He dreamed of living the life of a millionaire -- with a villa in the woods and an Aston Martin V12, preferably in Quantum Silver, in the garage. Once a moderately successful provincial attorney, he had decided that he was no longer willing to simply look on while others made their fortunes with major business deals.
But his dreams of that villa, that Aston Martin and all the other trappings of wealth have vanished into thin air. Ralf Hölzen, 46, a tall, slender man with graying hair is sitting in a café frequented by retirees in the town of Goch in western Germany. On his plates sits a slice of Black Forest cake and he is removing the canned cream from atop his coffee. Once again Hölzen is living with his parents, only two blocks from the café.
At the end of January, Hölzen will face trial in a district court in Feldkirch, in Austria's Vorarlberg region. Austrian prosecutors have filed charges against him and his accomplice, Dietmar B., 52, for attempted fraud and possession of counterfeit banknotes.
Arrested Holding $202 Million in Counterfeit Bills
Almost a year ago, Hölzen and B. were arrested in a bank in Austria's Kleinwalsertal ski valley. The duo stands accused of having attempted to exchange $202 million in counterfeit bills. The police also found $291 million more in counterfeit bills in a black Samsonite suitcase the men were carrying.
Technically speaking, it was one of the biggest successes that European police organizations have ever had in the fight against counterfeit US banknotes. But not even the Austrian police are willing to call it a coup. And that's because the defendants lacked both a plan and any professionalism.
Instead, the trial in Feldkirch is more likely to offer a cautionary tale about how, in greedy times, even ordinary people think there is a fast track to wealth. And about how they believed that they could get rich quick through a combination of cunning and a few printed piece of paper; And how they ruined their lives in the process.
"The thing" -- which is what Hölzen now calls the series of events during which he hoped to get rich quick -- began with an unannounced visit in September 2008. Life was not going well for Hölzen at the time. His marriage had failed, and he had lost his license to practice law because of his chaotic financial circumstances. Hölzen owed tens of thousands of Euros in back taxes and he was keeping himself afloat by working as a consultant.
Surprise Visitors Bring a Dodgy Deal
Two men walked into his office one afternoon. One of them, Hendrik van den B., a tall, gaunt older man, was wearing a dark, expensive-looking suit and introduced himself as a Dutch businessman. He looks as though he has money, Hölzen said to himself.
The other man, short and bald, was Dietmar B., from Essen in western Germany who looked much less imposing. According to Hölzen, what B. did not tell him was that he was a machinist, who had been unemployed for a long time and that he had already served prison time for attempted fraud and for his association with a criminal gang that was involved in grand larceny.
The men told Hölzen that he had been recommended to them by a former client and that they wanted him to prepare a purchase agreement for some historic stocks, some of which were American silver certificates. They told him that these silver certificates, which closely resembled ordinary dollar bills, were never used as a conventional form of payment but were traded between banks in the past. And they remained extremely valuable.
Hölzen, who dealt mainly with leases, tax law and traffic offences, had no experience with foreign currency transactions. His new clients may have seemed odd to him but he decided to put any misgivings aside. In the past, he had represented fraudulent investment advisors, the sort to use human greed to their own advantage. And eager to put an end to his own run of bad luck, Hölzen reasoned that what the two men were proposing could be his opportunity to earn a lot of money, and relatively easily.
Hölzen Says all He is Guilty of is Being Naïve
Which is why Hölzen told the men that he was interested in doing more for them than simply preparing legal documents. van den B., who saw Hölzen's proposal as a potential opportunity, gave the former attorney a banknote to examine. Hölzen scanned the bill and e-mailed the image to various acquaintances.
An employee with Julius Bär, a Swiss private bank, promptly replied that the pieces of paper were worthless. But Hölzen did not want to hear this. This deal of a lifetime couldn't possibly be over before it had even begun, he thought. "This is my big chance," he kept telling himself.
That is Hölzen's side of the story anyway. "I was naïve," he admits -- and that is all he will admit too. He continues to insist that he was not the main instigator of the crime with which he is now being charged.
Just Add Six Zeros And You Have a Million Dollars
The Austrian National Analysis Center (NAC) examined the 493 banknotes Hölzen and B. had in their possession. Of those notes, 295 were originally $1 bills. Counterfeiters increased the face value of the bills to $1 million, simply by adding six zeros. The counterfeiting was done "very expensively and professionally," say the specialists. According to the NAC, the remaining $1 million bills that were in Hölzen's possession were complete counterfeits.
The Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), Germany's federal police force, is all too familiar with the phenomenon of $1 million banknotes. Since 2003 they have been turning up in Germany more often.
Most are presented to commercial banks for exchange, complete with forged certificates of authenticity. Last June, Italy's financial police found US treasury bonds worth the staggering sum of $134 billion in the luggage of two Japanese nationals. The bonds were counterfeit but they were not well made.
Meanwhile Hölzen claims that, right up until his arrest, he was convinced of the authenticity of the bills and that this conviction -- that the bills were real -- was the only reason he continued to become more involved with the two men. At the beginning of January in 2009, he and van den B. traveled to the Swiss town of Rohrschach. There they met with a Spanish businessman, Cristian C., who they hoped would turn the "certificates" into real money. In a café, the Dutchman handed the Spaniard an envelope containing 490 bills, each denominated at $1 million. Hölzen sat in on the meeting; He paid close attention and then obtained a receipt for the transaction.
The Plan was to Make Handsome Profits for Everyone
Investigators believe that Cristian C. wanted to have the bills examined by a bank so that he could then use them as security against a loan. Hölzen later told authorities that Cristian C. had planned to use the loan to speculate on a grand scale and rake in handsome profits for everyone involved.
But the Spaniard failed to keep his alleged promise. He was unable to use the banknotes as security for a loan or exchange them for currency. He stopped calling the two men and answered their calls less and less frequently. Van den B. and Hölzen became nervous, fearing that C. was going to make off with the banknotes.
On Jan. 21 Hölzen and B. drove to Switzerland a second time. They had an appointment to meet with Cristian C. in Rohrschach at 12:45 p.m. But the Spaniard left them waiting.
Hölzen and B. were in a hurry. They had an appointment at the Volksbank Riezlern, a bank in the Kleinwalsertal area in Austria to keep that they had made days earlier. Riezlern is a popular tourist destination for skiers and hikers. But additionally because the valley is only accessible from Germany, used to have a special tax free status and because many Germans deposit their savings in Austrian bank accounts, it also boasts a thriving banking scene.
'This Stuff is Worthless'
Hölzen was familiar with Volksbank Riezlern from his days as an attorney and he planned to convert the certificates into cash there. He was determined not to share any of the proceeds with the German tax authorities.
When Cristian C. finally appeared, more than an hour late, he handed the two Germans a large brown envelope that contained the banknotes. Hölzen signed a receipt but no one counted the bills. "This stuff is worthless," C. claims to have said -- even though Hölzen and B. refused to believe him.
At the bank in Kleinwalsertal, the two Germans were met by one of the bank's employees, Jutta B. The men were impatient and anxious to unload the supposedly historic bills. They wanted the bank to determine their current market value, then credit the amount to the accounts they intended to open in Riezlern that day. That was the plan anyway.
The two men placed five $1 million banknotes on Jutta B.'s desk. "I had the feeling that they believed that the securities and the money were absolutely real," Jutta B. later told the police. But because the notes on her desk were unfamiliar to her Jutta B. was hesitant. Noticing her reaction, Hölzen and B. pulled out more bills: two bundles, one containing 99 and the other containing 100 banknotes. The notes came to a total of $199 million. The rest remained in the suitcase. Jutta B. excused herself and left her office. She called the bank's headquarters in Vienna where a colleague told her that he did not believe that $1 million bills existed. It was at that stage that someone also called the police.
Did They Really Think the Money was Real?
The eventual case, when it comes to court, will revolve around whether the two Germans believed that the banknotes were real or whether they were deliberately trying to unload counterfeit bills. The investigators claim that by the time they reached the bank in Riezlern, Hölzen and B. "had come to terms with the possibility that the banknotes could be counterfeit." They also say that Hölzen and B. must have figured that the employees at Volksbank Riezlern would not detect the fraud and would "credit their accounts despite the fact that the bills were worthless."
Hölzen, and B., who is in detention awaiting trial, dispute the investigators' claims. They insist that they are not dim-witted enough to have walked into a bank with half a billion dollars in counterfeit money. For this reason, the former attorney plans to tell the trial judge about what, in his opinion, are serious mistakes made during the investigation and why he thinks the case is tainted by legal contradictions.
Hölzen cannot expect any support from van den B., the man who allegedly obtained the counterfeit bills from unknown sources in the first place. The 74-year-old Dutchman, who has avoided being charged because authorities have been unable to find enough evidence linking him to the crime, will appear as a witness for the prosecution. He claims that he had no knowledge whatsoever of Hölzen's and B.'s excursion to Kleinwalsertal.