The Wolf Hound
Sixteen years ago, Joel Cohen ’84 took down a now-infamous con man. And he doesn’t want you to forget what a heinous guy Jordan Belfort truly is.
In 1997, when Joel Cohen ’84 was an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, he took over his office’s investigation of Jordan Belfort, the memoir-writing fraudster who made tens of millions of dollars peddling penny stocks. An FBI special agent named Gregory Coleman had been pursuing Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, since 1992 with a series of prosecutors, but he still lacked the evidence necessary for an indictment. One day, Coleman arrived in Cohen’s office and unrolled a 14-foot-long scroll on a table. Coleman had scribbled names, places, dates, and numbers across the paper in colored markers, tracing the outlines of Belfort’s criminal enterprise.
“I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘What can I do with this?’” Cohen said recently. Then he noticed a few scrawls suggesting that Belfort and his partner, Danny Porush, were laundering their money in Switzerland. Cohen decided that was the lead to follow. “We should try to lop off the head of this organization instead of the feet,” he recalled thinking.
The linchpin for the Swiss strategy turned out to be a tattoo-covered drug dealer named Todd Garrett. Coleman had already started investigating Garrett and his wife, Carolyn—a housewife who was investing hundreds of thousands of dollars through an account with Stratton Oakmont. She was making a lot of money. She happened to be a Swiss citizen. Coleman had also heard that Todd Garrett was dealing drugs, specifically Quaaludes, to Belfort and other Strattonites. Coleman then received another useful clue. In 1995, a security guard at a mall in Queens had called the NYPD to report a suspicious meeting. A Bentley had pulled up to a black limousine. Two men got out and started arguing, then one passed the other a black suitcase. When the police arrived, they found Garrett in the limo with the suitcase, full of cash, and a gun. They arrested him for illegal firearm possession and seized the cash, figuring they had busted a drug deal. But maybe it had been something else.
Coleman and Cohen subpoenaed security-camera footage from the mall and got a grainy rendering of the meet-up. “We knew Danny Porush was driving a Bentley, and we figured it was a cash drop,” Cohen said. They continued to investigate Garrett’s wife and obtained travel manifests showing that she was making frequent trips to Switzerland. The facts suggested that she and Garrett were Belfort’s cash mules. The trick would be getting Garrett to talk.
“He wouldn’t flip,” Cohen said. “We knew his wife was involved; we threatened to indict his wife, and he didn’t care. He was a Hells Angel, a black belt in karate. Even with a lawyer and an FBI agent sitting next to you, you think, ‘This guy is going to rip my head off!’”
Cohen discovered that they had a trump card. As tough as Garrett looked and acted, he had a weak heart. Some years before, he had contracted a rare virus in Brazil. Now he needed a heart transplant. He was on the transplant waiting list. Cohen did some research and learned that federal prison inmates are not given new hearts. He knew he could indict Garrett for drug dealing—he already had a former Stratton broker who said he had bought Quaaludes from Garrett.
“We told him, ‘If you don’t cooperate and we indict you and you end up going to jail, you won’t get a new heart, and you’ll die,’” Cohen told me. “‘I’m just telling you the way it is. You want a new heart? Do the right thing, talk to us, and you get a new heart.’”
One of Belfort’s Swiss bankers also cooperated, and the Swiss authorities then came through with some crucial documents. On the Tuesday before the Labor Day weekend of 1998, less than two years after Cohen joined the investigation, FBI agents arrested Jordan Belfort in his mansion on Long Island.