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Lisa Krempasky's Crestwood law office sits empty. So does her eggshell-blue home on tree-lined Oak Street in Webster Groves. Neighbors say the 40-year-old attorney vanished without warning early this summer, closing the doors to her firm and slipping away from her house in the quiet hours before dawn.
"I haven't seen her since June," says a Webster Groves neighbor. "I woke up on several mornings to find her loading a pickup truck with furniture. It was five o'clock in the morning."
In Krempasky's absence, neighbors say they're constantly visited by process servers attempting to serve the lawyer with court summonses as a defendant in at least ten lawsuits alleging real-estate fraud. One persistent server has gone so far as to push a baby stroller through Krempasky's neighborhood, in hopes of slapping her with court paperwork on the off-chance that she returns home.
More recently, it's the beneficiaries of the Charles H. Norman Trust who've come knocking on neighbors' doors. One resident recalls the day this summer that an elderly man showed up, sobbing and accusing Krempasky of cheating him out of thousands of dollars.
As executor of the estate once belonging to the legendary founder of WGNU (920 AM), Krempasky has sole authority over a trust rumored to be in the tens of millions of dollars. But two years after Norman's death, the beneficiaries of the trust say they've yet to see a penny. Now, many of those would-be recipients fear Krempasky may have drained the trust dry by investing in development deals tied to one of the city's largest real estate scandals in recent memory.
The scheme attracted a diverse array of characters from banks and professional loan sharks to casual investors and do-gooders hoping to raise money for orphans and widows in Africa. Over the past four years, they sunk millions of dollars into dilapidated St. Louis buildings and homes slated for renovation. Many have since discovered that their investments are as worthless as Florida swampland: Little work has been done to fix up the real estate, and dozens of speculators claim title to the properties.
At the center of the controversy is Doug Hartmann, a St. Louis real estate developer and former boxing promoter who employed Lisa Krempasky as his attorney until early this year. In the past six months, creditors have filed dozens of lawsuits against Hartmann, claiming that he and several of his associates including Krempasky "conspired to commit fraud" and "unjustly enriched" themselves by borrowing millions of dollars against properties already secured as collateral for other loans.
As many as 200 buildings and homes in the city that were once connected to Hartmann and his company, DHP Investments, now have "clouded" titles, according to the lawsuits. Many of the properties remain in complete disrepair, with the deeds filed against them adding up to five or six times their true worth. For example, a ramshackle house in the Benton Park neighborhood has eleven deeds filed against it totaling more than $630,000. The City of St. Louis Assessor's Office, meanwhile, places the market value of the property at around $80,000.
"I've seen properties with as many as sixteen deeds of trust recorded against them," says William Sauerwein, a Clayton attorney representing a half-dozen banks who've filed suit against Hartmann. "As far as the sheer number of properties affected, this is the biggest mess I've seen in nineteen years as a real estate litigator."
In recent months the 44-year-old Hartmann has attracted the attention of the FBI, the United States Postal Inspection Service and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to sources who say federal agents have interviewed them about the developer.
Neither Krempasky nor Hartmann returned repeated calls for this story. Their attorneys also declined comment. Many of the investors wrapped up in the scandal were reluctant to speak on record for this article, citing lawsuits they plan to file against the developer and his former attorney. Privately, though, they tell a complex story of deceit and fraud that they claim has both Hartmann and Krempasky at its center.
The saga begins sometime in the late 1990s, when Charles "Chuck" Norman first met Lisa Krempasky.
Best remembered for his advertisements on billboards and the backs of buses that began with the trademark "Chuck Norman says....," the radio mogul was renowned for both his generosity and his parsimony. His annual Christmas gala raised tens of thousands of dollars for local charities. Friends recall Norman routinely picking up the tab for meals and vacations, but only if he could barter payment in exchange for advertising on his radio station. Former employees say that's how Norman landed Krempasky as his attorney.
"Chuck was always trading services in exchange for advertising," recalls Norman's longtime friend Art Ford. "Krempasky came on as a trade exchange. She provided legal services for him in exchange for ads."
Ford, who served as WGNU's general manager from 1986 to 2000, says it wasn't long before Krempasky and Norman's full-time caregiver, Esther Wright, exerted their influence over the frail and increasingly senile Norman. Wright, who now serves as general manager of WGNU, did not return calls for comment for this article.
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