The Pine Cone's fourth story of the week

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Restaurant operators won't face charges

By KELLY NIX

Published: February 18, 2011

THE FORMER owners of Chez Christine on Junipero Street, and who now operate a French restaurant in Pacific Grove, will not be prosecuted for allegedly borrowing tens of thousands of dollars from customers and not repaying them.

The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office told The Pine Cone that it has dropped its criminal investigation into Christine and Francis Richard over allegations — by people in at least three California counties — the French couple solicited loans from them but didn’t pay them back.

The pair currently manage Le Normandie on Lighthouse Avenue in P.G.

“The case is closed,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz told The Pine Cone Monday. “There is not enough evidence to get 12 people to unanimously agree there was a criminal violation.”

In February 2010, The Pine Cone interviewed numerous former customers of the Richards who said the couple asked them for loans — as much as $15,000, according to one patron.

But after giving them money, the customers alleged the Richards never repaid them, even after making promises to do so. Several more people contacted The Pine Cone after the article was published and made similar allegations.

However, Heather Hardee — the district attorney’s office investigator who had been investigating the Richards until going on medical leave several months ago — didn’t have enough evidence to charge the couple, according to Spitz.

Furthermore, the DA’s office deemed the loans the Richards took from their customers were “investments,” Spitz said.

“These were essentially business transactions,” he said. “And there was not sufficient evidence to show criminal acts in these business transactions. Loaning somebody money is an investment.”

That doesn’t sit well with a retired Carmel man who said he and his wife out of kindness loaned the Richards $2,500 when the pair owned Chez Christine. He said the French couple never repaid him a dime.

“I think [the DA’s office has] a responsibility to continue the investigation,” the man told The Pine Cone Monday, declining to be identified.

In a February 2010 Pine Cone interview with Christine Richard, she blamed the poor economy, family health issues and bad luck for the reason she and her husband couldn’t pay back their customers. She said she wanted to pay back the loans.

“To survive, I borrowed money,” she said. “I promised to pay people back. I did it in good faith, and every time, something went wrong.”

Valerie Coie who now resides in France told The Pine Cone she and her sister had been patrons of the Richards’ former Danville restaurant, Cafe De Paris, when they got to know them.

When the French restaurateurs wanted to move to Carmel to start a bistro, Coie said her sister, to help the couple, loaned them $15,000.

“I live in France so I knew how genuine their food was, and we knew how the Richards’ meals were appreciated in Danville,” she wrote in an email message to The Pine Cone this week. “We were sure that the food would be appreciated in a town like Carmel and would be a great success.”

But not a penny of the loan was ever repaid, according to Coie, who also takes issue with the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office for not prosecuting the couple.

“It doesn’t seem possible for the Monterey DA’s office to [not] find any fault, to find any crime,” she said. “I have different values, and I find it very hard to understand this reasoning.”

Though The Pine Cone spoke to more than a dozen people in three counties who said they loaned money to the Richards but were not repaid, Spitz said Hardee heard from only a couple of people in Monterey County who made that claim.

Allegations made by people in other counties can only be handled by prosecutors in those jurisdictions.

“Some of the victims who had the largest investments losses were out of Contra Costa and San Benito counties,” Spitz said. “Ours were much smaller by comparison.”

A man in Hollister, for instance, told The Pine Cone last year he loaned the Richards $10,000 but that he was never repaid.

Oakland private investigator Mike Spencer told The Pine Cone in February 2010 he was hired by a San Francisco Bay Area man who was trying to collect at least $100,000 from the Richards.

The Richards were also accused by local landlords of not paying rent for their restaurant spaces. One landlord, Judie Profeta, who with her husband own Alain Pinel Realtors, was stunned by the news the district attorney’s office closed its case.

“That’s amazing to me,” she said.

The Profetas said several years ago they leased the Richards a space occupied by a former bakery on Junipero for $2,000 per month so the Richards could open up Chez Christine.

At the same time, the Profetas rented the couple an upstairs apartment for $2,100 per month.

Judie Profeta said the Richards owe them about $30,000 in past due rent, money she realizes is gone forever.

“I know I’ll never get my money,” she said this week.

After a few years of operating Chez Christine in Carmel, the Richards closed the restaurant and opened Bistro Christine on Alvarado Street in Monterey.

The couple’s Monterey landlord, who declined to be identified in a 2010 interview, told The Pine Cone that the Richards never paid him a full month’s rent.

“They were there about six months,” he said. “Then I saw the writing on the wall, and I gave notice.”

When The Pine Cone published the article about the Richards last year, a reporter also spoke to a former patron of Chez Christine who said he had a good arrangement with the Richards.

Michael Katakis and his wife, Kris Hardin, of Carmel, were frequent patrons of the restaurant when one visit in 2007, Christine Richard asked him for a $1,000 loan. Katakis said he gave Richard the money on the condition that the loan be repaid in meals at the restaurant.

“Every time we had dinner there, Christine provided me a sheet showing where we were in the account,” Katakis said in 2010. “Every time I looked at it, it was spot on.”

No action by state, feds

Spitz said the Monterey County DA’s Office notified prosecutors in Contra Costa and San Benito counties of the Richards’ alleged impropriety.
“We gave them what we had ... they got back to us and said they were not opening any criminal cases,” Spitz said.

Because questions were raised about the Richards’ U.S. residency status, Spitz said, the DA’s office also contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We contacted ICE with that information,” he explained, “and, likewise, ICE was not interested in the case.”

Spitz said Hardee, before she went on leave, put in “tremendous hours” researching the case. On Jan. 20, Spitz, Hardee and her supervisor discussed the status of the investigation into the Richards.

“I had an extensive discussion with her,” Spitz said. “The decision was made at that time to close the case.”

The DA’s office also contacted the U.S. State Department to determine if the Richards owned a home in France as they claimed.

“There was a representation by the Richards they owned a home in Normandy that could serve as some kind of collateral ... to show they had some financial assets,” Spitz said. “There was a question about whether that had been a misrepresentation as part of a transaction.”

The state department confirmed the Richards did, in fact, own a home in Normandy.