There was no return address on the birthday card Nevine Tadrous boyfriend gave her when she turned 35—but it sounded as if it came from the heart:
"With you, I can be me. I can act silly without feeling self-conscious. Let my guard down without feeling embarrassed, tell you my hopes and fears with the deepest feelings of trust," the verse inside read. "You always accept me just the way I am, and that's why your love means so much to me."
Steven A. Sears, who'd been Tadrous' boyfriend for five years—and her employer for eight—signed it, simply, "Happy Birthday 2004." But before he sealed the envelope, Sears couldn't resist adding a personal promise to the woman who was pregnant with his triplets. "Rain or shine, day or night," Sears wrote, "I will always love you."
And you . . . and you . . . and you, too, as it turns out.
Tadrous didn't know it then, but Sears already had four children with two other Orange County women. She couldn't have known that he would go on to have four more children, including two to different mothers in 2006. She knows now. A copy of a trust that Tadrous and Sears created for a son she bore in 2005—she miscarried the triplets, a month after her birthday in 2004—and copies of birth certificates reveal that Sears has eight children with four women. So far.
All of Sears' women—none of them married to him—and all of their children live in Irvine, occupying separate houses located within four miles of one another.
How could Sears do such a thing? Not so much morally or ethically—cheaters have been around forever—but logistically: how could he pull it off? How could Sears keep four love affairs, four families—four complete households—operating simultaneously in the same suburban city without any of the girlfriends or children crossing paths?
It may seem ironic, but the living monument to master-planned family values is perfectly designed to maintain multiple families. Unlike older cities and suburbs, with their centralized downtowns, flattened right-angles and spontaneous sprawl—where anybody might be going anywhere and bump into anyone at anytime—Irvine anesthetizes and isolates its residents from their neighbors. Eerie, newly paved roads arc and twist between neighborhoods that are mathematically subdivided and along landscapes that are precisely rolling, the lawns a radioactively verdant green. They are encapsulated pods, all-but-equal but so-very-separate. This is key. In Irvine, the churches, gas stations, outdoor sports courts, and subdivisions are not only beautifully framed by well-kept hedges and painstakingly fertilized yards—they're created distinct and held separate from one another by the land. By design. By their creator, Don Bren, head of the Irvine Company, who himself has fathered three children with two women—all out of wedlock. Okay, and so maybe it doesn't seem so ironic.
Apparently it wasn't all that difficult for Sears, a prominent and successful attorney specializing in asset protection, estate planning and taxes, to juggle four girlfriends and families in a highly structured city where most walking, biking, shopping and sleeping is done within its designated subdivisions, many of them gated and guarded to discourage spur-of-the-moment visitors. Tadrous—Sears' business partner since 1999—said she was easily deceived during their relationship, never suspecting that she wasn't Sears' only girlfriend because she never spotted any rivals. And because he always professed his faithful love.
Sears never married Tadrous, who uses the names Nina Carmelle and Nevine Carmelle professionally, but she says he put a ring on her finger after she asked him to. Court records show the pair held a non-binding "wedding" ceremony, and they took "wedding" pictures at a duck pond in Garden Grove—she in a flowing white gown, he in a tuxedo and black tie.
But during their relationship, which Tadrous says began in late 1998, Sears fathered a total of seven children with three other women. His sixth child was born to one of these women on June 23, 2005, just five days after Tadrous delivered kid No. 5 on June 18, 2005.
Tadrous realizes she is not the only victim in this scenario. "I knew about [only] two of them. One that he was telling me . . . she was his ex, that he lives with his mom and his brother. I found out he lives with her."
But Tadrous, a financial planner whose business card says she has a Master's degree in taxation, is determined not to be just a victim. She finally ended her relationship with Sears in July of 2006, and in August filed two civil lawsuits against him for allegedly intimidating her into giving up control of her home. According to one of them, shortly after Tadrous bore their son in 2005, Sears allegedly coerced her into signing over the deed to her house in Irvine to the La Rosa Trust—a financial trust the two created to provide for the boy should worse ever come to worst. On Aug. 15, she sued him in Orange County Superior Court for fraud, coercion, and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. She returned to the same court on Aug. 17 to sue him for assault, battery, false imprisonment, and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. It was Sears' third lawsuit of the year—a former client, Charles Nguyen Allen had sued him in June—and the third case filed against him in less than 12 months.
A settlement conference in the Aug. 15 lawsuit came Friday and went without issue. Sears did not respond to the Weekly's repeated telephone calls to his offices in Irvine seeking comment (although his secretary invariably made the same promise: "I'll give him the message"). Approached outside Department C32 in Orange County Superior Court Friday, Sears seemed startled. "Have you talked to my attorney?" he asked. "I cannot talk to you pending litigation."
I offered Sears my card, but he wouldn't take it. "I have your card," he said, which seemed weird. I'd never met him, and had never givenhim my card. Sears said his attorney had tried to call me twice yesterday—which would have been Thursday, Feb. 15. That was strange, too; I never got either call—and if the man did reach me, he didn't leave a message. I offered Sears my card, to make sure he had it, but he walked away without taking it.
A few minutes later, I saw him shake hands with another man with a mustache and a briefcase. He looked a lot like Sears, only larger. "Are you the attorney for Steven Sears?" I asked the man when he walked up to read the court calendar. "Yes," he said and walked into the court. I followed, telling him who I was and trying to give him my card—with him refusing. After he checked in with the bailiff, I tried again to give him my card, but he simply walked past me, to the last row of seats where his client was sitting—and tripped over the outside seat getting away from me.
After the conference, the bailiff came outside and told me they'd be bringing in another Orange County Sheriff's deputy to escort Sears and his attorney to their cars; apparently the defendant and his lawyer felt that photographer Jack Gould and I were harassing them. I saw the bailiff go inside the court—but I didn't see anyone come out. Then—still outside the courtroom door—I got a call on my cell phone from Gould, who didn't have court permission to take pictures inside the court, and was waiting to catch Sears and his attorney outside. He got them. "He was holding a newspaper over his face," Gould said in his message—and I could hear the smile in his voice, "but he was holding it on the wrong side."
Tadrous and her attorney, Reuben Nathan of Irvine, say they're taking the case to trial. "I'm not going to settle," she says. "Let's go ahead. It's more fun that way." Asked how the settlement conference went, Nathan said "The attorney is a lot like the client," meaning Sears. The case is currently scheduled for jury trial Aug. 13.
Ironically, legal problems are what brought Sears and Tadrous together in the first place. Sears is a well-known attorney, and he's not shy about digging up business. Forbes magazine and the Los Angeles Timeshave carried his advertisements—with his picture, alongside that of a luminous Tadrous—under the gripping headline "So. Calif. Attorney Reveals Legal Strategies For Protecting Assets." The spots include a drawing of the Steven Sears Professional Law Building at 18 Truman in Irvine that shows it proudly bearing his name.
But court records show Sears was being sued for breach of contract around the time he and Tadrous became romantically involved. His apparent vulnerability was partly what made him attractive to her.
"He had so many lawsuits against him. He was crying on my chest," she says. "What really attracted me was that I could help him. I really fought for him."
Later, he beat her up.
According to Tadrous' Aug. 15, 2006 civil lawsuit, Sears "brutally and physically attacked Tadrous while at their offices" in November of 2005, "after locking their office suite door and not allowing her to leave, all the while threatening Tadrous' life."
"He came over and he took my face and smashed it into his knee," Tadrous says of the attack. "[My] whole face was Technicolor for a month."
The objective? She says he wanted her house. He wanted it badly enough that he beat her up again. In January 2006, that same lawsuit alleges that Sears again beat Tadrous and threatened to kill her. She finally signed the deed to the house she owned in Irvine over to the La Rosa Trust.
Whether Sears committed fraud and coercion, and whether he intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon Tadrous—as this lawsuit charges—is still before the court. But Sears was arrested for beating her the first time, in November 2005, and on Nov. 23, 2005, the state filed a criminal complaint against him, accusing the attorney of committing domestic battery with corporal injury—a felony domestic violence charge. Sears pleaded not guilty and was released. He was ordered not to "stalk, sexually abuse, harass, threaten, or commit any violence upon Nevine Carmelle" (Tadrous) and not to "go within 500 yards of Nevine Carmelle, their home, work, or children's school." He also was ordered to complete a court-ordered domestic violence counseling program, and he did so in March 2006. In May, the criminal charge against him was reduced—by the prosecution—to a misdemeanor; in the complaint, the word "FELONY" is simply x-ed out in ink, replaced by the abbreviation "MISD." But the case took a year to resolve, thanks perhaps to six defense requests for a continuance and two changes of defense attorney. Finally, on Nov. 29, 2006, with his third and final defense attorney—Kay Rackauckas, ex-wife of Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas—at his side, Sears changed his original plea of not guilty to a felony to a plea of no contest to the misdemeanor charge of domestic battery with corporal injury, and was sentenced to serve 90 days under house arrest.
That was enough time to ponder his third civil lawsuit of 2006. Sears, who also does business as Company Registration Services, Inc., is also being sued by a former client, Charles Nguyen Allen, who would like his retainer back. According to a civil suit filed June 15 by Allen's attorney, Phillip A. Putman of Tustin, Allen paid Sears $5,000 in March to do some work for him—but the following month, Sears "sent a letter to [Allen] demanding more money." That was April 7, after which Allen hired Putman.
"I demanded a refund," Putman says. "I filed a lawsuit [and] his lawyer twice took the matter into arbitration. I filed suit and we tried to serve him. Couldn't find him. When we'd go to his office we couldn't find him."
Putman is baffled by Sears' behavior.
"Mr. Sears appears to be a very well-educated person. He appears to be very well-experienced," Putman says. "If the guy would just use his brains in an honest way, he could do very well." But if that's what he's doing—why?
"I don't want to get off on another kick. I'm a Born-Again Christian and I know that people are born with an evil heart. And he is exactly what Christianity is all about and against. And all the other religions are against it, too. They all frown on and shun those kind of people."
* * *
Long before she took him to court, Tadrous began to seesigns that her once-passionate romance with Sears was cooling. "He sends me flowers, he tells me he loves me, but you look into his eyes, you see something different," she recalls. "You go to the Tower Records, he doesn't go to the Latino section any more [when she was a girl, Tadrous' family moved from Egypt to South America]. He goes to the Middle Eastern section or some crap."
But Tadrous says things changed fundamentally once their son—the fourth child she'd conceived with him via in vitro fertilization—was born, and women's intuition wasn't her only clue. Roughly three weeks after having her son, Tadrous says she called her insurance company to inquire about adding the baby to her health plan. She knew about two of Sears' other girlfriends—she says he told her they were his ex-girlfriends—and five of his children. But when she spoke to the man from the insurance company, he wondered why she was asking so many questions. You already have six children, the man reminded her. "I said 'What do you mean six children?'" she recounts. "'It should be only five.'"
It was six, for the moment. Soon, two more bundles of Sears-sired joy would arrive.
According to birth certificates and the La Rosa Trust, Sears has:
• Four children with Yvonne Tran, a native of Vietnam, who lives in Irvine. The kids were born in 1999, 2002, 2003 and on May 11, 2006.
• One child with Gloria Lee of Irvine, born on the last day of 2000.
• Two children with Peruvian-born Gladys Bazan of Irvine, one born in 2005, the other on Aug. 25, 2006.
• Those seven, plus Tadrous' son, makes eight so far—though, again, the score was only six when Tadrous says she found out, in the summer of 2005.
"He was nice enough, he was giving me candy and Valentines and text messages 'I love you'," she says, describing Sears' attitude after Eric's birth. "But I looked at [cell] phone records and he was doing that with all of them. When he sleeps with one, he sends text messages to the other three."
At first it made her sad, but when she found cell phone records of Sears' contact with other women Tadrous was infuriated.
"I was angry," she says, and she confronted her lover. "He denied it. He said 'Our love is always challenged by people.'"
Which, again, was partly what drew her to a man who would lay hands on her according to the lawsuits against him; who'd convince her to undergo in vitro fertilization twice; who, again according to lawsuits, would allegedly coerce her into signing over the deed to her house.
"I felt so special that he wanted this from me," Tadrous says, explaining why, in happier times, she agreed to bear his children.
By the beginning of last summer, her rosy glow had long faded. Tadrous had signed away the deed to her house—and she'd learned that, after he promised not to add the deed to her house to the La Rosa Trust, Sears allegedly had done so, anyway.
That's why in 2006 she agreed to cooperate with the Irvine Police Department, which according to court documents "[wired her] house to capture threats against her life if Tadrous testified against Sears in the criminal [case]." Tadrous was ready to end the relationship and formally break with Sears, but she hadn't done it yet. Incredibly, perhaps, they still saw each other, and had contemplated an island-hopping excursion to Colombia. Tadrous says she declined, fearing she'd never come back alive: "I could have gone to Colombia," she says. "I could be dead now, and I'm not." And when Sears proposed they spend a night out on the town in Laguna Beach, Tadrous again feared for her life—and decided she needed back-up. So she hired a private detective to follow them that day.
"They were going out and she was fearful," says Stanton investigator Paul Dillon, noting that nothing actually happened that evening. "We became involved in November  to find out what his routines were, what his patterns were with all these different women." It wasn't easy. Dillon and fellow investigator Robert Wonsch say Sears routinely drives at high speeds. "Twenty miles over the speed limit was nothing for him," Wonsch says, noting that to keep up with Sears' vehicle, he once had to make a left turn through a red light against oncoming traffic. The risk was worth it for what they learned.
"You could see his routines—it was hilarious," Dillon says. "We got him on multiple days of surveillance with all the wives."
Except, of course, they weren't his wives.
* * *
It sounds like a lot of work being Steven Sears, a.k.a. Steven Allan Sears—even, say, back in 2004 when he had only four kids, and none of his girlfriends knew there were any other girlfriends. It sounds like a Rodney Dangerfield routine come to life—"I told her I was going out for cigarettes. That was a month ago!"—but with four diaper runs a night; four midnight feedings; four, six, or eight kids sick at once; and four pairs of your girlfriend's ice-cold feet pressed up against the small of your back when you finally get to bed. It's enough to make you look for a little something extra on the side—though, taking a page from Solomon, Sears seems to already have had plenty of something.
Why he did it remains unclear. As for the "how," well, Sears must be a human spreadsheet—the kind of guy who makes plans to make plans. That, and he was brainy enough to pick a prime location for his own, truncated Cheaper by the Dozen: Irvine.
The county's first master-planned city, Irvine is the ideal place to fool around on your partner. You drive into it down wide, gaping boulevards designed to keep you in your car until you get where you're going. One part of town—whether it's Turtle Rock, or Woodbridge—is artfully hidden from another by little parks or expanses of trees, so that you have to know where you're going to get anywhere. And when you do finally arrive, your destination is a Stepford-quality, two-story stucco on a quiet little dead-end street where everyone stays indoors if they're home. Most of the time, they're out working to pay the mortgage. Gloria Lee and Gladys Bazan both live in gated communities.
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Lee's subdivision, which is 11.2 miles from Weekly headquarters in downtown Santa Ana, has two gates: one for residents, one for outsiders. The gates are just a few blocks from her house, which looks out on a beautifully-asphalted cul-de-sac with its own grassy round-about at the end—not at all like those '60s cul-de-sacs, where the end of it was always some poor bastard's driveway. She lives in a two-story stucco with two little one-car garages attached, a Spanish tile roof, green grass out front, and a stone courtyard with a wrought-iron gate.
But the evening we visited we saw lights—the kind you leave on if you're going out, or that the timer turns on at 6 p.m., or that stay on when you fall asleep to Letterman. Except someone was in there. There was no doorbell and the gate was locked, but when we called out there was an immediate reaction—a noise like someone rising out of a La-Z-Boy—and some of the lights clicked off. We called again, and more lights went out. We left a card and by the time we got back to the car, the house was completely dark. (Dillon, the private investigator, says he's had similar trouble serving Sears' women with subpoenas to appear in court next month; he's had to stake them out.)
Next stop was Bazan's house, only 4.2 miles away according to Yahoo! Maps, but a long and intricate drive in Irvine—down two main boulevards and up something called Ridgeline, which with a lot less traffic would be a great place to dump a body. There was a guard kiosk at Gladys' house, but no guard ("Back in 10 minutes," the sign said) so we waited. We were ready to leave when the guard came out of the back room. She asked who we wanted to see, and she asked for an address as well as a name—but she seemed puzzled by the information we gave her; I re-spelled it four times. "No one here by that name," she said, but she rang it anyway. The answering machine picked up, and it sounded like a man's voice—which might figure, considering that real estate records listed the property owner as Steven A. Sears. The guard didn't leave a message. We never did talk to Gladys Bazan—or to any of the women Sears has children with. And when we asked the guard one last time before we left, "Does Gladys Bazan live here?" the guard said the house was "owned by a man—but he's hardly ever here."
But in Irvine, where you drive home through an automatic gate down an empty street; where you park your car in the garage, close the garage door and go inside your house, no one would really know much about where someone like Sears was, when he was there, or what he was doing. Not until now.