Between bites of a braised lamb shank, Richard von Houtman — or as his black American Express card reads: Baron Richard von Houtman — holds his iPhone sideways to display a recent call. It's a Chicago number alongside the name "Siohvaughn." As in Siohvaughn Wade, the ex-wife of 27-year-old Miami Heat demigod Dwyane Wade.
"We spoke for 45 minutes," von Houtman boasts, traces of a haughty British accent lingering after 20 years in the States. "She says she's going to send photos of herself with bruises after being beaten by Dwyane to Pat Riley."
That's Heat president Riley and, like many of von Houtman's claims on this cool Monday afternoon in April, the story is unverifiable. The squat 64-year-old bodybuilder with thinning hair shaved to fuzz and the glowing-red complexion of a raw tuna steak is seated next to a patio table at the crowded Latin Café just north of downtown. He's dressed in khaki capris, an embroidered designer T-shirt, and loads of diamond jewelry, including a multicolored Jacob watch and a Superman medallion. "I just don't understand," he continues with something resembling sincerity. "How do you get bruises when you're black?"
The crack falls flat, but von Houtman barrels forward. He's arranged this lunch with a single objective: to disparage one of the National Basketball Association's most popular players. During the hourlong meal, von Houtman lets loose with a barrage of inflammatory allegations that he'll repeat time and again for the next couple of months: that Dwyane Wade shuffled rapidly through mistresses and physically abused Siohvaughn; that the star and his entourage transformed their Brickell office into a sex den for groupies; and that Wade asked the baron to procure Deca-Durabolin, an anabolic steroid. (Von Houtman says he refused.)
Perhaps more remarkable than the tawdry claims is the fact that von Houtman was until recently in business with Wade. He claims to be an heir to a butter fortune and an ex-spy, a self-described "007 without the license to kill." In fact, he is a former crony of a slain Dutch hashish kingpin, and U.S. Customs seized his Boca Raton mansion for the connection. He's been married five times and has a long, court-recorded history of violence against women. After one wild episode in the late '90s, he was convicted of battery on three Palm Beach County cops.
In 2007, he and Wade teamed up to create a chain of upscale sports bars and invest in a charter school company. Within a year, both firms went down in flames. In late 2008, Wade was hit with the first of two breach-of-contract and antitrust lawsuits related to the failed partnerships.
And in January, Siohvaughn filed for divorce, alleging her husband was a serial adulterer who had abandoned their children and infected her with a sexually transmitted disease. By the end of the month, after Wade filed a libel suit against his ex-wife, she retracted the scandalous claims.
Soon, von Houtman was publicly trumpeting the six-year NBA veteran's alleged vices, first in letters to Riley and other Heat brass and then to South Florida media. As with his ex, Wade sued von Houtman for libel. Through publicists, he has refuted the baron's claims as "fairy tales." And Wade tacitly promised collateral damage in an interview with New Times. About von Houtman, he said, "Once the truth comes out, [he's] going to be hurt more than me."
It's evident only the opening salvos have been fired in what will be an ugly and revelatory public feud that could continue for years — and wreck untold damage on the superstar's reputation, which is nearly as valuable as his basketball skills.
After chugging a post-meal espresso, von Houtman pays the bill with a hundred, pushes out his chair, and lumbers to the parking lot. He opens the driver's door of his white 2009 Rolls Royce Phantom, setting off a chorus of soft dings, and then pauses. "I don't hate Dwyane, but I think he's a fool," he ruminates solemnly. "He'll always be able to make $20 million a year playing basketball, but not much more than that. Why would a company sign on with Dwyane after his name has been smeared through the mud, rather than a LeBron James or somebody like that, who's kept his dirty business behind closed doors? What you're watching is the downfall of Dwyane Wade."
In early June, the first warm thunderstorm of hurricane season pummels a drab, custard-colored home just north of downtown Delray Beach. Inside, a 35-year-old woman with smeared bright red lipstick and sedate brown eyes recounts the years of abuse to which she claims Richard von Houtman subjected her. "He would hit me in my legs with a belt so that other people wouldn't notice," she says in a mousy voice.
Her 8-year-old daughter, wearing a one-shouldered red dress, is too transfixed by Babar playing on the tube to notice Mom's extremely adult talk.
Though most of her claims can be found in court records, the woman says she is still too "terrified" to have her name published. She was, by von Houtman's own casual admission, his mistress. He kept her on the side for four years while he was married to his fifth wife, Hong Kong-born Lily Lee Cheng.
In 1996, the mistress was a stunning, curvy 23-year-old nail technician. Von Houtman was a flashy 51-year-old rake who drove a white Lamborghini and managed Nautilus Fitness Centers in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale. To the young manicurist, whose parents were in debt, the baron represented "a big score."
The violence began eight months after they began dating, she says. It was unrelenting. Behind closed doors, she says, von Houtman punched her, choked her, and forced himself on her on a daily basis. He loved mixing sex with violence.
In 1996, she filed a restraining order against him, claiming he had "beat[en] her with riding crops," raped her the day before Christmas, and "threatened to kill her if she attempted to leave him," according to court records. When she didn't show up in court, the injunction was dropped. "I was too scared," she explains. "I thought he would really kill me if I made the injunction official."
Von Houtman did massive amounts of drugs, she says, from cocaine to Ecstasy to ingestible steroids. After two years clean, she blames the baron for addictions to cocaine and other drugs that destroyed her mind. So does her mother, a tough Swiss immigrant with whom the mistress still lives. "Her mental problems are his fault," the mom says with disgust. "I'd kill him if I wasn't so scared of him myself."
Von Houtman denies the accusations and says the women have no reason to fear him. "Have you met [the mistress]? She's absolutely insane," he scoffs. "I've never used a drug in my life, except for a couple of glasses of wine, and I've never beaten a woman."
Indeed, it might be questionable hearsay if at least two of his ex-wives hadn't made remarkably similar allegations in the public record.
Born in Bournemouth, Britain, as Richard Anthony Houtman, he'd been married and divorced three times in his home country before immigrating to South Florida in 1987 at age 42. Within two years, he had wed Leslie Frances Drucker, who was 13 years his junior. It was an apparently violent 13-week marriage. During their 1989 West Palm Beach divorce, Drucker submitted photos of her bruised face after alleged beatings and testified that von Houtman often bound her and once punched out her front teeth. "The husband is a violent and vicious individual who takes delight in assaulting his wife and threatening her life," declared her lawyer, Martin Haines. "The wife is in fear for her life and safety as [von Houtman] has threatened not only [Drucker] but her family, and has bragged to the wife of numerous killings... he has perpetrated."
Haines dissected the finances of a man who he says had a big-money lifestyle but no discernible income: "Von Houtman... claims to obtain all his money in the form of loans from business associates in Amsterdam and from friends and family members. Regardless of [his] lack of employment, in recent years he purchased with cash funds a waterfront home and lot in Boca Raton, Florida, costing $1.2 million, and a Lamborghini... Houtman has deposited cash money in various bank accounts in South Florida totaling more than $600,000 [in a four-month period]. Some deposits were done by wire transfer from Amsterdam, some were direct deposits of foreign currency brought from Europe by Houtman, and some were made by depositing large numbers of small denominations."
Haines's conclusion: von Houtman "profits from drug trafficking."
Indeed, von Houtman admits he had made his money as a real estate speculator working for a "Dutch businessman" named Klaas Bruinsma. Nicknamed "the Minister," Netherlands-born Bruinsma was Europe's most notorious mob boss in the '80s, orchestrating the import of hundreds of tons of hashish from Pakistan to Europe.
Von Houtman allows that he took loans and invested for Bruinsma in Florida, including using the drug lord's Panamanian mortgage company, Villiers Shipping, to buy the Boca Raton mansion where the baron lived from 1989 to 1991.
Though Bruinsma served three prison stints for drug trafficking and attempted murder, von Houtman insists, "He was a good man, a man of my tastes, and an impeccable dresser. He was a drug lord, but a legal drug lord: Hash and marijuana are perfectly legal in the Netherlands."
In 1991, the trafficker was shot dead in front of the Amsterdam Hilton. The next year, U.S. Customs seized von Houtman's Bruinsma-funded Boca house because it had been purchased with proceeds from drug trafficking. "We are alleging that the narcotics transactions occurred in Europe," Customs counsel Peter Quinter told reporters at the time, "in violation of foreign drug laws."
The baron denies "absolutely" that he ever trafficked hashish with Bruinsma or funneled drug money into his partnerships with Wade. But the confiscation isn't von Houtman's only run-in with the authorities in his adopted country. In 1997, his fifth wife, Cheng, filed a restraining order against him. On September 8 the next year, three Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office deputies along with Cheng confronted him at the Boca Raton Nautilus. When they attempted to arrest him for violating the order, he did not go gracefully. According to a police report, he shoved the cops and fought back when they tried to cuff him, yelling, "I'll break your arm!" One of the deputies came away with an injured finger.
He was charged with resisting arrest with violence, a felony that would have spelled deportation. Cheng wrote in a letter to the judge that her husband had "lived a life of bullying and deceiving," but von Houtman escaped with a misdemeanor battery conviction and probation.
The baron is more boastful than apologetic when he recalls that night of violence. After a police officer reached for his pepper spray, von Houtman says, "I told him: 'I eat that stuff for breakfast.' I left the cops lying in a pool of blood. They would later say that if they knew who I was, they would've brought ten officers."
These days, von Houtman dates a 23-year-old model who he says is a former fling of actor Colin Farrell. And the roots of his wealth remain opaque. He claims he has inherited a fortune from his family: His mother, Dorothy, was the heiress to the Blue Bonnet margarine company (New Times was unable to verify that claim with ConAgra Foods, the conglomerate that now owns the brand). His military career, which he says included "jumping out of planes into deserts and jungles" for Britain and Israel, was lucrative — but, naturally, top-secret.
Von Houtman's registered Florida enterprises include only sponsorship of a low-level dirt-biker, according to state files, and ownership of two active companies: Baron Global Industries LLC and Royal Global LLC. Both are "commodity trading enterprises" whose addresses are listed as von Houtman's 4,000-square-foot Isle of Venice townhome in Fort Lauderdale. "I broker jet fuel and oil deals with foreign countries," he explains without giving any associates' names. "The government contacts I made through my military work have been very useful."
Despite his diamond jewelry and multiple exotic vehicles, public records show he is not without financial trouble. American Express is suing him for $440,514.96 that the company claims he owes on a black, or no-limit, card issued to him. And the Isle of Venice crib, which he purchased in 2007 for $1.85 million, is in foreclosure.
In short, the baron is perhaps not unique in flash-is-everything South Florida. But people like him don't often land partnerships with top-tier sports stars.
When Wade met von Houtman in 2007, it would have been difficult to name a sports superstar with a cleaner image. The lithe and aggressive six-foot-four shooting guard had beaten a hard-knocks childhood on Chicago's South Side. His father raised him while his drug-addicted mother bounced in and out of jail on petty charges.
The young baller married his longtime girlfriend, Siohvaughn, in 2002, and they had two boys, Zion and Zaire. He was picked fifth by the Heat in the 2003 draft, before his senior year at Marquette University. Even as his national stock rose in 2006, when he helped lead the Heat to a championship, Wade's earnest and humble interviews never revealed a trace of prima donna.
In 2007, Wade was named Father of the Year by the National Father's Day Committee, which honors dads who show "high accomplishment in their chosen fields... and enormous achievement as parents." (Perhaps the committee has had better classes: Among Wade's co-honorees were infidelity icons Hulk Hogan and John Edwards.)
He founded a children's charity, Wade's World Foundation, and partnered with a similar group run by his then-teammate Alonzo Mourning. He focused on mentoring poor inner-city children. "I always said that if I got the opportunity to do something for kids that wasn't done for me, I would do that," he told New Times at a June charity event at the Overtown Youth Center. "Our whole focus is to deal with kids like me growing up — kids from broken homes, kids that can't see no further than the dirt outside of their house — and give them an opportunity to see the world and understand that there's a bigger picture."
Wade entrusted the business of profiting from his fame to a childhood friend. Since October 2007, months after going into business with von Houtman, the basketball star's Chicago buddy, Marcus Andrews, has been president of Wade Global Enterprises LLC, an umbrella company overseeing most of his off-the-court business. In 2007, Wade earned an estimated $12 million in endorsements, putting him at number ten on Fortune magazine's list of most marketable athletes, just behind NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.
Which is to say Wade's reputation was worth hundreds of millions of dollars when the baron met Andrews in late 2006 through a third party. (Andrews declined to be interviewed, but in response to von Houtman's myriad claims, said only: "Not true!") Von Houtman says he was initially offered the chance to buy the rights to Wade's likeness for T-shirt production. The cost: $1 million. "I had no idea who Dwyane Wade was at the time," the baron recalls. "I assumed he was a rapper. When I looked into him and realized he had the potential to be a megastar, I immediately wanted to get my hooks into him."
The T-shirt concept met an early demise. Wade had a clothing contract with Converse, says von Houtman. But the conversation evolved to include a chain of Hard Rock Café-like restaurants, complete with memorabilia and clothing stores. A group of restaurateurs joined the project, most prominently Mark Rodberg, co-owner of Bucky's Bar-B-Que in Boca Raton and Bucky's Grill in Fort Lauderdale.
On August 6, 2007, according to court documents, von Houtman, Rodberg, Wade, and Andrews signed contracts sealing their partnership in an "upscale restaurant concept to be named D Wade's."
For his licensing rights, Wade would receive 10 percent ownership or a minimum compensation of $1 million. He would be required to make four appearances total at the restaurants per year, plus attend each grand opening. "Mr. Rodberg and Mr. von Houtman led [me] to believe that they had much experience and expertise in the restaurant business," Wade later claimed in court, "and that this deal could make everybody a lot of money."
Instead, the enterprise was reminiscent of one of the baron's marriages: stunted, hostile, and a source of copious litigation.
The first, smaller location opened with little fanfare on North Dixie Highway in Boca Raton in February 2008. The Fort Lauderdale D Wade's, a massive 34,000-square-foot restaurant located at 1451 N. Federal Hwy., launched the next month. Wade showed up for the grand opening of the dark-wood-and-leather temple-to-the-flat-screen, where waitresses wore skintight referee-striped outfits. He even brought along his mom.
Professional reviewers never made it to the eateries, but many amateurs were unkind. "They basically turned the whole restaurant into a huge cheesy bar [with] display cases filled with D. Wade stuff," one Chowhound user commented. "Food is typical cheap bar food — fried this-and-that, potato skins, burgers, etc.... What a disappointment."
Behind the scenes, according to claims Wade made in court, his partners were hatching schemes to cut him out of profits. Four months after the Fort Lauderdale location opened, von Houtman sold his stake in the restaurants. The new owners entered negotiations to expand the chain with former Kentucky governor and KFC founder John Y. Brown — "unbeknownst to Mr. Wade."
Soon after, Wade claims in court papers, he was asked to invest $1 million in an under-construction Aventura location. He declined.
The Boca Raton D Wade's aborted in May 2008. The Fort Lauderdale restaurant followed suit two months later — right around the time the basketball star helped Team USA win an Olympic gold medal. Wade then suspended the restaurants' use of his name, according to court documents, effectively terminating the chain roughly a week before the Aventura location was scheduled to open.
The controversy also spelled the end for a side venture in which the baron claims to be still involved. The partners had invested in a planned chain of five Fort Lauderdale-based charter high schools, to be called D. Wade's Schools, that had been founded by a nonprofit called Mavericks in Education. Wade was given an undisclosed percentage of shares in the schools, which would specialize in reforming dropouts. The CEO of Mavericks, Mark Thimmig, claims that after the restaurant deal began to go sour, Wade "dropped off the face of the Earth."
"The contract called for him to take an active part in promoting the schools," Thimmig says. "I haven't been able to reach him. It's a tragedy of missed opportunity."
The next year would see Wade named in three lawsuits and damaged by divorce court revelations. His sparkling image was tarnished for the first time.
On July 17, 2008, Wade's former partners sued the superstar in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, claiming he had not fulfilled his marketing obligations to the restaurants. He counter-claimed the restaurateurs had attempted to cut him out of expansion plans. Nine months later, the former partners sued in federal court, citing lost clothing and memorabilia sales and seeking $90 million in damages. (Wade's lead attorney, Michael Kreitzer, did not respond to emailed questions about the litigation.)
But von Houtman was not content to let the drama unfold in court. Beginning in late 2008, he began firing off emails to Pat Riley, lobbying the Heat president to "influence" a settlement to the restaurant lawsuits. And this past February, he launched a smear campaign against the Heat player, meeting with the Palm Beach Post and New Times to make allegations about Wade's personal life.
The baron casts Wade as a carousing pothead and provided New Times with a loose timeline of what he calls "disturbing behavior." One anecdote includes Wade and actor Jamie Foxx smoking a joint at SoBe's Mansion Nightclub, with von Houtman tagging along. Another has the superstar trolling for waitresses at their restaurants and using a rented Brickell office as a "place... to bring girls to." The baron offers no strong evidence to back his claims. Photos he touts as showing Wade and rapper Trick Daddy smoking weed on a Chicago stage don't clearly show either man puffing anything.
The only one of von Houtman's claims that is truly verifiable is the least shocking. In September 2007, Wade was driving a $400,000 Maybach in Aventura (while texting, the baron says) when he plowed into the rear bumper of an old Mercedes waiting at a stop light. To keep the accident from being reported, von Houtman claims he sent the young female driver a check for the damage. The woman's mother, Reva Roiter, confirms that story.
Von Houtman says he is still owed the $6,800 he paid for the accident — a figure that represents a paltry 4 percent of Wade's per-game salary.
For a time, those allegations were overshadowed by claims from Siohvaughn. The star's wife had filed for divorce and in January 2009 accused him of cheating on her, infecting her with an unspecified STD, and — perhaps the biggest blow to the former Father of the Year — abandoning his children. "His failure to spend time with them... has resulted in the children at times being afraid of him," she claimed in papers filed in Miami-Dade Family Court. "In fact, Zion... does not recognize or know Dwyane... and has cried uncontrollably the few times that Dwyane has attempted to hold him in his hands.''
Wade reacted aggressively to the charges from his wife and former partner, filing libel suits against them.
After Siohvaughn withdrew her claims, Wade dropped the suit against her. But the libel claim against the baron continued; it hinged on the emails sent to Riley, which had become increasingly inflammatory. "Behind closed doors, Mr. Wade is a bully and a coward," von Houtman wrote March 15. "He and most of your Heat players are smoking, using cocaine and steroids. I wonder how and why the Heat organization can condone such behavior... Is it just about selling tickets?"
He ended the email, which he also sent to the home of Heat owner Micky Arison, with a flourish: "The Miami Heat: 'Drugs, Sex & Basketball.'"
"[Von Houtman's] scheme," the libel complaint alleges, "is to contact Mr. Wade's employer... for the purpose of communicating false statements... [Von Houtman's] motive: In order to cease from any further wrongful contacts, Mr. Wade should pay him an undisclosed sum of money."
When he first learned, through a New Times reporter, of the lawsuit, von Houtman was wedged into a table at a downtown Fort Lauderdale Starbucks, swishing a tiny coffee around with thick fingers. His blue eyes widened, but not with fear. Defending his claims, he said, will allow him to shovel more dirt on Wade in the public record. "I have been waiting for Dwyane to come after me like this," he cooed. "I will annihilate him."
But there is one aspect of the lawsuit that truly concerns him: the dismantling of his use of the title "baron." "There is no evidence or history of nobility in the von Houtman family," Wade claims.
Von Houtman faxed New Times two documents he hopes prove his nobility. The first is an envelope, dated 1962 and from the British government's War Office, to a "Baron Houtman" — his father, Jack, he says. The second is a 1971 letter to Richard from the German embassy in London assuring him "every descendant of... a baron would be called baron or baroness."
"It's ridiculous that I have to prove it," he laments. "I've been a baron all my life."
It's Thursday, June 11, and Dwyane Wade is speaking with New Times at the Overtown Youth Center, a cheery after-school building on a desolate block, where he and Mourning are promoting the annual Summer Groove, a July event benefiting their two children's charities. He's dressed casually in a light gray button-down, navy yachting shorts, and ankle-cut Converses; a massive diamond-encrusted watch dangles from his left wrist. Sans entourage, he at first toys with the keys of a baby grand piano tucked into the corner of an empty classroom. As he sits at a desk, he looks gigantic in a room where everything is child-size.
This is a summer of great consequence for Wade. He and Riley have already begun a public back-and-forth concerning his contract, which expires in 2010. Negotiations in the next couple of months could decide whether Wade remains in Miami for the long term. And then there's the libel suit he filed less than two weeks ago against his former partner — which he has refused to discuss publicly.
"In this media-driven world, people are going to be looking for attention," Wade ruminates. "And what better way to get it than to attack somebody who has the fame? But the truth always prevails... Once [it] comes out, you're going to be hurt more than me."
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As the interview progresses, Wade's watchful publicist, Lisa Joseph, sits down beside him. When the superstar is asked to speak explicitly about the libel suit against von Houtman, he responds, "It's really pretty simple...," before Joseph interjects. "We're going to have to end this interview if you can't stay on the charity event," she says.
"Leave the personal personal," continues Wade. And the talk returns to permitted grounds.
Will von Houtman prevail? Probably not. Eight days after this interview, the Heat star met President Obama at the White House for a summit on fatherhood. But it likely will be years before Wade is free from the remnants of his disastrous business partnership — and the libel suit has done little to muzzle von Houtman.
Of the hoopster's meeting with Obama, the baron complains, "The president is making a fool of himself." Then he makes several phone calls to Washington and recounts his claims to White House receptionists.