Three Accused in Alleged Guggenheim Scam

FBI hunts woman who allegedly pretended to be countess selling family diamonds.

ByABC News
February 1, 2011, 2:19 PM

Feb. 1, 2011— -- 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.