Today in our series of stories from Basques in the United States, adapted from volume 1, we meet Esteban “Steve” Astigarraga, the Basque scammer; “a fellow,” as Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe notes in his translator’s introduction to the same volume, who “had the police busy from the Mexican border to Canada.”
Astigarraga was born in Abadiño, Bizkaia, on Aug. 3, 1886, and arrived in New York City on Nov. 1, 1909. He went initially to Rock Springs, CA, and in 1920 was working as a sheepherder in Price, Carbon Co., UT. By 1930, however, he was living in Domingo Muguira’s ostatu (hotel) on Aliso Street, Los Angeles: a remnant of the city’s once thriving “Basque town” at the intersection of Alameda and Aliso Streets (once a major route into and out of downtown LA, Aliso Street morphed into the 101 Freeway in the 1950s; see some old pictures of this historic LA district and a report on its Basque community here). Interestingly, at this time “Steve” still appears to have been working as a sheepherder, while resident in LA, and soon after, some time in the early 30s, he married an Italian named Lucille.
In Dec. 1936 the California press reported on a mysterious 50-year-old “Basque-Italian” who had been arrested in Colusa and who police suspected to be a clever forger. During the arrest, the authorities found “equipment of a peculiar nature” in his De Soto sedan, namely the necessary equipment for counterfeiting. The “thing” must have been important because leading experts in the field, both the state police and the FBI, arrived quickly on the scene (Woodland Daily Democrat, Dec. 12, 1936). And when the LA County Sheriff’s Office learned that the Basque had been detained in Colusa, he asked that Steve not be released until the sheriff arrived.
Under the headline “Man Held in Extortion Plot,” the Colusa correspondent for the Woodland Daily Democrat reported that Astigarraga was suspected of a “clever impersonation and extortion scheme” by which, “posing as a Federal officer … he is said to have preyed upon fellow Basque sheepherders and illiterate Italians, some of whom he threatened with death if they did not give him liberally of their earnings,” with a trail of victims from the border of Mexico to Canada. Police officers remarked on his unique extortion method: “he tells victims he can make them rich. He gives them a crisp new $20 bill, saying that any bank will cash it. The victim is so surprised when the bank accepts the bill, that he becomes interested in Astigarraga’s scheme and parts with his money when Astigarraga displays his money-making equipment, saying ‘there is more where that came from’.” Then he would show them the counterfeiting machine (which, apparently, he never actually used) and asked them to hand over a large sum so that he could manufacture and then deliver them a huge amount of bills. Police officers found a 50-page notebook in his possession filled with the names and addresses of who they suspected to be his victims (Woodland Daily Democrat, Dec. 15, 1936).
Then his victims began to show up. In the book there were more than 375 names, mostly Basques and other foreigners who worked throughout the West, but primarily in Fresno Co. One of the first to show up was Pedro “Pete” Recondo, a Dixon, CA sheepherder whom Astigarraga had bilked for $5,000 (his entire life savings deposited in a San Francisco bank) in 1935. Recondo hadn’t reported Astigarraga at the time, it seems, because that would have implicated him as well in the (non-existent) money-making scam. Ultimately, though, the FBI had to withdraw from the case because they had found no counterfeit money in Astigarraga’s possession. What’s more, because Astigarraga did not speak English, or even Spanish, very well, and continued maintaining his innocence, the police had to wait for an interpreter from Fresno who spoke Basque. Meanwhile, the LA police gave way to their Fresno colleagues because that was where the scammer’s activities were mostly concentrated (Woodland Daily Democrat, Dec. 16, 1936). Fresno officers then arrived with a Basque interpreter (a hotel owner) and another of the victims, a Polish sheepherder who had lost his $1,300 bonus money. The Pole could not identify Astigarraga, but he did recognize the machine! (Woodland Daily Democrat, Dec. 17, 1936).
Eventually, on the instructions of the FBI, Astigarraga was returned to LA (where he lived with his wife Lucille) to be delivered to the City Police, who were the first to claim him. We know little of what happened thereafter but he died in LA on Jul. 2, 1962.