Before Bel Rio: Jim Baldi and the death of Boheme

dish-papayanisandbaldi"First it was Clive, then it was Jim, who I'd known for 20 years," says Boheme owner Tom Fussell, of his former chef, Clive Papayanis (left), who has been charged with embezzling from the restaurant, and Jim Baldi, who Fussell says also stole from the restaurant immediately before it closed in 2008. MUGSHOT COURTESY ACRJ/FILE PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR

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?"

This story is a part of the The Jim Baldi story special.

29 comments

You're so right.

I think that when he surfaces it will be on the first episode of his new reality show. Like "Lost" meets "Flavor of Love". Maybe.

@The DH: If you can tell me what's inaccurate in the article, I'd be glad to investigate further. You can reach me at stuart@readthehook.com -- Courteney Stuart

Tom Fussel's story doesn't add up either. Who would turn over teh financial side of their business to someone and then not look at the books for months. Absurd.

Whenever I hear stories like this it seems the bank is always involved. How could checks written to his business in his name be deposited into an accont that has no affiliation to him. Should have been a red flag to someone at the bank unless they were also involved and not following procedures. Something to check into...

Also am with above comment by The LT, as well...

But of course...

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He screwed over Oxo as well.

Well, and all those mean old Belmont residents were just picking on Baldi, weren't they? After all, he was in the process of destroying them as well too?

Why in GOD'S name the city thought they should have spent 1/10th of the time protecting this guy's establishment and the copy cats around him is beyond me.

As I say over and over. Imagine, a crook in the restaurant business; how can that be?

One sad thing about people going on the lam in this country. They just can't face the idea of life outside the US and so they stay and get popped. Now if he were Jewish, he could go to Israel, claim his birthright of citizenship, and sit back thumbing his nose at US authorities, but with a name like Baldi that could be tough.

What still shocks me has been the attitude from so many, and especially some on the council, that the investment of a business is somehow worth more than the investment of a resident. And the council is supposedly built of Democrats?

Since when does one small business get to destroy an entire neighborhood?

I too would like to see the Hook really dig into the under currents here. Charlottesville's own Bernie Madhoff moment.

Can we get some facts from the reporter about how Tom Fussel withheld taxes,according to several employees, yet their statements do not show witholdings...or how his mortgages on the two houses"that he lost" got paid out of the business... or investors are still wondering where Tom is & why he hasn't been charged with embezzelment. How did the Hook find him when he has been on the run,as well as Jim Baldi, for almost two years,owing so much money? Hopefully the "pending investigation" (per Dave Chapman-Commonwealth) includes some facts about Fussel and not just Baldi or Papayanis.

y cafe cubano

Man alive Clive Papayanis looks like Danny Aiello!

http://www.google.com/images?hl=en&q=%22Danny%20Aiello%22&wrapid=tlif128...

And the federal, state, and local governments are constantly encouraging people to start their own business. People need to learn that most people will not make good business people.

why my previous comment was deleted is beyond me since all of which i commented on are in fact public knowledge. but i'll say it again, Jim Baldi couldn't have acted alone, he's just the poster boy giving cover to the others and as is in most of these cases involving partnerships, a great deal of "blindness" occurs when money is flowing in their direction and greed is the organizing principle. It's all a matter of public record. For example what is happening at Ventana? Is it going to work out like Boheme? are the employees being given the shaft there too? it's only when the music stops and these unscrupulous partnerships are standing without a chair that the s--- hits the fan. the Hook and other news outlets needs to practice what they preach and do more in-depth investigations into these practices that victimize innocent employees, vendors and unsuspecting customers. the city and ABC Board need to enforce their own regulations and listen to input from those being harmed. there were so many warning signs hanging over BelRio but The Hook and the other papers in cville were content to feed on the controversy rather than the facts.

Oops. The Hook may have gotten snookered on this one. Tom Fussell is far from an innocent victim in the demise of Boheme.

No matter where he is, Jim will get stopped for something sooner or later. Speeding, DUI, expired license plates, running a stop sign.... and his whole house of cards will come tumbling down on top of him. It's a good thing he isn't charged with murder. Virginia has a terrible track record in solving murders.

But if he *was* charged with murder Gasbag, then it would mean the authorities know enough about who did it in order to charge him in the first place,which means the murder would essentially be charged, just pending the outcome of the trial. ;)

*essentially be solved, I mean, not charged!

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if he were Muslim or Arab-American they would already have his entire family rounded up via extraordinary rendition. no they should just ask Verizon or Google for his whereabouts, or check with those still emailing him and his floozy. follow the money people. this was planned in advance so that this way no one left behind is held responsible for years of malfeasance(taxes, employees, neighbors,) and Baldi takes a dive, like Madoff. no one person could pull off this stunt because it required willing landlords, partners and friends to cover for him or at least look the other way.

I must agree with Special K -- and unhappily, this article is chock-filled with inaccuracy.

Not that I'm defending M. Baldi!!!!!!!!

We will eagerly await the scoop you get, when you are the first to find the guy... in the Caymans, or Panama.

(Full disclosure -- I worked there too.)

What Special K and DH said. The Hook needs to dig deeper; a diligent reporter will find so much drama that the paper could start a weekly serial with the story. There are no innocent parties here, except the investors who thought they could rely on Clive and Tom to run a business and the suppliers who didn't get paid.

Wouldn't that be funny if they never find Jim Baldi, ever? Think about it. He hasn't killed anybody. He only stole from some small, nothing restaurant in a tiny city that pretty much nobody outside of Virginia has even heard of. And while it was "a lot" of money by a poor average person's standard, it was only pocket change to those who truly are rich, with hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, at their disposal. Which means the Feds aren't really going to give this high priority, and he's not exactly going to be making it onto "America's Most Wanted" (if that show even still exists ;D or any show like it...) which means his profile isn't going to be brought to national (let alone international) public attenion. So it means it's actually quite feasible that this guy could permanently disappear, never to be found again.

Of course it usually never goes that way. Either the person on the run eventually tires of having to be on the run, or somebody close to them finally gives in and tips off the authorities in exchange for some deal of sorts that benefits them personally. But yet it is a possibility. He's already gone this long without being caught. Even the dude who embezzled from that one homeowners' association didn't last this long I don't think.

look at it on the bright side, at least Jim has some hot tail wherever he is

Fussell's story doesn't add up but it was the source of this story. The other two sides from Papayanis and Baldi are not reported. Baldi has disappeared. Presumably the reporter could have contacted Papayanis in jail. Oh wait ...yeah...never was in jail. Something about a citation for dog without leash or tags or something on Aug. 27.