Investigative journalism: The story of David Riggs

Some newspaper people believe that ALL journalism is investigative journalism. There’s some truth to that. But stories like this one are different and require much more work than most. This particular story was about a very unusual man who got himself in trouble over and over again as he pursued big dreams, many of them not exactly legal. It required weeks of work and many interviews. I found out recently that the man, David Riggs, died a couple of years ago, plunging his jet plane into a lake in China. Things hadn’t changed very much for him. For what it’s worth, I’m very proud of this story, which I wrote for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. You better go get a cup of coffee, it’s REALLY long…


Staff Writer

A convicted bank swindler who says he moved to Tampa to start a new life in the video post-production industry has left a trail of unpaid bills, angry suppliers and disillusioned business associates.

In the three years since David Riggs came to Tampa from Atlanta, he has become involved in at least three post-production companies. In doing so, according to people close to Riggs’ business interests, he has allegedly cost investors and suppliers thousands of dollars — allegations he denies.

His current company, Digital Majik Post Productions Inc., does work for a number of advertising agencies and other clients, including Tampa-based Paradigm Communications, one of the Bay Area’s largest ad firms.

Many clients speak highly of Riggs’ editing abilities and the way he showers them and prospects with attention, including gifts.

But suppliers and former associates paint a different picture — they describe Riggs, who has spent time in U.S. and Hong Kong prisons, as a manipulating figure who takes their money and property and then leaves them holding the bag.

“I hope someone catches up with that rat so he will just go away,” said one former supplier who claims he was left holding an unpaid bill worth several thousand dollars.

According to various people, Riggs has claimed to be the recipient of Emmy and Clio awards; to have done work for such major clients as Mitsubishi Electronics; to have been the author of the “This Bud’s For You” slogan; to have served as a backup member of the U.S. Olympic skeet shooting team, and to have played the trombone in the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus band.

An investigation by the Business Journal — including interviews with more than two dozen people locally and elsewhere who know Riggs or have had dealings with him — revealed that many of those claims are suspect. In response, Riggs now says he either didn’t make the claims or that they were distorted by others.

For example, Riggs claims in a brochure to have won many industry awards, “including the coveted Emmy and Clio awards.” But in an interview this week, he first declined to discuss the Emmy, then said it had been won by someone else he had worked with.

“That has to do with clients and we don’t discuss anything more than the public record, which is easily obtainable,” Riggs said. “It is something that is very proprietary, something we don’t discuss.”

Later in the interview, Riggs said the Emmy had actually been awarded to a client for a project that Riggs had worked on.

“The Emmy was something we won, we don’t have a statue of it. We just edited a piece, it was a regional Emmy and they don’t give but one statue, and the producer has the statue,” Riggs said.

In any case, Riggs claims to have left his past, and said he operates his business in an ethical fashion.

“The focus of my life is the Dave that exists now,” Riggs said. “A number of your questions have dealt with the person who existed in the 1980s. That person got caught up in a decade of excess, allowed himself to get overwhelmed by that, made a series of ongoing mistakes at the age of 22 or 23, and it came back to haunt me.

“I paid the price for that. Society is happy with that, the government is happy with that, (and) now I try to live my life according to the rules of society. We operate a business here, (there is) no one at risk except myself — no investors, shareholders. It is my company. The bills add up at the end of the month, (and) if there is $100 left over, that is what I get paid, (if) $1,000, that is what I get paid. I’m not out to screw anybody or harm anyone.”

A number of people who have done business with Riggs, however, paint a different picture. And his past includes behavior that went beyond “excessive.”

Riggs’ life has been marked by controversy for years.

In high school, he played trombone in the Raytown (Mo.) South High School band. According to published report, he was thrown out after allegedly urinating into a fellow musician’s tuba.

Riggs soon dropped out of Raytown South, and never went back.

In 1980, a 17-year-old Riggs drove from Raytown to nearby Independence. He checked into the Ramada Inn under an assumed name.

According to court testimony, Riggs diverted the clerk’s attention, grabbed less than $150 from the cash box, and fled. When captured, he gave police a false name. They searched him and found a number of fraudulent driver’s licenses and credit cards, all under different names.

Riggs cut a deal, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of stealing under $150. He was sentenced to two years of probation.

A month after the Ramada Inn incident, Riggs was caught trying to shoplift a television set. Once again, he cut a deal, pleading guilty to another misdemeanor charge and receiving a suspended 60-day jail sentence and another year of probation.

Several years later, in his early 20s, he reportedly spent about a year working as a promoter of rock bands in the Kansas City, Mo., area.

He has told people in Tampa that he attended the noted Eastman School of Music in New York, and he said in the interview this week that he took summer courses there.

The school, however, said an extensive search could find no record of his attendance.

Riggs arrived in Tampa in the fall of 1994 after living for a time in Atlanta, where he had moved following his parole from Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas.

Soon after moving here, he hooked up with Harry Scherwinski, a local attorney and CPA. Scherwinski could not be located for this story.

According to Riggs, Scherwinski formed Bay View Productions, a video post-production company, and contracted him as an editor. At the time, the two said they were working on a syndicated television series, “Outdoor World with Curt Gowdy,” which Scherwinski said was to run for 13 weeks on WGN-TV in Chicago, starting in October 1995.

John Samaha, owner of Tampa-based Shooting Stars Post, rented space to Bay View Productions.

“Riggs is a very Type A guy, and he was relentless in asking me about the space,” Samaha recalled. “I agreed under a few basic rules. He said I would get editing work from the Curt Gowdy shows. And he promised not to service outside post-production clients here. They signed a nine-month lease.”

The rules and promises, however, were soon broken, according to Samaha.

Riggs claims that Samaha should be angry with someone else, not with him.

“The deal he had was not with me,” Riggs said. “His deal was with Bay View Productions, and he rented them space. I didn’t sign (the lease), I didn’t write checks to him, I didn’t have anything to do with it. I was a paid contract employee of Bay View.”

Again, Scherwinski could not be found for comment.

Years earlier, even before getting into the rock promotion world, Riggs found work as an adjuster for Missouri’s American Family Insurance.

It turned out to be an opportunity for his first serious scam.

According to a 1990 story in the Kansas City Business Journal, Riggs set up a dummy company, SMT Enterprises, using then-girlfriend Sharon Martin’s initials to name the bogus firm.

Riggs convinced the insurance company that SMT provided replacement property to people who had suffered insurance losses. According to court records, Riggs would fabricate a phony loss, then get American Family to issue a check to SMT. Martin would endorse the check and turn it over to Riggs.

The scam was uncovered and Riggs, still on probation from his previous misdemeanors, was indicted. He was convicted on all seven counts, and was sentenced to five additional years of probation.

In Tampa, Samaha said Scherwinski and Riggs attracted several investors. “(But) Riggs snowballed all those guys,” Samaha claims.

In luring those investors, Riggs apparently never spoke of his 10-year sentence for scamming a number of Kansas City banks out of $4.3 million in 1987. But the secret didn’t last long.

“Riggs knew the word was out,” Samaha said. “He told me all this stuff was about to go down.”

Soon after, the Curt Gowdy project did fall apart, prompting Scherwinski and Riggs to start doing outside work — in apparent violation of their lease agreement with Samaha.

Samaha told them they would have to get out. Riggs agreed, but he didn’t vacate the space until Samaha obtained a court order.

A number of years after the SMT scam, Riggs established a Kansas City company to produce radio jingles.

From the jingles, Riggs started doing video work, and his Mokan Productions Ltd. started making money. Riggs hired employees, and the studio grew.

But Riggs had his sights on more than video work. Mokan wasn’t going to be just an audio and video studio; it was going to be a springboard to great wealth. By then, Riggs was in his mid-20s, and he was about to become a millionaire.

While work on the Curt Gowdy show was still ongoing, Riggs was able to get companies here to back his efforts.

One of those companies was Tampa’s Vaughn Communications, which Riggs had contacted about printing and supplying the sleeves for the Gowdy videos.

“We printed all of those, 2,500 each of eight or 10 titles,” said Ric Everett, the salesman who handled the order. “Riggs had asked for a point-of-sale display, something to hold 48 tapes, so I had him go directly to our source.”

However, the supplier balked at doing the job without money up front. He asked Vaughn to guarantee the job, and Everett agreed.

“I agreed, and Riggs ordered $5,000 worth of materials and he never paid. Here I am trying to do him a favor and he burns me.”

According to Everett, Riggs claimed the bill should have been paid by Bay View Productions or by Scherwinski, not by him.

A year ago, Vaughn Communications bought out a competing video duplicating company, CenterCom. “You know what? Riggs owed them money, too,” Everett said. “So he’s on our books twice.”

Again, Riggs blames others, even though he was the person who ordered the work.

“We (Digital Magik) don’t have an account at Vaughn Communications,” Riggs said. “I had no authority to bind (Bay View) to anything. If the company didn’t pay its bills … there is no possible way that can be attributed to me because I had nothing to do with it (and) it is outside the realm of what I am allowed to discuss with you.

“I know the people involved in Bay View; they are highly reputable business people, the investors behind it, and it would shock me to hear they hadn’t paid a bill.”

Everett said Riggs has called him since starting Digital Majik, seeking to do business. “We don’t know if he doesn’t get it or not, but we just don’t want to do business with him,” Everett said.

While he was running Mokan Productions in Kansas City, Riggs established a phony Nashville, Tenn., firm dubbed National Studio Supply. According to court records, it made bogus sales of fictitious video equipment to Mokan Productions between 1985 and 1987.

And according to the Kansas City Business Journal, Riggs then took records from the sales to 10 banks and leasing companies, and used them to secure loans of around $4.3 million. Suddenly, Mokan Productions was rolling in cash, and David Riggs was flying around in a Beech King Air and driving a Lamborghini.

The second phase of his great scam was about to begin.

Riggs set about developing a set of cooked books and a list of fictitious clients. The result was a snapshot of a hot, rising company with fat profit margins and a stable of nationally known clients.

Court records say he got Mokan’s auditor, Arthur Young & Co. (since merged into what is now Ernst & Young) to certify Mokan’s financial health, providing the firm with false information; and he hired a Kansas City law firm, Linde Thomson Langworthy Kohn & Van Dyke.

Everything was in place to take Mokan Productions public.

Less than a decade later in Tampa, with the Curt Gowdy project in ashes and their space gone, Scherwinski and Riggs concentrated on founding a new company, Digital Domain. By August 1995, they had moved to Hyde Park and begun doing commercial video editing and production work.

Scherwinski and Riggs sent out flyers to ad agencies and producers. They claimed to have better video technology than any other post-production facility in town.

“We’re offering total digital Betacam,” Scherwinski told reporters. “We’re pretty much a pioneer in the Southeast.”

Just a few months later, though, Riggs and Scherwinski had split up, and Riggs was out of Digital Domain.

“Dave came to me around September or October of 1995 and said he had severed his relationship with Scherwinski at Digital Domain,” said Leslie Gaines, a local filmmaker who would later join Riggs in business at Digital Magik.

“He told me he was ready to be thrown out of his rental house, he had no money for rent, no money for his car payment, no money for food. He asked me to loan him $500.”

Later, Scherwinski left Digital Domain as well.

Digital Domain remains in business and by all accounts is doing well. Its current owners say they are prevented from talking about Riggs and Scherwinski because of confidentiality clauses in legal agreements with the pair.

“Scherwinski left around February of this year, and we haven’t seen him since,” was all Digital Domain’s Greg Metcalf would say.

In his interview, Riggs said a confidentiality agreement involving himself, Scherwinski and Digital Domain prevented him from discussing the split-up.

“If their attorneys will permit me to do so, I would be happy to, sir, and would welcome the opportunity,” Riggs said. “But unfortunately they will not release me from the obligation, and I have agreed not to discuss that situation, and I honor my commitments.”

Riggs’ departure from Digital Domain was considerably less dramatic than his flight from Kansas City some 10 years earlier.

Riggs had approached Lowell Listrom & Co., a Kansas City investment firm, about taking Mokan Production public. Lowell Listrom agreed to underwrite the offering.

Mokan offered 600,000 shares of stock at $5 per share, or one-third of the company. The $3 million was reportedly to be used to repay debt and purchase new equipment.

The stock was on the market for nine days before Mokan employees expressed doubts about Mokan’s revenue figures and other details, and said that Mokan’s client list was bogus.

Michael VanDyke, an attorney for Linde Thomson, announced the suspension of the offering in April 1987, saying Mokan had failed to produce “certain documents” that he would not identify.

With the Mokan deal falling apart, Riggs told his pilot, David Wheeler, he would “like to pull the plug and leave.”

Riggs obtained a passport under the name of David John Harl, an Overland Park, Mo., man who had died in an auto accident. He went to the Bank of Lee’s Summit, withdrew $240,000, and wired an additional $725,000 to the Cayman National Bank and Trust Co. in the Cayman Islands and to Barclay’s Bank in Freeport, Bahamas.

Before taking flight, Riggs, his wife at the time, Nancy, and Wheeler shredded six to eight plastic trash bags full of Mokan documents, according to a deposition Wheeler gave federal investigators.

Wheeler and Riggs then flew to the Cayman Islands.

It wasn’t the Caymans, but Riggs, in a Business Journal interview two years ago, claimed he came to Tampa to attempt a new start.

Late in 1995, Riggs reportedly turned to Gaines with a proposal — secure rented space, supply a computer and get a telephone installed, and Riggs would supply an Avid video editing system for a new company, Digital Magik.

The Avid equipment would be easy to obtain, Riggs said, because he was an ASR — an Avid Service Representative, officially recognized by the Avid company.

Gaines could say little about the episode because he, too, is bound by a confidentiality clause in a legal settlement with Riggs.

But information from various sources piece together this picture:

Gaines rented space in the NationsBank Building at 1111 N. Westshore Blvd., provided his Social Security number to GTE for telephone service, and purchased computer equipment.

As promised, Riggs delivered an Avid editing station.

Gaines later introduced Riggs to a Seminole Indian woman, Dorothy Tommie, and to Tommie’s daughter Karen, partners with Gaines in a business that produced films about Seminole culture.

Details of what happened next are murky, but Gaines was soon out of Digital Magik, and sources say the adventure cost him more than $30,000.

Months later, Gaines’ office phones were turned off. GTE pulled the plug because, it said, Gaines owed it money for a phone installed in Sarasota under Gaines’ Social Security number.

GTE officials said the telephone, in the name of Digital Magik, was installed at the Sarasota home of Rick Lamb. Lamb had reportedly been hired by Riggs as Digital Magik’s director of infomercial marketing.

In an interview, Riggs claimed to have no knowledge of the telephone. He said Lamb was never an employee, but rather an independent contractor who is no longer doing work for Digital Magik. Lamb could not be reached, but sources said his parting with Riggs was an unhappy one.

Riggs landed in prison in Hong Kong while wandering the globe after having fled Kansas City in 1987.

At one point, he got rid of his passport, but it was recovered in New Zealand. The passport showed that in a seven-week period, Riggs had been in London three times, New Zealand twice, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

Wherever he went, Riggs left a string of bank accounts. An FBI agent who pursued Riggs, John Meunier, found bank accounts that Riggs had opened in more than a dozen banks. Meunier told the federal court in Kansas City that he found accounts opened by Riggs in New Zealand, Toronto, Geneva, Hong Kong, and South Africa, in addition to his Cayman Islands and Bahamas accounts.

To South African newspapers, Riggs was David Rogers, rhino cowboy.

Riggs had pretty much settled in South Africa as David Rogers in 1988. He then tried to launch a new career as a smuggler of rhinoceros horns and elephant tusks, according to South African authorities.

Police in South Africa said Riggs became involved in a plot to steal $16 million worth of rhino horns and ivory that were stored in vaults at the Natal Parks Board offices in Maritzburg, South Africa.

Investigators were reportedly waiting for Riggs to pull off the theft when Riggs decided to go to Hong Kong to investigate markets for $3 million worth of ivory and rhino horns, which the government of South Africa had seized from poachers and smugglers.

When Riggs got to Kai Tak Airport, officials found rhino horns in a suitcase filled with women’s underwear. A quick investigation showed Riggs was traveling under a false Australian passport using the name of Michael Joseph East. He was arrested and jailed.

Riggs spent a year in the Hong Kong jail, and he claims to have been beaten severely there. In the interview with the Business Journal, he said a large scar on his forehead, plus scars on his back and arms, resulted from beatings in the Hong Kong prison.

A year to the day after being jailed, U.S. Marshal Lee Koury arrived to take him back to the United States. Normally a pudgy man, Riggs had lost more than 30 pounds because of a year-long diet of rice and fish eggs.

In January 1990, Riggs was finally arraigned in U.S. District Court in Kansas City on 28 counts of bank fraud and one count of passport fraud.

His alleged deceit of Tampa-based Express-It Messenger Service isn’t a federal case, but try telling that to Michael Rich.

Rich, systems manager for Express-It, said Riggs started using Express-It Messenger early in 1996, first on a cash basis, and then on an account.

Digital Magik ran up a significant bill between March and May 1996 before Express-It cut off the company.

“He left us holding $1,212,” Rich said. “He wrote us a couple of bad checks. I had promise after promise. He told me the Indians had burned him.”

Once again, Riggs blames someone else for the outstanding Express-It account.

“I am aware of that situation. A client of ours had an account. He used that account for some of his work while he was with us. Once again, I don’t discuss clients.

“That account doesn’t exist in my name, it never existed in my name. It existed in the name of a client who didn’t pay his bills and he proceeded to try to blame me for it.”

In another episode earlier last year, John Samaha said he received a visit from two lawyers at his Shooting Stars studio, where Riggs had rented space.

“They wanted to know if I knew where they could find Dave Riggs,” Samaha said. “They said they represented the Federal Express company, and that Riggs owed Fed Ex about $15,000.”

Once again, Riggs said the Fed Ex problem involved not him, but an errant client who ran up a bill and then failed to pay.

“The same individual that had the account with the messenger service had an account with Federal Express,” he said. “I had a very lengthy dialogue with them because it showed up on my TRW (credit report.) We discussed it and they agreed there was no outstanding balance owned by Digital Magik and they have removed that.”

Meanwhile, Gaines was exiting from Digital Magik, leaving Dorothy and Karen Tommie to deal with Riggs. Riggs and the Tommies had reportedly discussed joint projects, and the Tommies reportedly invested in equipment that remains at Digital Magik.

According to Riggs, the Tommies’ only connection was through a client, presumably another company owned by Gaines, Gulfstream Communications. Riggs said the Tommies later decided to return to Hollywood, Fla. He said he still holds some of their equipment because the Tommies owe him money.

The Tommies’ attorney, Andrew Mann of Fort Lauderdale, now says the women are considering legal action against Riggs.

At his Kansas City trial, Riggs pleaded not guilty to the 29-count indictment, but later worked out a deal. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of bank fraud, one count of wire fraud, and one count of passport fraud. Riggs could have been sentenced to 15 years and fined more than $500,000. Instead, he was sentenced to 10 years, and his Hong Kong prison time was credited to his sentence.

After serving about three years in Leavenworth, Riggs was paroled. He moved immediately to Atlanta, and started looking for business deals in the video post-production field.

In Atlanta, Riggs found Fred Wynne, a wealthy businessman who owned a video post-production company called Video Post.

Soon, Riggs was chief operating officer. Eventually, however, Wynne heard about Riggs’ past and fired him. That led to a series of lawsuits between the two, which were settled again with a confidentiality clause. Reached in South Carolina, Wynne declined to comment.

However, in an interview with the Atlanta Business Chronicle, Wynne said Riggs had done a very good sales job.

“I was infatuated with Dave,” he said. “He was a wonderful salesman. This is the damnedest thing I’ve ever been through in my life.”

In 1994, after just a year in Atlanta, Riggs settled his lawsuits, applied for a transfer of his parole, and moved to Tampa.

Executives in the Bay Area advertising community who have done business with Riggs speak well of his editing abilities, and say he has provided them with good service.

He also has done pro bono work on the personal projects of some ad people, and this year was very involved in the video shown at the ad community’s annual Addy Awards program.

“I hear he has quite a history, but I think he is a very professional editor,” said Martha Bone, a creative director at Paradigm Communications. “He has got a good business head, and he has a handful of awards — he has them hanging on his wall.

“He doesn’t lie just for the sake of flair. David is very flair-oriented.”

For his part, Riggs claims to be a hard-working and dedicated professional who serves his clients while trying to overcome his past.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “I’m not saying I am perfect, because I’m not. A lot of people have made the same mistakes, a lot have made less, a lot have made a lot worse. A lot of people never got caught.

“None of that is a justification for what happened to me. I’m sorry it happened. The only way I know how to make that right is to run my business and conduct myself to the highest ethical standards. Ask my clients, and they will tell you that is what I do.”



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