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When is a trip to the Caribbean not a vacation? When you’re being chased or doing the chasing. Case in point: the sensational saga of a fugitive financier’s escape to the island of Montserrat.

In the spring of 1984, members of the local and national media descended on the tiny Caribbean island, population 12,000, to watch every move by J. David Dominelli, who then stood accused of defrauding hundreds of San Diego investors. He’d fled to escape federal charges, trailed by journalists who thought they were following the money.

It turned out that there was no money. But that wasn’t entirely clear at the time, when the full scale of Dominelli’s infamous Ponzi scheme wasn’t yet known, and he could still claim he was trying to locate cash to pay people back.

“The idea that was to chase him around town and talk to the people he was trying to do business with. It was non-stop,” recalled Gene Cubbison, who covered the story for the station now known as NBC 7/39, a voiceofsandiego.org partner.

The American journalists on the island had drivers and lookouts on hand, watching closely in case Dominelli tried to fly away or sail into the sunset. “It was just constant paranoia. We never slept peacefully,” Cubbison said this week while working on a story about Dominelli’s death. “I can’t say it was a pleasure trip at all.”

While Dominelli died on Aug. 2 at the age of 68, local news outlets only learned of his death this week. Now, politicians, attorneys, victims and others are exchanging memories about the Dominelli scandal, which sucked in many of San Diego’s most famous names.

Considering the severely limited budgets of news operations these days, it’s hard to imagine a gaggle of reporters would fly out to the Caribbean to chase an alleged swindler. But 1984 was a different time. News competition in San Diego was fierce, and the Dominelli drama was huge news.

With a federal judge breathing down his neck, Dominelli had fled to Montserrat, which The Wall Street Journal described as a one-time “world capital of offshore banks … (whose) 12,000 residents are relatively well-off and, unlike some nearby spots, its dogs appear well-fed and unthreatened by hungry humans.”

He wasn’t alone. Dominelli had an entourage, including people whom the San Diego Union later breathlessly described as “the blond all-American couple with a Mormon heritage and lithe, athletic bodies,” “the stunning receptionist” and “the mustachioed bodyguard, who met intruders with a sneer.”

But the bodyguard couldn’t protect Dominelli from that federal judge back home in San Diego, who issued arrest warrants against him for skipping town.

The people of the British-ruled Montserrat were not thrilled by all the attention from American journalists. “Having Mr. Dominelli on the island brings to a head everything that is unsatisfactory,” a politician complained. “The good name of Montserrat is being damaged, and the confidence of honest people could be shaken by this.”

Then British and American diplomats got involved. “We are quite concerned about this chap,” a British Foreign Office spokesman told the (San Diego) Evening Tribune from London. “Talks are at a delicate stage.”

Not for long. Dominelli held a news conference to say he was innocent of violating any American laws and told The Wall Street Journal that “the money still exists.” The Montserrat government wasn’t impressed and told him to leave.

Dominelli did just that after heading to an airfield. The Journal picks up the story:

The pilot of a charter plane that had just brought in an Associated Press photographer lunged through the crowd, talked quickly with Mr. Dominelli and spirited away his party before most people knew what was happening.

The pilot filed a flight plan for Guadeloupe and took off at 7:49. But within minutes, sharp-eyed cabbies whose eyes have been trained by years of watching for incoming planes, let out a whoop. “He changed course; he’s going to Antigua,” they shouted.

Local attorney Robert Rose, then a federal prosecutor, recalled Dominelli didn’t listen when the pilot tried to tell him he’d face the same legal problems on Antigua as he did on Montserrat.

“He said he needed to go there because there was an American Express office,” Rose said. “What I found ironic is that in his briefcase was a letter from American Express saying your card is revoked, tear it up.”

On Antigua, Dominelli indeed faced trouble. As the Journal wrote:

… Mr. Dominelli and his party were detained by Antigua officials as he tried to clear an immigration checkpoint. (Airport observers said they had seen a U.S. consular official conferring with local authorities prior to Mr. Dominelli’s arrival.)

Mr. Dominelli could be seen arguing with Antigua authorities for more than a hour, before they put him and his associates on an Eastern Airlines plane bound for Miami.

Mr. Dominelli paced the plane’s aisle; he refused to talk to two reporters aboard the flight. The night before, he said he couldn’t respond to a somewhat loaded question about whether he might either be a pathological liar or living in a world of delusion. Now, he wouldn’t even acknowledge questions.

Dominelli returned to San Diego to face trial. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison; he served about 10 of them before being released in 1996.

“This happened before sentencing guidelines,” former prosecutor Rose said. “It was a whole different deal where whatever sentence you got, you were likely to be released before half of it, and no more than two-thirds.”

It’s not clear how Dominelli spent the last 13 years. The cause of death is not available, and Dominelli’s family members have not responded to requests for comment.

In Montserrat, meanwhile, a volcano erupted in 1997, destroying its capital and forcing an estimated half of the island’s population to leave. After being dormant for months, the volcano is just now coming back to life.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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