Joel Burakoff knew the Malibu beach house would be empty after the weekend. So on a Monday morning in late August, he climbed the low perimeter wall and let himself in.
Burakoff was no ordinary intruder, but a distraught businessman. As chairman and treasurer of Univest Home Loan Inc., a troubled mortgage-lending and investment firm, he was facing the fury of a legal firestorm.
Although not yet public, a state audit had uncovered the diversion of investor funds to one of Burakoff's personal accounts. Monthly interest checks were bouncing, and mortified investors soon would learn that dozens of loans they thought they had funded didn't exist. The attorney general was about to sue Burakoff and Univest President Ruth Yonemoto, and prosecutors soon would open a criminal probe.
The investors included a number of Burakoff's personal friends. Now, at the beach house of one of them, he would try to cancel the day of reckoning. Leaving farewell notes to family and friends, Burakoff swallowed something that left him unconscious.
He probably would have died had a weekend visitor not gone home without her purse. The housekeeper, who usually came to clean the place on Thursday, instead was sent Monday to retrieve the purse. She found Burakoff inside, unconscious.
Burakoff was rushed to a hospital and survived. But many clients said they may never recover--not from the financial loss, nor from their sense of being conned by a trusted friend.
Although it may be months before the accountants and lawyers complete their post-mortem, losses are expected to run into the millions of dollars. As they wait hopefully for news about what will be salvaged, investors are wondering how it could have happened.
Some of the alleged victims had been Burakoff's holiday companions. Many had been guests at his daughter's wedding last winter at the Riviera Country Club. Others were fellow members of the Friars Club in Beverly Hills, where Burakoff, a member of the board of directors, was a fixture at the gin rummy and poker tables. All remember Burakoff's trademark big cigars, the hugs and handshakes, the million-candlepower smile.
"To know the man is to like him," said Friar Jesse White, the lonely Maytag repairman of TV commercials who figures his loss at $400,000.
"He knew how to make you feel like you were special," said Lillian Grant, who said she lost more than $90,000. Burakoff would say: " 'Don't worry, honey. You know I'm on your side,' " Grant recalled. "If you put your money in his hands, he was going to take personal interest to make sure nothing happened to it."
Many saw no sign of disaster in their frequent contact with Burakoff--who they said assured them that all was well right up to the bitter end.
What happened "is inconceivable, if you know the guy," remarked Nathan Goller, who said he learned of the debacle only after Burakoff's attempted suicide at Goller's beach house.
Burakoff was "my closest friend," said Goller, who estimates his loss at $500,000. He was "very endearing, very nice. I don't think there was a mean bone in his body."
Burakoff was so close to Shyrlee Schor and her husband that he was best man at their wedding. "This was somebody you took into your heart," said Schor, an Encino resident.
"There isn't a soul who met him or knew him who didn't love him. . . . He had a propensity for letting you think he was your best friend--he was that charming."
Now, "I feel betrayed, devastated," Schor said. "What was he thinking about? We can't imagine. Was he laughing? Was he thinking what fools we were? What was going on in his mind?"
Many of the investors are affluent. They will have to scale back retirement plans but have not been left destitute. Rene Ross of Encino, who is living in a motel, said she wishes she could say the same.
Ross said she lost more than $100,000 in principal, along with $2,100 per month in interest payments she was using to pay her rent.
"This man [Burakoff] has put me in the street," Ross said.
"Joel, quote-unquote, was my dearest friend. . . . He would send me flowers, birthday cards. And, of course, I would send him birthday cards, too," Ross said.
"I even sent him a gift a couple of times. . . . It's pretty sick."
Burakoff is said to be under a doctor's care and has been unavailable for comment. Without elaborating, his attorney, George Buehler, said that Burakoff did his best "to see that none of the investors lost any money."
Univest linked some of Los Angeles' poorest and toniest precincts--matching low-income borrowers who were desperate for loans with middle-class and wealthy investors seeking big returns on their money.