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"Eventually they put the money back," Yedwab concedes. "But they only put it back when they knew they had been discovered. I don't think that returning the money after you've been caught stealing or embezzling constitutes innocence."
Of all the strange events that transpired during Dora's guardianship, most distressing to Yedwab's clients has been the mysterious devaluation of their aunt's jewelry during the three years it was stored in a safe deposit box under Shirley Levinson's control. Dora loved to wear her jewelry, niece Annette Birne recalls, and there was never any question that it was authentic. In fact, Dora and Jacob claimed that the collection, which included diamond rings, diamond earrings, a diamond bracelet, and a diamond necklace, among other assorted pieces, was worth approximately $250,000.
A few days before the guardianship was established, a distant family relative persuaded Dora to give her all the jewelry. Dora later complained to the Levinsons that her jewelry had been stolen. The North Miami Beach Police Department was contacted and the jewelry was eventually recovered and put back in a safe deposit box at the Commercial Bank of Florida. But it was never inventoried or appraised.
For the next three years, in documents they submitted to the court, the Levinsons estimated the jewelry's value at $100,000. But in early 1995, at Yedwab's request, the jewelry was finally appraised. It turned out to be worth a disappointing $10,700.
Yedwab immediately became suspicious. He obtained photos of the jewelry taken by the North Miami Beach police in 1991, and, with court approval, visited the safe deposit box with Art Samuels, an experienced gemologist and former commander in the U.S. Navy. Samuels compared the contents of the box to the photos.
"They looked something like the pieces, but they were clearly not the same pieces that were in the photos," Samuels recalls. In particular, several pieces of gaudy costume jewelry stood out. Moreover, instead of diamonds, many of the pieces were inlaid with cheap, new cubic zirconias, contrasting with expensive, well-worn, platinum settings. "Zirconias are softer than diamonds and they show signs of wear very quickly," the gemologist adds. "They may not have been brand-new, but they certainly had not been worn outside of the box."
Last month Samuels, Yedwab, and the Levinsons returned to the safe deposit box to take pictures of the jewelry. According to Samuels, who brought his notes from the previous visit, the contents of the box had changed once again. Pieces of the inexpensive costume jewelry had disappeared and had been replaced by diamond earrings, a diamond pendant, two gold bracelets, and a diamond ring A pieces similar to those that had appeared in the police photographs.
Yedwab says he is sure the Levinsons switched the jewelry after they realized he had unearthed the original police photos. "These greedy people took out the real stuff and put in costume junk, and they thought they would never get caught," he fumes. In support of his allegations, which were made at a hearing before Judge Newman, Yedwab notes that records kept by the bank show that the Levinsons opened the safe deposit box several times during the guardianship, including on March 22, 1995, a few weeks after Yedwab and Samuels made their first inspection.
Smith, the Levinsons' attorney, shrugs off Yedwab's charges. "Nothing in this case surprises me any more," he says. "The thing about this jewelry is that people bandy around the value of the jewelry. Dora said she had $200,000 worth of jewelry, but nobody had it appraised." He also points out that even if some of the gems had been switched, the swap could have happened when the jewelry was in the possession of Dora's relative during the alleged theft in September 1991.
Even before Yedwab began to amass evidence that Dora's jewelry may have been tampered with, he asked Judge Newman to appoint a curator, an outsider who would take control of Dora's estate. In the ten-page pleading dated February 22, 1995, Yedwab documented the numerous transactions made by the Levinsons that he alleges are prohibited by Florida guardianship laws, including the gifts to Levinson's family members, the $30,000 withdrawal, the unreported Social Security payments, and the unreported refund checks. "The guardian and her attorney/husband must be held accountable for what they have done," he concluded dramatically.
At the same time he was asking Newman to appoint a curator, Yedwab was also demanding that the judge hold a hearing on the irregularities he had uncovered in Levinson's accountings. Although Florida law specifies that an objection to a report filed in a guardianship case should be heard by a judge within 30 days, Newman decided to give the Levinsons extra time to file amended financial documents, in effect giving them a chance to rectify any inconsistencies.
It was at this point, Yedwab recalls, that he became haunted by the comment Newman had made at a hearing the previous year -- that he was acquainted with the Levinsons. At a March 1995, hearing he demanded that Newman recuse himself and have another judge take the case. Newman asked Yedwab to submit a written request.
"When this matter appeared to only be a will contest, [the judge's relationship with the Levinsons] was acceptable," Yedwab wrote in a court pleading dated March 22. "However, as discovery into the guardianship accountings proceeded, overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing by the guardian and her husband/attorney emerged, making it mandatory that the judge who hears this matter, both as a trier of facts and of law, must be totally unburdened with any history of prior acquaintance with any of the parties. How could anyone impose the proper sanctions, penalties, costs, etc. upon an old friend or acquaintance?"