How Norma Khouri made a literary killing
Her literary hoax was bad, but Norma Khouri's frauds against loved ones reached $1 million. Caroline Overington reports from Chicago.
Norma Khouri has been on the run from the Chicago police and the FBI for more than five years. Now, following the Herald's investigation of her literary hoax, the police have reopened a metre-thick file on the author - known in the US as Norma Toliopoulos or Norma Bagain - with the aim of charging her with a decade's worth of crime.
"We believe she is a con woman," said a source within the Chicago Police Department. "One of the best we've ever seen."
After a month-long investigation, the Herald can reveal that Khouri, 34, is alleged to have spent the best part of 10 years stealing from friends, lovers, family, and the sick and demented. She has netted at least $1 million from her crimes.
Chicago police were about to issue a warrant for her arrest in 1999 but she took flight, eventually resurfacing in Australia as the best-selling author of the supposed memoir Forbidden Love.
The Herald's literary editor, Malcolm Knox, last month revealed the book as a hoax.
Documents obtained by the Herald show that in 1996, Khouri took 97 US government bonds worth $US408,000 ($563,000) from a safety deposit box owned by her elderly neighbour, Mary Baravikas.
On a single day in November that year, Khouri cashed all of them at various banks in Chicago. Police believe that she also stole Mrs Baravikas's house and $US33,000 in cash that was also in the deposit box.
Khouri has also been accused of taking $US40,000 from a man who claims he was her lover. According to documents obtained by the Herald, a man called John Closterides told Chicago police in 1999 that he had a "romance" with Norma Bagain. She told him she was a Jordanian princess.
He said he wanted to marry her. However, according to notes made by a police investigator, Khouri told him that she had "multiple real estate holdings in the country and she feared if she got a divorce, her husband John Toliopoulos would get all her money."
She told Mr Closterides to give her $US40,000 so she could transfer one of the properties into her own name. He gave her the money, but Norma refused to show him the house, telling him she was a "great humanitarian and allowed poor, elderly persons to live in her various buildings".
Mr Closterides eventually went to the house, and found 90-year-old Mrs Baravikas living there. According to the Office of the Public Guardian in Chicago, which is now responsible for Mrs Baravikas's legal affairs, Khouri stole everything her former neighbour had.
First, she convinced the woman to put her name on a safety deposit box that held cash and bonds.
"That is very easy to do, when somebody is old and frail," said Dawn Lawkowski, an attorney in the Chicago Office of the Public Guardian.
"You say to them, 'What if something happens to you? What if you have to go into hospital, or into a nursing home?' "
Norma then forged Mrs Baravikas's signature on a power of attorney document, giving her control over the old woman's investments.
She signed Mrs Baravikas's house into her own name, and then borrowed against it. Then she took the bonds and cashed them.
When police got a tip that a theft had taken place, they went to visit Mrs Baravikas. According to notes taken by a police investigator, she was disoriented but told police that she "suspected that Norma Toliopoulos was somehow involved" in the crimes.
Mrs Baravikas told police that Khouri's mother, Asma Bagain - her friend and neighbour for almost 20 years - had "warned her that [Norma] was not to be trusted".
Khouri's mother conceded to police that she had warned Mrs Baravikas not to have anything to do with Khouri.
A police investigator wrote: "Throughout the friendship, Mrs Bagain has continuously told the victim that her daughter, Norma Bagain Toliopoulos, was extremely dishonest and not to be trusted."
Khouri's mother told police that she often helped Mrs Baravikas pay her bills, and she knew that the old woman had $US33,000 in cash in a safety deposit box, plus $400,000 in bonds. When she heard that Khouri had put the Mrs Baravikas's house into her own name, she urged Mrs Baravikas to check the safety deposit box.
According to the police report, "they discovered the safety deposit box contained five $100 bills, 17 $1 bills and several blank sheets of paper."
Khouri's sister, Diana Bagain, told police that she then went to Khouri's house and found US government bonds made out to Mary Baravikas; a bank passbook in Mary Baravikas's name and 33 money orders for $US5000 each, made out to Norma Toliopoulos.
According to Ms Bagain, Khouri said Mrs Baravikas had given her the bonds and the house. However, police also obtained a letter that they believe was written by Khouri before she fled the US.
"I am not running from the Chicago Police Department or the FBI," Khouri wrote. She said she was involved with people who were guilty of "theft, fraud, counterfeiting, arson, money laundering, murder, extortion".
"I have to get away from them," she wrote. "As long as they know where I am and what I know, I will never be free."
She said she wanted to give police "all the information I have. But I can only do that in exchange for your help. If I talk, I would need to disappear. We would have to be somewhere they can't find us.
"I know they won't hesitate to kill me or the children in order to keep me quiet."
Another note, which also bears the first part of Khouri's signature, reads: "I f---ed up. I signed the bonds. I did it all."
Police never issued a warrant for Khouri's arrest, in part because they believed she was in Greece. Instead, they arrested her mother-in-law, Zoi Toliopoulos, for "theft by deception in that she assisted her daughter-in-law [Khouri] in deceiving an 89-year-old victim (by) having victim sign over her money".
Lawyers from of the Office of the Public Guardian met last week with Chicago detectives, who said that they had re-opened the file on Norma Toliopoulos, after hearing that the Herald had established her new identity.
"They talked about possible charges, and we want charges laid," Ms Lawkowski said.
"The police have told us they need copies of the bonds, front and back, and we are organising that. We're certainly advocating very strongly that charges be laid."
Khouri has also been paid several hundred thousand dollars in publishers' advances for her fabricated memoir, contrary to her inference in a television interview on Tuesday that she had not been paid a cent.
At least one of those publishers, Random House UK, has announced it will sue her to recover its money.
Caroline Overington and her Herald colleague Malcolm Knox won a Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism for a multi-part series on Norma Khouri's literary and financial dealings, which later became the basis of an AFI award winning film, Forbidden Lie$,