The Big Cow Con
Citrus thieves. Honey embezzlers. Raisin scammers. Fertilizer fraud. Detective Rocky Pipkin thought he had seen it all — until he discovered Arno Smit.
When Vonnie Cary first locked eyes with Arno Smit he was standing near the concession stand at a Central Valley Christian High School football game, surrounded, as he nearly always was, by a phalanx of South African dairymen chattering in Afrikaans. She doesn’t remember much else about that night in 2001, nor the two whirlwind weeks that followed, but by the end of it he’d moved into the trailer she was sharing with her children.
Vonnie was just a few months out of a strict marriage to the kind of deeply religious man who had threatened to divorce her seven years earlier for piercing her ears. She’d married early, had four kids, and then found herself single at 41. She didn’t have much experience with men, and certainly not with the variety of man that Arno would rightly be classified as: tall, boyishly handsome for 38, and worldly — full of stories about the youth he spent in South Africa, where his family owned a large (and apparently very lucrative) dairy operation and a game preserve.
“I was this Seventh-Day Adventist Christian that had been in a box,” Vonnie says; Arno swept her out of the box and off her feet. They would steal away for weekends together on the coast in Venice and Santa Monica and at the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego. If for some reason Vonnie had to make a trip on her own, Arno would have a handwritten card waiting upon her return: “Hi Sexy. I just wanted to tell you that I realized how much I love and appreciate you while you were gone, and please next time don’t make it two weeks. Two days is already too much.” His mother would send her sweet cards, too, and trinkets from their farm in South Africa. Vonnie took him home to spend the holidays with her family in Arkansas. One day she even walked in on him shopping for a diamond ring on the internet.
It wasn’t long after Arno moved in that he first suggested they go into business together. To Vonnie, who’d had a honey business with her ex-husband, it sounded like a great idea. They were in cow country, and she already had a trailer for her horses, so Arno’s suggestion — livestock hauling — seemed like a natural fit. Together, the two of them went down to the Ford dealership and got matching white pickup trucks. They put the brand-new F-350, with more horsepower for hauling, in Arno’s name. He’d only just arrived in the U.S. a few months earlier and didn’t have a credit history, so Vonnie cosigned the loan. It was no problem at all: She recalls that the man at the dealership told her she had the highest credit score he’d ever seen.
But even with a near-perfect credit score you can’t buy two cars at the same time without a significant down payment, which the couple didn’t have, so Vonnie leased the smaller F-250 for herself. They named their labor of love Wait N See Livestock Hauling, Vonnie says, as in: You just wait and see, “because we’re gonna be something someday!”
The business was covering expenses, but it wasn’t making money, so Vonnie and Arno diversified. First they bought Boer goats, then cows. “We got a lot of calves from dairymen, like the $10 calves — the drop calves — and had a whole bunch of those die because,” despite growing up on a dairy farm, Arno “didn’t know how to keep them alive.”
Then one day Vonnie got a call from someone down at the Tulare County Stockyards; they’d run Arno’s Social Security number, and it didn’t match his name — just thought I’d let you know! In December, the letters started coming. There were five in all, and each was identical to the one that came before it: a plain 8-by-10 envelope with a 34-cent apple stamp and an urgent warning. “Vonnie,” the sender wrote, “I do not like to see somebody being completely deceived. You have too much to lose! Open your eyes. It is time to move on! Your current situation is very risky for yourself and your children. My only hope is that it’s not too late!” The sender included an email address and a request that she write to confirm she had received the letter. She never got around to it, but it wasn’t too long before her relationship with Arno immolated in a scene practically cut and pasted from a country song.
She got a call one night from a friend of Arno’s suggesting she drive by a certain address. She did, and the truck she had bought him was sitting in the driveway. When she knocked, a woman she knew from town answered the door and pretended she’d never heard of him, until Arno finally came to the door. They fought, and the next day, after he came by to collect his things, Vonnie says Arno took a swing at her in front of her two sons.
For months after their breakup, Vonnie was inconsolable. Her mother had to come help her keep things together. It was a good thing she was there, too, because it was only after the fact that Vonnie began to realize exactly what had transpired those past nine months. Vonnie’s car insurance had lapsed four months earlier because Arno had stopped paying it. Arno had kept the truck and horse trailer. He’d told her he was making payments on the credit cards, but he hadn’t been. Her perfect credit score was gone, and she was more than $60,000 in debt.
Arno, meanwhile, seemed to have moved on to bigger things. She would hear, over the next few years, from friends who saw him at black-tie events or at a bar surrounded by a gaggle of women. He wasn’t just hauling cattle anymore, but buying and selling it, and doing well enough to buy the fancy BMW he was driving around, plus a couple of small private planes and two tie-downs at the Visalia airport.
Every now and again a woman would come up to Vonnie and relate a familiar story — one gal approached her at the rodeo to say Arno had taken her tire business for $60,000, another told her Arno had threatened her. She’s lost count at this point, but if she wanted to, Vonnie says she could probably rattle off 10 or 15 names from memory.
The women, it turned out, didn’t even catch the worst of the damage Arno Smit wrought in the Central Valley. He arrived in the late ’90s — boom times for the California dairy industry. Business had dried up by the time Arno disappeared in 2009, but by then he’d made off with an estimated $12 million from local dairymen he’d duped in a massive fraud. Locals were so embarrassed about how badly they’d been taken by Arno Smit that, for a time, most of them didn’t speak about it, even to one another. Their sheepishness meant the extent of his fraudulent activity in the Central Valley wasn’t fully appreciated until after he’d left — until an investigator named Rocky Pipkin came along.
From above, California’s Central Valley is one giant, geometrical mixed metaphor. Pivot irrigation fields are plopped down like perfectly symmetrical lily pads, fallow plots look like pans of brownie batter, cornfields like bars of gold.
The southern half of it, the San Joaquin Valley, is a muddy patchwork quilt that starts at the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta and ends at the Tehachapi Mountains, just north of the Mojave Desert. To the east, it rumples up against the Sierra Nevada mountains; to the west, the Diablo and Santa Lucia ranges keep it from spilling into the sea. Every once in a while the pattern is interrupted by a scaly bit of civilization: tiny blue swimming pools, Lego-size stadiums, curling cul-de-sacs, and parking lots filled with artfully arranged sprinkles. Visalia, California — the seat of Tulare County — is one such bit of civilization.
The Pipkin Detective Agency operates out of a brick-slate-and-stucco building just off 198, the highway that cuts a straight line across the state, splitting Visalia in two. Proprietor Rocky Pipkin has expressive eyebrows that jump around above his black-framed glasses when he talks about a case. He wears caiman-skin cowboy boots and, on his hip, a .45-caliber Ed Brown 1911 pistol in a tooled Tucker Gun Leather holster (similar to the ones he’ll tell you are standard issue for Texas Rangers). On one hand he sports a thick-banded gold ring with a sapphire or a diamond in it, depending on the day. (He has two such rings; the stones are different but each has the agency’s name and its motto, Truth, Integrity, Justice, etched into the side.)
The office walls are adorned with framed articles about Rocky and some of his better-known cases. There are photos, too, of his great-great-uncle, C.W. Pipkin of Omaha, Nebraska, the founder, back around 1920, of the Pipkin National Detective Agency. Rocky, who is now 57, didn’t know about C.W. when he was 26 and a family friend approached him with the idea of opening a detective agency together. He’d applied and been accepted to law school, but he couldn’t afford to leave the workforce: As he says, “My daughter was 2 years old, and I still had to put beans on the table.” Vern Hughes was a retired California Highway Patrolman and an expert at accident reconstruction, so that’s what the agency — Vern Hughes and Associates, in those days — specialized in. These days, the Pipkin Detective Agency handles cases of elder abuse and child abduction, the odd instance of spousal infidelity (referrals only, Rocky says), workers’ comp and employee theft cases, and, on request, executive protection. (Twice they helped coordinate private security for visits by President George W. Bush.)
Since Rocky took over in the mid-’90s, though, agricultural crime has been Pipkin Detective Agency’s claim to fame. It’s easy to see why. Take almost any one of the 230 crops grown in the Central Valley — melons, pistachios, citrus — and you’ll see that each possesses the same set of qualities: plentiful, valuable, and, as Rocky says, “It’s easy to fence it. Everybody’s got to eat.”
The scale and scope of the crimes vary. Honey embezzlement. Almond heists. One time, Rocky and his agents spent months on a sting operation to expose an elaborate organic fertilizer fraud. That case involved a decoy plant where the crooks pretended to make organic fertilizer with fish meal and bird guano; a second plant, fortified by walls of wooden pallets stacked 40 feet high, where they actually made the product with chemicals; and an intricate underground pumping system that would clandestinely fill the “organic” tanks with the conventionally made fertilizer. The investigation required Rocky’s agents to set up a command center inside a motel down the street from the decoy plant. “When we want to really put someone under some very intense scrutiny and surveillance, we’ll rent the house across the street from you, we’ll rent the house next door to you. We’ll make it look like it’s Mom and Pop living next door to you, when the whole time we’ve got cameras on your location 24/7, we’re watching your every move,” Rocky says. “We’re doing trash runs. Every week when you set it out there, we’re pouring it out on a blue tarp and we’re scrutinizing every piece.”
Sometimes a case is as simple as thieves sneaking into a field and plucking the goods right off the trees. A few years back Rocky and some agents were investigating a theft in a Kern County citrus grove when “all of a sudden several trucks show up, and they start rapidly picking on a Sunday afternoon all of the citrus and loading it into these trucks,” Rocky says. “After we confronted them, placed them under citizen’s arrest, called the Kern County sheriff’s department, we started going through the trucks and there was everything from watermelons to firewood — these guys just went out and randomly started stealing everything they could.”
Not all of his investigations are quite so open-and-shut; the most famous one took more than a decade to be resolved. It concerned the national raisin reserve. The reserve was a holdover from the post–World War II era. So many raisins had been sent to feed soldiers overseas that the government worried that, with the war over, an excess supply would flood the market and cause prices to bottom out. Its solution was to order farmers to divert a portion of each harvest into a stockpile managed by the Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC). Reserve raisins were then donated to American schoolchildren, fed to cattle, or sold to foreign markets to help cover the salaries of RAC bureaucrats; any extra money went toward domestic advertising on behalf of the raisin industry.
At least that’s how it worked from 1949 until 2002, when one stubborn farmer decided he wasn’t going to pay into the reserve anymore. The government hired Rocky to stake out the farmer’s vineyards, determine his crop yield, and calculate how much he owed so the RAC could send him a bill. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices eventually sided with the farmer, ruling it unlawful for the government to demand a tribute from raisin farmers.
Grapes (of which only about a quarter are grown to be sold as raisins) are the fourth-most profitable Tulare County crop. They brought in a tidy $723,511,000 in 2014. Three-quarters of a billion dollars is a respectable haul, but it’s nothing compared to the amount of money made by Tulare’s No. 1 product: milk. Milk is California’s most valuable agricultural commodity, accounting for $9.4 billion of the total $54 billion California farmers brought home in 2014. More than a quarter of that — $2.5 billion worth — is produced in Tulare County. That’s roughly the same amount of money, adjusted for inflation, that gold miners excavated in one year at the peak of the California gold rush.
Though these days California is the biggest milk producer in the country, and Tulare County the biggest milk producer in California, that’s a relatively recent development. California eclipsed the state of Wisconsin only in the ’90s, right around when Arno Smit turned up in town. By the time Rocky got the call that put him on Arno’s trail, and on one of the biggest cases of his career, the dairy bubble was deflating. Not that it made much of a difference to Arno — he’d already taken those dairymen for a great deal of money.
For many years, there were essentially two types of dairymen in Tulare County: the Dutch and the Portuguese. The Portuguese first arrived in California from the Azores on whaling ships in the mid-1800s; many turned to sheepherding, then dairying, after failing to strike it rich in the gold rush. In 1915, about half of California’s milk was produced by Portuguese-owned dairies; by 1960, 90 percent was.
The first wave of Dutch dairy farmers arrived in California at the beginning of the 20th century, fleeing a devastating crop failure; the second wave came fleeing World War II. “No matter what happens with the war, the next four or five years are going to be good for the dairymen of this country,” a 1941 item in the Visalia Times-Delta assured locals. “Holland, Belgium and Denmark, long heavy producers, have, of course, been overrun and have lost more than half of their production, and it will take some time to build them back up.” Together the two groups were responsible for helping fuel Tulare County’s stratospheric rise. There were about 47,600 dairy cows in Tulare after the end of World War II, and 121,000 by the early ’80s. By 1999, the county’s bovine population had grown to 484,000.
When Rocky Pipkin opened his investigation in 2008, he immediately saw that a 21-year-old Arno Smit (he had lied to Vonnie about his age) had shown up on the scene nine years earlier at a moment ripe for his success — Tulare County was flush with dairy cash. With the construction of thousand-cow mega-dairies featuring automated milking operations, the demand for cows was growing just as fast as the farmers’ profit margins. “They were making money hand over fist, they were looking for places to invest their money, and Arno took advantage of that,” Rocky says.
One of the early people Arno scammed was a man named Jamie Bledsoe, the owner of Golden Genes Dairy. When Arno arrived in 1999, he’d come to intern at Golden Genes. Jamie gave Arno a stipend and a place to stay; he worked on the farm and learned how the company managed its cattle and its business.
Jamie wasn’t Dutch, but a lot of the other dairymen in the area were, and those were the ones Arno first struck up relationships with. “He went right to his roots,” Rocky says. “He went to all these Dutch guys and he talked the talk and walked the walk.” Arno was brought up speaking Afrikaans, which is similar enough to its mother language, Dutch, that people fluent in either can understand one another. One day after Arno’s internship ended, he turned up at Golden Genes saying that he and his girlfriend had bought a truck and trailer. He said he wanted to sell cattle, and he reckoned he knew enough Dutch dairymen in Tulare whom Jamie wasn’t already selling to to make it worth Golden Genes’s while.
They started off small: a check for any deal Arno brokered would be written directly to Jamie. But then “the deals started getting bigger,” Jamie says. “I couldn’t keep up with everybody.” Soon Arno christened his enterprise Smit Cattle Company and began making his deals directly, paying Jamie a commission after the fact. The first check bounced about three or four months into their new arrangement. Arno gave an excuse and made it right quickly, but something was starting to feel off to Jamie. “I deal with people all around the world and I can smell bullshit pretty good,” he says.
The last deal they did together was far and away the biggest — to the tune of about $450,000. Arno bought 185 head of cattle and wrote Jamie a check for the total. But instead of taking them to his cattlemen clients, Arno drove down to the Tulare County Stockyards and put the cows up at the public auction, where they fetched a price that was $300 less per head than the check he’d written Jamie. It bounced.
Jamie, Rocky eventually learned, wasn’t the first or last dairyman Arno scammed. Arno was buying cows from different cattlemen, taking the money he made at the auction and using it to buy more, or accepting payment for a certain number of cows from a farmer and delivering only a fraction of those promised. “It was a giant Ponzi scheme,” Rocky says. “These guys would start calling him, ‘Hey, dude, where’s the rest of my cows?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, they’re coming. The truck broke down in Texas or New Mexico or … ’ He’d come up with some cock-and-bull story.”
Rocky found that even as Arno was failing to deliver the dairymen’s cows, he was flying the same dairymen around in private planes on trips up to Oregon or over to Las Vegas on a lark, with fuel and piloting services he also hadn’t paid for. At the time, the dairymen weren’t talking about Arno among themselves; the fear was that if they exposed Arno’s fraud to one dairyman, Arno wouldn’t be able to extract money from that person to pay back the others.
By early 2006, though, Arno’s debts were mounting. He went online and set up an account on MillionaireMatch, where he met Jackie Atkinson, a wealthy British widow living in Las Vegas. Jackie’s husband had died of metastatic lung cancer a few months earlier. It had been quick — diagnosis to death in less than a year — and incredibly painful for Jackie, who was his caregiver throughout the illness. She was just looking to get out of the house (preferably with someone in a similar tax bracket) when she received a message from a South African cattle baron living in California.
Jackie’s initial impression was that Arno seemed, in a word, genuine. He didn’t have a profile picture, but when they met in person he looked just like the photos he’d sent her. He was attentive, too: She would wake up to a text from him every morning. They bonded over their shared love of golf, and he looked her local course up online to offer tips. “Be careful on hole 13,” he told her over the phone one day before she left to play a round. “He did his homework,” Jackie says. When she was out with her girlfriends, he’d ask to be put on the phone with one of them to tell her to take good care of his girl for him.
It was May 2006, about six weeks into their relationship, when Arno called Jackie in a panic. An investor had backed out of a big cattle deal at the last moment and he had only 48 hours to find the money. Was there any way she could help? Jackie was a businesswoman. She had a portfolio of properties and stores in Las Vegas at the time, and she considered the deal on its merits. If he could get the returns he was promising, she stood to make a nice profit. She had a contract drafted up with all the particulars — she would invest $500,000; Arno would return that initial investment plus an additional $300,000 — and they both signed it. May 2006, Jackie would later learn, happened to be the same month a Tulare County judge ordered Arno to pay Golden Genes the $450,000 he owed.
Jackie recalls that as the summer went by, Arno appeared in no hurry to pay her back. “Of course when he did pay it back, the checks bounced from here to Timbuktu,” she says. At some point, she stopped attempting to deposit the checks. Instead she asked the bank teller to see if there were enough funds in Arno’s account to cover the amount. She remembers the banker laughing out loud when he looked. In November of that year, she filed a lawsuit against him in a Nevada district court and hired a series of hapless private investigators who failed to turn up much information about him. That is, until a Google search led her to Rocky Pipkin.
By then, Arno had (allegedly) been run out of town by a whole gang of dairymen. “They dropped him off at the hospital, and they roughed him up pretty good and they said if we ever see you here again we’re going to be dropping you off at the morgue,” Rocky recalls hearing. He’d left a trail of bad debts and a long line of aggrieved female companions behind. Rocky set out to find each one. As he did, he filled up a legal pad with names and dollar amounts each person was owed — $100,000 here, $60,000 there, $500,000 over there, another $20,000 back here. In total, the ledger would come to some $12 million.
Rocky was starting to piece together a picture of the waste Arno had laid to Tulare County, but finding the man himself was proving trickier. Arno, according to the second- and third-hand reports that were filtering back to Rocky, had teamed up with two new South African associates in Southern California. The three of them were selling short-term promissory notes. Arno had changed his appearance — he’d grown a beard, dyed his hair, put on weight. At least Arno’s flair for exaggeration remained intact: He was telling people about a golf course they were developing with Tiger Woods in South Africa.
In March 2009, when Arno failed to show up to answer Jackie’s claim in court, Rocky finally had what he’d been waiting for: legal standing to arrest him. “We got the judge here to issue the largest bench warrant in Tulare County history, which is $1.1 million,” he says. Rocky put out a bulletin addressed to “all police agencies, sheriff’s departments, bounty hunters, bail bondsmen, private detectives, and constables.” It listed Arno’s appearance, known associates, the types of cars and aircraft he used to travel, even his preference for vodka tonics.
The bulletin was simply a precaution: Rocky’s agents had already tracked Arno to a harbor in Marina del Rey. (Helpfully, the FBI was pursuing their own case against Arno at that point.) Arno’s slick black Mercedes CL-85 AMG was parked in the harbor lot, and the agents could see Arno and a female friend motoring around the marina in a cabin cruiser. “When we found that, we thought we had him,” Rocky says of the car. He gave strict orders: “Do not leave there. Be there 24/7, and the minute he gets back there, cuff him up.” The agents didn’t leave, but Arno never came back. “We found the boat there in Long Beach, but Arno was long gone,” Rocky says. “We think that’s when he met up with Hugo.”
Hugo Ras is Arno’s brother-in-law. As bad as the stories that trail Arno are, they are nothing compared to the stories about Hugo Ras. In South Africa, he was linked to the death of an employee who was mauled by a lion. (The charge was eventually dropped.) Ras has also been questioned about the murder of a Russian stripper and charged with distributing a veterinary-grade tranquilizer that may have caused the woman’s death. He has been arrested multiple times on charges related to rhino poaching and is accused of being the kingpin of one of South Africa’s largest rhino-poaching syndicates. “He’s like the Teflon Don of the animal-poaching world,” Rocky says.
Rocky’s theory is that Hugo and Arno escaped together through Mexico — where Hugo may have been running a panther-hunting operation — using a duplicate of Hugo’s passport since there was a hold on Arno’s. “We’re able to trace him — they went from Mexico City to South America, Rio de Janeiro, and from there they chartered a plane,” Rocky says, to another unnamed country that didn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S.
Over the next several years, as Rocky stayed on Arno’s trail, he would occasionally get calls or emails from someone with a juicy piece of intel to share. Someone who knew Arno from his frequent visits to the Visalia airport swore he saw him on TV, in the crowd at the Masters Tournament at Augusta. An ex-girlfriend forwarded a desperate email from Arno: He’d had a horrible falling-out with his family — could she lend him $3,000? Another friend posted on Facebook that she was drinking Champagne in a box Arno had rented for his friends at a rugby match in South Africa.
When that last sighting fell across his desk, Rocky dashed off an email to Andy Grudko, a private investigator of British extraction with his own agency in South Africa. The two had met a few years earlier through the World Association of Detectives. (Andy had been the ambassador for South Africa.) Using Arno’s name and birthday, Andy was able to find a home address in Ficksburg, South Africa.
The Free State farm where Abraham Johannes Smit grew up was a shabby single-story ranch house in a thicket of eucalyptus trees otherwise surrounded by empty grazing fields. A fading hand-painted sign hanging in a log frame advertised Long Haven Holsteins, Smit Familie.
Make a Cow Happy Drink Milk!!! it cheerfully encouraged. Four enervated cows — the apparent sum total of Long Haven dairy’s stock — sat in a small woven-wire pen near the house.
A beat-up Ford Bantam pickup truck was parked in the driveway, and out back there were a couple of ramshackle bungalows where farmhands might stay when there was work to be had. Andy arrived shortly after 5 in the afternoon, and, as he wrote in a report for Rocky, “a white woman of about 60 came out slowly to greet us. Before she could say much, her husband, a white-bearded 6'1" bear of a man and obviously a working farmer, appeared.”
Arno’s mother invited them in for tea and biscuits. The interior was modest — no chandeliers, no art, just a rustic open fireplace. California license plates hung on the wall next to photos of Arno in a cowboy hat or in a stars-and-stripes shirt. Arno wasn’t there, and his parents told Andy they didn’t know where he was. His mother seemed nervous; his father was gruff. Twice he declined to take the court order Andy had come to deliver. Both parents appeared surprised to hear their son had run into legal trouble in America.
The next day, a rough-sounding man named Hugo got in touch. In an email, Rocky told him Arno needed to turn himself in and repay the money he owed.
Hugo wrote back:
Rocky I just want to help. Arno have no money. But clearly with youre attitude I don’t want to get involved further. Dont contact me again.
UMBAKU INTERNATIONAL INVESTMENTS (PTY) LTD
That email was the last Rocky heard from him. “I told the FBI in June of last year that we believed he was back in Ficksburg,” Rocky says. The news finally broke in September. “I get a call from this [former] girlfriend who, like, Google searches Arno every day — she wants a piece of his hide, obviously — so she calls me up and she goes, ‘Oh man! Congratulations! They got Arno!’”
Arno Smit, his sister Trudie, her husband Hugo, and seven other accomplices, including a lawyer, a pilot, and a member of the South African police, were arrested in South Africa. There are more than 300 counts in the indictment against them. The charges include “theft, fraud, malicious injury to property, attempting to defeat the ends of justice, racketeering, money laundering, intimidation, illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.” Together, they stand accused of slaughtering 22 rhinos and mutilating two who survived, and stealing a grand total of 84 rhino horns on privately owned game preserves. Prosecutors estimate the horns were worth 22 million South African rand, or about $1.4 million. That’s a fraction of the money Arno is believed to have taken from the Central Valley.
The FBI won’t confirm the number, but it will say that Smit was indicted on separate charges of wire fraud in 2011, that he is currently in custody in South Africa, and, per protocol, that he will face charges there before he will be eligible for extradition to the U.S. (I sent a letter addressed to Arno, care of Pretoria Central Prison, requesting an interview for this story; I never heard back.)
Rocky Pipkin says he’s still holding out hope Arno will face charges in California someday. “I’d still love my shot at him,” he says. “I’d like to interrogate him.” What would he ask? “I’d want to know where the money is.” If he had to, he’d bet it’s in a Swiss bank account. “He referred to it, and a guy like this will mix truths with falsehoods, or falsities, or whatever is the correct term for it. He’ll say just enough true stuff to hook you, but then he’ll pepper it, add the topping of outlandish embellishment.” Others think wherever the money went, Hugo Ras was probably involved. If he was, a clue about where it went might lie in the last email Hugo sent Rocky.
Google turns up few results for “Umbaku International Investments,” the most notable a website for a construction company in Johannesburg called PPA Construction Project Managers. The site lists about 38 projects — everything from warehouses, office parks, and shopping centers to eco resorts and lavish golf estates. The project commissioned by Umbaku International Investments is, by far, the most expensive on the list. The company pegs it at 590 million South African rand — about $38 million. It’s described as a golf and wildlife estate located in Zeerust, about two and a half hours outside of Pretoria, 45 minutes from the Botswana border.
“It was a golf estate on a farm just outside of Zeerust,” the owner, Robert Peel, confirms to me over the phone. “Some very up-market exclusive residential units around a golf course in a game resort.”
Or it would have been, if it had ever gotten off the ground. “That was a project that was underway quite a few years back which never took place, unfortunately,” he says.
Why did it die? “Lack of funding,” Peel says hesitantly, “and a number of other issues.” He confirms that Umbaku International Investments was Hugo’s company before rushing off the phone. He asks me to email him, and I do, multiple times, with just a few of the many questions I have — How far along did the project get? How much money was spent before work was halted? What kept it from being realized? — but he never responds again.
News of the arrest rippled through California, but, all these years later, most of Arno’s victims aren’t holding their breath waiting for him. Jackie is remarried. Vonnie sells oranges and honey at farmers markets around the state; she is engaged to Jamie’s veterinarian. Jamie sold off all his cows in 2013; these days he’s growing pistachios, almonds, and wine grapes. “We love our cows, but it just wasn’t a good business anymore,” he says. Around 2008, the price of milk began to fall, and the cost of cow feed — due to drought conditions — began to rise. The combination spelled disaster for many in the California dairy business. The average Tulare dairy has struggled to cover its costs, and a slew of them have gone bankrupt.
To the local residents, the days of Arno Smit feel unimaginably long ago. When you ask around about Arno in the Central Valley, a lot of people, even some he conned, can barely believe it ever happened at all. You can’t blame them: Some of the rumors about Arno are so fantastic — there are stories about an escort ring, about hit men, drugs, gunrunning — that it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. But then, even the most prosaic parts of that time hardly feel believable now: that once Central Valley dairymen were making more money than they knew what to do with, that they would take a private plane to gamble in Vegas or go play a round of golf in Pebble Beach just because they could. That world has evaporated, as surely as Arno did.