Thursday, February 3, 2011

An American Tragedy

Fall from Grace, 2011

A notice in the paper yesterday reported the death of Clyde Pitchford, who as a young man managed to swindle more than a million dollars from gullible Richmonders.

Richmond's the kind of city that has such a lingering respect for the class system that it’s ripe territory for a swindler who can throw some money around, surround himself with the trappings of tradition and give off an air of pedigreed lineage. It’s said that Richmond aspires to live in the world fantasized by Ralph Lauren. Back when I lived in Richmond in the 1970s and early 1980s, a neighbor who was the sales rep for the Izod brand told me that Richmond was second only to Cincinnati in per capita sales of aspirational brand clothing.

There’ve been a number of famous swindlers in Richmond. They feed off people who are always anxious to make some fast money, acquire some of the trappings of success and move up the social ladder. When I lived there it was the sons of an Episcopal vicar and a prominent tobacco grower who were running a gold and silver trading company. In the late nineties it was a fraudulent German Baron and Baroness who scammed Richmonders to the tune of a million dollars a year so that they could outfit a mansion with fine art and furnishings and move among Richmond’s social elite.

For my money, though, nobody quite matched the story of Clyde Pitchford. In the early 1980s, Pitchford cut a wide swath through Richmond’s high society. He came from a working class neighborhood in South Norfolk. But like Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, by the time Clyde Pitchford showed up in Richmond working for E.F. Hutton and Dean Witter, he’d gotten a taste of the good life and wanted more.

Just a few years out of college, his penthouse apartment was furnished with expensive antiques and Turkish carpets. He had a chauffeur-driven Roll Royce. He wore bespoke suits. He belonged to the right clubs and played with the right families. He became involved in Virginia’s Republican Party. Rumor had it that he was even considering a run for governor. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch put it, “No goal was too lofty for the financial wunderkind who was bedazzling his wealthy clients.

The funny thing about people who get taken by guys like Pitchford is that they’re so blinded by the prospect of making fast money that they never ask questions. They accepted Pitchford’s grandiose stories about a privileged background even though no one remembered having seen or heard of him in any of the prestigious schools, summer camps and other places he described. His lavish lifestyle, generous tips and donations and the lofty company he kept led everyone to believe that he was making money hand over fist. No one questioned that. Needless to say, he wasn’t making the kind of money that could sustain his luxurious lifestyle. People who come out of nowhere and start living like that rarely are.

In early 1986 Clyde Pitchford’s carefully orchestrated empire began to topple. His creditors started pressing him and pushing him towards bankruptcy. His clients and employers started to realize that they’d been had. Saying he was headed off to New York for a “business meeting” that February, Pitchford disappeared.

He stayed hidden for three months. When he realized that a nationwide manhunt was closing in on him, he surrendered to the FBI in Washington, D.C. He was charged in federal court with more than a dozen counts of embezzlement and bank fraud and ultimately found guilty of stealing over a million dollars.

In addition to a 25-year prison term, of which he actually served only six years, Pitchford was ordered to repay those from whom he’d stolen. A sale of his assets raised little more than $100,000. The bankruptcy judge let him keep some of his Brooks Brothers suits and Hermes ties.

I never knew the guy, but always thought Pitchford’ story would make for a terrific book. During his days in the spotlight, he was for Richmond what Jim Williams ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") had been for Savannah. In the right hands, it could have been a great story or movie. But no one ever seemed to pick up on the idea.

Pitchford’s obituary said he was discovered in his home in small mill town about sixty miles west of here. The police are treating it as a suicide. Clyde Pitchford was 56 years old. The funeral home obituary says he owned a recruiting firm and enjoyed “riding horses, Elvis Presley music and the company of his Doberman pincher dogs.


  1. What makes a person want to live like that!? Tragic story. Cincinnati, eh? I had no idea.

  2. I would suspect a guy like that experienced some emotional neglect as a kid, which would give him a sense of entitlement to do what he did. As in his own mind, such white-collar crime wouldn't be such a big deal, compared to what he went through ... Too bad. It's people like that who could really benefit from seeing a psychotherapist and eventually find some meaning and richness in life before it's too late. In this case, it was too late.

  3. John Moyer, you hit the nail on the head !

    It amazes me the twisted web a mind can weave until the individual actually believes his tales. But from seeing this behaviour first hand ... the individual does not want to seek help from a therapist .... they are too wrapped up in their fantasy world and do not want to let reality step in.

    Great piece ... kudos to author and comments.

  4. There's still more to this story. One needs to look further....he did it again!

  5. Clyde was a good friend and caring man. Instead of focusing on his crimes why not take pity on someone who basically died alone. I am no fan of Richmonders you describe but I found your blog snarky and a waste of space. Stick to something and someone you know.

  6. Dear "Anonymous,"

    Since you don't identify yourself, I can't tell whether you're the same "anonymous" who hinted that there's more to the story or the "anonymous" who expressed concern about the family dynamics of Mr. Pitchford's upbringing. In any case, my comments did not reflect on whether Pitchford was either a good friend or caring man. You'll note that I referred to his story as a "tragedy," which is how I saw it. He could have been successful, even great. He might have been both a good friend and a caring individual later in his life. But the fact of the matter is that when he was younger and had all of life's opportunities still ahead of him, he abused the trust of a great many people who befriended him and gave him opportunities just so that he could swindle them.

  7. to the 2/7 anonymous post....would you still feel that way and make those statements if you were one of the ones he scammed then and possibly now? I don't think so. You would be very angry, sad, etc...