It has all the ingredients of a good mystery novel.
An elderly widow who donates $1 million, hoping to turn a beloved book into a movie. A glamorous author, determined to make a shoot happen in the scorching Arizona desert, despite squabbling between local talent and Hollywood pros. The startling revelation, just before cameras are scheduled to roll, that the money has disappeared.
The problem is that this plot isn't the outline for Phoenix writer Sylvia Nobel's next novel.
For the past year, it's been her life.
Nobel is best known as the creator of Kendall O'Dell, a feisty "flame-haired investigative reporter" who solves crimes in small-town Arizona. The four Kendall O'Dell books don't have a big-deal publisher and they've never gotten much notice from the critics, but they have plenty of devoted fans. That's surely a testament to the intricate storylines, with their ripped-from-the-headlines quality — and the books' vivid protagonist.
For years, Nobel dreamt of bringing Kendall O'Dell to the big screen. And, for a time last year, she believed filming was imminent. A loyal reader had anted up enough money to attract a Hollywood director and a professionally written script.
Then the money disappeared from the movie's bank account.
The details of where it went, and who's at fault, are bitterly contested, but it's undisputed that the project has collapsed. Today, despite months of wrangling, virtually no one involved with the project has any hope that the film production company will get the money back. Meanwhile, as Nobel attempts to beat her former partners in court, many of the biggest law firms in town have ended up with a piece of the action — a sure sign that few involved will escape without big legal bills.
The fact that the money went missing is galling. But, to Nobel, the most upsetting part is the end of her dream of bringing Kendall O'Dell to the cineplex.
"It was going to be one of the exciting things that had happened in my whole life," she says over salad at Lantana Grille in north Phoenix. "Instead, it's been a total nightmare."
Nobel is a born storyteller, a warm and engaging presence who knows just how to hold her listeners — and readers.
At 62, she has long, curly red hair, just like her heroine, and a flair for the dramatic.
Her pale green eyes widen as she pauses. She says, "I'm living one of my novels!"
As a little girl transported from Pennsylvania coal country to Cave Creek, Arizona, Sylvia Nobel dreamed of being a writer. Growing up in a big, "rather dysfunctional" family, in what was then the middle of nowhere, books were an escape. Mysteries, in particular.
"I read all of them," she says. "The grandfather of the mystery novel, Edgar Allan Poe. Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, and, of course, Nancy Drew. The classics, and the entertainments, too."
But loving mysteries and getting paid to write them are two entirely different things. Sylvia Nobel was in her 50s when she first got published.
"I had known most of my life I'd be a writer," she says. "I just never got around to it because I had to raise a family." She didn't go to college; instead, she worked a secretary, a keypunch operator, a marketer, and a mom before finally getting a chance to take writing classes at Rio Salado College.
It would take another decade to find a publisher. "I got enough rejection letters to paper a room," she says, ruefully. And when she finally hit the jackpot, it wasn't in the way she'd imagined. Not at all.
For years, she'd worked on an Arizona-based mystery. She'd had an idea for a heroine, a brave, beautiful newspaper reporter named Kendall O'Dell. Her first O'Dell mystery, Deadly Sanctuary, told the story of the redhead's move from Philadelphia to a fictional Castle Valley, Arizona. There she encounters a sexy rancher, the harsh beauty of the Arizona desert — and an adoption scam involving a corrupt sheriff.
Castle Valley was based closely on Wickenburg, and Nobel mined her memories of what it was like to be a transplant from the East, startled by the monsoon, scorpions, and heat.
Castle Valley lived and breathed for her. "When I'd go away to that town, I'd be gone," she remembers. "The kids would come home from school and they'd say, 'She's gone into writer's glaze — she's not really listening.'"
But it took a romance novel to get a foot in the door with the publishing industry.
After Deadly Sanctuary was rejected by countless publishers, Nobel put the book away with a heavy heart. She wanted to be practical.
"I heard the best way to break in was to write romance novels," she recalls. "And I thought, I can write a romance novel!" Unfortunately, she hadn't done quite enough homework; as it turns out, most romance publishing houses have very specific rules about length. Nobel's manuscript was too short to fit the requirements.
"My friends said, 'Can't you just pad it?'" Nobel says. "But when it's over, it's over. I set the book aside."
Then, one morning, Nobel's husband, Jerry Williams, noticed a small item in the Arizona Republic's business page. A publishing house in New York City was launching a new line of romance novels at Wal-Mart. They'd be cheaper than the usual books — and, Williams pointed out triumphantly, they were to be shorter, too. He urged her to give the publishing world another chance.
Nobel grudgingly agreed, vowing it would be the last time.
"On Monday afternoon, I packaged it up and sent it out," she remembers. "On Thursday, as I was coming in from the grocery store, my phone rang."
"This is Kensington Publishing in New York City," the caller said.
Nobel thought it was a friend from her writing group, pranking her.
"No, really," the caller said. "We'd like to publish your book."
And that was that; Nobel became a published authoress, albeit under the name of "Natasha Dunne." ("That's how romance writers do it," she explains.)
Except that wasn't that, not really. As any modern author will tell you, getting published is only half the battle. These days, publishing houses almost never pay for book tours — and all but the highest-profile authors get little, if anything, in the way of a marketing campaign. If you want to sell your book, you have to market yourself. (No one else is going to do it.) You have to press the flesh. (People need a reason to give your book a chance, and a personal entreaty, while awkward, often does the trick.)
In Nobel's case, she had to do it at Wal-Mart. Her writing group friends were downright snobbish: "Do you realize where you'll have to sign those books?" Nobel wasn't nearly so picky.
It wasn't easy.
She bought a "dynamite" suit, she says, but still felt invisible. One day, sitting behind her table with a stack of books, a woman approached with a child in a shopping cart. She pointed at Nobel, a huge grin on her face.
"I thought, somebody has finally recognized me as an author," Nobel says. "And then she reached right over my head for a can of Cheez Doodles."
But Nobel eventually learned how to compete with Wal-Mart's array of bulk cleaning supplies and Jessica Simpson CDs and, well, Cheez Doodles. She learned that you can't just sit there, playing the big-time author. Instead, she'd walk up to shoppers with a smile and flier — "they may not buy your book there, but they'll follow up later."
Her friendliness paid off. "At my first Wal-Mart store, I sold two books," she says. "In my last one, I sold 102 in two hours."
The lessons came in handy when Nobel was finally able to publish the first Kendall O'Dell mystery. Plenty of publishers were willing to take her book after her success as Natasha Dunne, but Nobel was savvier this time. She didn't like the idea of getting pennies per book even as she did all her own marketing.
She and her husband decided to start their own small publishing house. Jerry Williams is a gold and silver broker, so he knows business. And Nobel had certainly learned how to sell her writing.
They hired an artist to design the book jacket and a Chicago-based distributor to help place it. Then they printed 10,000 copies, nervous about whether they'd sell any.
Using the lessons she learned as a romance writer, Nobel barnstormed Arizona, selling the book from under an "EZ UP" canopy at craft fairs and local festivals. She (successfully) begged for shelf space at Barnes & Noble. She even hawked books at Sky Harbor Airport.
Thanks to her hard work, the book found an audience that spanned generations. Nobel heard from a number of readers who were pleased that she'd eschewed sex and violence. One woman wrote Nobel to advise that she'd shared her copy with her daughter and her mother. "She wrote, 'Three generations of us have enjoyed this book,'" Nobel says, adding, "I just love my fans."
Deadly Sanctuary is now in its sixth printing. And it's been followed by three more Kendall O'Dell mysteries.
From the beginning, Nobel's fans clamored for a film. And, for four years, Deadly Sanctuary was under option in Hollywood. But when the option expired, Nobel chose not to renew. Like many authors, she was eager to protect her characters from Hollywood-style changes. ("They wanted me to make Kendall Hispanic, or African-American!" she says. "I wanted to stay true to the book.") She started pondering the idea of going it alone.
At a book-signing at Sky Harbor, she'd met a guy named Chris LaMont, who'd introduced himself as a local indie filmmaker. (Today, he's also director of the Phoenix Film Festival and a part-time instructor at Arizona State University.) After letting the Hollywood option expire, Nobel dug up LaMont's card and gave him a call.
She'd become a D.I.Y. publisher. Why not a D.I.Y. movie? LaMont agreed to partner with her on a screenplay.
Nobel knew nothing about screenwriting. But she knew her character and she knew exactly what kind of movie she wanted: something for the whole family, something true to the book. LaMont and Nobel got to work.
And then, one day, Nobel met a woman while signing books in Prescott.
"You know, this would make a great movie," the woman said. When Nobel assured her that they were working toward that goal, the woman had a suggestion.
"You should contact my son," she said. "He works in Hollywood."
Walter Scott, as his friends will tell you, is one of the most modest guys working in La-La Land. Indeed, in a phone interview to discuss his involvement with Sylvia Nobel and the aborted Deadly Sanctuary production, he doesn't bother to list a single credit on his résumé.
He's had plenty.
Scott, now 68, made his name as a stuntman, but he's also worked plenty as an assistant director (and, thanks to that stunt work, earned a few acting credits). He was the stunt coordinator for Back to the Future (and its sequels), Far and Away, and On Golden Pond. He's worked on television shows from Magnum, P.I. to Six Feet Under. He actually appears in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
"I asked him how he ended up making that movie, and he said, 'Duke wanted me to do it,'" recalls Scott's friend William Wages. (Duke, of course, meaning John Wayne.) "I knew him for years before he told me he'd done all the stunts in Back to the Future."
It was Scott's mother, Henrietta, who met Sylvia Nobel in Prescott. And, true to her word, after their meeting, Scott's mother made an introduction. Nobel sent the script to Scott to see if they could work together.
"I said it needed help," Scott admits.
But Scott was drawn to the story. So he sent the script to a friend from Hollywood, cinematographer/screenwriter Wages.
"Walter, it's awful," Wages told his old friend.
"I could just tell it had been done by amateurs," Wages says today.
But when Scott connected him with Sylvia Nobel, Wages was impressed by how willing she was to learn. "Instead of reacting negatively," he recalls, "she said, 'Tell me why it doesn't work.' She's really smart. She got it right away. And because she was so receptive, and I really liked her, I got hooked."
Wages and his writing partner, Phil Bellury, both felt that the script, as written, simply wasn't feasible. They agreed, for a minimal fee, to start from scratch with a draft of their own.
Nobel was thrilled. But her Phoenix-based film connection, Chris LaMont, was not.
"I hadn't really noticed, to be honest with you, that he was the person who helped her write the script," Wages says. He thought LaMont was merely a local who'd agreed to be a producer. "So when I outlined what didn't work, he took great offense to every detail."
Martha Cusano is a longtime friend of Nobel's who used to work as a Los Angeles television producer. (She planned to serve as an assistant director on the Deadly Sanctuary shoot.) Cusano says the tension between LaMont and the Hollywood guys was real.
"Chris saw the handwriting on the wall when she brought in the real professionals," Cusano says. "Which, in my humble opinion, she should have done in the first place."
But Nobel was committed to keeping both LaMont and Wages and Co. onboard.
"She wanted to do this so badly," Cusano recalls.
She would have been better off being more ruthless. The expanded team soon roiled with tension.
Ten years ago, that might not have mattered. Screenwriters like Wages and his partner might have agonized over a script, but unless a big Hollywood studio was willing to produce it, there was little chance it would be filmed.
Not so anymore. Today, anybody with a script and a few hundred grand can start filming. Sure, few independent films achieve success on the big screen — but plenty end up on DVD, or get repackaged for television.
Wages believes that literate adults are dying for choices beyond the usual Hollywood blockbusters.
"That's why we were so interested in doing this with Sylvia," he says. "We were kindred spirits. This isn't a story about blowing stuff up and sex and violence and all that stuff. There is a huge market out there not being served."
With a budget of just $3 million or so, Deadly Sanctuary could tap into that, Wages says. He points to Fireproof, a little indie filmed by an Atlanta church for just $500,000. (Former teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron donated his time.) The film ultimately grossed $26 million.
By that measure, Deadly Sanctuary was in good shape by the fall of 2007. One of Nobel's fans, a 92-year-old widow, had donated $1 million to help finance the production. Nobel and her husband personally kicked in $100,000. The state of Arizona earmarked more than $1 million in tax credits.
But Deadly Sanctuary was never made. In fact, within two months of the elderly woman's million-dollar donation, more than half of the money was gone from the film production company's account.
It would take Sylvia Nobel and her alter ego, Kendall O'Dell, six months to figure out where it went.
From the beginning, there was friction between the Hollywood crew — William Wages and Walter Scott — and local auteur Chris LaMont. LaMont wanted things done his way, Wages and Scott say, and was ultra-sensitive to any changes they suggested. And, they admit, they thought he was pretty much useless.
They agreed to keep him on the project solely as a favor to Nobel.
"I didn't think he was very knowledgeable, with the way he was trying to pass himself off," Walter Scott says. "He was kind of in the way. Wages and I were in agreement: 'We don't need him, but we'll keep him.'"
It would prove, they believe, the production's fatal error. And that's because it was LaMont who brought in attorney Mark Briggs.
Briggs, a partner at Quarles & Brady, is married to a prominent local lobbyist named Wendy Briggs. She's represented everyone from Exxon Mobil to the United Dairymen of Arizona and has been a generous contributor to Arizona politicians of all stripes.
Most recently, she poured $2,300 into John McCain's presidential campaign for president and gave $2,100 to Congressman John Shadegg. But she doesn't just lobby Republicans; earlier this year, Briggs and her husband also hosted a fundraiser for Governor Janet Napolitano in their northwest Phoenix home.
Mark Briggs is also politically involved. He maxed out his contribution for McCain this year and has been involved with several bond committees for the city of Phoenix. He is currently a commissioner on the state committee that chooses appellate court justices.
But this summer, Sylvia Nobel filed a lengthy complaint against Briggs with the Arizona Bar that is still under investigation. She's also filed a lawsuit against him and LaMont. In the complaints, she accuses Briggs of embezzling $810,000 from the production company and LaMont of putting him in place to do it.
Through their lawyer, Geoff Sturr of Osborn Maledon, LaMont and Briggs declined comment. Both "adamantly deny the false accusations," Sturr told New Times in a prepared statement.
In the statement, Sturr paints the falling out between his clients and Nobel as an issue of control. Nobel originally agreed to let Briggs and LaMont manage the project, he says, but later sought to take control — only turning on Briggs when he refused to let her do so.
Nobel, obviously, sees it differently.
Briggs, she says, was brought in to do the legal work for Deadly Sanctuary. The idea, she says, is that he would do $35,000 in legal work in exchange for an interest in the movie. But by the time Briggs and Nobel formally parted ways 16 months later, Briggs claimed that Nobel owed him a whopping $350,000 for his work as a producer.
According to the documents Nobel filed with the court, some backup materials she provided to New Times, and interviews with five key players in the production, here's what happened.
LaMont brought Briggs into the production in October 2006. Briggs is a business attorney who specializes in corporate work, including mergers and acquisitions, but his résumé suggests he has an interest in entertainment: He helped to start the Phoenix Film Foundation and served on the board of Phoenix Theatre.
By the fall of 2007, Nobel was eager to get started with filming. But it seemed to take an absurdly long time for Briggs to work out simple contracts with various production members. Meanwhile, the Hollywood pros, Wages and Scott, had grown so annoyed at what they considered Chris LaMont's diva tendencies, they were demanding that he be fired.
Wages' California-based agent, Debbie Haeusler, tells New Times that she was also growing suspicious. In order to finalize the deal with her client, Haeusler says, she needed to know who stood to make exactly what percentage of the profits. But there were a number of limited liability companies involved — and Haeusler needed answers about the complicated arrangements.
"Mark [Briggs] was a very nice man on the phone, but when I would ask him questions, I'd get these vague answers or things that just seemed weird," she says. "I've been doing this 25 years and, normally, the production attorney is merely a conduit between the producers with the money and the people with the artistic vision."
But that didn't seem to be the case with this production. Ultimately, Haeusler says, Briggs admitted to her that he and LaMont owned a full 75 percent of the production.
"I still don't understand how an attorney ends up owning something like this," Haeusler says. "He was brought in for a fee" — yet he ended up owning a good chunk of the potential profits.
Haeusler decided to call Nobel. She asked her point blank: Do you realize that you only have a minority interest in this production? Do you realize how this deal is structured?
Nobel was shocked.
"We asked Mark about this, several times," she admitted to Haeusler. "We didn't really understand what he was talking about. And he made us feel embarrassed that we didn't understand, so we finally stopped asking."
After her call with the California agent, though, Nobel understood that she had to be a little more hard-nosed. She began pressing Briggs to see the limited liability companies' financial records.
"He would never give me anything," she says. "Mark was just stalling, playing along. He'd say, 'Oh, I forgot to bring that with me.' Or, 'I'm colorblind; I didn't realize my secretary gave me the wrong folder.'"
It was only after Nobel hired a lawyer that she started to get more detailed information.
In response to the demands of Nobel's lawyer, Briggs sent over a copy of the film company's records and bank statements. Nobel says she was never able to get a complete copy — but even the incomplete records showed that the once rich company had been drained of assets, to the point that it had been charged an overdraft fee by the bank.
Where had the money gone?
The records provided by Briggs suggested that the money had been transferred to something called Sugar Management. There were also notes about "Sugar Real Estate" and "Sugar Investment Group."
It still didn't make any sense, Nobel says. "I was racking my brain. Sugar . . . sugar . . . sugar. What was sugar?"
The investigative reporter inside her realized it was important.
"This is where Kendall O'Dell comes in," Nobel says, laughing. "I called up my alter ego, and she said, 'This is an important clue here.' I told my attorney, if we can find out why this is called 'Sugar,' we'll know what happened to the money."
At Nobel's urging, the attorney hired a private investigator. He called back within days.
"You were right," the lawyer said. "Mark Briggs used the money to buy Sugar Daddy's nightclub."
Here's what happened, according to the public record.
In July 2007, on the same day that Nobel gave him a $1 million check to deposit with the film production, Briggs formed a new company: Sugar Management LLC. In subsequent weeks, he set up limited liability companies called Sugar Investment Group and Sugar Real Estate.
In the next two months, according to Nobel's lawsuit, Briggs would transfer $660,000 from the film production accounts and into the Sugar entities.
Then, in September, Sugar Real Estate purchased a nightclub in Old Town Scottsdale for $582,000. The place, a relatively well-known hangout on Scottsdale Road, is called Sugar Daddy's.
The bar's new manager was to be Erik Briggs, Mark's brother. Briggs had recently moved to town from Washington State, where he'd notched arrests for misdemeanor assault, shoplifting, and driving under the influence, according to records he filed with the Arizona Department of Liquor License and Control. (The DUI was later reduced to negligent driving and the shoplifting conviction expunged.)
Since moving to town with his girlfriend, a hairdresser, Erik Briggs had tended bar at Rúla Búla in Tempe and Anthem Country Club. Both Erik Briggs and his girlfriend became partners in the new venture.
Records show that Mark Briggs transferred another $150,000 from the film company's account to the Sugar Daddy's venture in December 2007 — just enough to cover the cost of the liquor license, which officially transferred to its new owners one month later.
Mark Briggs would insist that the $810,000 transferred to the Sugar entities was a loan. He claimed it had been an investment to raise money for the production.
The film company, his attorney argues in one letter, "would and did realize a far greater return by loaning the funds than by holding them in its checking account." The attorney also notes that the "loan" was paid in full, with $51,271 in interest, in April 2008.
That's after Nobel was forced to hire a lawyer. And a private investigator.
To make his case, Briggs has produced a "promissory note" and a "personal guaranty." He claims that both documents were on file at the time of the money transfers.
But Nobel's signature is on neither document. And she insists she would have never agreed to the transfer.
"Why would anyone in their right mind say, 'Okay, a nightclub — that's a good short term investment!'?" she says.
The paperwork also shows that Briggs paid himself $42,000 for work on the production. But, when Nobel and her lawyers demanded that he step aside, he argued that he needed to be paid another $350,000.
To argue his case, Briggs produced a "motion picture production services agreement." Dated November 2006, it claims that Briggs and LaMont are to be paid $350,000 after the first $1 million for the film is raised — "regardless of whether the company raises enough funds to begin or complete filming."
The document would certainly seem to suggest that Sylvia meant to pay LaMont and Briggs pretty serious fees — regardless of the film's outcome.
Upon closer inspection, though, the document raises more questions than it answers.
First, Nobel never signed it.
Second, it has two dates.
On the first page, it gives the date as November 1, 2006 — a date that would predate both the widow's generous $1 million contribution and the subsequent fallout with Sylvia Nobel.
But on the final page, the one that Briggs and LaMont actually signed, the date reads February 18, 2008.
That suggests that Briggs and LaMont didn't bother to complete the agreement until more than a year after the widow's donation. They didn't actually sign the document, in fact, until six months after Briggs began transferring money toward the nightclub purchase — right around the time Sylvia Nobel started asking questions.
Suffice it to say, in a Kendall O'Dell mystery, that sort of timing would be seriously suspect.
But if Briggs' "loan" caused a serious delay to the Deadly Sanctuary production, his next move killed it.
When Nobel and her lawyer demanded that he get out of the production company, Briggs didn't go quietly. Instead, he returned the money to the 92-year-old widow who'd given it to Nobel and her husband for the film. Nobel believes it was a bit of tit-for-tat: If Briggs couldn't have the money, neither could the people who'd driven him off the film.
Through his lawyer, Sturr, Briggs says that he informed the widow of Nobel's lawsuit in April 2008. At that point, he says, she asked for her investment back — and that's why he returned the $1 million.
Either way, the widow would no longer return calls from Nobel and her husband. (Her lawyer, Steve Dichter, did not return New Times' call seeking comment.)
Without the money, the project was unquestionably dead.
And, as it turns out, Sugar Daddy's may be in equally big trouble.
Last month, Briggs and his partners at Sugar Daddy's were sued by the bar's former owner. The $550,000 loan he'd given them to buy the place had come due on October 1.
Mark Briggs and his partners, the lawsuit claims, are now in default.
Sylvia Nobel was horrified that a lawyer — supposedly, the lawyer hired to make a movie happen — could just "loan" himself the bulk of the movie's capital. Never mind that he eventually returned it. It wasn't his money!
She filed a bar complaint against Briggs, alleging he'd embezzled from her production company. She got her lawyers to file a lawsuit, claiming malpractice, fraud., and breach of fiduciary duty. (Both are still pending.) And, she put up a screed on her Web site, detailing the ordeal for her fans.
She was forced to take it down when Briggs' lawyer, Colin Campbell, threatened to sue her for defamation.
No one seemed to care about what had happened to Nobel. No one, that is, with the power to do anything about it.
In fact, Briggs and LaMont were able to force Nobel's own lawyers off the case. As they pointed out, the small firm had once done work for LaMont.
This summer, the judge agreed the conflict was too great for the lawyers to stay on the case — leaving Nobel on the hook for legal bills, without even a lawyer to show for it.
Nobel approached more than 30 different lawyers seeking representation. Either they weren't interested, or they cited a conflict. She managed to find a small firm willing to take the case, but after they accepted, the lawyer called with regrets. His firm has a branch in Seattle, he explained, and Briggs had just announced that he'd talked to a lawyer there about the case. That meant the Phoenix lawyer had to step aside.
Over lunch in September, Nobel burns with the unfairness of it. "They make it impossible for the average person to find justice!" she says.
In October, Nobel managed to find a lawyer without a conflict. (That lawyer, Chris LaVoy, declined comment, citing Briggs' threats of a defamation lawsuit.)
The case is still eating at her.
"I have the worst case of writer's block," she says. She tried to write, but when she went back and read what she'd put down, she was horrified. "My anger really came out in my writing," she says. "I reread my stuff and it was just depressing."
It's not hard to see why. What happened to the Deadly Sanctuary production upsets every ideal that provides the framework for a Kendall O'Dell novel. Sure, bad things happen, and bad people try to take advantage of the system, but once the flame-haired reporter cracks the case, the law steps in. The bad guys get caught. Order is restored.
That hasn't happened to Sylvia Nobel.
Mark Briggs is still at Quarles & Brady. Chris LaMont is still head of the Phoenix Film Festival. If Sylvia Nobel were writing it, and Kendall O'Dell were doing the investigating, those two would be long gone.
The fallout from a situation like this in real life can be horribly messy — enough to make Sylvia Nobel wish she were living in one of her novels instead.
"This has been the most frustrating thing to me," she admits. "I can't write the ending."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.