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CHIFFON PART ONE

part 1 of 2 The Maine lobsters were delicious. No, they were better than delicious. Fresh, sweet and juicy, at $17.95 per person for all Rick Gottdenker and Marilyn Richter could sink their teeth into, they were wonderfully, absurdly priced. But that's what the ad had promised, and that's what...
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The Maine lobsters were delicious. No, they were better than delicious. Fresh, sweet and juicy, at $17.95 per person for all Rick Gottdenker and Marilyn Richter could sink their teeth into, they were wonderfully, absurdly priced. But that's what the ad had promised, and that's what originally brought the couple to the International restaurant at 2637 West 26th Avenue.

When Richter and Gottdenker took Rick's mother there for that first lobster brunch last April, they were intrigued that such an upscale eatery was being attempted in what clearly was a Bud-and-a-bowl-of-green neighborhood, a neighborhood that had repeatedly failed to support a succession of restaurants far better suited to it than the International. And they were perplexed that the menu, a roster of ambitious dishes from six countries, was being offered to diners seated in plastic lawn chairs. Most of all, they were amazed that the owner, who introduced herself as Chiffon von Seeburg, not only cooked this exotic fare with reasonable skill but played enchanting classical music on the 1931 Starr piano squeezed into one end of the main dining room.

"We thought it was neat," Gottdenker says. "Sure, it was odd, but where else could you get lobster for that price? Believe me, we had no idea what was going on there, and we certainly didn't know anything about Chiffon except that she seemed to be a nice person who needed help."

Nor did they have any idea that in less than four months they would own the International after this woman, notorious throughout Denver's restaurant community, borrowed--and didn't pay back--$18,500 from them and two of their friends.

They just thought they'd found a great place for lobster.

Rick Gottdenker is a former stockbroker who refinished furniture on the side, or at least did until he suffered a partially disabling injury when his van overturned in May 1993. He and Marilyn Richter, a human-resource manager for one of Denver's largest corporations, had been dating for a little over a year when they made their ill-fated trip to the International. Both Gottdenker and Richter look younger than their fifty years, and both think they're old enough to know better than to hand over money to a virtual stranger. But that's just what they did.

After their first visit to the International, they returned for Mother's Day with a party of six. Chiffon dropped by their table and talked with them as if they had been coming to the restaurant for years. She bought them a bottle of wine, and, once again, they gorged themselves on lobster. A month later they called to make reservations for a third meal, and that's when Chiffon told them she was not going to be open for brunch. Not only that, but she was going to lose the International because a friend had stolen $18,000 from her business account, they say she told them. Chiffon denies that she said anything about a theft; she says she merely mentioned she needed a loan of at least $5,000, which she promised to pay back "two for one."

"I said I knew some people who made investments and loans, but that `two for one' was illegal and usurious," Gottdenker says. "She said she'd gladly pay 10 percent per month with a two-and-a-half-month minimum term." Since the van accident had put him out of work and left him tight for cash, Gottdenker talked to his friend Jerry Preston. "Rick came to me and said there was this great little restaurant that needed help," Preston recalls. "I've known him for 25, 30 years, and I trust him. He really thought he was helping this woman out." Preston wrote a check for $2,500, which Gottdenker delivered to Chiffon on June 27 along with a $2,500 check from his accountant and friend Jim McLin. Richter wrote Chiffon another check for $2,500. Chiffon, who says all this is "very possible, I don't remember," wrote a promissory note for all three checks using the Starr piano as collateral.

Two days later she told Gottdenker she needed $2,800 to pay income taxes because the Internal Revenue Service had a hold on $10,000 that had been wired to her from France. She claimed that if she paid her taxes, the money would be released. Gottdenker handed over a $2,800 cash advance from his Visa card. Two days later Chiffon called again, this time to say that the amount wired from France was $46,000 and that she needed $6,200 more to get it released. Gottdenker, who still had not become suspicious, withdrew the sum from credit cards.

"All I can say for myself is that, throughout my life, I have been lucky that people have always helped me when I needed it," Gottdenker says. He and Richter are sitting in a pizza parlor; they look like a Foley's ad--good-looking, dressed in Polo shirts and neatly pressed slacks. A two-inch-thick file folder filled with information they have compiled on Chiffon is wedged possessively under Gottdenker's arm. "I always believed that the way to repay those kindnesses is by helping others when I have the chance," Gottdenker adds. "I honestly thought I was doing the right thing. The thing is, she was so good at making us believe all this. She was sincere and so pathetic.

"And I never would have believed that anyone who had such beautiful music in her could be so rotten inside."

He finally knew something was up when Chiffon told him the money from France would go right into his account from Chase Manhattan in New York. "She said this Maria Martinez was the contact person at Chase," he says. "I called Chase and asked for her and was told there was no one by that name."

A few days later the International hosted a party to celebrate the opening of the patio, and that night the restaurant was robbed. Denver Police Department investigators think the robbery was staged. But when Gottdenker and Richter showed up three days later to collect their money, Chiffon told them that the funds from France still had not arrived and that she needed $2,000 to find a place to live because she was scared the robbers might come back. "She was living beneath the restaurant, which was not pleasant," says Richter, who got the money for Chiffon from her retirement account. "I felt so sorry for her, so I gave her the money. You must think we're pretty stupid, but I have a hard time thinking badly of people, mainly because I've never run across anyone like her. I still want to think we were doing what good people do. I don't know if I'll ever trust anyone again."

They did trust Chiffon once more, though. When she at last admitted she couldn't pay them back, she told the couple the restaurant could be a great success if they took over its management and she cooked. They talked it over. "We knew nothing about the restaurant business," Richter says. "We thought that if we worked at it, we could get our money back. We thought, `How hard could it be?' Of course, we didn't know about cooks who steal from you and waitresses who don't show up for work. We were naive."

On August 8 Richter put her name on the lease, a three-year proposition. For a week Chiffon helped out around the place and Richter tried to make sense of the books, but the partnership wasn't meant to be. On August 15 the Denver police came knocking, and they weren't there for dinner. They arrested Chiffon on an outstanding warrant for bad-check charges.

Gottdenker and Richter refused to bail her out.

Ruth Chiffon von Seeburg-Schausten is the name she says she was born with, but Chiffon also goes by Ruth Prager, a name she got along with her second husband. And less frequently, she uses the last name of Balaesi, from her first husband. She claims that her many legal names--there's also a version of von Seeburg-Schausten that her family used in France, de Schausten--make it seem as if she has a lot of aliases (at least twenty are documented by the police), but she won't divulge why she's always changing those combinations around. In fact, she's reluctant to reveal anything personal despite her assertion that she is "too trusting of everybody." All questions, particularly those surrounding her past convictions, are met with vaguely mysterious answers.

Her record, however, is less of a mystery: Since 1978 she has been convicted of felony crimes at least five times, all of which have involved forgery, criminal impersonation, theft or some combination of the three.

On February 21 she is scheduled to stand trial in Fort Collins on charges of theft from an at-risk adult, in this case 74-year-old Mary Davis, who did not return phone calls from Westword. The two women met in 1992 when Chiffon played piano at the funeral of Davis's husband. Chiffon and Davis's daughter, Mary Ellen Davis, had become friends at Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City, where Chiffon served four years of an eight-year sentence for criminal impersonation. Eight months after her release, Chiffon allegedly signed papers indicating that she was selling the elder Davis a $120,000 interest in a Denver restaurant, the now-defunct Lautrec's--a restaurant that Chiffon never owned any part of to sell.

She did own the International, although she now denies it. The building's landlord, Joe Cornell, says Chiffon took over the lease when Jesse Ibarra bowed out of Luna's Original Mexican Cafe, a restaurant he and his family had operated since 1979, the last several years in the bungalow on 26th Avenue. "Yeah, I've had quite a time with her," says Ibarra, who has worked in sales with the same company for 22 years--even while he ran the restaurant. "She forged my name on everything, and now I had to declare bankruptcy."

After Luna's went out of business in January 1994, Chiffon sought him out, Ibarra says. "She told me she was from France and going through a divorce in Chicago, that she ran restaurants in Miami and Chicago and that she wanted to do an upscale restaurant. I had always had that dream myself, but I wasn't going to stay on no lease anymore--but I said I'd help her. I told Joe [Cornell] that I would vacate, and then she took on the lease. She tried that `two for one' business on me, too, but I told her there was no way. That's not the way I do business.

"My problem was, I never ran a check on her."
Instead, he put his name on a temporary liquor license because she said she didn't want her soon-to-be ex-husband to know what she was doing and she was afraid the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses would call him in Chicago. But then, Ibarra says, she wrote him a check that bounced. "As soon as that happened, I yanked the license," he adds. "I wasn't going to mess around with that. We had an agreement on the first thirty days of her lease that I would help her, but after that, I was out of it. When I told her that she couldn't keep selling alcohol without the license, she laughed. She said it was no big deal."

It became a big deal when Ibarra started getting collection letters from creditors--54 at last count. "That's when I realized she had forged my name on checks," he says, adding that he was dumbfounded that so many places took a check from Chiffon with his name on it. "When I had Luna's, I had to have confirmation from the pope before anyone would take a check from me," he says. "She even wrote my name on a credit application, the one for Anderson [Boneless Beef]. If they had come to me and asked me, I would have told them that that wasn't my signature. I had always paid them in cash, anyway. I just wish she hadn't messed up my credit rating so bad."

"I met the guy," counters Bill Adolphi, an Anderson salesman for twenty years. "I watched him sign the application. He wrote that it was `Luna's DBA the International.' Chiffon wrote us three bad checks, and Jesse covered them. There were still three unpaid invoices, and he put us down on his bankruptcy list. We won the judgment against him, so we're just waiting for our $1,100."

He never met Adolphi, Ibarra responds. "Chiffon's got her shills; it had to have been one of them pretending to be me," he says. "I had to put Anderson along with everybody else on my bankruptcy file. What else could I do?

"What makes me sick is that I've had problems with my wife over this. I have two kids. I had a good name with Luna's; it was a good restaurant, and my family was behind it. Now it's been ruined, and all because I trusted Chiffon."

Patrick Alarid writes metaphysical poetry. There used to be periods when the poetry would not come, when he would stare at the wall for hours waiting for insight into the nature of existence. That all changed after he met Chiffon. "I would never wish anything bad on anybody, but I have some dark premonitions about her," Alarid says. "You should have seen the stuff that came out when I was inspired by Chiffon."

Alarid had been a drywaller until he hurt his knee so badly while working that it required five hours of reconstructive surgery. For five months afterward, he took physical therapy in the Diamond Hill Office Complex right down the street from Luna's, where he ate once a week. Then, one day, as he and his fiancee were driving past the restaurant, he noticed that the sign had changed.

"I told my fiancee we should try the new place out," Alarid says. "I was always hungry after physical therapy, and I wanted to see what kind of food they had. I noticed right away that it was pretty disorganized, but the food wasn't too bad, so we came back a few times." After he was able to drive again, Alarid stopped by the International alone one time, and it was then that Chiffon approached him. "She gave me this tremendous sob story--that her partner had absconded with her money and that she had advertisements in all the newspapers and she would have money soon, but if she could just get some money now, about $1,500, she would pay back $3,000 within two weeks," Alarid says.

"Listen, my fiancee was in dire need of a motor for her Suzuki, and my parents desperately needed a new roof for their house. I figured if I could take the money out of my credit card and get it back double in two weeks, I could pay for those things."

Alarid took a cash advance of $1,500 on his Visa and deposited it in his checking account. He wrote a check to Chiffon for the whole amount and had her sign a promissory note, with the Starr piano once again called into duty as collateral. The note said that Chiffon would pay Alarid $3,000 by the end of May. But when Alarid tried to collect, she threatened to go to the police and turn him in for usury. "I told her I didn't care, that I at least wanted the money I had lent her back," he says. "I definitely could not afford to lose that much."

Chiffon finally wrote him a check on an account that had been closed for three weeks. Alarid confronted her about it. "She said, `Oh, no, Patrick, I would never do that to you. I would never screw over a friend,'" he recalls. "I let her know I was pretty serious about getting my money back, so she went and got me $500 in cash. I came back a few days later and she gave me $600. But I knew that's all I would ever see. That's when I went to pick up the piano."

He reads from a poem he calls "I Will See":
I will see about you sister
I will see about your brother
Why you lie when you say you seek the truth?
Why you lie to me?
I will see!

Alarid sold the Starr for $800. Chiffon says the piano was worth ten times that amount. "I paid a lot of money for that piano," she says. "That piano was mine."

Joanie Howe disagrees. In 1992 she moved from Denver to a small town in Illinois, but not before putting an ad in the newspaper to sell her piano. There were no takers before she left, so she passed the responsibility on to her sister Catherine, who got a visit from Chiffon. "My sister had Chiffon come over to see the piano and couldn't believe how beautifully she played," Howe says. "Chiffon was so nice, but she said she couldn't afford the $500 I was asking, and could my sister let her write two postdated checks for $250? She said she was going through a divorce and keeping her checking account low so her husband wouldn't know how much cash she had.

"And, stupid me, I told her, `Oh, my gosh, you play the piano so well, you must have it.' And I let her." Howe says her sister waited the ten days and then tried to cash one check, only to learn it had been written on a closed account. "My sister called her, and she said, `Oh, I'm very sorry, go ahead and deposit the other one,'" Howe remembers. "Of course, the other one bounced, too, and then Chiffon's phone was disconnected. Boy, I'd really like to have my piano back. But I'm glad to hear someone got some good out of it."

end of part 1

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