Hollywood Heiress’s Marriage Turns to Dark Tale of Theft, Murder Plots
David and Desiree Telstar never had much in common except a love of art and the good life. But it seems that was enough for the adopted son of a middle-class Minnesota family and a scion of one of Hollywood’s film dynasties to marry on Valentine’s Day 1986.
Over the next five years, the couple had struggles but appeared, even to some relatives, to be doing all right. They had two $1-million homes in Montecito and, before their divorce, all the security it should take to bring anyone happiness.
But today, the romance and marriage of David and Desiree looks like a dark tale of deceit with Telstar, 35, jailed in Buffalo, N.Y., for allegedly plotting the murders of his 50-year-old ex-wife, a former business associate, and Desiree’s rich and prominent parents--Los Angeles Police Commission President Stanley Sheinbaum and Betty Warner Sheinbaum, daughter of movie mogul Harry Warner.
As law enforcement authorities tell it, David’s plot was the last desperate act of a man whose charm and good looks masked evil intent. He was arrogant and greedy, they allege, and embezzled $1.6 million from Desiree before fleeing to Europe. In a court hearing Monday, prosecutors turned over copies of tape recordings and other evidence they say will prove that Telstar offered another inmate $100,000 to kill those who could blame him for the crime.
But his defenders tell a far different story. His sister, Deborah Ausk, insists the charges are so outlandish that they could only have been concocted by someone with the money and connections to frame David Telstar. Someone, she says, like Desiree.
Desiree, her mother and Telstar’s former business associate, Walter Valentine, have declined to comment on the case. Her stepfather, Sheinbaum, has made only brief remarks.
While calling the case “startling,” Sheinbaum has refused to say if he ever thought his former son-in-law could plot murders. “I don’t want to comment on that,” he has said.
David and Desiree were introduced seven years ago by his former girlfriend, who met David while she was a teacher and he was a student at Brooklyn’s prestigious Pratt Institute of Architecture. In the mid-1980s, David and the former girlfriend left New York for Sacramento.
There, David opened a small graphic arts business and had changed his name from Mark David Matson to David Telstar--a name he thought was more befitting an artist, police theorize.
Though Desiree also changed her name, the former Susan Ellen Sperling was, and always would be, a Warner--the granddaughter of movie mogul Harry Warner, onetime president of Warner Bros.
When they met, Desiree was an art consultant in Los Angeles with three earlier marriages, two grown daughters and $150,000 to her name. Earlier, records suggest, she had $2.2 million, but the funds were embezzled by a former business manager who later committed suicide.
Still, Desiree knew she would get $1 million from the family’s sale of land in Woodland Hills that is the site of Warner Center. David also knew that, according to her attorney, Ilene Chase.
After the marriage, the couple moved to Santa Barbara where Desiree’s inheritance--and a $600,000 settlement of her earlier embezzlement case--were put into a trust in 1987. They called it the Valentine Trust--a name that was to symbolize their love.
“He told her he wanted to be an equal partner in the marriage . . . that he wanted to manage their money to make them rich,” contends Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Detective Greg Nordyk, who has tracked the case longer than anyone.
In the next three years, the couple used the trust to buy and remodel two homes in upscale Montecito. And when they grew short on cash, they took out new mortgages of $1.2 million, settling into a comfortable but low-key life apart from Santa Barbara’s social scene.
By then, Desiree has claimed in divorce papers, she already was nervous about what money was doing to her marriage. In a six-page affidavit, Desiree claimed that Telstar had taken control of their assets to the point where she could not even write a check. And he became “enraged,” she claimed, when her frustration led her to discuss divorce.
“He insisted that I sign a post-nuptial agreement which gave him half of everything I owned,” she claimed. “I refused and he made my life hell.”
With the marriage disintegrating, Nordyk says, Telstar began about March, 1991, to funnel the couple’s money into accounts he controlled. The paper trail, he says, shows the money moved from banks in Montecito and Santa Barbara to San Francisco, Portland and to Palm Springs, where late last June, Telstar allegedly withdrew $1 million in cashiers checks and converted them to traveler’s checks.
Then, on July 15, he fled the country, police say.
At the time, Santa Barbara authorities, contacted by Desiree and her divorce attorney, C. Richard Whiston, were already investigating Telstar’s alleged embezzlement.
Prosecutor Patrick McKinley decided he could charge Telstar with embezzlement if Desiree could prove he violated the Valentine Trust by taking more than the 50% he might get in a divorce under California’s community property law. By then, Desiree was happy to cooperate.
In her affidavit, Desiree not only accused David of stealing her funds, but alleged that he had long tormented her. “During the years of our marriage, I was very much under David’s influence,” she claimed. “I was afraid of him because he keeps guns and invites confrontation and he said he would kill me if I tried to leave him.”
While authorities were only investigating the alleged embezzlement, Nordyk says, their search for Telstar turned up evidence that he might go to any lengths to conceal that crime. Nordyk says the evidence, taken from a storage locker in San Diego, included financial records, loaded handguns, books on money-laundering, even a newspaper article about unsolved murders.
The headline on the article, Nordyk says, was “Without a Trace.”
For someone described as methodical and crafty, David Telstar allegedly did some sloppy, stupid things before and after his arrest on a warrant from Santa Barbara.
Authorities claim he had skillfully embezzled money before fleeing to England, France, Switzerland, even Singapore. And while he was being sought by Scotland Yard, authorities say, one informant from London claimed Telstar had plans to undergo plastic surgery and obtain a phony death certificate in Brazil.
Yet, Telstar was arrested by U.S. Customs in Buffalo after crossing the border from Canada and showing his real passport. At the time, he reportedly had $13,000 in cash, an Air France ticket for Zurich and a personal computer that may hold information on the missing $1.6 million.
Then, while awaiting extradition, authorities said Telstar bailed out another inmate at the Erie County Holding Center and offered to hire him in the murder scheme. Santa Barbara Assistant Dist. Atty. Patrick McKinley, the prosecutor in Telstar’s embezzlement case, said the alleged murder plot was disclosed in a Dec. 26 phone call he received from the inmate, Richard Matt, 25, of Buffalo.
While the U.S. Attorney’s office has refused to provide more details of the case, a federal grand jury last week indicted Telstar on evidence that, according to one law enforcement source, includes a half-dozen tape-recorded conversations of Telstar, Matt and others whose identities have not been revealed. The evidence includes Matt’s assertion that Telstar told him where to find the intended victims and what to do with their bodies. Matt alleged that Telstar’s instructions were to burn Desiree’s body so no one could identify it.
But Telstar’s attorneys in Buffalo and Santa Barbara describe the alleged plot as incredible.
For one thing, they note that the government’s star witness against Telstar--a man with no criminal record--is under indictment for an alleged 1989 rape and may face charges for a purported knifepoint assault last October on a former girlfriend. While authorities and Matt’s attorney insist they made no deal for his testimony, Telstar’s lawyers are skeptical.
“These jailhouse informants are a bunch of pathological rats who are always looking to make a deal for themselves,” said Telstar’s Buffalo attorney, Joel K. Daniels.
Telstar’s attorneys note that he has agreed to face embezzlement charges in Santa Barbara, where he would serve no more than 2 1/2 years in prison if convicted.
“It’s so absurd,” said Santa Barbara attorney Steven Balash. “If he was ready to come back and face trial and all of a sudden a hit man kills all the witnesses, who do you think they (authorities) would suspect,” Balash said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
But Detective Nordyk has a simple answer. “It was just a desperate act by a desperate person,” he said.
The original decision to investigate Telstar--and the unusually high $20-million bail set in Santa Barbara--have been attacked by his attorneys. “Santa Barbara is nothing more than a collection agency for Desiree and her wealthy family,” said Daniels, who claims his client needs a court-appointed lawyer because he lacks the money to pay his legal bills.
But prosecutor McKinley angrily rejects any suggestion that the prosecution was motivated by favoritism. “We categorically deny there was any pressure to prosecute this guy because she has money or her relatives are important or anything like that,” said McKinley, adding that he has never talked to Desiree’s parents.
In an interview, Sheinbaum, who ran for Congress in Santa Barbara in 1966 and 1968, said he and his wife have never had any contact with authorities there about the case until Telstar was arrested.
Today, as Telstar faces 10 years in prison if convicted on the murder-for-hire charge, the FBI’s informant has been issued a bulletproof vest because he fears a “backup killer.” The four alleged targets, meanwhile, have bodyguards. And the LAPD briefly assigned officers to protect the Sheinbaums after an attempted break-in at their home.
But Telstar’s sister continues to plead his innocence. “There is no possible way he could do something like this,” she said, claiming Desiree has lied to protect her money.
“The reason this federal charge has come up is because the charge of embezzlement is not going to stick and Desiree wants him held,” she said. “She wants him to rot in jail.”
Authorities reject that claim. So does Chase, Desiree’s attorney.
“Desiree doesn’t have that kind of power. No one does,” Chase said.
Meantime, Chase and authorities worry that even in prison, Telstar could remain a threat until, and unless, the money he allegedly stole is recovered.