The Shah Was a Sham
In the late 1800s, what is now lower downtown was the heart and groin of Denver, a rowdy, rollicking locus that served as a jumping-off point for folks hell-bent on gold and riches. The neighborhood teemed with saloons, gambling halls and bawdy houses, and it seemed that cardsharps, ladies of pleasure and con men disembarked from nearly every train chugging in to Union Station.
Madam Mattie Silks ran a couple maisons de joie on Market Street. Joseph Randolph Smith, better known as "Soapy," set up shop on Larimer Street, peddling phony mining claims and bars of soap, some of which, he claimed, contained hundred-dollar bills.
So it's fitting that when Prince Ali Patrik Pahlavi came to Denver this past October, he arrived by train and immediately gravitated to LoDo. Pahlavi, a smooth-talking grifter who introduced himself as a billionaire nephew of the late Shah of Iran, dazzled locals with vivid tales of wealth and privilege. And in less than three months, he'd cut a pricey swath through town, emptying people's pocketbooks, wrecking careers, dashing hopes and reportedly ruining at least one marriage.
Investigators estimate that Pahlavi -- whom they've identified as a 55-year-old ex-convict -- is responsible for losses totaling well over $100,000. And that doesn't include the wreckage he left behind in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Germany.
Pahlavi now sits behind bars at the Immigration and Naturalization Service lockup in Aurora, his regal air only slightly diminished by the orange jail uniform he is forced to wear. His silver hair is fashionably cut. He answers questions with seeming arrogance, his expressive eyebrows shooting up at the least sign of impertinence.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Pahlavi continues to cling to his royal identity. "I am Ali Patrik Pahlavi," he says in a voice heavy with an unidentifiable accent. "I am expecting some documents soon to show who I am."
But some of the people who met Pahlavi during his Denver stay say they already know who he is. They call him "the con artist formerly known as Prince."
Somewhere in the world -- France, perhaps -- there is a real Ali Patrick Pahlavi. He was born in Switzerland 57 years ago, the son of the late Prince Ali Reza, the former Shah's youngest son. As an heir to the Pahlavi dynasty, Ali Patrick is rolling in dough; in 1979, when the Shah was driven into exile by the Ayatollah Khomeini, estimates of the Pahlavi family's assets ran as high as $25 billion.
Ali Patrick, however, is said to be a devout Moslem who maintained his distance from the rest of the royal family. He may well be the least visible member of the Pahlavi line and thus the easiest to impersonate.
Apparently that's what Valliola Gnassemi-Dakdare believed, anyway.
According to officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office, Gnassemi-Dakdare was born in Tehran on January 22, 1946. Details of his life are sketchy at best, although it is known that he recently did time in a Frankfurt jail for theft and defrauding an innkeeper. Although it was not possible to positively confirm whether Gnassemi-Dakdare was arrested after posing as a member of the Shah's family, investigators have said that they believe he has been carrying on the charade since at least 1996.
Gnassemi-Dakdare spent a year behind bars, according to sources close to the Denver investigation. After his release, he bought a stolen Belgian passport and had it remade in the name of Ali Patrik Pahlavi. The forged document appeared legitimate, and few people questioned the fact that the real Pahlavi spells his middle name "Patrick," or that Gnassemi-Dakdare claimed to be several years younger than the Pahlavi heir.
On April 17, 2000, using his forged passport, the phony Pahlavi entered the United States at Niagara Falls. He made his first appearance in the Washington, D.C., area, where members of the local Iranian community immediately took him to their bosom.
The newcomer was charming and approachable, told everyone to call him "Patrik," and claimed he was temporarily broke.
"He said he had big money coming in from out of the country," says Maryland resident Yasmina Zand (whose name has been changed to protect her identity). "It was in Chase Manhattan, he was waiting for a CD, a big heritage in the Bahamas. It was about $1 billion dollars."
Until the money arrived, he was bust, he told people. And they fell over themselves offering to help him out.
"People like the Shah's family," says Zand, attempting to explain her community's acceptance of Patrik. "It's like the Kennedy family. Everybody loved them. People still love the Shah. And [Patrik] claimed he was his nephew and he needed some help. All the Persian society here in Maryland and Virginia started to help him. He used this feeling to abuse them."
Zand was one of those left feeling abused. And like many of the people who were bilked by Patrik Pahlavi, she is embarrassed to have fallen for his con games. When requesting that her real name not be used for this story, she says, "I have two children. I don't want to lose my job. I don't want to lose anything more."
Zand can't remember exactly when she first laid eyes on Patrik. "April," she says. "Maybe June." For the first month or two, she watched him only from a distance. She got to know him better, however, after he reportedly offered to purchase her business for $1 million.
Zand opened up her books for Patrik. She let him use her car. She loaned him money. "Anything I have, I tried to give it to him," she says, "because I was sure I was going to get my money back."
Sometimes it seemed that Patrik was trying to buy anything and everything within his grasp.
"He wanted to buy some planes -- two planes," Zand says. "He said he was a pilot. He went to Dulles airport about buying a plane. He went to jewelry stores, car dealers, to so many realtors. He pretended that he was buying everything. In this way, he tried to fool everybody that he was real."
People were generous because they expected Patrik to be generous in return. "He got around $10,000 in jewelry from a store on Wisconsin Avenue," Zand says. He also reportedly talked a Virginia car dealership into "selling" him five new BMWs, for himself and his "entourage." By the time the dealer later recovered the cars, Patrik had driven three of them, lowering their value by tens of thousands of dollars because the mileage he'd put on them made them "used" cars.
Zand estimates that Patrik made off with $100,000 in money or goods. Although he took her for about $20,000, the biggest loser was a local bank. "They loaned him money. Almost $60,000," she says. "He fooled the president. He told him he was trying to bring money to that bank as an investment or a deposit, and the poor guy, without checking, gave him the money. After about two weeks, when they realized there was no money, they fired the guy."
Zand, as it turned out, was the only one to go to the police.
She says she became suspicious when, despite Patrik's repeated assurances, his money failed to arrive.
One day, after Patrik had been driving Zand's car for several weeks, he returned the vehicle to her. Unfortunately for him, he'd left his passport and other documents in the trunk. Zand kept the legal papers, which she says included information about political asylum.
Then she began some detective work.
"When we took his passport to the Belgian Embassy, they said it was a bad passport. It had been stolen in France. We went to the German Embassy and found that he had been in jail for nine months before coming here. The German Embassy says they know his real name but they cannot release it to us."
Zand also called the present Shah's office for information. (Cyrus Reza Shah II Pahlavi, heir to the Irani throne, lives with his family in Maryland.) "They said they didn't know this man."
And she bought books about the Shah's family. "I looked at a picture and realized that the person he was claiming to be and him look completely different," she says.
"The real Patrick Pahlavi is tall and blond. [Patrik] is short and dark."
Zand says the local police "didn't care" when she tried to report the theft of her money.
After she seized Patrik's documents, he knew the gig was up and hightailed it out of town.
"Unfortunately," Zand says, "then he did the same thing in Denver."
On September 29, Patrik showed up on the doorstep of Denver's LoDo Inn, an upscale, antique-filled bed-and-breakfast located at 16th and Wazee streets. He appeared well fed and well dressed. Not the type of guy you'd normally expect to see asking for a free place to flop for the night.
Yet that's exactly what he wanted.
Hotel owner Tom Broemmel was in the office and spoke with the stranger. Broemmel, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told friends that Patrik claimed he'd just arrived in Denver, by train. Patrik said his identification had been stolen, along with his luggage and $12,000 in cash. If Broemmel would give him a room, $500 and a bite to eat, Patrik said, he could continue his trip to California. After all, he boasted, he was a nephew of the Shah of Iran and he was good for the money.
Broemmel's trust in Patrik seems surprising for a man who's supposedly savvy about business. (He is said to have made a bundle in California in the high-tech video industry, "retired" to North Carolina and then sunk almost $4 million into purchasing the LoDo Inn, rehabbing rooms in the Victorian building and carving out a penthouse for himself and his wife, clothes designer Lani Lee.)
However, his trust in Patrik is downright shocking given Broemmel's repeated claims that he was an FBI agent in Portland at one time, a contention supported by a law-enforcement agent looking into Patrik's Denver dealings. (A spokeswoman for the FBI was unable to confirm or deny the claim.)
Broemmel would later tell friends that he believed Patrik's story in part because he'd checked it out on the Internet. Indeed, there is a Web site containing information about the Pahlavi dynasty. It includes a family tree, which lists an Ali Patrick Pahlavi under the heading "Other members of the Sovereign Family." A friend says Broemmel told her that Patrik had given him "some paperwork" attesting to his identity.
Still, that's very little on which to hang one's financial future. Broemmel's friends say he is a caring guy who just wanted to help. Nevertheless, another acquaintance believes he has another explanation for the innkeeper's naiveté: "I think he was blinded by the thought of too many zeros behind a one."
Patrik stayed at the inn the night of September 29 and then left, supposedly continuing on the last leg of his interrupted journey. When he turned up again two days later, he had a business proposal for Broemmel. Patrik said that his company, Eagle Spirit Investments, would be building a twenty-story, 500-room hotel in downtown Denver. Would Broemmel be interested in investing?
He told Broemmel that the money for the project would be coming "soon." Until it arrived, however, he would need a place to stay.
Broemmel agreed to put Patrik up for an indefinite period, although he asked for a contract guaranteeing payment for the accommodations. Patrik signed the chit and moved in. He began charging all his meals to the hotel (the inn has a room-service agreement with Dixons Downtown Grill, a restaurant that sits across the street from the LoDo Inn), and he "bought" $8,000 worth of designer clothing from Lani Lee's Cherry Creek boutique, an amount that was added to his hotel tab.
But it was okay, Patrik said. He was good for the money.
Broemmel and Patrik quickly struck up a friendship. Broemmel introduced his new buddy to other friends and business associates, and they frequented Dixons restaurant day and night. Dixons eventually became Patrik's unofficial business office, a place where he could meet with lawyers, realtors, financial advisors and potential investors.
Lee Goodfriend, who owns Dixons along with two partners, remembers being impressed with the fact that, for a rich guy, Patrik seemed very "down to earth."
"I didn't get to know him that well," says Goodfriend. "One reason I didn't engage myself with him too much is because he was always in business meetings, and I didn't want to intrude.
"But he was friendly, nice. Warm and charming. Kind of courtly."
Although Goodfriend says some of her staff said Patrik was rude to them, he was gracious to others.
Restaurant manager Kim Knowles was one of those who seemed to appeal to Patrik's generous side. Generous, that is, despite the fact that he had no money of his own.
"He was pretty charming and had good talk," Knowles says. "I and the other night manager, Jackie, would sit and talk with him a lot. [Broemmel and Patrik] would come in sometimes two or three times a night."
Patrik told Knowles he was raised in Switzerland by his mother; he said his father died when he was twelve. He said he was exiled from Iran in 1978 and that since then he'd spent time in the United States and France, she recalls.
"He talked about growing up wealthy, about the restaurants he used to go to in Paris. He seemed worldly. He seemed to know a lot of things about things we wouldn't -- royalty, funerals, being in exile. He spoke like five different languages. He had the whole thing down."
Patrik also had a business proposal for Knowles, but rather than ask her for money, he promised to give her some.
"He offered me a job to run a restaurant in Beaver Creek for $240,000," Knowles says with amusement. "He said he was building a complex with 1,500 condos and five restaurants that would cater exclusively to European royalty.
"He said I'd be able to spend more time with my daughter," she continues. "I'd only have to work five hours a day, and I'd get a five-year contract. He'd send me to Paris to train.
"Yeah. Sure. Wouldn't that be nice?"
Knowles didn't laugh in Patrik's face when he offered her the job, though she didn't swallow his line, either. A quarter-million-dollar salary is "ridiculous" for what he was proposing, she says. "It's not even close. That's just silly."
Knowles says that she and other restaurant staffers became suspicious of Patrik's stories fairly early on. "He would wear the same clothes," she says. "He never paid for anything."
The only time Patrik seemed to pull out cash was when children were around.
"He loves kids," Knowles says. "Every time he'd see my daughter, he'd put $50 in her sock.
"She's the only one who made any money out of the whole deal," she muses. "Unfortunately, it's probably Tom's money."
When Patrik wasn't stuffing money into babies' socks, he was busy wooing money men and making sure that people knew he was loaded.
In addition to his high-rise-hotel venture, he also announced plans to open up a plant to manufacture a disposable toothbrush he said he'd patented. Some of those who've seen the schematics for his brush remain puzzled as to its appeal.
The toothbrush, they say, is designed to fit on the end of a finger. It has a brush on one side and a toothpick on the other. Patrik told people he would market it to airlines and hotels. He implied that at least one major airline had expressed interest in purchasing the brush for their passengers.
The toothbrush scheme became more and more involved as the days went by. Before long, Patrik was scouting out real estate for his factory. According to Broemmel's friends, Patrik also talked Broemmel into selling him the LoDo Inn for $4 million; Patrik allegedly intended to make the first floor of the hotel into offices for the toothbrush concern. His servants would live on the second floor. And Patrik himself would live on the third.
By November, his friends say, Broemmel had agreed to sell Patrik the inn, and he closed the hotel. For a month, Patrik would be the only "paying" guest in the fourteen-room hotel. Broemmel had Patrik ensconced in suite #301, one of the priciest rooms at the inn. Under ordinary circumstances, guests could expect to pay from $140 to $200 a night for the suite.
Soon Broemmel began asking friends and business associates if they cared to get involved with Patrik's business deals. He called Denver realtor Steve Roesinger and asked if he'd be interested in meeting a new acquaintance who he thought would be buying some commercial property.
"[Patrik] wanted to build a manufacturing plant, so I met with him," says Roesinger. "I said, 'Yeah, I have several buildings I could show you, some land you could build on.' I asked him where the funding would come from. He said the money was coming from overseas. And I said, 'Well, get this money, and when it comes in, we'll get right on it and get the job done.'"
Roesinger did take Patrik around to see some properties. "He looked at various manufacturing plants, eight or ten around town, whatever ones were available," Roesinger says. "Some of them, I gave him the addresses, and he would go look at them. We looked at properties in the millions of dollars."
Roesinger tended to believe Patrik. "I'm old enough to remember the Shah of Iran, and he looked markedly like the Shah to me," Roesinger says. "I remember the years the Shah was a great friend to the United States, and I remember his face, and this man, to me, looked like him.
"He was a very believable man," Roesinger continues, "a very knowledgeable fellow. He knew a lot about airplanes, a substantial amount.
"He was an educated man. I could see where Mr. Broemmel would put his faith in him. When you're in business, you try to make business deals. You want to see those things work. Sometimes you invest in things and they don't work out."
Roesinger says he was "hopeful" -- but cautious -- about closing a real estate deal with Patrik.
"I pretty much kind of waited to see if the funds would be forthcoming from European banks," he says. "But it never worked out for him."
Roesinger was just one of several real estate people Patrik was stringing along. He approached realtor Dave Anderson of Financial Properties about buying not one, but two palatial homes in the foothills west of Denver.
"He implied he had an entourage of people who were coming over and moving here from Europe," Anderson says.
One home was on the market for $2.95 million. The other was listed at $2.35 million. The more expensive of the two houses is a 10,700-square-foot Mediterranean villa-type home that sits on a lavishly landscaped one-acre lot. The seven deck/patio areas are situated to take advantage of views of the gardens.
The home's stonework was done by masons brought from abroad specifically to work on that job, Anderson says, and it took a carpenter more than a year to finish the custom woodwork.
The second house, a modernistic one, is smaller. Just 9,000 square feet. It is perched on Lookout Mountain, where its floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the lights of Denver.
Patrik went to see the homes a number of times and ingratiated himself with the owners.
"[Patrik] knew a lot about high-end antiques and art," Anderson says. "One of my sellers is very, very much into these things, and [Patrik] held his own in conversation. He implied he had some very expensive paintings.
"He talked about expensive art objects he owned. He suggested he would put expensive art objects in the house he was going to live in. He discussed these things in detail. Paintings, expensive carpets.
"He was very polished. He was able to talk about art objects and technical things. He had a fairly wide degree of knowledge."
Patrik asked that the closings on the homes occur quickly. He told Anderson that he was hoping to move in soon.
Anderson drew up sales contracts for the homes, and Patrik signed on the dotted line. He had a certain amount of time to come up with the earnest money.
Patrik had big plans for the homes. He offered a waitress at Dixons a job as a concierge at one of the houses. Her job would be to offer assistance to the members of European nobility who stopped in, Knowles says. "He said she could stay at the house, get room and board and $40,000 a year."
First, however, Patrik had to close. That was proving to be a problem.
"He said a very substantial amount of money was being wired in," Anderson says. "He said the money was coming. We heard that a lot."
When the money failed to arrive, the sales contracts expired. Still, Patrik kept saying he planned to buy the houses.
Anderson, who has spent more than 27 years in the real estate business, began asking questions when the money didn't show up. "I know international transactions," he says. "We asked for verification, and those verifications were not granted. I asked him to refer me to someone to call, an officer at a bank, to verify that these funds exist. That was denied. Basically, he refused to provide any information. That was a big red flag.
"By the time it got to that point, the earnest money had been delayed for quite some time.
"He kept us on ice from mid-October until early December. He still kept saying the money was coming."
Patrik told Broemmel the same thing whenever the innkeeper would ask to be reimbursed for the ever-escalating hotel bill. "The money is coming." He always seemed to find a way to change the subject.
In November, Patrik proposed that he, Broemmel and Broemmel's wife go to South Africa, where he was building a big manufacturing plant. He said he had a private jet out at DIA. For one reason or another, however, the trip had to be put off time and again.
By then, Broemmel was in deep. Patrik reportedly had talked him into buying a computer costing more than $10,000, saying they'd need it for their business ventures. He'd closed his hotel. He'd introduced Patrik to people all around town, and Patrik had snookered them, too. According to a source, one local lawyer quit his practice in the belief that he was going to work for Patrik as a corporate attorney.
Even worse, friends say, Broemmel convinced his daughter and her family to close their business and move out to Colorado from the Northwest. Sources say Broemmel's daughter became infatuated with the faux prince and threw her husband out. Staffers at Dixons began referring to Patrik as "Prince Homewrecker."
Still, Broemmel continued to believe. He was one of the few who did.
"I know that, to me, Tom really cared about this guy," Goodfriend says. "He kept hoping it wasn't true [that Patrik was a fraud.]"
Evergreen realtor DeWitt Petty can be credited with bringing Patrik's spending spree to a halt.
Petty had been waiting for word of a sale on the $2.95 million home near Evergreen. He knew that Anderson's listing agreement on the property had expired, and he was hoping to convince the owner to allow him to list it with his company.
When he contacted the homeowner, however, she informed him that the house was being sold to a nephew of the Shah of Iran. "She was under the assumption that [Patrik] was trying to transfer money from outside of the country," Petty said. "He had come through the house a number of times with an entourage of people. He told her that he not only wanted to buy the house, he wanted to buy the furnishings and paintings. She fell for it hook, line and sinker."
Petty, however, was not convinced.
"This transaction had been going on for many months," Petty says. "A wire transfer, even from overseas, can be done in a day. I began to smell a rat."
On December 1, Petty touched base with a friend, a realtor in the Washington, D.C., area who sells high-end homes and does a lot of work with the Iranian community. Petty thought his friend might know something about the Pahlavi family.
"I told him, 'We've got something very strange going on,'" Anderson says. "I told him about it, and he started laughing. He said he thought he might know who this guy was." The D.C. realtor then related what he'd heard about Patrik's visit to his town.
Petty told the homeowner that he believed Patrik was a fraud.
By this time, even Broemmel was concerned about Patrik's real identity. According to Petty, Broemmel called the Evergreen homeowner for information, and she, in turn, suggested that he contact Petty. "She told him, 'DeWitt may know more about this man than you do,'" Petty says.
Broemmel supplied Petty with a photograph of Patrik, which Petty then e-mailed to his Washington, D.C.-based pal. His friend confirmed that the same man had been accused of defrauding folks back East.
There was no going back for Broemmel. He contacted Denver police.
Late on the afternoon of December 4, Broemmel went to Patrik's suite at the inn and asked him for money to pay the hotel bill. A Denver police officer and a DA's investigator were listening in. According to a police report, Pahlavi promised to pay "later." He did not say when. They stepped in and arrested him.
Broemmel would later tell friends that he was "devastated" by having to have Patrik arrested.
"He was crushed," Knowles says. "He said it was one of the hardest things he'd ever done, but that he felt he had to."
"[Tom] said he felt like he'd lost a brother because he liked him so much," Goodfriend says.
Patrik did not make the arrest any easier on Broemmel. As he was being hauled off, he reportedly begged Broemmel to reconsider his action. "Don't do this, Tom," he said. "I thought we were friends."
Patrik was taken to jail and charged with theft and defrauding an innkeeper. The Broemmels listed their losses at close to $30,000 -- $21,576 for the hotel room, and $8,000 for the clothes Patrik took from Lani Lee. Prosecutors would not consider adding the amount Broemmel incurred when he closed his inn for a month. The costly computer was his mistake, too, they reckoned.
According to a spokesperson for Lower Downtown District Inc., the LoDo Inn is now up for sale. The asking price is $5 million.
Lani Lee is closing her boutique in Cherry Creek. Although insiders say her shop never took off the way she'd hoped and that she is relocating her business to New York City, they say the Patrik incident was a deciding factor in her departure. It cannot have helped that Patrik ripped her off for an amount in excess of her monthly rent on the pricey space.
Dixons is out close to $2,500, although technically it is Brommel's debt, because Patrik charged his meals to the hotel's account.
Just how many other people Patrik defrauded is unknown. The lawyer who reportedly quit his practice to go to work for Patrik has declined to cooperate with investigators. Another businessman, to whom Patrik wrote a bad check, says he will not prosecute.
Even though Patrik was in jail, he still had a trick or two -- and at least one gullible friend -- up his sleeve. His bail was set at $5,000. He convinced a Fountain woman to post it for him. She is not cooperating with the theft investigation and refused to be interviewed for this article.
But having his bond posted didn't help Patrik much. The Immigration and Naturalization Service stepped in and decided to check out his credentials. According to a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Patrik admitted to an INS agent that he had entered the United States illegally, using a forged Belgian passport. He identified the passport photograph and biographical information pertaining to Ali Patrik Pahlavi as himself.
He has been charged with fraud and misuse of visas, permits and other documents, as well as forgery or false use of a passport, each of which carries a possible prison sentence of up to ten years. He also is accused of fraud and related activity in connection with identification documents, which carries a lesser sentence of up to five years in prison.
The entire episode has left people guessing: Who is this guy? Why did he do it? Why did people fall for it?
Steve Roesinger, for one, doesn't blame Broemmel for buying Patrik's story.
"Tom Broemmel was quite a friend to him," Roesinger says. "I don't think he made a silly or stupid decision businesswise. He is not a foolish man, in my view. I observed him running his business, and I think Tom Broemmel is a good businessman. It's just one of those things that happen.
"It's something that could have happened to you or me or to a lot of people. And Tom is a warmhearted guy. He wanted to believe."
What never made sense to Roesinger -- or to others, for that matter -- is why Patrik did what he did. "Why did he put properties under contract? There was never going to be any money, apparently. He had no substance. Why would he ever do that?"
His victims probably shouldn't look to Patrik for answers. He's not saying much these days.
When asked if he's Valliola Gnassemi-Dakdare -- whose fingerprints apparently match his own -- Patrik smiles and shakes his head. "Who is that?" he asks. "I never heard the name. I am Ali Patrik Pahlavi."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.