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New twist in battle over oceanfront land near Malibu

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge finds that a developer threatened and tried to cheat an elderly former aircraft company owner out of the property.

August 07, 2009|Bob Pool

Two-lane Deer Creek Road is full of tortuous twists and turns as it meanders across the canyons and ridgelines above Malibu's last three-mile stretch of undeveloped coastline.

And the fight over ownership of 1,291 acres of rugged oceanfront mountain land west of the Los Angeles-Ventura county line has seen plenty of its own ups and downs and sharply narrow interpretations of motive.

The dispute reached a critical juncture this week when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that a would-be developer used threats and fraud in an attempt to cheat an elderly former aircraft company owner out of the mountainous property.

The decision means the seaside land worth hundreds of millions of dollars belongs to 88-year-old Harry Mansdorf, whose family purchased the acreage over a four-decade period with proceeds from its aircraft business, which included development of the famed Pregnant Guppy cargo plane.

Ownership of the site and the family's $4-million mansion on Alta Drive in Beverly Hills had been claimed by Michele V. Giacomazza, who asserted he was a business partner of Mansdorf's deceased brother and for years managed their family's trust.

Giacomazza, 69, of Camarillo, said that in 1977 Lee Mansdorf took him on as a general partner through an "irrevokable (sic) joint venture" and granted him unlimited power of attorney for the Malibu-area land and the Beverly Hills mansion.

Harry Mansdorf said that after the death of Lee Mansdorf, Giacomazza used threats and intimidation to separate him and his wife, Linda, from both the residence and the sprawling coastal property.

In a ruling that came after a month-long trial which included a mysterious threat against his life, Superior Court Judge Charles F. Palmer concluded that Mansdorf, through the family trust, is the owner of both the Malibu area land and the Beverly Hills estate.

Palmer ruled that Giacomazza "proceeded to pressure, threaten and intimidate" Mansdorf and "intruded into (his) life on an almost daily basis, demeaning him and ordering him around."

Giacomazza's attorney, Michael L. McQueen, said it has not yet been decided whether the ruling would be appealed. He denied, however, that his client engaged in intimidation. "Harry knew exactly what he was doing when he did it," McQueen said.

At trial's end, McQueen called for Palmer to declare mistrial because of the threat, which was left on a courthouse answering machine. Palmer refused, explaining that Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies had investigated the threat and were unable to determine who made it. "It doesn't affect my view" of either side in the case, the judge said.

The ruling is a relief to Mansdorf, who said he had nightmares about the threats he said Giacomazza made to his family.

"At first he acted like a friend. He said he was going to help me," Mansdorf said during a recent visit to the coastal property with his wife, lawyer John C. Torjesen and a friend, Jaime Gonzalez.

From a hilltop off Deer Creek Road, the four could see much of the property's 2.7-mile coastline along Pacific Coast Highway. In the distance were Catalina, Anacapa, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara islands. The property, which extends inland about a mile, surrounds two smaller parcels that are not part of the holding.

Mansdorf, a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II who was taken prisoner by the Nazis, joined with other family members in an aircraft sales business after the war. Their most famous plane was the Pregnant Guppy, a bulbous cargo carrier that ferried moon rocket parts from the West Coast for NASA in the 1960s.

According to Mansdorf, Giacomazza claimed his "partnership" after Lee Mansdorf's death in 2003. Giacomazza contended that a written 1977 agreement proved it.

It was Gonzalez, a 47-year-old Downey businessman who had an earlier business relationship with the Mansdorfs, who first discovered a series of discrepancies in the purported partnership agreement, Torjesen said.

Gonzalez said he noticed that the official stamp used by a Glendale notary public who witnessed the supposed 1977 partnership signing was not issued by the state until 1987 and that the notary's signature bore her married name, even though she did not marry and change her name until 1985, Torjesen said.

McQueen brushed aside that contention, explaining in court papers that Harry Mansdorf had "acknowledged and authenticated" the agreement in the past. He declined after the trial to allow Giacomazza to be interviewed, explaining that he had suffered from strokes and aphasia, which cause memory and speech problems.

Gonzalez said he would assist Harry Mansdorf in reviving the family's 20-year-old plan to develop the Malibu area property. That early proposal suggested that a golf course, a five-star hotel, a marina, shopping areas, condominiums and horse property-style estates could be built there.

Torjesen said Mansdorf's experience can serve as a cautionary tale. "Something is wrong when a man in his 80s is worth millions of dollars in 2003 and then in 2006 doesn't have anything to his name, is living off his World War II pension and looking for 99-cent tacos," he said. "If there's that much change in wealth, there has to be a reason for it."

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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