Only six months ago, Clyde Pitchford Jr. was living the life of a Richmond blue blood. With his chauffeured Rolls-Royce, antique-stocked penthouses, bespoke suits and tales of a privileged upbringing, he seemed to have everything in common with the gentry whose company he sought. He sipped martinis at the Commonwealth Club, rode to hounds with the Deep Run Hunt Club and played squash with U.S. Senator John Warner. A fast friend of such prominent Richmond Republicans as State Senator Joe Canada, the 31-year-old stockbroker had even talked of running for governor. No goal, it seemed, was too lofty for the financial wunderkind who was bedazzling his wealthy clients.
But that was before he fled the city in February, allegedly hounded by bad debts and, eventually, by the FBI, to whom he surrendered after a three-month manhunt. These days, Pitchford is languishing behind bars awaiting a series of trials that begins this week, and Richmond society is reeling. Charged with allegedly bilking clients at E.F. Hutton and Dean Witter out of almost $700,000, reportedly linked to a $30 million bogus loan scheme in Florida, and the object of bankruptcy proceedings on debts of $8 million to a half-dozen banks and close to 100 creditors, Pitchford is mired in one of the messiest scandals in Richmond’s recent memory. (He has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.) The reputations of Canada, 47, a candidate for Congress, and Hugh Wiley, a former Olympic equestrian, have been tarnished by their association with him. His Rex Group (a partnership in which Wiley and Canada were involved) has been forced into bankruptcy, and an embarrassed E.F. Hutton has begun to pay back clients allegedly tapped by Pitchford.
Despite the ease with which he insinuated himself into Richmond society, the collapse of Pitchford’s house of cards revealed a man whose wealth and silver-spoon charm were anything but inherited. The product of an unremarkable Norfolk suburb, Clyde was the only son of a bridal-shop owner and a retired Navy man who sold chemicals. At the University of Richmond, where he helped pay his tuition by working in a clothing store, he had been a shy, nervous loner with a disfiguring case of acne. Only after graduation, when he volunteered to work as a scheduler during Canada’s 1977 campaign for lieutenant governor, did he display his incipient longing for clout. Rubbing shoulders with power brokers, witnessing the ways in which money could be used to buy respect, he became increasingly involved with fund raising and financing work for the state Republican party. As his political perspective sharpened, he began to reinvent his past: In 1979 he joined the brokerage firm Dean Witter, where he convinced colleagues that he was a Virginia gentleman.
By the time Clyde switched to E.F. Hutton in 1983, his fake persona was fully formed. According to friends, he told elaborate tales about family plantations and his mother’s $200,000-a-year florist’s bills. “He never had an unrehearsed moment,” marvels one acquaintance. Adept with women, he often charmed them with flowers and endearing notes.
During his early years at E.F. Hutton, Clyde began turning his rich-boy fantasies into reality. Prosecutors charge that he augmented his salary—said to be around $35,000 a year—by secretly diverting clients’ money into his own account. Ironically, he came to be seen as a broker with the Midas touch. “He stirred levels of confidence in people that would cause them to do things they would never ordinarily do,” says Rae Ely, who represents Wiley.
With time, Pitchford’s ambitions escalated, and his financial schemes became more complex. Friends say that he talked obsessively of pursuing a single huge deal. By 1985, he had borrowed $400,000 from the Bank of Virginia after allegedly forging his business partner’s name on the loan documents. When payments came due last fall, he apparently panicked. “He suddenly [was] over his head, and he still wasn’t making the kind of money he needed to bail himself out,” says a source close to the case. “He was hoping that the Florida bank deal would be so [profitable] that he could repay all the clients he ripped off.”
That plan was masterminded, say investigators, by a major-league con man—Michael Rapp (a/k/a Heller-man), 48, a convicted stock swindler who is under investigation in connection with bank-fleecing schemes around the country. Federal and state authorities theorize that Rapp joined with Pitchford in buying the struggling Florida Center Bank in Orlando, which he and Pitchford then tried to use as a convenient source for loans. But bank examiners stepped in two weeks later, and Pitchford’s $250,000 loan application was denied.
Pitchford’s disappearance three months later prompted a wave of Pitchfordmania in the city he allegedly had fleeced. The Ballad of Clyde Pitchford became a hit on radio station WRVQ, and “Where’s Clyde?” T-shirts, bumper stickers and posters blossomed during his absence.
Although quartered in the Richmond city jail, Pitchford is scarcely less prominent than he was in his high-society heyday. Offers from book publishers are pouring in, and all of Richmond turned out for a recent auction of his possessions, which raised about $104,000 for his creditors. And if many of his friends have turned their backs on him, an equal number seem willing to come to his defense. “He was a very popular, creative person,” says Ben Campbell, a priest-in-residence at the socially correct St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. “How he got trapped in this other stuff, I don’t know.”