SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
The Con Man Who Came In From the Cold
By his own admission, Lawrence Niren has swindled millions
Joan Rigdon, Special to The Chronicle
May 15, 1995
Maybe this is Lawrence David Niren's last con. Maybe not.
In coming weeks, the 41-year- old Corte Madera resident and native Canadian son of a travel agent plans to confess
on television that for the past eight years, he has bilked hundreds of publicly-traded gas, oil and mining companies out
of more than $ 2 million -- by collecting up-front fees for consulting he says he never did.
Niren says he's given the booty to family and friends, but now he wants to stop. Going public is the only way he knows
how. He also wants to be honest with his 8-year- old son, who recently overheard him using an alias during phone
calls. ''He's the only person I've never lied to,'' Niren says.
The news of Niren's escapades comes as a shock not only to his family and friends, but to industry chiefs who
remember the bookish Niren as the consultant who picked out Newmont Mining Corp. as a hostile takeover target for
corporate raider T. Boone Pickens back in 1987. (Two of Pickens' former executives confirm this. The deal didn't
take, but Niren landed $ 500,000 in fees from Pickens and other principals in the proposed acquisition.)
On the eve of his surrender, Niren is thinking big. He is lining up talk shows and a book contract for his autobiography,
which he plans to write from jail. (He's already written his autobiography as a novel, but now he's going to make the
novel nonfiction, his agent confirms). He has plenty of grist: five suitcases of incriminating bank statements, wire
transfer receipts and signed contracts, along with pieces of various manuscripts.
Niren, an aspiring writer whose passions are classical music and great literature, likens his actions to those of
Honore de Balzac and Fyodor Dostoyevski, prolific 19th century authors who sometimes supported themselves by
collecting numerous advances for the same unwritten novels. ''That's where I got that idea for the whole thing,'' he says.
He figures jail will be an ideal place to write.
Niren is currently negotiating the details of his surrender with the U.S. Attorney's office. There's just one problem:
Niren may not be much of a con man at all. In fact, some of his alleged victims like the guy and say he actually
performed some valuable work, and as for some instances of petty thievery, hardly anyone cares. Moreover, it's
possible that even in arranging his surrender, Niren is looking for ways to score. He admits he is trying to gain
publicity before his arrest to bolster sales of his planned book.
Despite the fact that Niren has mostly used his own name and bank account to pull his cons for the past eight years
(he has also used aliases) no one seems to be looking for him. His closest brush with authority came early last year,
when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police left a message on his voice mail.
He returned the call from a strip mall near his one-bedroom Marin County apartment. As Corporal Eric Howard
warned him to stay away from the Canadian province of Alberta, Niren noticed a man wearing a dark suit and shades
sitting on a nearby bench and peering at him from behind a newspaper. ''This guy had the classic FBI look,'' Niren
shuddered. At the same time, a policeman and security guard approached from different directions. Panicked, he
agreed to stop conning in Alberta, hung up the phone and prayed. The moment passed when the security guard and
policeman strolled by.
But despite the phone call, Niren didn't even get his own file at Corporal Howard's office in Calgary. Howard simply
tossed the paperwork into a general file marked ''advanced fee fraud,'' where it sits with 42 other cases. ''Mr. Niren is
not greatly wanted by anyone up here,'' says Staff Sergeant Bill Ralstin.
Even Niren's angriest victims take the same view, mostly because he stung them for less than it would cost to collect.
Cadre Resources Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C., for one, threatened to report Niren to the Federal Bureau of Investigation if
he didn't return their $ 3,000. But ''personally, it's not worth my while getting out of bed to track this guy down,'' says
Cadre's president, Adrian Hobkirk.
Niren says of all his victims, he feels worst about Andrew Milligan, chief executive of Cornucopia Resources in
Vancouver, B.C. Niren claims he conned Milligan out of $ 80,000 in 1987 and 1988. But as it turns out, Milligan says
Niren introduced him to Inco Ltd. of Toronto, which eventually invested $ 4 million. ''Lawrence made a remarkable
number of contacts for us,'' including Inco, Milligan says.
Niren protests that it's just not so. ''I don't mind taking credit when I've done something. But I really didn't do anything
here,'' he insists.
Consulting aside, Milligan says he discovered Niren was a con artist after Niren borrowed $ 1,000, claiming that
someone who had his power of attorney had cleaned him out (ironically, Niren insists that was true). Milligan never got
the money back, but he didn't care. He asked a reporter to get Niren to call him, because he misses him. ''I'd love to
hear from him. I would have liked to have maintained my friendship with him.''
Niren's bigger victims are similarly surprised.
Niren says he's snookered Sunshine Mining and Refining Co. of Boise, Idaho, out of more than $ 100,000; the
Westminer Ltd. unit of Melbourne, Australia, Western Mining Corp. Holdings Ltd. out of about $ 70,000 from 1990 to
1992; and Melbourne, Australia BHP Minerals out of about $ 32,000.
The vast majority of companies, he took for just a few thousand a pop.
BHP Minerals of Melbourne, Australia, insists Niren did the work he was paid for. ''We just didn't follow up'' on his
suggestions, says spokesman Tony Wells. Niren says the most he did for BHP was list a few companies -- ones he
knew BHP wouldn't be interested in -- as possible acquisition targets.
''If you can call that work, then I guess I did work for them,'' Niren says.
Sunshine's CEO and president John Simko confirms that the company's previous management hired Niren as a
consultant, and that nothing of value resulted. But he doesn't give a hoot, because his company has just finished
repaying $ 200 million of debt over the past four years.
''I don't know what we paid Lawrence Niren and I'm not going to bother to find out,'' he says.
Westminer Ltd. said Niren was also hired under previous management and could not locate records on him.
This is all disappointing to Niren, who got his start playing the stock market with an uncle and then went to work as a
gold analyst for Princeton Economic Consultants.
In 1986, he was forced to file for bankruptcy when Princeton sued him for revealing confidential company information
during an unrelated trial.
Niren fled New Jersey in 1986 with his wife and their baby boy to a relative's spare room in Mill Valley.
Desperate, he decided to use his industry savvy and ''supreme confidence'' to convince money- hungry natural
resources companies that he could set them up with investors.
''I conned because it got me out of bankruptcy. It just started snowballing,'' Niren said.
His secret weapons: two industry handbooks, listing companies, their officers and assets. Reading from the books, he
rang up CEOs and dropped facts and names.
His victims agreed to send up- front travel and consulting fees for meetings that never took place. When they
complained, Niren faxed news of a death in his family or a business partner's heart attack.
Ironically, during one early con, in which he was advising a company to buy a small mining company, he thought
corporate raider Pickens might actually go for the deal.
Pickens didn't, but over lunch, he asked Niren to name the most undervalued mining company. Niren named
Newmont Mining Corp., and the rest is history.
He used the proceeds to pay his debts, but asserts that his compulsion to give money to his friends and family --
$10,000 or more a month -- forced him back into conning. Since then, he has thought of himself as a Robin Hood.
Niren insists that his promised confession and surrender isn't just another con, although he can't seem to avoid using
deception even in planning his retirement. Posing as a writer, he has called up various local jails to compare
He is hoping for the new, 350- prisoner section of the Marin County Jail, where a few dozen prisoners get their own
But even here, Niren may have failed. Although he has provided his name, address and incriminating evidence to the
U.S. Attorney's office, they have no interest in arresting him, because the alleged crimes seem more like matters for
civil lawsuits than FBI investigation, says U.S. attorney Joel Levin. Levin is also wary of an alleged criminal who
confesses and talks about publicity in the same breath. ''We don't want to be part of that,'' he says.
''Nobody wants to arrest me,'' Niren says.
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