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Dr. Buzzard

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...
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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 late-model silver Corvette and his sprawling home in Gilbert that he bought for $495,000 in 2001 may be testament to his success.

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."

That's just what Niedzwiecki, Murray and other embittered consumers have alleged in complaints to the State Bar of Arizona.

Last April, the Bar filed a pending lawsuit against Karpin under a new rule that allows civil sanctions against those who engage in the unauthorized practice of law. Among other things, the Bar wants a county judge to order Karpin to repay more than $100,000 in fees, and to impose other sanctions.

Karpin has responded in court papers by saying he "provides an invaluable service to the legal community and to individual clients, as [he] has successfully mediated literally thousands of divorces through supreme skill, expertise and knowledge, whereby even . . . difficult and contested cases have been successfully mediated.

"These decrees have been submitted to Commissioner Eve Parks on a continuous basis for years, for quick approval and resolution of matters usually involving children."

Not so quickly in the case of Gina and Joe Niedzwiecki. That one took about 15 months from start to finish.

Gina says she now knows she was far more vulnerable than she'd realized to Karpin's patter, which can be charming and seductive.

Bright and articulate, she had a fine job as a bank administrator until multiple sclerosis forced her into a medical retirement about five years ago.

Then Gina made the decision to file for divorce from her husband Joe after two decades of marriage. That would have been stressful enough without her illness, and without the responsibilities of two young daughters.

Gina doesn't have family in Arizona, and that surely contributed to her sense of isolation.

That's where Gary Karpin stepped in.

He would exact a devastating price from Gina, both financially and emotionally, over a year-plus period that ended last summer.

During that time, she paid Karpin $87,767 to complete the paperwork in what seems to have been a relatively simple and amicable divorce.

In other words, Gina Niedzwiecki paid Karpin an average of $1,350 a week for more than a year for services that the divorcing couple may have completed themselves, or hired an attorney for a few thousand bucks.

"What that guy charged that lady is outrageous, incredible," says Norman Davis, presiding Superior Court judge of the county's Family Court. "Two experienced attorneys in an average case with the facts described here don't approach what he charged. Lawyers charge that much 1 percent of the time, if that. It just isn't right. I'd like to hear his explanation for all this."

Karpin's explanation is like the man himself -- blustery and glib.

"I'm sure none of this is going to get into your story, [but] I put in two years of work to get a decree to make her a wealthy woman," he says, claiming that Gina's "investment" of $87,000 turned into a "$300,000 return" in her divorce settlement.

"You're not going to take this amazing decree and tell me that she got ripped off," Karpin continues. "It's a decree she never would have gotten in any other scenario. . . . I'm actually very proud of the work I did in this case."

As for Gina, Karpin says, "She's not a victim, she's more like a seductress. She's very pretty and used her attractiveness, and manipulated me. . . . She's the farthest thing in the world to being a victim."

Gina collected the money from myriad sources: She borrowed from her 401(k) retirement fund and from friends, maxed out credit cards, and turned over the proceeds from the sale of a house.

After she came to her senses last summer, Gina taped phone calls with Karpin during which he demanded yet another $9,000 from her.

Those calls, copies of which Gina submitted with her written complaint to the Bar last October, show how Karpin tried to woo her romantically in one breath, and angrily vowed to sue her for the money in the next.

Fran Johansen plans to retire from the State Bar of Arizona next week. That should bring a smile to the faces of Gary Karpin and others who have been in her sights since she went to work more than five years ago as the Bar's first unauthorized-practice-of-law attorney.

Johansen had a thriving family law practice of her own until turning to public service in 1999. She's a good listener -- and, man, she's heard some stories. She's also compassionate and well-organized, a good combination in her job.

Johansen says she still feels passionately about the need "to try to stop scam artists from acting as attorneys and doing things they have no right to do, sometimes for large sums of money."

Many crypto-attorneys gravitate toward Family Court, an arena of aggrieved spouses, high-priced attorneys, and a court docket manned by overloaded judges.

Johansen chuckles at accusations by Karpin and others that she's had a personal vendetta against non-lawyers.

"I know that's what Gary and some others think," Johansen says, "but they're barking up the wrong tree. I understand mediation pretty well, and I think that's fine for the right couples. But mediators can't advocate for either side. By definition, they are supposed to be independent overseers of an agreement between divorcing couples. That's where Gary has gotten into trouble with us, that and some other things."

One theme of the complaints against Karpin, Johansen says, "is that when a young woman comes in, [whom he] becomes interested in, he becomes their advocate. But he still charges them whatever he thinks he can get from them."

Johansen used to forward some complaints against Karpin and others to the state Attorney General's Office for possible criminal prosecution.

But she admits to having been very frustrated by the form letters sent to her in response by a legal assistant in the state agency's Consumer Protection and Advocacy unit.

Those letters claimed that investigations couldn't proceed "because both staff and resources are limited."

The dismal situation didn't change when Terry Goddard became attorney general in January 2003, even after winning election in part on a platform of fighting white-collar crime.

"I had to tell people there was very little I could do for them," Johansen says. "I'm talking about folks who genuinely had been hurt, at least financially, and never had anything like this happen to them."

But things brightened some in July 2003, when a new Arizona Supreme Court rule went into effect.

Until then, Arizona had been the only state lacking civil or criminal sanctions against the unauthorized practice of law. The new rule created a board that licenses and regulates document preparers, of whom there are dozens in this state.

Gary Karpin, for one, wouldn't qualify for such a license because of his previous disbarment. But there's nothing to prohibit him from running a mediation business -- hearing people out and making suggestions about a course of action, but without giving legal advice.

The new rule also allows the State Bar to seek civil penalties against those who collect fees for doing the work of lawyers, especially giving legal advice.

Evidence is overwhelming that Karpin has done exactly that -- given legal advice, taken sides in a dispute, and sometimes charged far more than attorneys.

Still, no local agency other than the State Bar -- whose powers are limited with non-lawyers -- has yet to try to stop him.

"These guys are very good at what they do," Fran Johansen says, speaking of Karpin and others. "And there are victims out there [from these mediators] just the same as if they'd been held up at gunpoint."

Karpin replies, "The Bar has a hard-on for me. They don't like me, don't like what I'm doing, because I'm pushing them and I'm pushing them hard. And they don't seem to be able to do anything about me."

Gary Karpin moved to Arizona, land of the fee and home of the brazen, in the mid-1990s.

He migrated here a few years after losing his ticket to practice law in Vermont, shortly after his 40th birthday.

It's no wonder Karpin sought a fresh start far from home.

Records at the Vermont Supreme Court show that Karpin was admitted to the Bar in October 1987, after earning a law degree from Vermont Law School.

He worked in that state as a prosecutor for almost a year before going into private practice by himself. But the Vermont Bar soon got several complaints about Karpin's work, both as a prosecutor and as a sole practitioner.

As a prosecutor, for example, he'd filed a petition alleging that a couple had been providing inadequate care for their child. After Karpin left the agency, he agreed to represent the couple in the same matter. That's unethical, though standing alone wouldn't have cost him his legal career.

But Karpin also had other complaints pending against him. Probably the worst one involved his inept handling of, and deception about, a case involving an illiterate client who was suing over a bad car deal.

Vermont Supreme Court records show that Karpin bribed his former secretary to take the blame for his own legal failures. Eventually, the secretary came clean, which didn't help Karpin's status with the state's disciplinary board.

That panel wrote of him: "[Karpin's] conduct in this matter demonstrates an appalling lack of concern for this client and the client's matter. When the matter began to go badly, his only concern was for self-preservation. . . . The Panel believes this to have been dishonest and self-serving."

In asking the state Supreme Court to disbar Karpin, the panel concluded that "the depth and breadth of [Karpin's] conduct is so significant and wide-ranging that he is a threat to the public, the profession, the courts and his clients."

The high court unanimously agreed in 1992 to disbar him.

Karpin's illiterate client later sued him for professional malpractice, and won an $88,000 verdict, including $75,000 in punitive damages.

In Arizona, Karpin reinvented himself in the mid-'90s as a mediator available for couples seeking to avoid headaches of high-dollar attorneys and an overburdened court system.

He took a weeklong class in mediation at Maricopa County Superior Court, collected a certificate, and hung up a shingle.

That's all it took, plus a steady advertising budget and a sophisticated rap to hook needy clientele in the lucrative turf battle with the Bar over the divorce dollar.

Unquestionably, a market for divorce mediators existed in Arizona, then and now. Study after study talks about unmet legal needs of the poor and even middle-class, mostly because too many attorneys simply cost too much.

Then and now, Karpin's shtick combines a self-help New Age sensibility -- "Transformative Mediation for Couples That Want to Reconcile," one of his ads pitches -- with hardball divorce-attorney tactics.

And like any intelligent salesman, which Karpin is, he's expert at reading people and, when it suits him, exploiting their weaknesses while they're at their most susceptible.

But just as in Vermont, complaints about Karpin started to flow into the State Bar in Arizona in the late 1990s, some from attorneys and others from consumers.

Fran Johansen started to see a pattern in the complaints; there are now 26 on file at the Bar. Karpin, it seemed, occasionally was using his mediation business to pick up women.

"There's nothing wrong," Karpin says, "with connecting with someone intellectually, personally or emotionally as long as it's not sexual."

But in 1999, for example, an estranged couple (we'll call them the Nolans) first met with Karpin to mediate their divorce. Patrick Nolan (who asked New Times to change his last name) said he and his then-wife would pay Karpin $1,500 each to perfect their divorce decree.

"All of a sudden, I was getting letters from him on my ex's behalf," says the father of four daughters. "I got my own lawyer and never saw him again. I know all about his intimidation tactics, but he's still very, very believable at first. And he knows the system. He's a con artist."

Nolan says his wife told him before their divorce was final that she was dating Karpin. Eventually, she moved in with the mediator -- Karpin says they're engaged to be married.

Karpin says Nolan never quarreled about the original divorce decree, which "must mean that my product was satisfactory for him."

Karpin sued Patrick Nolan last April 1 for defamation, slander, restraint of trade and other allegations. He dropped his case on January 13.

Court records indicate Nolan is the primary custodial parent of the couple's four daughters.

"I haven't spoken to Karpin since I went to the one session years ago," he says. "He's all about money and control, and I hate it when my kids get to go to his house to see their mother every other weekend. Sometimes, I want to strangle the guy."

On May 9, 2003, Gina and Joe Niedzwiecki went for a "free initial consultation" with Gary Karpin.

Gina had decided to divorce Joe, and though the split was tough on both, they resolved to make it as painless as possible. They paid Karpin $975 at the end of the first session, and took paperwork with them to fill out before the next meeting.

Much later, Gina painstakingly typed a history of her interactions with Karpin over the next 15 months. She also attached canceled checks and other proof of her payments to the mediator, an astounding sum of $87,767.

Before the third session, the couple paid Karpin another $1,000. But Gina says her estranged husband left in anger after Karpin asked him for financial information that the couple already had provided, and demanded more money.

At Karpin's request, Gina says, she and Joe sat in separate rooms during their fourth mediation meeting, in July 2003. She later paid Karpin yet another $3,000 on a joint credit card, but she says Joe canceled the payment after he learned about it.

Joe apparently never spoke to Karpin again, but Gina returned to his office the following week.

She later wrote that Karpin told her she now needed to pay him $5,000 because the divorce issues were heating up. Gina paid up, this time with her own funds.

She met with Karpin about once every other week for months, and says he finally completed a draft of the couple's potential divorce settlement in October 2003.

But she says it was filled with inaccuracies. A second draft that December also was fraught with mistakes, which Karpin apparently blamed on his "typing pool."

Gina says she saw an ad for Divorce With Dignity in New Times around that time with Karpin's photograph, and mentioned it to him. She says he told her the photo had been the idea of "corporate," not his.

"I always thought he was an attorney working for a large firm," she says. "I signed my checks to 'Divorce Associates.' It never occurred to me that he wasn't a lawyer."

Gina kept paying and paying and paying.

She says one reason she kept paying him was because he promised repeatedly to return her so-called "good-faith retainer" money when her case ended.

But the bigger reason probably is that Gina was emotionally hooked on Karpin, with whom she says she'd been conversing about everything but the divorce.

"I felt there was a 'connection' between the two of us," Gina later wrote to the Bar. "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.'"

In early April 2004, Gina says, Karpin told her that county court commissioner Eve Parks was "having trouble" with the terms of the Niedzwieckis' proposed divorce agreement: "He adamantly told me time and time again that he wasn't God, but he would do what he could to convince [Parks] to agree to our consent decree as written."

In a phone conversation that Gina taped months later, Karpin said he had "counseled with [Parks] constantly on your case with direct phone hook-up. With Judge Eve Parks, like I do almost every other day on all my cases."

(Regarding his supposed relationship with Parks, Karpin tells New Times: "I've talked with Eve Parks on the telephone and I know her in a professional setting. . . . I submit decrees to her, to her room, to her situation. I've worked with her a lot. . . . She's called me on the phone asking me to redo my paperwork.")

But Parks tells New Times that she's never spoken to Gary Karpin, and recalls leaving a voice message at his office only once in her seven years on the bench, to ask him to amend paperwork in a case.

"I emphatically deny that I talked to this man every other day, or whatever he is saying," the commissioner says. "I have absolutely no relationship with him, and I wouldn't know him if he sat in my office unless he introduced himself."

Parks adds that Karpin "doesn't represent the people whose cases come before me -- he's not an attorney -- and he wouldn't have any standing to discuss these so-called 'trouble spots' in someone else's divorce decree."

Court records also show that Karpin didn't file the divorce petition in the case until April 20, 2004. That was almost a year and thousands of dollars in fees after the couple first had met with him, and after he'd told Gina about Parks' alleged "trouble" with the agreement.

A few months passed, with Karpin repeatedly telling Gina he still was waiting for Commissioner Parks to get back to him. On June 1, remarkably, she paid him another $7,500.

Finally, in late July, Gina says, Karpin told her she'd have to appear before Parks in a few days, and scheduled an emergency appointment to practice her testimony with him. (Karpin denies this.) She says he asked her intimate questions about her sex life with her husband during the mock testimony, the relevance of which eluded her.

"I couldn't believe I had to go through this," she wrote later. "Joe and I had signed off our agreement months prior. Why did [Commissioner] Parks want me to testify before her? Joe and I were in agreement. Our divorce was not complex, and it just didn't make sense."

The meeting ended with yet another $7,500 payment from Gina to Karpin.

Court documents show that no evidentiary hearings ever were scheduled in the Niedzwiecki case, which means Karpin was lying to Gina.

On August 2, Parks' colleague, Commissioner Myra Harris, signed the couple's divorce decree.

Gina says she phoned Karpin as soon as she got the news in a letter from the court.

She says he asked her to come by to complete the "final paperwork" and to bring with her the last payment -- $25,000.

"He said 'corporate' normally charges 20 percent of the total award amount, which for me would be $36,000 [more in legal fees] . . . but luckily he got 'them' down to $25,000."

When she got to the office, Gina says, she looked on as Karpin pretended to make a phone call to alleged "senior partner" Robert Green Jr.

Gina listened as Karpin seemingly pleaded with Green to cut her a financial break on the $25,000 bill. Afterward, he asked Gina to give him $15,000 of "earnest money," after which he said he'd again plead with "the firm" to waive the remaining $10,000.

Gina again did as told, coming up with the money that day, she says, by borrowing $2,000 from a friend to cover the check.

But that still wasn't enough for Dr. Gary.

A few days later, he asked Gina to meet with him for lunch. Sadly, he said "corporate" was demanding the remaining $10,000, but might settle for $9,000 if she paid it immediately.

Gina says she arranged to withdraw $10,000 from her former employer's 401(k) fund.

Rob Green is a real attorney, though he's currently serving a 30-day suspension from the Bar for misconduct unrelated to Karpin. He had agreed in writing in July 2002 to oversee Karpin's work, hoping foolishly, he says, of picking up some spillover clients from the busy mediator.

But Green tells New Times that he looked at only a few of Karpin's files over the next two years, and says he never spoke to Karpin about Gina Niedzwiecki.

Green adds that, by last summer, he'd written three letters to Karpin ending their association, at least two of them after learning that Karpin was using his name in advertisements.

"I had wanted it to work instead of being skeptical because I thought Gary could bring me business," Green says. "But I basically left him to his own devices, which was my mistake. He definitely was misrepresenting himself to people by saying he was an attorney. Clients that he referred to me told me that he either had inferred that he was an attorney or had flat-out told them that. It's not that he can't do good work. But I would say that he's a danger to this community."

After penalties for early withdrawal and taxes, Gina Niedzwiecki collected $8,900 from her 401(k). When she got the money, she says she mailed a personal check to Karpin for $9,000.

She says she was convinced that, if she didn't pay, the "firm" would place a lien on her home or garnish her alimony payments, as Karpin had warned.

By now, Gina finally was starting to see the light. Deeply troubled and embarrassed, she says she called the acquaintance who had recommended Karpin more than a year earlier.

She says the woman told her that Karpin apparently was a disbarred attorney from Vermont, and suggested Gina check him out on the Internet.

Gina put a stop-payment on the $9,000 check later that day, August 23. Still ambivalent, however, she canceled that order later that night, then stopped the check again for keeps on August 25 after investigating Karpin on the Net.

The next day, Gina says she left a voice message for Karpin asking for a copy of her file and an itemized bill. Then she called the State Bar and spoke with Fran Johansen, who asked her to document her experience with Karpin in writing.

Even physically, that would be no small task for Gina, as her multiple sclerosis makes it difficult for her to type.

By then, Karpin knew of the stop-payment on the $9,000 and had gone ballistic. He left Gina 15 voice messages within a day's time, which she later included in her complaint package to the Bar.

From the first one: "I've got all kinds of problems with this now. Other people's checks are bouncing relying on your check so it's totally screwed up the business account. I'm gonna have to step into court on this. I need you to make good on those funds today, this afternoon . . ."

From another: "You've caused a lot of damage here by doing this secretly and deceptively without telling me what's going on. You've hurt other people with your actions, and I don't understand it."

And: "I apologize to you for flipping out. It was a mistake. . . . Number two, I won't agree to arbitration or anything else. I don't care about the money. You could keep the money. I really don't care about it."

Over the next month or so, Gina taped all of her conversations with Karpin.

"The reality is that I was scammed out of that money," Gina told him in an August 30 phone call.

"If you [or] anybody says that, I'll sue the shit out of them," Karpin said. "I'll go into court with my work that I did and the result that you got, and I'll defend that until I'm dead."

"I was vulnerable . . . I was a target," Gina told him. "I admit that. I acknowledge that."

"How dare you!" Karpin retorted.

He reiterated that she should "talk to Judge Eve Parks almost daily, if not every two or three days," and reminded Gina that her stop-payment on the $9,000 had wreaked havoc in Family Court.

Gina asked him why Commissioner Harris, not Parks, had signed the divorce decree.

"Judge Parks' assistant signed it," Karpin replied, sounding exasperated. "But [Parks] was in charge of the case the whole time. And all my communications to her on the telephone, directly to her about the case . . . it all occurred, and it was all a matter of getting the decree approved exactly how you wanted it done."

Shortly before the end of the August 30 phone call, Gina asked Karpin: "Gary, am I really that stupid? Tell me. For my own learning, if you are my friend, how do I avoid getting myself into a situation like this next time?"

"Trust my judgment and check in with me," Karpin told her.

Within a day, however, he sang an uglier tune.

"Let me be very, very clear about this," he told Gina. "If I hear from anyone the accusations that you made to me personally, that's defamation and slander. So I'm warning you ahead of time . . . I will act upon it in a legal way to protect my rights under the law."

He now also threatened to sue Gina for the $9,000 that he said she still owed him. When that approach didn't seem to work, he invited her on a vacation trip to Mexico.

"The bottom line on that is, she still owes me $9,000," Karpin tells New Times. "And by the way, when [the Bar lawsuit against Karpin] is tossed, I'm going to sue her for $9,000, get a judgment if I win. If I don't, I don't. And then I'm going to file a lien against her home, just as I said in my so-called nasty tapes, which are not nasty at all. It's the law."

In another taped conversation last October 6, Gina tried to press him for reimbursement of all but about $4,000 of the $87,000 she'd paid. He tap-danced deftly around that one, talking instead about a beloved horse of his, Mr. Shoes, who had died.

Mr. Soft Shoes then ambled on: "You want to make some money? Hook your wagon to me."

In writing and by phone, Gina continued to demand her case file. Then, last October 22, Karpin left her a humdinger of a voice-mail message.

He claimed the office cleaning crew had thrown out her thick case file, and there was nothing that could be done about it.

"I did an exam of the Dumpster at some risk to myself," Karpin said, "and unfortunately the materials no longer exist. They were discarded in error. So I apologize to you; there's nothing I can do about it."

Gina spoke to the manager of the building at which Karpin rents space. The manager told her in a tape-recorded interview that "our maintenance people claimed that they really didn't remove anything."

On January 18, Gary Karpin agreed to meet with New Times at his office. It would be the first of two interviews, the latter on January 20.

After a short discussion of the allegations against him (he denied any wrongdoing), Karpin mentioned that he had an appointment with Ruth Murray, the mother of eight and Gina Niedzwiecki's new pal.

Karpin said he was meeting with Murray to discuss her request for a refund of at least some of the $3,500 or so she'd paid him last summer for mediating her contemplated divorce.

Like Niedzwiecki, Murray once had become sweet on Karpin, especially after he promised at first to do her case for free. But their relationship had soured after unexpected bills started to amass, and -- just like Gina -- she'd watched in amazement as Karpin had pretended to call his "boss" to ask for a reduction of the bill.

"I thought, 'Oh my God! He's faking the phone call,'" Murray wrote to the State Bar in a 14-page handwritten complaint dated last July 28. "He went on and on [about] how we were the parents of eight and are good people, and we wanted to work something out. Then: beep, beep, beep, like the phone disconnected. I was sure at that point."

When Murray showed up for her January 18 meeting with Karpin, he asked if she'd mind chatting in the presence of a reporter. Certainly not, she replied.

"You know what," he told her, as the three sat around a table in a conference room, "when someone says to me, 'Can I get a refund?' I always call them back and say, 'Let's talk.'"

"Gary," Murray replied, "at first you said to me that you'd talk to me in court."

"You bet," Karpin countered. "After that complaint that you made, and the stuff you exaggerated and whatnot. The point is, I was going to wait, then get you into court, get you on cross-examination on the witness stand, and cut you into little pieces, figuratively speaking."

"I hope so," Murray shot back, "because that would get you into a whole new trial."

"You think I betrayed you -- I think you betrayed me," Karpin continued. "That's the harsh reality. People can make a connection, and it doesn't have to be sexual. Did we ever have sex?"

"No," Murray said, "because, as I told you, I'm not that kind of person."

Their conversation veered to the work that Karpin had performed for Ruth and Jack Murray.

"I was under the impression that you were a lawyer," she told him.

"Did I ever tell you I was an attorney-at-law?" he answered. "Ever?"

"When you told me that you might do it for free, and I said, 'I don't mean to offend, but you are a lawyer. All lawyers want money.' And you just laughed."

"Well, you had made a joke."

"And then you told me you would do it pro bono, totally lawyer language."

Karpin then asked Murray if she'd reconciled with Jack, the father of her eight children.

She said she had.

"Great!" he said. "Now, let me ask you a question! Could it be possible, just a little bit, that some of the work that we did, establishing communication, talking about the best interest of your kids, setting up a cooperative framework, contributed just a little bit to your reconciliation?"

Murray replied in a whisper: "I think Jack was jealous of you. He noticed something between us. He was surprised I hit him with the divorce, and that guys were still noticing me."

Asked by the reporter if she wished she'd never met Karpin, Murray said: "Do I have to tell the truth? He kind of ripped my heart out of my chest and stomped on it. . . . I felt like, 'Oh my God, I let him manipulate me and play with my heart,' only to find out that this had happened before."

"That's fine," Karpin responded. "But my policy is, if someone comes to me respectfully like you have, with a request for a refund, I'll give it to them, not a doubt."

Except if your name is Gina Niedzwiecki, who requested the $83,000 refund.

"Gina is exception to the exception to prove the rule," Karpin said, not missing a tick.

The reporter left the conference room to allow Karpin and Murray to work out the specifics of the refund. Later, she told New Times that he promised to get back with her.

Murray's not counting her chickens.

And as for her reunion with her husband, she had this to say: "I guess you can say we've really reconciled. What I'm trying to say is, I'm pregnant."

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