We’re a Haven for Crooks

The Ol’ Harry Potter Con

PONZI ARTISTS: Why in the world do so many con men, telemarketer crooks, and Ponzi artists decide to operate here? Do these sleazy characters just slide west to the coast and drop anchor where the sun shines?

There’s so much action that the Federal Trade Commission, FBI, IRS investigators, and U.S. attorney general ought to set up branch offices at State and Carrillo.

These characters have fleeced thousands of people nationwide out of millions. Take Peter Jerald Frommer, 35, of Santa Barbara, sentenced this week to nine years in a federal slammer for an $8-million Ponzi scam. His bogus “guaranteed” investment scheme took 64 people to the cleaners. “He is the West Coast version of Bernie Madoff,” the New York crook, one heartbroken victim moaned.

Barney Brantingham

Then there’s Stevan P. Todorovic, a two-time loser so arrogant that, after being nailed for telemarketing crookery a few years ago and ordered not to do it again, he recently got hit with a six-year jolt for more scamming.

Todorovic, of Santa Ynez but who operated in downtown Santa Barbara, suckered more than 87,400 people out of nearly $6 million, the FBI says.

He scattered newspaper ads around the U.S. offering bartender jobs and work as “mystery shoppers.” All you had to do is buy his worthless “certification” programs. After being arrested, Mr. Six-Million-Dollar Man said he was too broke to hire a defense attorney to beg for a light sentence. So we the taxpayers shelled out for one. The plea didn’t work. He joins a long line of telemarketer crooks who have operated here over the years, and some still do. (The feds are closing in, I hear.)

Which brings us to Steven Kunes.

FROM BLISS TO REALITY: It started out so blissfully for 12-year-old Claire Waterhouse. Obsessed by all things connected to the magical world of Harry Potter, she was actually going to meet a man who helped write the screenplays and who knew author J.K. Rowling, he said.

“I was so excited,” Claire, now 16, told me. “It was a dream come true,” she said, going to lunch with someone so involved in the Harry Potter scene, who supposedly not only knew director Chris Columbus but allegedly had even gone to school with him.

“I felt so honored to have lunch with him. I was beyond excited.” Claire, whose room is filled with Potter memorabilia, wore the full regalia, including cape and scarf, to the lunch. Claire’s parents, who are downtown Santa Barbara art gallery owners Ralph and Diane Waterhouse; my wife, Sue; and I listened as Kunes was surprisingly modest about his Potter work.

Not long afterward, however, we heard that he was in jail on a bad-check rap and his catch-me-if-you-can criminal past had come to light. His Potter story was apparently as fictional as Rowling’s books and movies about Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

We wanted to spare Claire the pain of being disillusioned and plunged into who-knows-what depths from her youthful euphoria. We need not have worried. Kunes, now sitting in the Santa Barbara County Jail on unrelated criminal charges, had fooled many an adult over the years, police say; but Claire, at the age of 12, detected that he had faked Rowling’s signature on a Potter book he gave her. “I noticed that the signature was way off.” It came as something of a shock, an abrupt introduction to the rough-and-tumble world of today, when once-adored icons crash to the ground daily.

After spotting the fake, via the Internet, and learning of his life of lies, “I felt kind of really let down,” Claire said. “It really let me know that not everyone’s honest,” something she’d known but never experienced face-to-face so dramatically. (I was unable to reach Kunes for comment.)

But any lingering disappointment was soon erased by Claire’s enthralling evening at an L.A. premiere of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe’s movie December Boys. Afterward, he posed with Claire for a photo with his arm on her shoulder. “I will always remember that,” she said. Mom Diane added, “She said it was the biggest day of her life.”

Kunes, who faces a May 4 preliminary hearing on new charges of defrauding Santa Barbara restaurateur Wally Ronchietto of $2,000 over a nonexistent movie deal, made no attempt to extract money from the Waterhouse family. Was it just braggadocio, an attempt to impress a young girl and her friends and parents, like a guy bragging about his fake wartime exploits at a bar? Is it an innate part of his personality, a gnawing need for self-aggrandizement, no matter what the cost?

RED MEAT & DESSERT: In Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen delves deeply into a family’s hearts and minds, unearthing terribly painful memories. The play shocked 19th-century audiences and even now the Ensemble Theatre’s presentation is stunning both for the Alving family’s tragic dysfunction and the infuriating, paralyzing hypocrisy of the time. (Ghosts plays through April 24.) On another night, I howled with laughter at another example of Victorian drama, this time a melodrama set to music, The Drunkard: Or Down with Demon Drink (shows through May 15 at the Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre)


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