Dinesh Kumar Shah, the violent con-man featured in two Houston Press cover stories from this summer, is currently on trial again. This time around, he's in criminal court answering to allegations that he assaulted a former dancer for the Houston Ballet.
Today that dancer took the stand under direct questioning from prosecutor Kelli Johnson and told a jury in Judge Jeannine Barr's court what happened over the course of the three years he knew Shah. (We're leaving the dancer's name out of this for reasons that will become apparent soon.)
The Swedish-born dancer says that in 2006 he was 19 years old and new in town and working for $385 a week as an apprentice dancer at the ballet when Shah first entered his life. The dancer says he was sitting on a gaspipe outside his Montrose apartment when Shah pulled up in an Audi and asked him if he worked for the ballet. Shah went on to brag that his father (who he claimed was dead) had been instrumental in bringing former director Ben Stevenson to town.
Those were the first of many lies Shah would tell the dancer. Shah's father was not dead then, nor is he now. And he had nothing to do with Stevenson coming to town.
The dancer, now 24, was intrigued. He said it was part of his unofficial mandate as an employee of the ballet to forge relationships with powerful potential donors, and Shah seemed like just such a person, very much "an established man in the city," as he put it on the stand. For three years running, the dancer sent Shah birthday cards with original poetry in them, and gifted him occasionally with bottles of Scotch and Swedish vodka.
The dancer, a handsome, well-scrubbed, athletic-looking young man whose clean white shirt and conservative tie suggested a Mormon missionary, seemed earnest and forthright as he told the whole tale.
Shah's web of lies continued. Over dinners at Mark's and other high-tone establishments, Shah told the dancer he'd been an investment banker on Wall Street for many years. Not only that, he'd also been an "undercover investment banker" in Paris, where he was also running the CIA's Paris station. There, he not only helped influential and powerful former citizens of the defunct Soviet Union come to the West, but he also decided whether or not captured foreign spies would live or die. He worked in close collaboration with President Reagan, he said. He also claimed to have several huge penthouses in New York and many properties in Houston.
The dancer ate these tales up. He testified Shah seemed like "someone to look up to." He also said he had never been more impressed with anyone he'd ever met. Little wonder then that Shah started to become his financial adviser.
The dancer testified that Shah advised him to shut down his IRA and open a stock-trading account with Charles Schwab. Shah advised him to buy ExxonMobil stock, a tip he's offered to many young men over the last few years. And for a long time, it worked. The frugal dancer and the savvy Shah were able to accumulate $30,000 in savings by 2009, aided some by an inheritance from the dancer's grandmother.
Meanwhile, Shah started to show more interest in the dancer's social life. More specifically, his dating exploits. The dancer had a number of girlfriends over the course of his relationship to Shah, and he was getting serious with one of them in 2008 and 2009, an oil company employee six years the dancer's senior.
Shah didn't like that. He told the dancer that she would steal his youth, that she would want to settle down too fast. The dancer ignored this advice. He said that he had a great bond with the woman.
Meanwhile, his roles at the ballet were getting bigger and bigger. He played the prince in The Nutcracker and had lead roles in other productions. And then disaster: His knee gave out.
The dancer says he was devastated psychologically. After surgery, there were many long months of rehab. Meanwhile, Shah asked for a little closer control over the dancer's finances, and the dancer gave it to him. In August of 2008, he transferred his entire $30,000 nest egg over to Shah through a local accountant. Shah told him he would take good care of his money and grow it through commodities trading. The dancer said this seemed like a good idea at the time, as the stock market was tanking. Shah would give him verbal reports, saying his money was growing by leaps and bounds, and that even if he lost the dancer's money, he would reimburse him out of his personal riches, but the dancer never saw any of these reassurances in black and white. And he never saw that green again either, but that's another story.
In August of 2009, Shah's world started to fall apart. As related in our cover stories, he was arrested for impersonating an attorney in a separate case involving an ailing retired FBI agent. Police raided Shah's Jack Street duplex and carted him off to jail.
Around that time, Shah had promised to accompany the dancer on a trip to New York, where he wanted to show the dancer all his old haunts from his alleged Wall Street days. He didn't show up and the dancer wanted to know why. Shah told the dancer that his duplex had been raided by agents from the Chinese embassy who were after some top-secret CIA files he'd stashed there. He warned the dancer that Jack Street had been compromised and he was never to go there again.
By this time, the dancer had moved to a bigger apartment on lower Richmond. Shah started coming over more and more frequently. At some point around this time, Shah turned Iago and convinced the dancer that his girlfriend had been cheating on him at every turn, with her ex, with the dancer's neighbors, and so on. In September of 2009, shortly Shah had been arrested in the FBI agent case, the dancer dumped her.
Since she wasn't coming around much anymore, Shah filled the void. He started telling the dancer that ballet was bad for him. He needed to go back to school and learn how to become an investment banker, the dancer says he was told. Shah would come over late at night and keep the dancer up until one and two in the morning, even though the dancer had to be up very early. Eventually, even this mild Swede started getting tired of it. By December, there was some friction between the two of them.
And then there came a drama-filled day. One morning the dancer received a number of desperate texts from Shah. One said he'd lost the will to live. Another said his heart was racing. And then, silence. A little later that day there came more texts, allegedly from a different person. These informed the dancer that Shah had suffered a heart attack and was being held in a "private wing" at Methodist Hospital. Visitors were not allowed, another text declared.
The very next day, Shah was on the streets again, saying that he was feeling bad but was well enough to be discharged from the hospital. He told the dancer that one more such incident would be the end of him, though, and so they had lots of work to do. He wanted to teach the dancer as much as he could about commodities trading with the little time he had left on the planet, so the two of them would have to spend lots and lots of time together.
The dancer bought this rationale. He testified that he thought he was saving Shah's life as well as learning invaluable lessons about trading. By April of last year, Shah had pretty much set up camp in the dancer's living room. He trundled in boxes and boxes of his personal effects. He started hanging his pictures on the dancer's walls.
Meanwhile, Shah worked hard at isolating the dancer from his friends and family. The dancer's parents are both professors at a college in upstate New York. They arranged dirt-cheap tuition for their son at the school. Shah told the dancer that was a terrible deal, and that if he wanted to listen to his dad, he should just go ahead and turn over his finances to him while he was at it. Shah would just take off for Florida and move in with his mom. (She lives in Alief, in reality, with his still-living dad.)
By this time, the dancer was in an epic funk. His rehabbed knee had given out again. He was sleep-deprived from Shah keeping him up all hours. He was living on worker's comp pay. He was sad about his (Shah-engineered) breakup. He resigned from the ballet. Shah insisted on coming to a meeting with his old bosses and demanded to be introduced as the dancer's partner.
And he got more and more sexual with the dancer. On April 20, Shah convinced the dancer to smoke some pot with him, and then he performed oral sex on the dancer. Shortly after that, the two of them got in the first of two physical altercations. It started when the dancer was asking Shah to get a place of his own. Shah said he was disrespectful and started belittling him, saying he thought he was a "real tough guy." Then Shah shoved him into a wall and started head-butting him, the dancer testified. He said Shah was screaming in his face and coating him with spittle. He didn't fight back, he said, because he doesn't believe in violence.
"Here was this respectable person and he'd turned into a demon," the dancer testified. "I couldn't believe what was going on." The dancer says he didn't contact police at first because he thought the whole thing had been his fault.
"I didn't know which were my thoughts and which were his brainwashing," the dancer testified. He said that he was doubting his sexual orientation for the first time in his life. This embarrassment and shame also halted him from reporting the attack to the police. "It was too hard to explain," he testified.
Meanwhile, Shah was closely monitoring all the dancer's contacts with the outside world. He checked all his texts and e-mails and scoured the dancer's Facebook page going back four years.
In May, the dancer planned to meet up with his family in Kansas. Shah was not a fan of this plan. Shah believed that the dancer's brother was going to hook him up with a girl. "If you fucking hook up, I'm gonna know all about it," Shah snarled to the dancer, according to the latter's testimony. He then attacked the dancer again. He shoved him to the ground, and defied the dancer to fight back, and warned that doing so would be the last thing he ever did.
They fought and argued for much of the night and at last the dancer staggered off to bed. He woke on the morning of his flight to Kansas to find Shah's mouth on his penis. He shoved him off and ran out the door, with Shah kissing and licking him all the way out.
And at that point Judge Barr called a recess. We'd certainly heard enough for one day...We'll look back in on the proceedings later this week.