Divorce With Indignity

Anybody else victimized by divorce mediator Gary Karpin should contact the Maricopa County Attorney's Office

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas stood before an eighth-floor conference room packed with reporters recently and invoked the disgraced name of Gary Jay Karpin.

Thomas gestured toward an easel holding a large placard that featured a color jail-booking photo of the 54-year-old erstwhile mediator whose main business, "Divorce With Dignity," operated successfully for years in north Phoenix and Mesa.

In bold at the top of the placard were the words "FRAUD ALERT," with a hotline phone number (602-372-7777) to call with any new allegations.

Few of the media horde seemingly had ever heard of Karpin before, despite two lengthy New Times stories about him and his deceitful business practices ("Dr. Buzzard," January 27, 2005; "Courthouse Scoundrels," December 19, 2002).

But Thomas and his staffers are well aware of Karpin and the tide of alleged victims who have emerged since earlier this year to complain about the Gilbert man's financial and personal improprieties.

"A lot of victims were at a point in their lives where they were open and vulnerable, and the potential for exploitation was great," Thomas said, noting that his office has heard from about 115 of Karpin's possible victims. "Unfortunately, this is not where this story ends. This is obviously a very significant case . . . and is a serious and deeply troubling case for many reasons."

In July, a county grand jury handed down a 16-count felony indictment against Karpin, accusing him of stealing from and defrauding his so-called clients.

Karpin has pleaded innocent to all of the charges, which would bring a long prison term upon conviction. But he remains in custody at the county jail, unable to meet his $250,000 bail because his assets have been frozen. The assets include a home in Gilbert purchased for $495,000 in 2001, and a late-model Corvette.

At a hearing last month, county judge Richard Trujillo denied Karpin's request for a reduction in bond, after hearing arguments from a defense attorney that the felony charges really are more akin to civil claims than a criminal case.

Thomas said county residents have been filing complaints against Karpin with the State Bar of Arizona since 1996. That led to a question about why it took so long to bring charges against the disbarred attorney, who once practiced law in Vermont.

"I can't speak to that," Thomas replied. "I can say that the case was moved along expeditiously once we took it on."

That's true.

But the County Attorney's Office didn't get into the Karpin prosecutorial loop until late last year, when Fran Johansen, the State Bar's Unauthorized Practice of Law attorney at the time, tried to interest prosecutors in pursuing a case.

By then, Johansen had become extremely frustrated with the lack of investigative response she'd gotten from the Arizona Attorney General's office.

Since 2000, she'd fielded complaints about Karpin from about 25 people, all of them focused on Karpin's unauthorized practice of law and his expensive fees. Several of Karpin's female complainants also claimed that he'd used his lucrative mediation business as a pickup joint, trying -- successfully in some instances -- to lure divorcing women into his arms.

"There's nothing wrong," Karpin told New Times earlier this year in response to those allegations, "with connecting with someone intellectually, personally or emotionally, as long as it's not sexual."

One of his prime targets in recent years was Gina Niedzwiecki, a Phoenix mother of two who paid Karpin almost $90,000 over a 15-month period to process her divorce. In truth, what he essentially did was handle paperwork for an uncontested petition that should have cost a few hundred dollars to complete.

Niedzwiecki borrowed extensively from her 401(k) retirement fund to come up with the money, and from friends. A former bank manager who had to retire because of serious illness, she also sold her house and maxed out credit cards to keep current with Karpin's incessant billings.

"I felt there was a connection between the two of us," Niedzwiecki wrote to the State Bar last year. "I liked him a lot, and I'm sure he knew that. And I got very clear signs from him that he felt the same . . . He repeated many times during the 15 months, 'Let's get you single so we can take this to the next level.'"

Niedzwiecki and others interviewed by New Times for the Karpin stories insisted they were certain he was a licensed attorney. One woman said she actually saw his law degree on a wall in his offices on East Shea Boulevard.

That was because Karpin had been a licensed attorney, at least until the State Bar of Vermont disbarred him in 1992.

Just before that, a hearing officer for the Bar in that state wrote of him, "[He has] engaged in an unprecedented pattern of submitting false statements, submitting false evidence and using other deceptive practices."

Those words were good to keep in mind when Karpin insisted in interviews earlier this year that he hadn't stolen from Niedzwiecki. In fact, he said of her, "She's not a victim, she's more like a seductress. She's very pretty and used her attractiveness and manipulated me."

Just last week, Niedzwiecki could only laugh at Karpin's characterization.

"He's just a little thief and con artist," she said. "I wish I had known when I first laid eyes on him, but I didn't. At least I got to meet some really neat people out of this experience."

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