By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By David Minsky
By Michael E. Miller
At 2:10 a.m. on July 12, 1995, 24-year-old Lee Crompton's life changed forever and for the worse.
Crompton was riding in the back seat of a rented 1995 Ford Taurus that sailed through a line of flashing markers denoting a road-construction site and crashed into the rear of a parked flatbed truck. The impact propelled the truck's bed six feet into the passenger compartment of the Taurus, killing the two men in the front and leaving Crompton so severely injured doctors gave him a marginal chance of survival.
But he lived. After three weeks in intensive care and a year in the hospital, he returned home to a lifetime of around-the-clock care provided by his family. Crompton, who used to help his father with the family pool-construction business, was virtually immobilized and able to communicate only through eye blinks and hand signals.
Life would never be the same. But it would at least be bearable thanks to multimillion-dollar settlements from the rental company that owned the Taurus and the construction firm that was responsible for parking the truck on the roadway. There would be more than enough money for a van to transport him, a therapeutic pool to help him gain strength, and financial assistance for his father and stepmother. A year after the accident, Crompton's doctors had changed their tune about his prognosis -- he could easily live 40 years or more.
A Broward court assigned guardians to care for Lee Crompton's physical well-being and his considerable wealth. Lee's father, Peter Crompton, took charge of his son's day-to-day care; his mother, Linda Bourdet, who had moved to England after divorcing Peter, was also given a role. When the parents hired a lawyer to represent the guardianship, trouble revisited the Crompton house.
Not quite two years after Hollywood lawyer Gunnar Huber came on board, Lee Crompton's $3.16 million settlement had dwindled to $20,000 -- just enough to take care of him for about three months. Court investigators believe money was drained from the guardianship via a series of forged and fudged court orders, then used to finance sweetheart real-estate deals, to buy cars, and to pay off creditors. The investigators think Huber was behind it.
Unsurprisingly, many people involved in the guardianship aren't talking. Gunnar Huber quit his job, left his home, and is nowhere to be found. His ex-wife didn't respond to New Times' inquiries for this story. Neither did his ex-employer, his relatives, or his friends. No charges have been filed, though sources close to the investigation say the U.S. Attorney's Office is considering legal proceedings.
To piece together what happened to Lee Crompton and his money, one must plow through court records, lawsuits and police reports and speak with the people who plugged the leak, Broward County guardianship investigators. This small unit, attached to the county probate court, is unique in Florida. Its job is to research the backgrounds of guardians, perform random audits to check whether guardianships are complying with state laws, and probe allegations of fraud and abuse. With 5000-plus guardianships in Broward County, it has more work than its employees can handle. "I'm swamped," supervisor Robert Twomey says.
Robert Taft, one of the three full-time investigators in the county office, worked the Crompton case for more than a month. He still can't quite believe Huber's audacity. "I wanted nothing more at the end of this case than to sit down with him, have a beer, and just ask him "What the hell were you thinking?'"Lee Crompton couldn't have known how unlucky he was when he got into a green Ford Taurus that July night five years ago.
He had tickets to the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at Sunrise Musical Theatre. Realizing he was likely to do some drinking, he opted not to take his own car. Instead he caught a ride with two acquaintances, David Dai, age 39, and Michael Watkins, 29, who were roommates.
After the show, at about 1 a.m., the three stopped at Brady's Irish Pub in Margate. Dai and Watkins each had a beer. Crompton had a cola. A bartender working that night recalled Dai asking several people for money. Bartender Mary Jane Hentz told investigators Dai said he needed cash for a hotel room because he couldn't go home. He didn't explain further. Hentz gave Dai $50 and took a necklace from him as collateral.
Dai, Watkins, and Crompton left Brady's at about 1:30 a.m. Police believe they stopped at another bar but aren't sure when or where.
Dai was at the wheel of the Taurus, Watkins rode shotgun, and Crompton sat in back. They drove north in the left lane of State Road 7, near the intersection at Aztec Boulevard in Margate, when Dai swerved into the center northbound lane. He ran through six signs posted to designate a closed lane. He neither touched the brakes nor turned to avoid the imminent crash. The speed limit on State Road 7 in this area is 45 miles per hour. Police estimate the Taurus' speed at between 45 and 60 miles per hour when it hit the back of the truck, which was parked beyond the warning signs.
The hood and roof of the Taurus were peeled off. Watkins died instantly, his head crushed by the truck's bumper. Dai's life ended on the way to North Broward Medical Center. Crompton was alive but unresponsive. Margate rescue workers had to rip apart the Taurus to free him. No one in the car had been wearing a seat belt.
Police apparently had a routine, if gruesome, accident on their hands. There was no reason to suspect foul play. Although official reports state that officers noted a strong smell of alcohol at the scene, it remains unclear whether or not Dai was drunk.
A few days later, after police received a tip urging them to look into the relationship between Watkins and Dai, investigators focused on the possibility that Dai had committed suicide. Richard Zakrajsek, who knew both men, told the cops Dai was upset about the theft of drug paraphernalia from his apartment and suspected a woman he had dated two weeks before the crash. In a taped statement, Zakrajsek told a Margate detective: "All this stuff, and stuff being stolen, maybe having your heart broken, and it just seemed to me like he finally went off the deep end."
When police inventoried the Taurus after the crash, they found a loaded .22-caliber handgun on the floor near the driver's seat, a gym bag containing 380 grams of marijuana and a scale in the trunk, and a small stash of cocaine in the ashtray. They conducted additional interviews, revisited the crash scene, and finally ruled the cause "undetermined."
Peter Crompton recalls his first visit with Lee after the crash: "When I got to the hospital I just collapsed. His brain was sticking out, it was unbelievable.... [Doctors] didn't even give him a chance. They even signed him up as an organ donor and wanted us to pull the plug. I said "No way. I'm getting him and taking him home.'"
It was almost a year before Lee was able to leave the hospital. At home he learned to communicate with eye signals, using one blink for yes and two short blinks for no. He rubbed his stomach when he was hungry and raised his hand when he had to go to the bathroom. He even surprised his doctors. "It is my opinion that he is medically stable and has thrived because he has 24-hour care from his family," wrote Dr. Craig Lichtblau in 1996. "This patient has already demonstrated survival against all odds and has shown marked improvements from the time I initially evaluated him."
That progress came at a cost, however.
The Cromptons didn't own a wheelchair-accessible van, so they had to transport Lee via ambulance. That cost $275 a pop. Lee was immobile, so there were lift slings and splints to pay for. He needed cognitive and physical therapy. An internist, a urologist, and a neurologist were treating him. He was on nine different medications. The house had to be remodeled to accommodate his special needs.
There were also emotional and financial tolls. Peter quit his job to care for Lee and had to take out loans. "I borrowed $100,000 last year, and I'm still living day to day," he says. "I've sacrificed five years of my life."
Economic salvation arrived in the form of a successful lawsuit against Enterprise Leasing, the company that rented the Taurus to Dai, and Ocean Bay Construction, the owner of the flatbed truck. Peter Crompton claimed that Enterprise, as the owner of the automobile, was ultimately responsible for the driver's performance. Enterprise contended that Dai, over whom they had no control, had caused Lee's injuries. Crompton's suit against Ocean Bay argued the truck shouldn't have been parked where it was. Ocean Bay countered that the company had followed state regulations when marking the construction site.
By early 1998, Enterprise and Ocean Bay had both settled, before the case went to trial. Enterprise paid $4 million in damages; Ocean Bay shelled out $900,000. Arthur Franzia, the presiding judge, complimented Crompton's lawyers, Greg Gaebe and Paul Lashbrook, on their work. "I think you did an excellent job," he said, according to court transcripts, "because I don't know really if you would have gotten that much in a verdict because the jury could easily have found the driver 80 or 90 percent responsible for the accident."
After court fees and lawyers' cuts, Lee Crompton was left with $3.16 million, which was supposed to maintain him for the rest of his life. Peter Crompton and Linda Bourdet, as co-guardians, deposited the award in an account at First Union. Judge Mark Speiser issued a standing order that no money could be removed without approval of the court. Peter requested and received a $5600 monthly stipend to care for his son.
Once the case was settled, Crompton's lawyers referred him to Gunnar Huber, an attorney with Hunter & Hunter, a Hollywood law firm. Huber specialized in guardianships.
Soon Lee Crompton's money started disappearing.
Huber, now age 31, was the guardianship's lawyer from December 1997 to October 1999, when Judge Speiser removed him by an emergency court order. Under Huber's watch the balance in Lee Crompton's bank account dwindled. Facing an investigation by the Florida Bar, Huber filed a petition for permanent disciplinary resignation without the possibility of readmission -- in other words he voluntarily turned in his license to practice law in Florida. Then he vanished. Hunter & Hunter did not respond to New Times' inquiries regarding Huber. The $231,000 Pembroke Pines house he shared with his wife stands empty, weeds shooting up through paving stones in the courtyard. Contacted through his legal counsel, Mark Braverman, Huber declined to comment for this story.
Fortunately Broward County guardianship investigators didn't need to find Huber to piece together where the money went, because he left a paper trail. Their investigation states that Huber forged court orders to fraudulently move large sums of money out of the guardianship account, then used these funds to finance real-estate purchases for his family and friends. And they were sweet deals. Huber arranged loans well above the purchase price of the property in question, a practice no bank would condone. He also used the money to buy cars for himself and his wife and to pay off his student loans, the investigators say. Guardianship investigator Robert Twomey labels the Hollywood lawyer "Santa Claus Huber."Hired as a court monitor in 1996, Twomey is the progenitor of Broward County's guardianship investigation unit. He put in time as a patrol cop in Colorado and Massachusetts before going to work in the late '80s as an exploitation specialist with the State of Florida's Adult Protective Services. In 1996 he changed jobs, replacing a Broward probate court monitor who was primarily involved in ensuring that wards were being taken care of properly. Quickly he realized the guardianship system was rife with potential for ripoffs. "When I was hired, there was nothing but empty file cabinets," he says. "They put me in a room and told me "You know what to do.'"
The more Twomey looked, the more he found. He gained an ally in probate judge Mel Grossman, who pushed to increase the budget to hire more investigators. Today Twomey works with two other full-time investigators, ten part-timers, and a victims' advocate.
These investigators have no law-enforcement power, but they can report suspected wrongdoing to police agencies. As Robert Taft puts it, "We are not a judge. We are not juries. We are not executioners. We are just fact-finders."
After more than a month of fact-finding in the Crompton guardianship, Taft connected the following chain of events.
Gunnar Huber became attorney of record for the Crompton guardianship in December 1997. One of his first accomplishments was getting Peter Crompton reimbursed $35,000 for out-of-pocket expenses and then paying off the $27,000 balance on the 1996 Chevy van Peter bought to transport Lee.
At the time Lee's money was still on deposit at First Union. Huber petitioned the court to allow transfer of the money to Lehman Brothers Inc. in New York City. Judge Speiser granted the order in January 1998.
Monica Ryan, a high-school classmate of Huber's, worked as an account assistant at Lehman Brothers. Taft, the court investigator, states Ryan came down from New York to "wine and dine" Peter Crompton in an effort to secure the account. When she later transferred to the Miami Lehman Brothers office, she brought the Crompton account with her. Huber divorced his first wife, Michelle, in February 1998, and married Ryan in April. (Ryan did not respond to inquires at her lawyer's office or to a letter sent by New Times to her New York address for this story.) As a means of boosting interest income from the settlement money, Huber convinced Peter to invest in home mortgages. In essence Crompton would take money from the guardianship to finance home buyers and in turn receive principal and interest payments -- just like a bank. It sounded like a good deal, declares Crompton, because it yielded 2 percent more than the money was earning at Lehman Brothers. "I was making 7 percent," he says. "I was all for it."
So was the court. On March 5, 1998, Judge Speiser authorized a $489,000 withdrawal from Crompton's account to finance two mortgages: $425,000 to purchase a $600,000 house in Fort Lauderdale and $64,000 for a $82,000 home in Pembroke Pines. The first mortgage paid 7.5 percent interest, the second 8 percent.
Both were fictitious, investigators contend. The properties and parties existed but the deals were fabricated. It seems Huber had used the names of past clients of Hunter & Hunter to fill in the blanks on the sales contracts, asserts Taft. In his final report, Taft wrote: "The funds actually went to fund a $425,000 mortgage for a home in Pembroke Pines that is owned by Gunnar and Monica Huber individually and for a $64,000 mortgage that facilitated the [sale] of a condominium in Plantation that was owned by Gunnar and Michelle Huber (Gunnar's ex-wife) to Michael Bach."
Bach, Taft notes, is a longtime friend of Huber's. Bach did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Indeed Taft believes the $489,000 withdrawn from the Lehman Brothers account on March 4 for the mortgages was authorized by a forged court order, which was sent on March 3 via fax from Huber to Monica Ryan at Lehman Brothers in New York. Taft's report states Judge Speiser's signature appears to have been photocopied and pasted on to that order.
Why would Huber submit a fake court order, then two days later get a real one? Taft can only guess. "He was testing the water. He had no idea if it would work or not." Getting a legitimate court order would help back things up if someone questioned the deal, he claims. "My theory is that he said, "Wow! I put this deal together and the judge signed off on it,' so he decided to go back and do it again."
Also on March 5, Huber petitioned the court for $333,000 to acquire a new house for the entire Crompton family, including Lee, his brothers, sisters, father, and stepmother. But guardianship money couldn't be used to buy a house for the whole family. So Huber removed $144,000 for Lee's portion of the purchase price and Peter took out a $189,000 mortgage, payable to the guardianship, for the remainder. The petition was granted, and the deal appears to have been legitimate, offers Taft.
Judge Speiser next approved a June 4 court order to withdraw $270,000 for a mortgage on some vacant land in Davie. Taft believes the deal was proper, but he notes there was a $163,000 discrepancy between the sale price Huber listed in court documents and the one noted in county records. The difference, says Taft, was used by the mortgage holder to build a commercial building on the lot. This is the only deal, he adds, in which there doesn't appear to be any tie between Huber and the mortgage holder.
Beginning in February 1999, Huber allegedly cooked up a series of forged court orders that drained $2.2 million from Crompton's account in about three months.
The first, and largest, was for $1.2 million. The money was used to purchase a single-family home in Rye, New York, valued at more than $1 million. Gunnar and Monica Huber bought the property, then signed it over to Vows Inc., a Florida corporation that lists the Hubers as its only officers. Vows took out a mortgage from the Crompton guardianship for the $1.2 million. None of the transactions was recorded as required by law, maintains Taft.
On the same day, February 16, Huber cranked out two more fake court orders, according to Taft's investigation. The first authorized the withdrawal of $215,000 from the guardianship to facilitate the sale of two properties owned by Peter Crompton. The deals were real; the properties and buyers existed but the order authorizing the withdrawal didn't. The second order authorized a $3000 withdrawal to reimburse Linda Bourdet, Lee Crompton's mother, for travel costs from England so she could visit her son.
On March 2, 1999, Huber allegedly faked another court order authorizing payment of $450,000 to Brian and Maria Bach of Briarcliff Manor, New York, to purchase a $439,000 residence. In return the Bachs took out a mortgage from the guardianship for $450,000. Maria Bach is Monica Huber's sister, asserts Taft. A month later Gunnar Huber allegedly made up another court order for $325,000. This time the money went for a mortgage on a home in Weston owned by William and Erika Diedrick. Erika Diedrick is Gunnar Huber's sister. The Diedricks' phone number is unlisted. They did not respond to a letter mailed by New Times to the house. There is no evidence the Bachs or the Diedricks knew anything about Huber's alleged scam.
The last allegedly fake order, which is undated, transfers responsibility for paying the $5600 monthly stipend (to take care of Lee Crompton) from Lehman Brothers to Hunter & Hunter, the Hollywood law firm where Gunnar Huber worked. This order took effect May 1, 1999. Taft theorizes that, with mortgage payments coming in from deals financed by the bogus documents, Huber would be able to cover the $5600 stipend, even though Crompton's principal at Lehman Brothers had been nearly wiped out.
Huber was thinking ahead, says Taft. "Clearly, if all of a sudden Lehman Brothers went to make that payment and they couldn't, chances are somebody would have gotten alarmed. It was very good."
There were seven forged court orders altogether, Taft contends. In every case it appears Judge Speiser's signature was photocopied and pasted on. The plan fell apart in September 1999, when Twomey received an anonymous phone tip suggesting a closer look into the Crompton guardianship. Twomey put part-time court investigator David Cooper on the case and later added Taft.
Cooper and Taft discovered Lehman Brothers had beaten them to the punch. The company sued Gunnar and Monica Huber and Gunnar's employer, Hunter & Hunter, in September 1999. The complaint, filed in Broward County civil court, alleges Huber "purposefully and maliciously directed the disbursement of monies from the Lehman account for use by persons and entities other than the ward of the guardianship proceeding."
Lehman Brothers asked for and received an injunction freezing the accounts of Gunnar and Monica Huber, Hunter & Hunter, and Vows Inc. until investigators were able to figure out what was going on. Taft and Cooper identified a few accounts Lehman had missed and had those frozen, too. (The amount of money involved is unclear according to court records.)
The injunction hurt Hunter & Hunter. It "essentially terminates the operation of our firm," a company attorney wrote in a petition asking the judge for relief. (The petition was granted several days later, after Hunter & Hunter was able to prove the firm had separated money possibly tainted by Huber's actions from the accounts it used for day-to-day business.) Hunter & Hunter representatives have declined to comment on the issue for this story.
Locking up the assets also brought Monica Huber out of hiding. She filed for divorce from Gunnar and started using her maiden name, Ryan. By then she had quit her job at Lehman Brothers in Miami and moved back to New York to live with her sister. When Judge Speiser granted Taft's request to freeze her personal checking account pending investigation, she penned an impassioned letter to the jurist, declaring her innocence. "I have been taken advantage of by Mr. Huber, just as others have," she wrote. "I am sure that you will discover that I am an innocent party, and I am desperately trying to put my life back together after one year of a disastrous marriage to Mr. Huber." In another letter she characterized her soon-to-be ex-husband as "awful," "abusive," and "deceitful." She wrote that she feared for her own safety if he discovered her whereabouts.
To help clear her name, Ryan volunteered to help with the investigation. In October she flew from New York to South Florida, where she was interviewed by Broward County court investigators and the FBI. "As it turned out, the facts she provided us were pretty close to the truth," recalls Taft. "Not the whole truth...."
Taft remains convinced Ryan was integral to the scheme. "I don't think this works without her on the inside," he says. Ryan's position, as stated in court documents, is that she knew about the orders but didn't realize some were frauds.
Taft also wonders why no one at Lehman Brothers caught on sooner. "They sucked $3 million out of this account and no one ever said nothing about nothing?" he said. Guillermo Vega, the Lehman Brothers employee who submitted an affidavit in support of his company's civil suit, did not return phone calls for this story.
In early October 1999, when it became clear Lee Crompton's money was ebbing away, Judge Speiser held an emergency hearing to remove Peter Crompton as guardian and Gunnar Huber as the guardianship lawyer. A professional guardian replaced Crompton, while a court-appointed attorney replaced Huber.
That attorney's name is Alan Cohn. And he emphasizes that his goal is to find and recover Lee Crompton's money, not to punish anybody. "If there are criminal aspects of this case, it doesn't concern me in the least."
Luckily a good chunk of the money withdrawn under false pretenses was invested in real estate, meaning it is potentially recoverable. "When it's all done, my guess is that I will end up with $2.4 to $2.5 million," says Cohn. "There are some deep pockets here." Peter Crompton understands why Speiser removed him as co-guardian. (Linda Bourdet was also removed.) "With [Huber] being my so-called attorney, they didn't know if I was in cahoots with him or not. I guess I would have done the same thing in their position."
Crompton is a soft-spoken man who preferred to answers queries for this story via phone rather than in person. He contends the first he knew of Huber's doings was the day guardianship investigator David Cooper knocked on his door. "One more disaster," he says in a voice full of exhaustion and resignation.
Court investigators, however, maintain a healthy dose of professional skepticism about how much Peter Crompton knew. They stop just short of speculation, however, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves. "Peter Crompton did not emit any emotion when our special court monitor advised him about what we had reason to believe had occurred," Twomey says. "Whether he was stunned or whether he had knowledge, we don't know. Only Peter Crompton could tell you that."
And something strange happened while court investigator David Cooper was breaking the bad news to Crompton that day, comments Taft.
Cooper and Crompton were having a conversation in Crompton's Boca Raton residence when there was a knock at the door. Crompton went outside and talked to someone for about five minutes, Twomey says. Cooper couldn't identify the man but saw him drive away in a BMW convertible. Afterward Cooper spotted the same car parked outside the Lion & Eagle, a Boca Raton pub owned by Crompton. They wrote down the car's tag number and ran it when they got back to the office. "The license plate was Gunnar Huber's," Taft adds.
Cooper and Taft completed their investigation in July. They turned their findings over to the State Attorney's Office, which in turn suggested that the case might be a federal matter because the questionable court orders had been faxed from Florida to New York.
Then they returned to the other 120 open investigations of guardianship awaiting Twomey on his desk. "God knows how much is going on that we are not aware of," he says.