The Princess and the Spree

Ali Pahlavi certainly isn't the first hustler to find his way to Denver.

He isn't even the first person to pose as a member of one royal family or another, although in this sports-crazy town, cops are more familiar with men who pretend they're a member of the Denver Broncos football team than, say, a viscount or a duke.

Metro-area realtors, particularly those who deal in expensive homes, have come across more than their share of pretenders to the throne.

"That does happen," says DeWitt Petty, an Evergreen realtor. "If you advertise high-end properties, you get a lot of phone calls, sometimes from different countries. Most of the time it's a bunch of B.S.

"We had a 'countess' come through one time," he recalls. "It's just something that seems to happen primarily in the high-end listings."

One of the city's more interesting impostors in recent years was another purported member of a Middle Eastern royal family.

She called herself Princess Thara Baselia al-Saud, and she claimed to be the widow of a Saudi Arabian prince.

Saud caused quite a stir two years ago when she virtually came out of nowhere to bid on the sports holdings of Ascent Entertainment Group, which included the Denver Nuggets basketball team, the Colorado Avalanche hockey team and the Pepsi Center arena.

The stories she told of her moneyed world were intriguing:

She said she was born in Kansas but had spent much of her childhood in Italy, where she was raised by a pair of aunts. While living in Texas, she met and married Prince Mohammed Abdul Aziz, a nephew of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and later bore him a son.

Her husband, she said, was killed in a fighter-jet crash in 1976, and she was left in control of her son's trust, which she estimated was worth $3 billion.

She also claimed to have earned a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.

Saud's last-minute bid to buy the Denver sports teams in the summer of 1999 provided a bit of color and drama to what had been an ugly legal battle.

An earlier, agreed-upon $400 million sale of the teams to an heiress of the Wal-Mart fortune had been set aside as a settlement of lawsuits filed by disgruntled Ascent shareholders. The bidding process was then reopened. Saud's bid was an unexpected addition to the groups that had been expected to make offers.

As it turned out, Saud's $450 million offer was too low: Telecom magnate Donald Sturm laid down $461 million to buy Ascent's sports holdings. But Saud had failed to meet the deadline for submitting financial statements and bank guarantees, so her bid had not been officially considered anyway.

Soon after the bidding process was over, the Denver Post and the Kansas City Star began looking into some of Saud's claims. The inconsistencies in her story grew more apparent with the publication of each day's paper. She had taken credit for another woman's thesis and Ph.D. The man she'd identified as her deceased husband was actually alive and well and living in Saudi Arabia with his three wives and nine children.

In September 1999, Saud confirmed what the newspapers had already suggested: Her name, she said, is Latonett W. "Tone" Hollander. She is a former Kansas City businesswoman who was once sought for passing bad checks.

Although Hollander apparently didn't make any money off of her Nuggets scam, she did pretty well with WorldSpace, a Saudi-owned satellite news company. According to the Post, the company put Hollander up in a penthouse for nine months in 1998, hoping to woo her into investing in the business.

Company executives eventually gave up on her.

Last year, however, the mysterious princess again popped up in the news. Her name was mentioned as a potential buyer of the Continental Basketball Association, a ten-league basketball team once owned by hoopster Isiah Thomas.