The Taxi Driver
Photo by Jack GouldRichard Schorling knows something about second acts—and third and fourth, it seems. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he flew around the hemisphere, wheeling and dealing among the powerful and the infamous, routinely hanging out with Central American guerrilla leaders and military dictators.
So how does a guy like that—a guy with CIA contacts and multimillion-dollar business contracts—end up driving a cab in Orange County?
And how does that same guy end up running that cab company?
And how does that guy launch his own taxi company, walk into the county Hall of Administration and grab a lucrative monopoly contract to provide service to and from John Wayne Airport?
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Schorling says it was fatherhood.
"I ended up being a single parent with a 5-year-old daughter to raise," he says, explaining why he first became a cab driver. "I couldn't travel anymore, and I had to find something to fit my schedule."
Actually, Schorling hasn't driven a cab for a living in years: today, he's president of American Taxi, the Costa Mesa-based cab company that has become the darling of John Wayne Airport officials.
But Schorling isn't simply one of the many drivers-turned-company-presidents that make up Orange County's taxi industry. In 1996, as general manager of A-AAA Taxi, Schorling made a name for himself when he took on Larry Slagle, one of the county's most powerful and entrenched political figures. Since 1974, Slagle had held the lucrative county contract to provide exclusive service to John Wayne Airport; under the terms of the deal, no other cab company could so much as enter the airport. Slagle made much on the deal and cemented his relationship with airport officials by joining them: from 1979 to 1987, he sat on the airport commission that voted him the contract.
Then came Schorling. Though the commission voted for Slagle, Schorling hired an attorney, worked the local media and appealed to the commission's bosses—the county Board of Supervisors. It worked. Still hearing the echoes of the 1994 bankruptcy, the supes voted 5-0 to approve Schorling's bid for the contract.
"It would have been nothing but political if they had given [Slagle] the contract," Schorling said then. "But our persistent badgering, the pressure from the press, and a fair deal for the public made us the right choice. The public's finally going to get decent service."
(The Weekly itself hailed Schorling's victory in an October 1996 story headlined "How Rick Schorling Outfoxed the Local Good Old Boy Network.")
The story wasn't over. In mid-1999, Schorling dramatically split from A-AAA and formed his own company, American Taxi. Just six months later and already $130,000 in the hole, Schorling and American Taxi repeated his 1996 victory by pulling the lucrative airport contract from his former employer.
With its all-natural-gas fleet, Schorling quickly won clean-air awards from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Sierra Club. But American's financial troubles have never abated. They are so severe that last August, the company sued its own natural-gas-fuel provider to prevent that firm from cutting off American for consistent failure to pay its bills. Despite this trouble, Orange County airport officials remain infatuated with American Taxi, saying Schorling provides the best taxi service in the history of the airport.
Schorling wears the jeans and jacket that seem to pass for a uniform among the county's hard-edged cab bosses. But from 1975, when he was 30 years old, until sometime in the early 1990s, he worked as a helicopter broker. Based in Long Beach near that city's airport, Schorling spent nearly two decades jetting around Central America, buying and selling helicopters. He was a master of a particular helicopter deal: locating damaged birds in one country, he would repair and sell them in some other country at a substantial profit.
And he got rich—very rich, according to some of his former associates—and powerfully connected. Schorling spent the 1980s dealing with such notables as Nicaraguan rebel leader Eden Pastora and Panamanian strongman General Manuel Noriega.
Like Graham Greene's character Harry Lime, Schorling apparently moved through an underworld. Money got lost. Checks bounced. Promised helicopters never arrived.
Frequently juggling two or three deals at once, Schorling moved quickly. That made tracking him difficult. And some people got hurt.
"He's a goddamned scam artist," says Richard Probert, a former Schorling associate. "He scammed me out of $325,000 in a bullshit helicopter deal."
Others share Probert's assessment. Court records from the early 1990s detail various stings in which Schorling was allegedly involved—including forgery, bounced checks and the sale of helicopters that never existed.
By 1992, a year after Schorling says he became a single parent, Schorling's alleged victims were closing in. It got so bad that when Schorling faxed Probert in March of that year, he warned him, "Do not mention my name. The front door in most places is closed for me right now. I'm normally coming in from the side or the back."
Schorling vanished a few months later. For years, none of his former friends or pissed-off business associates could find him. Most say they considered the well-armed crowds he dealt with and figured he was dead. Then, in 1996, he reappeared without fanfare—as general manager of a cab company.
Schorling's rsum—on file with the county—offers only a tantalizing glimpse of this remarkable journey. Speaking of himself in the third person, Schorling wrote, "Prior to a career change that brought him to the taxi industry, Mr. Schorling gained experience in fleet management when he ran a large helicopter company that supplied the military. In his work serving the military, Mr. Schorling learned the critical importance of pilot and equipment safety, topnotch maintenance, employee training, and clean and well-maintained machinery."
John Wayne Airport director Alan Murphy, who in March 2000 recommended to the county Board of Supervisors that Schorling's company get the big airport contract, refused to comment for this story, saying through his spokesperson that current, unrelated litigation over the contract precluded any statement.
Robert with his $325,000 bounced
check from Shorling
Photo by Jack Gould "I was indoctrinated in aviation since the very beginning," Schorling told the Weekly. "My father was senior vice president of Continental Airlines for 33 years. Through a family friend, I started flying for Continental Air Services, a small airline that delivered aircraft and helicopters to Air America."
Air America was a CIA-front airline, alleged to have carried out the agency's work in the world's trouble spots. Schorling says he worked a few years in the late 1960s ferrying aircraft to places like Vientiane, Laos. "I was a co-pilot and a ferry pilot, just building up my flight time," he said. "It was at the same time I was a deputy sheriff in Lakewood, flying there as well."
By the early 1970s, Schorling quit both jobs and went to work at Long Beach Airport as a mechanic. Eventually, he got involved with aircraft brokering, saying his past with Continental Air Services and Air America provided a "natural transition" to the business of buying and selling. In 1976, Schorling started his own Long Beach-based aircraft-brokering company called Frontier International.
It was about this time that Schorling met Probert.
"I've known Rick Schorling for 25, 30 years," said Probert, who still keeps an office at the Long Beach Airport. "Back then, we were just airport bums, when Rick worked in an engine-overhaul shop."
Since then, Schorling has been busy. The California secretary of state's office shows that between 1976 and 1990, Schorling created a lot of companies: Frontier Pacific Aircraft Industries, Frontier Pacific International, Schorling Inc., Frontier International, La Jolla Aviation International, Cardiff Technology Corp. and Opportunidades. Most of them have addresses in the Long Beach and Signal Hill area.
The same records show that virtually all these companies went bankrupt. But regardless of the name, Schorling's business was always the same: selling aircraft —mostly helicopters.
"Rick ended up selling helicopters in Central America," said Probert. "Most were going into Panama, Guatemala and Mexico. They were used onboard tuna boats to fly out and scout the tuna schools. And he was getting filthy rich doing this."
Declarations and copies of faxes included in court records suggest Schorling spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s winging his way throughout Central America, often staying in some of the most luxurious hotels in Panama and Guatemala.
Schorling attributes his success to his Air America experience. But former associates and friends say it wasn't an accident that Schorling was so successful in those years.
"Rick Schorling is a fast talker, very elegant, and can speak several different languages," said Bob Sprouse, an engine mechanic who met Schorling in the late 1970s and today runs his own aircraft-salvage business at Long Beach Airport. "He's a good-looking guy and will charm the pants right off you."
Throughout the 1980s, Schorling played the power game with some of Latin America's most dangerous personalities. "[Former contra rebel leader] Eden Pastora and I have been very good friends for many years," Schorling said. That friendship extends back to a period when Pastora was the on-again, off-again friend of the Reagan-era CIA in its war to topple the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. A Dec. 12, 1985, UPI story details a Southern California fund-raising trip by Pastora. Accompanying Pastora, the story reported, was "Rick Schorling, a Los Angeles businessman who has been friends with the guerrilla leader since Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was overthrown in 1979." UPI further identified Schorling as someone "who sells helicopters and parts in Latin America."
"I've tried to help [Pastora] as much as I can and convince him to make a visit up here," Schorling told UPI. "He's never been able to get his message across as to what is really going on in Nicaragua."
What was really going on in Nicaragua, of course, was that the Reagan administration was using the best-equipped army in Latin American history to kill a socialist government in its cradle. Pastora's group was part of that effort. A few years later, most of this would be revealed as an unconstitutional attempt by the Reagan administration to circumvent a congressional ban on U.S. participation in the not-so-secret war. We've come to call it the Iran-contra scandal.
But Schorling seemed closer to Panamanian dictator Noriega, who achieved infamy throughout Latin America for his contempt for human rights, close CIA ties and lucrative international drug trade.
"I knew Noriega pretty well," said Schorling. "I met him when he was Lieutenant Noriega in 1978. I got him helicopter training."
Probert, who says he accompanied Schorling on a few trips to Latin America, recalls seeing Noriega's troops entertaining Schorling and the rest of his party. Other Schorling business associates and employees support that claim. "I met Noriega a couple of times," said Leigh Sloan, Schorling's assistant from 1982 to around 1985. "Noriega and Rick were good friends."
Sloan says she occasionally traveled with Schorling to Panama and Mexico. She says she first met Noriega in early June 1985. They gathered in a tiny, dingy hangar office at a private, rural airport on the outskirts of Panama City to discuss an aircraft sale. Sloan said Noriega wore fatigues and talked easily with Schorling, like the two were old friends. Schorling was there, she said, to buy aircraft from Noriega.
"We always flew directly in and never went through customs," Sloan said. "I thought that was strange. The military would pick us up. And everyone always carried guns, even on the airplane."
In 1989, the Bush administration toppled Noriega in a clumsy and expensive military assault hilariously titled Operation Just Cause. Noriega was captured, returned to the U.S. and convicted in a U.S. court of drug trafficking. He's serving out the remainder of a 10-year sentence, reduced from 40 years.
How the loss of Noriega as a contact affected Schorling is unknown. What is known is that by 1990, Schorling was engaged in far riskier and more dangerous deals than simply selling helicopters to tuna fishermen. According to Probert and others, Schorling pitched a number of questionable schemes. One involved selling the Guatemalan air force $4 million worth of helicopters procured in Mexico for half that sum. In another cumbersome plan, Probert asserts, Schorling proposed circumventing U.S. export restrictions by selling aircraft parts directly to "the Guatemalan air force office in Miami."
Both plans apparently died, but Probert said Schorling had other ventures to consider. "Rick also dealt with wrecks," he said—buying wrecked helicopters, repairing them and then selling them for a hefty profit.
Schorling says dealing with wrecks was never a big business for him. "Repairing helicopters was only a small part of it," he said. "The biggest part was the sale of new and used helicopters."
But court records tell a different story. According to a declaration written in 1993 by former Schorling associate Lynn Carlson that is on file in the Los Angeles Superior Court, this practice was a common part of his business. "Then and now," wrote Carlson, "it was a profitable enterprise to rebuild old helicopters in the United States and sell them at a high markup in the Latin America market."
Probert remembers this "enterprise" especially well: it cost him $325,000. Typically, Probert says, "I would give Rick $25,000 to get a wreck, and he'd turn it around and give me back $50,000. If I gave him $50,000, he'd give me $100,000. We did this for years."
Buying low and selling high would make Schorling merely an astute businessman. But Schorling's critics say he went far beyond that.
Court records and interviews with former Schorling associates allege that sometimes he installed junk parts in the wrecks he obtained. Sometimes, he'd sell a helicopter two or three times—without notifying each owner. Sometimes, he'd go through the motions of selling a helicopter that never existed or was just a wreck sitting in a Long Beach hangar.
One day, Probert says, Schorling came to him with a "super helicopter deal": for a $375,000 investment, Schorling would buy four helicopters from a Latin American nation and then sell three. That would leave Probert with his initial investment, another $100,000 and the fourth helicopter.
It didn't work, and Probert lost his money.
Schorling says the whole deal came about because—after years of pushing for a big deal—Schorling finally allowed Probert into one of his "Central American helicopter deals." This one, Schorling says, involved helicopters from Guatemala; the deal collapsed when U.S. Customs confiscated the helicopters because of their registry. He claims everyone involved, including himself, lost money.
Probert remembers it much differently. According to him, Schorling didn't put in a dime. "The whole thing was bullshit," said Probert. "The helicopters never existed. I saw papers showing them registered in the U.S. and sitting out in Van Nuys, but that was it. I never saw them myself. I wanted my money back, so he wrote me two checks: one for $50,000 that cashed, and one for $325,000 that bounced. Then he split."
The bounced check, which Probert showed the Weekly, was dated Feb. 22, 1991, and was from Schorling's company Frontier International, then headquartered in Laguna Hills. The signature "Rick Schorling" is clearly visible.
Schorling told the Weekly his check bounced because the money had been wrapped up in the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense. "Then there was a coup," Schorling said, "and that ended the possibility of our getting our money back."
But there was no Guatemalan coup—unless it escaped the notice of the world media. When told of Schorling's explanation, Probert rolled his eyes. Then he produced a series of faxes he traded with Schorling in 1992, as he cursed Schorling for stealing his money. None of Schorling's messages mentioned a Guatemalan coup.
"I am still waiting for the money to arrive from New York; they say for sure today," wrote Schorling to Probert on March 4, 1991. A month later, Schorling faxed Probert saying the money holdup was "no big deal" and would soon sort itself out.
Probert never saw his money again. He says he held out hope of a settlement for so long that the statute of limitations ran out, and Schorling disappeared into an almost anonymous cab in Orange County.
Probert never sued, but others did. Court records in Orange County and Los Angeles suggest Schorling was involved in similar incidents in the early 1990s.
In 1993, a Panamanian company called Grape Lavender, which was also involved in the helicopter deal that stung Probert, sued Schorling in Orange County. The judge awarded Grape Lavender $382,800 with interest. Records show the company never received a dime.
Simultaneously, an old Schorling associate named Valentin Flores brought a similar lawsuit in Los Angeles. Flores didn't respond to the Weekly's requests for an interview, but court records show that in early 1991, the Honduran native authorized Schorling to build him a helicopter. Schorling had one of his old associates, Lynn Carlson, build the helicopter in Long Beach.
But when the job was done, instead of delivering the bird, Schorling got Flores to agree to "lease" the helicopter to Cardiff Technology Corp. out in Las Vegas for some kind of secret operations.
It was bogus—most notably because Cardiff was a paper company set up by Schorling in 1990. California secretary of state's office records suggest the name Cardiff likely came from the "Las Vegas" company's address: 19 Cardiff in Laguna Niguel.
Court records show that throughout 1991 and 1992, Schorling and Flores faxed each other furiously—mostly concerning Schorling's bounced checks to Flores. Schorling even drafted faxes—ostensibly between himself and Cardiff—in which he scolded the company for failure to pay Flores on time.
In fact, the helicopter never left Long Beach. One day, according to Carlson's declaration, Schorling told Carlson that Flores didn't want the helicopter anymore and had in fact sold it to Schorling. According to Carlson, Schorling even produced the bill of sale. Carlson took the helicopter and placed ads attempting to sell it.
But Flores insisted he never sold Schorling the helicopter. As Flores' expert testified in court, Schorling very likely forged Flores' signature on a bogus bill of sale—a charge Schorling would only respond to by insisting he had just been the middleman. "I was just a broker acting on behalf of Mr. Flores," he said when asked about the bill of sale. "Carlson and Flores had their own thing going."
When contacted by the Weekly, Carlson was reluctant to talk about the case. But he did confirm that when all was said and done, Schorling cheated Flores. "The ad selling the helicopter had been running for a few weeks when Flores called me, asking why we were selling his helicopter," Carlson said. "Schorling had forged Flores' signature on the bill of sale and then kept the money."
When Flores finally got into Carlson's shop to examine his helicopter in May 1993, he found it stripped of its engine, rotor and electronics.
"Schorling is a thief," wrote Flores' attorney in his declaration. "[H]is title to the helicopter is 'void,' not merely 'voidable.'"
The court agreed and awarded Flores $675,000 with interest. Again, records show Schorling has never paid.
Schorling didn't respond to either lawsuit, even though he was facing allegations of forgery and embezzlement. No criminal charges against Schorling have ever been filed.
"I was never served in any of the cases," he told the Weekly. "The whole thing was over and done with before I knew about it."
"He just went underground," said Sprouse, the mechanic who once did business with Schorling's company Frontier Pacific. "For a long time, we thought he was dead. Maybe he was dead from a deal that went bad, or maybe he was being held ransom by someone he scammed—we didn't know. He just did these deals and then disappeared."
Probert says he put ads in newspapers asking for "anyone trying to find or knowing the wherabout's [sic] of Rick Schorling" to call him. But he says many of the responses were from individuals saying Schorling had scammed them, too.
Schorling says he became a cab driver in 1991. His rsum says roughly the same.
It's difficult to reconcile this date with known facts. Court records contain copious Frontier International faxes Schorling sent to Flores throughout 1991, not ending until September 1992. They show him carrying out considerable helicopter brokering, often involving lengthy trips to Panama and Guatemala.
In any case, Schorling reappeared in the public spotlight in 1996, when he had worked his way up to general manager of what is now called A Taxi. Three years later, Schorling and A Taxi lobbyist Lyle Overby quit and formed their own company, American Taxi—a company that bills itself as "the choice for most city council members."
By the time American's contract came up for renewal, Probert had found Schorling. Appearing at a contentious March 2000 county Board of Supervisors meeting concerning the taxi contract at John Wayne, Probert waved the bogus check Schorling wrote him and told the board that Schorling was a thief and an embezzler. He told them to investigate Schorling.
They ignored him. Today, Schorling and Overby have exclusive taxi access to John Wayne Airport. And Schorling is, once again, scrambling for money.
"I see no way that we will be able to pay Pickens [Fuel Corp.] in full for the outstanding invoices, even at the reduced pricing that we discussed on Friday," wrote Schorling to his company's natural-gas fuel provider on June 5, 2000, trying to explain why American Taxi was again unable to pay its fuel bills. "If you spent any time at all looking at the cash flow that I left with you on Friday, you are easily able to tell that once we are through the next 90 days, we will be okay."
That was eight months ago. Today, American Taxi is still in financial trouble. Schorling says he invested heavily to get a piece of the lucrative Los Angeles taxi franchise, but in October, the selection committee was thoroughly unimpressed with American Taxi's lack of experience and stability and gave the company nothing. American Taxi's lawsuit against Pickens Fuel is still pending.
"I can't do anything to get my money back," says Probert today. "But I personally hate the man."
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