The call to Christina Girard's tony town house on South Briar Hollow behind the Remington Hotel came from 53-year-old Sanam Soudavar, a petite, dark-haired Iranian émigré. Soudavar told her close friend she would be flying into Bush Intercontinental Airport on a connecting flight from Paris the following weekend.
Soudavar expected a warm welcome from Girard, a well-known Houston socialite who had given her the run of her home and use of her car in the past. The pair, both well married and well divorced, had a lot in common, including a love of pricey art, jewelry and eligible males.
During her stay in Iran with a sick mom, Soudavar had gotten several cordial calls from Girard inquiring when she would be back and offering to meet her flight.
When Soudavar jetted back into Houston, she found the greeting a bit warmer than anticipated. Instead of Girard, waiting with open arms were three Houston police officers with a warrant charging Soudavar with filching jewelry from her onetime hostess and peddling some of it at a Galleria shop several blocks down the West Loop from Girard's residence.
It's a scenario several people who know Soudavar find hard to believe. Sanam, now a U.S. citizen, and her then-husband, Aboud Soudavar, arrived in Houston in the wake of the overthrow of the Shah in the late '70s. Investor Aboud brought with him more than adequate finances for the couple, having been the Ford auto distributor in pre-Ayatollah Khomeini days. The Soudavars quickly found a place in a moneyed circle of westside art aficionados.
As noted by former Houston Chronicle society writer Betty Ewing, "the glamorous Sanam Soudavar" was a guest at a dinner honoring a visiting British artist in 1987 hosted by Sandy and Marjorie Parkerson. Sandy runs a gallery on Kirby Drive.
"They were a darling couple when they came here," remembers one acquaintance, who recalls Sanam going on an art trip to Spain with an entourage that included the late Dominique de Menil. After her breakup with Aboud, Sanam continued to be seen at events, though not in the style to which she'd been accustomed.
"There was something dark about her," recalls the same source. "You know how you can't quite put your finger on something about someone? She just would appear at places without invitation."
Christina Girard is the daughter of Houston eye doctor Louis Girard and the ex-wife of Spaniard Salvador Fabrigaz and Houstonian Joe Hudson.
She's been featured on the Houston Chronicle best-dressed list along with the likes of power matrons Elyse Lanier and Barbara Hurwitz, and pops up regularly on the guest list for arts-oriented balls. The Chron's Shelby Hodge lauded her in 1993 as part of "two generations of women who make this city happen."
Like Soudavar, she also has a less artistic rep in society circles as a hunter of two-legged big game, the quarry of choice being eligible men of means. "She's always trying to be with anybody who comes here with a title," says a society observer. "If there is a singular rich man coming to town, she wants an introduction."
According to a police report, Soudavar was staying with Girard last year after being kicked out of a boyfriend's residence in a breakup that ominously involved claims Sanam had ripped him off. After Soudavar returned to Iran, Girard noticed last February that her favorite Van Cleef & Arpels earrings with baroque pearls, appraised at $20,000 in 1981, were missing. Ditto for a similarly priced Bulgari serpentine wristwatch with a black oval face.
Girard then visited Louis Tanenbaum Estate Jewelry in the Galleria, where she discovered that Tanenbaum had purchased the earrings for $4,000 from a woman he identified as Soudavar. Tanenbaum did not buy the watch, though it was offered to him.
Girard retained a private detective who then contacted Houston police. Officers reclaimed the serial-numbered earrings from the jewelry shop and then sat back and waited for Soudavar's return to the United States.
When Girard learned Soudavar would arrive June 3 at Intercontinental Airport aboard a Continental jet, she notified police, and the trap was set. When Soudavar entered customs shortly after 4:30 p.m., she was quickly hustled to a side room to meet her HPD escort. Because of initial questions about her citizenship status and false rumors of previous arrests, Soudavar was initially held on no bond and spent three days in the county jail before bonding out. She will face theft charges in Judge Jim Wallace's 263rd Court later this month.
Soudavar's attorney, Wendell Odom, says his client tells a story very different from the scenario provided to police by Girard. In Soudavar's version, her sale of the earrings was justified by a string of hot checks she claims Girard wrote her to purchase a painting by 14th-century Italian master Carlo Marata that Soudavar owned and which was hanging in Sandy Parkerson's gallery.
Contacted at work, Parkerson admitted knowing Soudavar but declined to answer further questions.
According to Odom, Soudavar is a respectable person with a son, who is an investor in Paris, and a daughter at Brown University. She was briefly a houseguest of Girard's after returning from New York last year and then rented a town house on Wroxton Road. Odom says the stuff in the police report about a ripped-off boyfriend is simply false.
In Soudavar's telling, Girard wanted to buy the painting and allegedly wrote her two or three checks for the $16,000 artwork. Odom says at least one $5,000 check bounced. Girard then gave Soudavar some of her jewelry, and Soudavar returned several of the insufficient checks in exchange.
"I don't know if Sanam thinks that this is given to her as payment for the painting," says attorney Odom of the trade-off. "But Sanam has the belief she has access to this jewelry and can use it for financial purposes."
According to Odom, Soudavar needed money to visit her sick mother in Iran last February, so she went to Tanenbaum's and sold him the earrings to cover her airfare. Soudavar claims the Bulgari watch she unsuccessfully tried to peddle was her own, both women just happening to have black-faced Bulgari timepieces. It's a coincidence Odom does not find improbable. According to the lawyer, everybody in that circle has Bulgari watches. (Shop owner Tanenbaum did not return an Insider call concerning the Soudavar arrest.)
Once in Iran, says Odom, "Sanam started getting all these calls from Christina. 'When are you coming home? I'll be sure and pick you up at the airport. Tell me what flight you're coming in on.' "
When the trap snapped at the airport, it came as a complete shock to Soudavar, who could not believe her buddy had set her up.
"She's pissed," says Odom. "What crushes her is that Christina runs down and files charges and does this instead of trying to determine from an old friend what's going on. After all, Christina has some of her stuff, too, and she doesn't know where it is."
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Odom says Soudavar spent an extra day in county jail because of false rumors given to police that she was involved in other thefts and was an illegal immigrant. In fact, Soudavar has been a naturalized U.S. citizen for a number of years.
Soudavar's version at least would explain why she felt free to sell such easily identifiable jewelry at an outlet a 20-carat-stone's throw from Girard's home. Otherwise, it's a move that would qualify her for a whole chapter in the Annals of the Rich and Stupid.
"These are very similar women," emphasizes a source who knows both. "These are the same types going at each other. There must be some bitterness there between the two that goes beyond a pair of earrings and a watch."
It will likely be up to future jurors in Wallace's court to determine which man-hungry, art-loving, jet-setting socialite is telling the truth.