Infamous Texas fugitive flees to Brazil

Bartee Haile is a syndicated columnist of 'This Week in Texas History' read in the pages of The Highlander.

by Bartee Haile

The news out of Brazil on Jan. 30, 1977 was that a 19-year fugitive from Lone Star justice, had been arrested for financial misdeeds in his extradition-proof sanctuary.

Long before the savings and loans scandal of the 1980’s, there was BenJack Cage, scam artist supreme. The six-foot four-inch former football player could size up a sucker across a crowded room, or as one of his many victims observed, “He can take your pulse at 20 paces.”

Six decades ago, any Texan with $25,000 and a gift for gab could get into the insurance racket. Taken in by BenJack’s stirring promise to erect “a living memorial to the working people of Texas,” gullible labor leaders helped him launch his own company in 1952.

The AFL-CIO went so far as to encourage locals and members to invest in ICT Insurance. The unions complied by purchasing more than half of the $15 million in stock that flooded the market.

BenJack was soon going great guns and by 1955 had opened 1CT offices in 22 states and Alaska. The 50,000 policies already in force were, he boasted, merely a drop in the bottomless bucket.

The sky did indeed seem to be the limit until that judgment day in September 1955 when the Texas Board of Insurance Commissioners finally cracked down on fly-by-night policy peddlers. ITC headed the list of 51 suspicious operations that came under scrutiny.

Panic-stricken labor officials tried to beat the regulators to the punch in early 1956 by forcing BenJack to resign and seizing control of ITC. To their horror they discovered that the enterprise was an insolvent shell more than a million dollars in the hole.

According to the company books, BenJack had generously compensated himself with $8 million in commissions and an unlimited expense account that he milked for every possible penny. The records did not show, however, what had happened to a missing $600,000 in ITC funds.

Union sleuths also learned that BenJack had squandered thousands on several bizarre inventions. People in those simpler times were not in the market for a fly repellant for cattle, a mugger alarm or a home pregnancy test.

As ITC slid into bankrupt oblivion, BenJack became the high-profile target of belated investigations by the attorney general, state legislators, various grand juries and the Internal Revenue Service. Testifying before a House committee in September 1957, he clammed up and refused to shed any incriminating light on the ITC collapse. When the star witness revealed only his name and address, the committee chairman fumed, “This stinks to high heaven!”

Deciding to dodge the avalanche of subpoenas, BenJack suddenly dropped out of sight. His destination was Brazil, a haven for well-heeled fugitives. Assuming he had flown the coop forever, chagrined authorities bemoaned the fact that they would never have the pleasure of putting the swindler behind bars.

But to everybody’s amazement, BenJack came back the next year to face the music. Although politicians, prosecutors and the press predicted the tune would not be to his liking, the dethroned insurance king confidently forecast his complete exoneration. He said with a Texas-size grin, “I feel like a champion that has come off the canvas.”

After two months of nearly nonstop interrogation, BenJack must have felt more like a punch-drunk has-been. Grilled first by a Dallas grand jury, he went to Austin for questioning by two legislative committees and the IRS. Waiting in the wings were the Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Post Office and yet another grand jury.

The worst was yet to come. BenJack calmly accepted an embezzlement conviction in the obvious belief that he would receive the usual slap on the wrist reserved for white-collar criminals. But the judge burst his bubble with a stiff ten-year sentence.

BenJack posted bail and immediately fled the country. How he managed to catch local, state and federal lawmen napping for a second time remains a scandalous mystery.

Welcomed once again with open arms by the Brazilians, the wealthy exile enjoyed his life of luxury south of the border. He even succeeded in increasing the size of his tidy fortune with shrewd investments and the occasional crime, which never resulted in jail time.

Always the consummate performer, BenJack posed as the pitiful victim in a 1962 magazine interview. “You know, a man may have five different reasons for doing something, but if one of those reasons is money, people will forget the other four and say he did everything just for money.” Pausing for dramatic effect, he added, “That’s one of the saddest things I learned in all these troubles.”

With a faraway look in his eye, the swindler drawled, “I would give my life to get this curse off my name. Someday I’ll go back to Texas and prove that I am not guilty.”

That, of course, never happened.

Bartee’s three books and ten “Best of This Week in Texas History” column collections are available for purchase at


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