*UPDATED: To Haiti With Love?
EDIT: Updated with Susan Graf's response to the original posting yesterday afternoon.
On Jan. 21, the San Clemente Times ran a heartwarming story about local citizens eager to help the suffering people of Haiti in the wake of that country's devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. "Suzie Graf just knew she had to do something," the story, headlined "To Haiti With Love," by Times publisher Norb Garrett 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 noted that times haven't been easy on Graf lately: She 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. Despite this, nobody in Graf's family was "surprised" that she was "leading" an effort to send relief to Haiti. "What has been surprising," Garrett wrote, "is how quickly, and how big, this effort to help in Haiti has become." According to Garrett's story, Graf has already enlisted the shipping company PODS, UPS, Quiksilver/Roxy, Virgin Atlantic and Prudential Realty in her campaign to ship tents and clothing to Haiti.
"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 awaits donations, along with advice to "leave the donation at the door of the house if no one is home or if late at night."
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According to numerous sources who spoke with the Weekly, Graf's Haiti relief venture may be exactly the "typical mom move" described by her son, although not in a good way. In fact, Susan Lorraine Graf has a rap sheet that includes numerous civil judgments awarded against her after various people (including close friends) claimed she ripped them off, as well as a 2004 conviction for grand theft in Orange County, which landed in her jail for two days and earned her 40 hours of community service and four years probation. Graf apparently didn't learn her lesson, however, because in 2006, she pled guilty to two charges of credit card fraud in Jackson Hole Wyoming, which lead to a 10 month stint in state prison there, as well as a $143,751 restitution payment.
In an interview with the Weekly, Graf acknowledged making "mistakes" in the past, but claimed that she has changed her ways, adding that she paid off the court in May 2007, which a court clerk in Jackson Hole confirmed is true. "What happened to me happened a long time ago and I have paid my dues and I understand where I made my mistakes," Graf said. "I hurt my family and I hurt my friends and I hurt my community, but now I've done something beautiful and I am on the level."
Anyone soliciting funds for charity is required by state law to register with the Attorney General's office in Sacramento. "Our charitable trusts registry does not have any registered charity or commercial fundraiser registered to Susan Graf or any name containing Graf," said Dana Simas, a deputy press secretary with the Attorney General's office. It's highly unlikely that Graf would be allowed to solicit donations, seeing as she remains on probation from her 2006 fraud conviction in Wyoming. A summary of the charges filed against Graf in that case , which the Weekly obtained, reveal that between March and September 2003, Graf allegedly bilked a customer at her Teton Clothing & Home Accents Store of more than $10,000.
The customer had shopped at her store on March 23, and made a purchase for $1564.56. In August, he received a bank statement and discovered that without his permission, Graf had charged him for that same amount on May 30, June 15, July 13, July 25, and July 29, with a separate unauthorized charge of $1457.89 on July 17. Graf ultimately pled guilty to two counts of credit-card fraud and spent 10 months of an 18-to-36-month prison sentence at the Wyoming Women's Center in Lusk, getting time off for good behavior.
Several former acquaintances of Graf say she didn't just cheat customers but, they claim, stole from her friends and employers. One woman, who asked not to be identified because she is a prominent businesswoman, says Graf took her father-in-law's credit card without permission in 2004 and used it to take her dog to the vet. Graf wrote her a letter of apology and returned the cash, the woman says. 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 $1400. "I rarely ever look at my checks, but for some reason that day I opened the bank statement," Wright told the Weekly. "The check was so obviously doctored I can't believe the bank cashed it."
Ultimately, Graf returned the cash and apologized, so he declined to press charges. In any case, he says, this happened just a few weeks before Graf, who had recently fled Wyoming, leaving a trail of financial wreckage and criminal complaints behind her, was arrested in Newport Beach and extradited back to Jackson Hole, where she was convicted of credit card fraud there. "I would say, knowing her 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," Wright concluded. "Someone needs to stop her from what she's doing before the same thing that happened to me happens to someone else."
But Kelly Wolfe, a San Clemente resident who has been gathering tents which she provided to Graf to be transported to Haiti, says she is certain that Graf is on the level this time, despite 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, who says she's only spoken to Graf on the telephone, told the Weekly. "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."
After the San Clemente Times article ran, several Orange County residents who knew of Graf's background and were aware that she was soliciting donations at local churches approached Joseph Travers, a former LA County Sheriff's Detective and Calvary Chapel pastor who also works as a private investigator for churches and charities. Travers alerted the Orange County Sheriff's Department to their complaints. Travers said a sheriff's fraud detective told him the U.S. Secret Service is also now investigating Graf.
John McDonald, a Sheriff's spokesperson, refused to say whether his agency was investigating Graf, but stated that the public should always research any charity before making a donation by checking to see if the charity is registered with the California Attorney General. "If anyone thinks they are the victim of a scam, they should file a complaint with us or with their local police department."
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