By: Christopher Goodwin*
For a man who has a bullet in his spine and is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, Florian Homm seems remarkably at ease with the world.
Standing on the terrace of a five-star hotel in the forested hills just outside Frankfurt, Homm spreads his arms wide.
“Isn’t this wonderful,” he sighs, asking a waitress to bring him a freshly squeezed orange juice. “I’m grateful every day. To have a good view and hear the water from a fountain, that’s not so shitty.”
In the distance, through the summer haze, we can see the gleaming skyscrapers of Frankfurt’s business district, the hub of Germany’s financial sector. That was the world that Homm, 58, who ran a hedge fund that managed assets of US$3 billion (MOP24 billion), bestrode for much of two decades like a German Gordon Gekko.
Standing 6ft 7in, smoking cigars as long as his arms, perpetually tanned, always quotable, the blond, aquiline Homm revelled in his notoriety as the unrepentant bad boy of the German money markets. One major German entrepreneur he tangled with called him “the Antichrist of the financial world”.
“I generated obscene profits for seven or eight years,” Homm says proudly. One of Germany’s top business publications estimated Homm’s net worth in the mid-Nineties at US$500 million.
But then, in September 2007, Florian Homm disappeared, in the middle of the night, with US$1.2 million (MOP9.6 million) in cash stuffed into his Calvin Klein underwear, cigar boxes and suitcases. He vanished for five years, living under a false identity in Colombia and elsewhere.
Why he ran is a matter of dispute, and the subject of long-running criminal investigations in the US and Europe. If Homm is to be believed, he’d had a profound spiritual and emotional breakdown. At the heart of it, he says, was the uncomfortable realisation that the immense wealth he’d been chasing for three decades was a false god, and it was destroying him and his family. “I had to rehumanise,” Homm says. “My completely dwarfed soul had to be fed. I was very, very, very unhappy.”
The devil who got religion
Today, having had a spiritual rebirth, Homm professes to be a devotee of the Virgin Mother, praying every day, dedicating his life to charity and warning of the danger to our souls of our addiction to the acquisition of wealth.
Homm’s spiritual catharsis is highlighted in a new documentary, Generation Wealth, about the excesses of our gilded age. “Florian is the personification of Gordon Gekko,” says the director, Lauren Greenfield, who first knew Homm at Harvard. “But he became a truth-teller. He was the devil who literally got religion. That was so powerful and unexpected.”
The US authorities see Homm as the villain of a rather different morality tale. A 2015 grand jury indictment in California alleges that, before Homm disappeared, he orchestrated a huge stock scam, losing investors in his companies some US$200 million (MOP1.6 billion) and making off with at least US$53 million (MOP424 million), which they claim he laundered into bank accounts, properties, gold and art all over the world. If convicted on all counts, Homm could face a 225-year prison sentence.
“I know I’ve already been judged guilty in the media,” Homm tells me, “but I believe I am innocent. Is that entirely inconceivable?”
Florian Wilhelm Jürgen Homm was born into dynastic wealth, but it was obtained through the worst of crimes. His great-uncle was Josef Neckermann, whose mail-order empire made him one of Germany’s richest men in the Sixties, with 30,000 employees. Neckermann, an Olympic equestrian whom the young Homm called “Necko”, was a larger than life German patriarch, his success a symbol of the country’s postwar economic boom.
But Neckermann, who had been a member of the Nazi party, had built his wealth on companies expropriated from Jews. After the war he served a year in prison. Homm and his family would spend weekends on the Neckermann estate. It was a family without a soul. “As a child I had no god. Charity was not a factor in our family. Success mattered, and intensity in life,” says Homm. “No other beliefs. Kind of sad.”
Homm was clever and driven, finding his way to Harvard University and then to Harvard Business School. Investing on the side, he had made his first million at 22. After Harvard he joined Merrill Lynch and then Fidelity Investments, where he worked with the legendary Peter Lynch, leaving to start his own company in 1993.
Millions with others bankruptcy
In the late Nineties, Homm became a leading player in Germany’s financial world, but also a figure of loathing when he took a “short” position – betting that the shares would fall – in the century-old shipbuilding company Bremer Vulkan. Homm made millions when the company filed for bankruptcy in 1996, but thousands of workers lost their jobs. The unions and the media called Homm a “locust”.
“Do you think I cared in the least?” says Homm, dressed in a crisp blue striped shirt and tan trousers, banging his fist on the table for emphasis. “The faster it went bankrupt, the better for me, but I didn’t bankrupt it: those guys made terrible investment decisions. Who says it’s a popularity contest? I could have been smarter, more elegant about it. So what? It’s a waste of time. My business was booming.”
In 2004, Homm’s 25 per cent stake in the Borussia Dortmund football club, one of the biggest in Germany, was credited with saving it from bankruptcy. That made Homm a financial and media superstar.
Having moved to Mallorca for his health – he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000 – Homm’s new hedge fund, Absolute Capital Management, seemed to be making enormous profits, and in 2006 was named top European hedge fund by Hedge Funds Review magazine.
Homm’s success made him immensely rich. He had private jets, a yacht, a zoo, a US$3 million art collection, a number of multimillion-dollar properties across the globe, even a stake in Artemis, Germany’s largest brothel.
But, Homm tells me, he was beginning to feel a gnawing emptiness, spending less and less time with his wife, Susan Devine, and their two children, Conrad and Isabella.
“The hours would get longer. The funds would get larger. You’d have to do bigger investments. You got richer. But your time shrank. Your soul shrank. The fun factor shrank. My wife felt estranged, because the guy she had married was on a different planet.
“You’re not feeling good inside. You’re not laughing. You’ve lost your spontaneity. These very important emotional relationships should sustain you, but now that’s gone and all you have left is your economic playing field.”
In 2006, Homm and Devine split up and she took the children to Florida. Homm moved a 27-year-old Russian former stripper into his US$5 million (MOP40 million) house in Mallorca. “She was living proof of how low I had sunk,” he wrote in his autobiography. “She was a fake blonde with hair extensions, fake tits, fake fingernails and no brains, just an astute, instinctual commercial sense of how best to sell herself to the highest bidder. At least we had something in common.”
Homm’s realisation that his life was unravelling was heightened when he was shot in Caracas, Venezuela, in what looked like a robbery. “Caracas is a messy place,” Homm says. “I’m a high-profile guy. I have some enemies. I know I’ve got to be careful.”
Driving from the airport, Homm and his bodyguard were ambushed.
“A police motorcycle with two riders comes up. Boom! Boom! Boom! The glass busts. He shoots the bloody bodyguard in the knee and shoots me in the chest. What the f***? Why didn’t he shoot the driver? Why does he want to blow me away from two feet? A .38 from that distance, you’d kill an elephant. That was way f***ed up.”
The attackers stole his friend’s Rolex. Homm staunched the flow of blood from his own chest with a wad of $100 bills he’d had stuffed in his shoes. He had a six-hour operation that removed his spleen and half a lung. Today he sports a scar from his sternum to his belly button.
Homm now believes that it was an assassination attempt ordered by one of his scores of enemies, from the Russian mafia to Serbo-Croatian extortionists. “I really am the most retarded person you will meet in your lifetime,” he says. “What more do you need? Is it not enough to get a bullet and almost die? Is it not enough that your wife and kids leave after a 20-year relationship? I mean, what hammer do you need to get it?
“I was not going to wake up and smell the roses. I didn’t know how to smell roses. I was a zombie. Partying. Dating girls. Doing blow. I hadn’t got with the new programme yet, or knew what the new programme was.”
Around this time, Homm started planning his disappearance. According to the US indictment and a Swiss investigation, he also began moving tens of millions to Swiss and other bank accounts around the globe.
Prosecutors claim that he began doing this after a whistleblower sent an email to shareholders and others in 2006 accusing Homm of manipulating share trading. (Homm says the whistleblower has now retracted most of those claims.) Stunning the world’s financial markets, he resigned from his hedge fund in the middle of the night of September 18, 2007, having sold tens of millions of dollars of his own shares. His hedge fund crashed, investors lost hundreds of millions of dollars and, as regulators hunted for him, Homm went completely off the radar.
With US$1.2 million in cash, he took a private plane from his finca in Mallorca to mainland Spain, ending up in Cartagena, Colombia.
Prosecutors in the US, Switzerland and elsewhere began unravelling the astonishing complexity of Homm’s wealth. Swiss authorities have uncovered a network of more than 120 bank accounts they believe were controlled by Homm on four continents.
They also discovered that Homm and Devine remained surprisingly intimate, despite their divorce. According to court documents, “On August 1, 2006, just six days before the divorce petition was filed, Devine addressed Homm as ‘gorgeous’ in an email and signed off, ‘A big, big hug. I love you.’ ” On September 5, 2006, one month after the divorce petition, Devine emailed Homm: “Hi Gorgeous, I have to be very reserved when I reply to your e-mails. Can I be a little bit soppy??? No, I shall resist.’ ” In another, sent on August 28, 2007, just three weeks before he disappeared, Homm promised Devine, “If I can succeed, the children and you will sit on a multigenerational fortune.”
Divorce part of the scam?
Swiss authorities estimate that, between May 2006 and October 2007, Homm and Devine transferred some US$65.9 million (MOP527.7 million) to companies controlled by Urs Meisterhans, the director of a Swiss financial services company. Meisterhans has been indicted by Swiss prosecutors on charges of aggravated money laundering and is due to face trial later this year.
Homm denies any wrongdoing. “I was trying to protect my money. So what?” he told The New York Times in 2014. Devine, who is cited in the 2015 US indictment as an “unindicted co-conspirator”, also denies any guilt. She recently won a civil action in the US against investors trying to recover money from her.
Homm scoffs at the claim that his divorce was part of a scam to help him hide and protect his assets. “That’s been microscoped to death,” he says dismissively.
While regulators and aggrieved investors hunted for Homm, a German private detective offered a 1.5 million euro bounty, put up by a client, for information on his whereabouts. Homm took this as an assassination threat.
Homm has admitted that before he disappeared he “procured a new identity”, and it seems that during these years he travelled on an Irish passport in the name of “Colin Trainor”. Swiss prosecutors found a copy of the Colin Trainor passport in a Swiss private bank where they believe Homm had opened an account using the Trainor alias. In their indictment of Homm, US prosecutors also noted an account at Credit Suisse in the name of Trainor, which they believe was controlled by Homm. “I’m not going to comment on the passports,” Homm says. “But if you have a bullet in your spine and you’re not sure if it was a robbery or an assassination attempt, and if you are the subject of a bounty hunt with a 1.5 million euro price tag, maybe it makes sense to keep a low profile.”
Homm insists he was not a fugitive because there was no arrest warrant for him then. “When you’re a very high-profile guy and you go from public to very private, they condemn you as a fugitive, but it has no bearing on reality,” Homm says. Homm tells me that during this time he voluntarily spent 50 hours in Switzerland answering prosecutors’ questions.
In 2012, five years after he disappeared, Homm poked his head above the parapet. “My lawyers had told me the statute of limitations was over,” he says. “I had nothing to fear.”
He published a brazen autobiography, Rogue Financier, which acknowledged gross moral failures but denied any crimes. Homm claimed to have had a spiritual reawakening and was seeking to warn others about the soul-destroying evils of wealth.
During those five years, travelling to more than 50 countries, Homm tells me, “I found answers. That family matters. Children are rewarding. There is more than me. Let’s do some good things. Let’s build some emotional capital … Obviously, being a serial entrepreneur, a hedge-fund manager and a zillionaire is not the answer.”
Believing he was now safe, Homm was stunned to be arrested on March 8, 2013, in Florence. He was held for extradition to the US in a high-security Italian prison: “I ended up in hell.” As a multimillionaire, he faced violent extortion attempts. “In 450 days in prison I was moved 40 times. The worst cells were ones for Muslim fundamentalists and the criminally violent. The third worst cell – because I don’t have a spleen and half my lung is gone – was with people who had TB, hepatitis C and Aids. Any one of those diseases would kill me.” By the time of his release, Homm weighed just 70kg.
To the dismay of US prosecutors, after 14 months Homm was released by the Italian courts because of a limit on how long people can be held for extradition. Homm hotfooted it back to Germany, which doesn’t extradite its citizens. Now, as long as he doesn’t leave Germany, Homm appears to be out of reach of US and Swiss prosecutors. The US doesn’t try people in absentia.
“The only other person in the past 50 years who was not extradited from Italy was an all-powerful, mega-criminal oligarch. And then me.” Homm believes he was saved because of his faith and divine intervention.
“At some point you have to put away the computer and the spreadsheets,” he says. “Faith is believing in the middle of the darkest night that the birds will sing in the morning.”
These days, Homm says he spends most of his time working on his charities, one of which promotes the book Our Lady’s Message of Mercy to the World, using the money from sales to help disabled and disadvantaged children.
Homm says he has repaired his relationship with his children. “I see my son and daughter regularly, and they are in really, really good spirits,” he says, but that because of the ongoing legal problems, his relationship with his ex-wife is “at mega arm’s length”.
Homm believes his multiple sclerosis is in remission because of his faith. He feels this will help him prevail at the criminal and civil trials that he still expects to face.
With the money in his Swiss and other bank accounts frozen, and apparently living on little more than a 700 euro monthly disability pension, this one-time master of the universe claims to be happier than he has ever been.
“I’m neither begging nor starving, and where I live is maybe 2 or 3 per cent of my former living space. There’s no driver outside. There’s no plane waiting.” What most pleases him is that, “I am no longer the slave of money, an oversized ego and worldly ambition.”
Lauren Greenfield, the director of the documentary Generation Wealth, admits she is unsure about Homm’s redemption. “He is this Icarus figure, flying higher and higher until he crashed,” Greenfield says. “In moments of devastating personal or communal crash there is insight, and with that insight there is the possibility for change, but it’s not a foregone conclusion.
“With Florian, that’s the question: is his change real?”
*Exclusive The Times /The Interview People/Macau Business