Indicted Opera Patron Faces the Music

It's been three long years since Alberto Vilar, one of the world's leading art patrons, was arrested and charged with defrauding investors of millions of dollars but he finally faced the music this week.

On Monday, Vilar sat quietly in a federal courthouse in Manhattan as prosecutors described in opening statements how he allegedly stole millions from an heiress, once enlisting an assistant to use a pair of scissors and Scotch tape to cut Lily Cates' signature from one document and tape it to another authorizing a $250,000 transfer into Vilar's personal account.

"The defendants did not tell Lily Cates that they would spend nearly $3 million of her money to pay back another client," assistant U.S. attorney Benjamin Naftalis told jurors.

"That's a crime. That's fraud," he said.

Vilar is charged with 12 counts of conspiracy, securities, mail and wire fraud as well as lying to federal regulators.

Cates, the mother of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" actress Phoebe Cates, is expected to testify about how Vilar and his business partner Gary Tanaka used the millions she gave them to invest through their company, Amerindo.

Vilar, an opera aficionado, and his business partner were charged in May 2005 with taking millions given to them by friends to invest through their firm, Amerindo Investment Advisers, and allegedly diverting it to opera houses and orchestras around the world. Vilar has denied the charges, claiming that investment losses were due to the stock market's collapse after 2000.

Herald Price Fahringer, Vilar's lawyer, claimed that the case amounted to contract disputes with unhappy investors and said "there was no intent to steal anyone's money, to defraud anyone's money."

Vilar has churned through at least four lawyers who made several failed motions to suppress evidence in the case but succeeded in relaxing the conditions of his bail.

Vilar is estimated to have given or pledged $250 million to arts organizations and education institutions from the Metropolitan Opera and the Kirov to the Kennedy Center and the Salzburg Music Festival.

Although Vilar's downfall made headlines and led to embarrassing moments, such as London's Royal Opera House removing his name from its building, his life hasn't changed that much.

He continues to attend the opera on a regular basis, has traveled to London and Puerto Rico and successfully petitioned to have his ankle bracelet removed and to leave his apartment in the late afternoon and evening, according to court documents and associates.

And he still lives in his luxury Manhattan apartment. Although he sold the lower floor for $4 million in 2006, he held onto the 5,500-square-foot upper floor unit, which has a massive living room and several bedrooms, according to the listing broker for the apartment.

Vilar's powerful friends, such as conductor Valery Gergiev and investor Alfred Heitkoenig, have loaned him money and put up their homes as collateral for his bail, according to court documents.

"He's an old family friend," Heitkoenig said. "I can't believe he would do what he is accused of. I believe in him and I hope it's not true. I'm amazed after such an ordeal that he keeps his spirits up."

Vilar's current lawyer did not return calls seeking comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.