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Colt Pistols With Civil War Connection Figure In Fraud Case
By Deborah Fitts
Feb./March 2004

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - Three Colt pistols associated with major Civil War figures were cited in a fraud case that resulted in the convictions of two firearms dealers.

Michael Zomber of Franklin, Tenn., and his associate, Richard Ellis, 42, of LaClaire, Iowa, were found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud. Ellis pleaded guilty in February 2003 and agreed to cooperate in the case against Zomber. Zomber was found guilty Dec. 15 following a trial in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Goldman, Zomber and Ellis engaged in a "scheme to defraud" Joseph Murphy, described as "a millionaire businessman" living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, who has amassed a $30 million collection of Colt firearms.

Goldman said the two men used "false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises" to induce Murphy to buy Colts at inflated prices. Specifically, they produced letters for Murphy hiking the value of the guns and indicating there were other buyers at the inflated prices, prompting Murphy to top what he thought was a genuine offer by another collector.

Murphy paid $3.2 million for four Colt pistols named in the case. One, a "Union & Liberty" revolver, has provenance from the family of U.S. Grant. The Model 1860 army pistol was manufactured by Colt in 1864.

Zomber and Ellis bought the gun for $175,000 in December 1998.

According to Goldman, they paid another firearms dealer $25,000 to sign a letter portraying himself as the owner, and offering to sell the pistol for $1 million. Murphy paid $725,000 for it in February 1999.

Murphy also has a pair of Model 1861 navy Colts that were owned by Robert Anderson, who commanded the garrison at Fort Sumter in April 1861. The Anderson Colts were not included in the evidence against Zomber and Ellis.

Goldman said the case grew out of leads that were developed during an investigation into a celebrated fraud that involved two military-relic experts who appeared regularly on PBS's popular "Antiques Roadshow."

Russ Pritchard III, of Bryn Mawr, Pa., and George Juno, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., then principals in the American Ordnance Preservation Association, were exposed for setting up fake appraisals on "Roadshow" in order to boost their reputations. Their greatest notoriety came from defrauding a descendant of Confederate Gen. George Pickett of hundreds of thousands of dollars for his ancestor's relics.

In the Zomber and Ellis case, Goldman focused on four Colts. Besides the U.S. Grant family pistol, they included the two "Walker" Colts, which were presented by Samuel Colt in 1847 to Capt. Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers. Walker himself had asked Colt to design a large-caliber weapon for close-in Indian fighting, and Colt responded with the 4.5-pound, .44-caliber weapon. He made only 1,100 of the guns. Walker was killed just four days after receiving the pistols.

Around January 1997, Ellis and Zomber bought one of the Walkers for $600,000. Zomber "created a false letter" representing that he had a buyer willing to pay $1 million, Goldman said. Murphy then made the purchase for $1 million plus a $50,000 commission to Ellis, although the "true value" of the gun was about $500,000.

The two men then bought the second Walker for $500,000 worth of guns. They sold it to Murphy for $1.25 million.

The fourth gun in the case was a Colt 1862 police revolver that Zomber and Ellis purchased in March 1999. Zomber wrote a letter to Ellis "which falsely represented that Zomber would purchase the Colt police from Ellis for $250,000," Goldman said. Murphy then paid $250,000 for the gun, although the "true value" was $125,000.

Goldman noted that, because Ellis in 1997 became Murphy's sole agent to make the Colt purchases, he not only profited from the inflated prices of the guns, but from a 10 percent commission he received for each buy.

Sentencing of the two men could come as early as March. Goldman noted that sentencing guidelines call for prison sentences.

In the "Antiques Roadshow" case, Pritchard III was sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to pay $830,000 in restitution to his victims. Juno was sentenced to six months in a halfway house and ordered to pay $70,000 in restitution and a $30,000 fine. Pritchard's father, Russ Pritchard Jr., of Memphis, the third principal in their business, who played a minor role, was sentenced to six months in a halfway house and ordered to pay $35,000 in restitution after being convicted for stealing a uniform from a museum.

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