Madera and the ‘Great Imposter’
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Before he came to Madera County in 1963, to open up a school for boys in North Fork, Fred Demara had already built a national reputation as a con man. Demara had successfully passed himself off as a civil engineer, a lawyer, an editor, a teacher, and a surgeon. So outlandish were his exploits that Hollywood made a movie of his life.
People called Ferdinand Waldo Demara the world’s greatest con man and for good reason. He had such persuasive skills that his life story was made into a book and a movie, the titles of which were, not surprisingly, “The Great Imposter.”
Born in 1921, Fred Demara had found employment as a civil engineer, a lawyer, an editor, a teacher, and a surgeon by the time he was 30 years old — without ever having spent a day in college preparing for these professions. Instead, he had smooth-talked his way into these jobs.
By 1960, the authorities caught this human chameleon, but instead of being incensed, they were enthralled; they wanted to learn more, so Fred obliged them. He sold his life story to Life Magazine, and author Robert Crichton wrote a best-selling biography, which was then adapted into a movie starring Tony Curtis as Demara.
All of that notoriety notwithstanding, Fred just could not completely give up his life of guile. He had to conduct just one more sting; that’s why he came to Madera County in 1963. Almost overnight Demara decided to become a counselor and open up a school for wayward youth. That’s what landed him in Judge Alec Brown’s court in Madera in May 1964.
Somehow, Demara convinced a group of investors in Canoga Park that he was an educator with special skills in counseling troubled youth. He persuaded his supporters, led by one Angelo Zaffuto, to purchase the Lutheran camp site near North Fork and build the Calvary Ranch School for Boys there. By September 1963, Demara was ready for business. Soon, he had worked out an arrangement with several counties to place a number of boys who had been made wards of the court in Demara’s school.
Everything seemed to be coming up roses for the king of guile, and then all of a sudden on Monday, May 4, 1964, his plan began to unravel. In one fell swoop, all of his students were packed up and taken away from his school by the authorities. Demara claimed to be puzzled, but conceded that he might need a lawyer, so he borrowed the school station wagon and headed for Los Angeles to find the barrister he knew best — the celebrated Melvin Belli.
Before he could find Belli, however, Demara heard that a warrant had been issued for his arrest for auto theft. When he learned that Zaffuto had filed charges against him for taking off in the school station wagon, Fred turned himself in to the Los Angeles authorities. By the next day, he was back in Madera County facing, not only auto theft charges, but child molestation accusations as well.
Demara spent a week in the Madera County jail without saying a word; he didn’t have to. Melvin Belli, “The King of Torts,” would come to Madera and do all the talking that was necessary for the “Great Imposter.”
On May 28, 1964, Judge Alec Brown’s court was full and running over. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the infamous con man and his equally famous, silver-haired attorney. A jury of seven women and five men were seated and sworn, and with that, the trial began. It took them less than thirty minutes to bring in a not guilty verdict. Demara, however, was not off the hook yet. The prosecution produced three additional witnesses who accused Demara of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The “Great Imposter” would have to stand trial again, so back to the slammer he went.
Demara’s second trail, which began on June 24, 1964, was held in the Madera County Superior Court. A jury of nine women and three men were sworn, and the arguments began.
Deputy District Attorney David Stockman and his famous adversary sparred the rest of that first day of the new trial and all of the next. Belli put several character witnesses on the stand who testified that Demara was being railroaded by several boys who had decided to “get” Demara after he had punished them. For his part, all Stockman could produce were three boys who were not exactly paragons of virtue themselves, a fact which Belli adroitly underscored.
At 4:45 p.m. on June 25, 1964, the jury announced it had reached a verdict. Once again Demara was found not guilty on all charges. This second jury had taken twice as long in its deliberations as the jury in the first trial — 60 minutes. By five o’clock, the “Great Imposter” and the “King of Torts” were ready to leave the courtroom and go their separate ways.
Ironically, after his appearance in Madera, Belli’s career suffered from serious decline, and he had to file for bankruptcy. For his part, the “Great Imposter” had taken his last curtain call in Madera. He drifted to Los Angeles and died in 1982 of complications from diabetes.
As for our town, it found itself in the center of national attention for awhile. The celebrity status of the San Francisco lawyer and his client put Madera on the map, and some people never did forget that legal tussle of more than half a century ago, especially Judge Brown.