The Great Stradivarius Swindle

Latest Update: November 2012

On 9th November, Dietmar Machold was found guilty in Vienna’s Criminal Court of embezzlement and fraudulent bankruptcy and sentenced to six years imprisonment. His ex-wife and mother-in-law each received 12 months probation for helping him to hide several violins and other valuables from the insolvency administrator. Had Machold not pleaded guilty to some of the charges, he might have have faced a stiffer sentence, of up to ten years. The judge took his “comprehensive and penitent confession” into consideration when sentencing him. His co-defendant, Czech-born Nikolai Nantschev, goes on trial in Vienna on December 10th. Machold may appeal his sentence but whatever the eventual outcome, he still faces civil insolvency claims of at least 80 Million Euros.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Latest Update: April 2007

The troubled fortunes of the beleaguered New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and the fall from grace of its former patron and philanthropist Herbert Axelrod have proved an ongoing saga. In September 2005, a jury found Herbert Axelrod (already in prison on criminal charges) liable for fraud. He was ordered to pay $20.3 million in damages and unpaid loans to Central Garden & Pet Company of California who had previously bought his business. In addition, Axelrod was ordered to pay the company $340.000 for damaged merchandise. In October 2005, after serving 15 months of his 18 month criminal sentence, he was paroled - but only after agreeing to post a $50 million bail bond. He is now believed to be living in Switzerland.

While few would grieve over Axelrod’s downfall, it is harder to dismiss the trials and tribulations bedevilling the NJSO, even though their dire predicament is far from unexpected. In 2006, the orchestra announced a six-figure deficit for that financial year (representing 10% of its total budget). Its executive director, Stephen Sichak, admitted publicly that it was still struggling to reduce its deficits and repay longstanding loans. Sichak announced the orchestra would cash in almost one-third of its $10 million endowment fund in an attempt to stabilise its finances. However, a new, heartrending twist ocurred in March 2007, when the NJSO’s predident and CEO André Gremillet announced it is selling the “Golden Age Collection”. The orchestra is now seeking buyers for all 30 stringed instruments originally purchased from Herbert Axelrod. The sale of the instruments is expected to restore financial stability to the troubled orchestra. In a press statement announcing the sale, André Gremillet stressed that he hoped the NJSO might find buyers, or preferably “one investor” who would keep the instruments in New Jersey and be prepared to lend them back to the orchestra.

Meanwhile, an Austrian woman, 40 year-old artist Kyra Sator, is suing Herbert Axelrod’s former colleague, the international violin dealer, Dietmar Machold, who originally valued Axelrod’s “Golden Age Collection” at $50.000 million. Sator’s claim against Machold, which includes allegations of fraud and theft of her family’s violins, is lengthy and complex and has yet to come to court in Vienna. However, she alleges that she only recently discovered that one of the instruments in the “Golden Age Collection” - a violin appraised as the work of one of Stradivari’s contemporaries,Giovanni Baptista Rogeri - belongs to her and was wrongfully acquired by Dietmar Machold in 2002. In a recent letter written to the orchestra, Sator has threatened legal action against the NJSO if the violin is not returned to her . The orchestra has dismissed her claim and says it has no intention of returning the instrument. When - or if - Kyra Sator’s case against Dietmar Machold eventually comes to court, the validity, or otherwise, of her claim may become clearer. Until such time, the business practices of the world’s leading violin dealers continue to fuel yet more controversy and speculation among experts in the field.

The Killing of Mr. George

Latest Update: 2006

Bea Garcia and I continued to write to one another frequently until the middle of 2000. As time went on, her health as well as her financial situation deteriorated steadily. Perhaps aware that her time was running out, her letters became increasingly angry and bitter about George’s death, the corruption in the Dominican Republic, and the fact that there was no chance George’s adopted son Juan would ever be charged or stand trial for his part in the murder. She also claimed, though without a shred of evidence, that George’s lawyer in New York had acted improperly by ensuring that Juan continues to receive a regular income from Rose’s estate for the rest of his life: having seen Rose’s will, I know that the money paid to Juan is part of his inheritance. What remains unjust is that Juan was never charged or tried by the authorities in the Dominican Republic.

The three men originally charged with the murder and imprisoned for several years, were never tried or sent back to prison after their release. After he returned to the island, Juan used the income from the sale of Rose’s house and, according to Bea Garcia, a monthly payment of around $800 under the terms of Rose’s will, to build a large apartment block to rent to tourists. His father, one of Rose’s killers, set up his own car maintenance business in Montellana, outside Sosua. Although Bea Garcia made enquiries about exhuming Rose’s body, she felt it was a pointless, exhausting and costly exercise unless his friends and showbusiness colleagues could arrange and pay for his remains to be flown back to the USA or UK for reburial. Nobody from the theatre world bothered to make a move in that direction.

Charles Goff, a former collague of Rose’s in New York was deeply distressed by my article and managed to raise several thousand dollars through the Actors’ Fund of America for a memorial paving stone bearing Rose’s name: it was installed in the roof garden of a residential home for actors on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Goff has also attempted, so far apparently unsuccessfully, to get George’s name into the Theatre Hall of Fame at New York’s Gershwin Theatre. In 1999 Goff wrote to me saying the committee had informed him the proposal had not been accepted that year, but that Rose’s name was on the ballot and it could take “a couple of years to make it”. Since then there has been no news.

In 2002, Bea Garcia died suddenly of a heart attack in hospital in Puerta Plata. No one knew for many months except local tradesmen and hospital officials. She left no surviving relatives.

Murder in Paradise: Lois McMillen

Latest Update: 2006

On April 7th 2003 The Privy Council delivered its judgement on William Labrador’s appeal: his conviction was quashed. The Board also ruled that Alex Benedetto had no case to answer. A day later, Labrador emerged a free man after serving three years in prison, and flew back to his family in New York. Lord Hope of Craighead, giving the judgement of the Judicial Committee, said that the case against Labrador was crucially dependent on the evidence of his fellow prisoner and cellmate, Jeffrey Plante, who claimed Labrador had confessed to him his guilt of the murder.

However, the judge at Labrador’s trial in Tortola in 2000 failed in his summing up to draw the jury’s attention to the fact that Plante’s evidence was tainted by self-interest and that he had reason to benefit from his testimony against Labrador. At no point did the judge advise the jury to be cautious before accepting Plante’s evidence. It would be hard to imagine a witness who was less deserving of belief than Plante. Even those facts about his background which he was prepared to admit to while he was giving his evidence were more than enough to show that he was not to be trusted......

He had numerous convictions for theft, cheque fraud and other crimes of dishonesty. They had culminated in a conviction for theft in texas, for ewhich he had been sentenced to 45 years imprisonment. He admitted to two violations of parole, for the first of which he had been returned to prison to serve a further period of custody. He also admitted to pleading guilty to overstaying the time allowed to him in the BVI in breach of the immigration rules. It was plain that the reason for this was his desire to avoid being dealt with by the authorities in Texas for his second parole board violation... he was a thief and he was a liar. The fact that he had been married ten times added further weight to the argument that he was utterly cynical in his dealings with others, and totally unscrupulous.

Despite this damning judgement, Lois McMillen’s mother Josephine, whom I met in London during the Privy Council hearing, remained convinced of Labrador’s guilt. Frail and in ill health, she told me she had been upset by my article which she claimed was full of inaccuracies. She insisted that Kroll, a large international firm of investigators she had hired, had produced evidence against all the four original suspects. “We felt justice was served at William Labrador’s trial. There was no miscarriage. Plante was a very creditable witness and there were things in his statement he couldn’t have possibly made up. There was also other evidence that they did not bring out at trial that pointed to Labrador” said Mrs McMillen. She claimed that all four men have a history of drugtaking. “Kroll checked their background, but I’d already known them for fifteen years, just from being down on the island”.

When I asked Mrs McMillen why Kroll had not produced this alleged evidence, she told me that it would all come out after the Privy Council ruling. “They will make it all public later. Right now no one wants to be sued”. However when I contacted Kroll’s Miami office asking for further details or confirmation regarding their investigation, there was no response. Several months later, Mrs McMillen dismissed the Privy Council judgement as a miscarriage of justice. Tragically, she went to her grave believing Labrador was her daughter’s murderer. In late May 2003, Mrs McMillen developed viral pneumonia while in Tortola and died on June 29th in a Miami hospital.

Just as tragically, despite Labrador’s acquittal, the Royal Virgin Islands police have stated they have no plans to reopen the case and try to find Lois McMillen’s murderer.

The Day the Music Died: Kirsty MacColl

Latest Update: 2007

Since I originally interviewed Jean MacColl, we have become friends and meet or talk regularly, and she continues to update me about her campaign. Her reports, also included on her website, indicate that despite exceptional tenacity and determination she has come little closer to winning the battle for justice. After her first trip to Mexico in 2004 when she filed new evidence about the case, Jean subsequently learnt, long after the event, that Emilio Cortez Ramirez, the Federal Prosecutor in Cozumel, had turned the case down in June 2004. She also discovered that he had failed to deliver his own findings to her Mexican lawyer for many months, thereby preventing her lawyer from continuing the case. Jean, and one of her grandsons, Louis, returned to Mexico in June 2005. They both signed official documents which were delivered to Mexico’s Attorney General and the Constitutional Court, stating that the Federal Prosecutor had impeded the progress of the case. Both complaints were successful. In May 2006, Emilio Cortez Ramirez was found liable for breach of authority in failing to register their appeal. He was removed from his post.

The case however has progressed no further. Although the authorities served the second son of Gonzalez Nova with a subpoena, he has so far not given evidence about the accident. Jean has no intention of abandoning her campaign. “There is a new President and government in Mexico and we are determined to continue our efforts in seeking a resolution. I hold Gonzalez Nova responsible for Kirsty’s death. He has lied about the speed of the boat, its position in the water and who was driving. One has to ask oneself why ? Was he fearful of losing a substantial sum of money ? Did his money mean more to him than admitting his family were responsible for the death of a young mother ? I am well aware that had this death happened to an unknown tourist the Gonzalez family would have got away with it. But he reckoned without all of us and in helping Kirsty, we will be bringing some justice to Mexico.”

Here is a letter which you may send to President Calderon of Mexico to assist in the campaign.

Strung Along: Gerald Segelman

Latest Update: 2006

The case brought by the Segelman estate against Kenneth Warren & Sons was settled out of court in 2003. Peter Biddulph paid £3 Million in satisfaction of the judgement and has moved to new busines premises in London. Robert Bein of Bein & Fushi, generally recognised as one of the world’s two leading experts (the first being Charles Beare in London) on identifying rare violins, died in February 2007 of cancer. His death has prompted speculation within among violin dealers as to how successfully the firm can continue trading without him.

The Lady Vanishes: Irene Silverman

Latest Update: 2006

In 2000, Sante and Kenneth Kimes were convicted in New York of the murder of Irene Silverman. Sante was sentenced to 120 years imprisonment without parole and her son received a 125 year prison sentence. The couple were then extradited to California to stand trial for the murder in Los Angeles of a former friend and associate, businessman David Kazdin, whose body was found in a garbage dump near L.A International Airport in 1998. In 2003, Kenny Kimes pleaded guilty to the murder and testified against his mother. He claimed she had ordered him to kill Kazdin, who had discovered Sante Kimnes had taken out a $280.000 loan by forging his signature. Kimes admitted he shot Kazdin in the back of the head and dumped his body in the garbage tip. The couple were sentenced to life in prison without parole, after the judge called 71 year-old Sante Kimes “one of the most evil individuals” she had come across. The body of Irene Silverman has never been found.

A Very Bad Night at the Opera

Latest Update: 2006

The rebuilt La Fenice Opera House finally opened on December 14th 2003, almost eight years after it burnt down. Holzmann-Romagnoli, the contractors originally hired to rebuild the theatre were eventually fired by the mayor, Paolo Costa, who chose Sacaim, a Venetian construction firm which had successfully restored the city’s old Teatro Malibran and Palazzo Grassi, to complete the job. Today, the mayor of Venice is again Massimo Cacciari, who held the post at the time La Fenice went up in flames.

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