BILLINGS, Mont. – A convicted con artist from California who roiled a southeastern Montana community with his unlikely bid to take over its empty jail said he intends to return to the state and pursue a military training center.
Michael Hilton, 55, is the lead figure of Santa Ana, Calif.-based American Police Force. The company struck a deal last month with unwitting officials in rural Hardin, Mont. to take over its never-used, 464-bed jail.
In his first interviews since the jail deal's collapse, an unapologetic Hilton told The Associated Press that his intentions were honest but his "tainted" name and a business partner who turned against him helped sink the deal.
"What happened in my past, I admit it. I'm not proud nor ashamed," he said, adding that "there was nothing malicious" in his jail proposal.
Hilton's run-ins with authorities stretch back more than two decades, to a 1988 arrest for credit card fraud. He spent three years in prison in California in the 1990s and has outstanding civil judgments against him totaling more than $1.1 million.
But he said his intentions in Hardin had been sincere and that he "stood my ground" when his background caught up to him.
The Montana jail plans unraveled after media revelations about Hilton's criminal past sparked an investigation by Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock. Hardin had been desperate to fill its jail after it sat empty for two years. Officials with the city's economic development agency signed a deal with Hilton without a thorough background check.
The deal was never ratified by US Bank, the trustee on $27 million in bonds used to build the jail.
Hilton now claims to have an agreement to lease 1,200 acres in Big Horn County for a tactical military training ground. He says he will be a "consultant" on the project because his investors no longer want him at the forefront. "We're going to build that. It's not an empty promise," he said.
The lease agreement for the supposed training center was said to be with a prominent Hardin businessman and rancher.
Details offered by Hilton could not be immediately confirmed, but there were strongly expressed doubts.
"(Hilton) just goes onto the next plan, then the next plan, then the next," said Maziar Mafi, a Santa Ana, Calif. trial attorney. "He never stops because the minute he stops, nobody's going to believe."
Mafi invested $35,000 in the jail plan and helped craft the contract between Hardin and American Police Force before cutting his ties to the project.
Hilton says Mafi undermined the jail deal by failing to file the necessary paperwork to incorporate American Police Force in Montana. Mafi said he didn't do so because Hilton had asked that his name be left off the documents, raising suspicion for the attorney.
No criminal charges have been filed over the scuttled jail deal, although state and federal authorities say they are monitoring the situation.
The executive director of the city agency that owns the jail, Greg Smith with the Two Rivers Authority, resigned last week for undisclosed reasons.
"I never asked for any bribes, nor did I bribe anybody," Hilton said.
A native of Montenegro with at least 17 aliases, Hilton adopted the title "captain" when he formed American Police Force. He has pegged the cost of the proposed training ground and a related dormitory for more than 200 trainees at $17 million.
Yet he's struggled to keep up with far smaller financial obligations, such as $1,000 debt to a Hardin bed and breakfast where he and several associates stayed for several days in September. Hilton said he was "transferring money from one account to another account" to pay off the debt.
Such promises appear to be stacking up too quickly for Hilton's Montana spokeswoman, Becky Shay, who is now seeking Smith's former post at the Two Rivers Authority after failing to receive a paycheck from Hilton after three weeks on the job.
Shay quit her job as a reporter covering Hardin for the Billings Gazette September 25, when Hilton offered her $60,000 a year and a company car. After the Mercedes SUV she was using courtesy of Hilton was reclaimed this week by Mafi, Hilton's former business partner, Shay was back in her old car -- a 1999 Dodge Intrepid with balding tires.