November 6, 2002
Don Johnson was a few years removed from the finale of his most recent TV hit, Nash Bridges, and more than a decade past the ’80s hit series Miami Vice, when a routine customs check on the Switzerland-Germany border turned into an ordeal he would later describe as “…one of the most difficult weeks of my life.”
On Miami Vice, Johnson played Detective James Crockett, who — along with Detective Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) — would battle drug dealers, gang members, and other nefarious characters. But, in November 2002, it was Johnson who found himself the subject of an investigation in a storyline that resembled one of the narratives he would routinely partake in during his run on the Golden Globe-winning TV series.
Johnson, along with two other men — his personal assistant and an “unnamed Swiss financial advisor” — were stopped by German customs officials as they made their way into the country by way of Switzerland. Everything seemed legit; the customs agents were even fans of Johnson. “I signed some autographs, we joked around,” he told Larry King in 2003.
The seeds of trouble for Johnson were sitting in the trunk of the car. When officials searched it, they discovered a briefcase with over $8 billion in receipts, certificates, and credit notes. It seemed a bit odd. Johnson explained that the paperwork was from investors he was in the process of collaborating with for his film production company. The customs agents made copies of everything in the briefcase, and sent Johnson on his way, presumably to the Daimler-Chrysler plant in Germany to see the new Maybach.
“At this stage, we’re only assessing the documents,” said Wolfgang Schmitz, a spokesman for customs. “After that, we’ll decide whether we’ll start with investigations.”
Johnson believed that everything had been cleared. He heard nothing from German authorities, and nothing from the U.S. Tax department for several months. It was quiet. And then, suddenly the whispers of a money-laundering racket became very loud.
“There’s a reasonable suspicion that Mr. Johnson was working for others. If everything is legal, you don’t have to transport documents worth this amount in a car,” said Joerg Groener, a spokesman for the local Customs Investigation Department in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.
Things like “scandal” and “embezzlement” and “money laundering” struck Johnson with the swiftness and unpredictability of a mid-west tornado. Tabloid papers in Germany and Scotland purported that Johnson was a part of a massive money-laundering ring. “That wouldn’t have happened unless we were suspicious about why he had all these stocks and shares and so on with him. This was a lot of numbers,” said Leonhard Bierl, of the Customs Criminal Investigation Department in Cologne.
Johnson and his attorneys proclaimed the actor’s innocence in the face of a media firestorm. “The poor guy was just trying to get money for a film,” said Ronald Litz, Johnson’s lawyer.
The actor took his pulpit to TV, the platform upon which he garnered his fame. On CNN’s Larry King Live, Johnson professed he had no involvement in any illegal activities.
They perpetuated this story of money laundering based on no evidence, based on no investigation, and it’s caused me an unbelievable grief, unbelievable grief. My son called me crying. It’s been terrible.
Johnson’s cry of slander fell on deaf ears: two banks dropped his accounts, and investors no longer wanted to take part in his film production company. “The deal was about to close this week and now the investors are afraid he is involved in money-laundering. But the documents weren’t his. They were the investors’,” Litz told the LA Times.
The scandalous storm was being fed by three fronts: there was Johnson’s denial of any wrongdoing, the media’s insistence that he was part of a criminal conspiracy, and the German customs officials, who were relatively quiet while they investigated the possibility of a crime.
Schmidtz, the customs spokesman claimed, “There is currently no indication of illegal transactions. There is no criminal investigation and prosecutors are not involved.”
Still, Johnson was losing millions in investments and there was no sign as to when the laborious process of clearing his name — that had started four months earlier — would end.
Two months later, the cunning, baffling, and powerful supposed scandal that rocked Don Johnson’s public and private life was suddenly over.
“The whole thing is off the burner as far as we’re concerned,” Leonhard Bierl said to Bloomberg News. “We’re very sorry that the story was leaked to the media and caused so much mishap for Mr. Johnson.”
German authorities had decided that Johnson had not participated in any illegal activities, and as the swirling winds of justice dissipated around him, so too did the tabloid rumors and accusations. Yet, for Johnson, it would take some effort before he would be able to recover from the damage inflicted on his career. He spoke to BBC News about the effect of the media’s portrayal of him.
I don’t know that I will ever be able to clear my reputation and regain my credibility. It makes it very difficult for people to do business with you because the perception is there that one time you were involved in something shady. The only thing I can do is deny these charges, show there is no truth in them and let people know I am not going to sit idly back and be slandered and accused of things that are beneath my character.
As difficult as the ordeal was for Johnson, the former fictional Miami detective — with the rolled-up suit jacket sleeves — still had plenty of buoyancy to withstand the storm. And, eventually, he was able to get back up on the proverbial — and literal — horse.