Before Bel Rio: Jim Baldi and the death of Boheme
The recent news that embattled Bel Rio owner Jim Baldi has disappeared and left authorities in hot pursuit over allegedly widespread financial shenanigans comes as no shock to Tom Fussell. The owner of the now defunct Bohšme restaurant on East Market Street, Fussell blames Baldi for Boheme's failure and contends that had authorities arrested Baldi in 2008, the ensuing Bel Rio debacle might never have happened.
In July, Baldi took center stage in a media maelstrom, when–- after months of fighting accusations that Bel Rio music was harming the surrounding Belmont neighborhood–- he inexplicably closed the doors and disappeared. Within weeks, Baldi, who also worked as a bookkeeper, was charged with embezzling from a client, and a Bel Rio partner alleged that Baldi failed to make a promised investment and stole restaurant proceeds.
"He pretty much did the same thing to me," says Fussell. "He ruined me."
Fussell says that in 2007 he was riding high on the success of his then new French bistro in the old Michie building.
"We had just won three awards from the Daily Progress in their "Reader's Choice" contest," Fussell recalls. But despite the accolades, financial trouble was brewing. Then chef Clive Papayanis was allegedly stealing. Papayanis, arrested on August 27 and now incarcerated in the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail, faces embezzling charges relating to Bohšme. His attorney, public defender Lacey Parker, did not return the Hook's call by presstime.
Shaken by Papayanis' alleged betrayal, Fussell says he decided that in addition to a new chef, he needed a new bookkeeper. He turned to someone he considered an old friend.
"I knew Jim Baldi from the '80s," says Fussell. The two had worked at a place called La Zona Rosa, in Downtown Mall's Central Place (today the site of Zocalo).
No longer a waiter, Baldi had "metamorphosed" into a bookkeeper, Fussell says, so he hired the dapperly dressed Baldi to balance Bohšme's books in January 2008. When Baldi allegedly offered to invest $30,000 of his own funds, Fussell says he was thrilled.
"I thought, 'That's so great–- here's someone I know willing to get in here and be part of the business,'" Fussell recalls. The gratitude didn't last.
Fussell says Baldi's supposed personal investment boosted his trust, so he handed over access to the restaurant's bank accounts and financial records. In addition to taking over bookkeeping, Baldi hired new staff to replace Papayanis, but he allegedly made another significant change: he stopped providing Fussell with the restaurant's financial records.
"March goes by, April comes in," Fussell recalls, "and we hadn't been receiving any information."
When Fussell and his wife asked to see statements, he says, Baldi "kept saying it was being taken care of" and, when pressed, would "wave papers in front of my face," declining to let Fussell–- who had given Baldi the restaurant's only mailbox key– take a closer look because the documents supposedly also contained Baldi's personal financials.
"We were like, 'but that's our financial stuff," says Fussell, who acknowledges he didn't take decisive action until it was too late.
In May 2008, the patio opened to a thriving season including a booming UVA graduation weekend. Yet Baldi allegedly approached Fussell with a grim expression.
"He said, 'That's it. We're done. There's no more money," Fussell recalls
Stunned, Fussell says he struggled to understand where the funds had gone and repeatedly asked Baldi for an accounting, but Baldi, he says, "stonewalled."
And when Fussell approached Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman hoping to press charges, he says, he was told he needed financial records– records Baldi was allegedly refusing to provide unless Fussell and his wife provided documentation of their own.
"Baldi said, 'We're missing 22 receipts for 22 cash disbursements taken out by Mr. Fussell," says Fussell, who denies knowledge of such cash disbursements. "He was accusing us of embezzling from our own company."
Chapman declines to comment on any pending investigation.
A call to the restaurant's credit card company revealed even more disturbing news, Fussell says. He claims he learned that customer charges were no longer getting deposited into the restaurant's account but had instead begun going into an account Baldi had recently opened. Baldi had allegedly engineered the switch, says Fussell, who says he was told the bank wouldn't let him see the statements because his name wasn't on the account.
Fussell also discovered that taxes and bills were going unpaid, leaving Bohšme owing creditors (which include the Hook) "in the tens of thousands."
"When he destroyed the business, he left me with nothing," says Fussell. "I lost two houses, my catering company, my sports car, my van, everything," he says. "Not to mention my reputation."
Today, still saddled with debt because, he says, he can't afford bankruptcy, Fussell has moved to Ohio, where he works for a corporate chain restaurant making $300 a week and hoping that with the Bel Rio investigation, charges may emerge against Baldi for his alleged role in Boheme's demise.
Baldi, who remains a fugitive and has not retained legal counsel to the Hook's knowledge, could not be reached for comment.
Fussell says news that Baldi allegedly harmed other businesses after his time at Bohšme is particularly difficult to hear.
"Had they taken action in 2008 I might have received some type of restitution," Fussell says. "And on top of that, how many other people got abused by this guy?"