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the road to damascus

Notorious accountant on trial for stealing $9 million before living in the woods for years

How a late-night TV viewer brought Jim Hammes’ long hike to an end.

hammesevolution James Hammes: Undated; 2008; 2015 CNBC / FBI CNBC / FBI / FBI

JIM HAMMES WAS an accountant for a company that bottles Pepsi. To all appearances he led a well-to-do, conservative family life in Lexington, Kentucky.

He started as a financial controller at G + J PepsiCola Bottlers in 1995, and lived with his wife Joy and their daughter Amanda.

Joy died in 2003, and Hammes remarried three years later.

On 23 February 2009, at the age of 46, he vanished.

This week, Hammes sits in the Butler County jail, while the US District Court in Southern Ohio prepares to hear charges that could land him a 1,130-year prison sentence.

Hammes, now 53, is accused of secretly embezzling $8.7 million, before going on the run and living – not on some Caribbean island, but in the woods, for six years.

And his long hike came to an end after an epiphany by a member of the public watching TV late one night.

Court documents allege that in 1998, Hammes started falsifying invoices for a Cincinnati company called CW Zumbiel, which provided wrapping services for his employer, G + J.

He fraudulently set up an accounts-payable bank account in the name of Zumbiel, and according to the 75-count indictment against him, funnelled payments (for services that were never performed) through the Zumbiel account, and into his personal coffers.


The transactions varied from $9,260 to as much as $200,000.

In just one fortnight, a few weeks before his disappearance, Hammes funnelled $1,180,000 into his two accounts.

In all, he is accused of embezzling $8,711,282.42 from his employer.

In February 2009, however, someone at Zumbiel was looking over cheques the company had received from G + J, and spotted an anomaly. A €4.6 million anomaly.

The unauthorised Zumbiel account,  set up by Hammes without anyone’s knowledge, was discovered. The bank was called. And then the FBI arrived on the scene.

They interviewed Hammes, but he asked to see his lawyer, and was allowed to leave, SB Nation reports.

Two days later, 24 February, FBI Special Agent Pamela Matson got a judge to sign a warrant for Hammes’ arrest. But some time in the intervening 48 hours, he had fled.

‘Deceitful Dad and the Missing Millions’

hammeswanted FBI FBI

According to the FBI, Hammes had been going on scuba-diving trips to the tiny island of Curacao.

And with the prevalence of money-laundering and tax havens in the Caribbean region, it might have been logical to assume that Hammes had skipped the country.

But in reality, Hammes was hiding almost in plain sight, moving from state to state on the Appalachian Trail, which extends north and south along the eastern US, from Georgia to Maine.

Jim Hammes went hiking. He grew out his hair and beard, told different people different stories about his past, and adopted the name “Bismarck.”

As Bismarck, he became something of a legend along the Appalachian Trail.

A blog entry on the Appalachian Trail website said Bismarck was known to be “courteous, intelligent and a savvy denizen of the trail.”

One hiker who knew him called him “nice, intelligent and helpful.” Another said Bismarck had a “terrific reputation.”

One prominent hiker, Paul “Big Tex” Bunker, outlined the reasons why Bismarck was able to evade the forces of the US federal government for so long.

In his telling, everything that might otherwise make you stand out – having a long beard, not using your real name, always paying with cash, not having a discernible income source – is utterly normal on the Trail.

“The man had a beard, dirty scruffy clothes, smelt bad, and a pack” – that’s the majority of the males hiking the trail.

But back in the “real world” that so many try to escape by spending months and years on the scenic hiking route, Jim Hammes was becoming a villain.

He was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and in the space of a month in 2012, Hammes was featured on CNBC’s American Greed, under the tagline “Deceitful Dad and the Missing Millions,” and the popular true crime show America’s Most Wanted.

CNBC Prime / YouTube

And in the end, it was a chance encounter between Hammes’ and Bismarck’s two worlds – middle-class, working America, and the often escapist ethos of the Appalachian Trail – that decided his fate.

Late one night in March, a hiker who had met Bismarck last year, and called him “the nicest guy ever”, was watching a re-run of the 2012 American Greed episode about Jim Hammes.

He told SB Nation:

I just happened to look up at the right moment I guess, and subconsciously I immediately recognized I knew him, but [at first] couldn’t quite place him.

He emailed Amanda, Hammes’ daughter, as well as the FBI, who set the wheels in motion.

The Road to Damascus

7NmAa.AuSt.79 James Hammes, after his arrest in Virginia in May. FBI FBI

The FBI figured out their target’s seasonal hiking patterns, and learned that he always attended a special annual celebration called Trail Days, in Damascus, Virginia.

Within a couple of months, they were ready to make their move.

On 16 May, more than six years after his last encounter with an FBI agent, James Hammes was arrested at the Montgomery Homestead Inn, in the small town of less than 1,000 people.

Eleven days later, he was flown from Lexington, Virginia, to the Butler County jail in Hamilton, Ohio – 20 miles from the headquarters of G + J PepsiCola Bottlers, his former employers.

That’s where he sits today, as prosecutors begin a trial that could bring to light the last remaining mystery of the Jim Hammes saga – where did all the money go?

Read: The incredible saga of a successful family man who hid his murderous past for 50 years>

Read: Man spends 40 years on the run, turns himself in because he needs medical treatment>

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