Last summer, outside the Starbucks on Second Street and Covina Avenue in the Belmont Shores neighborhood of Long Beach, Calif., Catarina Toumei stepped out of a beat-up car and entered the coffee shop. She had just driven two hours from San Diego to meet with a man named Wolfgang Baron von Hildebrandt. The bearded singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed human rights activist was looking for someone to help him in the PR push for his forthcoming single, “United Nations Song.”
Toumei introduced herself to the balladeer as “Lady Catarina” and began to regale him with tales of her upcoming trip to Monte Carlo and Cannes. The talk didn’t interest Von Hildebrandt, who after all just needed a publicist. But something was amiss about Lady Catarina. For a titled member of ostensibly European nobility, Toumei drove an improbably crappy car. She claimed that the battered jalopy, which was damaged at every corner, was a rental. Her jeans and bleached-blond hair didn’t exactly scream “possible member of the landed gentry,” either. And she was more interested in chatting about her continental connections and aristocratic title than what she would do to earn her proposed fee of $3,000 to $4,000 a month, though Von Hildebrandt had a feeling she needed the money.
After the meeting, Von Hildebrandt e-mailed Toumei asking for a résumé. None came. The potential partnership fell through, but that didn’t stop Toumei from listing Von Hildebrandt as one of her “clients” on her website, bestsellingwriter.net. It was a small lie on top of a few others—the “rented” car and the pretension to royalty—and one in a long string of fabrications and exaggerations that would ultimately culminate in her arrest on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud by claiming to sell, among other things, a billion dollars’ worth of diamonds purportedly belonging to the Guggenheim family. The complaint alleges that Toumei, along with her co-defendants, Vladimir Zuravel and David Birnbaum, falsely claimed to be members of the famous family in order to “gain access to highly regarded and/or wealthy individuals.”
It’s generally unwise to impersonate people, but it’s hard to imagine a riskier selection than the Guggenheim family, whose patriarch, Meyer Guggenheim, made his fortune in mining and smelting during the 19th century. The family’s imprimatur can be seen on art museums throughout the world. Meyer’s descendants have gone on to take their own respective places in American history. His son, Benjamin, died on the Titanic; Benjamin’s brother Solomon is the namesake of the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed art museum on the Upper East Side; Benjamin’s daughter Peggy was instrumental in aiding the careers of Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, Mark Rothko and many others. Fellow Meyer descendant Harry Frank Guggenheim served as the ambassador to Cuba and co-founded Newsday.
Another reason not to step on Guggenheim toes: Out of the family’s private wealth management office has grown Guggenheim Partners, a $100 billion-plus privately held asset manager with offices in 20 cities across the globe, from London to Singapore. One of the Guggenheim heirs is a managing partner. And they don’t take well to impostors.
The many mundane falsehoods that surround Toumei make it difficult to pinpoint what parts of her life, and which people in it, are authentic. Nevertheless, after consultation of public records, her college yearbook and people who know her, even a skeptic can justifiably believe the following: Catarina Toumei was born Rina Nastopka on Sept. 12, 1966. She grew up in Maryland and graduated from the University of Maryland-College Park with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in May 1987. Also true: Toumei was married three times: once to a tax attorney; once to a Presbyterian minister turned mortgage broker; and once to a real estate investor. (According to court documents, she falsely claimed to be married to John Ratzenberger of Cheers; according to e-mails obtained by The Observer, she also claimed to be an ex-fiancée to Prince Albert of Monaco.) The marriages, combined with Toumei’s own penchant for self-reinvention, resulted in a slew of name changes. In keeping with the ostentatious evolution of her name, Toumei’s fanciful online self-portrait crackles with astounding achievements and high-powered connections. On her website and her LinkedIn profile, she attests to a smattering of impressive achievements—enrollment in graduate programs at Georgetown University and Fuller Seminary, jobs on Capitol Hill and at CNN, not to mention the title of Lady, bestowed on her “by European Royalty, for her humanitarian efforts.” On the Internet, Toumei held herself out as an “Investment Relations Manager and Equity Research Specialist,” who in her spare time did both journalism and PR work “for a handful of individuals internationally.”
Of the 24 “Current & Previous Clients” Toumei lists on her website, some (like CNN, Hilton Hotels, KUSI-TV and Coldwell Banker) cannot verify that she had ever done any work for them. Others (the Rancho Santa Fe Review, a newspaper based in the wealthy suburb of San Diego where Toumei resides; Patrick Rummerfield, a former quadriplegic who willed himself to mobility; the peace-loving Von Hildebrandt; and Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel) deny it outright.
In the declining years of her most recent marriage, Toumei began to step up her online presence, registering bestsellingwriter.net in 2008 and creating another site, the admirably search-optimized sextradebook.webs.com, to promote Sex Trade. Part Memoir. Part Fantasy. The “fictional thriller” features “A young prostitute accused of murder, a Native-American single mom, an African-American showgirl, and a Harvard-graduate transvestite.” According to sextradebook.webs.com, proceeds from sales of the book, which may or may not exist, would pay fees for the establishment of a tax-exempt nonprofit. That organization would in turn direct future funds to “about 14 charitable organizations throughout the world, that physically rescue children from brothels, street corners and bars.” But put away your wallets; the PayPal account attached to the site is currently frozen.
The sex-trade initiative stands alongside some other projects that Toumei perhaps should have avoided. In a Jan. 2, 2010, blog post on bestsellingwriter.net, Toumei excitedly proclaims that she is “invested with” the “fastest-growing privately held company in America and the fastest-growing beverage company in America.” Toumei’s enthusiasm was directed at Efusjon, an energy-drink company that was sued in November 2009 for allegedly running a pyramid scheme. The case was settled under undisclosed terms; Efusjon denied wrongdoing. Deana Carter, a close friend of Toumei’s, said that the investment never really paid off for her, despite efforts to sell the beverages on Facebook and distribute them through a local country club.
Things continued in this haphazard manner until March 2010, when Toumei made an acquaintance that carried her fantastical Internet voyage from get-rich-quick whimsy into legitimate legal peril. It was then, according to co-defendant Zuravel, that Toumei first reached out to him on Facebook—where, with permission from his purported mentor, “Mr. David B. Guggenheim,” he maintained a profile under the name “Vladimir Z. Guggenheim.” Zuravel told The Observer that he was born in the Republic of Moldova to a “respectable Jewish family.” There is something of a Toumei-ish streak to the way Zuravel presents himself: He spent two years in the Soviet Special Forces instructing soldiers for the war in Afghanistan, before attending military university to become a pilot, and then dropping out to go to medical school. He is a champion martial arts competitor, having trained since he was 4 years old. He knows kung fu, jujitsu, karate and other techniques. He speaks Russian, Ukranian, Moldavian, Polish, Hungarian and Czech.
After moving to America in 1992, Zuravel said, he spent his first 13 or so years here training for seven or eight hours a day. Living in the Edgewater area on Chicago’s North Side, he enrolled at the Military Arts Institute of Martial Arts. He studied under Grand Master Shin, swam in Lake Michigan in the winter and ran barefoot through the snow, he says. At the institute, Zuravel said, he became a captain of the demonstration team for Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do. “I was monk,” he said. “That was 16 years—no friends, no women. Train, train, train every day.” When he wasn’t training, he attended several synagogues, including Synagogue Ephraim, and studied the Torah. Despite all that athletic discipline, medical training, military acumen and religious zeal, Zuravel said he worked odd jobs in Chicago doing construction and driving taxis. He is currently unemployed, but he hopes soon to launch a website where he will sell a “patented” exercise system for golfers.
According to Zuravel, he met David Birnbaum through a friend five years ago, soon after he moved to New York. Zuravel said Birnbaum was very impressed not only with his royal pedigree but also his Russian connections and command of the language. The pair formed a quick bond, and Zuravel began to serve as Birnbaum’s bodyguard, which is not surprising, given what Birnbaum was doing at the time. In the years leading up to Zuravel’s arrival, Birnbaum appears to have been pursuing several large business deals in Russia. An Aug. 23, 2004, article in Kommersant identifies a “David Guggenheim,” chairman of Dabir International, as a potential buyer in an auction of the Russian government’s 7.59 percent stake in Lukoil, but concludes, “Analysts believe, Guggenheim, whose name is new to the oil industry, may be used by officials in negotiations with ConocoPhillips. However, as a potential buyer he does not seem to be a serious competitor to the other auction participants—analysts predict that Lukoil will not want to have an unknown investor.”
As it turns out, this particular investor was unknown even to the Guggenheims. The following month, a spokesman for the Guggenheim Brothers investment company told The New York Times that the bidder had no ties to the family. The Times was nonplussed: “It is unclear how David Guggenheim, whose address is listed as Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, is obtaining financing for the minimum Lukoil bid of $1.93 billion.”
Birnbaum’s explanation of his extensive capital resources, as recounted by Zuravel, is as follows: The first thing to realize is that there is another Guggenheim bank—not a company, but a “system of banks.” This Guggenheim bank system, which consists of “lots of banks,” “transferred” to Deutsche Bank at some point, and then broke up into four or five banks. When Solomon Guggenheim—the real-deal, museum-namesake Guggenheim—died, he created a “small foundation” that somehow disappeared through a series of transactions and transplants. A part of the rogue fund moved through Russia, to Japan, then to China. Another segment of the fund “broke into two pieces.” At some point, one such fund came to contain trillions of dollars. Birnbaum claimed he was eventually entrusted with the fund, on the condition that he not use the Guggenheim family name.
After making Zuravel’s and Birnbaum’s acquaintance, Toumei and the pair of purported New York Guggenheims soon embarked on a whirlwind of negotiations with prospective buyers, according to a civil complaint filed last November against the trio and 12 others. The plaintiffs in the multimillion-dollar suit: Guggenheim Partners, manager of more than $100 billion in assets, and its holding company, Guggenheim Capital.
The alleged deals varied from month to month in what became a 2010 romp through the investing and commodities-dealing community. In May, Toumei allegedly registered the domain guggenheimadvisors.org, in what may very well have been the pinnacle of her online recklessness. The Guggenheim plaintiffs say that in July, Toumei, Zuravel and Birnbaum solicited purchase contracts for $1 billion to $3 billion worth of crude oil—and attempted a fraudulent purchase of $1 billion in 24-karat gold bars. In August, the trio allegedly shifted gears to try to sell Guggenheim-branded vodka to the Coca-Cola Co. In September, they tried to sell bank guarantees to Standard Holdings CEO Chad Geren and also tried to court Rupert Murdoch for a business deal, according to the complaint. October brought an alleged attempt to solicit a sale of diamonds and a stab at using the Guggenheim name to arrange an introduction to George H.W. and George W. Bush.
Birnbaum’s lawyer declined to make his client available. “He maintains his innocence,” Birnbaum’s lawyer said. “There’s a process involved here. He’s going to go through that process. And he believes that he will be vindicated in connection with any proceeding that might be brought here, but we’re not going to have any comment beyond that.”
In a rough-and-tumble business with high stakes and savvy operators, it pays to be smart. The operation Toumei, Zuravel and Birnbaum are accused of running was almost comically stupid. One source who was approached by Toumei about doing a deal told The Observer he smelled something rotten very early on. “They went so far off bank procedures. That was a red flag.”
A phone call with “Vladimir B. Guggenheim” and “Lady Catarina” did little to persuade the source. “You remember [Rocky and Bullwinkle]? That cartoon with the two Russians?” he asked The Observer. The pair was “like Boris and Natasha.” On deciding he had a fraud on his hands, the source says he called lawyers for the Guggenheim family, but continued to play along with Toumei. “I was kind of fishing. I wanted to see how far they would go along,” he said. “I was trying to push them right off a cliff.”
Eventually they pushed themselves.
On Jan. 31, the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York followed up with fraud allegations against Toumei, Zuravel and Birnbaum. The trio now faces up to 20 years in prison each for a scheme so over the top it should have never seemed believable to anyone.
A sale of $1 billion worth of diamonds is also mind-bogglingly implausible. By way of comparison, DeBeers, the world’s largest diamond company, took in $5.88 billion in revenue in 2010.
“There’s no such thing as a $1 billion rough diamond deal,” the source said. “You just don’t swing those deals over the Internet.”