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Near-Fatal Attraction : Athlete Still a Victim of Lover’s Obsession That Led to Her Paralysis

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the decade since gunshots left her paralyzed from the chest down, Janni Smith has gained national recognition.

As a wheelchair athlete, she won more than a dozen marathon races and competed in trials for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. And as president of the Irvine-based Petrofsky Centers for Rehabilitation and Research, she has helped develop medical technologies that enable paralyzed muscles to move for exercise as well as for walking and hand movement.

News accounts typically attribute Smith’s paralysis to an accident. Even her background biography only notes she was shot four times while training for the Honolulu Marathon.

“I tried to be as honest as I could with people,” Smith says, “but I didn’t advertise it.”

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What really happened to Janni Smith is chronicled in “Sleeping With the Devil” (Morrow; $20), former trial lawyer Suzanne Finstad’s true-crime book about the love affair between Texas millionaire Richard Minns and Barbra Piotrowski, the bright and beautiful California premed student and part-time model 24 years his junior.

As the book jacket states, Minns and Piotrowski “were a golden couple until love turned to obsession and obsession turned to murder.”

Seven months after Piotrowski walked out on Minns, a paid assassin shot her four times in the back while she was parked in a Houston lot.

Still fearing for her life after the shooting, Piotrowski changed her name to Janni Smith.

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Four men, including the private detective hired by Richard Minns to tap Piotrowski’s phone and harass her after they broke up, were later imprisoned for conspiracy to commit murder.

Minns, however, was never charged, arrested or even questioned about the murder plot. Frustrated by what Finstad calls the “inaction and lethargy of the criminal justice system,” Piotrowski in 1982 filed a civil suit against Minns for causing her injuries.

But by then Minns already had liquidated all his assets and left the country. As Piotrowski has built a new life as Janni Smith, Minns has continued to elude the court system and over the years has, according to Finstad, avoided 19 depositions and numerous hearings. Finstad said Minns has been living in different countries and has returned to the United States only by using false passports.

“He has stated under oath that he is confined to bed and too ill to travel,” said Finstad, who interviewed all of the key participants involved in the case--except for the elusive Minns. Minns, through his ex-wife, refused to speak to her.

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Houston attorney Earle Lilly, who says he still represents Minns, describes “Sleeping With the Devil” as a “despicable portrayal of a situation and of a man that is one-sided and incredibly biased.”

For 11 years, Lilly said, “the state of Texas has seen fit not to accuse (Minns) of any criminal wrongdoing, and yet an author of a book with a minimum amount of information and investigation has parlayed that lack of knowledge into a negative media blitz against this man.”

Janni Smith, who was interviewed by the author, took time off from her work at the Petrofsky Centers to accompany Finstad on a tour to promote the book.

At best, however, Smith is a reluctant participant.

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“I am not on the tour to discuss the details of the book, nor to discuss details of a relationship that I have no desire to remember or relive,” said Smith, who agreed to do the tour in order to talk about her research and to discuss any “important issues” raised by the book.

What she has found, however, is that talk show hosts are more interested in asking her about her relationship with Richard Minns than discussing inequities in the justice system.

“They want the dirt,” said Smith, who is now 38 and living in Orange County. “It’s been very awkward for me.”

After 23-year-old Barbra Piotrowski met 47-year-old Richard Minns on a Colorado ski slope in 1977, the charismatic, youthful-looking health club tycoon convinced her to abandon her premed studies at UCLA and move to Houston to be with him.

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To Piotrowski, the publicity-seeking Minns was a Prince Charming who lavished attention on her and constantly told her she was the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world. He was a man who would even stop his car on the freeway to pick wildflowers for her.

At the time Piotrowski met Minns, “she was very repressed, very shy, and had a negative self-image,” said Finstad. “She had been sexually assaulted as a teen-ager. It devastated her. She hadn’t had a true relationship with a man until she met Richard Minns.”

Even when she discovered that Minns had a wife of 25 years and four children, Piotrowski believed his explanation that he and his wife had an open marriage.

In retrospect, said Smith, “I don’t think it was a very healthy kind of love. We were both so obsessed with each other, and that really wasn’t normal. All our friends warned us that if the two of us broke up, something sinister was going to happen.”

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When Minn’s wife, Mimi, divorced him, she received more than half of his net worth. But Minns could not stand to lose and gradually focused his anger and paranoia on Piotrowski.

When Minns insisted that she have an abortion, Piotrowski moved out of the townhouse he had bought for her, taking her furniture with her. Minns retaliated by using his influence to have her arrested for grand theft. Then, according to the book, he hired a private detective to tap Piotrowski’s phone and to trail and harass her and her family.

“I think,” Finstad said, “he feared she’d file a palimony action against him and he had just been through this ‘War of the Roses’ divorce that set him over the edge--and the fact that (Piotrowski) left him. His ego was battered, and this is an egomaniac.”

A month before the murder attempt that left Piotrowski paralyzed, Finstad learned while researching her book, Minns’ own bodyguard told the Houston police that a contract was out on Piotrowski and that the private investigator hired by Minns was behind it. “And,” the bodyguard told police, “everyone knows he’s working for Minns.”

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But, said Finstad, the police did nothing.

Finstad was attending law school in Houston when Piotrowski was shot and, “like everybody,” she followed newspaper accounts of the case.

“You would have to have been living in a cave, or comatose, to live in Houston and not know about this,” she said. “It was really a cause celebre.

When Finstad approached Janni Smith four years ago to be interviewed for a book, Smith initially refused.

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Over the years, Smith has turned down numerous offers to sell the book or movie rights to her story. But after becoming familiar with Finstad and her two previous books, Smith finally agreed to be interviewed.

Besides, said Smith, “she was coming to me and giving me more information than the FBI, the Police Department, or my attorneys--more than anyone else was able to obtain.”

Smith emphasizes that “Sleeping With the Devil” is not her story but a subjective look at the case. (Smith is not profiting from Finstad’s book, but Finstad said she plans to give 15% of her royalties to Smith’s research clinics.)

Smith said she hasn’t even read the book.

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“I’m afraid of letting myself get caught up in a very depressing story,” she said. “All my family and close friends have read it. They just find it incredibly depressing. It’s like reliving it.”

Finstad said Smith still fears Minns.

“It’s only been until recently that she has even been able to discuss in a public way Richard Minns at all. She would stutter and stammer, her hands would shake and she’d lose her train of thought.”

What may happen next could concern money.

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In 1987, when Minns failed to show up in court for the start of Smith’s personal-injury trial, a judge entered a default judgment ordering Minns to pay Smith $28.6 million. Minns, through his attorneys, appealed.

But last February, after a retrial on the damages issue, a jury ordered Minns to pay Smith a total of nearly $60 million. And, said Finstad, “the jury was instructed to accept as true her allegations that Richard Minns arranged her murder for hire.”

Whether Smith will ever collect the award, however, remains to be seen.

At the trial, Minns’ attorney son, Mike Minns, told the jury that his father was “destitute"--that he has no money other than a pension check from the Israeli army. He also said that his father is confined to bed.

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As a result of the book’s publication, however, Finstad says she has learned otherwise.

She said a man in the Bahamas who had read an excerpt from the book in Cosmopolitan called to tell her that Minns, who now goes by the name Richard O’Toole, has been living in a $600,000 condo on Paradise Island in the Bahamas for the last 2 1/2 years.

“He’s posing as an international tax lawyer and he’s had Bahamians actually come to him for legal advice,” said Finstad. “He’s also in impeccable physical condition. He water-skis four hours a day and works out with a personal trainer every day for hours at a time.”

Smith still hopes to collect on her judgment.

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Finstad said the man who traced former Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel A. Noriega’s assets, has been hired by Smith’s attorneys to try to collect the award.


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