Could a Midwestern resort town with a struggling economy be bamboozled out of $25 million by a chain-smoking, fancy-dressing New Yorker? Yes. So how much time did this flimflam man get? Six months.
When Harvey Martin Zelin came to the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri in 1984, he was heralded, not only by others, but by himself, as a Messiah who would lead the people of this extensive recreational area into financial paradise. He would replace the bitter taste of disappointment and deprivation many of its residents knew with the sweet taste of prosperity. Economic revival with its accompanying wealth, he assured them, was just around the corner and he would make it happen.
Zelin, a well-dressed high roller in his late 40s, was flamboyant and glib. He maintained a high profile, dressing himself in the affluence of a successful venture capitalist. He gave the common people of the lake a glimpse of the opulence he promised them. The jewelry, real or fake, that adorned his fingers and wrist was dazzling. The new white Cadillac he drove bore personalized license plates with the initials "HMZ." He bought a lavish house along the wooded shoreline of the lake and called it "Harvey's Hideaway." They, too, someday could share in that lifestyle.
For the lake people, many of them not far from the poverty line, the chain-smoking Zelin was the Music Man gone corporate. He told them what they wanted to hear, that he was no different than they. As they had, he had come from humble beginnings. He had been a dude ranch manager in the Catskills, a medical supply salesman on the East Coast and, of late, a real estate investor in Houston. After all, he was "just a small businessman." Not long before he also had been poor. A friend of his would confide that when Zelin left New York City only a few years earlier, it was with a one-way bus ticket and a $20 bill in his pocket.
Harvey Martin Zelin's covenant with the people was his word – trust me and you will prosper. But was Harvey Martin Zelin the financial wizard, the benefactor, he claimed to be?