By Erin Sherbert
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A quote from the Book of John graces a wall display in the parish hall at St. Hilary Church. Below the words "I am the vine, you are the branches" hang oak panels overlaid with scores of thin metal leaves of various subdued colors. On each leaf appears the name of a parishioner who helped fund recent upgrades to the Tiburon chapel and its elementary school.
Four leaves painted light gold hover above the rest; the hue denotes the "Angel" contributors who gave $500,000 and up. Two of the leaves honor unnamed donors, and a third recognizes a charity foundation. The fourth bears the names of Rebecca and Terry Solomon.
The couple moved to Tiburon in 2002, after splitting the previous year between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. They soon joined St. Hilary, enrolling their young son in school and cozying up to church officials and congregants alike. As part of an auction to collect money for the building projects, they donated jewelry and a trip for two to Tokyo, raising an estimated $20,000. They hosted dinners for parishioners, opening their doors to St. Hilary's "venture Catholics," the couple's purported term for members with deep pockets.
Among that well-heeled group was William McLaughlin. A Tiburon real estate developer and longtime church benefactor, he made news in 2005 for organizing a massive rescue effort for house pets displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Court records show that McLaughlin, who did not respond to interview requests, introduced his friend Osenton to the Solomons in spring 2003. And soon after the couple's gala in June 2004, it was McLaughlin whom they asked to call Osenton about their potential investment deal.
The donor board at St. Hilary's honors Osenton with a dark gold leaf that designates him a "Legacy" contributor, the appellation for church members who gave $250,000 to $500,000. He stepped down in 2001 as president of Pacific Guarantee Mortgage, a firm that, during his 14-year tenure, bloomed from a lone office in San Rafael into a nationwide brokerage with revenues in the billions.
Despite his manifest financial savvy, and Rebecca Solomon embellishing the value of her collateral, Osenton chose to trust the couple, as did Vogelheim, his fellow parishioner. Their reasoning can only be surmised, as Osenton declined to comment and Vogelheim did not respond to interview requests. More than a dozen investors across the Bay Area who fell for the Solomons' alleged scams echoed that reticence when contacted by SF Weekly. "What happened is embarrassing," one said. "Nobody likes to talk about being duped."
Several sources, insisting on anonymity owing to business and social ties to the investors, suggest the Solomons' flamboyance seduced people who probably should have known better. Besides hosting parties and seven-course dinners, the couple often invited large groups for food and drinks at four-star eateries; her hand laden with a diamond ring the size of an apricot pit, Rebecca always signed the tab. Those who joined the Solomons on day trips to Napa Valley would return home with wine worth thousands of dollars, the couple's way of saying thanks for coming along.
Such largess may have disarmed the Solomons' well-heeled quarry, who with minimal research could have unearthed the couple's sketchy business history. Court records indicate they filed for bankruptcy in the late 1990s after a botched attempt to launch a chain of spas in Southern California. They went bust again in 2001, this time in Las Vegas, following the demise of an upscale fashion boutique they owned. The latter enterprise foundered when U.S. Bank sued the Solomons, alleging that they and Rebecca's daughters, who handled the store's business affairs, committed fraud by overdrawing their accounts by $1.2 million. (No criminal charges resulted.)
But investors, blinded by the glitz, apparently neglected to look into the couple's public past. "Ostentatious wealth can be attractive to people," says a Tiburon business executive who spurned the duo's overtures. "[The Solomons] preyed on that instinct."
Their profligacy stirred chatter even in Tiburon, a posh enclave of 8,700 residents with a median house value of $1.7 million. They owned a Range Rover and four Mercedes sedans, employed a household staff of six, and paid a horticulturist $3,000 a month to nurture an orchid collection that rivaled the Amazon's. House visits from a masseuse and fitness trainer augmented Rebecca's regimen of spa treatments, liposuction, and assorted cosmetic tucks. She shopped for clothes as if it were an Olympic sport, running up $30,000 bills during daylong binges on Rodeo Drive.
Together since at least 1995, the Solomons struck most as a mismatched pair, seeming to share little in common beyond their son. Described as amiable and laid-back, traits that contrasted with his wife's hauteur, Terry possessed a gearhead's yen for the open road, exploring the Bay Area's byways on his Harley. On the business side, while Rebecca courted investors, Terry handled much of the bookkeeping and provided customer support, answering questions about the investment plans. "He was her lapdog," says a Tiburon resident who socialized with the couple. "He did whatever she told him to do."
In early 2004 she told him to leave, apparently weary of his financial dependence on her. Terry moved into a house in Sausalito for several weeks as rumors of divorce percolated. "She said she wanted a self-made man," another former friend says. Yet Terry's exile proved far from permanent. He traveled with Rebecca to Japan and stayed for stretches at the Tiburon house, and during their party in June that year, they looked every bit the happy couple. He returned home for good a short time later. "You couldn't really figure out what the truth was about them. You couldn't really get a clear answer."