While serial killers and jealous wives steal headlines and sell paperbacks, none of Oregon's inmates has inspired as much aggravation as one man serving a 14-year sentence for forging checks.
Here's what Multnomah County Circuit Judge Douglas Beckman said of him during sentencing in 1996: "The only more celebrated thief that I can think of is Charles Keating," referring to the Arizona savings-and-loan tycoon who stole nearly $285 million from investors. Beckman added, perplexingly, that this local forger ran "one of the most vast criminal enterprises of anybody in the United States."
"I would rank him as the best I've dealt with," adds Carol Byrum, an investigator for Wells Fargo who worked on Davis' first racketeering prosecution, in 1988, while at US Bank. "I haven't seen another fraud ring in all this time that was as good as his."
Forget what you've read about identity theft. To this day, the simple act of forging stolen checks accounts for the largest percentage of bank fraud losses—nearly $700 million a year, according to the American Bankers Association.
And nobody did it better than Skillful Davis, 52, who agreed last month to tell his story for the first time.
Fraud detectives and bank investigators believe Davis walked away with as much as $8 million over the course of his 25-year career—much of which, some believe, he still has stashed away.
Sitting behind a window in a locked room at the Oregon State Correctional Institution near Salem, Davis recounted his story over a beige telephone. While admitting his guilt, Davis endeavored to frame his crimes in the context of helping less fortunate friends.
Even dressed in prison blues, he exuded style. He wore his collar open rakishly to the third button and had a tidy mustache atop his broad smile.
"He was just as smooth as they come," says Mark McDonnell, a senior deputy Multnomah County district attorney who twice prosecuted Davis for racketeering.
Davis arrived in Portland in 1970 at 17, the orphaned son of Althea and Willy Davis. Willy, who picked cotton on another man's farm, supplemented the family income by distilling moonshine and running a gambling shack in the woods near their home in Waco, Texas. He and his wife died in the early '60s, leaving their 12 children to fend for themselves. Skillful bounced around among relatives' homes in Texas and California before moving to Portland with two of his brothers, Ezra and Billy.
They landed in St. Johns, and Skillful attended Roosevelt High School, where he was a star on the baseball team. He graduated a year later and almost immediately began forging checks. Davis says he was influenced by his brother Hillard, who often visited Portland, and Ezra, both of whom he says were already established in the business.
Davis turned to forgery because it meant "doing the least harmful thing," he says. "I was totally against violence."
Sitting on a small metal stool, Davis recalls with a smile the first time he scored on stolen checks. It was 1972. A day earlier, he had palmed a book of checks from a small business. They were just sitting on the counter, he says, almost asking to be taken. Later, when he ran into a girl he knew at the bus stop, Davis asked her: "How about we do something together?"
As he did with countless women to come, Davis told his friend about the low sentences for forgery convictions—as little as probation—and promised to share the dough.
Speaking in his high, smooth voice, which has hints of a lisp and a little Texas twang, Davis must sound now like he did as an eager 20-year-old man. It's easy to imagine him putting on the moves, threading a story and persuading the girls to do his bidding.
That first time, the girl passed 10 checks, made out in her name, for $450 to $500 apiece. With Davis waiting outside in the car, she would walk into a Fred Meyer and fill her cart with $10 worth of Pampers, cleaning supplies and baby formula. She'd pay with a forged check, showing a phony check-guarantee card or driver's license, and walk away with a wallet full of twenties. They did the same thing at grocery stores across the city. Davis says they split the profits right down the center.
With his share of the take, Davis bought Levi's and fancy sneakers. It wasn't long before he could afford a little Fiat.
By the late 1970s, Davis had become well known to police in Portland. He was also developing a system.
"He had perfected a scheme," says retired Portland detective Pat Kelley, who trailed Davis through two decades. "And it worked for some time."
The first priority was to score some checks.
Davis explained his strategy from behind the glass. Either alone or with a partner, he would prowl Oregon and Washington for businesses to hit. They would look for small industrial offices with big windows up front so they could see the receptionist from the street.
Then, in the early morning, Davis and a companion would go "creeping." Sometimes, they would walk into a business and just grab the checks. Other times, they would pretend to apply for jobs and palm the checks when the attendant went into the back.
Even if it took extra time, Davis would find a canceled check so he could copy the signatures. He chose checks from the back of the book so they wouldn't be noticed.
Davis stole the checks himself because buying them from someone else might have linked him to the seller's previous crimes. The penalty for robbery, often as little as six months, was a risk he was willing to take.
"The benefit outweighed the punishment," he says, adding that it wasn't just the money that drove him. "For me, it was the thrill of getting away, the high of the crime."
With stolen checks in hand, Davis went looking for female passers. Turning on his charm, he persuaded them to risk arrest so he could make a profit. The women kept Davis doubly insulated. He escaped getting caught in the act, and if a passer ratted, it would be a case of a thief accusing a thief.
Portland detective Kelley explains: "Just because some [woman] was arrested and said, 'Skillful made me do it,' you can't arrest Skillful."
Davis sought out women who needed money fast and had nowhere else to turn. Many of his passers were young and had previous criminal records. Police believe Davis employed dozens of women over the years.
He lurked in the bars and nightclubs—the Cotton Club, the Gas Room, the Town Pump—and invariably, he claims, the women came to him. "I always stayed well-groomed and stuff," he says, "so I got a lot of attention."
"I'm a people person," he adds. "I'm pretty convincing, I would say."
Hanging by the bar with an orange juice—he never drank alcohol—he'd wait for eye contact. Looking down, Davis would ask how the girl was doing. If she said, "I'm broke," he came back with: "How'd you like to make a few dollars?"
Davis gave careful directions to each of his passers—sending them to grocery stores and, soon, to banks, where he could cash far larger sums. Carol Byrum later testified that his girls looked convincing—not drug-addicted and disheveled like the passers from other crews.
If the check came from a real-estate office, the girl would wear heels and carry a matching purse. For a small manufacturer, he says, "she'd wear jeans and some little boots." He adds, "You ain't going to send no woman in a micro-mini to cash a check."
He told the girls to avoid older female tellers ("They're veterans, and they'll give you lots of hassle") and go for men about their father's age or overweight women ("They're happy-go-lucky, nobody pays them much attention").
Davis would often drive behind the car that ferried the passers from location to location so he could always separate himself from the crime.
"If they get caught somewhere in the middle," Kelley says, "then Skillful just evaporates with the money."
Kelley says it happened often.
But Davis didn't always skate. He was regularly arrested for theft, burglary and parole violations. Between 1972 and 1996, he spent a total of 13 years in prison. He was also arrested and served short stints in Washington state and Utah.
Davis never lost his bravado. Once around 1983, Kelley says, Portland police caught him with a bad check and hauled him downtown to the fraud unit. Davis wasn't in handcuffs. "They put the check on a chest-high filing cabinet," Kelley says, "and a uniform was telling a detective about something, and when they turned around, Skillful was chewing. He ate the check." By the time a judge issued a warrant to search the culprit's stomach—with vomit-inducing ipecac—the check had been reduced to a few fibrous threads.
"We shouldn't have let him anywhere near that check," Kelley says, "but who would think that anybody would have the audacity to eat the goddamn thing?"
Davis became an expert in the technical aspects of his trade. He learned the maximum amounts he could cash, $5,000 at a bank and $500 at a major grocery store. He made sure to verify that the account had enough funds by calling the bank.
"Back in them days I could do 15 checks on a Monday, 15 checks on Tuesday, like that for the rest of the week," he says. "I've got five days to work before anybody would notice."
Davis says he spent much of the money he made in the 1980s, which he estimates at several hundred thousand dollars a year. He bought clothes and jewelry, often with a hot check, rented fancy cars and bet on the greyhounds.
Investigators decided to go after Davis in the late '80s by putting the squeeze on his best girls.
After posting alerts about Davis at area banks, police started arresting the passers, at one point bringing in several a week.
"I'd talk to them and say, 'I've got you on multiple counts, how would you feel about cooperating with us?'" Kelley says. "And they'd tell us, 'Skillful gave [the checks] to me.'"
In early 1989, with several of his best girls facing charges, Byrum says, Davis had to rely on less-experienced passers. One of them unwittingly introduced Davis to an undercover police officer, Kelley says. He gave her an envelope full of checks to cash, and his instructions were caught on a wire. Davis was arrested and ultimately convicted of racketeering in 1989. The prosecution, led by senior deputy DA McDonnell, put Davis in state custody for a minimum of 32 months and a maximum of 15 years.
In September 1990, while in the Oregon State Penitentiary, Davis wrote a letter to US Bank, offering his services as a consultant. Davis says the letter represented an attempt to go clean.
"I am serving a lengthy prison term for my involvement in various fraudulent schemes which caused substantial monetary losses for several area financial institutions. Put simply, bilking banks and other financial institutions for significant sums of money has been my area of expertise, as well as my livelihood, for most of my adult life....
"I am not going to question your intelligence with some fairy tale about realizing the evil of my ways, or by professing some altruistic conversion. What I have in mind is a business accommodation, pure and simple, a quid pro quo arrangement of the most basic sort."
After receiving the letter, Byrum paid a visit to Davis in prison. Their conversation would come to haunt Davis in a later trial. Byrum eventually testified about what Davis told her about his methods.
The interview did not culminate in a new job.
"His knowledge and training would be great," Byrum says, "but there's no way we could hire him."
Talking through the phone at OSCI, Davis says he planned to abandon crime when he got out. But six years in prison, he says, made him bitter, especially when prosecutor McDonnell appeared before the parole board to argue successfully against Davis' early release.
"That's why I didn't have no mercy when I got out," he says, his voice dropping into a lower register.
In November 1994, Davis re-emerged into a changed world. He could get away with passing much larger sums by depositing as much as $150,000 in an account and withdrawing cash over the next several days.
Davis rented an apartment in Troutdale but often stayed closer to town with 20-year-old Sonya Lewis, who was soon to be the mother of Skillful Davis Jr. Davis quickly assembled a new crew of girls—so quickly, in fact, that investigators suspect he began recruiting, and maybe even orchestrating forgeries, while still in prison.
Once again, the passers were young and desperate. Davis paid for several of them to stay in an apartment together at 705 NE Holland Ave.
They were busy from the start. More than a year later, investigators would link Davis to forgeries committed the same month he left jail.
In March 1995, just five months after his release, Byrum linked Davis to $16,000 in forged checks stolen from a company in Eugene. The girl who passed the checks, 17-year-old Jodi Hill, was busted and fingered Davis, but police would need more than the testimony of a teenager to send Davis away.
"We started keeping book on him like we did before," Kelley says. "He was kind of like an artist. He has a particular way or flair of doing things."
Within days, Hill told police she received a call from an unknown man saying, according to an affidavit, he "wouldn't want Ms. Hill's infant son to grow up without a parent." Several girls reported similar threatening calls as they were arrested or brought in for questioning.
By July, five of Davis' passers had been arrested or faced serious charges—including one in Tempe, Ariz., and two, Anetra King and Sherry France, who passed counterfeit checks totaling $170,000.
Even as his girls began to fall, Davis continued to live well. He says he found new hangouts like Shenanigans, the New Copper Penny and Atwater's. He bought Hugo Boss suits at Nordstrom and took the pleated pants to a tailor: one break and no cuff. He wore reptile shoes—snakeskin or alligator—in black, beige and brown.
Davis admits he slept with several of the girls but says he tried to restrain himself. He says the girls were all in love with him.
"I didn't want them to feel like I was too good to lay down with them," he says. "Sometimes I would give in. And after you do that one night, it becomes a responsibility. You can't see all of them at one time. It caused problems for me."
In a taped telephone interview with Portland police Detective Barry Renna on Sept. 6, 1995, passer Vanessa Galindo sounded like she had fallen out of love.
"I'm so tired of this. I, I, I just, I wish I could just pack up and move," she said. "Ever since I've known Skillful Davis, he's done nothin' but cause problems to the people I care about."
A month later, after yet another passer's arrest, Davis stopped reporting to his parole officer and moved to Seattle with Sonya Lewis.
The investigation continued. Police bugged a November phone conversation with Anetra King, one of his girls. In the call, Davis promised to find "work" for King while blaming her for getting caught with counterfeit checks. "You the one that fucked up, not me, but that's neither here or there," he said. "I'm trying to get something for you to do. I'm looking today. I'm trying to get something that you can go to the bank with."
Davis was arrested in December 1995 at Lewis' Seattle apartment. He was indicted that month by a Multnomah County grand jury on 60 counts, including racketeering, forgery and theft. He was ultimately convicted in December 1996 on 12 counts and sentenced to 14 years in prison, on top of five years for parole violation.
Seven women testified against Davis. Many of them told police they received little or no money from Davis for their troubles.
"The thing that struck me about Skillful was his ability to find these women and use them and walk away with the majority of the money," says Renna. "Personally, I don't think he cared a damn about these women."
From OSCI, Davis has a different theory. He believes that the women turned on him because he failed to spread his love evenly.
While he admits "wrong is wrong," it's clear he believes in a cosmic justification for what he does. "I know that these people I'm taking from," he says of the banks, "these people are stealing too, but they're stealing legal."
But that's all in the past. These days, Davis occupies himself with prison life. He reads mystery novels and has had prison jobs as an orderly and a maintenance worker.
Davis was implicated in a 1991 prison drug-smuggling case and in the 1982 jail break at Rocky Butte, in which he was suspected of accepting a package that may have contained a gun. Because of these incidents, Davis has spent months at a time in disciplinary segregation and is only allowed to see visitors behind glass.
Considering the high recidivism rates for forgers, it seems likely that Davis, once set free, will return to the only job he's known—creeping, stealing checks, charming girls and forging signatures.
He tells a different story. When he gets out, which won't be until at least 2011 unless his appeal is successful, he says he'll move to Texas or maybe Seattle. He says he has some money set aside—no surprise—and dreams of starting a small construction firm, or finishing his degree and becoming a counselor to inner-city kids.
Anything is possible.
Yes, Skillful is his real name. After their first son, Ezra, Althea and Willy Davis bestowed their next five boys with names that rhymed in the diminutive: Billy, Sylvester, Phillip, Hillard and Skillful.
Many of Davis' passers were white. "It's always best to have white girls," he said. "Our world is run on racism and capitalism."
In order to avoid leaving fingerprints, Davis would hold checks between his knuckles.
Among the businesses Davis cashed forged checks from in the 1990s were Kaiser Permanente, May View Properties, Jay-D Cold Storage, Northwest Stone Inc., Classic Country Rabbit, Emerald Steel Fabricators and Class Act Coatings.
Thirty-one percent of bank-fraud losses come from forged checks.
Prosecutor Mark McDonnell is convinced Davis has stashed away some of his cash. Davis must repay $36,000 in restitution to US Bank and Bank of California after his release, but the money will be hard to collect unless Davis buys property or gets a wage-paying job.