'Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei,' Alleged Grifter, Surrenders

'Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei' accused of baiting investors with false claims.

ByABC News
February 1, 2011, 2:19 PM

Feb. 3, 2011— -- A woman -- who prosecutors say was a grifter impersonating a European countess working on behalf of the wealthy Guggenheim family to sell $1 billion worth of diamonds -- has turned herself in to federal authorities in California after her accused accomplices were arraigned in New York.

Catarina Pietra Toumei, who had been on the lam since Monday, is accused of trying to defraud investors. She and her two accomplices, who pretended to be heirs to the Guggenheim fortune, tried -- and failed -- to lure potential investors to buy diamonds from the "private collection of the Guggenheim family," invest in a "Guggenheim Vodka" venture, and invest in a $4 billion deal involving the sale of oil to a Chinese refinery, according to court documents.

Toumei claimed to be a European aristocrat married to John Ratzenberger, the actor who played the beer-swilling mailman Cliff Clavin on "Cheers," according to prosecutors.

She turned herself in to the federal court in San Diego Wednesday evening. Bond was set at $200,000, according to ABC News affiliate KGTV in San Diego.

Because of the late hour and because Toumei turned herself in, the judge released her provided she come back Thursday to pay the bond, KGTV reported. She turned in her passport and said her parents would up their house to pay the bond.

The FBI arrested the men, David Birnbaum and Vladimir Zuravel, in New York Monday, and the three suspects will be tried in New York.

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. The Guggenheim name has become synonymous with philanthropy; there are several museums around the world built with Guggenheim money.

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 men "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.