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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

Steven Ambrose tripped up by trail of lies

BY TAD VEZNER
AND MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

'He was a guy who had two sides to him'

High society hanger-on Steven M. Ambrose tried hard to fabricate a perfect life.

The claims of "Choppy" - as he was known to his friends - were legion: He was a grandson of the Dana family, a nephew of Toledo society patron Ann Galloway; a board member of Capital Bank; a Goldman Sachs broker who attended the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and medical school. He gave tens of thousands to charity. In his wallet, he carried a card proclaiming himself a federal judge.

But even the most accomplished "con artist" - as Lucas County Common Pleas Judge William Skow called Ambrose while sentencing him last month to more than six years in prison for two felony counts each of aggravated arson and passing bad checks - cannot change the truth.

Not only did Judge Skow say at sentencing that Ambrose's friendship with the late widow Marguerite "Maggie" Arnold of Maumee was just an ulterior motive to take her money, but Ambrose's many other claims were scrutinized by numerous public and private organizations, who arrived at similar conclusions: They were often baseless lies and used for personal gain.

And when those lies and other actions led to terrified neighbors, a ruined funeral, and what authorities claim were attempts to bilk elderly women out of thousands of dollars, many of Ambrose's past acquaintances believe his sentence was too little, too late.

"He seemed to prey on women who were older or didn't have a spouse any longer. That was pretty much the entre for him," said Mrs. Galloway, 80, a patron of the Toledo Opera, Toledo Sister Cities, and other organizations who associated with Ambrose for years.

Don Decker, who administrated the Dana Corp. Foundation, the charitable arm of Dana, heard that Ambrose had been wondering why he, a family member, wasn't on their Foundation board. So he had a private investigation agency that worked closely with Dana conduct an internal investigation of Ambrose.

"It didn't take long before it became very apparent there was no connection to the family whatsoever," Mr. Decker said.

In truth, the only connection Ambrose, 35, had with Dana Corp. was an indirect one: His grandfather worked there as a shipping manager. Reared in Point Place, Ambrose was

born the son of an electrician. The 1987 graduate of Cardinal Stritch High School was small in physical stature compared to many of his peers, but those familiar with him said he later used his broad, charming style to improve his social stature.

While his application for an Ohio securities license claimed he attended both the University of Michigan and MIT, a court-ordered investigation showed Ambrose attended the University of Toledo as a student of industrial engineering. He was suspended for "academic reasons" with junior class standing after 4 1/2 years in school.

"He was a guy who had two sides to him. He was always nice, but then there were the lies," said Mike Borsos of Perrysburg, who grew up with, went to school with, and was a fraternity brother of Ambrose's at Sigma Phi Epsilon's UT chapter. "I think he thought what he was doing was harmless."

In 1995, Ambrose inherited his grandfather's Point Place property, then valued at $70,000. Steve's father and aunt - Steve L. Ambrose and Margaret Kish - split the remainder of the estate: 760 shares of Ford Co. stock, then valued at $23,494.

But according to court records, Ambrose tried to conceal investments that his grandfather made in the Ford Motor Co. before the estate was finalized, and forged signatures on stock dividend checks for his own use. In July, 1996, Ambrose's father filed a complaint in probate court against his son, accusing him of concealing 380 shares of the Ford Co. stock and cashing dividend checks in excess of $440.

The complaint was dismissed after Ambrose's attorney, Sheldon Wittenberg, produced the missing stock certificates.

Ambrose, currently in prison in Orient, Ohio, was not permitted to speak to the media for this report under a state corrections policy for new prisoners. His parents, both of whom still live in Point Place, refused to comment.

Mr. Wittenberg, when asked by The Blade for comment on his client's behalf, said he remembers little about the case, but noted that it was dismissed.

Mrs. Kish, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., said Ambrose's actions in the settlement of her father's estate created a rift in the family that exists today.

Ambrose later worked at Coulacos Brennan, a brokerage firm renamed New England Financial, from 1995 to 1998, and rented office space at Seiple Financial from 1998 to 1999 as a broker for Sky Investments.

Chris Seiple, owner of Seiple Financial, acted as Ambrose's supervisor for Sky. He fired Ambrose after he only garnered $1,000 in commissions over 1 1/2 years and stopped paying rent.

"He really didn't do anything with us but cause a bunch of problems," Mr. Seiple said. Ambrose's insurance license was revoked in 2002.

In his private life, Ambrose was a social climber who befriended elderly philanthropists. He joined clubs where he usually was the only male, and by far the youngest member. His club membership included the Flower Hospital Auxiliary, the Towne Club, and the Toledo Opera Guild.

During a 1994 fund-raiser for the Opera Guild, Ambrose was recognized for pledging a $100,000 life insurance policy. When Renay Conlin came in as new general director of the parent Opera Association in 2000, she wanted some documentation about the pledge. Ambrose didn't provide any, so she decided to check with New England Financial, which said there was no such policy.

"To our knowledge, it never existed," said Mrs. Conlin, who had Ambrose's name removed from the opera's honorary donor plaque after the discovery.

There were other unpaid pledges. Marianne Ballas, owner of her late husband's George Ballas Buick GMC, remembers a 1999 fund-raiser she co-chaired for the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral at Superior and Walnut streets near downtown. Ambrose pledged $1,000, but never paid.

"He was very charming. Polite, funny. Everyone really enjoyed him," Mrs. Ballas said.

But that enjoyment soon would drift into an eventual uneasiness about Ambrose, Mrs. Ballas, Mrs. Galloway, and others said.

"At first it was no big deal - you didn't really feel put upon. But then if you said you were going somewhere, the next thing you know Steve would show up," said Mrs. Galloway, who related how Ambrose once showed up at a family-only party, and was also publicly ejected from the Sylvania Country Club for claiming to be her nephew.

John Szuch, CEO of FifthThird Bank, remembers running into people who had heard Ambrose claim to be on his board when he worked at Capitol Bank. "He dropped a lot of names around town," Mr. Szuch said. "But a lot of people figured him out."

Marguerite Arnold, on whose bank account Ambrose was convicted of writing $6,800 in bad checks, had her lawyer removed from her durable power of attorney and replaced by Ambrose, whom she entrusted with all her finances. In a will signed by Mrs. Arnold six months before her death on Oct. 16, 2003, a final paragraph appears in a different typeface leaving all assets to Ambrose.

"Steven M. Ambrose has been to me the son I never had," the paragraph states. "I would not have made it for so long, my fight with lung cancer, without his love, support, and unselfish help."

Before he deposited checks from Ms. Arnold's emptied bank account, Ambrose had $1.71 in his Standard/Sky Bank account opened in 2000, and $3 in his FifthThird savings account opened in 2001, according to court documents. Nevertheless, Peg Werner, a friend of Ms. Arnold's, said she was impressed by Ambrose.

"He was so good to Maggie, he did so much for her. He was a giver," she said. "If it hadn't been for Mr. Ambrose, she would have died a long time before."

While Ambrose lived in her condo at Embassy Estates next to Brandywine Country Club in Monclova Township, Ms. Arnold was living in Harborside Healthcare nursing home in Perrysburg Township. Three months before dying, Ms. Arnold was evicted from the nursing home, which is suing her estate for $35,000 in unpaid fees.

Her condo, worth more than $140,000, was foreclosed on after payments had not been made for many months. Ambrose ran up $21,000 on Ms. Arnold's credit cards. The Newcomer-Farley Funeral Home is owed $5,015 for Ms. Arnold's unpaid funeral bill.

Asked why Ambrose spent so much time with elderly women, Mrs. Werner replied: "I had a feeling he had a love for older women because he was so fond of his grandmother. He just thought we were wonderful people."

But law officials believe Ambrose's feelings were far from loving, and that he "targeted" Mrs. Arnold - who refused police help - and other older women.

In February, 2002, Kathryn Rike, a 66-year-old Ottawa Hills widow, contacted the Lucas County sheriff's office about Ambrose. She told authorities she was introduced to Ambrose through Barbara Hendel, The Blade's society writer.

"I introduce a lot of people in social settings," said Ms. Hendel. "I didn't treat him any different than anybody else."

After then talking with Mrs. Arnold, a friend, Mrs. Rike agreed to give $12,000 to Ambrose - who told her he worked for Goldman Sachs of New York - for investing.

But when Mrs. Rike asked Ambrose or tried to check her investment account online, she got nowhere. Detective Cathy Stooksbury of the sheriff's office took the case and concluded that Ambrose had never worked for Goldman Sachs and that the investments never were made.

After being charged in Toledo Municipal Court with theft, Ambrose agreed to pay back the money - and did. Mrs. Rike then dropped the charges.

Detective Stooksbury said Mrs. Rike's decision was frustrating. "I thought, 'Oh my God, don't do this - I understand embarrassment and all, but this guy's just going to do it again and again!'●"

Mr. Wittenberg called the incident with this client a "misunderstanding." He said if there had been evidence of wrongdoing, the charges would have been pressed anyway.

In another incident, investigators reported that Margaret Tank, 90, widow of Oregon surgeon Dr. Reynold Tank, gave at least $50,000 to Ambrose to invest, and possibly more.

"We found no evidence of an actual investment," said Frank Stiles, who investigated the case for the Lucas County prosecutor's office. Mr. Stiles added that Mrs. Tank's case is still an open investigation.

The Rev. Michael Billian, episcopal vicar for the Toledo Catholic Diocese and Mrs. Tank's legal guardian, remembers convincing Mrs. Tank to cancel at least a check for $100,000 after asking a private investigator associated with Historic St. Patrick Church in downtown Toledo about Ambrose.

"They knew all about him, and quickly advised us to steer her away," Father Billian said.

Even though he is now in prison, two felony charges filed against Ambrose by Put-in-Bay police in Ottawa County on an unrelated matter remain pending - one for identity fraud for falsely using his father's name, and another for misuse of a credit card.

Acquaintances of Ambrose sometimes received phone calls from an elderly-sounding man known as "George Barsis" - a man none has met or seen, usually claiming to be an attorney who lived in Florida, and "a good friend of Steve's."

Mrs. Rike told detectives that she received a call "out of the clear blue sky" from "George" who recommended Ambrose as an "excellent investor."

"It was Steven, there's no doubt in my mind," Detective Stooksbury said.

Friends said Mrs. Arnold also would receive frequent calls from "George," claiming to be from Florida, and making Ms. Arnold believe that he was interested in her romantically.

Mrs. Werner also said she's spoken several times on the phone to "George," who claimed to be living in Palm Beach. During last summer's hurricanes, "George" called to tell her his "good friend" Chester Devenow had come over to help him pack up his things and move. "George" claimed to be calling from Mr. Devenow's cell phone, and left a phone number that does not exist.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Devenow, 85, a retired Toledo industrialist now residing in Palm Beach, said he didn't know any George fitting that description. He jokingly added: "And I would never help anybody move these days."

In August, 2002, Ambrose moved into Mrs. Arnold's Embassy Estates condo, next door to the Brandywine Country Club.

At first, nobody knew what to think of Mrs. Arnold's friend, sitting by the pool, loud, boisterous, bellowing into two cell phones.

Nine months later, the annual condo association meeting would for the first time ever have 100 percent attendance - with the exception of Mrs. Arnold. The main topic was "the Arnold place."

There had been growing instances of vandalism since Ambrose moved in, including two gallons of white paint poured through a two-inch crack in the window of property manager Dave Brown's Cadillac. Mr. Brown had been involved in some run-ins with Ambrose, but there was no direct evidence that Ambrose was involved in the vandalism.

Still, law enforcement suspected him.

"Anything that happened around Ambrose, we were instantly suspicious of," said Lt. Don Atkinson, head of the sheriff's detective bureau.

Several late-night fires followed Ambrose's arrival: The guardhouse at the entrance to the condo complex burned to the ground; a barking dog alerted residents to a fire at the association's clubhouse, preventing serious damage.

At the annual condo association meeting after the clubhouse fire, "you could hardly get in the room," said Don Wolfe, a resident of Embassy Estates who lived two doors down from Mrs. Arnold. "People were terrified."

At the meeting, the association voted to spend association fees to hire security guards who were given one task: Watch Ambrose's activities.

"He played cat and mouse with us, would drive around looking for us," said one of the guards, Lyle Fair of Pennsylvania-based St. Amoritz Security, who said he often dressed in all-black or camouflage fatigues and watched Ambrose through binoculars.

On April 30, 2003, condo complex resident Bruce Beatty woke to the sound of hammering, went outside, and saw a figure standing next to a fire in a hole that had been chopped into the back wall of Mrs. Arnold's condo. Mr. Beatty told authorities he pointed his flashlight in the face of the man and found Ambrose staring back.

When sheriffs' deputies arrived at Mrs. Arnold's condo, they reported finding Ambrose drunk on scotch, talking on his cell phone.

They found lighter fluid and a grill lighter in the living room, and took Ambrose into custody for questioning when he ran toward the foyer, where a hatchet was sitting in a corner. Later, flakes of building material found on that hatchet were determined to be similar to paint on the hacked-up exterior wall at the rear of Mrs. Arnold's condo, according to Detective Rob Sarahman of the sheriff's department. Ambrose was released after several hours in custody without charges relating to the fire.

A second fire occurred in June around the attic fan of Ms. Arnold's condo. When authorities came to investigate, they found Ambrose hiding in a crawl space in the basement, claiming that people were trying to kill him.

Investigators later found the attic fan was disconnected and could not have been the source of the fire. Again, Ambrose was questioned, but later released.

In October, 2003, Ambrose was arrested in connection with both fires, and three counts of check fraud. Police did not determine a motive, though authorities discovered a $109,620 homeowners' insurance policy on the property that Ambrose stood to inherit.

Mr. Wittenberg, who again represented Ambrose, said the fires were "small, and localized," and stressed that his client never admitted to setting either of them. Ambrose entered an Alford plea, which allowed him to avoid more severe penalties had the case gone to trial, and also avoid the admission of any guilt in the crimes.

In all, the condo association paid $18,000 in fees for repairs, attorneys to take action on $3,500 worth of unpaid fees for Ms. Arnold's condo, and security relating to Ambrose, Mr. Brown said.

Two weeks before Ambrose's arrest, the time came to lay Mrs. Arnold to rest.

The spunky, philanthropic woman was well-known in Kalamazoo, Mich. - so it was a shock when several dozen friends and family members turned up at a funeral home once owned by her family for a

service that never happened.

"Here the whole family had been funeral directors, and they were probably turning over in their graves from what happened," said David Horn, a family friend and employee at the Joldersma & Klein Funeral Home in Kalamazoo.

Days before the funeral, Mr. Horn received a call from "George."

"You could get into a lot of trouble - be careful or you'll get stuck with the whole bill. The family doesn't care anything about her," Mr. Horn, who had known Mrs. Arnold's family most of his life, was told by the caller.

But Mrs. Arnold's sister made arrangements to cover the funeral expenses, and plans went forward to have the service in Kalamazoo two days after a service in Toledo.

During the Toledo church service, Ambrose spoke of his undying affection for Mrs. Arnold, according to some present.

Following the Toledo service at the Newcomer-Farley Funeral Home, however, Ambrose handed a letter to employee Sue Craft. The letter - supposedly signed by Mrs. Arnold and witnessed by a nursing home employee - instructed the home to obey Ambrose's instructions when it came to arrangements.

"My so-called family and others have been utterly cruel and evil to me for several years and I wish them not to handle any funeral or burial arrangements," the letter stated.

Mr. Ambrose then told the home not to transport the body to Kalamazoo, Ms. Craft said.

But Ms. Craft and others at Newcomer-Farley became suspicious of the letter, which was purportedly authorized by a signature page "on Page 2." The second page, however, listed a "9" for the page number at the bottom, and appeared to be an exact photocopy of the signature page of Mrs. Arnold's signed durable power of attorney.

Deborah L. Clark, the nursing home employee who signed Mrs. Arnold's power of attorney as a witness, told The Blade she had never signed or witnessed others signing a letter involving funeral arrangements.

The apparent forgery was not sorted out in time for the Kalamazoo funeral service to take place as scheduled, and some of Mrs. Arnold's family members ended up flying in for a service that never happened.

"The family was aghast," Mr. Horn said. "One of Mrs. Arnold's childhood friends walked through the home saying, 'You're kidding, right?'●"

In the end, Mrs. Galloway said she thought Ambrose's life didn't need to go the way it did.

"He wanted to be accepted, he just went about it the wrong way," she said. "He needs counseling, he needs help.

"But I just don't know if he'll be able to get it where he's going."

Contact Tad Vezner at:

tvezner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050



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