Con man ran for governor, then fled

James Ray Houston’s distinctive gap-toothed smile and blonde hair was plastered all over billboards during one of his biggest cons: running for governor of Nevada in 1974.

Houston’s escapades kept his photo in the newspapers on a regular basis.

He was constantly promising to pay back the more than 1,100 people who lost their money and never received the promised silver from Houston’s Western Pacific Gold and Silver Exchange.

There were headlines and photos when he declared bankruptcy and when the Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating him. The SEC and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Lloyd George issued arrest warrants for him, so he fled in April 1975.

In less than a year he had gone from Independent American gubernatorial candidate to fugitive.

In September 1975, while still on the lam, he was indicted  in Las Vegas on 24 counts of mail and wire fraud. Two bankruptcy fraud charges were later dismissed.

Supposedly, there was a nationwide search by the FBI for the con man.

But the canny federal agent who put Houston’s capture into motion wasn’t with the FBI.

Tom Harper was a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Las Vegas. Harper had been exposed to the countless photos of the onetime gubernatorial candidate and had seen him in the Foley Federal Building where Harper worked.

On Oct. 15, 1977, Harper was flying from Atlanta to Jacksonville for a teaching assignment. He told the Review-Journal he glanced across the aisle and recognized Houston from the gap in his front teeth.

Knowing Houston was a fugitive, he asked the stewardess to tell the Delta Airlines pilot to radio ahead so the FBI could arrest Houston when they landed in Jacksonville. Harper spoke directly to the pilot and co-pilot. But the pilot refused, even after the co-pilot, who coincidentally had invested with Houston and lost his money, confirmed it was Houston.

The pilot said it was against the rules, and wouldn’t radio ahead.

On the ground, Harper tried to get security to hold Houston; but they, too, refused, even though he identified himself as a federal agent.

Then, the frustrated Harper personally confronted Houston, who laughed and showed his Florida driver’s license with another name. Houston left in a cab and the incredibly persistent Harper took the cab’s license plate. He called the FBI in Jacksonville, but was told there was no warrant for Houston.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

When Harper returned to Las Vegas, he went to the FBI here and told them what had happened. Like Harper, the FBI here recognized Houston was a big fish.

So 36 hours later, James Ray Houston, con man and swindler, was in custody, arrested in a Tampa, Fla., motel.

He returned to Las Vegas wearing belly chains and handcuffs and his usual big smile for the cameras.

He claimed he was broke and had been working as an $8-a-day ice cream truck driver when he moved to Florida after fleeing Las Vegas two years earlier. When he was arrested, Houston was using another name and said he was working as a smoke detector salesman.

It was always difficult to separate fact from fiction with Houston. He told his tales so well.

When he finally went to trial in 1978, the jurors believed him when he said Western Pacific Gold and Silver Exchange had not been a Ponzi scheme and he never intended to defraud anyone.

Not everyone was that gullible.

After the trial, U.S. District Judge Roger Foley said he thought Houston was guilty. “He’s a plain and simple crook and will never be anything else.”

Mark 2012 as the year Nevada lost another scoundrel to death. But at least he wasn’t an elected crook. At least voters spared Nevada that humiliation.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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