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Arnie’s Saga

February 22, 2009

Arnie Zaler sits in a federal prison in Atlanta, waiting extradition back to Colorado sometime in the near future. A number of news agencies reported yesterday how Zaler was `met’ stepping off a plane from Tel Aviv in Atlanta by FBI and State Department representatives. Zaler, referred to as a `fugitive businessman’ was promptly arrested. Two (un-named) sources in Israel informed the Rocky Mountain News in recent weeks that they had been scammed by Zaler, the last in a long line of such victims. Not likely to happen again as I would expect that Arnie Zaler is going to spend a good portion of the rest of his life in prison.

Why am in interested in Zaler enough to write about him?

Simple. I knew him from his days as an SDS organizer on the University of Colorado Boulder Campus in the late 1960s. I watched with wonder as he morphed from a campus radical to co-director, along with his brother, of what was called in those days, the Colorado Zionist Federation, and then once again transformed himself into a `fugitive businessman’ and federally indicted – and convicted – convict. Quite a transition, and one that I do not fully understand, other than he seemed to have developed a pathological addiction to `making it’ big time and couldn’t seem to stop himself from repeating the same mistakes.

As one friend apted put it `sounds like an excellent candidate for Israeli Prime Minister’.

My first memory of Arnie is quite vivid as it coincides with the first day I walked the University of Colorado Boulder Campus, sometime in March 1969, at the beginning of what is now my fifty year sejour in the state. I was not there to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam but instead to find the Anthropology Department to inquire about its doctoral program. I had come to Boulder from Denver by bus, for the first time scaling the hill overlooking the town and the mountains with the university below. For a kid originally from Brooklyn, it was a memorable sight as was the campus itself, one of the more beautiful I’ve ever seen before or since and I’ve seen a fair number.

While reveling in the physical beauty of the place, and exploring the campus fountain area, not yet looking particularly diligently for the Anthropology Department, I ran into an anti war demonstration and march. The demonstration had started at the fountain area and – several thousand strong – made its way to Macky Auditorium to the north. Curious more than committed at the time, I joined in and followed them to see where it all might lead.

Once inside the auditorium, the `main show’ so to speak was none other than Arnie Zaler himself. There in front of a packed audience, Zaler, a Denver North High School Valedictorian from 1967, in classic vintage radical sixties form, took out his draft card and destroyed it. Not willing to do likewise, I was impressed by the courage of the act which – needless to say – brought an auditorium of cheers from the audience.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

Arnie then went on to give a most moving speech – he was quite articulate – about how, not only would he refuse to serve US Imperialism in Vietnam, but that also, he was going to give up his white skin privilege as well. Again, the audience roared with approval. As for myself, I thought this a bit more difficult than burning his draft card and innocently wondered how could he change skin color. Would he become Black, Brown or Red I thought? I asked someone sitting next to me about how this might be accomplished. He didn’t appreciate the question.

Such was my introduction to Arnie Zaler and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Then as often happened with such events, I became completely bored with the proceedings, remembering I was on campus to find the Anthropology Department, got up and left wondering if Zaler could in fact change his skin color and thinking that this would be an interesting place to go to graduate school. I did see a picture of him in the Rocky Mountain News just after his last indictment (the one he skipped out on). Arnie looked fatter than I remember him but just as white; he was a handsome young man in his radical days.

A few months later when I started graduate work in Boulder, Zaler was gone. I don’t know if he graduated, left, was expelled. He seemed to leave CU just at a moment when he could have become a key leader in the student movement. Some of the earlier generation of SDS leaders were gone – John Buttney and Bruce Goldberg come to mind – banned from the university and facing federal indictments. A leadership vacuum followed into which Zaler could have easily stepped. But it seems he couldn’t handle it, didn’t know what to do or how to proceed because `way down deep’ he had just come along for the radical ride, a good time – and when things got serious, Zaler got confused and got a-going. When a job opportunity presented itself – selling toys for a company run by a girl friend’s father – he grabbed it, leaving his radical politics in the dust.

A few years later though found us both in Denver.

I had lost track of him, but he surfaced as co-director of the Colorado Zionist Federation and as such, defended Israel – as did much of Denver’s Jewish Community – during the 1973 Middle East War. That was a surprise to me. We sparred a bit on that subject in the press as I remember and on several occasions he challenged me to debate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

It didn’t happen although I can’t remember why.

What I do recall was thinking how already we were moving in different directions politically and wondering how it was that he had channeled his radicalism into defending Zionism and to make his peace with the establishment in Denver’s Jewish Community – who funded him – so quickly and thoroughly. As his family hailed from Denver, the city’s Jewish Community knew him well too – far more intimately than myself actually – and it is they in large measure in later years whom Zaler milked and scammed rather thoroughly. For a while there, he was – like Rabbi Stephen Foster or Bruce Deboskey today – the main stream Jewish Community’s darling of the early 1970s. Among his projects, he spearheaded an effort to have a park named for Babi Yar – Ukrainian site of one of the Nazi’s crueler murder of several thousand Jews outside of Kiev. I visited that site (Babi Yar) in April of 1989 in association with a conference marking the third anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Denver’s Jewish Community has supported Zaler throughout.

I cannot decide if this is a social version of a kind of `battered wife’s syndrome’ – ie – the more he scams them, the more they seem to love him’ or if something else is going on. A vestige of his SDS days remains. In Arizona he spearheaded a campaign to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday. He does appear to have been something of an `equal opportunity scammer’ – ripping off poor, middle class and some wealthy Jews alike although some of his more famous scams have included some of the more influential personalities in the community. But as one letter writer to the Rocky Mountain News noted (January 22, 2009) `After his conviction on fraud charges in Arizona, Zaler had many influential Denver Jewish leaders and members of the Jewish clergy intervene on his behalf. He used his religion to gain preferential treatment in prison and then early release from prison, falsely claiming he was orthodox when in fact he was not.’

Then there is the fact that although he had surrendered his passport to the US District Court before his recent escape to Israel, that he was somehow able both to leave the country (forged papers?) and find solace in Israel. I don’t claim to know how that happened, just think it rather curious that he was able to make his getaway so smoothly.

As he would later do in Arizona, then in 1979, he made an unsuccessful run for the Denver City Council. It seems a pattern began here. Losing the opportunity to skim or scam the public through political office, he turned to honing those skills in the private sector. Then he disappeared – at least from my radar screen – for a very long time. On occasion though I would wonder: what happened to Arnie Zaler and what is he up to these days?

About a year ago, I found out.

A year ago, in February 2008, a federal grand jury had indicted Zaler for defrauding investors in Colorado. The 30 count indictment for bank, wire and mail fraud alleges Zaler, from mid-October 2005 through mid-January 2007, made false statements and promises in an attempt to defraud businesses that operated stadiums and arenas.

A Rocky Mountain News article by Sara Burnett published last year said that his kosher hot dogs were a fan favorite at Broncos’ and Rockies games. More than often that is the kind of job one gets through political connections although I don’t know how he landed it. Riding on the popularity of his good hot dogs, he prepared false purchase orders, according to the indictment, to back up claims that his Zaler’s Kosher Meats had received orders for $2.2 million worth of hot dogs, and was thus a worth investment. The indictment alleges that Zaler falsified orders to sell hot dogs at the Pepsi Center, Invesco Field at Mile High, Coors Field and Super Target grocery stores. He then used the orders as credit to secure at least $2.2 million in loans from two investment companies and an individual investor, the indictment says.

Zaler had run into problems not long after taking over the family hot dog company in 2006. Accused of not following proper religious procedures, the family store, in business since 1913, Zaler’s Kosher Meats, lost its `kosher status’. Zaler protested, and a story about the controversy appeared in a number of issues of the Intermountain Jewish News, a Denver-based Jewish weekly. But Zaler’s problems had only begun and very soon thereafter he was hit by a federal indictment.

The Rocky article details how the scam allegedly worked:

“According to the indictment, Zaler began his scheme in October 2005. That month, he created a fake purchase order stating that Kroenke Sports Entertainment, which operates the Pepsi Center, had ordered more than $700,000 worth of hot dogs. He then told a New Jersey-based investment company that if it loaned him money, he would repay it with payments from Kroenke Sports.

Between 2005 and 2006, the investment company transferred about $469,000 into Zaler’s bank account, the indictment says. The same scheme was used on other investors as well, the indictment says.” Pretty good scam as far as scams go. According to a story in the February 22, 2009 Jerusalem Post, one of Zaler’s greatest accomplishment was `to rob a disabled woman of $100,000 who had just lost her daughter.’ The same article also cites how in 1997, Zaler convinced a judge to delay his fraud trial by saying his father had just died – when the man was still very much alive.

At the time of his arraignment last year, with no apparent objection from prosecutors, federal magistrate Kathleen Tafoya agreed to let Zaler go free on an unsecured $25,000 bond, though he was required to forfeit his passport and temporary travel documents issued by Israel, and was ordered not to leave Colorado, but two months later, he managed to leave the country anyway and escape to Israel.

It was odd that Judge Tafoya would let Zaler off so easily as he already had a criminal record and had served time for similar activities in Arizona where he lived in the 1980s and 90s. While there he made an unsuccessful bid for political office. A web search suggests that in 1992 Zaler ran for the state legislature in Arizona and was able to raise $45,448 for the effort Perhaps some of Zaler’s old connections came into play here?

But his illicit business activities brought him down there too.

Indicted on more than 50 counts the first time round, Zaler served prison time in the 1990s for an Arizona fraud conviction. Prosecutors say he ran a computer game business and bilked at least 15 investors out of more than $15 million. He was also charged with selling $35,000 in fake Arizona Cardinals and Phoenix Suns tickets. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison but was he was paroled in 2002, and moved back to Denver.

Arnie? What happened? Is it simply that – as that line in a John Foster song suggests that `way down deep you’re shallow’ – as I suspect, or was it something else. Dunno.

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