Suits Allege $1.5 Million Siphoned for Lavish Life Style : 'Jet-Set Vet' Is Hounded by Partners, Creditors

Times Staff Writer

People who know Martin Dinnes swear the Soledad Canyon veterinarian is a real-life Dr. Doolittle.

For 20 years, Dinnes has traveled around the world treating tigers with toothaches, sunburned elephants and every other kind of exotic animal in need of medical help. Some were even celebrities--Gentle Ben, the Black Stallion and Charlie the Cougar, former star of Lincoln-Mercury commercials.

His patients' owners talk about the vet with near reverence. "He has a wonderful way with animals," said Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and now a Soledad Canyon animal trainer. "He is known in zoos and parks all over the world. We jokingly call him the jet-set vet."

But Dinnes, 48, is now being hounded by creditors and financial backers.

Three companies Dinnes formed as a sideline to his veterinary practice all recently filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors, and investors in the businesses don't know why.

Trunk & Hump rents elephants and camels to the San Diego Zoo; Dinnes & Berman Enterprises puts on dolphin and sea lion shows at amusement parks, including Magic Mountain in Valencia, and Zoovet Enterprises is a shell company with no assets or liabilities.

Acton animal trainer Steve Martin, who owns half of Trunk & Hump, and Lake Arrowhead developer Jules Berman, who owns 50% of Dinnes & Berman, can't figure out why the companies went into Chapter 11, maintaining both make handsome profits.

"He did all of these Chapter 11 filings without our knowledge," said Berman. "When I heard about it I hit the ceiling."

Court documents and interviews with some of his friends and business associates reveal that Dinnes is having financial and legal problems.

Allegations Denied

Berman and Martin allege--in separate lawsuits filed before the Chapter 11 petitions--that the vet has siphoned more than $1.5 million from Trunk & Hump and Dinnes & Berman to sustain what they claimed in interviews is his lavish life style. Furthermore, the Internal Revenue Service has sent Dinnes & Berman a lien notice for more than $54,000 and the National Marine Fisheries Service is investigating Dinnes and Dinnes & Berman Enterprises for possible undisclosed violations.

"When he gets money, he just goes crazy," said Berman. "Nobody knows what happens to it."

Through his attorney G. Marshall Hann, Dinnes denied that "there has been any misuse of any corporate funds or that there has been any siphoning off" of funds for personal use, said Hann.

Dinnes has blamed his problems on his former accountant, David Myers. In a legal complaint, Dinnes alleged that Myers tried to gain control of the three companies by spreading "malicious lies" to Dinnes' financial partners and customers.

"This is the work of a disgruntled former employee who was discharged, David Myers," said Hann. "He got caught, basically unsuccessfully, attempting to incite a takeover. . . . and is now attempting to stir up the respective partners of Dr. Dinnes."

'Ripped Me Off'

Myers did not return phone calls from The Times. Hann said Dinnes is preparing to sue Myers for libel and slander.

But earlier this year, two separate Superior Court judges issued temporary restraining orders against Dinnes preventing him from dispensing any funds from Trunk & Hump or Dinnes & Berman. The orders have since expired as Martin and Berman have made attempts--unsuccessful so far--to settle with Dinnes.

Berman, in his lawsuit, alleges that Dinnes has spent more than $1 million of company funds on personal items since the company was founded in December, 1981. The Chapter 11 filing for Dinnes & Berman lists total assets of $220,000 and total liabilities of $806,000.

"The corporation's books have indicated average yearly gross profits of $300,000 or more," Myers said in a deposition. "Yet its income tax returns indicate that over the years the corporation has made no profit."

"He has diverted so much of the corporate funds," Myers said, "that it cannot pay its past bills or its current bills as they come due."

Among the charges, Berman alleges that Dinnes has spent more than $60,000 in corporate funds on personal trips to the Orient and Europe, $40,000 to build an apartment on the grounds of his veterinary practice, $70,000 to repay two personal loans and several thousand dollars per month to pay for life insurance policies covering himself and an ex-wife.

"He has been living high off the hog, and we weren't paying attention," said Berman. "He has really ripped me off."

Hann said the excursions were business trips and that the apartment is an addition to Dinnes' practice, used by employees tending an animal overnight.

Regarding the loans, Hann said banks have refused to loan money directly to Trunk & Hump or Dinnes & Berman so Dinnes has had to personally secure the loans and have them placed in his name.

"We would deny that Dr. Dinnes is living high off the hog and has, in fact, gone deeply into personal debt to pay for various items that have been strictly for business," said Hann.

But Martin also alleges--in a lawsuit--that Dinnes has taken more than $500,000 from Trunk & Hump's coffers over several years.

In 1987, Martin said in his lawsuit, Trunk & Hump had revenue of $456,000 but "showed no profit and did not distribute any money to plaintiff, Steve Martin."

Trunk & Hump charges visitors to the San Diego Zoo $1.75 to ride Katie and Gypsy--two elephants--or $1.50 to ride Doc and Henry--two camels.

Martin contends that the company's expenses--feed, insurance and wages--were far less than revenues in 1987. The number of Trunk & Hump employees varies seasonally from seven to 12. "There was one ticket taker, and the rest were animal trainers or animal handlers," said Martin.

"It made money every year," Martin said. "1987 rolled around and the business took in $450,000, and I didn't receive anything. That would tend to make you suspicious seeing as how all of the animals were paid for."

The Chapter 11 filing listed total assets of $138,000 and total liabilities of $111,000.

Martin has known Dinnes since 1967 when the two worked for a Sacramento-based animal trainer. They fast became friends, according to Martin, so when Dinnes offered him a business opportunity in 1983, he jumped at it.

"Doc called and asked me if I'd be interested in buying half an elephant," recalls Martin. "Fifteen thousand dollars is what I paid, which was a good price for half an elephant."

What did Martin get for his money? An elephant named Gypsy, who lived up to her name by traveling around Southern California performing at mall openings, amusement parks and eventually the San Diego Zoo. "Just a typical ring and tub act," said Martin. "Coming in, lying down, sitting up and I think she did a front leg stand. Basic elephant behavior."

Gypsy was a popular act and a profitable one, too, so Dinnes and Martin bought another elephant and two camels and formed Trunk & Hump in 1984.

Berman's relationship with Dinnes also goes back to when he met a young vet fresh out of school. Then the chief executive of Bardahl Sales Co. in Los Angeles, Berman was preparing for Bardahl Oil--the parent corporation of Bardahl Sales Co.--a television commercial that featured a cheetah. "I bought a cheetah and the cheetah got sick, and I checked and found a young man named Dinnes who only specialized in big animals," said Berman.

Dinnes made a house call. "He was just out of school then, and I took a liking to him," recalled Berman.

Berman subsequently loaned Dinnes several hundred thousand dollars to start Dinnes & Berman. The company has 14 sea lions and 19 dolphins at amusement parks and other sites around the country, according to Charles Clark, a special agent with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Clark confirmed that his agency is looking into Dinnes & Berman and Dinnes but declined to discuss the details of the investigation.

Berman and Martin both said they are baffled by Dinnes' alleged actions.

"I actually knew about all of this quite awhile before I did anything about it," said Martin. "I had a real hard time in bringing myself to the realization that there was a big problem between Dr. Dinnes and myself concerning Trunk & Hump. It hurt deeply to think that not everything was on the up and up with the company."

"He was my best friend," said Martin. "At least I thought he was."

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