Moving to the West Coast and changing his name to “James Smith” worked for a long time.
But eventually, federal and state investigators caught up with the man they knew as James J. Romanek, arrested him at a California casino and served him with an outstanding Douglas County warrant.
A 12-year-old outstanding warrant.
Romanek, 66, of Sacramento, Calif., pleaded guilty and was convicted Friday in the related securities fraud case filed in 2004 in Douglas County District Court.
In the year since his arrest, Romanek tried to get the case thrown out because it took authorities so long to serve him with the warrant, according to court documents.
Judge Paula Martin, however, ruled that the out-of-state move and generic name change was “an act of deception” and that, given the circumstances, the delay executing the warrant wasn’t unnecessary.
At Friday’s hearing, Romanek appeared in a black and white pinstripe suit, with wire-rim glasses and his gray hair slicked back into a low ponytail.
The judge began: “Do you want to go by Mr. Smith for our proceeding?”
The defendant replied: “Mr. Romanek is fine.”
Romanek was charged in 2004 with three counts of securities fraud and pleaded guilty to one count for crimes that occurred in 1999 and 2000 in Douglas County.
Reading a prepared document, Romanek admitted he bilked two area residents for thousands of dollars he promised to invest for them but instead spent for his own personal use and benefit.
In one case, he took $6,000 from a Lawrence man and promised to buy shares in a California-based internet company that was about to go public — a company that in fact did not exist. In another he promised to invest $10,000 from an Overland Park woman and pay her gains, but never did.
Romanek was never registered as a broker dealer or agent in Kansas, he admitted.
Court filings outline efforts to find Romanek during the more than 12 years since the warrant was issued:
Romanek was charged in Douglas County with DUI in 2001, but failed to show up to court and skipped out on his bond.
His bondsman told authorities that, based on tips from Romanek’s wife at the time, he had traced Romanek to Canada, Las Vegas and then to Belize but never captured him.
While the DUI case was pending, Romanek moved to California, changed his name to James Smith — the reason given to the California court that approved the change is unknown — and then obtained a California driver’s license, social security card and passport under the new name.
Prior to filing the security fraud charges in 2004, a Kansas Securities Commission investigator tried a number of ways to find Romanek, including talking in 2003 to a brother who said Romanek had probably left the country “but may be somewhere in the United States gambling.”
Unable to find Romanek, the state filed the securities fraud case in 2004, before the five-year statute of limitations on the crimes ran out.
Investigators made efforts to find him every year since.
“These efforts were substantial and included, for example, use of the U.S. Marshals, in-depth database searches, interviews with relatives, contact with U.S. Customs, and so on,” prosecutors from the Kansas Attorney General’s Office wrote.
Finally, in 2015, after James Smith was charged with fraud for illegally receiving Social Security payments in California, the FBI’s Special Identities Unit alerted Douglas County that Smith was believed to be Romanek of the outstanding Kansas warrant, confirmed with fingerprints.
State authorities subpoenaed bank records and learned Romanek had a debit card he frequently used at California’s Thunder Valley Casino, outside Sacramento. That’s where he was arrested on Nov. 2, 2016.
Romanek’s attorney, Jonathan Phelps, argued that his client wasn’t on the run.
He said the 2004 securities fraud warrant was “indisputably unknown” to Romanek and emphasized that his name change was lawful.
“The state’s attempts to find Defendant in this case were inept and negligent,” Phelps wrote. “Busy work doesn’t substitute for the most obvious defect in their efforts.”
“While the defendant attempts to submit his ‘move’ to California and his immediate name change were innocuous, absconding from the DUI charges suggests otherwise and can also be used to undermine his claim he had no idea securities charges were forthcoming or filed,” prosecutors responded.
After Friday’s hearing, Romanek and his attorney said they did not want to say anything else for this story.
Romanek remains free on bond. His sentencing was scheduled for Feb. 23.