A Superior Court judge on Monday ruled that a 29-year-old man who allegedly posed as a wealthy investor, romanced women and conned them out of thousands of dollars could withdraw guilty pleas to three charges of grand theft and enter new pleas in a lower court.
Immediately after the ruling, Joseph (Mac) Duffy appeared in Newport Harbor Municipal Court and pleaded not guilty to the same three counts, Deputy Dist. Atty. Bob Van Dyke said.
The new hearing was triggered by a recent Superior Court action and a subsequent twist of events involving Duffy's wife, Sylvianne Lestringant, 41, one of Duffy's alleged victims. Lestringant eloped to Las Vegas with Duffy just weeks after his arrest to avoid testifying against him.
The dark-haired Duffy, who used the money he allegedly swindled to bankroll his reputed affinity for designer clothes, expensive cars and a jet-set lifestyle, appeared in court Monday wearing a standard-issue, Orange County Jail jumpsuit.
Duffy was arrested Dec. 18 by Newport Beach police on charges that he had swindled nearly $160,000 from at least nine women in Orange County and cities around the world. Police were tipped off by a private investigator hired by Lestringant when she suspected that Duffy had been lying about investing her cash in the European stock market.
Duffy originally was charged with four counts of grand theft. However, in May, a Superior Court judge dismissed three counts, leaving Duffy charged with swindling thousands of dollars from a woman named Sharon Butler. A jury trial on that charge is scheduled Aug. 7.
Van Dyke refiled the three grand theft charges. In a tentative agreement on June 28, Duffy pleaded guilty to the three counts with the understanding that he would serve a maximum six-month jail sentence, which could be reduced if he was able to repay his victims, Van Dyke said.
Duffy had been living in Florida and San Diego since February, but remained married to Lestringant, a Laguna Niguel resident. Lestringant said she agreed to help him financially if he could overcome his extravagant spending habits and hold a steady job.
Last week, Lestringant said she told Duffy that because he hadn't lived up to his end of their agreement, and fearing that he would jump bail, she withdrew a $40,000 bail bond posted shortly after his arrest. Lestringant arranged for authorities to pick Duffy up at her Laguna Niguel home last Wednesday and return him to the Orange County Jail.
"I see (Duffy) once in a while and I talk to him every day," Lestringant said. "I realized that he is a really sick man and I couldn't help him anymore. So I gave him back to the justice system."
Lestringant's decision to no longer support Duffy triggered Monday's ruling by Superior Court Judge Leonard McBride. The judge allowed Duffy's June 28 guilty pleas to be rescinded because Duffy no longer had a foreseeable source of income to fulfill restitution requirements, Van Dyke said.
"We expected trouble in paradise, but not this soon," Van Dyke said. "Now that the bliss has escaped from the marriage, so has the money."
Rather than appealing McBride's decision to a higher court, Van Dyke decided to have the case reheard in Municipal Court, where Duffy entered the not-guilty pleas. A preliminary hearing is scheduled July 24.
Duffy's attorney, Jerry Steering, did not return repeated phone calls.
Duffy remains in jail and faces a possible sentence of up to six years on the three charges of grand theft. He allegedly swindled the money from Lestringant, Diane Lampe and Susan Ambrose.
Lestringant, Lampe and Butler all attended Monday's court proceedings.
"We're always helping each other," Lestringant said of a supportive network that has developed between herself and Duffy's other alleged victims, whom police believe number at least nine in Orange County and cities around the world. Lestringant also said she plans to file divorce proceedings against Duffy as soon as possible.
"Overall, some of us are hurting very badly . . . in ways that no one can know," Lestringant said. "He (Duffy) needs psychiatric help. I don't think prison can cure the problem. I tried very hard and I can't do it anymore. It's over."