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

Another San Clemente businessman, Brad Wright, who briefly employed Graf as a commissioned sales agent in 2005, says Graf added a zero to the first check he gave her, changing the amount from $140 to $1,400. “I rarely ever look at my checks, but for some reason that day, I opened the bank statement,” Wright said. “The check was so obviously doctored I couldn’t believe the bank cashed it.” Ultimately, Graf returned the cash and apologized, so he declined to press charges.

Just a few weeks later, on Sept. 6, 2005, Newport Beach police arrested Graf again and extradited her back to Jackson Hole to face justice for her credit-card fraud there. In 2006, Graf pleaded guilty to two of the seven counts of fraud and received a sentence of 18 to 36 months in prison at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk, of which she spent just 10 months behind bars, with time off for good behavior. Graf was also ordered to make a $143,751 restitution payment, which she did, and was placed on supervised probation for 10 years.

While behind bars, Graf wrote a letter to the judge thanking him for sentencing her. “This past year has been a time of change for me,” she wrote. “I have realized I have an addiction to money.” Graf noted that she was undertaking programs to fight this addiction and had joined Debtors Anonymous. “When I walk out the front doors of Wyoming Women’s Center, I will take with me knowledge, understanding and compassion that I have come to learn while incarcerated,” she concluded. “[I] will continue my 12-step program and will do so probably for the rest of my life.”

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

Kelly Wolfe, a San Clemente resident who has been gathering tents to be transported to Haiti, says Graf’s current charity work far outweighs whatever mistakes she may have made in the past. “Everyone has their skeletons in the past, but right now, she is focusing on helping the people of Haiti and not herself,” Wolfe said. “What she is doing is very positive, and she’s not doing it to make money. The good she is doing definitely outweighs anything she’s done in her past. We all make mistakes.”

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When it comes to talking about her past, Graf, who was born Susan Williams in 1954, doesn’t have much to say. In her living room roughly a week after the Weekly published a story online detailing her history of fraud, she refused to talk about anything she had done in her life before she collected donations for Haiti, other than to say she “grew up in Orange County” and has a long history of charity work. “I’ve worked with charities since the early 1970s,” she says. “I worked with United Way. There was a group of us when we were younger in Newport Beach who did this. I worked with kids with special needs. My daughter, Tess, has also—and my son, Max. I’ve always driven them around to meetings, and we all participated, whether by running in a race or dance or whatever it was—we all participated.”

While she admits she has made “mistakes” in her life—“Everyone makes mistakes,” she points out—she believes that those who have criticized her are simply being “vindictive.”

Tess sobs miserably as she describes the pain and humiliation of seeing her mother’s reputation attacked in the media. “I just don’t understand how people can take something so beautiful and so great and turn it into something so ugly,” she wails, tears streaming down her face. “And that’s exactly what happened!”

Graf nods her head sadly. “People don’t understand the rippling effect of what they have said about me,” she says mournfully. “What they’ve done is try to stop something very beautiful, and they have to understand that their actions could have stopped everything that was saving lives. I’m just trying to help. I’m just a person who has a heart and wanted to help the people of Haiti.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that steps eight and nine of the so-called 12-Step Recovery Program call for making a list of all the people you’ve hurt in your life and making amends to them. Graf’s former best friend, the woman who went into business with her and lost everything, says she’s never received a telephone call from Graf apologizing for what she did. “I loved her as a friend,” the woman says. “If she called me and was straightforward and honest and accountable, it would make all the difference in my heart. I would forgive her. It’s just a phone call, and that’s what truly hurts.”

Editorial Intern Sandeep Abraham provided research assistance for this story. Portions of this story originally appeared on the Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog.

This story appeared in print as "Giving Back? Suzie Graf of San Clemente might be a convicted felon, but those PODS full of donations she solicited are on their way to Haiti."

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