Yesterday's Crimes: The Wolfman of El Camino

Ed Barbara of Furniture USA was the Bay Area's undisputed king of commercial interruptions in the 1970s and 80s. No commercial break during my childhood was safe from his rapidfire promises of easy credit, all delivered as he floated across rows of flimsy bed sets thanks to the magic of a primitive blue screen.

“No cosigners, no credit references necessary,” he proclaimed before closing each 30-second spot with his trademark catchphrase — “Bye kids” — just to add an extra bit of creep factor.

Barbara's ads may have been a constant nuisance, but no one forgot them. A whopping 95 percent of San Jose State students knew who Ed Barbara was in a 1980 survey.

“The secret to success is to irritate the public,” Barbara said during a 1980 interview. “I learned many years ago that to be remembered, you have to irritate.”

“No one forgets his worst enemy,” he added. And for those clamoring to buy a new fridge from their worst enemy, Barbara was their man.

After conquering the South Bay's distressed credit market, Barbara set his sights on Wall Street — or at least the pink sheets. In 1984, he founded Dynapac Inc., a strange conglomerate that included an automatic sofa bed company (of course) and a televised bingo scheme.

“There will be no cost of money or consideration on the part of the players,'' Barbara claimed in a Sept. 4, 1984, press release for Intercom Network Bingo, which he assured investors was a “true mania with continued rapid growth.”

But Barbara really became the Wolf of El Camino when Dynapac bought a 50 percent interest in the Ladder Ranch gold mine close to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Celebrity attorney Melvin Belli wrote a letter urging potential investors not to miss out on Dynapac's motherlode, and the company projected gold production worth $93 million in 1985. Shares surged from $2 in late 1984 to $8.32 by February 1985.

The problem for investors was that Dynapac's projections were more than just a little skewed. They were out-and-out lies.

According to an April 1986 investigative report by the then new-fangled CNN (back when they actually did investigative reports), Dynapac workers salted the Ladder Ranch mine with outside ore to fool investment analysts. Barbara denied the accusations, but David Fingado, a former assayer for the mine, told CNN that Barbara was lying during an Aug. 9, 1986, report.

Fingado died in a suspicious car crash five days later.

In early October 1986, the SEC charged Barbara and several of his business associates with fraud. Barbara went on the lam. Furniture USA filed for bankruptcy by the end of the month, citing more than $3.3 million in debt. Not surprisingly, the furniture chain's biggest creditors were KTVU Channel 2 and KOFY TV 20.

As Barbara’s South Bay furniture empire crumbled, he started a new one in Vancouver, British Columbia, with some of the $2 million swindled from Dynapac investors. After establishing himself in Canada, Barbara bilked his unsuspecting customers out of $50,000 for furniture that was paid for but not always delivered.

Barbara was arrested in mid-1987 in Vancouver, Wash., and extradited to New Mexico, where he finally stood trial. A jury convicted him on a dozen counts of fraud and racketeering in July 1988, but somebody in the Santa Fe court system thought it was a good idea to let a guy whose catchphrase was “bye kids” out on bail during the trial. Barbara skipped town again, forcing the judge to sentence him in absentia to 19 ½ years in state prison.

Barbara reportedly died of cancer in Florida while still on the run.

Despite dominating local airwaves for more than a decade, little remains to mark Barbara’s broadcasting legacy except old message board threads and a 1989 Unsolved Mysteries segment about him. He did, however, leave us with this f-bomb laden joke commercial wherein he lets us know what he really thinks of his “lazy bastard” customers.

“Yesterday's Crimes” revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past. 

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