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Keystone Killers

You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again Parrent

by and Tiffany Robin, Liza, Linda. as told to Jennie Louise Frankel, Terrie Maxine Frankel, and Joanne
Dove Books, 251 pp., $22.95

The most important fact to remember about Joseph Gamsky, other than his conviction for murder in the first degree and subsequent sentence to life imprisonment in the California penal system, is that during the mid-1970s he was a high school debater. Gamsky, in fact, was so confident of his ferocious forensic skills that, according to Randall Sullivan’s account in The Price of Experience, he was thrown off the debating squad after challenging his coach for not appointing him to the team captaincy he regarded as his by merit; the coach’s decision, he argued, was a deliberately ignominious slight that could not be countenanced.

This dust-up occurred at the Harvard School in the San Fernando Valley, at that time the best known of the private preparatory schools catering to the male children of well-to-do Los Angeles families. An Episcopalian military institution when it was founded near the turn of the century, Harvard for years had an implicit quota system that effectively limited the number of Jewish admissions. Then deep into the l960s, the military affiliation was eliminated, secularism encouraged, and quiet signals of acceptability were sent to the largely Jewish show-business community on the West Side of Los Angeles. Harvard remained the sort of school, however, where the apocryphal was accepted as fact; students were said to light their cigarettes with hundred-dollar bills, and it was claimed that a mother once drove her Rolls-Royce onto the football field to remove her injured son.

Joseph Gamsky was a scholarship student of ambiguous sexuality and a family background he preferred to keep mysterious. He took the bus to school, unlike most of his classmates, who arrived in their own cars, not a few of which were top of the line foreign models. After the failure of his debating team putsch, Gamsky maintained that he could no longer apply to Yale or Stanford, his early choices, because he did not wish to matriculate with the kind of people he had met at the Harvard School. When he graduated in 1977, he went to the University of Southern California, a school better known for its football team and Heisman Trophy winners (O.J. Simpson being the most prominent) than for academic excellence. One semester into his sophomore year, Gamsky dropped out of USC, never to return.

Then, in the spring of 1980, he ran into two Harvard School acquaintances, Dean Karny and Arben (“Ben”) Dosti, both of whom were studying at UCLA. Gamsky, now a six-foot-five-inch beanpole, had not lost the gift of gab that had served him so well as a school debater, or his flair for inventive personal aggrandizement. He told Karny and Dosti he had graduated from USC in three semesters, had been the youngest person ever to pass the CPA exam, was working in an accountancy firm in downtown Los Angeles, and had uncovered in his spare time the key to mastering the commodities market. If Gamsky was not exactly truthful, neither were his fabrications the kind Karny and Dosti, partners in gullibility, were apt to check, since his distortions appeared to open a door into a high-stakes world of easy money that they themselves might enter. The wait-your-turn habits of business were not for him, Gamsky told his friends, because senior executives were “threatened by an intelligent presence in the corporate structure.” Youth was not wasted on the young, Gamsky seemed to be saying, youth was risk, and risk was where the money was.

It was a debater’s rap, and what made it interesting was the way it enticed not just Gamsky’s contemporaries but also their parents, who saw him as an invigorating influence on their sons. He did not do drugs or booze nor did he seem particularly interested in getting laid; his eye was just fixed on the main chance. He had an investment theory, and if no one quite understood it, no matter; his chat suggested so much candlepower that those who heard him harbored no doubts that he could pull off what he said he would pull off, whatever it was. Putting their capital to work was how he phrased it, with yield curves and overlapping spreads and cross-indexed market plays permitting him to adjust loss to the point of non-existence.

The parents of his friends swallowed this patter and pressed money on him, fifty thousand dollars into his trading account here, one hundred and fifty there, another hundred and a half from that bunch in Ohio somebody knew. With a nest egg of over $700,000, Joe Gamsky was able to lease a seat to trade on Chicago’s Mercantile Exchange. Like Minnesota’s Jimmy Gatz, who reinvented himself as Jay Gatsby, Joe Gamsky decided to class up his name, and re-emerged legally as Joseph Hunt. The reason he gave for this cosmetic name surgery was that his father, Larry Gamsky, a small-time New Age confidence man turned shill and servitor for Joe, had decided to become Ryan Hunt, and it was useful for a son to share the same name as his father. Joe Hunt was twenty years old.

In The Price of Experience: Power, Money, Image, and Murder in Los Angeles, Randall Sullivan tries not just to show the reasons for the downward trajectory of Joe Hunt’s subsequent life, but also to find in that life a parable about the go-go years of the Reagan kakistocracy, as if Ronald Reagan, the Harvard School, and some louche quality in Los Angeles itself bore a measure of responsibility for the wreckage Hunt left in his wake. In truth, Joe Hunt appears to have been an arrogantly stupid young man whose true talent was for video board games, a discipline he called, with his gift for rhetorical flourish, “mental calisthenics.” Hunt’s putative braininess was essentially a misreading of his debating skills. A debater scores points, and in Hunt’s case, this ability has been taken not just by Sullivan but by most commentators on the case as a sign of his superior intelligence. But while Hunt could talk the talk, he never learned to walk the walk. In the 1980s, when it was virtually impossible to lose money in the markets, Hunt went bust in every single venture, even when he was propping himself up by lying, extorting, and stealing. And when he twice resorted to homicide in an effort to bail himself out of financial ruin, he screwed murder up as well.

Chicago set the pattern, but the first communiqués of his progress could have been construed as promising. If Joe Hunt did not actually encourage the notion that he was related to Herbert and Nelson Bunker Hunt, the Texans who had nearly cornered the silver market earlier that year, neither did he actively discourage it. He reported back home that he was earning 40 percent on the money entrusted to his care and that he was regarded as the new trading genius of the Mercantile Exchange. His assets, in his telling, grew to fourteen million dollars, with the sky the limit.

Eight months after his arrival in Chicago, however, Joe Hunt called Dean Karny and reported that he was tapped out, and that the $14 million was down the drain. His version was that he had been a victim of Mercantile Exchange politics, that his youth and disdain for his elders were red flags to other traders. He claimed to have been set up by “strong and malicious forces”; his trading theories, however, had been validated and his legend on the floor remained intact. Left out of this fanciful soliloquy was the fact that the Merc was investigating him both for shady trading practices and for trying to cover his tracks by counterfeiting fraudulent statements. Pressed by investigators, he lied not for advantage, it seemed to them, but for the sheer exhilaration of lying. The investigation led first to Hunt’s suspension and then to his expulsion from the Mercantile Exchange.

Back in Los Angeles, and unapologetic for his misadventures at the Merc, Joe Hunt could still bend ears, and he found willing listeners in Dosti and Karny and a circle of their affluent friends who regarded nine-to-five employment as a kind of death. The Chicago catastrophe, Hunt said, was just a pit stop on the road to riches. The old could not be trusted, forget them, fear was too significant a component in their makeup. Hunt’s ideal situation was a trading group of like-minded young men, preferably with rich parents, men who took to the idea of risk with reward. He would call his group the BBC, after a singles hangout in Chicago, the Bombay Bicycle Club, but in keeping with the grandiosity of the Eighties, its callow twenty-something membership began referring to the BBC as the Billionaire Boys Club, and the name stuck.

Hunt also had a philosophy; he called it the Paradox Philosophy, and stripped to its essentials, it was “Black is white, white is black, and all is shades of gray between.” Traditional values were dangerous, and Hunt called those who believed in them “Normies.” The Normies’ agenda was life within limitations, a circumscribed existence that sucked “pure consciousness” out of those around them, especially their young. Failure was never your fault, it was always the fault of someone else. Emotions were irrational; better to look at something, study it, then decide how to feel. “Never feel sorry for anything you do” was one of Joe Hunt’s liberating aphorisms, and “It’s alright to lie if you know the truth.”

Paradox” was a kind of bush-league Nietzsche calculated to appeal to rich, feckless kids who wanted big returns for little work. The May twins, connected to the May Company department store chain, joined the BBC, as did the son of Donald Bren, the billionaire Orange County real estate developer. These were names that attracted investors not overly concerned with the IQs of the youthful BBC members (one of the Mays described himself in a letter as “a student in the patroliam energnearing school at USC”), and the money began to roll in. In reality, BBC was a giant Ponzi scheme, with Hunt robbing Peter to pay Paul. He would acquire a company, strip it of its assets, load it with debt, then move on. Several potential suckers were as legally compromised as Hunt himself, and deluded enough to believe that they, in fact, were fleecing the fleecer.

Trading only one dollar in three, Hunt used the rest to finance the spending habits of his BBC associates, who liked fast cars, fast women, and fast money. He gave new members copies of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Machiavelli’s The Prince, but his primary teaching aid was a video of Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood, the original Rambo film. Hunt would regularly screen First Blood in the BBC conference room and then ask his confederates where Rambo first lost his advantage; according to Hunt, it was when Rambo did not kill a child Hunt himself said he would have killed to escape capture. “If I wanted to reduce the motives of the BBC to a single sentence,” one penitent member would observe later, “I’d say, ‘Being able to get into the Hard Rock Cafe without waiting in line.”’

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