By Pam Lambert
Updated February 07, 2000 12:00 PM

Even to a multimillionaire like Aben Johnson, the scene at the Palm Beach airport that rainy afternoon in October 1995 was both bizarre and impressive. After twice being patted down by turbaned men he took to be bodyguards, he and his jeweler friend Jack Hasson were ushered onto a private jet. There, Johnson, 73, told a rapt Miami courtroom on Jan. 21, he and Hasson saw two women wearing filmy I Dream of Jeannie outfits flanking a huge fellow in a flowing robe. This was purportedly Prince Ahmed, nephew of the sultan of Brunei. And the sultan was the man, Johnson testified Hasson had told him, who would be eager to pay $1 billion for the jewelry collection Johnson had acquired from Hasson for a fraction of that sum. “He wanted all [the jewels] we had,” Johnson said on the stand, “because he understood they were very good.”

But about the only thing genuine, federal prosecutors contend, was the acting ability of Hasson and his alleged confederates. “Prince Ahmed” was actually bearded marine carpenter Harry Speiser, 42, brother of Hasson’s former jewelry store manager, wearing a $40 Halloween costume. The royal aircraft was one of Hasson’s two private planes. And as for the jewel-encrusted dagger presented to Johnson by the “prince” as a token of good faith, “I bought it at the mall,” said Jimmy Speiser, 47, Harry’s brother, testifying as part of his plea-bargain agreement, “and…put those stones in there…synthetic diamonds.” The purpose of the little theatrical? To get Johnson to buy more of Hasson’s gems, which were far less precious than the jeweler claimed.

As bold as the airport charade appears, it pales in comparison to the decade-and-a-half pattern of deceit for which Hasson, 47, and his onetime employee Clifford Sloan, 62, are now on trial in Florida. According to the federal indictment charging Hasson with nine counts of fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice—which could send him to prison for the rest of his life—the balding, benign-looking father of six fleeced his rich, sometimes famous clientele of more than $80 million. His alleged scams included replacing diamonds with cubic zirconia and drilling, patching and artificially coloring stones—even on occasion using Magic Markers. Hasson’s biggest dupe, the government claims, was Aben Johnson, founder of Detroit TV station WXON, who went to the FBI in August 1997 after discovering that his gems were worth $60 million less than the $82 million he had paid.

Nonsense, says Hasson’s lawyer David Tucker, who contends that Johnson, Hasson’s chief accuser, is suffering from “an $82 million case of buyer’s remorse.” Johnson, argued the attorney in his opening statement on Jan. 11, was not a victim of fraud but “a knowing and willing buyer who desired to spend millions of dollars on jewelry for the purpose of making billions of dollars.”

Tucker and cocounsel Jeanne Baker will present their case to the 10-man, 2-woman jury during the latter part of what is expected to be a monthlong trial. But they may find it difficult to dispel the impression made by the prosecution’s first witness, golfer Greg Norman, a celebrity with seemingly little to gain and much to lose in terms of public embarrassment at having been taken. (Judge James Lawrence King has yet to rule on whether Hasson’s other, most prominent alleged victim, golfer Jack Nicklaus—who sued the jeweler in May 1997 over $184,420 in purchases but settled with him out of court—will be allowed to testify.)

On the stand, Norman, 44, described his bilking by a man he considered his friend and from whom he bought more than $400,000 in jewelry between 1989 and September 1997. After appraisers for Harry Winston Inc. found that the great white shark brooch Norman had commissioned for his wife, Laura, at a cost of $48,875 was studded with artificially colored jewels and worth only a reported $7,000, the golfer and his attorney confronted Hasson, who gave Norman a check for $358,375 to buy back six pieces. “I trusted Mr. Hasson for his word,” Norman testified, “and accepted it as a friend.”

If misery loves company, Norman might take comfort in the fact that lawsuits alleging similar betrayals have dogged Hasson since the ’80s. He and his father, Robert, ran an upscale jewelry store in Palm Desert, Calif., in the ’70s. “[Jack] was the kind of person who, after a while, you felt had become a friend,” says former customer Ralph DeLateur, 76. “So you felt you could trust him.” But DeLateur says that he and his wife, Patricia, discovered otherwise when they had their purchases appraised. Sued by the couple, Jack Hasson, according to DeLateur, “claimed his father had made him [scam the customers].”

The way Jack’s first wife, Mindy Romer, now 48, remembers it, Hasson and his late father did indeed have a falling-out over Robert’s business practices. The dispute, she says, prompted Jack to move the family in 1981 to her native Florida, where he set up shop in the nouveau riche enclave of Palm Beach Gardens. “He was always giving me jewelry, and he’d send flowers to me for no reason,” remembers the mother of three. “It was great.” Great, that is, until 1992, when Romer came to believe that her husband was also dispensing his largesse to a mistress. Hasson “became a completely different person,” claims Romer, who filed for divorce that October. “He was conniving, untruthful.”

Following the couple’s breakup, Hasson embarked on an orgy of buying—and, prosecutors charge, overseas money laundering to the tune of some $30 million. He bought two planes worth $1 million each, 14 pricey vehicles including an Aston Martin Lagonda, a dozen boats, a 120-acre ranch in Jupiter, Fla., a Harley-Davidson dealership and, with second wife Suzanne Hopkins, whom he married in 1995, an $850,000 ski chalet in Breckenridge, Colo. He also purchased a 115-ft. yacht. “We went everywhere as a family,” says Bobbie Hasson, 56, one of his two sisters. “It was like the Chevy Chase Vacation movies.”

Along with the soaring spending came lawsuits from disgruntled customers—a half dozen of them by April 1998, when news of Johnson’s sensational civil lawsuit, seeking triple damages of $180 million, became public. This time, with the FBI bearing down—Johnson had taken his case to federal investigators—Hasson was finally forced out of business.

Days before Hasson was arrested last April 12, he transferred at least $10 million in money and property to his wife and her relatives. He subsequently claimed it was part of a pending settlement of the divorce for which Suzanne had filed on April 13. Johnson’s lawyer charged that the two were colluding to shelter Jack’s assets. But as suspect as the split may have seemed at the time, it has since turned ugly. In September, Jack countersued Suzanne, now 34, for divorce, seeking custody of their three children: Ryan, 7 (Suzanne’s son, whom he adopted); Kyle, who turns 4 Feb. 18; and John, 2.

During the nine months Hasson has spent in Miami’s Federal Detention Center, he has seen the youngsters only twice (Hasson’s three older children visit weekly). It is this—not the current trial or the pending legal battles with Johnson, the IRS and Suzanne—that weighs most heavily on her brother, reports Bobbie Hasson. “Jack said to me, ‘I can replace the assets. What I can’t replace is the past nine months with the kids.’ ” Some would say it’s a price he should have considered earlier.

Pam Lambert

Don Sider in Miami, Lori Rozsa in Palm Beach Gardens and Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles