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May 23, 2001     Beverly Hills Weekly
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cover story continued from page 15 A Change of Face In February 1981--more than a year after the blaze--Beverly Hills police arrested Michael Ivan Luterlof (aka Michael Lewis), a 38-year-old Brit and former chauffeur for the A1-Fassi fam- ily. Gradually, authorities revealed that Luterlof had been using his inside knowledge to bypass the mansion's security system and abscond with more than $600,000 worth of the AI-Fassis' belongings--lamps, paintings, furniture, tapestries, objects d'an and even the sheik's beloved model boats. Luterlof funneled the stolen goods to Dr. Kurt Wagner, a prominent 45-year-old plastic surgeon with offices on South Beverly Drive. Luterlof had given Wagner a tour of the home in the AI- Fassis' absence, and the surgeon picked out the exotic items he desired. In exchange, the surgeon performed free plastic surgery on the chauffeur. Luterlof then set the fire to cover his tracks-- hoping the missing possessions would be assumed to have been lost in the blaze. Police determined that Wagner staged an elaborate phony break-in of his posh Sherman Oaks home shortly after the fire at the estate. Wagner hoped to make ill-gotten items--and a few forged paintings he'd been duped into purchasing earlier--disappear, while also fraudulently collecting $227,000 in insurance on the sheik's stolen goods. Between Luterlof and Wagner, authorities recovered more than $600,000 in items stolen from the Sunset estate. Luterlof pleaded guilty, and after damning testimony from the burglar he hired, Wagner pleaded no contest. He was later ordered to pay $600,000 in damages to his insurance company. All that was left was the fallout. Long Divisions The destruction of the Sunset mansion proved symbolic for the AI-Fassis' marriage. In 1982 Sheika Dena filed for divorce in California, citing--among other transgressions--bigamy. Under Saudi rule, the sheik could have four wives, but in Beverly Hills--where community property reigned--one spouse was all the law allowed. Powerhouse divorce attorney Marvin Mitchelson went to war for the sheika's share of Al-Fassi's billions. Sheik Mohammed had other legal troubles in 1982. He had relocated to Florida and made headlines with extravagant gifts to charity---even as he bounced a check for a $ 1.5 million hotel tab. After a brief stint in jail, he and the children were summoned back to his homeland by a very red-faced royal family after they paid his bill. He never made an appearance in California divorce court, produced any legal documents or answered any questions from Mitchelson. The court responded to the sheik's presumed indifference by awarding his ex-wife a stagger- ing $81.5 million. After all his appeals were rejected, the sheik paid out several million dollars, but interest pushed the total debt over $100 million. In 1989 rumors had AI-Fassi returning to Los Angeles, and city officials crossed their fingers that he'd end up in BeI-Air or Holmby Hills. But it was only a brief stint to put together a $50 million film epic on Saudi history. That film made headlines when the sheik fired one of its oddly-cast stars, Zsa Zsa Gabor--~n the heels of her famous slapping of a Beverly Hills cop---for making disparaging remarks about His Excellency. One of the assets that Sheika Dena took away was the Beverly Hills house---or what was left of" it, anyway. She put it on the market and found a prospective buyer, with plans to subdivide the large lot into as many as six new estates--or even a movie studio--but the plan was repeatedly nixed by City Hall.The famous statues had now finally been removed from their pedestals, some broken by firefighters and, later, vandals. Their final fate remains a mystery. Buyer Beware Finally, in 1985, an agreement was struck to split the property into two adjacent properties, and Sheika Dena finally unloaded the troublesome home for $5 million. In August of that year invi- tations went out to the neighbors, each accompanied by a rock from one of the gated walls. The invites read: "About all that will be left of Sheik al-Fassi's former mansion after Aug. t9 will be the stones off the estate's wall you now hold in your hand." About 500 guests--including news crews, hard-hat-wearing socialites and Max Whittier's great-grandson--attended the long-await- ed demolition (including music, wine and brie) of the charred hulk. When the structure was finally bulldozed over, a round of applause could be heard. And per- haps a sigh of relief. According to Raymond Bekeris, who has represented the property with his panner Bruce Nelson over the past several years, realtors set about "de-sheiking" the two parcels (2 acres and 1.5 acres, respectively) and after passing through the hands of various owners, both divided lots were acquired in 1989 by Frenchman Tony Murray for $12 million--the most ever paid for unimproved property in Beverly Hills. But Murray also wanted another adjacent lot, and after much fruitless wrangling he never built and the property sat vacant, spending the 1990s growing weeds. Maybe the restless ghosts of Max Whittier and Mafia Rita Valdez were afraid to see the property blighted a second time. From Sheik to DIC Now, after decades as the unsightly neighborhood nuisance, things are finally looking up for the estate-turned-eyesore. In April it was purchased by Andy Heyward, chairman and chief exec- utive of DIC Entertainment, one of the largest producers of children's programming in the world, including the animated series "Inspector Gadget," "Madeline" and "Carmen Sandiego." In addition to his long involvement with family-friendly fare, Heyward is hardly a newcomer to Beverly Hills. Having lived within three blocks of the neighborhood since he was 12 years old, he's intimately familiar with the aesthetic standards of the neighborhood. He and his wife Evelyn have begun consulting top-level architects and contractors including those from the East Coast and Italy and he said there definitely won't be any plans to re-visit the shocking statuary of the Al-Fassi era. "We're leaning toward something Mediterranean, with a style and taste befitting the stature of the neighborhood," Heyward said. "My wife has impeccable taste and she's going to be handling everything...[The property] is a real treasure. We're very excited about it." So the neighbors can finally sleep easy at night, safe in the assumption that taste, restraint and wholesome entertainment will reign again at 9561 Sunset Boulevard. Yet it almost seems a shame. Just think of the pun-laced headlines and throngs of new tourists that an unadorned stat- ue of Inspector Gadget might inspire. Do you have interesting memories of the Sheik's house? Send an email to editor@ bh weekly.corn 16 Beverly Hills Weekly / / / .... The Professional Solution for your business or companyl You must have a webslte worklng on the Internet! Your webslte must successfully draw trafflcl / Professional Design and :: ..... .......... Technical Performance is essential! / Is' technlcal direction and project "team of protesslonals who will / .... the ~/r" Clockwork Websltes, LLC provides graphic design, management. We employ a give you and your company highest value for your dollar. 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