Published August 15, 2016 by the Asbury Park Press
Louis J. Spina ripped five tequila shots and drove to a Wells Fargo bank.
He brandished a fake bomb – a strainer in a glass bowl stuffed into a reusable grocery bag. He arrived about 9 a.m. on a Monday.
He didn’t want a crowd.
The one-time hotshot Wall Street stock trader paced outside the bank, muttering.
Don’t do it.
You’ve got to do it.
You’re gonna get caught.
He left the Coral Gables, Florida bank with $16,783, thinking he would get away. But a teller saw the black Range Rover he drove. A day later he was behind bars, where he’ll remain until 2023.
These days, Spina wakes up in his prison bunk struggling to understand how he got there. His mind races. He wonders.
“I don’t even know how I did it,” he said. “I hurt so many people.”
For Spina, money was god. At Fort Dix federal prison in rural Burlington County, Spina said he traded the mafia gangster life of hometown Little Italy for the hustle of the New York Stock Exchange. He worked tirelessly, rising from a page boy running stock tickets to a broker dealing millions in stocks – Hewlett Packard, Disney, Pfizer. He earned a fortune and spent a fortune, on women and wine, a Florida condo, a million-dollar home in Colts Neck.
He toiled for decades. Comfortable retirement could have been the end of Spina’s story.
But it’s not.
Arrogance – and a taste for cash, painkillers and lies – stoked crimes that condemned Spina to a prison cell, he explained. He pleaded guilty to running a $20 million Ponzi scheme after he left Wall Street, among the largest ever investigated by the veteran FBI agent who worked to catch him. Spina defrauded Monmouth County elites, his friends, his in-laws, his wife.
After he stole from them, he robbed the bank.
In an exclusive interview with the Asbury Park Press, Spina, now 59, stressed that he didn’t plan his scheme. He gave in to greed. When he lost millions of dollars trusted to him by investors, he just couldn’t admit he was not the hotshot he thought he was.
He traded private planes and $1,000 bottles of wine for sloppy joes and a cramped dorm he now shares with 11 other men.
In the three chaotic years before he was caught in 2013, he burned down a reputation that took decades to build.
“There’s not enough silver and gold to buy back your name,” he said.
Chapter One: Choosing the working life
In the crowded visiting area of the Fort Dix federal prison, Spina introduced himself with a firm business handshake.
He’s a stocky man of average height, with a tan complexion, brown eyes, a gray crew cut. He’s punctual and well-spoken. His accent betrays his origin in lower Manhattan – he exaggerates “aww” syllables and adds “y’know?” like punctuation.
“I just started out as a, uhhhh, y’know, middle-class family,” he said.
He was raised next to a jail – born in 1957, he grew up on White Street in Little Italy, right next to the New York City Criminal Court building.
Spina played just about any game with a Spaldeen — a Spauling-made pink rubber ball, the common denominator of city street games. Sometimes he’d just toss it around by himself, bouncing it off a wall of the neighboring jail. Those inside would holler out windows: “nice catch, kid!”
He shared a room with his grandfather. His mom was a housewife and school aide. His dad toiled in a back office at the New York Stock Exchange, clearing transactions by hand, a tedious record-keeping job that had to be done with absolute accuracy. Both parents are deceased. He has two sisters he doesn’t speak to, he said.
Growing up, his father insisted on the righteous path, Spina said. If Spina misbehaved, like sneaking out and coming home late, his dad would lash him with a belt and a lecture.
His neighborhood was noisy. People hung around on the street corners, gathered in groups, chattering till late. He witnessed Little Italy mafia gangsters living the high life, Spina said – sleeping during the day, going out at night. Women, money, excitement. He wanted to be well-dressed and wealthy just like them.
After graduating from high school, Spina’s aunt got him a job sitting at a desk checking figures. He hated it within a couple weeks. One day he left for lunch and didn’t come back.
His dad was outraged. In their neighborhood, either you worked or you became a gangster.
“My dad really enforced that in me,” Spina said in a prison phone call. “And it’s a shame that I’m in here now, because that’s where I probably would’ve wound up if I was a gangster.”
Chapter Two: Walking onto the New York Stock Exchange
Spina’s father knew a guy on the floor of the stock exchange who connected him with a menial job, he said. The interview that began Spina’s 34-year career lasted maybe 15 minutes.
He remembered his first day. It was autumn in 1976. He walked to the exchange, nervous.
Then he saw the trading floor.
The lights, the flashing signs, the numbers, the sales going by, the confusion, the noise, the crowds – five, six thousand people on the floor, kidding around, knocking into each other, trading millions.
“You could almost smell the money,” he said.
It was like the street he grew up on – lots of action, people chattering.
“When those doors opened, I just knew that was for me,” he said.
Spina was hired as a “pageboy” or “runner,” he said. When brokers were in a crowd, trading, and they wanted to get an order slip back to their booth, they would hold it up and scream and Spina would run it over. He was one of about 20 on the floor.
“That’s the lowest position you could have,” he said.
He was still a kid from Little Italy, still dabbling in trouble.
He was arrested after a fight in September 1978, according to a report Spina made to a financial regulatory organization. Another time, he crashed his father’s car and fled the scene, he said.
“I was in it, but not in it,” he said of the gangster life. “Next day, I went to work.”
His father would scold him about his lifestyle: “You’re going to end up dead or in jail.”
Chapter Three: Becoming a broker
After toiling for months as a runner, Spina aimed higher.
“It was evident you could become a broker,” he said.
Those were the big shots on the floor, the ones who execute orders.
Spina said he had no college degree. But he had street smarts.
“At the time, I had some common sense,” he said. “Guess I lost that along the way.”
He graduated to “tube man,” putting orders in pneumatic tubes, he said. He worked as a “stock reporter,” marking sales by hand. He became a “specialist clerk” at LaBranche and Company – brokers would rush at him, another buying or selling every few seconds, as he hurried to record the orders.
He detached from the gangsters. Many stock brokers were steeped in money and Spina craved acceptance from the Connecticut blue bloods. His accent embarrassed him. He stayed quiet or strained to straighten his timbre when he did speak. He traded his brown suits for dark suits, his colorful shirts for sober white.
One morning in 1984 – when Spina worked at McKenna, Cloud and Company – the brokers smiled at him when he came to work.
He didn’t know why. Nobody said anything.
“Do I have something on me?” he wondered.
His boss pulled him aside and told him they made him a broker.
He was thrilled. He didn’t ask what his pay or commission would be. People on the floor slapped him on the back.
“They liked the kid, nobody from nowhere, getting a seat,” he said.
A week later, he got a limo and took his parents, sisters and girlfriend to dinner.
His father never rose to the top of his field. His father was surprised, Spina recalled, maybe doubtful Spina could do it, but very proud of his son’s accomplishment.
He was 27 years old. His annual salary started at $250,000, he said.
He was broker number 2102.