Ascent of a Woman

If you've got the drive, a conviction for stealing from a charity is no obstacle on the social climb. Just ask Susan Menke.

In a sea of basic black, Susan Menke wore red.
The occasion was the early December Holiday Spree benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and the strawberry-blond Menke cut a striking figure in her low-cut, beaded gown of scarlet and matching over-the-elbow gloves. A few days later, a photo of the five-foot-ten-inch Menke in that eye-popping ensemble, towering over three more sedately outfitted socialites, cropped up in a Chronicle social column. Menke, it was noted, had been the auction chair for the charity fundraiser.

Houston society is unusually open and possessed of a short memory, so hardly anyone looked askance or even recalled that the last time Susan Menke's photo had appeared in a local newspaper was ten years earlier, after she was sentenced to four years in prison for theft.

On that day, she was dressed in conservative business attire and was a brunette.

A real estate broker and onetime elementary school teacher, Menke was the first of ten people to be indicted following disclosures of financial mismanagement by the trustees of the Hermann Estate, which endows Hermann Hospital.

She and a former general manager of the charitable trust were accused of dividing two unauthorized checks drawn on the estate, helping themselves to a total of $128,927. The money was reported as real estate commissions, but the general manager testified that Menke did no work on the sales.

Menke, however, professed her innocence, and her lawyer argued that she was the scapegoat for wealthy and powerful people connected to the estate.

It was quite a comedown. In the early eighties, prior to her indictment and conviction, Menke had been a glamorous rising star in local real estate circles, the envy of other brokers. She sported all the accouterments of success in pre-bust Houston, including a condo at the posh Four Leaf Towers, the requisite Mercedes and membership in what one discerning observer describes as the city's "fringe cafe society."

By the end of the decade, she was in the Harris County Jail.

"How's my makeup?" Menke asks as she breezes through the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel. "It's new, Cindy Crawford." The fashion model's products are available at Walgreen's, she adds by way of a fashion tip.

Menke has agreed, somewhat warily, to sit for an interview about life after the fall. Earlier, she had promised to meet at the Omni Hotel, then canceled on the day of the scheduled interview. Later, she would consent to having her picture taken, preferably in front of the peach-colored walls at the Omni. Eventually, however, she refused to be photographed.

On the day she shows at the Doubletree, Menke is wearing chunky gold jewelry, black slacks and a red military-style jacket studded with gold buttons. A trail of Knowing perfume by Estee Lauder follows in her wake. The accent is deeply Southern; her preferred descriptives seem to be "precious" and "special." There was one fellow female inmate at the county jail who was "just darling," she remembers.

These days, the 44-year-old Menke is working once again as a real estate broker, and her ambition apparently remains undiminished by her brush with the law. After her release from jail, she tried living in California, but, as she explains, "I wanted to come home and rise to the top again in the town where I was found guilty, convicted and sentenced."

In getting through her legal predicament, Menke says she found a sense of humor and her religious faith both came in handy.

"If you don't laugh, you go nuts," she says, recalling the job search she mounted while awaiting the outcome of her appeals of her conviction. She needed work, but there was a hitch: how to inform prospective employers she had been found guilty of conspiring to steal from a charity.

"I looked at all the etiquette books. No one has ever addressed that problem before," she says, only half-jokingly.

Outside of her job, Menke says she stays busy taking Bible study classes several times a week at the Houston Bible Institute.

"I just love, love, love to read the Bible," she explains.
She swears it's not a recently acquired passion, that she's adored Bible stories since she was a young girl, and during her trial, she did seem to find comfort in her faith. Each morning she led her defense team in a prayer. After she was sentenced, she cheerfully told reporters that she could see herself "painting the jail walls, getting all the girls in Bible studies and all the girls in exercise class."

Those classes would have had to have been mini-courses, as it turns out. Menke entered the county jail on July 25, 1989, and left just two months later after a visiting judge granted her "shock probation," resulting in her immediate release.

Menke still maintains her innocence. But to the mildly curious, her reemergence into the public eye brings to mind a few questions: How does a convicted thief obtain a real estate broker's license? Who would feel comfortable knowing that a land transaction involving millions of dollars was being handled by a broker who's done time? And why would a charity rely on the fundraising of someone who's been convicted of stealing from a charity?

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