January 25, 2010 at 1:00 am

Charlie LeDuff: Travels with Charlie

Charming 'prince' eludes Mich. police

Josef Meyers, a felon who may be working for the FBI, faces child neglect charges in Michigan. (Oakland County Sheriff)

Beverly Hills -- Josef Franz Prach von Habsburg-Lothringen, the Prince of Austria, circulates in high society. He has been known to take meals with a retinue of body guards, prance about in a cape and he lives in a chic loft in Manhattan's trendy Soho district.

Josef Meyers is a former mental patient, flim-flam man and onetime accused cocaine dealer who grew up in a broken home in Beverly Hills, Mich., changed his name in midlife, abandoned his first wife and children for a second wife and children.

The twist here is that the Prince and the pauper are one and the same. And von Habsburg-Lothringen -- as Meyers is now legally known -- is one of the biggest deadbeat dads in Michigan, investigators say -- owing more than $250,000 to his first wife, whom he never divorced.

Warrants have been issued for his arrest on child neglect charges, but he continues to elude the short arm of the Michigan law.

It turns out that the Prince was, and may still be, a high-level informant for the FBI, according to law enforcement officials, court records and correspondence from the Department of Justice. His misadventures and lack of payment shed a thin ray of light into the murky world of the federal informant.

"I think the term con man applies here," said Sgt. Matt Norman of the Oakland County Sheriff's Department, who has pursued the Prince to no effect. "He's got a dozen aliases. He works for the FBI. And we can't touch him. I called the FBI a couple times on this and they never returned my calls. I mailed them a wanted poster. Nothing. Normally if a guy is working for the government we can put a withholding order on his paycheck. But obviously we can't seem to do that here."

Prince's work unclear

Born in Beverly Hills in 1960, Josef Meyers has compiled a record as thick as a Bible. Shortly after he turned 21, Meyers attacked his mother, after which he was committed to the Clinton Valley Center, a now defunct psychiatric hospital in Pontiac.

In 1987, he was arrested in a raid in Livonia, during which police confiscated two kilos of cocaine and an automatic weapon, but he was not convicted. It is about this time he began working as a top-level confidential informant for the FBI, according to federal documents. He started going by comic-book monikers like The Prince, Meyer Lansky and Rockefeller. He began speaking with an outrageous German accent.

"The FBI called me after that coke bust and asked if I thought Meyers would make a good informant," said Rocky St. Jean, a retired Beverly Hills cop who had numerous run-ins with Meyers, including the episode with his mother. "I told the guy I wouldn't trust a bonehead like Meyers to take out my garbage."

The Prince met his first wife, Marianne, in 1984. She asked that her last name not be published for fear of reprisals from strangers and ridicule from her neighbors.

Marianne said she believed Meyers' bogus German accent, his proclamations that he had graduated from Harvard and that he was in town from Europe to see the Grand Prix. They married two years later.

"I wasn't really sure what he was except that he was really charming and smart," she said. "He didn't tell me much about his background and I didn't really ask. It's uncomfortable to admit you've been tricked, but I began to learn quickly who he was."

It is unclear what The Prince did for the FBI exactly.

But the ruse started to unravel. Josef Meyers became paranoid, demanding that the blinds remained drawn. He was in and out of jail. Creditors came knocking. He was convicted of stealing and cashing a $100,000 check in 1989 from a business acquaintance. Meyers avoided up to five years in prison for the check kiting -- the sentencing guideline in Michigan -- as the judge took into his account his "situation with the FBI," according to court transcripts.

He was ordered to pay restitution.

While on probation for the bad check, Meyers legally changed his name from the pedestrian Meyers to the regal von Habsburg-Lothringen, despite the fact that Michigan law disallows a name change if you have been convicted of a felony or have been committed to a mental institution.

'He's an impostor'

Where Meyers came up with the von Habsburg name is a matter of conjecture. But members of the royal family say they have never heard of Meyers.

"He's an impostor absolutely," said Jerrine Habsburg-Lothringen, wife of the late and true archduke of Austria, Stefan. "This pretense he puts up, including the accent, must be magnificent."

The Prince walked out on his family in late 1993, as Marianne was in the hospital giving birth to their son Franz. The Prince missed the baptism of his son on Jan. 23, 1994, at St. Joseph Church in Detroit.

But Franz's godfather was there -- Richard Mazzari, a retired FBI agent who was von Habsburg-Lothringen's case handler. Department of Justice guidelines forbid agents from socializing with confidential informants, much less becoming the spiritual sponsor to their children.

"Rich was a friend," Marianne explained.

Mazzari did not return phone calls to his Ann Arbor home.

While Marianne was raising three children and making ends meet on government assistance and a disability check, the government continued to employ von Habsburg-Lothringen. He was in New York now, working on such capers as "Operation Uptick" and "Operation Wooden Nickel." In "Wooden Nickel," a stock manipulation investigation, he helped snare a New York lawyer and former Brooklyn assistant district attorney, Albert Santoro.

In a letter to the court, the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that while in the employ of the FBI during the '80s and '90s, Meyers "sold counterfeit good(s); committed extortion; beat up at least one individual; used narcotics and assisted in the collection of debts owed from the sale of narcotics."

It is unclear if The Prince is still an employee of the FBI. "I can't comment at all on anything like that," said Special Agent Theodore Cicioppi of the FBI's New York office.

An interstate warrant was issued last March by the office of the Oakland County prosecutor, but when The Prince was arrested for a drunken late-night argument with his wife last year, he was inexplicably released by New York City police, though he should have appeared on a fugitive database.

A knock at the door of the Prince's Soho loft went unanswered last week. His lawyer did not respond to a message left with his receptionist. A bartender at a bistro across the street from his Soho apartment said Prince von Habsburg-Lothringen still lives in the neighborhood and occasionally hangs out at the rail for a pre-dinner aperitif.

In the meantime, a wanted poster of Josef Meyers hangs of the wall of the Oakland County family courthouse.

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