Thursday, March 18, 2004

He was too good to be true

Kenneth Arron's life of lies and trail of deception ends here

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kenneth Arron

Kenneth Arron swept into Hyde Park nearly two years ago - his loud, charismatic personality overwhelming every room he entered.

He boasted that he came from a moneyed Chicago family, claimed to be a Gulf War veteran and bragged he was the executive director of a charitable foundation that would dole out $5 million to local nonprofit organizations.

But police say he's a con man who pledged more than $200,000 to six local non-profit groups and never paid up - all in an effort to ingratiate himself with the city's elite and live the life he believed he deserved.

His life of lies and trail of deception screeched to a halt last fall, leaving him clad in a black-and-white striped jail uniform waiting to be sentenced Friday in Hamilton County on a forgery charge related to his schemes.

Investigators said Cincinnati was his latest stop on a lifelong road of financial scams and prison stints.

"His entire life is a lie," said Cincinnati Police Detective Timothy Tighe.

Tighe started investigating Kenneth Arron on stalking allegations, but discovered the 41-year-old had duped well-known organizations and charities, including the Taft Museum. Arron was convicted this month of forgery for signing a letter of intent to donate $19,000 to the museum to help pay for scholarships to its summer camp. The money was never delivered.

Nearly a dozen other charities recounted similar tales about Arron, but either the detective couldn't prove a crime was committed or the organizations didn't want to prosecute.

"I think we stopped a lot of other crimes from happening," Tighe said. "Thank God he didn't do much damage here, but he had potential."

It started in grade school

Officials in three states said they couldn't find a steady, legitimate source of income for Arron during most of his life. Tighe said it appears Arron's parents support him financially. Friends just assumed he came from money: He dressed impeccably, was equipped with the newest electronic gadgetry and lived in a posh Hyde Park duplex.

Jack Rubenstein, the lawyer representing Arron, declined to talk about the case. His parents declined to be interviewed.

But court records, which include interviews with Arron and his parents from previous criminal cases, indicate Arron's troubles date to his childhood in suburban Chicago.

After continued behavioral problems, Arron saw numerous counselors, was treated for hyperactivity, and took Ritalin and other medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. At 17, he spent 41/2 months in a hospital's psychiatric center after he set fire to a hotel in an attempt to cover up purchases he made using his father's credit card. When he reached adulthood, he was diagnosed as manic-depressive and started taking lithium and Prozac.

By then, his life of crime was well under way.

Arron was arrested seven times in various Chicago suburbs by the time he was 20. He was convicted of theft and misusing credit cards, which he used to check into hotels then skip out on the bill.

He served about two years in prison, where he took correspondence courses in radio and television at Southern Illinois University.

After his release, Arron moved to Arizona, living in Tempe and Scottsdale. He worked as a broadcaster and in advertising.

It wasn't long, though, before he was back to broken promises that landed him behind bars.

He was arrested in 1987 for bilking a woman out of $3,000 that he said he was using to market another business, but instead used to buy pricey jewelry and a Gucci watch.

He told detectives the purchases "may be considered extravagant to some, (but) they had become a way of life to him and, therefore, were necessities."

In that case, he served three years of a five-year sentence.

Almost immediately after he was released from prison, he was arrested, charged and convicted of passing more than $10,000 in bad checks for clothes and shoes, according to police reports.

Arron is a "career criminal who showed no remorse for his actions," said Scottsdale Police Detective Robert Hill in one report, adding that he thought Arron was a perpetual liar and a contijued threat to society.

He was released from the Arizona prison system in 1999 and moved in with his parents, where he was to serve out his parole. He was ordered not to leave the state.

Woman draws him here

With nothing but a suitcase full of clothes, Arron moved to Hyde Park in June 2002 to live with a woman he met in the Chicago area.

That's when friends say he became a permanent fixture on the Hyde Park social scene.

At 6-feet, 6-inches tall, bald and solidly built, Arron dressed either Lands' End casual or business-suit crisp in laundered dress shirts complete with French cuffs and gold cuff links. He often drove his silver, sport-utility vehicle to Ault Park, where he walked Guinness, his chocolate Labrador retriever.

Most mornings Arron could be found at Awakenings, a coffee shop on Hyde Park square where locals gather to relax and catch up.

"Our group at Awakenings is like a family. We take care of each other," said Glenda Hertzman, who befriended Arron when he first moved to Cincinnati. "Ken seemed to want and need a family.

"We welcomed him," she said.

And he was generous with friends. He hosted potluck dinners every Friday. When a friend's mother died, he bought pastries from the Bonbonerie and hired a professional cleaning service to make sure the friend's home was ready for guests.

"He is a bigger-than-life person," said Anita Cory Weimer, a fund-raiser who worked with Arron on the Taft Museum donation. "He pulls you in; he's very believable."

"He loved being the toast of the town. In his own mind he was."

But other times, friends said, a different person emerged: controlling, intimidating and profane.

"He had this whole neighborhood intimidated," said his landlord, Gary Morgan. "People were afraid to walk in front of his house because he'd come out on the balcony in his bathrobe and yell at people."

The $1,250-a-month rent was paid by Arron's former girlfriend. She could not be reached.

"His smile could be charismatic, but when it turned into a grimace, he could be intimidating," Morgan said.

Right clothes, right resume

In January, Arron contacted Body Chemistre, a Chicago-based company known for edgy designs aimed at the horsy set, pitching himself as a marketer who could give the company a foothold in Cincinnati.

He told the company's president, Barbara Stratigakis, that he worked with Animal Planet and Silver Cup Studios, which produce such cable television shows as The Sopranos and Sex in the City. If Stratigakis gave him clothing samples, he said, she would see actors wearing them on TV.

They met in Indianapolis Arron wore the right clothes, said the right thing and his resume touted the right credentials, including working as special-events coordinator for the Walt Disney Co. He also said he was a Marine between 1980 and 1986, serving as a liaison to the White House and as a State Department aide.

Stratigakis was wary weeks before she would discover Arron's resume was all lies.

"He seemed to be too good to be true," she said. "But on the other hand, it would be a good opportunity."

So she hired him, agreeing to pay him $10,000.

Using Body Chemistre as a cloak of legitimacy, Arron began worming his way into Cincinnati's charitable organizations with phony promises of donations.

Under the guise of the Body Chemistre Foundation, Arron pledged $10,000 to the Cincinnati Zoo's adopt-an-animal program in February 2003.

Body Chemistre was legitimate. The foundation never existed.

But Cory Weimer didn't know that when she saw a story about Arron and this new foundation, which he said was being based in Cincinnati. That story said the foundation would give out $1 million a year for five years to local nonprofits.

Cory Weimer picked up the phone, eager to see if Arron might be interested in helping the Taft Museum.

"It all looked very above-board," she said. "I couldn't find anything bad on him."

A short time later, in a small ceremony at the Taft Museum, Arron awarded the museum a letter promising to give $19,000 to fund the scholarship. At the same time, he also promised another $102,000 to other charities.

It was the Taft letter that eventually would expose him.

Clues and a phone call

By spring 2003, some in Arron's circles were beginning to grow suspicious. His outrageous stories weren't adding up.

For instance, Arron's claims of his military service didn't make sense to Barbara Stratigakis' husband, Tom, who was a former member of the military's Special Forces.

"I never told him that," Tom Stratigakis said. "I made off-the-cuff inquiries to see if he could come up with the right answers. Sometimes they were and important times they weren't.

"I said something is not right about this guy," he said.

Then, the Stratigakises got a call from Tighe. The detective asked questions about the Body Chemistre Foundation. Barbara Stratigakis scoffed, telling Tighe no such foundation existed.

Days later, Tighe and Arron talked on the telephone. Arron told the detective he feared being charged in Cincinnati, so he was driving to Chicago to see his parents and would turn himself in for violating his parole for living in Cincinnati.

"He was very loud, excited, tried to be controlling," Tighe said. "He hunkered down and knew he had to come up with his best story."

Arron promised to change his life. He claimed his father had bought a hotel in Florida and he was going to go and manage it. Tighe told him to come back to Cincinnati and hung up the phone.

The detective signed a warrant for his arrest in Cincinnati, and last October a Hamilton County grand jury indicted him.

But first Arron had to serve six months in prison on the parole violation. After that, he was brought back to Cincinnati, where he was convicted on the forgery charge.

After the Ohio case concludes Friday, Arron faces additional charges in Illinois related to Body Chemistre. If convicted there, he could face another three to seven years behind bars.

Arron's friends say they just don't understand how the man they trusted could betray them.

"It hurt financially, but it also hurt emotionally," his friend Hertzman said.

"I wonder if everything was contrived," she said.

Tighe says people should not blame themselves for believing Arron.

"He could talk your shoes off you," Tighe said.

Hertzman's husband, Stan, called Arron bright and engaging:

"If he used half his energy doing something legal, he could be on top of the world."


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