"Dr. Gary" Nailed

A county grand jury indicts a "mediator" who victimized vulnerable divorcées

Gina Niedzwiecki was thrilled to learn of the Maricopa County grand jury indictment and July 11 arrest of Valley "divorce mediator" Gary Karpin.

"I'm gleeful, to put it mildly," says Niedzwiecki, a Phoenix single mother of two who suffers from multiple sclerosis.

"I'd like to think that stepping up and talking about this guy, getting the story out, had something to do with him finally getting stopped. All this was almost worth it -- almost."

Gary Karpin (above) sometimes dated his victims.
Paul Rubin
Gary Karpin (above) sometimes dated his victims.

Niedzwiecki is one of 15 alleged Karpin victims named in the indictment, handed down after a months-long investigation by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

Fourteen of the 16 felony counts accuse the 54-year-old Gilbert resident of theft. Two other counts accuse him of defrauding his "clients."

Karpin is looking at a long prison sentence if convicted on the most serious of the theft counts -- the alleged theft of up to $100,000 from Gina Niedzwiecki -- or on either of the fraud counts.

The investigation into Karpin was prompted after publication of a New Times story ("Dr. Buzzard," January 27) about the mediator and his lucrative business, alternately called "Divorce With Dignity" or "Divorce Associates."

In that article, Niedzwiecki described how Karpin had collected almost $90,000 from her over a period of 15 months to process paperwork for her basically uncontested divorce. According to lawyers and others familiar with the case, it should have cost Niedzwiecki just a few hundred dollars and a few months to complete the divorce.

To pay Karpin, she borrowed from her 401(k) retirement fund (she's a former bank manager) and from friends. She also maxed out her credit cards, sold her house and turned over the proceeds to Karpin.

In the January story, Karpin insisted that he hadn't ripped off Niedzwiecki. To the contrary, he said, "She's not a victim, she's more like a seductress. She's very pretty and used her attractiveness and manipulated me."

Niedzwiecki said she'd assumed for more than a year that Karpin was an attorney and was battling for her at the county courthouse. That wasn't the case.

Actually, Karpin was an attorney in Vermont until that state's Supreme Court disbarred him in 1992, writing that "the depth and breadth of [his] conduct is so significant and wide-ranging that he is a threat to the public, the [legal] profession, the courts and his clients."

In June 1993, an attorney for the discipline unit of the State Bar of Vermont sent a copy of the Vermont Supreme Court ruling to her counterpart in Arizona, warning about Karpin's impending move to the desert.

"Suffice it to say," that lawyer's letter said, "out of excess of caution, I forward this decision for your reading pleasure."

Karpin started a business in Phoenix that he first called "Law Offices of Gary J. Karpin." In January 1997, a county judge listed him as the attorney for one of the parties in a divorce case. But the judge learned that Karpin didn't have a license to practice law and removed him from the case.

Later, Karpin changed the name of his business and engaged in an enduring print advertising campaign that included a photo of himself with the caption "Dr. Gary."

Karpin's ads claimed that "80 percent of my couples reconciled or dismissed their divorce or both after completing counseling."

The ads also said he would "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."

But trouble followed Karpin to Arizona. Since 2000, about two dozen people, including Gina Niedzwiecki, have filed complaints against him with the State Bar of Arizona.

All of the complaints centered on Karpin's alleged unauthorized practice of law and the fact that he'd charged far more for his "services" than many attorneys would charge. Several of Karpin's female complainants, including Niedzwiecki, also alleged that he used his mediation business to pick up women.

For years, Fran Johansen, an attorney at the Bar, and her assistant, Christina Soto, tried in vain to interest the state Attorney General's Office in filing criminal charges against Karpin.

Johansen, who retired a few months ago as the Bar's sole Unauthorized Practice of Law attorney, became extremely frustrated with the form letters returned to her by the AG's Consumer Protection and Advocacy unit.

Before retiring, Johansen approached the County Attorney's Office with a packet of information on Karpin, including the well-documented complaint filed by Gina Niedzwiecki, which included paperwork and secretly recorded audiotapes.

Johansen met with deputy county attorney Tony Novitsky, a division chief who soon assigned prosecutor Annielaurie Van Wie and investigator Michael Levine to the case.

"Gina was the epitome of a victim, as were so many other people that I learned about," Johansen says. "I am gratified that the county attorney decided to act on Mr. Karpin, and that bad people who take financial and emotional advantage of very vulnerable people can be brought to justice."

That's precisely how alleged Karpin victims Bill and Becca Ludlow see it. The onetime couple hired Karpin in 2000 to "mediate" and process their pending divorce.

Bill Ludlow later learned that his estranged wife had dated Karpin while negotiations were ongoing. She said she ended the liaison before things got too steamy. But the secret relationship may have explained why Karpin pooh-poohed Bill Ludlow's overtures at a possible reconciliation with Becca, a mother of three.

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