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Henschel Acquitted on Judge’s Order : Courts: Jurist Paul Gutman rules that evidence was insufficient to support a guilty verdict in real estate swindle case.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his long-running battle with the legal system, Van Nuys real estate whiz Michael D. Henschel has won another around.

Henschel’s grand theft trial in Los Angeles Superior Court ended in a directed verdict of acquittal, when Judge Paul Gutman ruled that jurors had not been provided sufficient evidence to support a guilty finding.

Henschel is “delighted. He feels vindicated,” Henschel’s lawyer, Donald M. Re, said Thursday.

Gutman ordered a verdict of not guilty on Tuesday, after first excluding evidence that prosecutors considered crucial to their case.

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Henschel had been accused by the Los Angeles district attorney of swindling Gerald and Linda Silverman out of nearly $90,000 in a real estate deal, after the middle-aged couple, neighbors of Henschel’s parents, sought his help in investing for retirement. From their 1991 investment in two properties in Encino and Burbank, the Silvermans ultimately recovered only $3,000 from Henschel and about $20,000 more from the buyer of a note on one of the parcels, according to allegations in the case.

Acquittal on the felony charge means “there was nothing that [Henschel] did that was improper,” Re said. “The fact that the Silvermans may have lost money does not mean that there was any effort by Henschel to defraud them.”

During the two-week trial, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas R. Wenke sought to introduce evidence that Henschel had transferred one of the properties to a fictitious person, David White, then filed two bogus bankruptcies in White’s name to discourage foreclosure efforts by the Silvermans.

But Gutman agreed with Re that the Silvermans could have foreclosed despite the bankruptcies, and he barred testimony on the issue.

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With that, the prosecution rested its case on Tuesday, and without the defense presenting witnesses, Gutman directed the not-guilty verdict.

“Obviously, I was disappointed in the judge’s evidentiary rulings, but . . . he’s the judge and he’s the one that gets to make the call,” Wenke said.

Henschel over the years has faced a barrage of legal problems, but has shown a knack for landing on his feet. At least four times he has pleaded guilty to felonies or misdemeanors, but has never received a jail or prison sentence.

Henschel, 46, faces trial on a separate misdemeanor grand theft charge that is scheduled to start today in Municipal Court in Van Nuys. He is charged by the Los Angeles city attorney with posing as an agent of a law firm and taking $1,920 from a young woman in 1993 on a false promise that the funds would be used to clear up traffic warrants.

Henschel did nothing for the alleged victim, Wendy Jo Phillips, and “basically stalled her for . . . months” before Phillips went to the police, according to Richard Schmidt, supervising attorney in the Van Nuys branch of the Los Angeles city attorney’s office.

Henschel has pleaded not guilty to the grand theft charge, which carries a penalty of up to one year in County Jail and a $1,000 fine.

Henschel’s business practices also are the focus of a federal criminal investigation in Los Angeles involving complaints of bank and bankruptcey fraud, according to court papers.


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