Kaushal Niroula, 26, aka the Nepalese Prince, aka Prince Little Stuff, enters a Palm Springs courtroom and offers to shake the judge's hand. Short and neatly dressed, with attractively dainty features, Niroula is the suspected ringleader of a bizarre murder-larceny case that has riveted this desert Mecca of gay high society since early December. That was when Clifford Lambert, 74, a retired art dealer known for his taste in younger men, vanished without a trace.
On January 7, two men who lived across the street from Lambert's $1 million house on exclusive Camino Norte noticed a moving van pull up. It was carrying five day laborers, who took orders from a handsome San Francisco bartender named Miguel Bustamante, 26. The neighbors called Lambert's attorney, who'd asked them to keep an eye out since the older man's disappearance on December 4. Police soon showed up and arrested Bustamante. Back at the station, he said he'd been paid $30,000 to "clean out" Lambert's house. He spilled the beans about an alleged scheme to fraudulently sell Lambert's house, loot his bank and investment accounts, steal his Mercedes sports car, and truck away his collection of fine art.
Based on Bustamante's information, police issued arrest warrants for a cast of characters drawn from the San Francisco gay social scene, including David Replogle, 60, an attorney known among some colleagues for pushing ethical boundaries; Daniel Garcia, 27, a longtime client of Replogle's; and Russell Manning, 67, a former Union Square art gallery employee.
Niroula, a spiffy-dressing Nepalese immigrant with a haughty British accent, apparently served as the hub of this alleged gay-grifter crew that drew victims and coconspirators from the Castro bar scene. When Niroula was arraigned on March 11, attorneys, police, victims, and former friends already suspected him to be one of the more prolific and ruthless con men ever to hit California. He is credited with persuading the president of the New College of California that he was Nepalese royalty, poised to donate $1 million to the college. In exchange, he purportedly received scholarships and unearned class credit that allowed him to fraudulently extend his student visa. The resulting scandal ended with the college's closing last year.
Niroula also allegedly posed as a business consultant to con a Japanese tourist out of $508,000, and as an art consultant to pry $485,000 from a Silicon Valley collector. He then allegedly stole $300,000 worth of jewelry that belonged to the mother of a friend to pay for a restitution plea deal. And he then somehow persuaded a Marin County judge and a U.S. immigration judge to set bail low enough to allegedly allow him to make his way to Palm Springs and into the life, and apparent death, of Clifford Lambert.
"He's not a two-bit con man," says San Francisco fraud detective Greg Ovanessian, who investigated Niroula for the art fraud case. "We have lots of cons where the amounts are not that big. Look at the losses with Niroula and the amounts at hand; they're giant. Obviously, he has to support a lifestyle, or some other needs, with lots of infusions of cash. He seems to accomplish that, in one manner or another — allegedly, of course."
"There are too many instances of him getting out and going free to blame it on his charisma or lack of good police work," adds Stephen Shaw, attorney for the Japanese tourist Niroula allegedly ripped off. "I attribute it to the supernatural. He's evil. He's like a vessel. And if people don't treat it like this, he's going to continue doing what he's doing."
When asked for his plea on murder, fraud, and embezzlement charges in Palm Springs, Niroula said, "Absolutely not guilty." His alleged coconspirators Replogle, Garcia, and Bustamante also pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges relating to Lambert's disappearance. As of late March, Manning was being held in jail in Mexico on unrelated charges.
Talking with lawyers, law enforcement, victims, former friends, and acquaintances of Niroula's, I too had become baffled by the young Nepalese immigrant's preternatural-seeming powers of persuasion. Could there really be something otherworldly going on? Is there a strata of San Francisco's gay underground populated by superpredators? I asked Adam Raskin, a San Francisco private investigator who was hired to trail Niroula by one of his alleged victims, whether he had discovered the key.
Raskin, a multilingual sleuth with 18 years' experience and a master's degree in criminality, law, and society, wasn't tempted by my flights of fancy. "Do you know what the Spanish Prisoner is?" he said.
It sounded familiar, but no, I didn't.
"Look it up," Raskin said.
The Spanish Prisoner is a confidence trick from the early 20th century. A con man tells his prospective victim that he represents a wealthy man, possibly royal, who is imprisoned in Spain under a false identity. The con man is raising money for the purported prince's release and offers to let the mark contribute, suggesting he will be rewarded a thousandfold. The victim puts up a small amount, but complications arise, and the con man needs more money. This process continues, perhaps for months or years, until the victim is cleaned out or realizes there's no imprisoned prince in Spain. The emphasis on trust and secrecy, and the come-on attitude, will be familiar to anyone who has received an e-mail from Nigeria – or who has witnessed Niroula at his apparent game.
By Raskin's reckoning, Niroula possessed no magic. He simply adopted an impenetrable persona, found marks with useful vulnerabilities, and practiced a well-worn yet exquisite con.
When he arrived at New College of California in 2002, Niroula seems to have stumbled upon the perfect target.
Martin Hamilton, along with a small group of friends, had for decades managed the 1,000-student school, founded in 1971, by lurching from one financial crisis to the next.
According to ex-students and faculty, Niroula arrived at New College armed with a persona apparently tailored for the college president's needs. Hamilton was entertaining grandiose plans to expand the college internationally, while negotiating an ambitious relocation from its home in a former mortuary on Valencia Street to the historic former San Francisco State College campus near Market Street. But the school was mortgaged within an inch of its life, and Hamilton needed a miracle to keep it afloat, much less realize his ambitions.