Jewelry expert testifies in $20M insurance fraud-fires case

AP News
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Posted: Mar 31, 2015 5:47 PM
Jewelry expert testifies in $20M insurance fraud-fires case

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A local GOP fundraiser charged in a $20 million insurance scheme after three mansion fires in five years cursed and discussed the Mafia while meeting with a jewelry appraiser about her claims, the appraiser testified Tuesday.

Claire Risoldi's "salty language" was humorous until it became threatening, appraiser Don Palmieri testified at a hearing over the racketeering case filed against Risoldi, her adult children and three others.

He noted one instance when she called him a "rat bastard."

"You don't normally hear women of her stature (talk that way)," Palmieri said. "There was a lot of discussion about Mafia. I thought that was meant to maybe intimidate us."

Risoldi, 67, is known as a colorful character in Bucks County who threw lavish political fundraisers at a 10-acre estate she called Clairemont. Her insurance claims included $2 million for Swarovski crystal-inflected drapes and $10 million for jewelry purportedly moved to the house from her bank when she surprised guests at an October 2013 fundraiser by getting married. The mansion burned for a third time weeks later.

Risoldi said the jewelry went missing during the fire — and pointed the blame at firefighters. But a January grand jury report charged that some of the same pieces were later found in her safety deposit box.

Palmieri, working for her insurer, said at least some of the pieces found were custom, challenging defense suggestions that she had duplicates.

Also Tuesday, a local artist admitted that he forged invoices that said he was paid $725,000 for two murals at Clairemont, not the $50,000 he had actually been paid. Risoldi wanted them for her insurance claims, and Carl Risoldi handed him the pen and paper, he said.

"I'm so sorry about all this because I really care about these people, and I like them," artist Russell Buckingham said. "But I got pulled into this. ... She asked me to do (it), and I did it."

The source of the Risoldis' wealth remains something of a mystery. Earlier fire and theft claims, which reached six figures, were not enough to buy Clairemont or the dozens of luxury cars they owned, according to evidence presented Tuesday.

Claire Risoldi told an insurer in 1984 that her husband was a union tile and marble foreman. Other times, she reported that he made "millions" in the casino construction trade in Atlantic City, prosecutors said.

No one is charged with arson in the case, and the defense maintains that all three fires were accidental. Three insurance companies honored claims for fires in 2009, 2010 and 2013.

A fire marshal is expected to testify later in the week about his findings. The grand jury report alleges that a large supply of hair spray found near the 2013 fire's origin could have served as an accelerant. Risoldi typically sports teased, bouffant hair.

The racketeering case took a dark turn in February, when her husband, retired sheriff's deputy Thomas French, fatally shot himself. In a note, he said the stress of defending himself against false accusations had become too great. He wrote lovingly of his wife, saying, "There is no one like her."

Risoldi — who grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, across the river from bucolic Bucks County — greeted guests at his church funeral in a sporty fur jacket, spike-heeled boots and aviator sunglasses.

The others charged in the case are Risoldi's son, Carl, a turnpike employee, and his wife, Sheila; her daughter, Carla, a local lawyer; and a private investigator and drapery vendor. The preliminary hearing to determine if the case goes to trial is expected to last all week.

Defense lawyers have called the charges by the Democrat-led state attorney general's office politically motivated.