Suspicious Mansion Fires Spark $20M in Payouts, Suicide, Fraud Case

By MARYCLAIRE DALE | February 17, 2015

She bought draperies flecked with Swarovski crystals.

The ceiling mural at her “Gone with the Wind”- inspired mansion featured her family in robes, gazing down from the heavens.

And Claire Risoldi’s grand Republican fundraising soirees included the time she surprised guests by getting married at “Clairemont,” the 10-acre Pennsylvania estate now at the center of an alleged $20 million insurance fraud scheme.

“I had a great life with Claire and I love her to no end. … There is no one like her,” her second husband, Thomas French, wrote in a suicide note this month, weeks after the couple and five others were charged. “I committed no crime and I can’t bear seeing Claire … (and the others) going through this mess.”

In a grand jury report, prosecutors with the Democratic-led state attorney general’s office paint Risoldi as the matriarch of a family that lived large on the proceeds of suspicious fires – three in five years – and suddenly-missing jewelry.

Risoldi, 67, has called the prosecution politically driven. At her husband’s funeral Thursday, she greeted guests in a church lobby bedecked in a stylish fur jacket, spike-heeled boots, aviator sunglasses and her trademark bouffant hairdo.

“She’s a very colorful character, but she’s a decent person,” said Jack McMahon, one of several family lawyers working on the case. “(The report) is like a 47-page novella, but it doesn’t spell out a crime.”

Risoldi, French and her two adult children, Carla and Carl, were charged with racketeering, theft, insurance fraud and other crimes. Two others, including the man who said he sold Risoldi $2 million worth of draperies, are charged with fraud.

The tarp-capped white mansion – a seeming homage to Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara that Risoldi shared with her children and grandchildren – now sits empty amid rolling farmland in Bucks County, a few miles from New Hope’s quaint downtown in suburban Philadelphia.

The family’s insurer to date has paid $11 million for damage from the last fire in October 2013, just a few weeks after her surprise wedding to French. But American International Group balked at belated claims that someone – Risoldi blames firefighters – had also taken $10 million in jewelry.

The grand jury report notes she had a fourth fire claim at a previous home where she also reported two bizarre break-in thefts. And, it said, she was always the last person to leave the house, and had highly flammable hairspray stockpiled near the point of origin.

“These records proved to be a treasure trove of information revealing a long history of questionable claims that was startling to us in its depth and breadth,” state prosecutors wrote in the grand jury report.

Defense lawyers argue that all three fires at Clairemont were investigated by the insurance company and deemed accidental. Their experts blamed the last two on faulty wiring. The fire marshal’s office has declared the causes undetermined, according to prosecutors.

“All three of these fires were fully investigated and vetted by AIG,” McMahon said. “Generally speaking, they don’t like to just give you money.”

Risoldi grew up across the river in Trenton, New Jersey, where she ran a ticket agency and promoted rock concerts as a young woman in the 1970s. An August 1976 news article shows her standing outside a Cherry Hill, New Jersey venue called the Centrum, and described her plans to bring in acts ranging from Lawrence Welk to Sly & The Family Stone and Loretta Lynn.

Risoldi at one point won a large anti-trust settlement against a large ticket broker, family lawyer Ronald Greenblatt said. She has not worked for pay in recent years, except to help out at her daughter’s law office.

Carla Risoldi, 48, a former county prosecutor, did not immediately return a call for comment. Carl Risoldi, a 43-year-old state turnpike worker, declined comment.

However, family defense lawyers question the logic of any plan to profit from the mansion fires, since they say the money would only be spent to rebuild it. And they question why Risoldi would make up jewelry claims – for diamonds, rubies, emeralds – if it meant she couldn’t wear the pieces again in public.

“This is a woman who was fiercely proud of all the jewelry she has,” Greenblatt said. “There’s no way that she would ever not want to be in a position to show it off.”

She and French – a 64-year-old architect, ex-Marine and retired sheriff’s deputy – had been together for more than a decade. If she was the extrovert extraordinaire, he was content to cook, garden and visit their place in Paris.

“He appreciated the finer things in life. He cooked, they made wine together,” said Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, who attended the congressional fundraiser-turned-wedding. “I always liked the guy.”

McMahon said he spoke frequently with French in recent months, and believes the charges caused him to be “disillusioned and depressed” about the perceived abuse of power by a government that meant so much to him. French’s note called the charges by the attorney general’s office “unfounded.”

The office did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The trial has not yet been scheduled. Meanwhile, prosecutors have seized millions in assets, and a vehicle fleet that includes several Ferraris.

There was nonetheless a brilliant yellow Ferrari parked near French’s hearse outside the Catholic funeral Mass.

“I am very sad to have done this,” French wrote in his note. “Honestly my mental state can’t absorb any more.”

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