Advertisement

Marathon Wait Is Over: Fugitive Millionaire Caught : Arrest: He faces a $60-million judgment won by Irvine woman left paraplegic in a 1980 shooting.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Irvine rehabilitation specialist Janni Smith always believed that the Texas millionaire she claims arranged to have her shot--leaving her paralyzed from the waist down--would one day be captured. After a 14-year wait, her fugitive ex-lover was behind bars.

Richard Minns, 64, was arrested Tuesday at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on suspicion of obtaining several passports with fraudulent information and names. Minns, who was never charged in Smith’s shooting, fled the country in 1981. He now faces a $60-million judgment she later won against him in a personal injury lawsuit.

“It took me completely by surprise,” said Smith, 41, a former wheelchair marathoner whose work at the Petrofsky Centers for Rehabilitation and Research has been featured on national television news programs. “I’m one of those people who never really gives up hope.”

Back in the ‘70s, the millionaire and his young girlfriend were a glamorous presence on the Houston social scene.

Advertisement

Minns was a charismatic, youthful-looking health club tycoon when they met on a Colorado ski slope. Smith, whose name at the time was Barbra Piotrowski, was a bright and beautiful California pre-med student and part-time model 24 years his junior.

*

Seven months after Smith broke up with Minns in 1980, she was shot four times in the back while parked in a Houston lot. Four men, including a private detective hired by Minns to tap her phone and harass her after they broke up, were later imprisoned for conspiracy to commit murder. Fearful for her life after the shooting, she changed her name.

The district attorney’s office, which was criticized by members of the legal community and the public for not having indicted Minns, maintained there was insufficient evidence.

Advertisement

Frustrated by the failure of the criminal justice system to charge or even question Minns regarding her attack, Smith in 1982 filed a civil suit against him for causing her injuries. But by then Minns already had liquidated all his assets and left the country.

On Tuesday, he was on a flight from Cancun, Mexico, that stopped off at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport when he was arrested, according to Eric Nichols, the assistant U.S. Attorney who will prosecute the case. The flight’s final destination was Vancouver, Canada, where Minns now lives. During a routine customs check, Minns was stopped and later detained.

Nichols would not comment on whether law enforcement agencies had been pursuing Minns for anything besides the alleged passport violations. But during a Wednesday night phone call to The Times, he quoted the county district attorney saying on television that local prosecutors still believed there was insufficient evidence to pursue Minns for the Smith attack.

Nichols would not comment on how federal authorities discovered the passports, which the indictment alleges were obtained by using false names. He said they will argue in court Friday that Minns should remain in custody during his trial.

Advertisement

The attorney who represented Minns in court Wednesday, Michael Ware, could not be reached later for comment.

*

Minns, who has been living in different countries over the past decade, was using the alias Harlan Allen Richardson at the time of his arrest. His capture is the result of a two-year investigation.

As a wheelchair athlete after the shooting, Smith won more than a dozen marathons. As president of the 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.

Advertisement

The shooting and Smith’s love affair with Minns was chronicled in the 1991 book, “Sleeping With the Devil,” by former trial lawyer Suzanne Finstad.

Finstad, who was attending law school in Houston at the time, remembers a full-length, front-page photo of Smith in her bikini with the headline: “Who Shot the Golden Girl?”

During her research for the book, Finstad had discovered that Minns was living under the name Richard O’Toole in the Bahamas, where he was posing as an international tax lawyer and living in a lavish waterfront estate.

Finstad said a State Department official heard an interview with her on TV’s “Hard Copy” in which she expressed her “frustration that the (Houston) DA hadn’t pursued a case against Minns.”

Advertisement

Steve Sumner, the Dallas lawyer representing Smith’s civil suits, said Minns’ arrest is a “positive development from Janni’s standpoint. Now that he’s surfaced, it opens the door for us to be able to take his deposition and find out where his assets are so she can collect on the judgments against him.”

Sumner also represents Smith in a civil rights lawsuit, which was filed last year. It claims that the Houston Police Department was aware of a contract to have Smith killed six weeks before the shooting and did not warn her.


Advertisement
Advertisement