Beth at her house in Tiburon went unanswered.
No one contacted who said they knew of Bickerstaff could say exactly what he did for a living in those days, but state records show that he had a license to sell insurance. The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that Bickerstaff had previously lost that license and was fired by Prudential Securities in 1991 after being accused of forging clients' signatures to get bonuses and writing phony checks and ledger statements. In 1995, the paper reported, Bickerstaff was fined $50,000 by the National Association of Securities Dealers and barred from working as a broker after another forgery incident. That same year, the state Department of Corporations also barred him from working as an investment advisor.
None of those sanctions, however, stopped Bickerstaff from racing his horses at Del Mar when he wasn't running his company, bfa Financial, out of several well-appointed rooms in a Rancho Bernardo office building. Bickerstaff's elaborate Web page, which was still operating last week, says that "Donald moved to the United States in 1984 to become a financial consultant with one of the country's top financial companies. He founded Bickerstaff Associates three years later. Since then the firm has grown to provide advisory services for client assets in excess of $250 million dollars." According to the Web page, "Bickerstaff Associates offers a comprehensive program of financial and estate planning. Our mission is to offer clients integrated financial planning that provides them with long-term economic security."
A British newspaper, the Scotsman, reported last week that Bickerstaff was best known for "splashy black-tie parties, such as his Christmas event at an expensive San Francisco hotel last December. Hundreds of moneyed professionals would attend his events, often in limousines. 'They were really polished and lavish,' said one guest who attended the Christmas party. 'I've been to the White House, and this was top-cabin all the way.' The alleged con man would typically make a speech too, with the same smooth talk and quick answers that brought business to his company."