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Fugitive dies in police custody here

Federal marshals spent more than four years trying to track down Robert Walter Mathisen, an alleged scam artist accused of cheating people in Oregon out of more than $1.5 million.

They finally caught up with him last month in Buffalo, but before he could be sent back to Oregon to face prosecution, Mathisen died.

Mathisen, 63, died in police custody Feb. 12, shortly after two Oregon police officers picked him up at the Erie County Holding Center. Police said Mathisen died unexpectedly while the Oregon officers were transporting him to Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

"[Oregon officers] picked him up at our jail, and he died soon afterward," Erie County Undersheriff Richard T. Donovan said Monday. "At this point, we're not aware of the cause of death . . . We're not aware of any problems with him at the Holding Center."

Buffalo police homicide detectives are investigating the death. Authorities said Mathisen suffered from a number of health problems and is believed to have died of a heart attack.

According to police in Portland, Ore., Mathisen would have faced 17 felony theft charges if he had been returned to Oregon, and many of his alleged victims were senior citizens.

While running an auction business in 2004, Mathisen had taken many items -- including valuable antiques -- on consignment from people in the Portland area, police said.

"He was supposed to give these people money after selling the antiques, but he never did," said one police officer.

While police were investigating his alleged scams, Mathisen skipped town more than four years ago, police said.

The Clackamas County, Ore., Sheriff's Office put him on its list of most-wanted fugitives. He was described as 5-feet-11 and 285 pounds, and the department said he was wanted on theft charges and a charge of being an ex-convict in possession of a firearm.

Members of a U.S. Marshals Service fugitives unit tracked him to a home in North Buffalo last month, and he was arrested Jan. 29, police said.

Two officers from the Multnomah County, Ore., Sheriff's Office traveled to Buffalo, rented a car and picked up Mathisen at the Erie County Holding Center on Feb. 12, police said.

"Three minutes after leaving the Holding Center, he died in the car," an officer familiar with the case told The Buffalo News. "It looks like a heart attack."

Annie Shoen, deputy district attorney in Multnomah County, said she could only confirm that Mathisen was wanted on 17 felony charges filed by her office and that he died.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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