[There will be several Kim Rothstein stories told here this week, some of them in-depth, some of them in shorter vignette form. They are based on interviews in person and on the phone. She was interviewed without any lawyers or public relations people present but refused to answer some questions, saying she would wait until after Scott Rothstein's sentencing in May to tell her whole story.]
Kim Wendell, professional bartender, met budding empire-builder Scott Rothstein in 2002 at a barbecue at a mutual friend's house. She says that Rothstein immediately began pursuing her and that she didn't try to stop him.
Rothstein was going through a divorce with his attorney wife and had just opened a seven-member law firm in downtown Fort Lauderdale called Rothstein & Rosenfeldt, P.A. But Wendell wasn't interested in a romance. She says she had a boyfriend, a man she won't name, who owned clubs in Las Vegas. She was interested in "cultivating" Rothstein as a customer. It was a part of her profession, grooming customers, mostly men, who enjoyed her company and would ring up big tabs at the drinking establishments where she worked.
And that's all Rothstein was to her at first, a customer. He would bring his friends into the bar where she worked at the time (and refused to name) at least once a week. Obviously a big part of the allure for Rothstein and other customers was her looks. A fit former karate star, Kim had breast enhancement surgery in 2000, at about age 25, mainly, she says, to enhance her earning potential as a bartender. Kim already had the blond hair and the blue contact lenses as well (she's a natural brunet with brown eyes).
She entertained customers like Rothstein, sometimes flirted with them, but she
says she never dated them. It was a rule. When it came to Scott Rothstein, she was in control, the way she liked it. Rothstein would ask her out, but she says she never acted on his advances. "I didn't date my customers," she says. "I refused to meet him outside of work. He would ask me out to dinner and if I wanted to go out to this event or that event or if I wanted to go out for a ride in his car.
"I had a boyfriend, but you appear that you don't. You do the best with your customers every night. Sometimes you feel good, sometimes you don't. I would get into a zone. I loved high volume. I loved to get slammed with people. I loved it.
Public records show that Wendell was steeped in debt then, debt she says originated from a medical emergency that occurred around 1995 when she was 20 years old (more on that later). In 2003, she went to Las Vegas with her boyfriend. There she got a job at Light nightclub at the Bellagio, one of the hottest nightclubs in town, a place known for attacting high rollers and beautiful women. "He went to look at local clubs that he was looking at purchasing," she says of her boyfriend. "I'm a high-volume bartender, and they had just fired somebody over at Light, and my boyfriend was friends with [Light owner] Andrew [Sasson]. I interviewed with Andrew, and he liked me -- not liked me-liked me -- but liked the way I presented, and he said, 'Hire her.' I barely talked with Andrew again. The job was high volume; it's turn and burn; you have to go, go, go. It's a bachelor party every night. You have to be on point every night. It was hard work, but the money is so good, you get trapped into a cycle."
Kim doesn't go into great detail, but she says her relationship with the boyfriend ended after about a year in Vegas.
"The relationship I was in with that particular gentleman fell apart," she says. "Vegas isn't really the type of place you want to go to cultivate a relationship. I guess my heart was broken. It's a tough place, it's a transient place; it's hard to find friends that don't have some type of a problem out there. So I came back to Fort Lauderdale, and I was exhausted. I hadn't seen the beach in a while. I just went to the beach and walked. When you're out there [in Vegas], it's just red rock. It's dry. I didn't like it."
After she came back, another opportunity came her way -- she was chosen as one of the original bartenders to open the Blue Martini bar at the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale. She called all the old customers she could. One of them was Scott Rothstein.
"I called him; he was on my list," she says. "He was on my list of regulars that you cultivate. You develop a following -- that's how it works. I said, 'Come in, I think it's great, come in and see me and let's hang out while I work.' He came in, all his friends came in to see me, Ted, all of them, and they came in every week."
Other than car dealer Ted Morse, she didn't want to name the other friends, saying only that it was "usual suspects." Rothstein continued to pursue her. Wendell continued to resist until the middle of 2005, when she finally went out with him.
The first date was at a Harley Dog Days charity event for the Humane Society for which Rothstein's law firm was the $10,000 "Platinum" sponsor. Kim says she was bartending at a private party on the day of the event when a friend of Rothstein's (again, she refuses to name the person) told her that Rothstein didn't have a date for the event.
"He called Scott, got Scott on the phone, put Scott on the phone with me, and he asked me what I was doing," she remembers. "I said, 'I'm actually free tonight.' It wasn't really supposed to be a date. It was more like, 'You have been nice to me -- let's see what happens.' "
And they went to the event, which was held at the home of millionaire and "usual suspect" Ron Picou. The Morses were another big sponsor, and Teddy Morse, Ted's son and family patriarch Ed's grandson, was the emcee. If you click on this link, you can see a Boca Raton News brief on the event, including a photo of Kim and Scott (the first society shot of hundreds that would be taken of the couple during the next four-plus years).
"We had a great time. He put me on his motorcycle, and I've never been on a motorcycle very much," she says. "We rode on the ride for the animals. You have a police escort; it was really fun. It was the first time I met Ted's wife, Patti, and she was very nice. I had never been to an event like that, and we had a lot of fun. We got some stuff from the auction; we got a slot machine, I remember. I was shocked. He wasn't what I expected. I think I expected him to be stuffy or a little snobby -- pretentious, maybe. He was just superfriendly and outgoing. He didn't have any table manners -- he would wrap a napkin around his head. He sang and danced was was very outgoing. He loved these things. He loves the spotlight."
She says he took her home and kissed her goodnight.
"He called me the very next day, and he asked me out to a movie, which is so funny because he hates movies," she says. "I haven't seen a movie with him in a year. He never had time for one; he had ADD like hell; he could never sit through a movie. But he was very, very sweet with me. He was not aggressive with me. He courted me. He took things very slowly with me. He was probably the nicest person I ever dated. He opened the door for me, closed the door for me."
She doesn't like to talk about the gifts she received from Rothstein, but rest assured there were some gifts. From the time she met Rothstein in 2002 to the middle of 2005, Rothstein had transformed from a workaday lawyer to an apparent millionaire. He drove a Bentley and lived off Las Olas in a $2.7 million house on Castilla Isle he bought (with a loan from his friend Ted Morse) from Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams. But the Ponzi scheme was either in its infancy or about to begin; the big money hadn't started flowing in.
"We weren't doing the events so much; we were going out with his friends, birthday parties. We weren't on the social circuit thing," she says. "We were just hanging out. We were just normal people. This was before all the political stuff started happening. We could go out and be ourselves, and we had fun."
While she doesn't deny that Rothstein's wealth gave her a sense of security, she says it wasn't the money that made her fall in love with him. "He was the right person at the right time," she says.
A few weeks after that first date, he invited Kim to his 43rd birthday party at the grill and bar at Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale. He got down on one knee and proposed in front of the "usual suspects" with a diamond engagement ring.
"I had been proposed to before -- it was the third time -- and I had never accepted, but this time I said 'Yes,' " she says. "I wanted to say yes. I was happy. To think you've touched someone like that in such a short amount of time. He was happy; he was crying. He called his parents, and he said, 'Mom, Dad, I'm engaged.' They said, 'What?' Then he put me on the phone. He's very close to his family."
She quickly moved in with Rothstein in the Castilla Isle home, and one of the first major gifts he gave her was a Cadillac Escalade, which replaced the BMW she had been leasing (her mother drove the car for the most part until the lease ran out). This is right about the time that authorities believe Rothstein's Ponzi scheme was beginning. The feds have allowed her to keep the Escalade, she says, because it was considered a pre-Ponzi possession, though Rothstein had recently replaced the old one with a new one. "They were going to take my only mode of transportation?" she asks rhetorically.
Her engagement and wedding rings (which she doesn't wear now) also fell into that category. Again, she refuses to discuss most details about her financial state until after her husband's sentencing, but she indicates that almost everything else of real value has been taken by the federal government. I'll write in more depth about her current living arrangement (she says she lives at the "mercy of the universe" right now) in a later piece.
Once she moved into his home, she was in Scott Rothstein's orbit, a place where she says he is "master of the universe." She was no longer in control, and it didn't take long before she says she felt overwhelmed. That's when Kim Wendell fled to North Carolina, intent on starting a new life away from Scott Rothstein.