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Photo by Jack GouldDrive by John Wayne Airport today, at the corner of Campus and MacArthur, and you'll see something like a field of sunflowers: yellow taxicabs. The Yellow Cabs are there because American Taxi, whose red-and-white natural-gas-powered cabs filled the John Wayne Airport terminal since March 2000, no longer exists.
American was one of the most chaotic companies ever to do business with the county. Oozing red ink almost from its inception, American never achieved any measure of stability or profitability. And its president, Rick Schorling, was one of the most fascinating personalities ever to appear in the Weekly.
Schorling first came to our attention in 1996, when, as an exec with Santa Ana-based A Taxi, Schorling squeezed taxi mogul Larry Slagle out of the airport contract he'd held for 20 years. During part of that time, Slagle had the inside of the inside track on that deal: he simultaneously sat on the airport commission that recommended taxi companies to the county Board of Supervisors.
But as we found out much later, Schorling was more than Slagle's match—and more than your average fast-talking businessman. He played games with the law and truth in a style reminiscent of Graham Greene's gutsy, reckless Harry Lime. He says he flew planes for CIA airline Continental Air Services throughout Southeast Asia during the 1960s. Maybe he did; maybe he didn't. But we do know that he partied with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega in the late 1980s and that he helped raise money for a man he calls a "friend": Eden Pastora, leader of the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
And, most important, we know that he spent years in the late 1980s and early 1990s selling helicopters throughout Latin America. Sometimes the helicopters were just wrecks Schorling represented as complete birds; sometimes the helicopters didn't exist at all. Sometimes the helicopters were good but were sold again and again without telling each buyer.
Through it all, Schorling collected checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He promised the world, and even if he rarely delivered anything, his pleas and assurances were almost always tempting.
And in February, when we wrote about all this and how he was tight with county officials who should have known better—who should have realized he could never deliver on the big profits he was promising—he turned on the charm for us. He graciously posed for our photographs—even stood atop one of his beloved natural-gas-guzzling cabs—after I interviewed him about big legal judgments he'd ignored and allegations that he'd forged signatures on bogus bills of sales.
The charm didn't stop when the story came out two days after Valentine's Day.
"Amazingly, your article has produced a barrage of screenwriters and producers wanting to make a movie of my life," read Schorling's e-mailed response to my story. "I think it is only fair that you have the first rights, since it was your article that sparked all of this interest. If you have any interest, please give me a call. Best regards, Rick Schorling."
I politely declined, prompting many of my colleagues to castigate me for turning down a chance to go to Hollywood. Whattaya mean he's not trustworthy? Wait till he sits down with a movie exec. . . .
Then in April, Schorling's cab company declared bankruptcy. The fuel supplier wanted his money. Ford Motor Credit wanted theirs. Schorling's old pleas for more time were back.
Around Halloween, we listed Schorling as one of the scariest people in the county.
"You are not being fair to me!" Schorling e-mailed me the day the article came out. "First, I belong in the top 10 and not No. 26. Then you put me between Elvira and [Newport City Councilman Gary] Proctor. And the final insult, after all the pictures you took of me, you couldn't even put one in the article? Well, I guess I will just have to try harder for next year. Best regards, Rick."
Now, Schorling is gone. Ford Motor Credit repossessed all his cars in November. He's got no company left. But Schorling will be back. He may have already fled to Central America, as the most popular rumor has it, but he will be back. Maybe not here, probably not driving cabs, but he will be back. There are simply too many folks out there susceptible to his charms—to his promises that this time, his deal is a sure thing.
And in the meantime, travelers in and out of John Wayne can ride in cabs owned by Larry Slagle, who, while Schorling was self-destructing, managed to maneuver his way back into the airport.