Updated on July 19, 2019 at 5:05 p.m. ET.
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Last April, I received an odd email from a man named Matthew Cox. “I am an inmate at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida,” he wrote. “I’m also a true crime writer.” He had one year left on his sentence and was “attempting to develop a body of work that will allow me to exit prison with a new career.” He included a story about a fellow inmate who’d been ensnared in a complicated currency-trading scam, hoping that I’d write about it for The Atlantic.
“This is fascinating,” I replied. I didn’t mean the currency-trading scam, which was too procedural for my tastes, but Cox’s own trajectory. He described himself as “an infamous con man writing his fellow inmates’ true crime stories while immersed in federal prison.” I’d never had a possible subject pitch his own tale so aptly. I wasn’t entirely sure that was a good thing.
Cox’s path to becoming a prison true-crime writer began in the heady days of the new millennium, when the housing bubble looked like it might just inflate forever. Cox owned a mortgage business in Tampa, Florida, and he did some shady things. “A broker would come in and say, ‘Look, this guy makes $65,000. If he made $75,000, I could get him a loan.’ And I’d say, ‘Bring me his W2s and his pay stubs and I’ll change this and I’ll change that,’ ” Cox told me. “I hate to use the word light fraud—there’s really no distinction—but in comparison to what I ultimately started doing, it was definitely light.”
In 2001, when Cox was 32, he faked an appraisal that got sent to the man whose name he’d forged—an appraiser who, as it happened, was also a former deputy sheriff. Soon Cox was facing federal and state charges for mortgage fraud. He ended up avoiding jail time but lost his brokerage license and was put on probation for 42 months.
Cox distracted himself from his troubles by writing a novel. In the thrillers he loved to read, and in the heist movies he loved to watch, people were always playing at the edges of the system, seeing what they could get away with. As a kid, Cox had struggled with dyslexia; a school counselor once told him that he would probably be a construction worker, that he could never get a job that relied on his brain. As an adult, his height—5 foot 6—put him at a disadvantage in South Florida’s macho pecking order. But in these stories, swagger and savvy were what counted most. “I remember thinking, If John Grisham can write about lawyers and make it sound good, sound exciting, maybe I can write about mortgage brokers,” he said.
In The Associates, which was never published, a confident young Tampa mortgage broker named Christian Locke starts out fudging numbers before eventually expanding to tax evasion, wire fraud, and bank fraud. In trouble with both the feds and some gangsters, Locke escapes to the Cayman Islands on a cruise ship.
As he wrote the novel, Cox’s bills piled up. He’d sold his mortgage business to a friend, who hired him on as a consultant. But his income was radically curtailed, and he owed thousands of dollars a month in child support for his toddler son. (He and his wife had split up just before he was busted.) The responsible thing to do would have been to declare bankruptcy and move back in with his parents while he looked for legal ways to make money. Instead, Cox began behaving more like the protagonist of his novel, doubling down on fraud. He started inventing borrowers.
Cox would show up at the Social Security office playing the part of a sleep-deprived new dad. My son was born 10 months ago at home with a midwife, and the pediatrician never filled out the paperwork, he’d tell the clerk apologetically. Then he’d provide a birth certificate and an immunization record—both fake, of course; Cox had attended art school and proved to be a skilled forger. He amused himself with the names he made up for his fake babies: Brandon Green, James Redd, Michael White, Lee Black. With his freshly issued Social Security numbers, he’d start signing up for credit cards. Six months later, he’d have a perfect, synthetic individual with a credit score of 750. He rented post-office boxes and juggled half a dozen cellphones. He created fake companies to give his fake people fake pay stubs. He even invented his own banks—the Bank of Ybor, the Southern Exchange Bank of Clarksville—to verify assets in nonexistent accounts. Cox says that at least a dozen colleagues knew, to varying degrees, what he was up to, but as long as the money was flowing, they looked the other way. Some joined in.
Cox came up with a lucrative template for his schemes. “Mr. Green” would buy properties in a run-down part of the city. Cox would then create fake appraisals for more than double their worth, and take out loans against the invented value. When he stopped making payments a few months later, collection agents would start calling. He’d find a newspaper article about a car accident and retype it, switching out the actual victim’s name for Green’s. Then he’d send the article to the bank, along with a letter from a fake sister: My brother Brandon Green is in a coma and may never wake up. The bank would usually give up and move the property into foreclosure. Cox and his associates repeated the scam dozens of times; all told, his business was responsible for at least $12 million in bad loans.
A woman who worked with Cox and became an accomplice remembers him as charming and arrogant, less motivated by money than by the thrill of outsmarting the system. “He was really in love with creating a story. The way he would talk about things, I used to feel like we were living in a movie,” she told me. His dishonesty in business didn’t spill over into his private life, she said—he didn’t lie about his past or inflate his accomplishments. “He was a pretty straight guy in that way,” one of his exes told me. “And it wasn’t about the money, because he would easily give it away. He would say, ‘I’m going to prove to the world that I’m better than they think I am.’ ”
It was a good time to be in the scam business, with everything airy and inflated and valuations impossible to pin down. Cox socialized with city-council members and other Tampa VIPs even as he kept making money off fraudulent mortgages. It wouldn’t have taken much digging to uncover Cox’s deceit; on at least three occasions, he says, mortgage underwriters did figure it out, but they let the matter drop once he agreed to make them whole: “They would suspend you, then you’d take the underwriter out to lunch, send the manager some gift cards, and they’d take you off suspension. You know I sent you fraudulent loans. You know that a couple million in bad loans are out there. But they accept the lie eventually and start sending us loans again. So you feel like everybody’s kind of in on it.”
In December 2003, Cox got tipped off that federal agents and a local reporter were asking questions about him. He decided to go fugitive, along with his girlfriend of a few weeks, Rebecca Hauck. They lived under assumed names for a couple of years, running real-estate scams in Atlanta; Tallahassee; and Columbia, South Carolina, skipping town whenever they worried that someone was onto them. They used their fake names even when they were alone, even in the middle of screaming fights.
On the road, they sometimes found it easier to steal the identities of real people than to invent fictional ones. Cox would put ads in the paper—Home Loans Available. Good/Bad Credit, No Problem. It was amazing how people would just give up information about themselves to a stranger on the phone. Cox would also pretend to be a Red Cross worker taking a survey and steal the identities of homeless people. He’d use the information he gathered to get copies of people’s voter-registration cards, birth certificates, and Social Security cards, which he then used to obtain driver’s licenses and passports, so he could take out home loans in their names. Cox convinced himself that he wasn’t really hurting anyone. Wasn’t this exactly why title insurance existed? In the early 2000s, mortgage fraud was the fastest-growing form of white-collar crime, and it was easy to pretend that everyone involved was a greedy player in a greedy game.
Cox had grown up in a family with upper-crust aspirations; his father was an insurance manager who always drove a current-model BMW. He’d absorbed the lesson that there was a right place to buy your tailored suits (Wolf Brothers) and a wrong place (everywhere else). Cox spent his money on hair grafts, a face-lift, liposuction, an Audi, vacations to Jamaica, a couple of Rolexes. Hauck got breast implants, liposuction, designer handbags. “Fraud on the run, it’s not a full-time job,” Cox told me. “You’re working five or 10 hours a week maintaining some scam, and your life just turns into rock climbing and skydiving and going on vacation.”
But by 2005, the Secret Service—the agency responsible for maintaining the integrity of the U.S. financial infrastructure—was narrowing in on Cox and Hauck. In Houston, after yet another fight, the couple broke up. She took a duffel bag full of cash and enrolled in cosmetology school under a fake name, hoping for a fresh start. A year later, she was styling a mannequin’s hair when five Secret Service agents came in to arrest her. She pleaded guilty to mortgage-fraud conspiracy and bank fraud. Cox was charged in absentia with 42 counts of aggravated identity theft, money laundering, and various kinds of fraud. “The scope, complexity and nefariousness of Cox’s fraud are breathtaking,” the judge later wrote.
In November 2006, Cox stood in a bookstore in Nashville with his latest girlfriend, reading an article about himself in Fortune magazine. It called Cox and Hauck “the Bonnie and Clyde of mortgage fraud,” deemed Cox “a master con artist,” and detailed his and Hauck’s “six-state crime spree.” As he read on, the story grew uglier. One of the people whose identity he’d stolen, Theresa Knight, was described as “a wheelchair-bound former office manager.” Another victim was said to be “crushed by the entire ordeal.” A couple with a sick child had wanted to sell their house so they could move close to where their son was hospitalized, but instead they found themselves tied up in a legal and financial nightmare of Cox’s making, needing to hire lawyers to sort out the tangled title.
Cox’s girlfriend kept shooting him dirty looks as she flipped the pages. “I had no idea that lady was in a wheelchair. I never met her!” he protested. As soon as he heard himself say it, he knew it was a flimsy excuse.
Soon after, someone recognized Cox from a Most Wanted list and phoned in a tip; he was arrested on November 16. One year later, he wept as a judge sentenced him to 26 years in federal prison. His attorney cried too. Bridget Brown, one of Cox’s victims, was surprised by the severity of the punishment. “Given the sentences you hear for people that have committed violent acts, it seemed high. But I was okay with it,” she told me. “I heard all the stories of the other people he had defrauded. We were most upset when we saw that he expressed that he felt that it was a victimless crime.”
When they were on the run, Cox and Hauck liked to watch a TV show about elaborate criminal operations called Masterminds. “Someday I’m going to be on that program,” Cox once joked. Hauck rolled her eyes: “You realize those guys are all in prison, right?”
Cox’s story did make for appealing television, and both Dateline and American Greed produced episodes about him after his arrest. What came later—the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the partial collapse of the U.S. and global economies—was a more unwieldy narrative, one with enormous, institutional villains. Cox’s crimes were easier to boil down to 45 fast-paced minutes. Plus, the bad guy got caught and was given a hefty sentence.
Cox was sent to Coleman Federal Correctional Institution, 70 miles northeast of Tampa, where his fellow inmates assured him their circumstances weren’t that bad, at least compared with state prison: Not all the guards were sadistic, and on holidays they got snow cones. This didn’t make Cox feel better. “I was extremely depressed,” he told me. “I’m somebody who’s always doing something.”
Outside, the mortgage industry was in free fall. Florida went from having 80,000 licensed mortgage brokers to 4,000 in just a few years. Cox met with an FBI agent and gave up information about sketchy real-estate agents, appraisers, and title agents. He shuffled through documents, pointing out the ones that appeared to have been forged. Look at the 1’s and 7’s, he advised. If some are crisper than others, that’s an indication that parts of the document have been photocopied multiple times.
Cox also connected with an acquaintance named Ross Reback, who had acted as an agent for shock jocks and helped produce radio programs starring Hooters waitresses and the psychic Gary Spivey. Reback told Cox he could probably sell his memoir, maybe even get the movie rights optioned. Cox pored over The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Nonfiction and books about the craft of memoir writing. A few months later, he had a draft ready to send to Reback, one that detailed his schemes, his ingenious methods for creating synthetic people, and all the close calls from his time on the lam. He worried about the quality of his writing, but felt confident that at least he had an amazing story.
“This is an amazing story,” Cox remembers Reback saying when he called a few days later. (Reback died in 2017.) “But in the end, when you got sentenced to 26 years,” Reback went on, “I thought, Good! Fuck him. You come off as a complete sociopath.” There was no introspection, Reback complained, no hint of the psychological motives for why Cox had committed millions of dollars’ worth of mortgage fraud.
This wasn’t easy feedback to receive. Cox had never really thought about why he’d committed his crimes. He began writing scenes of his early life, trying to understand himself better. He spent a long time thinking about his father. “He wasn’t brutal. He was belittling,” Cox told me. He was also an alcoholic who spent lavishly to establish himself as a big shot. Because of his learning disability, Cox believes, his parents never expected him to graduate from high school. Once, when he called his mother from Coleman, he mentioned that he was a GED tutor for other prisoners. He heard his father pipe up in the background: But he can’t even read! The years when he’d run a successful mortgage business were “the first time they were really proud of me,” Cox said.
Putting all of this down on paper wasn’t fun, as recounting his exploits had been. Sometimes, Cox would find himself crying as he wrote. None of this excused all the damage he’d done, and he seemed to feel more sorry for himself than for his victims. But his story started to make a little more sense.
Cox knew he wasn’t the only one in Coleman with an amazing story. The low-security prison held mostly nonviolent offenders; in the mess hall, you could spot white-collar criminals, drug traffickers, and money launderers. There was a pill-mill doctor and a cartel boss. There was Efraim Diveroli, whose story of transforming from a pot-smoking high-school dropout into an international arms dealer had been written about in Rolling Stone and was being made into a movie, War Dogs, starring Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill. There was Marcus Schrenker, the corrupt financial adviser who’d become briefly notorious for attempting to fake his own death by parachuting out of an airplane before it crashed.
At Reback’s urging, Cox took on a second writing project: co-authoring Diveroli’s memoir. The self-published book, Once a Gun Runner, has been the subject of protracted legal battles among all three men, with Cox suing Diveroli and Reback, Reback and Diveroli suing Cox, and all of them suing Warner Bros. (The cases against Warner Bros. were dismissed.) Cox believes Reback wanted to use Diveroli’s book—which was published a few months before War Dogs came out—as an excuse to file copyright-infringement lawsuits, hoping for a hefty settlement from the production company.
For Cox, writing was a way to reinvent himself. If Reback could sell one of his books, Cox would be able to describe himself as something other than a convicted felon. “I know I’m some dirtbag in prison,” he told me. “But I’m a dirtbag in prison that’s a published author.”
Once word got out that there was a writer in cellblock B4, other guys would sidle up to Cox in the yard, urging him to tell their story, or their buddy’s story. The more self-aggrandizing inmates, the ones who imagined themselves as the inspiration for a big-budget thriller, saw talking to Cox as an opportunity to get their story out there. Others wanted to expose what they saw as corruption on the part of the Drug Enforcement Administration or the attorney general or a shady business partner. Recounting their stories to an engaged listener disrupted the monotony of prison existence; they also got the satisfaction of having the muddle of their lives streamlined into a page-turner. Soon, Cox had a waiting list with more than a dozen names on it. He’d found a niche within the confines of the largest federal prison complex in the country. There were jailhouse lawyers and jailhouse personal chefs; he was the jailhouse true-crime writer.
Cox’s services were in demand enough that he had his pick of subjects. He wasn’t particularly interested in telling a drug saga. “They’re a dime a dozen,” he said. Unless there was a unique angle or some element of surprise, “it’s not enough for me to dedicate three months.” The business tycoon who attempted to build the world’s largest private militia? Sure, he could work with that. The prison lawyer who accidentally uncovered a botched cartel assassination? That was a story he wanted to tell.
Cox expected his subjects to meet with him several times a week for interviews; he estimates that he spent at least 100 hours talking with each person he wrote about. He had the time, after all. They’d meet in the library, or in the prison yard, or over tater tots in the chow hall, and Cox would ask probing questions, taking notes in his own ersatz version of a reporter’s notebook: a sheaf of loose-leaf paper stapled to a rectangle of cardboard.
Cox knew his stories would work only if readers identified with his subjects, which meant those subjects had to be relatable, even though they’d done bad things. Partly for that reason, and partly because he was squeamish about violence, he avoided writing about murderers.
“You look for a sympathetic character if you can get it, but the pool’s pretty shallow,” Cox said. “You look for somebody who got duped into doing something, or somebody who was in such a bad spot in life.” His subjects were typically eager to talk up their exploits, but he also encouraged them to delve into their early lives, when they were homeless teenagers living on the streets of Miami, or struggling with manic depression.
At some point in the interview process, Cox would feel a mounting sense of excitement as the narrative arc cohered. “These guys don’t come out of the womb criminals. Usually you can pinpoint something, some catalyst. You start to listen for it. Like the thing with my father. Up until I started really paying attention, I never saw it like that, but everyone else in my life did. You’re so close to it that you can’t see it.”
Cox knew some of his interviewees might embellish their accounts—“in that environment, very few people downplay their cons”—so he was diligent about fact-checking. He relied on official files he procured via the Freedom of Information Act, which allows anyone to request nonclassified government documents. He sent away for indictments, police reports, court transcripts, and interview memorandums. Some of Cox’s subjects had no idea that their phone had been tapped, or that their buddy had ratted them out, until Cox pulled the documents and pieced it together. His research has helped at least one prisoner petition to get his conviction overturned, after FOIA documents bolstered an argument that the prosecution had withheld key evidence at his trial.
Being a writer in prison presented plenty of obstacles. Cox could conduct phone interviews only in the 15-minute increments the prison system allowed, and then only if the person accepted his collect call. For information he couldn’t obtain through FOIA requests, he relied on a fellow inmate’s mother, who served as his volunteer typist/research assistant on the outside. “I’m a fast typist and I’m retired, so I had time on my hands,” Hilda Rausini told me. Cox sent her one chapter at a time to type up, and Rausini found herself impatient to know what happened next.
Cox’s early pieces are uneven and heavy-handed; over the years, though, he’s become a more skillful writer, better at peppering his stories with revealing details and subtle ironies. He sold one book to a traditional publisher. Generation Oxy: From High School Wrestlers to Pain Pill Kingpins had disappointing sales; it’s hard to do publicity from prison. But Cox is savvy at dissecting markets, and he figured out an open secret about publishing: that more and more, writers’ careers are propped up by Hollywood. At a time when streaming platforms are producing huge amounts of original programming—Netflix alone spent $12 billion on content last year, the majority of it original—the industry is hungry for fresh intellectual property. And this feeding frenzy means that some writers are getting hefty option fees for stories, particularly those centering on some sort of heist or caper or scam or scheme. As freelance rates decline and staff jobs dwindle, optioning stories to television has become central to many writers’ financial security (my own included). Some producers work this formula to their advantage, finding a rollicking true story, securing the life rights of the relevant parties, and then enlisting a journalist to write about it for a magazine, hoping that the piece will go viral and inspire a bidding war for film or TV rights, and that they’ll get a cut of the deal. Last year, a Daily Beast story developed in a similar way was optioned in a record-setting deal worth $1 million.
Cox attempted to do the same thing, albeit as a media outsider. He asked his subjects to sign contracts granting him their life rights and 50 percent of the proceeds of any future film or television adaptation. Then he reached out to magazine writers, sending them summaries of his subjects’ stories and promising access to his research materials. He knew his credibility was questionable, so he provided stacks of documentation. (This is what Cox was up to when he contacted me about the currency-trading scam last year.) Guy Lawson, a New York Times best-selling author, wrote about one of Cox’s subjects for Rolling Stone. Davy Rothbart, a contributor to This American Life, is developing a podcast with Cox.
There was an element of hustling to the work, to be sure. But Cox says it also began to shift his understanding of himself. Hearing other guys’ clichés—how nothing was their fault, how the people they stole from could afford to take the hit—forced him to reconsider his own evasions and excuses. “Now I just see it more,” Cox said during a 2013 sentence-reduction hearing. “I immediately start thinking, Boy, he just so easily justified that.” Sometimes when he thought about his past behavior, he’d shake his head: What an asshole. He began making a conscious effort to listen more carefully, to focus on other people.
Delving into other inmates’ stories could get emotionally complicated. In April 2018, Cox started writing about a white-collar criminal from Boca Raton named Joe Vitale. Vitale had defrauded investors, promising them impossible returns and spending their money on strip clubs and sports cars. “His story is him just being a complete greedy scumbag, to be honest,” Cox said.
Even so, Cox wanted to hear more about a particular incident in his subject’s life, one that Vitale couldn’t get out of his head. It involved his friend and associate Frank Nuzzo, who had died of an apparent overdose in October 2016. A couple of weeks into Vitale’s incarceration, he told Cox, he’d listened as a jailhouse barber blabbed about his criminal exploits while trimming Vitale’s cell mate’s hair. The details of one story caught Vitale’s attention. It seemed that the barber and Vitale had acquaintances in common, and—more alarming—that the barber might have been present when Nuzzo died. Vitale didn’t let on that he’d known Nuzzo; instead, he made a point of working out and eating meals with the guy, swapping stories in an attempt to gather information. Eventually, Vitale said, the barber admitted to giving Nuzzo a “hot shot”—a fatal injection of drugs—before robbing him. Vitale said that he’d told an attorney about the barber’s admission, but had been advised to keep quiet.
A few weeks after Vitale told Cox this story, another prisoner poked his head into Cox’s cell. You should go check up on Vitale, he said. Cox found Vitale sobbing in his cell. He’d had a rough group-therapy session in the prison’s drug-treatment program; he’d listened as someone read aloud a letter from his father about how his son’s addiction had torn his family apart. “I guess [Cox] heard I was taking the letter tough,” Vitale told me on the phone. “I was rambling on about some of the things I chose to do wrong—not by mistake, but I was just consciously making the wrong decisions, out of greed.”
“This isn’t a guy that cries. This is a tough guy,” Cox said. “This is a man’s man—he’s fast cars, beautiful women. And he broke down, couldn’t stop crying. He’s bawling; I’m bawling. It’s horrible. And he starts talking about how this guy, his friend, was murdered, and he didn’t do anything.” Cox told him it wasn’t too late: “Let’s write a fucking letter.” It was a dramatic moment; it was also good material. Cox wrote it all down.
When Vitale called me collect from Coleman, he was careful not to speak too openly, with other inmates nearby, about the information he’d provided to law enforcement. “That kind of thing can be frowned upon in here,” he wrote in an email later. But he confirmed that he’d talked to a detective and that the sheriff’s office was reinvestigating Nuzzo’s death. Having Cox write his story was “liberating,” he told me. “I could have a clear view of everything I was doing.”
Cox ended his story about Vitale on a hopeful note, implying that the information Vitale had given to the authorities might be a turning point in the case. But the sheriff’s office has since closed the reinvestigation without bringing charges. “The autopsy and evidence located on scene were consistent with an overdose,” a detective wrote. “There were no signs of other trauma or foul play.”
At the 2013 sentence-reduction hearing, Cox’s public defender said that Cox had “done more, given more information to the government, than any case that I have ever had in 20 years.” He’d cooperated with the FBI; given newspaper interviews about his dealings with a corrupt member of the Tampa city council; and contributed to a fraud course that was used to help mortgage brokers and loan officers spot criminal activity. Cox got almost 12 years knocked off his sentence, and was released to a halfway house earlier this year, after having spent more than a decade in custody.
This winter, I met Cox for the first time at a gym whose owner, an old friend of his, had hired him to put his art-school training to use by painting murals. We talked in front of a half-finished, wall-size painting of two buff gorillas snarling at each other, a pile of barbells at their feet. Cox is a short but densely muscled man with bright-white teeth and a nervous, eager-to-please air. Now that he was out of prison, Cox told me, he hoped the traits he had relied on while committing mortgage fraud—a gift for storytelling, careful attention to documents, a patient ability to untangle complex systems, and a familiarity with the underworld—would serve him well in his writing career.
To date, his writing hasn’t been particularly lucrative, but he wants to eventually parlay it into full-time work. “Matt is always thinking of ways to do something,” one of his exes told me. “Within a few years, he’ll be rich again.” (Cox owes $6 million in restitution, and a portion of his income will go to his victims; the largest chunk is earmarked for the mortgage companies and banks he defrauded.)
Cox was such an obliging subject—suggesting that we meet while he was still at Coleman, because the prison would provide a dramatic setting for our interview; highlighting parts of court documents he thought I’d find juicy—that I felt self-conscious about my own reporterly maneuvers, my needling questions, my hunger for pithy, revealing quotes. We both were participants in the true-crime economy, and we each had our own reasons for hoping this story would be successful.
Cox has an instinct for finding frothy sectors; he may have found another one. True crime makes the world coherent by reducing chaos to a neat story line with a clearly defined culprit. In this period of national precariousness, it’s no wonder the public is eager for stories that amp up our anxiety before assuaging it. Some true-crime podcasts have tens of millions of listeners; the true-crime cable channel Investigation Discovery drew more viewers than CNN did last year. “There’s all these girls on YouTube that have done literally 45-minute videos on their favorite podcasts about true crime,” Cox told me, his eyes widening. He’s banking on the idea that this craze will last, and also that the public wants to hear criminals tell their own side of the story.
Cox was anxious to know how I would portray him, but he also realized that subjects have only so much control over how a writer handles the material of their life. “This article, which I’m extremely nervous about—I feel like it would be the first thing that could come out that wouldn’t paint me as a complete scumbag,” he said. “You know how many white-collar guys are getting out of prison, and the first thing they want to do is bury everything? I don’t see the problem with saying, ‘Yeah, that’s what I did. That is what I did, I went to prison, and this is what I’m doing now.’ So, did I make some mistakes? I made a lot of mistakes. The point is that I’m not going to run from it. I’m not going to do that.”
It was an awkward conversation, and I left Florida still not sure what to make of Cox. Afterward, I called his former co-worker and accomplice. They’d begun to talk on the phone again, after more than a decade out of touch. She was cautiously optimistic. “He’s really into himself—he still has that. But he’s definitely different than how I knew him. Prison’s really horrible, and if you let it change you, it does. I think it humbled him a lot, being incarcerated,” she said. “To what degree? I guess only time will show us.”
I wondered whether I’d made a mistake in plumbing for Cox’s “true” self. After all, he’d always lived his life as if he were playing a character in a movie: the successful mortgage broker; the wily criminal. In prison, he’d settled on a new narrative for himself, that of the reformed truth-teller. While he was at Coleman, this role gave him a sense of purpose, not to mention the prestige he craves. Whether it sticks may depend on whether it’s a story that people on the outside want to buy.
These days, Cox spends a lot of time thinking about Frank Abagnale, the con man who, after serving five years for his various crimes, became a fraud adviser to the FBI. His memoir, Catch Me If You Can, was a best seller; Leonardo DiCaprio played him in the movie adaptation. It seemed like an ideal outcome: respect and riches earned on the right side of the law. This is the arc Cox would write for himself, if he were the one in charge. “To me, this is a redemption story. It’s about a guy going to prison—he’s a bad guy, okay. But he goes to prison and he does the right thing. And this is what he’s doing now.”
This article appears in the August 2019 print edition with the headline “The True-Crime Writer in Cellblock B4.”