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Mr Natwarlal goes to America


FACE THE MUSIC: The computer store that Vickram Bedi ran in Westchester County. (Below left) Cops arrested Bedi just as he was about to leave for Iceland with his girlfriend, Helga Ingvarsdottir

On October 22, Vickram Bedi will appear in a court in Westchester County, New York, for a scam so bizarre and wacky that it would make the legendary Mr Natwarlal want to curl up and die of jealousy.

The facts of the case are thus: One day in 2004, Roger Davidson, a middle-aged Grammy Award-winning composer, discovered a virus on his computer, which he feared might wipe out all the priceless music compositions he had stored on it. So he took the computer to Datalink, a computer store run by Vickram Bedi in Westchester County, a wealthy neighbourhood in the US.

When Davidson went to get his computer back, Bedi told him, apparently, that the virus had been the most malicious he'd ever seen - so dangerous that it had, in fact, crashed all the computers in his store. Bedi said he'd tracked the virus down to a remote town in Honduras. He then told Davidson that he had an uncle in the Indian military, who could be sent to Honduras on a secret mission to investigate the virus's source - for a suitable fee, of course. Presumably few people can afford to pay for such highly specialised computer security services but, as Bedi had found out, Davidson happens to be the heir to a multi-million dollar fortune, being the great-grandson of a founder of Schlumberger, a Fortune 500 company.

Once Davidson agreed to Bedi sending his military officer uncle to Honduras, he got sucked deeper and deeper into the bizarre scam. A few days later, Bedi informed him that the mission was successful - his uncle had flown to Honduras, ostensibly in an Indian military aircraft, and retrieved the source of the virus.

That was the good news. But the bad news was that, in the process, he had discovered that the virus attack was merely part of a larger conspiracy - a conspiracy to assassinate Davidson, hatched by Opus Dei (the secret religious order featured in The Da Vinci Code). Davidson panicked, but Bedi told him not to worry;as it happened, he himself was working with the CIA on security systems to prevent Opus Dei from infiltrating the US government, so, fortunately, he was well positioned to protect Davidson against the evil priests. Davidson agreed to pay Bedi to provide him 24-hour security services, and be his personal bodyguard.

Thus, incredibly, over the next six years, Bedi would charge Davidson a monthly fee of $160, 000 to protect him from Opus Dei's assassins. Over the years those payments added up to perhaps as much as $20 million. Over this period, Bedi and his gorgeous blonde Icelandic girlfriend, Helga Ingvarsdottir, also became Davidson's close confidantes. In fact, he even appointed Bedi as co-trustee of his $60 million family trust, getting him involved with all his financial and investment matters. According to Anthony Marraccini, the local police chief, Bedi and Ingvarsdottir were "trying to control every dollar he had. They did it very systematically and infiltrated every aspect of his life. It was almost a brainwashing technique. " The scam first came to light when two Westchester residents complained to the police that GPS tracking devices had been clandestinely installed in their cars by someone. That someone turned out to be Davidson, who'd planted the devices to double-check Bedi's claim that these people were, in fact, Opus Dei assassins who had now moved in to the neighbourhood to kill him. He was realising, finally, that he'd been royally suckered.

The police connected the dots and arrested Bedi and Ingvarsdottir as they were planning to flee the country for Iceland, where her father, Ingvar Karlsson, is a prominent businessman. They recovered bank accounts worth $7. 6 million from the couple, as well as property deeds, jewellery, plus $150, 000 in cash, stashed under the bed.

So, is that the full story? So far we've mainly heard Roger Davidson's version. But Bedi gives a rather different angle on things.

In an interview, Bedi claimed that Davidson first brought his virus-infected computer to him, mainly because of a secret correspondence on it, between his family and their lawyers, regarding the murky transfer of a $400 million fortune from the taxhaven of Liechtenstein. Davidson apparently feared that the virus might have been planted by the authorities in an effort to get evidence that would help them recover sixty years of unpaid taxes. (Bedi also says with relish that there were "massive amounts of pornography" on the computer, but that, of course is a separate issue. )

Bedi claims, among other things, that Davidson is psychotic and had hired him to participate in an elaborate role-playing game about Opus Dei assassins, which helped him deal with his psychological problems. He says, in fact, that he has documents signed by Davidson to say that Bedi was authorised to lie to him - which were drawn up to protect himself from precisely the kind of charges for which he has been indicted. Bedi doesn't deny that he received a millions of dollars from Davidson, but he insists there was no fraud or coercion. "Roger was generous with us, " he says. "He liked us. We were keeping him calm. " Bedi's lawyer, Anthony Giordano adds, "For every dollar transferred there is a written contract, and most of them were evaluated by Mr Davidson's attorneys. "

Thus Davidson gave Bedi a contract for $10. 9 million and gifted his girlfriend, Helga, $1. 8 million, plus there may have been other dollops of generosity, as well. But then, says Bedi, their relationship began to go sour. Davidson started making sexual advances on Helga, and when the couple objected, he said he was high-born, so he could do whatever he wanted. Meanwhile, Helga's father has his own version. According to him, Davidson was having an affair with his daughter, despite the fact that he's old enough to be her father. While she is innocent of any crime, he says, her position has been compromised by this affair.

So what, really, is the truth in all these bizarre stories?

On the one hand, Bedi is not exactly a paragon of truth. For example, a search on the internet took me to a page that boasted, among other things, that he was the one who "developed the world's first Pentium-based laptop in 1994", and that his greatgrandfather, a civil contractor, was inexplicably "awarded the Victoria Cross" (Britain's highest award for bravery in combat) in 1937, at the improbable age of 63. Perhaps he started the whole Opus Dei thing as a lark, but when he found that Davidson was gullible enough to swallow it whole, he figured he might as well take advantage of it. And then greed drew him in, deeper and deeper, until the game spun out of control.
But on the other hand, Bedi's version about Davidson's secret correspondence on the infected computer, regarding the transfer of $400 million, which the tax authorities weren't supposed to know about, does sound plausible (certainly more plausible than the story of Opus Dei assassins). What's more, one of Davidson's first moves when the police discovered the scam, was to appoint a high-powered corporate public relations firm, Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communication, to manage the media for him - which, of course, raises suspicions that there's more to the story than just a na�ve musician being conned by a pair of wildly imaginative hucksters. The truth probably borrows from both parties' versions.

While Bedi continues to plead his innocence, his girlfriend, Helga Ingvarsdottir, has quietly confessed to her part in the grand larceny, and has asked to be sentenced.

When the case came to light I phoned Vickram Bedi at his home in Chappaqua, to talk to him. A lady answered. Our conversation went thus: - May I speak to Vickram Bedi, please. - Who's speaking? - I'm a journalist from India. - Sorry he can't come to the phone now. - I know he must be under a lot of pressure, but I really would like to speak to him. - Please call later. - May I know who's speaking? - I'm his mother. - When would it be convenient to speak to him, ma'am ? - Next week. Which paper do you write for? - (I tell her) - We need your support. You must make your voice heard - you must make it heard here in the US. You can't believe what they've done to us! - What have they done to you, ma'am ? - It's too terrible, you can't believe it! - Maybe if I can speak to him.... - No, no, not now. Call next week. (Click. )

So, no, unfortunately I have not been able to speak to Bedi myself. But he apparently told an American journalist, ruefully, "Roger has turned a civil dispute into a criminal matter. " It's a telling line, and one can read a lot into it. In the criminal matter that it has now become, Bedi could get up to 25 years in prison. However, for his wonderful, and wildly implausible, scam, he has earned the admiration of all the Mr Natwarlals of the world. Vickram Bedi, tussi great ho!

Anvar Alikhan is an advertising professional and columnist

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