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California and the West

Socialite Known for Compassion Is Drug Suspect

Communities: Newport Beach country club set is rocked by Tina Schafnitz's arrest on narcotics and gun-possession charges.

April 13, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE and BONNIE HAYES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEWPORT BEACH — For much of Tina Schafnitz's adult life, her friends could routinely find her name in the society pages of local newspapers. She'd be listed as part of a steering committee for a Childhelp USA fund-raiser or as a card dealer at a gambling night to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

It was a path of benevolent acts she was following upward to the top circles of Newport Beach society.

That all ended four weeks ago.

In what Tustin police described as a routine drug bust, a handful of plainclothes police officers descended March 16 on Schafnitz's 1997 Mercedes-Benz parked outside a Mexican restaurant on 17th Street near the Costa Mesa Freeway. Her arrest closed a trap police set a few days earlier when Schafnitz, police said, agreed to sell about a half-ounce of cocaine to an undercover agent.

Since her arrest, Schafnitz has found herself in an unaccustomed position. A wealthy 38-year-old mother of two, she spent the first night in Orange County Jail before a bail bondsman covered her $25,000 bail. She is expected to enter a plea Tuesday when she is to be arraigned on drug-sale and gun-possession charges.

Schafnitz has all but disappeared from the limelight she once enjoyed, hidden behind the gated walls of Newport's exclusive Harbor Ridge neighborhood atop Spyglass Hill. Attempts to reach her and her husband, Matthew Schafnitz, 54, have been unsuccessful.

In the days since word of Schafnitz's arrest began circulating, there have been public declarations of support and concern by society mavens. But the rumor mills also have churned out scenarios about what might have led Schafnitz to drive from her $1.5-million home to sell, according to police, about $1,000 in cocaine to a man she barely knew. And then there's the unloaded .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun, with a couple of clips of bullets, that police said they found in the trunk.

For most of Newport Beach society, Schafnitz's arrest came as a bolt from the blue--as it did for people involved with the charities that Schafnitz worked to support.

"I'm saddened by the problems she has right now," said Helen Johnson, director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. "A lot of us have a lot of prayers for her. . . . She has some strong basics. People get involved [with charities] for a lot of reasons, and I know when people get involved because they care and want to help and truly believe. She just had a lot of compassion for who we are and what we do."

Mary Ann Miller, part of an older generation of Newport Beach society, said the arrest was the talk of the country club scene over the weekend.

"People were very sympathetic to her, which surprised me in a way," Miller said.

She added, "If Tina's savvy, she could come up again from this. She could come back again, admitting to her mistakes and have the position of, 'I've been there and I can now speak on this subject.' "

Schafnitz was born Valentina Katherine Froman, her father a Russian immigrant and her mother a native Kansan. Her father died in 1987. None of the rest of her family could be reached.

Longtime friend Kathryn Brewer of Irvine said Schafnitz was born in California but lived in Texas with her family for a short time before moving to Newport Beach as a 15-year-old, enrolling in Newport Harbor High School. She graduated in 1977, Brewer said.

Even as a teen, Brewer said, Schafnitz was drawn to helping others.

"She was very outgoing and gregarious, and would be helping people," Brewer recalled. "All the things that she'd done for people in her adult life were there when she was younger. She always wanted to help those who needed it."

Schafnitz studied at UC Irvine but harbored wider ambitions.

"She always had a larger-than-life personality," Brewer said. "She loved to perform."

It was at the former Cano's in Newport Beach that she met her future husband, Matthew Schafnitz, a divorced father of two, 16 years her senior.

"It was love at first sight, I think," Brewer said.

The couple married on May Day in 1983, her 24th birthday, and moved into his Newport Beach condominium on exclusive Spyglass Hill. In 1988, the couple bought a nearby 5,872-square-foot ocean-view home for $1.57 million, according to property tax records.

Matthew Schafnitz was then, as now, a partner in an insurance brokerage, Brakke-Schafnitz in Laguna Hills. Tina plunged into charity work and into Newport society.

*

Society columns over the years list Schafnitz and her husband as regular participants in a wide range of events, supporting such charities as the American Heart Assn., the American Cancer Society and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Schafnitz made a short-lived entry into the business world in 1989, selling customized gift baskets through the Newport Beach-based The Perfect Present. But concerned that the venture was taking too much time from her charity work, she closed it, Brewer said.

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