Haitian Charity From a Convicted Cheat
The first thing you notice about Suzie Graf is her voice, or, rather, her purr. It’s about an octave too high in pitch for anyone but a small child, and while one presumes it’s meant to be disarming, it’s less suggestive of innocence than Marilyn Monroe huffing helium. At 55 years old, she’s remarkably physically fit, with no trace of surgical enhancement or even makeup on her face. She’s curled up in a chair at the dining room of her rented house in the upscale Shorecliffs neighborhood, a non-gated community in San Clemente that boasts million-dollar ocean views and exclusive access to a private beach.
It’s a chilly, overcast morning on a recent weekday, but Graf is snug in a pair of velour après-ski boots, faded jeans and a white sweat shirt. Her daughter, Tess, a personal trainer who also speaks in the same strange, catlike voice as her mom, is wearing black Spandex jogging pants and running shoes. Two large, friendly, fluffy dogs of an uncertain breed frolic nearby on the Grafs’ wooden deck, which offers a commanding view of a mist-shrouded canyon with houses on the opposite ridge and, in between, a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.
Graf is explaining how she single-handedly orchestrated the collection and delivery of 6 tons of emergency supplies for the suffering people of Haiti less than a week after that country’s devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. “I just decided that we just needed to do a community effort,” Graf explains. “I started reaching out, and it just kind of grew and grew and grew. People started asking about medical supplies; we got rollaway beds, two wheelchairs, two crutches, orthopedic boots—medical supplies just started pouring in.”
Graf called the Clearwater, Florida-based storage company PODS, which promised to send her as many storage containers as she needed. She also arranged for a Redondo Beach company called Stevens Global Logistics to deliver the containers by rail to Florida and, from there, to have them shipped to Haiti via Sante Shipping Lines. Her effort was impressive enough to catch the attention of a local newspaper, the San Clemente Times, which, on Jan. 21 ran an article titled “To Haiti With Love” about her and other local residents who were directing spontaneous collection drives in town.
“Suzie Graf just knew she had to do something,” Norb Garrett’s story began. “As she and her family sat in their San Clemente living room seemingly worlds away from the mayhem and disaster in Haiti . . . she told her husband, Chuck, and two college-aged children that she would do something—not sure exactly what—to help.” Garrett, the paper’s publisher, noted that Graf was recently “laid off from work as an executive assistant; her husband, a general contractor, is in the throes of dealing with the major slowdown in building jobs”; and “one of her dogs was just diagnosed with cancer,” he wrote.
Despite this, Garrett noted, nobody in Graf’s family was “surprised” that she was jumping in to help the Haitians. “This is a typical mom move,” Graf’s son, Max, told Garrett, whose story ended by telling readers Graf’s home address, where a PODS container awaited donations, along with advice to “leave the donation at the door of the house if no one is home or if late at night.” Thanks in part to the Times article, Graf was able to gather the tons of supplies in three PODS containers that sat outside her home for a week. Those containers are well on their way to helping needy victims in Haiti. At press time, according to Mark Lewis, director of the Evangelical Free Church of America’s TouchGlobal Crisis Response, they had arrived in Florida and were awaiting delivery by cargo ship from Miami to Cap-Haitien, a port in northern Haiti.
Lewis had just returned from a few weeks in Haiti, where he oversaw his organization’s initial relief mission there. He says Graf, with whom he shares a mutual friend, contacted him within a week of the earthquake, offering to provide his group with whatever supplies he needed.
“In Cap-Haitien, there is a large population of folks who have been displaced from Port-au-Prince, and we have a medical team that is still around the area,” Lewis said. “Those supplies will end up in Cap-Haitien and be distributed there.
“It’s cool to see people come together,” he added. “The little things people do really do make a difference. I look around and see all these people doing the same thing. It takes people from all across the country to make this happen.”
In a different world—perhaps a kinder, more forgiving one—this heartwarming tale might have ended right here. But there’s much more to Susan Graf’s story, although none of it would likely have come to light if Graf’s hometown paper hadn’t highlighted her efforts to help the people of Haiti.
As it happened, numerous people who read the Times article couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw her photograph splashed across the newspaper’s front page. They contacted officials with Capo Beach Calvary, the church Graf attends, and told them she wasn’t exactly the altruistic volunteer she had portrayed herself to be in her interview with the newspaper.
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.”
* * *
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.”
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.”
* * *
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.”
* * *
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.
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.”
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.”
* * *
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."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.