The gruesome discovery initially puzzled police: a Mercedes sport utility vehicle engulfed in flames on a quiet Studio City side street and, inside, the bullet-riddled bodies of two young men with no known ties to the area.
Detectives eventually came to believe the slayings had nothing to do with gangs or drugs. Instead, they seem to have been the fallout from a bizarre drama involving a Playboy cover model, a $40-million Wall Street investment scam and a botched attempt to sell as much as $700,000 worth of jewelry purchased with ill-gotten funds.
To different degrees, the victims -- nightclub doorman Michael Tardio, 35, and his friend Christopher Monson, 31 -- were peripheral players in this larger story. But their unsolved slayings on Sept. 2, 2002, are perhaps its most bitter footnote.
Tardio had driven to the San Fernando Valley the night before, according to Robert Bub and Brian Tyndall, detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Robbery Homicide Division, to sell the jewelry on behalf of pin-up girl Sandy Bentley, who was his girlfriend at the time. Monson was just along for the ride.
In an effort to generate new leads in the case, detectives are making some details public this week for the first time. Today, they plan to hold a press conference, at which they will announce a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any suspects.
Members of the victims’ families remain surprised that the two men were involved at all. Tardio, a former model who had lived in the Los Angeles area since 1998, and Monson, an aspiring actor who ran a self-storage business in Culver City, moved comfortably in the exclusive echelons of the L.A. club scene, a universe populated by its share of dodgy characters. But friends and police said neither man was known to live a dangerous, fast-lane lifestyle.
“Here’s my brother, who dies in a very kind of murky situation, who by and large was a really good guy,” said Michael’s older brother, Neil Tardio Jr. of Los Angeles. But in this case, Neil Tardio said, his brother “was in over his head.”
Michael Tardio reportedly knew that his errand would entangle him further in the complicated love life of Bentley, who police said is not a suspect in his death.
The blond, 5-foot-9 professional model and her twin sister, Mandy Bentley, cemented their status as minor celebrities with their appearance on the May 2000 cover of Playboy. They generated more attention by dating the magazine’s founder, Hugh Hefner, and living with him at his mansion in Holmby Hills in 1999 and 2000.
By the fall of 2002, Sandy Bentley had parted ways with Hefner and was dating Tardio, friends said. According to Bub, she persuaded Tardio to quietly sell off a valuable trove of her jewelry. Tardio made an appointment to sell the jewelry to an unknown party, Bub said.
Monson, Tardio’s friend and motorcycle-racing buddy, agreed to join him on the mission, though he had misgivings about the plan, Bub said.
Monson had good reason to be apprehensive. Bub said both men knew that a federally appointed court receiver had made a claim on most, if not all, of the jewelry because Sandy Bentley received it as gifts from another former boyfriend, a disgraced Wall Street trader named Mark Yagalla.
Bub said the jewelry that Yagalla had given Bentley had been purchased with money from the trader’s headline-making hedge-fund scam.
In the heady days of the late 1990s, Yagalla had earned a reputation as an investment whiz kid. A dropout from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he had begun trading securities as a teenager and eventually founded a number of trading companies on the East Coast. From 1994 to 2000, those companies collected $40 million from investors, promising returns of as much as 80% from short-term equity trades and other investments, according to court documents.
But federal prosecutors said that, from the beginning of his career, Yagalla invested little of the money entrusted to him. Instead, he spent it on his lavish lifestyle. Yagalla used a portion of investors’ money to pay off what he said were distributions, and he covered his tracks with falsified statements.
In effect, prosecutors said, he was operating a giant Ponzi scheme.
He was also deeply smitten with Sandy Bentley, whom he met in Las Vegas in August 1999. They were introduced to each other by another Playboy model, Tishara Lee Cousino, that year’s Miss May, federal court records show.
From the time they met until October 2000, Yagalla lavished more than $6 million worth of gifts on Sandy Bentley, court documents show. He gave her a $1.7-million home in Las Vegas, luxury cars and numerous pieces of fine jewelry, including three Rolex watches and a Chopard watch worth $500,000. One ruby and diamond platinum necklace he gave her was similar in style to a necklace featured in the film “Pretty Woman.”
By the fall of 2000, however, his scheme was falling apart. On Oct. 17 of that year, Yagalla was arrested by the FBI on mail fraud charges. He pleaded guilty to securities fraud violations on Valentine’s Day 2002 and was sentenced to five years and five months in federal prison.
According to federal prosecutors, Sandy Bentley has asserted that she did not know about Yagalla’s fraudulent business dealings when she received the gifts. But in an attempt to reimburse more than 100 investors hit by the scam, a receiver appointed by the federal court in a Securities and Exchange Commission action against Yagalla demanded that she turn over all of Yagalla’s presents.
Sandy Bentley initially refused “adamantly and with vitriol” to give anything up, according to a memorandum filed in federal court by attorneys for the receiver. But eventually she turned many of the items in to the receiver, records show.
Bub said, however, that he believed she kept some of the jewelry. The estimated value of the items Tardio was hoping to sell on her behalf was $500,000 to $700,000, the detective said.
On Sunday, Sept. 1, 2002, Tardio had the night off from his job at the Garden of Eden, a glitzy Hollywood club frequented by actors, models and hangers-on -- and the place where he originally met Sandy Bentley. He picked up Monson and headed for Studio City.
Police have records of cellphone calls made from the sport utility vehicle they traveled in through the Hollywood Hills and into the Valley. It was the last time the men were heard from.
Police have no witnesses to explain what happened to Tardio and Monson. A passing motorist came upon the flaming vehicle at 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 2, and firefighters did not discover the bodies until the fire was out.
Bub and Tyndall said they believe Tardio and Monson were killed by the person, or people, whom Tardio had arranged to meet. The detectives suspect that the fire was set to destroy evidence, but some evidence collected at the scene suggests that the two men were robbed. Police would not say whether jewelry was found in the car with the bodies.
Like Sandy Bentley, Yagalla is not a suspect in the case, police said. He is in a federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla. Neither Sandy Bentley nor Yagalla could be reached for this report.
Detectives are exploring other theories in the case. They said it is possible the suspect was someone who had other business dealings with Monson or Tardio. It is also possible that Tardio was targeted by one of the hundreds of spurned club-goers he turned away from the Garden of Eden.
But most likely, Bub said, the motive was robbery.
“If they made a movie out of this,” said Neil Tardio Jr., “no one would believe it.”