MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
An arrest warrant was issued Thursday in California for a convicted felon who recently tried to take over a Montana jail, as jilted investors and a former employee scramble for money they've lost to the long time con artist. Michael Hilton is the lead figure of American Police Force, a California company that tried unsuccessfully to take over a 464- bed jail in Hardin. The warrant for his arrest was issued after he failed to appear in Los Angeles Superior Court on a $700,000 civil judgment he owes in a 2000 civil fraud lawsuit. Hilton who eluded the plaintiffs in the case for years before surfacing in Hardin last month owes an additional $760,000 in two other California fraud lawsuits. His foray into Montana left yet another trail of bad checks and unhappy investors who now want their money back. Hilton did not return calls seeking comment Thursday but was reported to be in southern California. The woman who had been working as his spokeswoman said she, too, is now seeking money from Hilton. "I'm looking at it thinking there's a lot of people going after him for money right now," said Becky Shay, who quit her job as a newspaper reporter to work for Hilton. "I'd love the money he owes me, but I'm OK. What I have is the freedom to start a new career." "If you want to talk about his court appearances you need to talk to him," she added Shay worked at the Billings Gazette for nine years before leaving abruptly in September, lured by Hilton's promise to double her salary and pay her $5,000 cash. She claims she received only a portion of the upfront cash and was never paid again. Hilton, 55, spent at least three years in prison in California in the 1990s on grand theft charges. A native of the former Yugoslavia, he's known by at least 17 aliases including what appears to be his birth name, Miodrag Dokich. He came to Montana over the summer pledging to fill rural Hardin's never-used jail and build a $17 million military training center in the city. Hardin officials desperate to fill the facility after a two-year search for inmate contracts signed an agreement with Hilton without investigating his background. But the deal was never ratified by US Bank, the trustee on $27 million in bonds used to build the jail. The proposal collapsed after media revelations about Hilton's history of fraud spurred an investigation by the Montana attorney general's office. Also seeking money from Hilton is California attorney Maziar Mafi who invested $35,000 in the jail proposal. Another attorney Hilton hired in Billings said his retainer check later bounced one of several bad checks that authorities say Hilton passed in Montana. In the Los Angeles case at the heart of Thursday's warrant, Hilton convinced investors to sink at least $150,000 into an elder care project that was never built. The scheme was similar to others he has perpetrated, with Hilton drawing investors into his confidence through friendliness and salesmanship then fleecing them of their money, according to court records and former business associates. During Thursday's hearing, an attorney for plaintiff Richard Earnhart had planned to ask Hilton about his income and assets. If he has any and despite his claims of major financial backing, there's little evidence to suggest he does they could be garnished or seized to pay off the $700,000 judgment, according to Earnhart's attorney, Chris Armenta. The bond for his appearance was set at $2,000. That means Hilton could be arrested but post bail and remain free pending his next court date.