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The Wolffs at the door

They were serial charmers, the oh-so-sociable elderly couple who came to stay at houses and hotels, made themselves at home, and then skipped town without paying. But the improbable run is over for . . .

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 7, 2010

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They were youthful sweethearts who, after separate lives and failed marriages, had found each other again later in life. They settled in an idyllic Cape Cod cottage she had inherited from her father, refurbishing it, taking long walks with their golden retriever, Winston, and spending hours on their back porch overlooking a tidal salt marsh on the bay.

It was a storybook tale of second chances and rediscovered love, and Benjamin and Jane Wolff told it often. They also talked of his once high-flying investment career at Goldman Sachs, of the times he rubbed elbows with the likes of Martha Stewart and Warren Buffett, and of the lucrative investment deals he was pursuing in retirement. But then in 2005, the story line received a jolt: A Barnstable County sheriff’s deputy seized the Cape Cod cottage in foreclosure proceedings, and the couple soon disappeared.

Due in court this month on police charges of defrauding a handful of bed and breakfasts over the summer, it appears the Wolffs had set out from the Cape four years ago on a house-hunting tour that turned into a nomadic odyssey of cheating one landlord and innkeeper after another, staying without paying at rented homes, extended-stay hotels, and upscale inns, according to police, public records, and interviews with people who encountered the couple.

They spent days happily puttering and touring pricey real estate that they never bought. Benjamin spent time on the phone with people he said were business associates and talked of a $20 million deal that was perpetually about to close. Even as checks bounced, insurance lapsed, or eviction proceedings swirled around them, the Wolffs seemed to have not a care, charming most everyone they met and relying on the simplest of ruses - that they were who they appeared to be, a prosperous, happy-go-lucky retired couple.

“They are either incredible con artists, or crazy,’’ said Ellen Libert of Weston, who owned a town house in Wayland where the couple stayed for more than a year, leaving only when a sheriff was on the way to evict them. “Probably a little of both.’’

Neither Benjamin, 79, nor Jane, 72, responded to messages left on their cellphone, or to e-mails sent to Benjamin’s account. But a sketch of their lives together emerges in public records and interviews with people who knew them.

Ben had once worked at a Chicago brokerage, said a former business partner, Robert Kamphuis. Goldman Sachs has no record he ever worked for that firm, as he had said on several occasions, but several people said he was known as an accomplished and well-respected investor with a wealth of contacts. After previous marriages and children, he and New Jersey-born Jane married in 1982. They lived for a time in Wellesley before moving to the cottage on Windswept Path in Yarmouth Port, deeded to Jane by her father for a price of “love and affection.’’

He ran a firm called Arden Associates out of a Back Bay condo. They lived well, neighbors and others who knew them said. But financial troubles plagued them. The Back Bay condo was seized in foreclosure proceedings in the 1990s. Jane filed for bankruptcy in 2005, listing banks that had made $130,000 in loans against the house in Yarmouth Port, and Benjamin had a trail of court judgments and lawsuits against him for money owed, including one that was eventually filed by a Cape Cod business that hired him as a consultant and said he took $10,000 in fees without doing the work.

“Clearly,’’ said the couple’s lawyer, Francis Doran of Natick, “these people fell on hard times.’’

But Benjamin Wolff didn’t show it in the summer of 2006, after the house had been lost, when he and Kamphuis traveled to New York City to meet with executives at a municipal bond firm. The two had met some years earlier, forged a business partnership, and sketched plans for a range of investments. The trip was to get one of the investments off the ground. Wolff’s presentation was confident and polished, Kamphuis said, and prospects for a deal seemed good.

Weeks later, Wolff dropped out of sight, absconding, Kamphuis said, with $130,000 from a previous deal the two had done together.

Kamphuis, who sued and won but has yet to collect any money, said he had noticed over the course of their relationship that Wolff refused to live on a modest budget.

“Ben would find it demeaning,’’ he said.

That fall, the Wolffs and their golden retriever moved into Libert’s Wayland town house, part of an upscale development tucked into the woods. They were well-dressed, and Libert was taken with their grandparently warmth, their ability to talk about literature and art - even their housekeeping.

“She had that place looking so beautiful,’’ Libert said. “Never a speck of dust. Lovely curtains and antiques. Very nice furniture.’’

For several months the $2,500 rent checks arrived right on time. But then they abruptly stopped. Benjamin Wolff brushed aside Libert’s worries, saying the couple’s money was tied up and would be available shortly, she said. He also said he was expecting an international business deal to close at any time and showed her electronic copies of a letter he said was from a British partner in the transaction.

“He would be downstairs in the study, talking on the phone, and working on the deal,’’ she said.

But no money ever materialized, and after the couple had been there for more than a year, Libert took legal action. The Wolffs departed quickly in March 2008, owing $15,000 in rent, a day before the sheriff was due to evict them.

When they appeared a short time later at a Quality Inn and Suites in Lexington, they told managers they planned to stay a short time while they looked for a house. It would be a year before they left.

They quickly fell into a routine of joining other guests for the hotel’s free continental breakfast each morning and departing for the day to look at homes for sale. They fell in with a real estate broker who said he eventually thought of the Wolffs like his own grandparents and took a special interest in finding them just the right place. They were a singularly entertaining couple, said the broker, who asked that his name not be published because he worried his naivete in being fooled might hurt his business. “They were like a sitcom - banter, characters - quirky and funny,’’ he said.

In their travels, Benjamin Wolff frequently took calls on his cell.

“He kept talking about a deal coming together,’’ the broker said. “He’d be on the phone with someone from London, yelling at the person. It was clearly about money.’’

The real estate broker worked with them for nearly a year in all, showing them condos in the South End, houses in Cambridge, a quaint home in Newburyport. But sales never seemed to go through. They made several offers and paid for home inspections - even had one $750,000 offer for a Newburyport house accepted. They had seemed elated, but when the broker tried to reach them to finalize the deal, they were nowhere to be found.

“I finally had to call the other broker with my tail between my legs,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, the credit card the Wolffs had used to pay their $350 weekly bill at the Quality Inn was no longer being accepted, and for six months frustrated managers tried fruitlessly to kick them out.

Benjamin Wolff acted imperious and dismissive when confronted, said Shawn Scholefield, the hotel’s front office manager, and brandished a letter from British business partners promising a $2.75 million payment on an investment “not like your normal fund’’ and structured “in a very unique way.’’

While hotel management called police and launched legal action, the couple rested comfortably in their room, often with cocktails, Scholefield said. They continued to show up each morning for the free continental breakfast, chatting casually over coffee.

“It took a lot of gall,’’ he said.

Leaving in March 2009, once again just ahead of the police, the Wolffs set out once more. They went to another extended stay hotel in Waltham, where they were caught and ordered by a judge to repay $1,000, but police say they shortly left for the seaside Cape Hedge Inn in Rockport for two weeks in June, where they skipped out on $1,200.

By about that time, some of the mundane necessities of their lives were falling by the wayside - the registration on their green Subaru wagon had expired, car insurance lapsed for nonpayment. They had become less traceable, too, with checks that gave their address as a post office box; at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, they listed their address as a Concord home where they had never lived, they later told police.

They lived for 19 days in August at the exclusive Hawthorne Inn in Concord, walking out on a $3,600 tab, and for a month in September and October were at the upscale Market Street Inn in Newburyport, where police allege they also wrote bad checks around town for liquor and wine and $200 in hair styling for Jane.

As ever, they were jovial and charming and Benjamin still talked of the $20 million deal, often telling their hosts that he spent part of his day at public libraries where he could use computers and the Internet.

One day in early October, Newburyport police spotted the expired sticker on Benjamin Wolff’s car and pulled him over. The officer told Wolff he could not drive the car and that it must be towed. Wolff pleaded with him, saying he was waiting for his Social Security check to renew the registration and that his wife was “going to kill him’’ for driving when he knew he shouldn’t, according to court records.

A few minutes later, while waiting for the tow truck, Wolff got back in his car, started the engine, and began to pull into traffic. He stopped only after the officer ran up and threatened to arrest him.

The Wolffs soon vanished again. Court summonses for the traffic stop sent to Benjamin were returned as undeliverable. One address he provided was for a Boston University science building. When the couple surfaced again in January, it was to turn themselves over to Concord police. Asked by the court at their arraignment where they lived, they responded that they had no address.

With the Wolffs due in court for pretrial hearings this week, Kamphuis, the former business partner, said Benjamin Wolff has contacted him from time to time, promising to make good on his debt, but Kamphuis believes he is penniless.

“In a sense, he lived life like a Ponzi scheme,’’ he said. “He was always trying to make a new deal to hold off the people chasing him from the last one.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.