Monday, February 9, 2015
Will Tom French get the last word in fraud case?
Posted: Saturday, February 7, 2015
Tom French is dead, but will the retired Bucks County deputy sheriff — through two notes he reportedly left behind — get the last word in the $20 million insurance fraud in which he was accused?
The answer may play a role in the upcoming criminal proceedings involving the remaining members of the Risoldi family and two co-conspirators who the Pennsylvania Attorney General accused of fraud and related offenses in connection with three fires at the family’s Buckingham mansion between 2009 and 2013, according to local legal experts.
“That is a fascinating question,” Bucks County criminal defense attorney Paul Lang said. “There will be a debate over prosecution and defense over whether it’s admissible.”
In a 2,721-word note that French purportedly wrote before he died of a single self-inflicted gunshot to the head, the 64-year-old states that in recent weeks he had been making “notations” on his recollections related to the third fire in October 2013, as well as the family’s claims that firefighters had stolen jewelry worth more than $10 million — jewelry owned by his wife, Bucks County socialite Claire Risoldi.
“I have had no input from anyone in reference to this and no one knows that I am constructing this document,” according to the note a family associate emailed to the newspaper. “I did tell Claire that I was writing a scenario of the fire to you as requested.”
The note does not state who requested that French provide a written recounting of the days before and after the 2013 fire. The note, however, includes lengthy, unrelated rants, particularly against the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and its investigators. The office investigated and, upon a grand jury’s recommendations, filed insurance fraud and related charges against French and his 67-year-old wife, her children Carl A. “Carlo” Risoldi, 43, and Carla V. Risoldi, 48, and Carl’s wife, Sheila Risoldi, 43, and alleged associates Mark Goldman and Richard Holston.
In the note, French said he was not involved in discussions with attorneys and was “never” involved in any discussions with AIG, the insurance company that has paid $20 million for damages related to the three fires at the mansion named Clairemont.
He wrote that his wife owned numerous pieces of expensive jewelry, including necklaces that she claimed were each worth more than $500,000. He said in the note that he told investigators that Claire kept her jewelry in a “very large” safe in the basement and didn’t have her jewelry “laying around.”
According to the note, French said that on the morning of the 2013 fire he saw two off-white Risoldi Law Office bags in the hall on chairs. Claire told him the bags contained jewelry to be secured in safety deposit boxes. The day after the fire he found one of the bags in Carl and Sheila’s bathroom with two or three empty jewelry boxes and a Risoldi Law Office bag in the dining room containing boxes he didn’t open.
“THIS IS TRUE AND UNADULTERATED AND I TAKE THIS TO MY GRAVE,” French wrote in capital letters.
The note continued, stating that in the days after the fire French and restoration employees found other pieces of jewelry throughout Clairemont.
“I found a large diamond on my office floor. I found three (3) rings in an unmatched box at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor,” according to the note. He added that he continued to believe that firefighters had a role in the missing jewelry.
“I hated to have come to that conclusion, but I don’t see any other way the jewelry could have disappeared,” he wrote.
Lang, the defense attorney, suggested that a party who wants the notes admitted as evidence may argue they should be considered a dying declaration. It is testimony normally barred as hearsay, but could be admitted as evidence in certain cases because it represents the last words of a dying person, the attorney said.
But, in the end, “it’s going to come down to the judge” to decide, Lang added.
Veteran criminal defense attorney Ron Elgart is among the legal experts who doubts the French suicide notes would become a standalone factor in the criminal trial of the remaining defendants, but may be used to corroborate other testimony.
“Number one, you are dealing with someone who is not in their right mind, and you don’t have a chance to cross examine,” Elgart said.
Elgart added that while dying declarations are admissible evidence, they must adhere to certain requirements. Suicide notes are typically not deemed credible, he added.
Former Bucks County prosecutor Bob Salzer, who served in the district attorney’s office from 2005 to 2011, says it’s unlikely the suicide notes will come up at the trial for the remaining six defendants.
Even if authenticated as French’s final words, the notes themselves could be ruled as hearsay since French was not under oath and not subjected to cross-examination by prosecutors when making his final statement, Salzer said.
He added it could also be serious mistake to mention French’s suicide during any future trial.
“A good prosecutor could spin that around as evidence of guilt,” added Salzer, a criminal defense and family law attorney with Williams Family Law in Doylestown.
“If the defendant believes he is innocent, then, a prosecutor could argue, why not fight the charges at trial?” Salzer said.