Back in the late 1970s, adventurous men rode motorcycles stamped with his signature, ogled Lamborghinis designed for him and even slapped their cheeks with his namesake aftershave. He graced television screens in ads for his brand of cigarettes, in a Croatian campaign dubbed A Man and His World. And until his namesake cologne was discontinued, European men literally smelled of Walter Wolf.
Born to a German and Slovenian couple in Austria on the verge of the Second World War, Mr. Wolf immigrated to Canada in his early 20s and built his fortune in the oil-services industry, staffing offshore rigs with scuba divers in places such as the North Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the Nigerian coast. A jet-setting, pistol-owning playboy, he was the first Canadian to own a Formula One team. And he helped alter the course of the country's political history.
"If you want to do a real story on Walter Wolf, this is nothing you can do in a week," warned German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, whose path fatefully crossed with Mr. Wolf's. "A good expression in Canada would be, 'He's a strange bird.' "
And today, Mr. Wolf is a wanted man, accused in an arms-related bribery scandal that recently helped bring down the Slovenian government. Interpol, the world's largest international police organization, posted his head shot to its website in March with this caption: Wanted by the judicial authorities of Slovenia for prosecution/to serve a sentence.
Mr. Wolf swears he's innocent and promises to face justice after undergoing a heart procedure in Toronto later this summer.
I tracked him down by telephone on his 7,000-acre property about 45 minutes outside Kamloops, B.C., nestled along the South Thompson River as it snakes through moss-covered hills. Five days later, I was welcomed to Wolf Ranch for a two-night stay (no pictures of him allowed), hoping to get a fuller sense of this mysterious figure with global reach and a significant legacy in Canada: He helped pave the path to power for Brian Mulroney, and later opened the door to the alleged Airbus scandal by bringing Mr. Schreiber into the Mulroney fold.
Abroad, more colourful things have been written – claims, for example, that Mr. Wolf gathered information for the CIA about the flow of Russian capital, and that he smuggled arms into Yugoslavia. When those allegations were raised, he chuckled and said, "People are watching too much James Bond." He acknowledged only that he sent gas masks from Poland to Yugoslavia, and introduced Croatian and Slovenian politicians to people in the Israeli arms industry.
"I'm not 'connected.' I just know people," Mr. Wolf said as we dodged the rain on our first of two afternoons together and headed into Bolacco Café, a nearby Sun Peaks Resort coffee shop recommended to him by former Canadian Olympic skier and now B.C. Senator Nancy Greene.
While he is known to exaggerate, his own list of his friends and acquaintances reads like an international Who's Who: Franz Joseph Strauss, the late Bavarian state premier and chairman of Airbus; the notorious former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier a.k.a. Baby Doc; Mr. Mulroney; former prime minister Pierre Trudeau; Austrian ski champion Franz Klammer and the "Crazy Canucks" alpine-race crew; former Miss Austria Elisabeth Kawan (now his ex-wife); former PEI premier James Stewart's great-granddaughter Barbara Stewart (also his ex-wife); F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve; Arnold Schwarzenegger; and so on.
Sometimes Mr. Wolf plays down these relationships and sometimes he boasts of them, depending, it seems, on whether he's spinning a yarn or angling to distance himself from a political hot potato. That's the kind of person he is, a man who alternates dramatically between sentimentality and ruthlessness.
"I am the way I am," he said, clad in faded jeans and a black Walter Wolf racing jacket, over dinner and a $10 bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo on his terrace. "I'm not an actor. I don't give a shit. Quite honestly, I don't owe anybody anything. I can eat steak. I can drink whatever wine I want."
Mr. Wolf – Wally, as his friends call him – was by turns chivalrous (carrying my luggage and greeting me at his door to shield me from his jowly Cane Corso canines) and crass ("Sometimes a woman is so gorgeous that you're in bed with her, you finish and you think, 'Jesus, it's too bad she's not a cigarette. I would light her up and get rid of her!' ").
He teared up when describing his only son, Max, and smiled broadly as he speaks of his youngest daughter, Fiona, who has Down syndrome. But he was spiteful and angry when he talked about the Slovenian charges, to the point of describing a supposed million-dollar hit list: "I put up 10 names from Slovenia. If something happens to me, all those people, dead – kill them because they got ordered to liquidate me. For each that you liquidate, you get $100,000 cash."
These contradictions all aligned with the duality of his rags-to-riches story. In this latest chapter, Mr. Wolf is cast in a high-profile Slovenian probe, a related court case in Austria, a retrial he finds laughable in Croatia, and a relationship with Edna Kernc, a leggy Slovenian woman 30 years his junior who sounds startlingly like a female version of him, with her Central European accent and penchant for a certain scatological four-letter word.
"People always think they know everything about him," she said. "But nobody knows a lot."
Money rules the world
The Second World War was in its infancy when Matthias Wolf, a German bricklayer who would be drafted to fight with the Nazis in 1944, and his Slovenian wife, Justine, welcomed their first child, in Graz, Austria. It was Oct. 5, 1939. Over the course of the next 11 years, Walter would lose his only sister to illness and malnutrition, help raise his twin brothers (Matthias wasn't released from a Soviet prison camp until 1954) and dismantle grenades for scrap metal to help feed his family.
"Sometimes somebody got blown up," he said. "It was a live hand grenade and you hit it with a hammer. Sometimes, the goddamn thing exploded."
Mr. Wolf's mother was a simple but smart woman, and despite her lack of riches – or perhaps because of it – she taught him a lesson he wouldn't soon forget: "Remember, my son, money rules the world."
He wouldn't get a taste of riches in Maribor, where he grew up, nor in Germany, where he finished high school and then worked as an apprentice airplane mechanic. Riches would come with time in Canada, where he arrived in 1960 with little in his pocket and little in the way of English skills.
"I couldn't even order a meal," he recalled. One day at an Ottawa restaurant, "I heard someone order 'chicken-noodle soup and bread,' and I thought, 'That'd be all right.' So when the waitress came over, I said, 'Chicken noodle and bread.' I ate chicken-noodle soup for 10 days, every day."
He worked odd jobs, mostly in construction but also as an elevator engineer and as a pilot, and taught himself English by watching Western movies. He then moved to Montreal, where he worked as a diver for KD Marine installing intake pipes and building bridge foundations, ultimately landing a loan from the Bank of Nova Scotia to buy a 33-per- cent stake in the then-fledgling marine company.
Mr. Wolf credits his meteoric climb to expanding KD Marine into the oil-services industry internationally and to buying and selling crude oil in countries such as Egypt, India, Nigeria and Canada. He was soon able to afford pretty well anything his heart desired: a Lamborghini Diablo, a Mercedes S-600, a Learjet, a seven-seater turbo prop, and a couple of Jet Ranger helicopters. Not a yacht, though – too ostentatious.
"If you work like hell 70 hours a week for a $100,000 salary and you walk down and you see that son of a bitch who has a yacht?" he said, laughing. "I've got my nine-metre, 1,000-horsepower boat – vrooooooom ! – that's all I need."
He jetted around, chasing snow and snow bunnies, and eventually marrying Barbara Stewart, a nurse, whom he said he met while giving her a private lesson.
"He had lots of money and lots of ambitions," said Canadian Olympian and World Cup ski champion Dave Irwin, who skied with Mr. Wolf in the early 1980s. "He wanted to make his life and friendships exciting and neat and wonderful, and be accepted."
Barbara and Walter had a big Montreal wedding and two daughters, Wendy and Alexandra. He described his first wife as somewhat jealous, but "really quite a lady."
By 1977, he became Canada's first Formula One owner, and, with Jody Scheckter behind the wheel, he won the Argentine, Canadian and Monaco Grand Prix races. The Monaco victory, he said, was one of the best days of his life.
Inside Brian Mulroney's circle
"Canada is the country," Mr. Wolf said. A man who grew up despising communism, he came to regard this place as the shining beacon of capitalism and democracy. But while he called it home for 12 years, from 1960 to 1972, he lived for many decades afterward in London, Cannes and Switzerland, trading in oil and other commodities, such as grain machinery.
"The globe is too small to stay in one place," he said.
In 1981, he sold KD Marine to British Underwater and met his second wife on the Austrian ski slopes while still married to the first. For about a year after Barbara officially "pitched" him out of their Montreal home, Mr. Wolf laid his head on fluffed pillows at the Ritz-Carlton hotel whenever he visited for long stints from Cannes.
By then, he had already met Michel Cogger, a Montreal lawyer and long-time friend of Mr. Mulroney, at a Mont-Saint-Saveur ski clinic in Quebec. He also carved tracks on the Austrian mountains with Michael Meighen, the former president of the Progressive Conservative Party.
"When I was skiing with him once, he said, 'Look under the front seat of the car,' and there was a handgun," Mr. Meighen recalled. "It just fuelled the mystery surrounding his activities, in my mind anyway."
(Mr. Wolf said he had the pistol for protection since he was "high-profile" and there were lots of "crazies" running around.)
As political junkies will know, the Ritz-Carlton would become ground zero for the campaign to dump Joe Clark that helped to catapult Mr. Mulroney to power, an effort Mr. Wolf would support. He would also provide entry for Mr. Schreiber, whom he knew through Mr. Strauss, the Bavarian premier and businessman.
"He introduced me to [former Newfoundland premier and Mulroney insider] Frank Moores and then I got to know Cogger, and I got to know all these people around the [Montreal] Ritz-Carlton – and Mulroney's office was across the street," Mr. Schreiber said.
The group conspired to topple Mr. Clark at his 1983 leadership review vote in Winnipeg. Mr. Wolf contributed tens of thousands of dollars from a Bermuda account and helped pack two planes with anti-Clark PC delegates from Quebec – all expenses paid, with shopping for wives included.
"We felt fine about it," said Mr. Cogger, reached at his Quebec home. "It was nothing underhanded."
Allan Gregg, at the time the party's official pollster, was on the convention floor and remembers the collective astonishment when the results came in: Mr. Clark had captured 67 per cent of the ballots – not enough support, in his mind, to go on as leader.
"It became clearer after the fact that Michel Cogger, who was one of Brian Mulroney's right-hand guys, was up to his ears with Walter Wolf," Mr. Gregg said. "The whole story is kind of bizarre."
Mr. Wolf says his contribution wasn't in exchange for promises of government work, calling that theory a "fantasy." (In fact, Mr. Wolf would go on to prove a thorn in the Mulroney government's side when he accused the prime minister of intervening in a legal matter involving the then-prime minister's right-hand man, Fred Doucet, then cheif executive officer of the now-defunct East Coast Energy Ltd.)
Mr. Schreiber is today awaiting prosecution over a decades-old bribery scandal in Germany and is headed for a retrial over tax-evasion charges. But in Canada, he is more well known for his role in the 1988 purchase of $1.8-billion in Airbus planes by Air Canada, at the time a Crown corporation. Mr. Schreiber received secret commissions and was accused of channelling some of the funds to Mr. Mulroney, who has always denied allegations that the $225,000 (or more) in cash he received from Mr. Schreiber was Airbus-related.
Mr. Wolf said he had never been convicted of a crime and had never been crooked – though he'd commit one, he admitted, if an envelope came stuffed with enough money.
"Everybody has a price," he said, chomping on an apple strudel at the Sun Peaks café. "For half of a billion dollars, I would do everything, almost, except kill."
Home on the ranch
Wolf Ranch is a working ranch. Logs are hauled out by the truckload; the fields yield 4,000 bales of hay each season ("goddamn hay fever," Mr. Wolf griped between sniffles); 600 cattle share hills with mountain lions and wolves; and semis loaded with silage roll across dirt roads flanked by yellow wildflowers.
"He comes to get away, I think," said Ms. Greene, once a guest here with her husband, Sun Peaks Mayor Al Raine.
When Mr. Wolf and I weren't sightseeing along the South Thompson River, eating wonton soup at Kamloops' Victoria Oriental restaurant, picking up his dry cleaning, being interrupted by the menacing ringtone on his LG flip phone, running a surprise errand to buy rope at a hardware store, eating and chatting at his home, or driving his three-quarter-tonne Dodge truck around, I was in the modestly decorated and modestly furnished four-bedroom guesthouse.
After I settled into my room on the first afternoon, I walked over to Mr. Wolf's similarly modest home. A sign in bold black letters on his garage door read, "Never mind the dog. Beware of owner."
On several occasions – most memorably over a seasoned hunk of barbecued T-bone steak (no sides, just scrumptious steak on a plate) – Mr. Wolf vowed to defend himself against the current accusations and take retribution on the Slovenian government, which he says is "playing political games."
In Slovenia, Mr. Wolf is accused of being a middleman in an arms-related bribery scheme that culminated in the June 5 conviction of Slovenia's former prime minister, Janez Jansa. Mr. Wolf said that he had never met Mr. Jansa before the trial and played no illegal role in the Patria affair – the €278-million ($365-million) defence deal awarded to Patria, the Finnish arms company in 2006.
On our first evening, and again the second, we went through court and medical documents strewn on his living-room coffee table, topped with a bowl of heart-healthy walnuts, car magazines and the Robb Report 25th Annual Best of the Best. He acknowledged he had worked with Wolfgang Riedl, a friend of three decades and one of the men found guilty of bribery in a related Patria trial in Austria (crimes were allegedly committed in Slovenia, Austria and Finland, and a joint investigations team decided each country would prosecute their own citizens).
Mr. Wolf said his relationship with Mr. Riedl is above board and that Mr. Riedl is simply a "connector" who links buyers and sellers. He said Mr. Riedl's trading company paid a commission to his Lichtenstein-based company, ICB, for his work introducing Mr. Riedl to decision makers.
The Slovenian prosecution argues that Mr. Riedl, as Patria's official middleman, and Mr. Wolf, as Mr. Riedl's "sub-agent" responsible for obtaining political support for the Finnish company, were slated to receive part of a €3.6-million kickback. The 81-page indictment, which claims Mr. Wolf is the "WW" in e-mails and texts relating to the scheme, says €2.3-million was forwarded to Mr. Wolf's private Austrian bank account on Feb. 6, 2007, and that he helped arrange a 30 per cent pre-payment for kickback recipients.
Mr. Wolf admitted that €2.3-million was bound for him, but said it was his legitimate consulting fee and should have been sent to ICB rather than to his personal account.
Mr. Wolf also denied that he founded a Patria-related criminal ring with Mr. Riedl in Austria, where Mr. Wolf has been excused from trial over health concerns. The Austrian Press Agency reported that since Mr. Riedl was acquitted of colluding with Mr. Wolf to commit a crime there, it's likely Mr. Wolf will be acquitted, too.
Allegations of criminal wrongdoing have also followed Mr. Wolf to Croatia, where he will face a re-trial over allegations he pressured the director of his now-bankrupt shoe company, Karlovac (KIO), to redirect €20,000 in company dollars to his personal account.
"Kattie, that was insulting," he said (calling me, as he often would, either Kathy or Katie, I was never quite sure). "If they said, 'Mr. Wolf took $250-million,' that'd be something. Now I look like an asshole with ears … I have a ranch that I could get $40-million in cash [for] and I'm to steal €20,000?"
His financial situation, though, is not all roses. He said that his Lichtenstein accounts have been frozen since 2008, that he closed or pulled out of his myriad companies in Croatia and Slovenia (KIO, a liquor company, a shipyard and a road-equipment factory) and that he has little left since effectively transferring the ranch to his children 20 years ago.
He blamed his legal stresses for provoking three strokes over the past four years, one of which left him favouring his right leg. He had no intention of appearing fragile, though: When giving me a short tour of his home, he sneaked in a quick 110-pound bench-pressing session on his basement fitness machine. "Ooof. Ooof. Ooof," he expelled with each press. "You would not be able to push it even once." (He was right).
A dangerous life
Turning to thoughts of his future, Mr. Wolf said he might marry Ms. Kernc some day, but only once the legal dust settles, only if she'll have him and only in a small ceremony in a quiet Austrian village.
His previous marriages had not been so tranquil. If Barbara had been jealous, it seems her intuition was spot-on. This is what happened the first time I asked Mr. Wolf if he cheated on his wives:
Mr. Wolf: "I was married and I didn't run around."
Me: "You never ran around?"
Mr. Wolf: "No. I'm not going to say that when I was married and in Hong Kong that I didn't meet people – that when I was in Shanghai and there were those half-Asian, half-European girls who look like [raised his salt-and-pepper eyebrows], hell, fine …"
And then he added, for clarification: "I've done lots of things in life, but I have principles. There's not a woman in the world that can say I paid her."
Barbara divorced him, and so did his second wife, Ms. Kawan, with whom he had two children, Max and Fiona. By the time he met Ms. Kernc in Maribor about 10 years ago, he should have been dead, he said, at least three times over.
The first time, he said, was surfing in Acapulco, where he owned a villa; the next, heli-skiing in Blue River, B.C., where he fell into a crevasse after skiing ahead of the guide to carve fresh tracks; and finally racing for fun in Italy, where he rolled his March S-75 going 250 kilometres an hour.
"I'm 73, but I've lived 150 years of life," he said, tearing the meat off his T-bone with his teeth and sun-spotted hands.
When he goes, he wants his ashes strewn from a helicopter across the ranch, which he described as "God's country" even though he's never talked to God. There's much to be done before then, though.
Since I left the ranch, Mr. Wolf's Austrian lawyer has moved into the guesthouse, he told me, to prepare a case for the European Court of Human Rights, where he hopes to argue that the Interpol warrant and freezing of accounts are unjust.
And if he has to, Mr. Wolf said, he will appeal any future convictions to the highest of courts – less so for his own sake than for 20-year-old "Maxi," and for Ms. Kernc, who woke up to policemen searching her Maribor home at 6 a.m. in March, 2009.
"I never forget," he said. "I'm going after the Slovenian government. … I will do anything."
Oh, and there's also the matter of cordoning off the pool so his horses don't drink the chlorinated water – hence the rope.
With reporting by Blaz Zgaga/Ljubljana
Editor's Note: Because of an editing error, the original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version incorrectly described a Lear Jet as a Lyre Jet. This online version has been corrected.