Gather 'round the campfire, boys and girls...
A few months back, I posted a note on the Society of Midwest Contesters
reflector asking if anybody knew the whereabouts of our dear old friend
Romeo Stepanenko, 3W3RR. As many will recall, Romeo had a habit in
the late 1980's and early 1990's of popping up with his gear from
some of the rarest countries in the world of ham radio, make tens
of thousands of contacts, and then getting us armchair DX'ers to flood
him with requests for QSL cards (which included "green stamps")
that often came very late or not at all. There was also that minor
issue of him not being able to provide the DXCC administrators with
the proper documentation from some of his adventures, proving he was
indeed where he said he was. In the parlance of DX'ing, Romeo was
the ultimate Slim, a pirate.
I'm a musician, and I figured if ever there was somebody that was
worthy of a scurvy-dog, sea-shanty kind of song, ol' Romeo was that
person. There were rumors he was a shady character, who showed up
at the Dayton Hamvention in 1999, years after being expelled from
DXCC, and then disappeared from the face of the Earth. He is the sort
that is perfect for song and story. I needed factual material for
the tune, so I started to do my homework. The note to the SMC reflector
was the beginning of that homework.
I didn't get much response other than a couple of notes that said,
"Yeah, whatever happened to that guy?" So, In July 2005,
I posted a note on Eham.com in their DX forum, entitled "Wherefore
Art Thou, Romeo?" Again, no info. So, I started searching on
Google. I found an article online about ham radio in Afghanistan that
mentioned him in passing, and a site that had several of Romeo's QSL's
(including WX9X's fake P5/R0MEO card he handed out at Dayton one year).
I printed the articles and stuck them in my notebook I keep for writing
lyrics, where they have sat for a while, collecting dust. I forgot
about it and moved on to other projects.
On the evening of October 19, 2005, I received a phone call from
an inspector with the U.S Postal Service based in St. Louis. He said
he needed to meet with me concerning an investigation of "...one
of my associates." I obviously made myself available at his earliest
convenience, which was the next day's lunch hour.
I ran over to my friend Matt, NM9H's place. Was he trading endangered
animals over the Internet? Circumnavigating customs laws by importing
fresh fruit from Venezuela? Ripping tags off of mattresses and mailing
them to Botswana? He assured me he was doing nothing of the sort,
as he was "...an old man with a house full of kids, with neither
the time nor energy to be surreptitious."
A night of fitful sleep ensued. We jazz and folk musicians have a
sordid history in America, often lumped together with other unsavories
like gangsters, communists, and bootleggers. Which of my compadres
had warranted constabulatory intervention, and how did the Postal
Service get involved? Besides, my youthful indiscretions are long
over, as I have nothing to be discrete about any longer and I'm closer
to middle-aged than youthful. In short, like my friend NM9H, I'm boring
and getting old.
The Inspector came to my place today (20 October 2005), and after
some pleasantries, asked if the name Roman Vega meant anything to
me; I truthfully answered no. He then asked if I was a ham operator,
to which I said yes. He then asked if the name Romeo Stepanenko meant
anything to me, and I nodded uncertainly. The Inspector then produced
a printout of my Romeo inquiry on Eham.com. He said he was following
up on an investigation from the US Department of Justice in San Francisco
concerning our beloved Romeo, and he wanted to know why I was asking
about him in a public forum.
I gave him a Reader's Digest version of ham radio, DX'ing, and an
overview of the DXCC program. I explained how Romeo pretended to operate
from various exceptionally rare places, duped tens of thousands of
us into sending him SASE's with green stamps included, and was then
caught and expelled from the DXCC program for these fraudulent ham
activities. I explained why this caused such a scandal to a program
that has had an exceedingly high level of ethics and scrutiny associated
with it over the years. He was quite interested in people sending
dollars along with QSL requests. I explained it was customary to help
pay for the QSL you're going to receive, especially when dealing with
an operation from a place as rare as Myanmar or North Korea.
I then had to explain to him why I'd want to write a song about such
an unsavory character. As I explained, every hobby or pastime has
some level of folklore or legend attached to it, and Romeo is one
of the most infamous characters in the history of DX'ing. In baseball,
people wrote songs about Jackie Robinson and Joltin' Joe. Bob Dylan
wrote about Emmett Till. Heck, Frank Zappa wrote about a wacko dubbed
by the press as The Illinois Enema Bandit. Numerous ballads have been
written about pirates, oddballs, do-gooders and ne'er-do-wells in
all cultures all around the globe. Ham Radio DX'ing may be a small
culture in the grand scheme of things, but it is a culture nonetheless.
It stands to reason that, just like any other culture, the heroes
are glorified and the villains are reviled. To me, writing a song
about Romeo seemed logical and fun.
After an hour of questioning by the Inspector (nice guy, by the way),
he said it was quite obvious I wasn't involved in any of Romeo's current
shenanigans, and proceeded to tell me The Story:
Roman Vega, aka Romeo Stepanenko, was arrested and extradited from
Cyprus to the United States in March of 2004, and has been charged
with 40 counts of wire fraud and trafficking in stolen credit card
numbers. He is alleged to have done this in online chat rooms. The
Inspector I spoke with indicated that he allegedly bilked over $3
million out of this scheme. Romeo has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
He has been held in northern California, as he is considered a flight
risk. His trial is scheduled to begin in San Francisco on Monday,
As Paul Harvey would say, "Now you know the rest of the story."
The Inspector never informed me that I was not allowed to discuss
this, so I'm posting it here for all to see. He indicated the case
against Romeo looked quite good indeed, and that they were following
up on all leads they had concerning him. I was "lucky" enough
to have been considered a Person Of Interest; I got to see a copy
of my Federal subpoena, where I was "commanded" to appear
in Federal court on November 28 at 8:30AM. The Inspector indicated
this would probably not be needed. He did mention that San Francisco
is quite nice this time of year, though, and it was almost a pity
I wouldn't get to take the Government up on their free "vacation."
I gave him one of those nervous smiles and waited for him to move
He left me his card, said he'd file his report, and told me I'd probably
never hear from him again. He did give me the case number (Northern
District Of California CR04-0101 CRD), since it's a matter of public
record. The fact that I was sitting on the edge of my seat as he was
telling me this, slack-jawed and with my eyes as wide as saucers,
might have had something to do with him giving me the info as well.
How did I get associated with Romeo? I'm just a ham operator who
had one QSO with him when he was in Vietnam (still my only 3W QSO),
spent probably hundreds of hours listening for him from his other
far-flung locales, but never worked him anywhere other than 3W. I
just happened to ask the right question at the wrong time.
It certainly is interesting what bites sometimes when you go fishing,
I'm finally recording my solo CD now. I'll be sure to let everybody
know when it's done. I could use a lead player, though; maybe I should
give WB6ACU a call...
73, Sean Kutzko KX9X Gillespie, IL
Have a great month
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