By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
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The church in turn contacted Joseph Travers, a private investigator and pastor in Orange County who works with churches and charities; he discovered that Graf has a rap sheet that includes numerous civil judgments awarded against her after various people (including close friends) claimed she had ripped them off. More disturbingly, she also had two criminal convictions, one for grand theft and one for credit-card fraud (see our Navel Gazing blog post, “To Haiti With Love?” Jan. 28). Graf does not have a license from the state of California to operate a charity, and given her felony convictions, she might have a difficult time obtaining one.
The Weekly interviewed several of Graf’s victims, all of whom expressed doubt about her intentions. “She is probably the world’s greatest salesman,” one of them claimed.
“She is so good,” said another. “She has such great organizational skills. If she used them for good, she would be the most successful person around. But that’d be asking a table to turn into a chair.”
Knowing Graf’s “personality and her type of m.o., I would be really surprised if any of the clothes she’s collecting actually make it to Haiti,” remarked another source—some time before the containers reached Florida. “Someone needs to stop her from what she’s doing before the same thing that happened to me happens to someone else.”
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To understand why people would say such terrible things about such a seemingly nice lady as Suzie Graf, begin with the story of her former best friend, who, like almost everyone else interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified by name. The woman in question grew up in Newport Beach, which is where she befriended Graf. In the early 1990s, Graf approached her and her brother, a successful Orange County businessman, with a plan to open a clothing store in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where they both loved to ski and where Graf and her husband had bought a house.
“Susan had a darling T-shirt store [in Newport Beach] and solicited us to open a store with her in Jackson Hole,” she recalls. “She had great taste and knew how to market merchandise, so we decided to go in with her as an equal partner. Our initial investment was $25,000.”
The woman’s businessman brother, who also asked to remain anonymous, didn’t know Susan well but had heard great things about her from his sister.
“She was one of my sister’s best friends,” the man explains. “I asked my sister, ‘Do you believe in the business, and more important, do you trust her?’ Long story short: We came to find out that this pretty significant sum of money we invested was getting squandered by Susan on pretty much everything but the business.”
At first, it seemed like the store, Continental Divide Clothing, which opened in 1995, was going to be a sure-fire success. “It was really busy,” Graf’s former friend says. “Her husband is an incredible carpenter, and it was a beautiful store. We all contributed on different levels. What we agreed upon was that because I was in California and not an onsite partner, she would manage it.”
Every other day, she recalls, Graf would fax sales information and other business-related information, a task she later handed over to a sales manager. But after a while, the faxes became less and less frequent; then they finally stopped altogether. “I wasn’t getting information,” she says. “I kept asking and asking, and this went on for months.”
The woman figured Graf was simply busy and didn’t harbor any suspicions about how her friend was running the business. On behalf of the store, and using her own credit rating, the woman had arranged for the store to have its own line of credit with American Express. The bills, which came from charges made by Graf, had to be paid by the end of every month. “I got a call that my credit card wasn’t being paid and was already a few months late,” the woman claims. “The charges were for things that had nothing to do with our business: dinners, hotels, inappropriate spending.”
She called Graf, who apologized and promised to take care of the outstanding bills. But then the woman received a telephone call from a mutual friend in Jackson Hole who saw Graf at a fund-raiser. “She told me that Susan Graf said that I was writing checks from the business account for my own personal use and that Susan was very upset about it. I said, ‘That’s interesting because I don’t even have a checkbook for that account. I have no access at all.’”
So she called Graf and demanded to see the bank statements. “Susan told me the dog ate them,” she says. “I said, ‘Susan, Susan: What’s going on? Are you in trouble? Let’s talk about this. ‘I gave her the benefit of the doubt. But Susan got really quiet. She wasn’t coming clean.” At this point, the woman and her brother went to their bank and began examining the store’s business records. “I found out she was writing checks for her daycare, to get her car fixed—all kinds of things.”