Sheika’s Quest for Divorce Settlement Takes Novel Turn
Though it’s not quite a story spun by Scheherazade in “1,001 Arabian Nights,” it is a fantastic tale involving a colorful sheik, his bitter ex-wife, a desert kingdom and a vast fortune. And the story remains a cliffhanger.
The ex-wife, Diana Bilinelli, has battled for two decades to collect the assets of her former husband, Mohammed al-Fassi, an eccentric Saudi sheik best known for angering his Beverly Hills neighbors by painting his mansion and its outdoor nude statues garish colors.
Except for $6 million from the sale of their mansion -- money she’s already spent -- Bilinelli has not been able to collect the rest of the $250-million judgment awarded her in Los Angeles Superior Court. Some experts say the chances of ever collecting are slim.
But still striving for a happy ending, Bilinelli has decided to put the judgment up for sale, at a modest discount, of course. In other words, someone can take ownership of the judgment and try to collect it on his own.
“It’s a dandy investment opportunity,” said Bilinelli’s Los Angeles attorney, Helen Dorroh-White. “The only hitch is that any buyer has to collect from a member of the Saudi royal family.”
So far, there are no takers.
The tale begins in 1974, when Italian-born Bilinelli was a 16-year-old salesgirl in London and al-Fassi, then 19, asked for her hand in marriage. A year later, the couple wed in Saudi Arabia and she assumed the name Sheika Dena al-Fassi.
The couple settled into a modest West Los Angeles apartment. She enrolled in language classes. He attended a small business school.
Mohammed al-Fassi, who came from an upper-middle-class Moroccan family, then began receiving fabulous stipends in the mid-1970s after his sister, Hend, married Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz.
“The money flooded in with no limit,” recalled Bilinelli, who recently resumed using her maiden name. “We spent our lives on aircraft, in casinos, luxury hotels and palaces, in jewelers and fashion houses ... surrounded by 10 bodyguards.”
Al-Fassi gained notoriety here in 1978 when he paid $2.4 million in cash for the 38-room Beverly Hills mansion, then painted it a shade of green one critic likened to rotting limes.
As a personal touch, the sheik filled the garden urns with plastic flowers and had the classic Italian statuary outside painted in natural skin tones with the hair and genital areas painted bright red.
When the house fell victim to arson in 1980, while the couple was abroad, local residents gathered outside chanting, “Burn! Burn! Burn!”
Under Saudi law, sheiks and others may have as many as four wives. Bilinelli was expecting her second child by al-Fassi when he married aspiring American actress Victoria Sosa, who weeks later alleged that he had bitten her and held her prisoner.
Pregnant and fed up, Bilinelli returned to her parents’ home in Italy and launched her long-running community property battle.
In 1983, al-Fassi’s romantic dalliances were making headlines and a Los Angeles judge awarded Bilinelli half of his assets, which included homes in Miami Beach, London and Spain; two Boeing 707 jets; 36 cars; a $15-million yacht; 26 horses; and a private zoo.
The sheik died in Cairo of an infected hernia in 2002 before settling the debt and after claiming he had transferred everything he owned to members of the Saudi royal family, including Saudi King Fahd and Fahd’s brother, Prince Turki.
In April, King Fahd and Saudi Arabia were removed from the case, leaving Turki liable by default after he failed to appear in Los Angeles Superior Court. Turki, who lives in Cairo, has not responded to a court order declaring that he is obligated to pay off the debt, which has been accruing interest at $60,000 per day.
In the meantime, Bilinelli’s attorneys and private investigators have failed to find Turki’s assets in U.S. financial institutions. A request to examine records at the Carlyle Group, an investment entity whose members include tycoons from around the world, was countered with a terse “No records to report.”
In an interview in her Glendale office, attorney Dorroh-White threw up her hands and said, “Putting the judgment up for sale is the Last Chance Saloon for us. It’s the only thing we haven’t tried.”
A few months ago, Dorroh-White started sending letters outlining the case to prospective buyers she believes have the clout to sniff out and take control of Turki’s assets. They include insurer Lloyd’s of London and Israel’s secret intelligence service, Mossad.
“Mossad ... has the world reputation of being able to accomplish anything,” Dorroh-White wrote. “So, I am writing to you to see if Mossad could legally benefit from participation” in collecting on the multimillion-dollar judgment.
Mossad has yet to respond.
If the sale fizzles, Bilinelli and her team are considering a plan to offer 1% of the take to anyone who can direct them to any Turki asset anywhere in the world. The fee would be transferred once the seizure was completed and the check had cleared.
“I’m fighting for my legal rights; the Saudi royal family behaves as though they own the planet,” Bilinelli said in a telephone interview. “But I’m an optimist. I will find justice.”
Some legal scholars are not so sure.
“As a practical matter, this judgment has value only if you can find assets in the United States, including U.S. banks,” said John Coffee, a professor of law at Columbia University.
Washington attorney Maureen Mahoney, who recently extricated the government of Saudi Arabia and King Fahd from the case, also believed Bilinelli was unlikely to succeed.
“The judgment is likely void because Prince Turki did not live in the United States,” she said.
Mahoney also denied that Turki was responsible for making good on the judgment.
“Prince Turki can’t hide from a valid judgment,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll collect in a matter of months.”
Bilinelli heard similar predictions from her original attorney, the flamboyant divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson, who died in September.
Today, she lives in an $800-a-month flat in a small town in Italy, works as an English tutor, tools around in a beat-up Jeep and tries not to wallow in self-pity.
“Coming back to reality was a difficult step to take,” Bilinelli said. “I used to travel in private Boeing jets and played in Monte Carlo. I dined with Princess Grace and wore dresses as red as my rubies, which were bigger than my thumb.
“That’s all behind me. I don’t even have an evening dress anymore,” she said. “But I’m not going to give up. I’m going to fight to the end.”