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Fugitive fundraiser Hsu ‘freaked out’ on train, witness says (San Francisco Chronicle)

John Coté, Matt Bigelow, Daniel B. Honigman, Special to The Chronicle
Saturday, September 8, 2007

Fugitive political fundraiser Norman Hsu was behaving erratically as he fled the Bay Area on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, at one point stripping off his shirt and shoes, before paramedics were called to take him off the train in western Colorado, passengers said Friday.

Hsu, 56, on the run for the second time from a 1992 grand theft conviction in San Mateo County, was arrested Thursday after the paramedics took him to a hospital from the train station in Grand Junction, Colo. A spokesman at St. Mary’s Hospital said Friday night that Hsu was in fair condition but would not say what was wrong with him.

Hsu boarded the train in Emeryville about 7 a.m. Wednesday, Amtrak said, two hours before he was to have appeared in a Redwood City courtroom in connection with his grand theft conviction. He had touched down earlier that morning on a charter jet flight to Oakland, his lawyer told prosecutors. Amtrak said he boarded the Zephyr with a ticket for Denver.

Passengers interviewed Friday when the Zephyr reached its final destination of Chicago said it appeared that something was wrong with Hsu.

Alberto Dee, 21, who boarded the train in Truckee, said Hsu “freaked out” when Amtrak personnel approached, and was roaming a train car “without shoes and no shirt. … I thought he had a suitcase full of crack or meth.”

Another passenger disembarking in Chicago, who declined to give his name, said Hsu appeared disoriented and was having trouble opening a door on the train. Several other passengers said they were told Hsu was behaving oddly but did not witness it themselves.

Hsu’s attorney, Jim Brosnahan, said Friday, “a great many friends of Norman Hsu have expressed concern about his mental health and physical well-being” since he disappeared. Paramedics were called to the Grand Junction station about 10 minutes after the Zephyr pulled in Thursday at 11:05 a.m. with “a request for a backboard to assist someone who had fallen on the train,” said Mike Page, a spokesman for the Grand Junction Fire Department.

Paramedics helped Hsu off the train and took him to St. Mary’s Hospital. “He was assessed on the train but was able to get off the train on his own with assistance,” Page said, adding that the backboard ultimately was not needed.

Dan Roberts, 57, a furniture maker from Grand Junction, said Hsu had been sitting up on a stretcher on the station platform and appeared to be moving.

“We just figured he had a heart attack or something,” said his wife, Cheryl Roberts, 52, a nurse.

Federal agents arrested Hsu at St. Mary’s Hospital about 7 p.m. Thursday. Hospital officials would not say how authorities had been alerted that Hsu was there.

Brosnahan said he was “pleased and relieved” that Hsu was now being cared for at the hospital. “We will be getting him the best medical care available.”

“The strain he has been under during the last week has been enormous and, perhaps, unbearable,” Brosnahan said in a prepared statement.

On Wednesday, after Hsu failed to show up for his court hearing, Brosnahan said he was concerned about his client. But when asked whether Hsu posed a danger to himself, Brosnahan replied, “I have no basis for that speculation.”

Hsu was under armed guard at the hospital on federal charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. California Attorney General Jerry Brown’s office sought federal authorities’ help after Hsu failed to appear at Wednesday’s hearing to surrender his passport.

Hsu had been a fugitive for 15 years since skipping his sentencing on the grand theft conviction, transforming himself during that time into one of the Democratic Party’s more prolific donors.

The federal charges will be dropped once Hsu is returned to California to face sentencing in state court in the grand theft case, FBI spokesman Joseph Schadler said. A timetable for his return to California has not been established.

Hsu was facing up to three years in state prison and restitution payments after pleading no contest to a single count of grand theft in 1992 in what prosecutors described as a $1 million fraud scheme involving the supposed resale of latex gloves.

In fact, prosecutors said, Hsu was running a Ponzi scheme, in which early investors get returns on their money through funds that subsequent investors put in, and the later investors lose their shirts.

After he fled sentencing in San Mateo County, Hsu appears to have spent time in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Taiwan, before emerging in recent years as a New Yorker who donated generously to Democratic political campaigns, regularly attended fundraisers and was photographed with party leaders.

Hsu has given an estimated $600,000 to Democratic political campaigns since 2003, money that many candidates are now pledging to donate to charity.

Hsu surrendered to San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies last week after press accounts linked him to the grand theft case. He spent a few hours in county jail before posting $2 million bail and agreeing to relinquish his passport.

After Hsu failed to show up in court Wednesday, a judge issued a no-bail warrant for his arrest.

Chronicle correspondents Matt Bigelow and Daniel B. Honigman reported from Chicago, and staff writer John Coté reported from San Francisco. E-mail John Coté at

This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle