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Rhode Island investigators mobilized in Utah to look for acquaintances of former fugitive Joseph Mollicone Jr. after a man who said he befriended the banker contacted reporters.

The man, who asked that only his first name, Nick, be used, said Mollicone lived a comfortable life with a girlfriend in Salt Lake City while investigators conducted a worldwide search. The weekend disclosure was the first hint of Mollicone's whereabouts during a 17-month manhunt.Attorney General James E. O'Neil said Monday he had dispatched two investigators to Utah.

"It was my conclusion he was credible, a responsible individual," O'Neil said. He said he knew the man's name but wouldn't reveal it.

Mollicone has been housed in the state prison since he surrendered to authorities in mid-April at the home of a former lieutenant governor in Johnston.

Mollicone's alleged embezzlement - estimated at as much as $15 million - from Heritage Loan and Investment Co. of Providence drained money from the bank's private insurer, which then collapsed, triggering the state's banking crisis in early 1991.

Mollicone disappeared in November 1990, shortly after auditors questioned him about the bank's finances. An intensive search ensued, but there was no trace of him until he surrendered April 12. His whereabouts during his flight have been a mystery.

Nick said in a report on WJAR-TV during the weekend that he recognized Mollicone when a Salt Lake station broadcast a report about Mollicone.

Nick said the man he had recognized as Mollicone had used the name John Fazioli.

Nick said Fazioli had a girlfriend whom he set up as president of a jewelry distribution company, had made phone calls to Rhode Island and was familiar with the good life.

"He'd go out and buy you things. He was big into making spaghetti sauce. He'd come up here and make me spaghetti sauce. He was smart. He knew about good suits. He'd take me shopping. He just knew a lot," Nick said. "He'd been around. You could tell he'd been around. He was living a rich lifestyle just by the way he knew certain things."

Mollicone's wife, Joyce, declared bankruptcy in December 1991. She was forced out of her fashionable home and has been working two jobs to keep creditors at bay.

Nick said he first met Fazioli in November 1990. The two men were neighbors in a condominium complex and met in the recreation room Jacuzzi. While the two became friendly, Nick said he had suspicions.

"I thought something wasn't right," Nick said. "Why would someone move here from Boston, to Salt Lake and just hang out? My gut feeling initially . . . was this guy's either connected to the mob or he had a nervous breakdown."

The Rhode Island investigators were to talk to Nick, retrieve a picture of Fazioli that Nick said was taken on a trip near the Grand Canyon, as well as other documents, such as telephone records, to see who the man was talking to, O'Neil said.

O'Neil also said investigators would try to interview anyone who interacted with Fazioli including an art dealer who had a business near the complex. Nick told O'Neil he believed Fazioli spent a lot of time at the art dealer's.

O'Neil had no comment when asked if investigators would try to interview Fazioli's girlfriend.

O'Neil also said he had spoken to Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam to coordinate the activities of the Rhode Island detectives with him.

A Van Dam spokeswoman said her office picked up two Rhode Island investigators at the airport. Heidi Sorenson said Utah wasn't investigating. She said Utah offered office space to the Rhode Island officers, but they said they would look into the matter from their hotel room.