When successful internet entrepreneur Robert Hoquim died, the people who knew him found out they actually didn’t know him at all.

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Further Reading

Jason Scott has a page full of resources and links about Robert Hoquim. He has also given a fairly long presentation about him.

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Show transcript

ALEX GOLDMAN: When the cops first showed up at the scene, it seemed like completely routine death. On the night of May 22, 2000, a man had died of a heart attack, alone in his basement apartment in Noblesville, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. His name was Robert Hoquim. Robert Hoquim was the successful founder of a local internet service provider and a beloved member of the Noblesville community. He was a multi-millionaire, known for his fondness for racing cars, and being charitable with his money. But all of that began to unravel the moment that Lieutenant Tom Madden of the Noblesville Police Department examined Robert’s driver’s license.

TOM MADDEN: Back then, Indiana was changing from paper licenses – they were somewhat paper plastic – to plastic licenses and he had one of the older licenses. The paper plastic. And as I was looking at it, I thought this just doesn’t, something looked strange about this.

ALEX: His colleague, detective Brett Reichert, had the same kind of license, so he pulled his out and compared it to Hoquim’s.

TOM: It became obvious that there were several problems. One was that the corners were square on Hoquim’s and on Brett’s, the one we know to be a valid license, they were rounded. Second thing was the type – the printing on the license. Back then they used little dots to be the letters. You had to look real close but you could see the little dots to be the letters. His were like just a typewriter.

ALEX: They ran Hoquim’s social security number. It belonged to a woman in St. Louis. One of Hoquim’s neighbors called his lawyer, Gordon Wishard, who came to the police station to talk to Tom.

TOM: Gordon said, “Hey, he has a storage unit.” He had keys to it, so we went down there and opened it up and inside the storage facility was a bunch of old computer equipment – I mean stuff that I don’t even know what it was. The only thing I really recognized in there was a modem.

ALEX: There were checkbooks, boxes of documents. There was an old truck. And in the glove box of the truck, there was another driver’s license under the name John Paul Aleshe.

TOM: And then when we ran that name, that’s when the bells and whistles went off.

JASON SCOTT: Ok, so I was seventeen, and I had a Bulletin Board System.

TOM: This is Jason Scott. He’s an archivist, an internet historian, and he introduced me to the story of Robert Hoquim AKA John Aleshe. It’s story he’s personally been fixated on for about thirty years. And Jason first heard of the guy way back in his early days online. Back then, information was shared between online bulletin boards in the form of text files, and there was one particular text file that caught his attention.

JASON: There was this alert and the alert said “lookout for this guy. This guy has completely swindled us, taken all this money, we have researched him, he is a criminal on the run. Do something. Please help us. And at seventeen, that’s a pretty weird thing to get across a bulletin board system. You don’t think about federally wanted criminals going through bulletin boards. It’s not that kind of a place.

ALEX: Bulletin Boards were little worlds unto themselves, where people blindly and willingly trusted each other. They were small, tight knit. Like a small town. A community. In the early nineties, I basically lived my entire social life on a bulletin board system called M-net. It was a local computer with a four phone lines, which meant I could call it all day without worrying about long distance fees. I mean, there were people I liked and people I hated, but it was for the most part it was too nerdy and arcane for truly bad people to find their way to it. For the most part. This is the story of a man who made his home in this brand new world of the early internet, where he underwent a strange transformation from notorious criminal, John Paul Aleshe to beloved entrepreneur, Robert Hoquim.

THEME

ALEX: From Gimlet, this is Reply ALL. I’m Alex Goldman. To understand the transformation from John Aleshe to Robert Hoquim, I decided to start at the very beginning

ALEX: Good morning.

TJ: Hey, you must be Alex.

ALEX: I am. Are you TJ?

TJ: How are you doing?

ALEX: Nice to meet you.

ALEX: This is TJ Aleshe, Robert Hoquim slash John Aleshe’s younger brother. I visited him at his graphic design and app development business outside of Orlando. John and TJ grew up in Las Vegas, the adopted sons of a PTA chairwoman and a casino box man, the guy who manages the chips. And he says that as long has he can remember, his brother has been really smart about electronics.

TJ: He took on projects that were way above his time and his speed. I mean, you don’t build HAM radios from scratch when you’re twelve, thirteen. Bottom line. He had a little small room in the back of our house, and that’s where he spent all of his time. Literally all of his time. He was pretty much of a genius in his own respect.

ALEX: TJ admired his brother, but trusting him was really difficult. He says at one point, after he got his driver’s license, he asked John about buying a car.

TJ: One of the first cars I really wanted to get: he had a beautiful yellow Trans Am, and he said he would sell it to me. And I had about two grand from savings just over the years, and, um, gave him the money. I kept bugging him and bugging him and bugging him and bugging him and then he said: “No, I can’t get it.” “Where’s my money?” “Uhhhh, don’t have it.” “Okay.” That would’ve been my first car. Instead I ended up with a Ford Pinto.

ALEX: TJ says it got worse. John wrote bad checks from his dad’s checkbook, stole from every job he had. And after high school, he disappeared for a while, told TJ he was working on the Alaskan Pipeline. TJ doesn’t know if that was true, or just another “John story,” as he called them. He knows that by 1986, John was in Texas. He ended up in Irving, a suburb of Dallas, where he had a run-in with this fellow, Ned Thurmond.

NED THURMOND: You have to excuse me, I’ve got a sinus issue, so I’m having a hard time talking.

ALEX: In 1986, Ned was a police officer, in Irving, and he says that he came across John Aleshe when he was working as part of a special task force looking for stolen cars in hotel parking lots. While driving by one of Irving’s seedier hotels, Ned saw a porsche in the parking lot and ran the plates. It had been stolen. So he knocked on the door of the guest who was driving the Porsche. John Aleshe Answered the door

NED: And laying on the table in plain view from the doorway was a quantity of cocaine.

ALEX: Ned arrested John, buckled him into the front seat of the cop car, and they began driving to the police station.

NED: I stopped at a stop sign and he was fidgeting the whole time. I looked to the left to check traffic, and when I turned back to the right, he had slipped his hands out of the handcuffs, reached across the seat and was pulling my weapon out of my holster. He pointed the gun at my head

ALEX: Oh my god.

NED: And tried to pull the trigger.

ALEX: Ned stuck the webbing of his hand between the hammer and the cartridge of the gun, so when John fired, the hammer came down on the webbing instead of the bullet.

NED: I was able to turn the gun towards him, trying to discharge the gun into his leg, thinking maybe that would stop him from fighting, the gun did discharge, but his index finger was over the barrel, and when the gun discharged, it blew his finger off.

ALEX: I’ve never heard someone describe nearly being murdered so calmly. But Ned has a real Sam Elliott Texas cool.

NED: At the time it’s more of an anger issue, you know, getting mad that someone is trying to take your life and I obviously wanted to come out on top of that situation more than he did.

ALEX: John Aleshe was charged with attempted capital murder, a charge which can carry a life sentence. In his mugshot, Aleshe is bearded, bald, heavy lidded, wearing a hospital gown. His left arm is in the air, cocooned in gauze.

TJ: My mother-in-law, lived in Texas at the time, saw the article that he was arrested.

ALEX: TJ was living in New Orleans.

TJ: So I checked with the jail, found out what it was, and he was there on attempted capital murder, possession of cocaine, stolen theft—he had the Porsche. But, he was my brother. So I basically took every amount of money I had in savings at that point, I went down to Dallas, Texas and I found the attorney and in doing that, he bailed my brother out of jail.

ALEX: After TJ bailed his brother out, he took John back to New Orleans to help him get ready for trial.

TJ: So, long story short, my brother calls me up: “Listen, can you get me a car? I need to get my affairs in order before I go to court and everything else.” “No problem.” And, um, I went down to Hertz and I rented him a car. With the anticipation that he would be back. Sometime soon. We went out to Fat City, played pool the night before he left; that was the last time I saw my brother John, until the day that the FBI called and told me that they had found him in Noblesville, dead from a heart attack. But yeah, that was the last time I saw him. They found the car in Washington state, I think about a year or two later.

ALEX: Since TJ had rented the car, he was responsible for its disappearance, and he was eventually arrested for Grand Theft Auto. The arrest cost him his job. John Aleshe ended up on the FBI’s most wanted, but Ned says the FBI was always one step behind.

NED: One time they told me they thought he was in England. Another time they called and said, “We think we have him in California somewhere, and we’re going out there to try and catch him now.” They called back several hours later to say “we just missed him. There was coffee brewing on the stove and it looked like he was living there but he’s gone.

ALEX: John Aleshe resurfaces in 1987 in Minneapolis, sometimes going by the name “John Richard,” and finds his way to that trusting community of Bulletin board enthusiasts. A community totally unprepared for someone like him.

ALEX: Are you Don?

DON SEIFORD: Yep I’m, Don.

ALEX: Nice to meet you.

DON: Nice to meet you.

ALEX: I’ve already got this thing recording.

DON: Okay.

ALEX: This is Don Seiford, he knew John back then. And like John, he’s been into electronics his whole life.

DON: From the time I was twelve years old I was etching circuit boards and making my own electronics gadgets in my basement at twelve years old.

ALEX: I did notice something that looked sort of like a Quadcopter back there.

DON: Yeah, that’s one I 3D printed back there, and this is also one that I built.

ALEX: Back in 1987, Don was part of a network of bulletin boards called FidoNet. It was pretty complex, but if you think of bulletin boards as these one horse towns scattered throughout the world, FidoNet was like a highway system that would connect them all together. The scale and ambition of FidoNet was pretty crazy, but John Aleshe was really excited to be a part of it.

DON: There was a group of computer individuals that would meet for brunch saturday mornings at a local restaurant, probably fifteen to twenty people. And I think I met him in person there. He was actually very well-spoken, very intelligent…

ALEX: The John Aleshe that Don knew was nothing like the John Aleshe that TJ or Ned had known.

DON: We were both interested in being part of FIdoNet, and just kind of became friends from there.

ALEX: John told Don that he was in the air force, and that he worked with defense contractor Honeywell – which, looking back on it, sounds little silly to him.

DON: He was very heavy set, which should have been a trigger that he wasn’t a pilot in the air force, because he was too out of shape to have been that.

ALEX: John poured himself into his bulletin board, setting up a FidoNet system with eight telephone lines, and at the time, setting something like that up cost thousands of dollars, and required a ton of upkeep. More and more people began using his system and John charged twenty dollars a year for a subscription. But if this was some kind of scam, it didn’t make any sense. According to Don, John would never break even at the rates he was charging. What John was doing was like a public service. He’d made a place online where people could talk about anything and everything. Computer problems. Personal problems. Politics, music, whatever. John Aleshe was making friends, living straight. And so his friends were all on board when he came to them with a business proposition.

DON: There was a local businessman that ran a small computer shop – Dave Garner from Cascade electronics – and he was another one of those people that we met for brunch on Saturdays so we all kind of knew each other, and John said that he had this opportunity to supply computers to I think the Minneapolis Public Library or some big deal to supply computers. So he got Dave Garner to provide all the components to build twenty-five or thirty computers at the time – it was basically cases, motherboards, power supplies, disc drives, memory all the components that you would go into building a computer and he actually brought those computers over to my townhouse and it was probably like an entire weekend, we were working long days for probably three or four days to assemble everything.

ALEX: Just with piles of parts on the floor, cobbling everything together?

DON: Yeah and then he packed them up in his truck, and hauled them all away.

ALEX: John was supposed to go straight to the library and drop the computers off, but instead he disappeared.

DON: The phone lines for his bulletin board became all busy and I was unable to reach his bulletin board. My girlfriend, now my wife drove over and sat out in front of his apartment waiting to see if we saw anything – we didn’t see anything. And then Dave did some research and found there never was any deal to sell these computers. It was basically a fraud.

ALEX: Dave Garner wouldn’t talk to me for this story, but in articles from the time, he estimated John had stolen about $68,000 worth of equipment. Don said the whole thing was baffling.

DON: He had us all fooled. We were very trusting of him. It’s almost like there were two personalities there. It’s almost like he was kind of a good guy who made a bad decision at some point and then was on the run for his life, but wanted to do normal activities and normal things, but because he was wanted had to hide things and eventually took off. It was very strange.

ALEX: Don will never know why his friend disappeared with thousands of dollars. Maybe John Aleshe didn’t want to leave Minneapolis, but he knew the cops were on to him and he needed to fund his escape. Or maybe he just saw an opportunity and took it. All we know is that this is the last time anyone saw him under the name John Paul Aleshe. Coming up after the break, John Aleshe becomes Robert Hoquim and its more than just a name change.

BREAK

ALEX: The first record I can find of John Aleshe using the name Robert Hoquim is in 1989, when he sets up another FidoNet hub in the Indianapolis area. But before long, Hoquim’s ambition grows beyond just building and maintaining bulletin boards. In 1992 or 1993, he founds an internet service provider called iQuest. I talked to Cindy Dunston Quirk, one of iQuest’s first employees, about meeting Robert Hoquim.

ALEX: Can you describe him a little bit? What was he like?

CINDY DUNSTON QUIRK: Well, kind of wary. Bob was always was a little distant until he got to know you a little bit and I guess he determined whether or not you were worthy of his trust and his time.

ALEX: What did he look like?

CINDY: He just was a short little man with unkempt hair, kinda balding. Missing a finger on one hand, and kind of rotund. Very unkept. His hair was just kind of, you think of that picture of Albert Einstein, where his hair is just kind of out like a bed head. That’s kind of what Bob was like.

ALEX: The first time she met Robert was at iQuest, and she says it was less like an office, and more like a bunker.

CINDY: The building that he was in was sort of a little strip mall, not far from the fairgrounds. And the front door was, or the back door basically was a reinforced door, like heavy steel. And then you had to go through a couple of other really heavy reinforced steel doors to get down to where he was and where all of the equipment was.Because it was all underground. ANd His reasoning for that, you know at the time made sense , because you know, it’s these servers that are mission critical and the connections are mission critical, and it needed to be storm proof and bulletproof and it all made sense. So we never questioned anything. Nobody ever did.

ALEX: Unlike FidoNet, iQuest begins to grow. Cindy was the fifth or so employee, but it wasn’t long before it blossomed into a real company.

CINDY: We had you know, a lot of customer service people, we had a full operations department,we had HR we had sales, we had other salespeople beyond me. It was a big company.

ALEX: Suddenly, Robert Hoquim is a public figure, the owner of one of the first internet service providers in Indiana. He’s hiring employees, he’s making money, and then he does something totally out of character. He stays in Noblesville. He doesn’t take off. Doesn’t screw anyone over. Instead, he buys a house in the suburbs, right next to a golf course. He becomes a regular at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. He gets into motorsports, and starts racing dodge vipers. And he starts making friends.

BOBBY ARCHER: Yeah I mean once he passed away, all these stories came out and I was like “That guy?”

ALEX: This is Bobby Archer. In 2000, he was a professional racer of Dodge vipers, and shortly before his death, Robert had plans to make iQuest Bobby’s main sponsor.

BOBBY: Everything I had you know was above board and visible and there didn’t seem to be any concern about that.

ALEX: What was your impression of him?

BOBBY: Understated, very intelligent. and he liked to wear his FBI hat.

ALEX: Bobby was not the first person I talked to who mentioned this fugitive from the FBI’s penchant for wearing an FBI hat. Cindy told me about it too.

ALEX: Do you remember him wearing an FBI hat a lot?

CINDY: Yeah. Yeah. He was just hiding in plain sight.

ALEX: It turns out he might have actually have gotten the FBI hat from the FBI. Internet historian Jason Scott recounted a story that he heard from another ISP owner in Indiana.

JASON: He told me that for years, he and robert would meet with the local FBI representative for a lunch. Just talk about what was up.

ALEX: By what was up, Jason means Robert was willing to talk to the local FBI office about stuff like child pornography, or piracy.

JASON: So he was willing to meet with the local FBI office on a regular basis while technically being on the run from the FBI. That is extremely, extremely ballsy.

ALEX: Bobby Archer says that Robert Hoquim was generous with his newfound wealth — Bobby remembered an event for viper enthusiasts that the both of them attended.

BOBBY: There was a charity auction fundraiser for a kids group, to provide facilities for a abused kids or something, and it got to be a pretty spirited auction night, and he, I want to say he bid 30,000 dollars on it.

ALEX: In time, Cindy says that Robert took her under his wing at iQuest.

CINDY: To me he was a very warm person. He could be kind of abrasive at times. But for me he told me that he would teach me everything I needed to know to be successful and he did. He was a kind man.

ALEX: Even though Cindy says Robert Hoquim was always patient and kind — his trust was difficult to earn, and his suspicious, distrustful side manifested in strange ways.

CINDY: One night, it was kind of weird, he asked me to go out to dinner and it scared me to death because I told my husband “Oh crap, I’m gonna get fired from here.” And we had this wonderful dinner at an Italian restaurant in Indianapolis. And he ultimately said, “I just want you to know the reason I asked you here tonight because I have some personal news to tell you.” And I said “What is it?” and he said “Well I wanted to tell you I’m dying of cancer.” And I was shocked of course and I asked him all about how long he had to live and all of that and he said, nobody, hardly anybody knows, and I don’t want to talk about it, so I just wanted you to know because I trust you. And I never said anything about it. To anybody. And I was just so sad because this wonderful human who had given me a great chance was going to die. So fast forward to him passing away and figuring out his double life, and we figured out it was a test, to see how much he could trust me.

ALEX: So the trust test is that he told you he had cancer when he didn’t, just to see if you would tell other people?

CINDY: Correct.

ALEX: Oh my god.

CINDY: it was kinda weird.

ALEX: In those last years of his life, Robert Hoquim came be to been as family by his upstairs tenants. They described him in the police report as a “father figure.” In his obituary, their daughter is listed as Robert’s godchild. One of those tenants, Dean Hoover, told the press after he died, “He was a wonderful person. That’s what we’re going to remember, and that’s what we want everyone to remember.”

CINDY: He was just a really nice man – who whether he had ulterior motives or not, was in the right place at the right time and did good things for the internet in Indianapolis, and the state of Indiana. He did a good thing whether he meant to or not, he did a good thing.

ALEX: Even TJ says that he could barely see his own brother in Robert Hoquim.

TJ: He was a well-liked guy. You know? He would go to auctions and he would buy things just for the hell of it, just for charity.And you know what? If ever met him on the street, the way I saw him, I never would’ve recognized him. Never in god’s green earth. I mean, he was just so different, unbelievably.

ALEX: How so?

TJ: Well, he was 285 pounds. Um. Bald. I mean, if I were to look at the hand, maybe. But I mean, that’s really the only way I could identify him, even in the morgue.

ALEX: But TJ told me that his brother had never really changed. He’s still a conman, still a thief.

TJ: I hate to say that about anybody, but, um. No matter what I did, including the very end when I bailed him out of jail, it wasn’t something that he was going to pay back, it wasn’t something he was going to remember. He was just not that kind of guy.

ALEX: We’ll never know if John Aleshe became Robert Hoquim as a way to atone for the behavior of his past life, or if he just fell into a job so lucrative that he no longer felt the need to run cons. I want to believe that Robert Hoquim became something better than John Aleshe. That the internet, which makes it so easy to be whoever you say you are, let him shed his old skin and become the caring, friendly person people like Bobby Archer and Cindy Dunston Quirk describe. But his brother, the person who probably knew him the longest and the best, thinks I’m nuts. Jason Scott, who brought me the story, says he does too.

JASON: Part of me just feels like you’re looking at a piranha going, “What was the piranha’s motivation here? Do you think at some points it considered the life of the cow that had fallen into the river?” The people who he hurt were hurt for the rest of their lives until his death. I mean, they were hurt for decades. There was no contacting them, there was no quietly sending them things. There was no anything. I just don’t want the guy to get another pass. You know?

ALEX: When he died in 2000, John Aleshe’s remains were given to his brother.

TJ: You know, when we buried him, well I put him in the mausoleum in Las Vegas with my mom and my dad, and we had a service, and it was in the paper, the obituary. We had the service there and my cousin came, and my wife and my kids. And that was it. Nobody else showed,not one person.

ALEX: Two thousand miles in Noblesville, that same week, friends gathered to celebrate Hoquim’s life at the Crown Hill Funeral Home.

TJ: Now, Robert Hoquim’s funeral however: huge! Everybody came. Everybody loved Robert Houim. So the Robert Hoquim, the persona that he actually made out of himself was a well-loved individual. John Aleshe, that other people knew, nobody would have come and they didn’t.

ALEX: Whoever he really was, we know one thing for sure. Robert Hoquim got away with it. Reply All is hosted by Pj Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin and edited by Alex Blumberg. Production assistance from Sylvie Douglis. Special thanks to the Noblesville Police Department, Ann Ricciardelli, and Emily Kennedy. This episode was engineered by Rick Kwan. Matt Lieber is that moment when you realize the person you’ve been crushing on all semester might just like you back. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at iTunes.com/replyall and we put up some DVD extras from this week’s episode at digg.com. We’re taking next week off to work on our live show and report some stories but we’ll be back the following week. Thanks for listening.

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