Friends with Benefits
Last week in "The Unexpected Guest," we told you the story of Dennis Shaw, a fortysomething man who suddenly insinuated himself into the life of Kenneth Jackson and how Jackson's daughter Jennifer Estopinal discovered his real identity as Dinesh Shah. Even before she learned the truth, Estopinal had grown increasingly concerned with the growing influence Shah was having on her elderly father, a retired FBI agent living in the Old Braeswood neighborhood near the Medical Center. Her investigation uncovered the facts that Shah had been convicted in criminal court of abusing one of the children of Exxon heiress Joan Blaffer Johnson and a civil court jury found that he'd beaten two of the Johnson children and sexually molested one of them — and assessed Shah $20 million in damages.
In Part Two, we pick up the story as Shah, on probation, continues his activities, exerting influence over Jackson and involving himself in other people's lives, to their detriment.
In July of 2009, Henry Dyches passed away at the age of 79. Dinesh Shah had known Dyches — an old-school, South Carolinian Southern gentleman who spent his twilight years tutoring River Oaks children in Spanish and swimming — since the mid-1990s. In fact, it was Dyches — whom Shah met at the Museum District apartment complex where they were neighbors — who unwittingly orchestrated Shah's initial meeting of Joan Blaffer Johnson.
Shah took charge of Dyches's funeral arrangements and even claimed to be his nephew on his death certificate. In the obituary that ran in Dyches's hometown paper in South Carolina, "Dennis Shaw" is quoted at length and described as Dyches's "long-time" friend.
Houston Police Department Sergeant Reginore Anderson says that shortly after Dyches's burial, what appears to have been Dyches's entire estate cycled through Shah's bank account and vanished to shelters unknown. Rumor had it that Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kelli Johnson, the prosecutor in two cases Shah would eventually be charged with, wanted to have Dyches's body exhumed and tested for poison. When asked if this was true, after a long and very pregnant pause, Johnson said that she would neither confirm nor deny the rumor. An exhumation warrant was never issued.
Days after the death of one elderly buddy, Shah turned his attention to another: Kenneth Jackson, who was almost 90 years old and bedridden because of a hip injury. At the time, Jackson was still sharing a home with his much-younger wife Ginger Jackson, though the couple had been estranged since 1995.
Jackson had been on Shah's radar for years, and now, in the summer of 2009, Shah apparently deemed it the time to strike. He spent many long nights at the Jackson home, speaking to Kenneth Jackson until the old man finally fell asleep, and then going downstairs for some quality time with Ginger, who was growing increasingly concerned with her financial future.
"At any given moment he might have had one prime target, but I think he was constantly working other angles, other people," says Heath Bounds, a cop with HPD's Central Patrol who worked officially on the Joan Johnson case and served as an informal consultant on another.
Before July was out, Kenneth Jackson's daughter Jennifer Estopinal (Ginger Jackson's stepdaughter) was increasingly concerned with her dad's declining health. In her words, he was going down fast and it seemed like something far more serious than his hip fracture.
"Once the pieces of the puzzle started to come together, I started to think that he was poisoning this guy," says Anderson. "Because the guy was in pretty decent shape, then all of a sudden, right after he met him, things started to deteriorate. He couldn't stand; he was throwing up, lost a lot of weight, and he was a little man to begin with. And then both the wife and the daughter told me he was feeding him all the time. Who wants to feed an eightysomething-year-old man, when you're not even really around the guy, you're not really anything to him?"
Even as his health continued to fail, Jackson steadfastly refused to see a doctor. Estopinal was very busy — she had just returned from a two-week trip to the Caribbean and one of her children had become sick and required hospitalization — she took the time to call Adult Protective Services and ask them to check in on her dad. On July 31, a caseworker visited Jackson and talked him into going to see a doctor. It was his buddy "Dennis" who actually made the appointment with Dr. Sam Siegler for August 6.
Since he declined to comment for this article, one can only guess at what Dr. Siegler thought when he saw the curious entourage in his waiting room. There was Kenneth Jackson in his wheelchair, along with his caretakers Julio and Mercedes Mendoza. Estopinal was there too, meeting Shah for the very first time. Estopinal says that Shah was "all self-important," and that he was "ordering Julio and Mercedes around like they [were] ninnies, and my dad just didn't treat them that way."
Reading from his case file, Anderson quotes Siegler as saying that Shah strode over to him and told him that he was Jackson's attorney, and what's more, a graduate of Harvard Law. Shah stressed that Siegler needed to take good care of his "long-time friend" Jackson, the retired FBI agent turned, in Shah's words, "real estate tycoon." Shah told Siegler that Jackson needed him around to fend off the charlatans who continually pestered and attempted to chisel him. It seemed to Siegler that it was "exorbitantly important" for Shah to persuade him how important he — Dinesh Shah — was. It didn't work. Siegler, the husband of flamboyant former Harris County prosecutor Kelly Siegler, seems to share her cop gene. He noted that Shah's cheap suit was "inconsistent with his grandiosity."
Almost as soon as Shah met Estopinal, he wanted to know if she had been the one who called Adult Protective Services. Estopinal told him that she did. Shah wanted to know why. She told him that it looked to her like her dad was dying and that something needed to be done. Shah didn't argue that point. Estopinal then asked Shah what kind of law he practiced, and told her he was a semiretired New York corporate attorney back home in Houston to manage his many investments.
"And I'm from River Oaks," he added.
The arrow on Estopinal's bullshit detector immediately leaped to DefCon Five. "People from River Oaks don't just go around saying that," she says. "That was when I really knew something was up."
Shah was not done overplaying his hand. Another man who had once been close to him speculates that Shah was starting to feel invincible at this point, and why not? He had avoided prison and the sex offender registry in the Johnson case, and he was scoffing at many of the most onerous terms of his probation. He was simply not going to pay what was due in his civil case and just carry on doing what he did best.
Shah was hardly a model probationer. The "gainful employment" he was required to obtain — working for a tax prep service — was later found to be a sham. At his revocation hearing last fall, the prosecution said he continually lied about being broke, and was still concealing large sums of money and assets. By then, he'd also been charged with two more felonies — holding himself out as the attorney of Kenneth Jackson and beating up his roommate, Swedish-bred Houston Ballet dancer Jonathan Davidsson, and suspected, though never formally charged, in two more cases — of allegedly stealing between $20,000 and $100,000 from two separate childhood friends.
And there's more. One document on file at the courthouse states that he "creeped out" an employee of the company assigned to do his court-mandated psychiatric evaluation. He told an employee there that it was unfair that he was being forced to submit to such a test and that it was only because the court that convicted him was "full of white Republican lesbians."
The words "creeped out" also come up in another document on file at the courthouse. Judge Jeannine Barr, the criminal court judge who presided over his case, has a unique program for probationers in her court. As part of their community service, Barr assigns those who are physically unable (or unwilling, as the case may be with Shah) to do manual labor to come to a room near her chambers and quilt blankets for sick kids at area hospitals. Shah reportedly freaked out a fellow probationer with his overly probing questions (about her finances and personal life). He also openly bitched about his lot in life: "I am way too important and rich to be in here making blankets," he told his fellow miscreant. The other probationer requested that Shah never quilt alongside her again.
What's more, police say Dinesh's brother Shyam Shah is intimidating witnesses on his brother's behalf by parking in front of their houses and eyeballing them. (No charges have been filed.)
One man who believes Shyam Shah is tailing him is "Dave Martin," who didn't want his real name used in this article. Five years after Dinesh Shah was removed from the Johnsons' life, Dinesh Shah tried some of the same tactics on Martin.
In about May of 2007, Martin was down in the dumps. An investment had gone south and the fiftysomething artist and former Montrose punk rocker had lost a sizable inheritance. He was drinking more than was good for him, and though he'd stayed out of trouble for more than 15 years, he had a history of DWIs. Any new DWIs would be felonies.
One day he was walking back to his car at the Rice Epicurean on Weslayan when Dinesh Shah struck up a conversation with him. Like Kenneth Jackson, Martin had a love of vintage cars, and that furnished Shah with his opening. (At the time Martin was driving a 1976 Ford Elite.) "I didn't realize then that a car like that just sets you up to be a target," Martin says, over coffee at a Montrose cafe where his art hangs on the walls.
Shah told him it was a sweet ride and the two men started talking. Martin says Shah dropped a bunch of "old Houston" stories and some interesting names. Martin would later find out that Shah had been watching him for years. Martin suspects that Shah somehow knew he was minor oil royalty — Martin's grandfather had been a comptroller at Humble Oil. "He never was rich, but he managed his money well," says Martin. "I'm gonna inherit something, but it's not gonna be millions."
But right then Martin was hard-up for cash, and as he got to know Shah a little better, Martin started to think his new buddy might just be the guy to turn his fortunes around. After all, Shah told him he was a hot-shot commodities trader.
"Dinesh said he could get me back on top by trading commodities, so I gave him $9,300," Martin says. "I am not a financial guy, but I know you can make money on commodities if you know how to do it, and he came across as very smooth. He was also very aggressive and forceful." Martin says he would see Shah trading commodities on the phone, but now speculates that it was always with other people's money and that the rewards, if any, went only to Shah.
"Nobody around this guy ever profited, and a lot of people's lives got way worse, mine included."
Martin and Shah became friends, often dining together at places like Pappas Seafood, the Barbecue Inn on Crosstimbers at Yale, Mark's and Rudi Lechner's. Over dinner and drinks, Shah would regale Martin with more of his bullshit — how he'd been in Ronald Reagan's security detail, how he'd gone undercover as a mullah in his top-secret CIA missions in Iran. He also shared his retro tastes in music and film.
"He was always listening to old boring Sinatra songs in his car," Martin wrote in an e-mail. "He also was obsessed with Rock Hudson, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant...What a boring person. Amazing how being sober changes perspective."
Martin was also starting to see that his new friend and financial adviser had a dark side. He seemed to have a Nazi fetish. Shah would often tell Martin that he loved to study up on Gestapo and SS tactics in history books, and claimed to have worked alongside veterans of the Axis forces on secret missions in the 1980s. (Martin noted to himself that former Gestapo and SS troopers would have been pretty old by then — it was just one of Shah's lamer whoppers.) He drove hyper-aggressively and told Martin that he liked to run motorcycle riders off the road for fun.
"I was pretty unguarded and not using very good judgment and he gained my confidence, and it got to the point where I would get home and within two minutes he would call," Martin remembers. "That's why I think he either had bugged my place or had a camera in there. It was making me really paranoid."
Martin thinks it was all part of Shah's meticulous procedure. While investigating the Jackson case, police found boxes and boxes of notes, including to-do lists on Shah's presumed targets. (A to-do list was also found regarding Joan Johnson's eldest son Wirt Johnson.) "One of them was bug the place, find out their friends, find out where they hang out," Martin says. "Then he proceeds to isolate them from their friends and the places they hang out."
"He was really methodical in putting his victims together and working on them over time," says Anderson of HPD's Major Offenders Squad. Anderson would eventually lead a search of Shah's home and work on the Jackson case. "He waited very patiently." Anderson says that Shah is also leery of computers. "So he keeps documents instead, and it's the same difference, but just less sophisticated. I was like, 'Wow, this is a treasure trove of information.'"
(In a side note, among Shah's files, Anderson found information about an eccentric Montrose codger by the name of Ray Rush Brown, who dressed like a street person but was in fact the recipient of a chunk of the royalties for a popular song he'd ghostwritten years before. In Anderson's recollection, the income was $10,000 to $15,000 monthly, but the cop says Brown received very little of it once Shah entered his life. "Shah separated him from all that money," the sergeant says. "I found it all in documents and personal checks." Anderson believes Shah forged power of attorney over Brown, and says he also found a will purportedly from Brown in Shah's possession — a will lacking only Brown's signature and notarization. The will left everything to Shah, including Brown's share of the song royalties.)
Meanwhile, things started disappearing from Martin's apartment. First it was a few books. Then a vintage Stetson hat walked out the door unannounced. Shah liked a Guildford watch Martin had and told him he knew where to get it fixed. Martin let him take it and never saw it again. (Anderson says that Shah loved to keep mementos of his victims.)
"So I should have known then, but it just got worse and he got more and more aggressive," Martin says. "He kind of takes people hostage. He said he could put slow-acting poison in people's air-conditioning. He told me if I didn't do what he said, then bad things would happen to me."
One night, Martin, Shah, Henry Dyches and a homeless man named Jason whom Martin says Shah attempted to enslave dined together at One's A Meal. By this time, Dyches was deep in the clutches of Alzheimer's and had just over a year to live. Shah was growing tired of the old man's doddering.
According to Martin, after Dyches returned to the table from an unfortunate trip to the restroom, Shah screamed at the old man for wiping shit on his own shirt. "First he said he was gonna shoot him down in a ditch like the Nazis did to the Jews, and then he said that all he would have to do is push him down the stairs at his house and the police wouldn't say anything because he was just an old man."
"Dennis was just horrible to this guy, just really, really mean and abusive," Martin continues. "He thought it was funny. I thought it was a nightmare."
And still he couldn't break away. "He would start screaming at me, make me feel like I was back at home fighting with my dad," Martin recalls. "He knows all the buttons to push. I've been in recovery for a while now and I've seen all this stuff. I was drinking at the time. I am an alcoholic. And he knows how to use this stuff, how to push all these buttons."
Martin's health was declining, and his nerves were shattered. Martin claims that he was starting to exhibit most of the symptoms of antifreeze poisoning. While he admits that his drinking had increased, he says that his low-grade funk continued for about 18 months after he got sober.
Around that time, Shah would say things like "Boy, if you got another DWI, you'd really be finished."
Martin now thinks Shah was trying to get power of attorney over him and access to his grandfather's will. In any event, on November 5, 2007, Martin went to Marfreless and enjoyed some cocktails with a judge. After Martin drove to Ruchi's and got out of his car, a cop came running over and told him he'd hit a car on the way to his parking spot. Martin says his attorney later proved nothing of the sort had happened, but Martin was nevertheless convicted of DWI several months later and has been on probation ever since.
When he returned from jail after his initial arrest, Martin says that he suspected his apartment had been rifled. Faced with having to install an ignition interlock in his Ford Elite, he decided instead to give up driving for a while. Martin entrusted the title to Shah, who said he would sell it for him. Martin says he never saw the car again, nor a penny of the proceeds.
As Martin continued drying out, he started to see that Shah had brought nothing but trouble to his life. Shah was still calling, though, and even though he was on probation and thus forbidden both to drink and to frequent bars, Shah was more than happy to both indulge himself and ask his shakily sober buddy Martin to come along.
"He was drinking and I didn't drink," Martin says. (He's been in court-mandated AA for several years now.) "Yeah, I would say he drinks a lot. And he kept trying to get to me after I got the DWI. He'd call me up and say, 'We're having a bunch of drinks. Why don't you come on over?'"
Once Martin finally got free of Shah's grasp, one aphorism of Shah's strikes him as singularly ominous.
"You may not have any money, but you always need people," Shah loved to say.
"I didn't expect that there were people like him in the world," says Martin, who has yet to file any charges against Shah.
Jennifer Estopinal says that for the five days following the bizarre scene in Dr. Siegler's office, her dad was incommunicado. She was in the throes of her daughter's health emergency at the time, so all she could do was phone her dad. But every time she would call, Ginger would answer the phone and say that her dad was "unavailable."
On the fifth day, Estopinal finally made it over there, and found her dad in a groggy state. He told her that he didn't remember a thing since they'd all been in the doctor's office. He says he felt like he'd been asleep the whole time, but had vague memories of seeing Shah and another man rifling through his papers in his bedroom.
"My theory was, and I never could prove this, was that he was overmedicating him," Anderson says. Anderson took this theory to lab specialists and toxicology experts, who told him there wasn't much they could do. An FBI lab specialist told him that too much time had elapsed and that they would need to know what they were looking for. "If he was overmedicating him, there wouldn't be a way to tell unless they examined him right then and there," Anderson says. "So we could never hang our hat on that, but if I had to put my money on it, yeah, I think he's that diabolical where he would do that."
Anderson also says that at the end of those five days, on August 11, Shah drove out to Memorial Oaks Cemetery, a Westside graveyard in which Jackson had purchased a plot in the early 1960s. Once there, Shah told cemetery manager Jeff Moss that he was a New York attorney representing Ginger Jackson and the whole Jackson family. He went on to say that he was interested in arranging Jackson's funeral, and that he would come back soon to pay. Moss called Shah back to inquire about payment a day later, whereupon Shah yelled that Moss should "stop bothering him." Moss was shocked by the shift in Shah's demeanor.
Meanwhile, Shah had found out that Estopinal was investigating him, and he was none too happy to hear about it. Estopinal says that a furious Shah called Jackson the day after he had gone to the cemetery. "My dad said it was a half-hour rant all about me," Estopinal remembers. "He told my dad, 'You tell Jenny to back off or I will have her stopped!'" Estopinal says her dad interpreted it as a death threat.
And that kicked her into high gear. Within a day or two, she'd found the Johnson case online and talked to Paul Clote. Shah was no longer welcome at her dad's bedside.
The postscript came two weeks later when Jackson's phone rang. It was Moss out at the cemetery, inquiring about their payment. Jackson was bewildered. Moss told him that his attorney had been out there recently and set up his burial, but then never returned to pay them. "What are you talking about?" he asked. "I'm alive and well and not about to croak anytime soon." Jackson called his daughter and asked if she was sitting down. "You're not gonna believe this," he told Estopinal. "Shah was out at Memorial Oaks posing as my attorney, and he told them that my death was imminent and he was making my funeral arrangements."
That was when they took matters to the police. Almost immediately after Shah was out of his life, Kenneth Jackson's health started to improve.
Anderson just shakes his head at Shah's stupidity over the cemetery ploy. "[Jackson] was a nice old guy and I enjoyed trading stories with him, but he didn't have long for this world," Anderson says. "If Shah could have waited, just stayed there and got in his good graces and not push it along at all, I would bet you that Ken Jackson would have given him some money, because he was sittin' on quite a bit even though he was living in that old raggedy house. He didn't spend anything. He kept it all."
After talking to Moss and Siegler, Anderson had enough to charge Shah with twice impersonating a lawyer, a third-degree felony. He was formally charged on October 19. In the days that followed, Anderson searched Shah's duplex on Jack Street in Montrose and found reams and reams of documents, bank statements, photographs and other mementos belonging to his victims or possible future victims.
After bonding out, Shah fled to the home of Jonathan Davidsson, a handsome young Swedish ballet dancer. (Police have said the two were lovers; Davidsson vigorously denies this is true.) According to Jim Perdue Jr., a lawyer who opposed Shah in the Johnson civil case and who observed Shah's subsequent probation revocation hearing, Shah spun Davidsson a wild tale. Davidsson would testify that he was in New York when Shah called him and said that his CIA cover had been blown and that his Jack Street home had been raided by Chinese agents. "Whatever you do, do not go back to the house on Jack Street," Shah told Davidsson. "It's not safe. It's under surveillance around the clock." Shah asked for permission to move in with Davidsson, and the dancer granted it.
"Now you wonder how any intelligent 22 year old can believe that, how in the world can you have bought that even for a second, but that's the kind of insane power that the guy has," Perdue marvels. "He maintained power over that kid for another six months by telling him that the Chinese had exposed his CIA cover and raided his house. And the next thing you know he's living at Richmond and Montrose with this kid. And he's doing all this with a $20 million judgment that I've won against him hanging over his head."
And that's not all. Davidsson had just been let go from the ballet and given a tidy severance package to tide him over. According to the sworn testimony Perdue heard at Shah's revocation hearing, Davidsson handed all of the $20,000 severance check over to Shah to "invest." "That was every dime that kid had," Perdue says. "And then it was, 'Oh, and by the way, give me the key to your apartment. I'm moving in with you.'"
Shah's existence with Davidsson was hardly peaceful. In a probable cause affidavit filed in June of last year, police say that Shah started shoving and head-butting Davidsson in May of 2010 and continued doing so into June, right up until the day Davidsson fled his own apartment to get away. (Davidsson declined to be interviewed for this story but insisted he was never Shah's lover.)
All of this would be heard in Judge Barr's court at Shah's probation revocation hearings in the fall of last year. Much as his brother had done, Shah developed a sudden injury just before his day in court. After many delays, he finally was pushed into court in a wheelchair and made it known that his old hernia was acting up. Chuckles Anderson: "I had real bad laryngitis when I was on the stand there, but when I saw him in that wheelchair, I almost said it out loud: 'Ain't this a bunch of...'"
A source in the courthouse claims that surveillance videos were made of Shah throwing the wheelchair in the trunk of the car and walking around freely. Shah also claimed on the stand that his father Anil Kumar Shah was dead. Sources say that the elder Shah would pick his son up from the courthouse.
Early in the proceedings, Barr cut off a potential stampede of witnesses early and said she'd already heard enough to revoke his probation. He would serve out the rest of his sentence in the Texas Department of Corrections.
As it happens, he has yet to be transferred there from the Harris County Jail. On the outside, some people are still scared of him. Estopinal is worried that his hired thugs might come around. Dave Martin says that the day Shah went to jail, for the first time in three years, he opened his blinds and went for a walk, but he's still mildly concerned that Shyam Shah is tailing him. The police are frustrated that other victims won't press charges.
HPD's Heath Bounds thinks Dinesh Shah is irredeemable. Expecting him to be rehabilitated "would be like telling a dog not to chase cars," he says. "He can't help it. He's evil and he's gonna do evil wherever he goes — when he's in prison he's gonna be in there doin' evil things. There's no doubt in my mind."
Anderson believes Shah had better be more concerned that evil is not done unto him on the inside.
"He thinks because you're uneducated, you're stupid. Somebody told me he said that everybody in jail loved him because he was teaching them to read. I'm thinking they're probably whooping his ass every day, because he comes across that way — arrogant."
As for Shah himself, well, between getting elbowed and jostled by the burly black guy to his left in the visiting booth, he tells a reporter to wait until this fall, when he'll be totally vindicated. That's when he'll tell the world a hell of a story.
According to police, Dinesh Shah, pictured here at the scene of his 2009 arrest on Jack Street in Montrose, attempted to pass himself off as the attorney of an octogenarian retired FBI agent. Shah allegedly even went so far as to attempt to arrange the man's funeral.
Courtesy of Houston Police Department
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