By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Two women hug like long-lost sisters beneath a gazebo at north Phoenix's Roadrunner Park.
Gina Niedzwiecki and Ruth Murray had been chatting by phone for months, since they'd learned of their sadly similar stories. But this sunny day in mid-January marks the first time they've met in person, and their excitement is palpable.
The women have their children with them, which include Murray's eight (the oldest is 16) and Niedzwiecki's two little girls.
As they quickly set out a picnic lunch -- they've been through that drill before -- the women giggle about being peas in a pod: devout Catholics, close-knit families, long marriages, devoted moms, ingrained work ethics, love of children, small in stature, big in personality.
Finally, they start to talk about their former divorce mediator, 53-year-old Gary Karpin.
Karpin became the focus of both women's hearts -- and pocketbooks -- after they turned to him for help on their divorces, Niedzwiecki's in 2003 and Murray's last year.
"Not such a good guy, is he, Gina?" Murray says.
"Nope," Niedzwiecki replies, smiling at her new friend's intentional understatement.
Gary Karpin operates what he says is a booming one-man business that he variously calls "Divorce With Dignity" or "Divorce Associates."
His Web site claims he "can help you overcome these trying times without the costs and fees that a typical divorce could cost you."
Karpin's print advertisements say he'll "settle all issues -- no trial -- no court appearance -- be divorced in 90 days -- low cost -- low stress -- judge approved -- focus on best interests of children -- attorney supervised."
Those lofty promises have led hundreds of people to Karpin's office at 3420 East Shea Boulevard in Phoenix since he set up shop there in the late 1990s.
And no doubt, many of his customers would say he's done a fine job for them at what they considered a reasonable price.
But Gina Niedzwiecki and Ruth Murray didn't just entrust Karpin with their money: They also gave him their hearts, after the twice-divorced Gilbert resident convinced them of his romantic interest in them.
They admit that the unexpected attention from the trim, classical-guitar-playing Christopher Walken look-alike had flattered them, especially during the dark, lonely times after they split from longtime spouses.
"I was a separated mother of eight kids living in a 952-square-foot house and working my butt off," says Murray, a letter-carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. "What man would possibly be interested in that?"
The pair say they'd assumed Karpin was a licensed lawyer, and that he did nothing to dissuade them. For his part, Karpin says he never claims to be a licensed attorney, and notes small type in his fee agreement that calls him a "mediator," not a lawyer.
"I never, ever give legal advice," he tells New Times. "Telling people the content of the law, telling the people what their options are, is not giving legal advice."
But Karpin's office walls are lined with his apparent credentials, including his law degree from a Vermont school and a certificate from Maricopa County Superior Court deeming him qualified in mediation.
And even a satisfied customer that Karpin produced for New Times says she believed he was a licensed attorney.
"He's not an attorney?" asked Caitlin Gallup, who went to Karpin with her estranged husband a few years ago for mediation. "I was sure he was a lawyer who happened to do mediation. This makes me think about some things."
Gallup says the bill came to about $6,000, and she credits Karpin with "being able to manage the conflict and expectations of myself and my ex-husband, somewhat like a counselor and lawyer combined. At the end of the day, it was about the outcome."
In the late 1990s, Karpin called his business the "Law Offices of G.J. Karpin and Associates," and referred to himself as a "retired" prosecutor.
Actually, Karpin was "retired" as an attorney by the Vermont Supreme Court in 1992, when it disbarred him.
One of Karpin's print advertisements depicts his photo and a caption beneath that says "Dr. Gary." That ad focuses on the counseling side of Karpin's business, and claims: "80 percent of my couples reconciled or dismissed their divorce or both after completing counseling."
Karpin told New Times in the first of two in-person interviews that he earned his doctorate in early-childhood counseling in 1982 from Vermont's Castleton State College.
But a spokeswoman at Castleton State says the institution never has offered a doctoral program. Records there show that Karpin did earn an undergraduate degree in 1982, with an emphasis in Elementary Education and Theatre Arts. (He also earned a bachelor's degree from Marlboro College, also in Vermont.)
When confronted with that at a second interview, Karpin claimed he'd never said he had a doctorate from Castleton. He now said that he calls himself "Dr. Gary" because of his law degree -- a juris doctorate.
Karpin repeatedly declined to show New Times any of his diplomas.
Karpin was an attorney, at least for six years. But a hearing officer for the State Bar of Vermont wrote of him in 1991: "[He has] engaged in an unprecedented pattern of submitting false statements, submitting false evidence and using other deceptive practices."