The Ersatz Aristocrats! The Undoing of Lady Catarina Toumei

In the declining years of her most recent marriage, Ms. Toumei began to step up her online presence, registering bestsellingwriter.net in 2008 and creating another site, the admirably search-optimized sextradebook.webs.com, to promote Sex Trade. Part Memoir. Part Fantasy. The “fictional thriller” features “A young prostitute accused of murder, a Native-American single mom, an African-American showgirl, and a Harvard-graduate transvestite.” According to sextradebook.webs.com, proceeds from sales of the book, which may or may not exist, would pay fees for the establishment of a tax-exempt nonprofit. That organization would in turn direct future funds to “about 14 charitable organizations throughout the world, that physically rescue children from brothels, street corners, and bars.” But put away your wallets; the PayPal account attached to the site is currently frozen.  

The sex-trade initiative stands alongside some other projects that Ms. Toumei perhaps should have avoided. In a Jan. 2, 2010, blog post on bestsellingwriter.net, Ms. Toumei excitedly proclaims that she is “invested with” the “fastest-growing privately held company in America and the fastest-growing beverage company in America.” Ms. Toumei’s enthusiasm was directed at Efusjon, an energy-drink company that was sued in November 2009 for allegedly running a pyramid scheme. The case was settled under undisclosed terms; Efusjon denied wrongdoing. Deana Carter, a close friend of Ms. Toumei’s, said that the investment never really paid off for her, despite efforts to sell the beverages on Facebook and distribute them through a local country club.  

Things continued in this haphazard manner until March 2010, when Ms. Toumei made an acquaintance that carried her fantastical Internet voyage from get-rich-quick whimsy into legitimate legal peril. It was then, according to co-defendant Vladimir Zuravel, that Ms. Toumei first reached out to him on Facebook–where, with permission from his purported mentor, “Mr. David B. Guggenheim,” he maintained a profile under the name “Vladimir Z. Guggenheim.” Mr. Zuravel told The Observer that he was born in the Republic of Moldova to a “respectable Jewish family.” There is something of
a Toumei-ish streak to the way Mr. Zuravel presents himself: He spent two years in the Soviet Special Forces instructing soldiers for the war in Afghanistan, before attending military university to become a pilot, and then dropping out to go to medical school. He is a champion martial arts competitor, having trained since he was 4 years old. He knows kung fu, jujitsu, karate and other techniques. He speaks Russian, Ukranian, Moldavian, Polish, Hungarian and Czech. He’s a vegetarian, and he never smokes, drinks or does drugs.  

After moving to America in 1992, Mr. Zuravel said, he spent his first 13 or so years here training for seven or eight hours a day. Living in the Edgewater area on Chicago’s North Side, he enrolled at the Military Arts Institute of Martial Arts. He studied under Grand Master Shin, swam in Lake Michigan in the winter and ran barefoot through the snow, he says. (A staff member at the Military Arts Institute remembered Mr. Zuravel, and said he had been enrolled there for about three years.) At the institute, Mr. Zuravel said, he became a captain of the demonstration team for Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do. “I was monk,” he said. “That was 16 years–no friends, no women. Train, train, train every day.” When he wasn’t training, he attended several synagogues, including Synagogue Ephraim, and studied the Torah. Despite all that athletic discipline, medical training, military acumen and religious zeal, Mr. Zuravel said he worked odd jobs in Chicago doing construction and driving taxis. He is currently unemployed, but he hopes soon to launch a Web site where he will sell a “patented” exercise system for golfers.  

According to Mr. Zuravel, he met David Birnbaum through a friend five years ago, soon after he moved to New York. Mr. Zuravel said Mr. Birnbaum was very impressed not only with his royal pedigree but also his Russian connections and command of the language. The pair formed a quick bond, and Mr. Zuravel began to serve as Mr. Birnbaum’s bodyguard, which is not surprising, given what Mr. Birnbaum was doing at the time. In the years leading up to Mr. Zuravel’s arrival, Mr. Birnbaum appears to have been pursuing several large business deals in Russia. An Aug. 23, 2004, article in Kommersant identifies a “David Guggenheim,” chairman of Dabir International, as a potential buyer in an auction of the Russian government’s 7.59 percent stake in Lukoil, but concludes, “Analysts believe, Guggenheim, whose name is new to the oil industry, may be used by officials in negotiations with ConocoPhillips. However, as a potential buyer he does not seem to be a serious competitor to the other auction participants–analysts predict that Lukoil will not want to have an unknown investor.”  

As it turns out, this particular investor was unknown even to the Guggenheims. The following month, a spokesman for the Guggenheim Brothers investment company told The New York Times that the bidder had no ties to the family. The Times was nonplussed: “It is unclear how David Guggenheim, whose address is listed as Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, is obtaining financing for the minimum Lukoil bid of $1.93 billion.”

Mr. Birnbaum’s explanation of his extensive capital resources, as recounted by Mr. Zuravel, is as follows: The first thing to realize is that there is another Guggenheim bank–not a company, but a “system of banks.” This Guggenheim bank system, which consists of “lots of banks,” “transferred” to Deutsche Bank at some point, and then broke up into four or five banks. When Solomon Guggenheim–the real-deal, museum-namesake Guggenheim–died, he created a “small foundation” that somehow disappeared through a series of transactions and transplants. A part of the rogue fund moved through Russia, to Japan, then to China. Another segment of the fund “broke into two pieces.” At some point, one such fund came to contain trillions of dollars–a series of transformations rivaled only by those of the defendants. Mr. Birnbaum claimed he was eventually entrusted with the fund, on the condition that he not use the Guggenheim family name.   

The Ersatz Aristocrats! The Undoing of Lady Catarina Toumei