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Former heavyweight boxing champ Riddick Bowe’s comeback continued last week, but not entirely in the way he had hoped. His fight against Billy “The Kid” Zumbrun � no longer a kid at 32 and ranked 146th in the world � took place in Temecula, a small town in the California desert, at a casino owned by the Pechanga Indian tribe. The bout didn’t even rate coverage by boxing’s main outlet, HBO, but landed quietly on a Fox cable sports show. All in all, it was a far cry from what Bowe had imagined for his return from retirement. And it was nothing like the scenario the famous fighter and D.C.-area resident was promised by a young Virginia lawyer just two years ago. Jimmie Ray Lawson II approached Bowe in 2003 with an irresistible deal: Bowe would fight exclusively for the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas for three years. The payout would be $40 million. Lawson, a real estate lawyer from Collinsville, Va., told Bowe that he had negotiated the deal himself with MGM Grand owner Kirk Kerkorian. Bowe was looking for a new start. He had been out of the ring for nearly seven years. He was about to serve 15 months in a federal prison after being convicted in 1998 of kidnapping his ex-wife and their five children. Bowe had also just put down a large deposit on a $2 million home being built in Great Falls, Va. But the fights at the MGM Grand never happened, and Bowe never got the house. Bowe now alleges the fight deal was a scam and has accused Lawson of stealing more than $1 million from him. And it turns out that Bowe is just one of dozens of former clients who say they were duped by Lawson. Lawson, 32, was criminally charged in March with embezzling $28,800 from a Martinsville, Va., client. A county judge has ordered that Lawson’s assets be frozen and seized. The Virginia State Bar has moved to take away his law license. He’s facing several county, state, and federal criminal probes. “We have 30 to 35 good cases, solid cases, of some type of shenanigans involving Lawson and his clients,” says Assistant Commonwealth Attorney J. Randolph Smith Jr. of Henry County, Va. “And it looks like there may be more.” Authorities are still waiting for Lawson to turn himself in. Accusations of fraud and broken contracts are part of the fabric of professional boxing. Members of Bowe’s current legal team say their client was targeted because of his wealth. “Riddick got screwed big-time to the tune of $650,000 to $1.35 million,” says Roger Simmons of Frederick, Md.’s Gordon & Simmons, who is representing Bowe in one of two civil suits aimed at getting some of the boxer’s money back. While training for his fight in Temecula, Bowe declined to be interviewed for this article. Yet through one of his lawyers, Jeffrey Katz, Bowe said he was “sick and tired of people trying to take advantage of him, and he’s not going to stand for it.” But the question remains: How did a lawyer from a tiny town in Southwestern Virginia link up with the former heavyweight champion of the world and then allegedly swindle him out of a million? A SERIES OF BLOWS Bowe’s rise and fall from boxing fame was almost equally quick. Known as Big Daddy, Bowe had knocked out 27 of his first 31 opponents and remained undefeated when he faced heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield in 1992. The fight with Holyfield lasted a full 12 rounds, and when it was over, Bowe had won the heavyweight title by a unanimous decision. Bowe managed to hold on to the title for just one year, losing it to Holyfield in another match decided by points. By the time the then-29-year-old Bowe retired from the sport in 1997, he had amassed an impressive record � 41 wins, one loss, and one no contest. He had also become a very rich man. According to a 1997 Washington Post article, Bowe’s net worth was $30 million when he retired. But Bowe had his share of personal troubles and embarrassments. In 1997, he joined the Marines, stating he wanted to fulfill a childhood dream. He quit after just 11 days. Then came the incident that landed him in prison. In February 1998, Bowe drove down to North Carolina from his home in Maryland, armed with a buck knife, pepper spray, handcuffs, and duct tape. He forced his estranged wife and their five children into his Lincoln Navigator. He drove them into Virginia before police pulled the vehicle over and arrested Bowe. He later pleaded guilty to one count of interstate domestic violence and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Bowe’s criminal defense lawyers fought the sentence, arguing that Bowe was mentally impaired because of head injuries sustained during his boxing career. That legal fight took years to run its course through the courts. Eventually Bowe was ordered to serve his time beginning in March 2003. Two months earlier, Bowe was visited at his Fort Washington, Md., home by two men from a company called Split Decision Entertainment. They had a plan for getting the former champ into the ring again. One was Jimmy Adams, a Nashville promoter who once worked for Don King. The other was Jimmie Ray Lawson, who received his Virginia law license in 1998 and ran a small real estate practice in Southwestern Virginia. The two had already been managing a comeback for former World Boxing Council champ Oliver “The Atomic Bull” McCall, who hails from the same area of Virginia as Lawson. Adams eventually became Bowe’s manager. That summer, while Bowe was incarcerated at a federal prison in Cumberland, Md., Lawson told Bowe that he had negotiated a $40 million deal with the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, according to documents filed with the Virginia State Bar. Lawson says that Bowe agreed to pay him $3 million for negotiating the deal, according to Virginia State Bar documents. “This guy was very slick and very sophisticated,” Katz says of Lawson. “He pulled the wool over Bowe’s eyes.” In September 2003, Bowe signed a general power of attorney appointing Lawson as attorney of record for his estate. According to court papers filed in a civil case, Bowe had wanted Lawson to close on a $2 million land deal that Bowe had been involved in before going to prison. Within days, Bowe gave Lawson power of attorney over a trust account belonging to the boxer. On Oct. 2, 2003, Lawson wired $490,000 from that trust into his law firm’s bank account. The money was then transferred to Northern Virginia’s Gulick Group, the development company that was building a home for Bowe in Great Falls, according to court papers. The money was intended to go toward the purchase price of the house as well as paying off certain penalties and fees. The next day, Lawson withdrew $625,000 from Bowe’s account and placed it in his law firm’s account, according to papers filed in the bar case. Lawson, according to those papers, claims that Bowe directed him to invest the funds in various companies run by Lawson. The lawyer told the Virginia State Bar that he invested the money in Laurel Properties, Villa Records, and Club Matrix, a Nashville nightclub. According to documents in the bar’s case, Lawson admitted to losing $300,000 of Bowe’s money in these investments. The Virginia State Bar, which eventually investigated Bowe’s allegations, concluded that the MGM deal was a fraud, though it does not detail how it came to that conclusion. In his written response to the Virginia State Bar charges, Lawson repeatedly states that his compensation agreement with Bowe was “not a fraud” and that the MGM deal was legitimate. “The boxing deal at the time was a verbal commitment from MGM’s majority stockholder Kirk Kerkorian and was supposed to be finalized with a written contract,” Lawson wrote in a December 2004 letter to the Virginia State Bar. Lawson’s lawyer, Gilbert Davis, declines comment on specific documents, but says his client “did make efforts to have a fight scheduled there.” A spokeswoman for the MGM Grand in Las Vegas declines comment. Bowe was released from prison in May 2004. The next month, he fired Lawson and demanded that the lawyer pay back nearly $500,000, according to records filed in the bar’s case. Lawson wrote three checks to Bowe, each for $100,000; all three bounced, bar documents show. Bowe also learned that the Gulick Group sold the Great Falls home to someone else while Bowe was incarcerated. (Last month, Bowe filed a civil suit against Gulick in Maryland’s federal court, claiming that the company refuses to turn over the $1.2 million Bowe alleged he had paid the company. Curtis Low, a vice president at the Gulick Group, declines comment on the case, saying it “is a private matter.”) Even though Bowe again felt burned by Lawson, he didn’t call police or go to the courts. Instead, he had Lawson sign a contract outlining a schedule to pay Bowe $520,000. According to this contract, Bowe promised not to turn Lawson in to the bar or to take any legal action as long as Lawson paid the money back in 14 installments at 7 percent interest. Bowe received just $25,000 from Lawson, who then disappeared, according to Bowe’s lawyers. Bowe filed suit against Lawson in a Virginia federal court claiming $1 million in damages. Lawson still has not responded to the suit, and in January, a federal judge issued a default judgment. ON THE ROPES By that point, several investigations of Lawson had been launched. The Virginia State Bar, which had been probing Lawson for months after being alerted to bounced checks on his law firm account, suspended Lawson’s law license and asked a judge to enjoin Lawson from using his law firm account. In its complaint, Assistant Bar Counsel Kathryn Ramey described a real estate settlement handled by Lawson. The complaint states that Lawson wrote a check for $151,567.50 from his law firm account to the woman whose house was purchased. Ten days later, the woman learned from her bank that payment had been stopped on the check. On Jan. 6, a Circuit Court judge in Henry County, Va., issued a permanent injunction, forbidding Lawson from using his lawyer trust account. The judge appointed a receiver to take over Lawson’s cases. Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Smith says he got a call from the Virginia State Bar alerting him to the January hearing on the injunction. Smith says he and another colleague decided to attend the hearing, suspecting that it involved a lawyer who had a minor problem with his law firm checking account. “When we got there, the whole courtroom was full of people,” Smith says. “They started telling us their horror stories. It was a shock.” Meanwhile, Martinsville, Va.’s Lawyers Title Insurance Corp., a company that insures real estate transactions, filed a civil suit against Lawson in the Circuit Court of Henry County, Va., claiming that he misused trust funds for his personal benefit. At the request of the title insurance company, a Henry County judge froze all of Lawson’s assets, as well as the assets of his wife and of two employees of his firm. The judge ordered some assets to be seized by the county sheriff’s office, specifically two Hummer vehicles bought by Lawson and his wife, according to the Martinsville Bulletin, the first newspaper to report on the suit. Lawson was criminally charged by the Virginia Commonwealth Attorney’s Office in February with one count of embezzlement involving a real estate deal. He was arrested, but posted bond and was released. Last month, a county judge threw out the charge after concluding that prosecutors had not shown probable cause. On March 18, the charge was reinstated after a grand jury indicted Lawson. Smith says Lawson has yet to appear in court on that indictment. Last week, Smith said that Lawson had not yet been found, adding that his office has been negotiating Lawson’s surrender with Davis, Lawson’s lawyer. Davis says there was a miscommunication between himself and his client and that Lawson will turn himself in in time for a hearing on the charge scheduled for May. And tracking down Lawson’s assets has not been easy either. Smith says prosecutors have yet to find any assets and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing whether some funds may have been transferred abroad. Davis, who represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against then-President Bill Clinton, says Lawson has no money: “He doesn’t have any property. He’s penniless.” Meanwhile, Bowe’s bid to return to boxing’s big time continues. On April 7 at the Pechanga Indian casino, he battled Billy Zumbrun for a full 10 rounds � and won. But it was, fittingly, a split decision. Tom Schoenberg can be contacted at [email protected].

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