The Unexpected Guest
Update: Read Part 2 of this series, Friends With Benefits.
To Jennifer Estopinal, something was troubling about her dad Kenneth Jackson's mysterious new friend: a man who called himself "Dennis Shaw."
Estopinal, a vivacious, youthful-looking 48-year-old brunette, says she first heard Jackson mention Shaw in June of 2009, and by the next month, his name was coming up in every conversation. And as a matter of fact, her father told her that he had actually first met Shaw 20 years before, when Shaw would stop and talk with him while Jackson was out checking on his Montrose rental properties. For all those years, the two had been passing acquaintances, but now that Jackson was ailing — he was bed-ridden after suffering a hip injury — the two were becoming inseparable.
According to Jackson, a then-89-year-old retired FBI agent who once worked on the JFK assassination, Shaw was an amazing man. The son of a London-bred half-Indian father and an Englishwoman, Shaw claimed to have grown up on Inwood Street in the heart of River Oaks. The slightly chubby, suave, olive-skinned Shaw also said that he had packed a ton of action into his forty-odd years on the planet. He'd been in the CIA, he said, and he'd graduated from Rice and Harvard Law School. His net worth was approximately $75 million, he said, and he owned both a plane and a yacht.
Estopinal says that Shaw told her father that he spent most of his time in New York, where he had a stunning and successful girlfriend named Deborah and a high-flying career as a corporate attorney. (He claimed to be licensed to practice law in both Texas and New York.) At the moment, Shaw told Jackson, he was back in Houston to tend to the estate of his late father.
"My dad was kinda laughing about it," Estopinal remembers. "He said, 'If this guy is only half of what he says he is, he's something else. But it all seems a bit much.'"
A couple of weeks passed. Estopinal never saw Shaw, but her dad was still talking about him all the time. "Why don't I ever see this guy?" she asked her dad. "Why does he only come by when I'm not here?"
"Yeah, that is kind of strange," her dad said. "He does always come by really late."
Despite her misgivings, Jackson and Shaw continued visiting regularly at Jackson's home on Greenbriar near the Texas Medical Center. Estopinal says that one day Shaw made her dad an offer: While he was in town, Shaw said, he would be more than happy to help Jackson prepare a new version of his will. He would provide this service at no charge, so long as he — Shaw — could be the executor. He would do this, he said, because they were such good friends.
Not coincidentally, Shaw had also become fast friends with Jackson's long-estranged wife Virginia Anne "Ginger" Jackson. At 62, she was 27 years her husband's junior, and according to the divorce petition Kenneth Jackson would file the following year, though they had been married since 1972, the couple had been living separate lives under the same roof since roughly 1995. (Kenneth Jackson would withdraw the divorce petition two days before his death in 2010.)
Though Jackson was a lifelong night owl, Ginger Jackson and Shaw stayed up even later.
"He would hang out with her until 2:30, three in the morning," Estopinal says. "She would come upstairs and take a shower and he would question her and she would say they were just talking and having something to drink. He was working on Ginger. He knew she was more malleable, easily influenced. My dad had his wits about him. He [Shaw] worked on her big-time and she was the one who gave him the money."
Police would later say that Ginger Jackson agreed to give Shaw an amount between $4,000 and $10,000. "The purpose of the money...one thing was said and then another," Estopinal remembers. "[Ginger Jackson] told the police that the money was given to a lawyer to secure her financial future."
(Ginger Jackson was never implicated in any wrongdoing. Indeed, police would later describe her as a pawn rather than a wrongdoer.)
Strange as all that was, Estopinal's sense of alarm grew exponentially after she finally met Shaw at a doctor's appointment he had helped arrange for her father. She started Googling "Dennis Shaw" and came up with little. Thinking he looked Indian, she "Indianized" his name to Dinesh Shah. Since that's a common name, she had to wade through thousands of hits before she found one on a law Web site that chilled her to the bone.
Along with a friend named David Collie, a Dinesh Shah seized control of the entire life of Joan Blaffer Johnson, a River Oaks heiress to a huge ExxonMobil fortune. This Shah had moved in with the woman — a granddaughter of Robert Lee Blaffer, a co-founder of Exxon forerunner Humble Oil — and lived with her for years. He even acted as a quasi-father figure to her children. The arrangement came to a horrifying end.
In 2006, the two youngest Johnson children, with their mother acting as "next friend" because they were then minors, sued Shah and Collie, citing assault and "intentional infliction of emotional distress." And on June 11, 2008, the Johnson children won. The civil court jury found Shah had committed injury to a child — he beat the two children — and aggravated sexual abuse of her minor son. Damages to the children were assessed at $20.7 million — $16.5 million to Seth, and the remainder to Kaleta, in both cases, for past and future pain and suffering, future medical costs, and exemplary damages. (Collie, who issued a general denial of Johnson's claims, settled with the family before the final verdict for an undisclosed sum.)
Estopinal didn't know it then, but by the time the verdict in the civil trial had come in, Shah was also on ten years' probation for beating Johnson's daughter, a criminal court case that, with the able legal assistance of top-shelf defense attorneys Paul Nugent and Mike DeGeurin, was plea-bargained down from indecency with a child. Estopinal thought it had to be the same guy, but wasn't sure because there was no picture on the Web site. She called Paul Clote, one of the two Houston attorneys who sued Shah. Clote said he would meet with her that very afternoon. Soon after she was seated in Clote's downtown office, the attorney printed out a picture of Dinesh Shah, pulled it out of the paper tray and showed it to Estopinal. She saw a picture of a chipmunk-cheeked fortysomething man with wavy black hair, olive-tinged skin and sneering eyes. "That's him," she said. "That's the guy."
For years, Dinesh Shah had been suspected of running scams on elderly and otherwise vulnerable people all over Inner Loop Houston and beyond, his victims ranging from young gay men to lonely millionaire women of a certain age. That "Dennis Shaw" moniker wasn't the only thing bogus about him. He was also no Rice or Harvard Law grad. His wealth, such as it was, was nowhere near what he'd been telling people, and he owned neither a yacht nor a plane. He was not from the opulent avenues of River Oaks (though he did live there for a time, under very bizarre circumstances), but the humdrum cul-de-sacs of Alief. And there was no high-achieving "Deborah," nor any other girlfriend. Though he has denied it adamantly while under oath, Shah is a gay man, and has been confronted in court by at least two male former lovers who say he beat them.
While Shah's father Anil Kumar Shah is Indian, he is also very much alive, so that tale about working on his estate was yet another lie, and Shah's mother Mary Haley Shah was from Palestine, Texas, not England. What's more, a determined Houston Police Department sergeant would later prove that all the CIA talk was still more rot.
Eventually, Estopinal would learn that her father was just the latest potential mark being groomed by a man whose own attorney would later proclaim to be a "monster."
Among the others:
Henry Dyches: A South Carolina-raised Citadel grad and former air force officer and avid horseman, Dyches was in the twilight of his life when Shah met him as a neighbor in the Museum District. Acquaintances say Shah abused Dyches verbally and emotionally, even as Dyches started to succumb to Alzheimer's disease. Police believe Shah also drained Dyches's bank account of his life savings of more than $500,000 after his death in 2010. A courthouse source would neither confirm nor deny a rumor that an exhumation warrant was sought for his corpse to check for signs of poisoning.
Ray Rush Brown: A hard-living, impoverished-looking Montrose resident, police said Brown was receiving royalties for ghostwriting a popular song from years before. After officers raided Shah's house in 2010, they say they found a will in Shah's briefcase granting him Brown's share of the royalties after Brown's death. (Brown is still among the living.) No charges have been filed in this case.
"Dave Martin": A fiftysomething former punk rocker and current artist, and the grandson of a comptroller at Humble Oil, Martin (who didn't want his real name used in this article) says that Shah conned him out of more than $9,000. He also believes that Shah swiped an antique watch and hat from him, and then took his car after arranging for him to receive his fifth DWI. (Martin never pressed charges against Shah, though he has made himself available to testify against him in court.)
Jonathan Davidsson: Police say Shah was the handsome young Swedish Houston Ballet dancer's lover. They also say Shah continuously beat him for several weeks in 2010. That case, along with one related to Kenneth Jackson, is pending in the 182nd Criminal Court with trial dates set for this September.
"He has the ability to move equally through the underbelly of Montrose and credibly among people who have some money," says Jim Perdue Jr., a lawyer who helped Clote win the Johnson case.
"He takes weak people, he gets into their minds, he gets into their hearts, slowly wears them down and then gets them to give him what he wants," says Sergeant Reginore Anderson of HPD's Major Offenders Division. Anderson investigated Shah for his dealings with Kenneth Jackson. "I can catch a guy in the Fifth Ward who does the same thing only his arena is different. Shah's arena is filthy rich people."
"I've been a cop for 20 years and most criminals, they're just criminals," says Sergeant Heath Bounds, a cop with HPD's Central Patrol who has officially investigated Shah on one case and served as an informal consultant in others. "That's their job. Sure, they have different motivations, but for most of 'em it's just a job. But this guy is one of two or three people I've met in 20 years who I'd classify as truly evil. It goes way beyond a job for him, or an opportunity. This guy...He's evil."
Today, Dinesh Shah is in the Harris County jail. When the Press visited him in early July, the chubby cheeks were gone. In fact, he was downright emaciated. Between glares at the burly inmate to his left, who kept jostling him, Shah said he wouldn't talk about any of the cases against him, but said once he got out of jail he would be vindicated. He is currently being held for two reasons, both ultimately stemming from the Johnson case: his probation was revoked last summer by Judge Jeannine Barr for, among other things, failing to adhere to the employment provisions of his sentence. And Judge Caroline Baker of the 295th Civil Court has ordered he be held indefinitely for contempt after he refused earlier this year to answer a series of questions regarding his finances. (Shah attempted to plead the Fifth Amendment, saying that to answer those questions would be self-incriminating. Baker ruled that was not a valid defense.)
None of his current lawyers would comment (he's cycled through a score or so in the past nine years, ranging from court-appointed defenders to some of Houston's most famed and expensive defense attorneys), nor would assistant district attorney Kelli Johnson, the prosecutor in his two pending criminal cases.
Geographically, the hulking jail at 701 N. San Jacinto is only a few hours' float down meandering Buffalo Bayou from River Oaks. Psychically, it's a long, long way from where this story all started: at a Bible study group in the River Oaks Boulevard home of the late Baron Ricky di Portanova. Back in 1996, the Baron, an Italian-bred descendant of Houston oil mogul Hugh Roy Cullen, was in the habit of hosting wine-soaked Good Book readings, and one of the regular guests was Henry Dyches, who had entrée in the highest echelons of River Oaks society through his jobs as a Spanish tutor and swimming coach to area kids. He was a trusted friend of Joan Johnson's, and he was also starting to slip into the grip of senility. Dyches didn't drive, so he would occasionally hitch rides to the Bible study group with two of his neighbors from his Portland Street apartment complex: David Collie and Dinesh Shah, roommates and "business partners" in several ventures that never got off the ground. Their next one would.
Joan Blaffer Johnson was then newly widowed. Her estranged husband Luke Johnson, an alcoholic suffering the ravages of HIV, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his bay house on luxurious Bay Ridge Drive in Morgan's Point in 1995. Despite her extreme wealth, Johnson was vulnerable, on the rebound and struggling with single parenthood of her three children: Wirt, a teenaged boy who was becoming a handful; his brother Seth, who was then about eight and struggling in school; and her daughter Kaleta, a high-achieving youngster who was six and attending St. John's at the time of her father's death.
Joan Johnson was not in the mood for an extended period of grieving Luke, and friends have said she soon fell deeply in love with Collie, a handsome, River Oaks-bred son of a Vinson & Elkins managing partner.
Dinny Shah came with the David Collie package, and for some time the three were a merry trio. They would vacation together and dine out, and soon, Johnson was confiding about her finances with both Collie and the then-29-year-old Shah, who had just graduated from Baylor with a degree in economics. That wasn't what he told Johnson: According to court documents, he claimed to have been a seasoned investment banker with experience at Chase Bank on Wall Street, not to mention stints in the CIA and as a member of the Secret Service in Ronald Reagan's White House.
Johnson bought his stories, and by the end of 1997, Shah had total control over her stock and cash. He also started to isolate Johnson and her children from their friends and family. First, there was the problem of Wirt, Johnson's rebellious eldest son. Seeing him as a potential threat to his dominance, Shah and Collie convinced Joan to ship him off to boarding school.
"The Johnson family were in a really vulnerable time in their lives and the only one who could really handle them at the time was [Wirt], and Shah sent him off to boarding school," says Bounds. "And he probably wasn't quite able to handle him until he finally grew up. Shah recognized that and had him sent off. The Johnsons were just not ready for this guy. Not too many people would be, because he's smooth. By the time they realized what he was about they were trapped."
After some talk of marriage, the romance with Collie cooled, but he hung around for years as a "friend" and another father figure, to Johnson's children, albeit an abusive one, according to court papers. Collie detached himself from the entire bizarre arrangement in mid-2002, in part by marrying a girlfriend whose existence was unknown to Joan Johnson, who still harbored dreams of marriage. (She got the news from some of her girlfriends at a social gathering and was said to be crushed and humiliated.) Collie renounced his power of attorney over Johnson in mid-2002, and when he was sued by the Johnsons, he settled before the final verdict was reached. He now lives out of state with the woman he married in 2002.
By 2000, Shah would move into Johnson's house, despite the fact that Johnson had bought him his own River Oaks home on Tiel Way. That was when the reign of terror really kicked into high gear: according to the lawsuit, beatings and emotional abuse became a regular part of life for Joan Johnson and the two kids who were at home with her. A jury in the civil case also found that Shah had molested Seth on more than one occasion.
Shah removed all traces of Luke Johnson from the home, going so far as to rip inscriptions out of the frontispieces of books. He took over the clothing and styling of the kids, dressing them in his own weird retro fashions. (Joan Johnson was allowed only to purchase her own panties, at Walgreens.)
He was also steadily draining her accounts of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, he had transformed the house on Del Monte Drive into a spooky, grim compound. A black tarp was draped over the security gate at the head of the drive. The windows were blacked out. Neighbors later told police they never saw the kids out playing anymore.
All this went on until 2002. In about August of that year, Dinesh's older brother Shyam Shah moved in. At the time, Shyam Shah was going through the aftermath of a brutal divorce with his wife, who alleged horrific abuse at his hands. Even so, Shyam Shah was alarmed at his brother's treatment of Joan Johnson and the kids. It all came to a head on the night of December 14, 2002.
According to the civil suit, the fight started when Dinesh Shah accused Kaleta Johnson, then 12, of being spoiled. He then turned his attention to Joan Johnson and beat her about the head with her purse until the purse broke. Turning back to Kaleta Johnson, he dragged her back to her room and punched her on her back, arms and neck and pulled her hair. A jury in the civil case also heard that he grabbed her crotch and told her, "I could fuck you whenever I want."
Shyam Shah heard at least some of this, and he tried to calm his younger brother. "If you kill them, we'll both go to jail," he is quoted as saying. Dinesh Shah didn't stop, so Shyam Shah called their father, and it was he who called the police. When Dinesh Shah heard that the police were outside, he told Kaleta Johnson to shower and clam up and Joan Johnson to wash the blood and tears off her face and tell the police everything was okay.
Dinesh Shah answered the door, and claims in one court filing that he assumed the police were there in error: He thought they were looking for disgraced Enron executive Andy Fastow, who was then building a house he would never live in a few doors down.
Once corrected, Dinesh Shah denied assaulting anybody, and said that he was being framed by neighbors who were competitors in the oil business. (He would later say the whole thing was a scheme concocted by the Johnson kids.) Police didn't buy his story, and he was taken to jail and charged at first with merely beating Kaleta Johnson.
"One of the things that set the bells and whistles off was I was standing there in the front yard and one of the neighbors comes up and goes, 'So, did he kill her?'" remembers HPD's Bounds. He knew that there was more to this case than a simple domestic spat.
The neighbor told Bounds about all the ominous goings-on, about how the home had been turned into a compound and how the kids had seemingly vanished. Soon calls were pouring in to Bounds from all over America. The callers told Bounds similar stories: how Dinesh Shah had completely alienated Joan from her relatives outside of Houston. A realtor who worked with Joan on some of her properties in the Northeast told him a similar story, as did others. "They were all generally concerned and they told me there was a hell of a lot more to it than a little argument and he hit her upside the head," Bounds says.
Bounds took his concerns to his superiors, and credits assistant district attorney Jane Waters with being a "tiger" on the case. (Waters didn't return a phone call from the Press.) In February of 2003, the bodily injury of a child case was dropped and Shah was charged with indecency with a child by touching, a felony that would have landed him in the sex offenders registry. After three more years of legal wrangling, including a plea-bargain back down to the original charge of injury to a child, on February 13, 2006 (the day after his 40th birthday), Dinesh Shah was convicted and sentenced to ten years' deferred adjudication. (Last year, he was jailed after failing to meet the terms of his probation. In December, Shah, working pro se, filed an appeal of his revocation. Ted Doebbler, the court-appointed lawyer now handling the appeal, declined comment on the case.)
Shah's troubles were just beginning. About three months after Shah was convicted in criminal court, Kaleta, Seth and Joan Johnson filed the civil suit against Shah and Collie. According to Jim Perdue, one of the Johnsons' lawyers, Shah's tales did not find as receptive an audience in the courtroom as they had in some places on the outside. At one point, he told the court from the stand that "some men here in town that were connected with the government" wanted to make him United States Ambassador to India. He told the court he put that post "on hold" in order to "help" Joan Johnson.
"That pulled a few chuckles from the jury," remembers Perdue. "Even when he's in that situation and has all eyes on him as opposed to one gullible individual, he can't help airing his incredible delusions. And they are not delusions of grandeur — it's a manipulative scheme that has always worked for him. Act big, act tough and people will be scared by it. And he got away with it for a long time."
According to Perdue, another moment of levity in the civil trial came when Shyam Shah took the stand. Shyam Shah was under subpoena, but one of Dinesh Shah's lawyers announced that Shyam Shah couldn't make it to court because of a weekend car accident. Perdue says the judge was skeptical and ordered that Shyam Shah be there the next day, whether or not he was really on all the painkillers Dinesh Shah's attorneys claimed his brother was taking.
Under threat of having the deputies bring him forcibly to court, Shyam Shah finally showed up the next day. "He does this big act of being completely out of it because he's on painkillers," recalls Perdue. "He takes the stand and falls asleep on the witness stand while he's being questioned. But it was like something from a bad Monty Python skit, where he opens one eye to see if anybody's still lookin' at him. The jury starts laughing at him."
Perdue believes Shyam Shah is scared of his little brother. "That was why he couldn't attest to the events of the night, because I am sure Dinny probably told him that he had ruined the whole thing for them in 2002. So he comes up there and does this ridiculous act, and it was better than if he had gotten up there and tried to deny everything because it was so absurd," he says. "It did not take an hour of the first day of trial to establish just how manipulative they are."
A week after his trial was over, Dinesh Shah's own attorney Michael Phillips severed ties with his client and told him he was writing a book about the case. That book would come out last year bearing the title Monster in River Oaks. (See "Telling All.")
With a $20 million verdict, a tell-all book penned by his own lawyer, and a ten-year prison sentence dangling over his head, it would appear that Dinesh Shah's career as a con man was over. But as Jennifer Estopinal, Jonathan Davidsson, Ray Rush Brown and Dave Martin, among others, would find out, he was just getting started. And Jim Perdue would see a reprise of Shyam Shah's wounded-animal act in court, only this time performed by Dinesh Shah.
"When Dinny was finally getting his ticket punched in the criminal case, he was saying, 'I'm in a wheelchair, I've just had surgery, I'm on so many painkillers I can't keep my head up...' I turned immediately to the guy next to me and said, 'I've seen this act before.'"
And soon enough, fresh victims would see more of Dinesh Shah's act, too.
Next week: With his grandest scam in tatters and his life under the microscope of the Harris County probation department, Shah nevertheless goes right back to work. By 2010, he would be officially charged with beating his lover and posing as Kenneth Jackson's attorney in the most ghoulish of ways.
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