A burning home is a sad sight, made all the more devastating when a piece of history is destroyed with it. In one Pennsylvania town, locals are mourning the battered façade of a once regal country estate after a massive blaze may have ruined it forever.
From the ashes of a powerful fire for which the cause has yet to be determined arises a lawsuit pinning owner against tenant. Among other allegations, the lawsuit cites insurance fraud, wire fraud, arson, and a staged theft. The 53-page court document filed by Jerald Batoff, the owner of the charred mansion, reads more like a screenplay than a lawsuit, complete with an interesting cast of characters, including a mysterious so-called socialite from Montreal and her interior designer/business mogul boyfriend.
A Fairytale Ends
On April 4, 2012, 100 firefighters responded to a blaze at “Bloomfield,” Batoff’s 24,000-square-foot property situated on seven acres just a mere mile away from Villanova University. The Horace Trumbauer-designed mansion features 19 bedrooms, 15 baths and formal gardens, which were designed by the Olmstead Brothers, and is said to epitomize the French Chateau style of architecture reminiscent of the Gilded Age.
Various stakeholders painstakingly restored the mansion to its original beauty, outfitting the property with the conveniences of modernity. What would prompt anyone to deliberately tarnish the history property? Greed, at least by Batoff's estimation.
That legal document Batoff filed on Nov. 29 has raised more than a few eyebrows in Radnor Township, Penn., where Bloomfield is located. In it, Batoff alleges the Canadian couple Dean Topolinski and Julie Charbonneau, who had been occupying the property, hatched a plot to collect millions in insurance money. He asserts the duo duped him, saying they never had any intention to purchase the estate listed for $5.2 million. Instead, Topolinski and Charbonneau strung him along with a $260,000 down payment, monthly lease checks, and other cash siphoned from a company on the verge of collapse, Batoff says.
After numerous setbacks with a previously agreed upon settlement, the couple requested a long-term lease with an “intent to buy." The charges only get more inflammatory, as Batoff accuses the former tenants of engaging in a “pattern of racketeering activity” dating back to well over a year before the fire. Other allegations include wire fraud, insurance fraud, and a fake break-in at Topolinski’s company, DGI Services, to collect insurance money. (The lawsuit asserts the break-in occurred on Nov. 13, a day before a scheduled lease signing.)
When the lease was signed, it ostensibly gave the tenants a purported insurable interest under the option to purchase. There is currently no word from the insurer as to whether an investigation is underway; however, the civil suit alleges the couple dismissed groundskeepers and disabled the home’s security system before the fire to “cover their tracks.”
The fire marshal ruled the cause “undetermined,” and in May 2012, the renters filed an insurance claim and received $1.25 million in an advance payoff. The case took another turn in late October, as U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. issued a temporary restraining order freezing insurance proceeds Batoff had collected for the fire. While nothing is as it seems in this shady scenario, the adage “buyer beware” could certainly apply to the seller in this case. Only time will tell.