It reads like an outline for a B-grade detective novel: A reclusive elderly couple with no close relatives lives in a house crammed with jewelry, stamp collections, stock certificates and dozens of pieces of art worth, conservatively, $3 million. Throw in a huge model train collection, too. And rats. Don't forget the rats.
Because it's the discovery of the rats by city health inspectors that eventually forces the couple to go live in a hotel, leaving their fortunes behind in their Berkeley home, intermingled with mounds of trash. But they assume they are taken care of -- their neighbor is a lawyer, soon to become an Alameda County Superior Court judge. The couple places him in charge of their belongings and money, trusting him to manage their estate while they are away.
It is not, however, a novel. According to new details revealed this week in an 87-page affidavit written by a veteran District Attorney inspector, it is how Superior Court Judge Paul Seeman, 57, came to be arrested June 14 and charged with elder theft and perjury. He is free on $525,000 bail after pleading not guilty. The case is scheduled for a court hearing next month; Seeman won a motion at his arraignment to not attend minor legal proceedings.
He "does not intend to return to the bench until this matter is resolved," his lawyer, Laurel Headley, said in a prepared statement issued Thursday. Headley declined to take questions, but the statement said the judge is looking forward to "all the facts in this case coming to light in a fair and complete" trial.
Seeman could also be impeached by the state Assembly, and the State Commission on Judicial Power is mulling suspending him as the criminal charges unfold. If convicted, Seeman, who then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed to the bench in 2009, would immediately be forced from office.
Seeman told police that he was just trying to help the couple, Lee and Anne Nutting. Lee Nutting, a chemist who worked for Hills Brother's Coffee, died in 1999. Anne Nutting, who headed the Berkeley Public Library's Art and Music Department, was still struggling with Seeman to regain control of her assets when she died in 2010 at 97, the affidavit states.
The case dates back to 1999, when police were called to the Nutting's home on Santa Barbara Road in Berkeley, where Lee Nutting had fallen and needed help. Rats were everywhere in the trash-strewn house, which was declared unfit for habitation. The Nuttings went to live at a hotel in the Berkeley Marina, according to the affidavit written by Inspector Kathleen Boyovitch, and gave Seeman, then a private lawyer who lived next door, control of their finances.
Lee Nutting died a few months later at the age of 90. But Anne Nutting stayed at the hotel for more than five years, the affidavit said, forming a close relationship with a waiter there, Ali Mehrizi, who years later would become her second husband.
In 2005 or 2006, Anne Nutting asked Mehrizi to help her move back to the home, which he found was still a ramshackle mess. Eventually, thanks to Mehrizi cleaning and repairing the house, Anne Nutting was able to return home in 2007.
But she found a lot of things missing.
While Anne Nutting was living in the hotel, Seeman did more than oversee her belongings, according to court records. He kept her from returning home for years by refusing to allocate money for repairs, the affidavit said, while pocketing the cash from selling off her belongings: The art. The jewelry. The coins. The trains. Seeman had taken $250,000 from the sale of art work, claiming it was a loan -- on which he stopped making payments, court documents said.
The last years of Anne Nutting's life seem defined by two things -- her marriage to Mehrizi on her 97th birthday and what the affidavit said was a long struggle with Seeman to gain control of her assets, which included checking accounts, rental properties in Santa Cruz and her own home.
Nutting no longer had "control" or "free will" over her finances and belongings, the affidavit said.
When police raided Seeman's home and court chambers earlier this month, they found Lionel collectible trains, coins, Asian art work and myriad financial and tax records believed to belong to the Nuttings, according to court records. The search warrant sought dozens of pieces of jewelry, stamp and coin collections and dozens of missing art prints among other items.
But Anne Nutting did not die without leaving police clues about what had allegedly happened. Prosecutors recovered phone messages she had left Mehrizi that pointed toward Seeman, the affidavit said. Those messages are now central to the case, which is being prosecuted with cooperation from the 53-year-old Mehrizi. Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan, whose department assisted in the investigation, said Mehrizi is not a suspect in the case.
"This is Anne," one message said. "I just wanted to tell you that, aah, Paul (Seeman) was down to bring me some mail and for a little visit, and I think we are going to have problems because, aah, I couldn't stave him off from going through the house when he wants. ... I don't know how to discourage him any more than I tried."