An antenna on a black hinge was once a silly, useless gift for anyone trying to find lost golf balls. But British businessman Jim McCormick claimed the device could detect bombs, drugs, even ivory, turning a piece of plastic into a multi-million dollar business -- despite knowing it was ineffective. And for that, a British court ruled, he has blood on his hands.
McCormick, 57, slapped a new label on the $20 "Golfinder" and marketed it as an "Advanced Detecting Equipment," selling them for as much as $5,000 each to Iraqi officials, whom he bribed. He improved the design and sold 6,000 second-generation devices for as much as $40,000 each, amassing a fortune of more than $75 million, according to legal documents.
A British court Tuesday convicted McCormick of three counts of fraud, and now police vow to go after his riches, which include a $7 million British home formerly owned by Nicholas Cage, houses in Florida and Cyprus, and a $1 million yacht.
He faces up to seven years in prison when he is sentenced May 2.
"McCormick is a fraudster who over the last 10 years has made, manufactured, and sold a device that is completely incapable of detecting explosives, drugs, or any other substance," Detective Superintendent Nigel Rock told reporters. "There are no working parts in that device. It is empty."
McCormick's main market was Iraq, where he traveled at the height of the sectarian war and sold $40 million worth of the devices, according to a BBC Newsnight investigation that led to a British government ban on its sale.
Iraqi police officials introduced "Mr. Jim" at press conferences, and officers fanned out across the city, holding the simple-looking antennas, believing they would detect bombs.
But the court ruled Tuesday McCormick knew all along that the devices couldn't even detect a golf ball, and that he put people at risk.
"McCormick for 10 years has sold this device in countries that are wracked with terrorism and wracked with explosions," said Rock. "He has paid no heed to the people who've stood on checkpoints and security posts believing this device worked."
Officials in Iraq have said they provided a false sense of security. In one case, according to the British media, a bomb that exploded in Baghdad crossed through 23 checkpoints where McCormick's fake bomb detector was being used.
"He has no conscience. He is morally bankrupt," Haneen Alwan, an Iraqi woman who needed 59 operations after being injured in a January 2009 bomb blast, told the BBC. Alwan lost a fetus in the attack. "How could he sell them just for money and destroy other people's lives?"
McCormick's claims were extraordinary. He said his company, ATSC, had four laboratories working independently and that an employee "like Q in James Bond" had created the technology. He commissioned low-budget commercials in which a house and car blow up before the screen fills with the words "PREVENT IT." His commercials and literature claimed to detect explosives within 200 feet, even if they were deep underground or inside lead-lined rooms. Data cards inside each device – supposedly exchanged depending on which substance the device would detect – were actually useless cards. As one expert witness who testified in the trial put it: the device's antenna "was no more a radio antenna than a 9-inch nail."
The devices were also sold to Pakistan and have been used outside of major American hotel chains in Karachi, as witnessed by this reporter.
"We will now pursue McCormick's wealth," Rock said, "and make sure crime does not pay."
Iraqi General Jihad al-Jabiri, who used to lead the Baghdad bomb squad and helped McCormick win his contract, is now serving a jail term for corruption.
Reporters cornered McCormick outside the courtroom. Asked how he could continue to defend his product, he said simply, "I'm still defending it. I still am."
Meanwhile, Iraqis are still using his device at checkpoints across Baghdad.
As part of the BBC investigation, a whistleblower described how he walked away from the company after confronting McCormick.
"I said, 'If this really doesn't work, I can't be any part of it,'" the whistleblower told the BBC. "He said, 'It does exactly what it's designed to.' I expected him to say detect explosives, ivory, gold. He never said that. He said, 'It makes money.'"