Joe Hunt: White Collar Psychopath

Joe Hunt stands trial for the murder of Ron Levin c.1986 (trutv.com)

Joe Hunt c.2000 (bluedharma.com)

by Katherine Ramsland

Joe Hunt, a.k.a. Joe Gamsky, was the second son of Kathy and Larry Gamsky. He was born on Halloween in 1959, and as he grew up, it was clear to his educators that he was academically gifted. Author Randall Sullivan writes that one teacher said that he was not only the brightest student she had ever seen, but was mature and "preternaturally calm." Little did she know she was describing the essence of a psychopath.

The foremost expert on the condition known as psychopathy, Canadian researcher Dr. Robert Hare, says that psychopaths display certain obvious traits, notably a lack of attachment to others, impulsive decision-making, a lack of remorse, a tendency to rationalize what they do and to blame others, a charming and manipulative manner, and a lack of empathy. Joe Hunt would grow into all of these qualities, along with a verbal fluency that bordered on glibness. He was also arrogant and narcissistic, and he never failed to grab the opportunity to exploit others. Even without a formal diagnosis, descriptions of his words and behavior easily fit the prototype.

In fact, everyone noticed that young Joe was quite competitive, with a drive toward perfection. He had to create an impression on others and he had to win. Even worse, he cheated sometimes, and he lied. Or rather, he "rationalized" a sticky situation to make it look different to others than it really was. This strategy became his trademark, and when he set for himself the task of improving his vocabulary, he added another weapon: a wealth of words that mesmerized others. He became a talented and intimidating salesman.

Joe and his older brother were both admitted into a prestigious Los Angeles prep school, the Harvard Club, on a scholarship. Joe, 12, didn't fit in very well with the children of actors, moviemakers, and corporate businessmen. His principal liability was his family's lack of money, but at that point in his development, he was also socially awkward. He joined the forensic club, which gave him a modest social life, but when he falsified evidence during a debate, he was kicked off. He took it hard, but rebounded.

Joe's father, who insisted that his children call him Larry, viewed himself as Joe's teacher. He insisted, as author Sue Horton put it, that his children become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. After Joe dropped out of the University of Southern California, Larry sent him to business school, where at the age of 19, he passed the examination for Certified Public Accountant. While he was the youngest person to have been successfully tutored for it by a specific firm, he bragged that he was the youngest person in the entire state of California to have passed the exam. (In the film based on Horton's book, he's presented as the youngest in the entire country.)

Joe managed to impress two other young men, Dean Karny and Ben Dosti, who had attended the Harvard School as well. He began to hang around with them and mentioned that he would like to start an investment club with members from well-to-do families who could make a good impression and help the club to succeed. He described some of his ideas for trading commodities at low risk, and the other boys were impressed. He also told them he wanted to create a corporation with a Utopian atmosphere based on the works of Ayn Rand, where each person would do what he was best qualified to do. However, he would need money to get started.

Then in 1980, Joe's father, divorced from Kathy, moved to Chicago. Joe went with him and learned his way around the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He was a bold trader, impressing those around him, and he managed to do very well. He convinced Dean Karny's parents to invest money with him, and they gave him $150,000.

It was right around that time that Joe's father changed his name to Ryan Hunt, and Joe followed suite by accepting the new last name. The difference was that Larry changed his name through legal channels and Joe did not.

Then in short order, he lost 14 million dollars. His story was that he'd been squeezed out by people who were jealous of his success. In the movie, he named the Mafia and a Middle East conglomerate, but in Horton's book, he blamed a large brokerage house. When he returned to L.A. two years after he'd left, he had four dollars, but he assured those who had lost money with him that he had a surefire plan for making it back, and then some. For some reason, they believed him.

"You won power over a person through the knowledge of two things, Joe explained: One was what they wanted, the other was what they feared."

What the investors did not know was the Joe had actually taken their money but had failed to register it under the investors' names. He was investigated and then suspended from trading for 10 years.

However, that didn't stop Joe Hunt. He knew ways around the system, and he soon inspired Ben and Dean to help him gather people for a club, which he wanted to call the BBC, after the Bombay Bicycle Club in Chicago, where he used to play videogames.

It wasn't difficult for three young men, dressed well and with the gift of the gab, to interest other young men in their ideas. After all, image was everything, and they looked pretty good. Ben and Dean believed in Joe, and Joe knew how to talk a good talk. In short order, the club was up and rolling, fed by naïve and gullible investors.

Joe liked to persuade people that life was best lived and business best done according to what he called "paradox" philosophy. It was a combination of situation and utilitarian ethics: the ends justified the means, and one should do whatever had to be done to benefit oneself. From different perspectives, the same item or situation can have contradictory qualities: White is black and black is white. Everything depends on how you look at it. As long as there was a payoff, one could reconcile oneself to doing anything. Anything.

The core group of "boys," as they called themselves, prepared a presentation in 1983 to give to 30 prospective members, in which Joe outlined how the club would be formed. Sue Horton points out that he took his central tenets from science fiction: People would operate in "cells" comprised of a small number of members, and a "nexus" for communication. They would propose "shapes," or monetary projects, for approval by the whole club, and the shape would have an "output."

The club itself was to be run by specific levels of personnel, and the three founders were to be called "Shadings." A Shading, someone who operated in a shaded realm between black and white, was eligible for leadership because he was the one who best understood paradox philosophy and who was committed to protecting it by doing whatever needed to be done. Shadings would be judges in the Paradox Court, and they would resolve all internal disputes.

As Joe put together his company and brought in more members - always young men from families of wealth or breeding - he gave them a test, which was later described in court as the following:

"Would you murder someone, if you knew you could get away with it, for a million dollars?"


"Would you do it if it were a matter of saving your life?"


"Would you murder someone if you had to do it to save your mother?"


"Then you can't claim that you have a line you won't cross."

If there were no moral absolutes, as Joe contended, then it was just a matter of believing sufficiently in the situation to take the necessary action.

Joe was always angling for psychological leverage, no matter what the gain: one-upsmanship with a wine connoisseur, deceiving an investor about where his funds were going, or manipulating his partners to do whatever he asked.

In fact, they did not even get salaries. Most had allowances from their parents, so Joe would buy them things, pick up dinner tabs, and sometimes offer them rolls of cash from out of his pockets. He kept pretty strict control over them. He was the benevolent father.

"He mesmerized us," one of the members later admitted. Joe had a charismatic manner and an ability to tell convincing stories about his success, as well as to lay out clearly what had to be done to continue to have that success. The others all bought into his schemes and became emotionally dependent. Joe's method was to instill in them an all-encompassing desire for flashy cars, beautiful girls, and classy living so that they'd go along with anything he did, including murder.

CON vs CON - While his ultimate dream was to house all his boys together in a huge condominium as a single social and business unit, Joe knew that would take a lot of money. He looked around for investments and decided to get the BBC into the energy arena, so he persuaded Gene Browning, a bio-scientist, to sell him rights to an attrition machine he called a Cyclotron. They would give him a salary, a house, and a car in return for the rights to develop and market the machine. Browning agreed.

Now they needed even more money, so they looked around for people interested in investing in the development of more prototypes of this machine, under the auspices of a company called Microgenesis.

To make a better impression, Joe rented an expensive office suite, told investors he was making money hand over fist, and built the BBC into a company that looked prosperous and busy. In reality, the boys didn't have a lot to do. Nor was Joe investing money. Instead, he was using whatever he brought in to pay the rent, throw lavish parties, and build up his fleet of cars.

He needed big money and he needed it fast. Enter, Ron Levin.

Levin had a reputation for running a lot of sideline businesses at once, but he was also a con man who'd served time in prison. Joe figured that he and Levin would have a meeting of the minds and that he, Joe, would emerge the winner. Levin agreed to meet him and hear him out, but failed to offer him any money. Joe kept badgering him, and eventually told him that he'd gotten a large investment from someone else. He even showed him the check. Levin just laughed at the other investor's gullibility.

However, he agreed to let Joe prove himself. He set up a credit line of five million dollars with a certain investment firm, and Joe could use that to show his mettle. While Joe initially lost four million, he got a few tips from another commodities broker and within seven weeks, he had driven Levin's five million up to fourteen million. Then Levin closed the account. Joe had been promised half the profit for the BBC, so they fully expected a check to be sent to them for over four million dollars.

They started the celebration early by leasing condos in a ritzy neighborhood overlooking Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Joe described his vision of them all living and working together in the same place, one big family. He was ebullient that night as he talked about the luxury cars they would buy to share.

However, even in the midst of all this revelry, one of the members, Dave May, began to have reservations. He didn't buy into Joe's ideas, although his twin brother, Tom, obviously did. He decided to wait and watch.

It wasn't long before Joe began to wonder why the check wasn't arriving. Levin avoided his calls, so he called the broker and learned that the entire operation had been on paper only. There never had been any money. It was all a game.

In fact, in the days to come, Joe discovered it was even worse than that: Levin had used him to con someone else. He'd taken the statements from Joe's paper trading to show to another investment firm as a way to get a sizable loan. The con had conned the con.

Then Levin said he'd used the money to buy a shopping center in Chicago, and he would give the BBC a share. They thought they were again on the rise, but soon discovered there was no shopping center.

Yet Joe wasn't about to just accept defeat. Now he was in deep financial trouble, as well as having a bruised ego. He had to face his boys and tell them the truth, but according to statements some of them later made, he added that one day he would kill Ron Levin.

THE LIST - Dean introduced Joe to a security guard who called himself Jim Graham, although in reality his name was Jim Pittman. He was a muscled black man who claimed to have once played pro football and to have won weight-lifting contests. He had fled Delaware to escape felony charges. Yet because he knew things about guns and explosives, he was allowed into the inner sanctum. He became the BBC's head of security.

Around this time, one of the boys figured out that the group was spending around $70,000 a month, but he didn't see that same amount coming back as income. He realized that Joe was spending money entrusted to him by investors. Clearly, things were deteriorating.

Joe decided it was time to pressure Levin to pay them at least something. He decided that he would have to force Levin to sign over some assets and then kill him. He would leave a contract for Microgenesis in Levin's home so that it would be easy to explain why he had a signed check, and he created a paper trail by writing a series of letters back and forth about the deal. These, too, would be planted in Levin's house. Being the organized person that he was, one day Joe made a seven-page list of things that had to be done, that included some of the following:

Jim digs pit.
Joe arrives at 9:00. Lets Jim in.
Execution of agreements.
Close blinds
Tape mouth
Kill dog.

The plan was to take some dinners over to Ron as a friendly gesture so they could have a meeting. Then Jim would arrive with a gun and demand money that Joe supposedly owed him. Joe would tell Levin that Jim was a Mafia enforcer and that he will kill them both if Levin doesn't sign over a sizable check. Once they had the check, they would pack Levin's bags, since he was scheduled to go to New York the following day, and "send" him out of town. Then Jim would go to New York and use Levin's credit cards in the hotels to make it look as if he had actually gone there.

On Wednesday, June 6, 1984, Joe and Jim carried out this plan. They got Levin to sign over a check from a Swiss bank account for $1,500,000. Then they handcuffed him and took him into the bedroom, where they made him lie face down on the white comforter of his bed. One of the two men shot Levin - it was never clear who - and then they wrapped him in the comforter and hauled him outside to stuff into the trunk of a BMW.

It was Joe's idea to take him to Soledad Canyon, about an hour from Los Angeles. He often went hunting there, and he had noticed that it would be a great dumping ground: anything or anyone left there would never be found.

Dean Karny later testified that Joe had described what they had done at the canyon as an added touch: They shot Levin's corpse numerous times to make him unrecognizable. During this grisly session, Levin's brain had popped out of his skull and landed on his chest—an image that Karny was never to forget. What made it worse was the way Joe told the tale, as if he though it had been kind of neat to watch.

Then Jim went off to New York,while Joe tried to cash the check. He'd left the contract and correspondence in Levin's house, so he felt perfectly safe, but what he'd forgotten in all the haste to get rid of the body was the "to do" list. That, too, was back at the house.

THE COVER UP - Jim Graham got himself into trouble when Levin's credit cards proved to be over-extended. He tried to flee from the luxury hotel off Central Park where he'd been staying, but he was caught and arrested. Joe flew east to bail him out. Then he found out even worse news: Levin's check had been refused.

He knew it was time for another meeting. Referring to the Levin matter as "Mac," he talked things over with Dean Karny, who was stunned by what had taken place but who did nothing to encourage Joe to turn himself in.

They handpicked the members they felt they could trust and divulged to eight more people the facts about Levin's murder. Joe Hunt told them it was "the perfect crime."

At least, it was perfect within his narcissistic delusions. Little did he know what was forming around him among those who thought he was dangerous.

The boys to whom Joe confessed all seemed to go along with it, but some were secretly getting cold feet. Dave May, who was not at the meeting, nevertheless heard about what had taken place. He went to his father to admit how wrong he'd been about Joe Hunt and to ask for help. His father brought in an attorney.

The attorney pointed out the difficulties: There were no witnesses, no body, no proof, no missing-person report, and Hunt was known as a liar. They would have to get some hard evidence, possibly in the form of documents. The boys should just return to work as if nothing had happened, so as to avoid making Hunt suspicious.

To raise morale, Joe threw another expensive party and used $20,000 to purchase 10 matching motorcycles. The boys were impressed. Looking at those bikes, it was easy to forget that they had some real problems.

In the meantime, Ron Levin's father asked the police to check into his son's disappearance. They found a thick file on him for fraud, theft, and other scams. Because it was no surprise that a con man might turn up missing, they shrugged it off.

Then the BBC found another target.

Joe Hunt: White Collar Psychopath

Wikipedia's condensed version
Joe Hunt is the only person in California's legal history to represent himself in a capital case and not receive the death penalty.