Haitian Charity From a Convicted Cheat

Suzie Graf might have a criminal record, but those PODS full of donations she solicited are on their way to Haiti

According to the woman, Graf sent copies of checks she claimed proved she hadn’t been embezzling any money. However, the check numbers in the upper-right-hand corner didn’t match the ones in the lower-left-hand corner next to the routing number. “She forgot that there are two check numbers on the checks,” the woman explains. “She was actually doctoring them up, creating dummy checks to match paper trails.”

At one point, both the woman and her brother flew out to Jackson Hole to confront Graf. There, they met a couple who had also invested $25,000 in the store and thought they were Graf’s only partners in the venture. Along with the other couple, they filed civil complaints against her, which the Weekly obtained, claiming that Graf had squandered their investments. Both complaints were ultimately dismissed when the store went bankrupt in February 1997. “We hired the best attorneys,” the brother recalls. “But we found out we were at the end of a long line of people who had filed claims against her.”

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John Gilhooley
Graf stands next to a trio of storage containers outside her San Clemente house. At press time, the containers were on their way to aid earthquake victims in Haiti
John Gilhooley
Graf stands next to a trio of storage containers outside her San Clemente house. At press time, the containers were on their way to aid earthquake victims in Haiti

But Graf wasn’t done yet. In 2001, she opened another Jackson Hole clothing store called Teton Clothing & Home Accents, where she ran into even more trouble. Specifically, Graf began using the store to gain access to her wealthy customers’ credit-card information, which, according to law-enforcement documents, she used to bilk them of thousands of dollars. One of those customers, Tom Muller, had shopped at her store on March 23, 2003, and made a purchase for $1,564.56. In August of that year, he received a bank statement and discovered that, without his permission, Graf had charged him that same amount on May 30, June 15, July 13, July 25 and July 29, with a separate unauthorized charge of $1,457.89 on July 17.

He reported the theft to the Jackson Hole Police Department. According to a Jan. 24, 2005, affidavit filed by Detective Gary Shaw, Muller first confronted Graf and gave her every opportunity to make amends. “Ms. Graf apologized to Mr. Muller and faxed him a copy of a debit-card-refund ticket in the amount of $10,845.25,” Shaw’s affidavit states. “Mr. Muller thought the situation had been resolved and was satisfied with the refund.” Strangely, however, the money never turned up in his Merrill Lynch bank account, so he reluctantly contacted David O’Connor, Merrill Lynch’s assistant vice president for fraud investigations.

After instructing the bank to refund Muller’s money, O’Connor telephoned Graf and asked her for an explanation for the fraudulent charges. “Ms. Graf told Mr. O’Connor that an employee of hers . . . had stolen approximately $500,000 from her and . . . was obviously responsible for this situation.” In fact, Graf had filed a police report in 2001 claiming that this employee, Karen Rodenbough, had stolen thousands of dollars from the store. Shaw called Rodenbough, who, as it turned out, had last worked for Graf for several months in 2001—well before the unexplained charges to Muller’s credit card took place.

When Shaw confronted Graf with this information, she changed her story. This time, she claimed “an incompetent employee” had “inadvertently re-entered the debit-card data” several times. On Sept. 12, 2003, Shaw demanded that Graf tell him the name of the employee; Graf claimed the culprit was Sarah Thompson, whom she said was no longer working for her and was “away at college.” That same day, Shaw tracked down Thompson’s father, who said that while Graf was a friend of his wife, his daughter had never worked for Graf in her life and in fact was employed at a hospital when the alleged fraud took place.

A few weeks later, Shaw asked Graf to drop by the police station to answer some more questions. Graf changed her story a third time, acknowledging she had lied, but now blaming a third employee. Shaw could find no evidence in any of the store’s business records that the newly named woman ever worked her. He also interviewed several former employees and none of them had ever heard of the woman.

One of those employees, however, told Shaw that before leaving Jackson Hole on one occasion, Graf had instructed her never to answer the store’s telephone, which was constantly ringing. Finally, after the answering machine became full, the employee began answering the phone. She “took several calls from creditors demanding money and customers who had been overcharged on their debit cards. [The employee] discussed these matters with Susan Graf and was terminated approximately two weeks later.”

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By the time Shaw wrote up his affidavit charging Graf with seven counts of credit-card fraud, she had already sold her house in Jackson Hole and returned to Orange County. In August 2004, Newport Beach police arrested Graf for grand theft after she allegedly stole $4,265 from a Tommy Bahama store between June and July of that year. Graf spent two days in jail, performed 40 hours of community service and was sentenced to four years of probation. (In December 2009, a judge dismissed the case, citing her successful rehabilitation.)

One woman, who asked not to be identified because she is a prominent businesswoman, says Graf was lucky to get off with such a light sentence at the time. The woman’s father met Graf when he was shopping at Tommy Bahama and Graf was working the register as a sales agent. He purchased some clothing from the store and later discovered that someone had used his card number to purchase clothing and pay a veterinary bill. Graf admitted it was she and wrote the woman’s father-in-law a letter of apology and returned the cash.

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