It was March 2009 when the British-born siblings Gillian Ison and John Graham Watson met at Zermatt, a resort in the shadow of Switzerland’s Matterhorn. There, with family members, they indulged a passion for skiing: Watson, an alpine expert, loved running the fall line, the steepest and fastest route down the slope. A traveler, an adventurer, the 64-year-old relished high-performance sports as much as he did his career with pharmaceutical and biotech firms. Balancing business and play had made his life storybook-successful. The self-made Watson had just retired, a multimillionaire.
The odd thing his sister Gillian Ison recalled about the trip to Zermatt was her brother’s “friend.” The man, a financial planner named Kent Thomas Keigwin, showed up with his daughter Parisa, surprising John. It was true the two had met in San Diego. And, according to Keigwin, Watson had invited him skiing. No, he hadn’t, Watson told his sister. Keigwin had invited himself. “He was,” she remembered, “nothing like he made himself out to be.”
Ison found Keigwin offensive right away. On the aerial tram and in front of his daughter, he told dirty jokes. He bragged about a “serious girlfriend” he had in America for whom he’d bought “a boob job and a face-lift.” On skis, the barrel-chested man, clearly out of shape, was awkward at best, staying far behind the group. Ison and Watson were aghast watching Keigwin fall. She said he “embarrassed” her brother. That evening, the siblings met him and Parisa for a quick drink. Otherwise, they spent no more time with him, and Keigwin and daughter soon flew home.
Who, Ison asked her brother, was this faker?
Watson said Keigwin came to Zermatt to show his daughter that he had rich friends who spent their vacations in luxury. (Keigwin roomed in a cheap pension, far from the resort.) Without doubt, Watson was wealthy, although few of his friends knew just how wealthy. The Brit’s road to millions began when the Cambridge-educated economist and marketer came to America to work in the pharmaceutical industry. His executive career, always vertically progressive, had taken him to Johnson & Johnson and Wyeth Laboratories, and then, specializing in biotech, to Vestar, Biotech Consulting, CarboMed, and, finally, Ionian Technologies in San Diego, where he was president and chief executive. In his professional life, Watson helped launch products for people with HIV, inflammatory diseases, and spinal cord injuries, among other ailments. When he retired from Ionian in 2008, he joined Tech Coast Angels, a nonprofit organization of wealthy people who invest in worthy start-ups. Watson was quickly elected to the board.
An associate of Watson’s, Charlie Grebenstein, said of him, “John was rollicking good company. Quick wit, cultured, broadly read, passionately devoted to his adopted country. He valued being an American because America provided opportunity. He loved California for that reason, plus the freedom to innovate and the endless opportunities to play.”
Arriving in San Diego in late 2007, Watson met Anna Sorriso and joined her in the Action Ski Club. He, Sorriso, and others enjoyed hikes, beach walks, dances, and skiing. “He liked active people,” a friend recalled. At La Jolla Shores, Watson rented an apartment in a boxy building at 8111 Camino del Oro. The two-bedroom pad suited his lifestyle: travel and working out — swimming, tennis, inline skating, wind surfing, running — “two hours or more every day,” said another friend. Watson liked sailing, too, which was how he met Keigwin.
Rarely opening up, Watson was guarded about his wealth. But he did have a penchant for discussing stocks. Keigwin did as well. Born in 1950, he was a certified public accountant. His brother Jim said that during the 1970s, Keigwin was hired by the Shah of Iran to establish an accounting system for the government. When that ended with the Iranian revolution, he returned to America with an Iranian Jew whom he married and with whom he had a daughter. A financial advisor, Keigwin counseled clients first at UBS, then at Morgan Stanley in La Jolla. But, his sales performance fell off at Morgan Stanley, and he was let go. In April 2010 he hired on with Wedbush Securities, working on commission. Keigwin sold annuities as well as life, accident, and health insurance on behalf of New York Life and other companies. At Wedbush, Keigwin fattened his contact list, dozens of well-heeled individuals like Watson whom Keigwin targeted as potential clients.
Watson and Keigwin, Sorriso said, sailed once or twice but developed no friendship. At best, Keigwin was in a group who received “jokey” emails from Watson. One day in 2008 she noticed Keigwin’s name had been dropped from the CC line. Watson told her that he’d become “disenamored” of him. He was angry that Keigwin had lied to him about an investment property for sale. He also told her that Keigwin was in “dire financial straits.” Watson said he no longer wished to “associate with that turd ball.”
Still, wishing the opportunist away doesn’t get rid of him. In November 2009, a woman with Citibank phoned Watson about his new credit card application. Watson said he hadn’t applied for a card. But, she asked, hadn’t he just opened an account using his Social Security and phone numbers? Absolutely not, Watson said. He realized he’d been hacked and notified police. Two months later, a manager from E-Trade called Watson to welcome him as a new client. Same as before — the online applicant had used Watson’s Social Security and phone numbers. Watson was livid. It wasn’t he who had applied. Who had? Neither E-Trade nor Citibank knew. Watson notified police again.
In May 2010, Watson and Dr. Barry Kassar, a fellow board member at Tech Coast Angels, put the final touches on their “Quick Pitch” event for June 8 at 6:00 p.m. At these confabs, start-up executives made presentations, hoping to lure new money. Up first on June 8, a Tuesday, was a 3:30 Angels board meeting. Watson, always hands-on and on time, didn’t show. When he failed to arrive for happy hour at 5:00, Kassar “got suspicious.” He phoned him twice and left messages.