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The Devil in Mr. Jones

How to be devoured by your own ambition.


The days have begun to blur together. Forced retirement can do that. Gone are the business meetings, conference calls, and power lunches -- the routines that make a man feel important.

Now there are only housekeeping and court dates to differentiate the days. Washing dishes. Folding clothes. Driving a daughter to a dentist's appointment. Suits and ties come out only for court and Sunday service.

"I am a house-husband," says Larry Jones. "I do all the work here, because obviously I can't get a job."

For decades, it used to be the other way around. Others came to him for work. Jones headed Erie Shores, a multimillion-dollar computer company in Elyria powered by government contracts won largely by the strength of his personality.

Larry Jones was a salesman. A damn good one. The company did so well that he opened offices in Columbus and Dayton to handle all the money coming in.

Success brought adulation. He sat on a lot of boards, filled with the kind of people who slap each other's back.

He didn't mind the spotlight then. He does now. It shines a light on his shame.

It all started eroding in 2005. He and his wife filed for bankruptcy. A year later, he was indicted. Everybody knew Jones as a guy who made deals. He had county contracts on lock. The state, however, says he was paying people off to get them.

Then the feds came calling. There were more charges, this time for bank fraud and money-laundering.

He is a man accustomed to being in control, whose life is now forever changed. And for the first time in a long time, there's not a damned thing he can do about it.

The circumstances that would form Larry Jones began at a farm near Durham, North Carolina. It was in the 1950s, when colored folk still had their own water fountains. Dad was strict. So was Mom. Chores were to be done on time. There was no tolerance in the Jones' household for slackers. Discipline came by example and through the rod.

Dad had only a fourth-grade education, but he made up for it in shrewdness. Larry's parents negotiated to buy a 500-acre farm in the 1940s. They paid for it by selling off the property's timber.

Being a black landowner brought respect -- at least from other blacks tilling rented land. It also put the Jones family in higher standing with the neighbors, some of whom wore robes and burned 20-foot crosses once a month as recreation. Jones' father held his head high, knowing he earned everything he had.

When he met his Klan neighbors at the market, he'd joke that he saw them wearing sheets the night before. He wasn't going to lower himself for anybody. And he expected no less from his eight seeds -- seven boys and a girl. The Jones kids would be winners. The bar was set.

"When we lived there, we did what they told us to do," says Larry's younger sister, Brenda. "They raised us in a very religious household."

"My parents always taught us we were as good and as intelligent as anybody else," adds Larry. That included the white kids at the school with the new textbooks.

When he graduated, he had scholarship offers to play basketball at Michigan State and football at Duke. He turned them down. He knew that if he went to one of those schools as a black athlete, they'd expect him to excel on the field -- not off it.

"A lot of schools assumed, if you took a scholarship, you would take an off-brand major like basket weaving," says Larry. "I didn't want to be used to play football and thrown away after that."

Larry Jones wouldn't be anyone's puppet. But it wasn't something he could stave off forever.

By the late '60s, Jones had landed at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. His tuition was covered as long he wore football pads on Saturdays.

He married his childhood sweetheart and was eventually signed as an undrafted free agent by the Dallas Cowboys, but he blew out his knee. His NFL career was over before he played a single game.

Jones finally landed a national sales job at U.S. Steel. He moved to Elyria and joined the Urban League and a slew of other organizations. By 1983, he decided to branch out on his own. He started Erie Shores and sold computers. He didn't really know anything about them, but that was a minor detail. Other people could handle the technical part. What he brought was vision and charisma.

He started landing contract after government contract from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. Jones seemed to have "the world by its tail," says former Lorain Mayor Alex Olejko.

He was summoned to join prestigious boards, the kind that appreciated a smooth, dark business face to augment the sea of white. FirstMerit Bank, St. Joseph's Hospital, the Governor's Education Task Force, United Way -- everyone wanted a piece of him. Jones was a hub. He connected people.

Former Elyria Mayor Michael Keys sought Jones to help raise money for a recreation center. "He had people skills and connections with the local banks and private sector," says Keys. "Larry is a very personable guy. He seemed very professional. He was kind of high-profile."

But Jones also started meeting men just as ambitious as he was. Men with good pedigree, at least on paper, but whose hearts did not match their paperwork.

These days, Jones won't even utter their names. But you can find those names in indictments next to his.

One was Michael Ross, a rising star in Lorain County's Democratic Party. The two men had at least some things in common. Both were black and educated, and had earned the respect of the people in power -- especially after words like "diversity" had become a political imperative.

"I had a lot of faith and confidence in Michael," says Olejko, who hired Ross as safety director of the city in 1994. "Everything about him was good. He was a natural. Clean-cut all the time."

Ross was 15 years younger than Jones, who became his mentor, says Michael Nelson, Ross' attorney. When Ross won a seat on the Lorain County Commission, Jones was behind him.

The relationship bore fruit. Soon after Ross' election, Erie Shores started stacking up county contracts. The money poured in. All the years Jones spent networking were paying off in a big way.

But according to state prosecutors, Jones and Ross were tempted by the fruit of another -- namely, the money of Lorain County taxpayers. In 1999, the county was building a new seven-story justice center. Prosecutors allege that the men took $600,000 in bribes from two contractors who wanted work. Jones served as middleman. Commissioner Ross used his persuasive powers to cement the deals.

After jacking up his bill, Randall Gordon of the Collins Gordon Bostwick architecture firm allegedly funneled $400,000 to Jones and Ross.

Meanwhile, Vincent Carbone, president of the construction company R.P. Carbone, said he hired Jones as a liaison to the county, paying him more than $200,000. Prosecutors won't provide details, but they allege Carbone was essentially purchasing contracts.

"With the cases pending, Vince is not in much of a position to discuss that much at all," says Carbone spokesman David Hopcraft. Carbone "came to know [Jones] the same way the Lorain community did. He was a very successful businessman, with connections in the minority community. He was a leader in community activities. That's how he was recommended to Vince, and that's what Vince knew about him."

Prosecutors further contend that Ross arranged for the county to buy a run-down warehouse Jones bought only a few weeks earlier. The county paid $150,000 more than Jones did. The two split the profits, prosecutors allege.

But despite all the money he was making, Jones couldn't quench his thirst for more. In the late '90s, he met Arthur Boyd, who was also climbing the social ladder by virtue of a medical degree.

Boyd was launching Star Beverage, a soft-drink company that would market its own formula to black consumers as an alternative to Coke and Pepsi. He claimed to have already landed a $69 million contract to supply the Navy, but he needed equipment to fill the order.

By now, Jones' lust for the quick deal had apparently quelled his better judgment. Boyd may have owned a medical degree, but he wasn't a doctor -- and not for lack of trying. He'd failed the licensing exam an astonishing 15 times.

In 1984, Boyd spent 30 days in jail for trying to bribe a Michigan official to give him an advance copy of the test. His excuse for his conviction and failure to pass the tests don't say much about him as a business partner.

"White boys and Jews already had copies of the exam," Boyd says. "There was a movement to prevent black doctors from practicing." He claims he was railroaded by a "Jewish prosecutor" and a "woman judge who did not like men. I never bribed nobody for no copy of no exam. It ruined my fucking career."

Despite the absence of a license, Boyd kept applying for jobs. Someone finally bit. In 1993, he was hired by the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he treated approximately 950 patients before administrators finally discovered he wasn't a licensed doctor and fired him.

Now he was hoping to open another soft-drink plant -- one bigger than the one he had started in North Carolina. But he needed money. Jones was there to provide it. They planned to build a factory in Elyria. In 2000, they received a $1.6-million loan from FirstMerit Bank, where Jones sat on the board. Erie Shores guaranteed the loan.

That's when Larry Jones' ascent finally hit its peak.

Soon after the loan came through, it became clear the soft-drink business was in chaos. Supposed contracts never came through. The Navy deal -- if there ever was one -- suddenly disappeared. Whatever soda they produced was being shipped to who-knows-where at Boyd's direction, Jones later alleged in a lawsuit. And the FirstMerit loan money dwindled quickly.

Soon, the bank wanted its money. Since Jones had vouched for the loan, he bought it back to protect his reputation and his credit. But his other income was dissipating at the same time.

Ross lost his re-election bid. Erie Shores' government contracts dried up. Then Microsoft sued the company, alleging that it was selling pirated software. Jones was ordered to pay $250,000. It was money he didn't have.

That's when he got really creative. He secured a $4 million line of credit from National City Bank, but his business was hemorrhaging. He began playing with the books, fudging invoices to make it appear that Erie Shores was still doing healthy commerce. A contract with Halliburton was on the horizon, Jones believed. He just had to hold on until then.

"He kept moving the same money around," says Assistant U.S. Attorney John Siegel, who contends the fraud ran from 2001 to 2003.

National City got suspicious. Its accountants found discrepancies. They wanted to dig deeper, but Jones ignored them. So they filed suit.

Only then did a court-appointed receiver discover the truth: Though Erie Shores listed $2.7 million in outstanding income, only $49,734 of it was real.

The house of cards had collapsed. Jones filed for bankruptcy. Erie Shores was no more.

These days, Jones admits guilt to bank fraud, but still can't resist seeing himself as a victim.

"We were taught growing up that there was good in people," he says. "That would eventually become my downfall in this whole situation. My biggest regret is that for 50 years of my life, I didn't break the law . . . I listened to the wrong voices, the wrong consultation, and made some bad choices."

He still has support in Lorain County, where friends see him as a good man gone temporarily bad. "He's still a very outstanding person that I deeply respect," says Betty Moody White, president of Elyria's NAACP. "Regardless of the charges Larry is facing, I deeply respect him."

But others say that's bullshit. They see him as a man whose sheer greed and arrogance caused his own destruction -- and ended up taking down those around him.

This isn't something Jones will talk about. He's already pleaded guilty to federal bank fraud and money-laundering charges. If a judge approves his plea bargain, he'll do about three years.

As for the bribery case, Jones is cooperating with prosecutors against his former associates.

To some, it's Larry Jones' last act of arrogance: turning rat to save himself. "He's a liar," says the wife of the former president of Collins Gordon Bostwick Architects, Randall Gordon, who's pleaded guilty to bribery on the justice-center project. But he's now cooperating with the government too.

In the meantime, all Jones can do is wait. He knows that someday soon he will drive to Cleveland. He'll trade his clothes for a jumpsuit and shackles. No more shuttling his daughter. No more cleaning his house.

It's coming, and there's not a damn thing he can do about it.

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