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From ashes of estate rises fiery lawsuit

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By John P. Martin The Philadelphia Inquirer
Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA — The 53-page document reads more like a screenplay than a lawsuit. If Jerald Batoff's claim is true, that's how it may end up.

More than seven months after his historic Main Line home, a 24,000-square-foot estate designed by Horace Trumbauer, burned to the ground, Batoff says the blaze was part of a multimillion-dollar arson and fraud scheme by a Canadian businessman and his girlfriend who only pretended to want to buy the place.

According to the complaint, filed late last week, the plot hatched by Dean Topolinski and Julie Charbonneau went like this:

String Batoff along with a $260,000 down payment, monthly lease checks and other cash siphoned from a company on the verge of collapse. Move in and get a $5 million insurance policy for their belongings.

Dismiss the groundskeepers and secretly disable the security system and surveillance cameras. Start a fire in the basement corner near the circuit breaker, one sure to engulf the rest of the mansion. Then wait a few months and stake their ownership claim.

The alleged payoff: more than $20 million in insurance proceeds, plus seven acres of pristine Radnor Township property, ready to be developed.

Ongoing battle

Batoff alleges Topolinski and Charbonneau, an interior designer and self-proclaimed Montreal socialite, engaged in “a pattern of racketeering activity” that started a full year before the April blaze that drew 100 firefighters. The racketeering, he says, includes wire fraud, insurance fraud, and even staging a fake break-in that plunged a company into bankruptcy.

A lawyer for the couple said Friday that neither they nor he would address the allegations.

“It's a very inflammatory complaint, which we won't dignify with a response,” said the lawyer, Michael S. Doluisio of Dechert LLP.

The claim is the latest salvo in a tortured battle over who will get the millions of dollars left in the ashes of the famed 19-bedroom, 15-bathroom estate dubbed Bloomfield, built around 1885 and redesigned decades later by the Philadelphia architect Trumbauer. It sits along South Ithan Avenue, a mile or so west of Villanova University.

In late October, U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. gave the Canadian couple a victory when he issued a temporary restraining order freezing $17 million in insurance proceeds Batoff had collected for the fire. Yohn will get this case as well.

Competing theories

Batoff's lawyer, Paul G. Rosen, chairman of the firm Spector, Gadon & Rosen, declined Friday to discuss the lawsuit.

But the details in the document suggest an intensive behind-the-scenes private investigation in the months since Radnor Township Fire Marshal Don Wood declared the cause of the fire undetermined but not suspicious.

Wood said he could not rule out an electrical problem or arson but had no conclusive evidence pointing to either. “Very honestly, I do not know what caused that fire,” he said.

Batoff claims to have enlisted arson experts who concluded that was part of the ruse. They said someone detached wires from a basement circuit breaker, then used a blowtorch or a similar tool to make it appear as if detached wires sparked there.

Batoff contends that Topolinski and Charbonneau were the only ones with access, motive and opportunity to torch the place.

The couple emerged as potential buyers in March 2011, the lawsuit states. Topolinski, who has grabbed headlines for other business disputes, had a direct-marketing plant in Swedesboro in Gloucester County in New Jersey, and wanted a home in the area. Batoff, a real estate executive and scion of a prominent political fundraiser, had divorced and was looking to downsize.

Outlining a plot

According to the lawsuit, Topolinski asked to see the insurance policy on the property, which valued the estate at $22 million. He and Charbonneau offered $5.2 million for the sale and gave Batoff a $260,000 down payment.

But they repeatedly postponed the closing, always with pledges to make amends, the suit claims. In July 2011, they sent Batoff $1 million to keep the sale viable and asked to move in with a 90-day lease. He agreed.

According to the complaint, Topolinski paid them with money funneled from DGI Services Ltd., a company with two plants in Swedesboro, at the same time it was veering toward insolvency.

Batoff contends that Topolinski ordered an unprecedented shutdown of one of the South Jersey plants in November 2011, then “staged” a break-in there to damage its equipment and recoup as much as $30 million in insurance proceeds. At the time, Topolinski called the incident “industrial espionage.”

Not long afterward, the firm was plunged into bankruptcy, closed its facilities and laid off 600 workers nationwide. DGI is now overseen by a Bankruptcy Court trustee.

Batoff claims the FBI is investigating Topolinski for fraud related to the plant break-in, though he cites no proof. A spokesman for the FBI said Friday the bureau would not confirm or deny ongoing investigations.

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