Two men accused of impersonating members of the wealthy Guggenheim family were arraigned in federal court Monday, charged with trying to deceive investors into buying a billion dollars worth of diamonds, while their accomplice who pretended to be a countess remains at large.
The FBI arrested the men, David Birnbaum and Vladimir Zuravel, in New York Tuesday but agents and California police are on the hunt there for Catarina Pietra Toumei.
Part of Toumei's alleged scam was to tell potential targets she was a "countess" and married to John Ratzenberger, the actor who played the beer-tippling mailman on the 1980s sitcom "Cheers," according to federal prosecutors.
The three are accused of running a scam in which they tried -- and failed -- to lure potential investors into deals selling a $1 billion worth of diamonds from the "private collection of the Guggenheim family," launching a venture to sell "Guggenheim Vodka," and a $4 billion transaction involving the sale of oil to a Chinese refinery, according to court documents.
After their arraignment and release on bail, Zuravel, 45, insisted that Birnbaum was a legitimate billionaire and scion of the Guggenheims, a U.S. family whose fortune dates from 19th century mining concerns and who have become synonymous with arts philanthropy and building museums worldwide.
Zuravel, a former cab driver from Russia, told reporters that Birnbaum, 67, allowed him to use the Guggenheim name for business.
Birnbaum "is an extremely honest person," he said Monday. "It's just a simple mix-up."
The three "used the Guggenheim surname and falsely claimed membership in the famous philanthropic family to gain access to highly regarded and/or wealthy individuals," according to the complaint. "In reality, however, the defendants are not known descendants of, or have any relationship to, the famous Guggenheim family."
Zurvel and Birnbaum allegedly identified themselves as "David B. Guggenheim" and "Vladimir Z. Guggenheim" to investors.
Suspect Had Relationship With Actor
Toumei allegedly called herself "Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei" and told investors she worked for the "Guggenheim Fund."
Toumei claimed on her online LinkedIn profile that she was bestowed the title "Lady" by European royalty for her philanthropy.
On her Facebook page, she calls herself "a humanitarian and philanthropist" and says she works as "investment relations manager."
Despite being on the lam today, someone posted from Toumei's Facebook account around 1 p.m. ET, quoting Robert Jackson: "The price of freedom of religion, or of speech, or of the press, is that we must put up with a good deal of rubbish."
A representative for Ratzenberger, star of Cheers and the "Toy Story" cartoon franchise, said the actor "had a short-lived relationship with Ms. Toumei, almost two years prior to this complaint. He is unaware of this alleged criminal activity and is saddened that her life has taken this turn."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.