During the go-go 1980s, the low-key J. David Dominelli managed to transform himself into a high-flying investment superstar who promised fantastic returns. But his elaborate Ponzi scheme crumbled, robbing investors of tens of millions. Then came ruin as the man known as "Captain Money" was convicted and spent a decade in prison.
Dominelli, who also played a role in the collapse of Mayor Roger Hedgecock's political career, will be in the headlines again this week as news spreads of his death in Chicago two months ago at the age of 68.
I confirmed Dominelli's death late today after receiving a tip this afternoon. The cause of death is unclear, but Dominelli had been in poor health after suffering a major stroke prior to being sentenced to prison.
A newspaper reporter who covered the Dominelli trial remembered him today as a "darling of San Diego" whose spectacular fall captivated the community. "It was the scandal of the '80s in San Diego because of the high-profile people involved, the sums of money at that time, and just the outrageous nature of his promises," said David Hasemyer, who worked until recently for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
"He was the iconic scamster," Hasemyer said. "He was the Madoff of the '80s."
Prosecutors alleged that Dominelli and his girlfriend, onetime Del Mar Mayor Nancy Hoover, conspired to steal money from hundreds of investors in the early 1980s. Ultimately, the losses were estimated at $80 million.
While Hoover was flashy, providing what Hasemyer called the "personality" in the partnership, Dominelli had "the brains."
"He didn't have a personality," Hasemyer said.
Hasemyer put it this way in a 1996 Union-Tribune story:
Investors were in awe of the quiet, almost anonymous man, distinguished only by thick eyeglasses, who claimed an exceptional understanding of the highly volatile world of foreign currency trading.
Dominelli lived the high life. His world included race cars, jet airplanes, art and real estate. He was a benefactor to charities and cultural organizations.
And he was a crook.
In what the U-T called a "bizarre" Ponzi scheme, Dominelli convinced investors that he had a magic touch with financial investments. But he was using new money to pay off previous investors.
"He didn’t come across as anything more than just an average guy, but he was an average guy with a great criminal mind," Hasemyer said.
When the scam finally collapsed, Dominelli fled to the Caribbean but was banished back to the United States to face prosecution. He received a 20-year federal sentence and served 10.5 years of it.
Meanwhile, Dominelli's campaign contributions to Mayor Roger Hedgecock spawned a scandal that pushed Hedgecock out of office. Hedgecock was convicted of felonies, but most were later thrown out, with one remaining felony reduced to a misdemeanor then expunged from the record.
Dominelli was paroled to Chicago, where he had relatives. An obituary says he is survived by his father, several siblings and other relatives.
(It appears The Reader was the first local publication to post the news this evening.)