Angel of Theft

A high-flying New Age company is grounded amid allegations that its main financial backer embezzled $4.5 million from UCSF

The city was unusually hot on this sticky February night, but the crowd gathered in the opulent Hotel Monaco was cooling itself sufficiently via an open bar and chilled shrimp appetizers. Another new publishing company was launching a periodical, and no expense had been spared to make the right impression. A New Age musician played in one corner. Attendants circulated with trays of wine and appetizers, serving the invitation-only gathering, which included the magazine's friends and family, as well as a few genuine celebrities, up from Los Angeles for the occasion.

The event was noteworthy for a number of reasons, not least of which was the magazine's unique editorial vision. The fledgling Solimar wouldn't be your typical slick, four-color glossy financed by car, liquor, and tobacco advertising. Its subhead read "Living in the New Millennium," and the monthly maga- zine intended to introduce a new brand of spirituality to the newsracks of America -- the power of angels.

Solimar would show its readers how world peace could be achieved through inner peace, both types of peace ushered in by angel entities of no particular denomination. The magazine hoped to help each and every person seek the angel within, and get in touch with angel experiences they may have had.

This fuzzy, if well-intentioned, pursuit came courtesy of Solimar Inc., a group of Bay Area seekers with loosely defined religious and spiritual connections. At its center, treated with almost cultlike reverence, was the company's charismatic founder and CEO, Christina "Sunni" Taliaferro.

The celebration's zenith came when the elegantly coiffed Taliaferro, who was also the magazine's editor in chief, took the podium, her deep black eyes sparkling. When Talia- ferro drew back a cloth to unveil the cover of the magazine's premier issue, a photo of soap opera star Kathleen Noone, the room exploded in cheers. The confident young entrepreneur became overwhelmed with emotion as she thanked those who had believed so strongly in her project. It was as if the entire room had a lump in its throat.

Tears welled in the eyes of Barnet Bain, producer of the film What Dreams May Come, when he took the microphone to thank Solimarfor including an article about him, and to offer his support. It was perhaps the first magazine launch party where many of those present actually broke down in sobs.

To an outsider, Solimar's launch party at the Union Square hotel struck an odd balance between humility and greed, reflecting polar opposite worldviews at the outer limits of both touchy-feely cupids and guileless cupidity. Observers wondered: What could possibly be the benefit of combining two such obviously competing ideologies, and more curiously, who would be bankrolling the effort?

The answers would come quickly. From this night forward, Solimar Inc.'s fall from grace would be swift.

Within four months, and after only two issues, Solimarceased publication. Taliaferro's company -- which also operated Wings of Solimar, an East Bay art gallery devoted to angels -- collapsed into financial ruin and lawsuits. Writers and employees were left unpaid, and the company was ultimately forced to file bankruptcy.

It seems that, in order to start up the Wings of Solimar gallery and Solimarmagazine, a financial angel had come to Sunni Taliaferro's assistance in the form of her mother, Marie Taliaferro, the head cashier at the UCSF campus.

Although enjoying only a brief life, Solimar magazine did indeed manage to straddle the two worlds of humility and greed. It enlight-ened its readers and touched their lives, and apparently did it with embezzled money.

Sunni Taliaferro grew up in the sheltered East Bay suburbs of Montclair and Lafayette, tree-lined communities nestled between Oakland and Walnut Creek. In December 1986, at the age of 21, she was raped by a friend in the entertainment business who claimed he could help her career, according to the press releases and biography Taliaferro would later distribute.

A few years later, Taliaferro's press materials say, she learned about the concept of date rape while watching an episode of The Young and the Restless. The incident contin- ued to haunt Taliaferro as she worked in the retail fashion world. She grew increasingly suicidal, and developed bulimia.

She gave birth to a son, and got engaged, but remained unhappy. In 1996, she took her 5-year-old to visit her grandmother's grave, and broke down sobbing. A voice began speaking to her. It was the angel of her grandmother, Taliaferro's press materials say. The angel told her to quit her job. If she didn't, the angel said, she would feel depressed and lonely for a long time. Taliaferro broke up with her fiance, moved to Moraga, and took a bookkeeping job at the local Lucky's supermarket.

One December morning in 1996 she was in the shower when the phone rang. It was her mother, Marie, calling to say that if Sunni wanted to start a business, Marie would provide the financial backing. (Neither Marie nor Sunni Taliaferro responded to requests for interviews for this story.)

Sunni and a friend, Mimi Anderson, began casting about for business ideas. Perhaps it was the success of the Touched by an Angeltelevision show, or the spate of Hollywood films featuring angels, but something inspired the women to build their new venture around winged entities.

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