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Teflon Man

Four days before he was found dead on his living room floor, John Kloss backed his SUV into the garage door of a River Oaks home belonging to Gary Ross.

One of the people who talked to Kloss that night in October 2009 described him as angered, panicked. Kloss believed Ross had screwed him out of serious money. It would have been easy for Ross, or anyone else who gained Kloss's trust, to rip him off, because by that time — from all accounts — Kloss was too far gone on pills and alcohol to manage his affairs. The 48-year-old Kloss was in and out of rehab, never able to stay clean for very long. Driven to bankruptcy, the former Merrill Lynch broker was reduced to fudging some insurance paperwork on a Hurricane Ike claim. He was also desperate enough to sell off his collection of classic cars.

Ross was supposed to have been helping him with both efforts, which is why Kloss granted Ross power of attorney in June 2009. But was Ross really a lawyer? Who knew. Ever since he blew into River Oaks five years earlier, he had all kinds of stories.


Houston con men

And now Kloss felt cheated. The insurance company investigated and then rejected his claims. And Ross was never able to squeeze any money out of the classic cars. So to hell with Ross. Well, to hell with Ross's garage door anyway. Kloss drove the SUV forward and backed into the garage door one more time.

Of course, Ross was just part of the problem. One of Kloss's River Oaks properties was facing foreclosure; he was being sued over a botched sales deal on one of his cars; and there were family demons as well.

Based on evidence police recorded in the subsequent report, it appears that after he crashed into Ross's garage, Kloss returned to his Post Oak apartment, plopped down on a tan leather sofa and tore into the first of several bottles of Liberty cabernet sauvignon. He supplemented the wine with clonazepam, used for the treatment of panic disorder, and possibly divalproex, used for the treatment of manic episodes. If, in the last few hours of his life, he took inventory of his apartment, here's what he would have seen: a laptop and box of pizza beside him on the couch; a stack of bills and other paperwork on a wrought-iron glass coffee table directly in front of him; a tan leather loveseat piled high with magazines that hid a box containing a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol; a Ducati motorcycle — sans seat — on the north side of the living room; an overflowing trash can in the kitchen; unwashed dishes in the sink; and a faithful golden retriever named Bo.

At some point, likely on October 10, the day after the garage door incident, Kloss opened a soft-side pistol case and pulled out a Heckler & Koch .357 semiautomatic. He placed the barrel in his mouth, angled it toward the ceiling and squeezed the trigger.

Kloss may have expected his body to be found right away; he didn't leave any food for Bo, who had dug through the kitchen trash can and defecated only in the bathroom and just outside the bathroom door.

The report does not state who pointed police in Kloss's direction, but the officers who discovered his body did so because they were investigating the damage to Ross's home. They tried reaching Kloss on October 10 — the day he likely killed himself — to no avail.

By the time they checked back three days later, Kloss's body was badly decomposed. He left no note. Or, more precisely, no note written on that day.

When the medical examiner's staff moved Kloss's body, they unintentionally knocked over a black briefcase, spilling its contents on the floor. Out came a piece of yellow legal paper, dated October 1, 12 days previous.

I made a decision to end my life. I have lived a life of terror due to my father. I watched him terrorize my mother, my sisters. He punched me when I was fourteen but never had the courage to face me as an adult...He is a weakling of a ["man" crossed out] child. My father is a disgusting man who should rot in hell.

Two days after the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death a suicide, a man identifying himself as a friend of Kloss's called the Houston Police Department's homicide division.

"He stated that he did not know if the death was a murder or suicide, but wanted to let the police know that Kloss thought that Gary Ross had stolen over $100,000 from him in insurance fraud," the police report states.

It's not clear from the police report if detectives followed up on the tip. If they had, they would probably have looked into Ross's past. And, like everyone else in River Oaks who had come to know Ross, they probably wouldn't have believed what they saw.

About a week before Kloss's death, a few dozen River Oaks residents found a strange bundle of documents in their mailboxes or on their doorsteps.

The anonymous delivery was a sort of scrapbook dossier on Gary Ross, the man who popped up in River Oaks in 2004, seemingly out of nowhere. Six feet tall, with dirty-blond hair and a blinding smile, the 54-year-old had soap opera good looks and drove a Rolls-Royce when he wasn't driving a Ferrari or Porsche. He moved into a million-dollar home on Huntingdon that was owned by a friend's parents.

He quickly befriended longtime River Oaks real estate broker George Murray, who helped grant Ross entrée into society. (Murray did not respond to voice mails and e-mails from the Houston Press.) Ross appeared to have the right pedigree, even if you couldn't fully nail down his background. He said he was a Stanford graduate and a former U.S. Marine. He allegedly told some people he was an attorney, others he was the former president of Reliant Energy. One couple said they were told he built a ­mergers-and-acquisitions­ firm that he sold to Goldman Sachs for millions. Mostly, though, he described himself as a self-made real estate tycoon with developments in Palm Beach and the Virgin Islands. Sources say he escorted socialites such as Carolyn Farb to high-society charity galas, including at least one event organized by socialite Becca Cason Thrash. Neither Farb nor Thrash would confirm or deny their alleged meetings with Ross to the Press. Even though Ross never seemed to actually have a job, as far as anybody knew, he was one of them.

By 2006, he made amends with an estranged girlfriend from Florida and invited a few close friends to a beach wedding in the Virgin Islands. Holly Colon was half his age, with a petite figure and bee-stung Botox lips. But the honeymoon didn't last long. They had a tumultuous relationship; over the next few years, Holly would often disappear to her parents' home in Florida. But she always came back. (Ross did not respond to e-mails and voice mails from the Press; Colon could not be reached for comment.)

By the end of 2009, the honeymoon between Ross and River Oaks was over as well. A former friend and neighbor, Carl Norton, accused Ross of defrauding him in a convoluted rare-coin investment. He also sued Ross over a $265,000 loan that, he stated in an affidavit, Ross and his wife said they'd use to buy another River Oaks home. Norton stated that Ross said he'd pay Norton back within 60 days, but then produced a mysterious document indicating that Norton agreed to a five-year payment plan. Figuring he wasn't going to get his money back anyway, Norton ultimately dropped the suit. Ross's wife used the $265,000 for a down payment on a house on Troon Road.

The file for Norton's lawsuit contains a July 2007 e-mail from Colon to Norton, thanking him for the money and describing a rather confusing plan to sell their current home to repay Norton, and a pledge to give him a lien on the newly purchased Troon Road house if he lent them another $100,000 for repairs that would allow them to sell the home for $1.5 million. But mostly, the young, dutiful wife explained how just gosh-darned guilty Ross felt about how things shook out.

"I know what has happened with this coin mess has affected you, but you have no idea how badly this has affected Gary," Colon wrote. "He doesn't sleep at night, and I can hardly get him to eat anything."

Colon added: "If it would make you feel better about me, I will come down right now and give you my yellow diamond ring to you [to] show you how much I am trying to help."

Meanwhile, Ross and Colon found themselves in a dispute with the River Oaks Property Owners association for property improvements that violated the association's rules. Moreover, a referral practice he set up with a contracting company to repair homes damaged by Hurricane Ike had turned the neighborhood against him.

Someone in River Oaks went digging for dirt on Ross, and the resulting October 2009 dossier revealed information about a drug conviction, and copies of lawsuits and unflattering newspaper articles suggested Ross was not who he said he was. It seemed that Ross's only remaining ally was George Murray, who apparently never got a copy of the dossier.

On October 7, six days before John Kloss was found dead, a River Oaks resident e-mailed Murray, asking if he saw the dossier.

"No I did not," Murray stated in his reply. "I must be the only person in this part of town that did not receive one. Carolyn Farb called me this morning saying that she had received one...She was mad as hell about the letter."

When the resident asked why Farb was mad, Murray stated, "She has had a stalker and received this type of thing, and is mad that anyone would do such a cowardly thing as [send an] anonymous unsigned mail to strangers."

That was the kind of response that allowed Ross to get by. Nearly every River Oaks resident who had bad dealings with Ross stuck his head in the sand. The only kind of attention these folks desired was the kind that landed them in society-page photos, clinking champagne flutes to celebrate how much money they had raised for some disease or other. A whiff of scandal, the possibility of coming across as a fallible human being — these are simply not genes embedded in River Oaks DNA. If an impostor really did infiltrate their clan, it could not be admitted — at least not publicly. It was just the sort of thing people had been doing with Ross over the last 30 years.

Sometime in 1977, Richard Thomas met the man his daughter Karen said she wanted to marry. Thomas did not like him.

For one thing, Gary Ross Doelling was freshly paroled from prison, where he served time for a drug conviction. In 1974, when Ross was already on probation from a marijuana bust, he was caught with heroin. In 1976, he was sentenced to five years for the dope and five years, concurrent, for probation violation. Ross apparently found the comforts afforded by the Harris County Jail lacking; before he could be transferred to TDCJ custody, he escaped. He didn't make it far, though; he was captured and slapped with another five-year sentence — concurrent. He wouldn't have to serve one extra day. And thanks to the felon-friendly parole requirements of the pre-65th Texas Legislature, Ross only served 11 months in prison. Once he got out, he put his charm to good use: It didn't take him long to find a girl who fell for him.

He moved in with Karen and her parents, in a four-bedroom, 3,700-square-foot Meyerland home. Pretty soon, they were talking marriage. But Karen was an undergrad with no money, and Ross was an ex-con with no prospects and no credit. They found a house on Grape Street in Meyerland, but there was no way they could get a loan. So they asked Karen's dad to become a party on the mortgage. Richard Thomas said he'd only do so if the couple agreed to ten conditions, including a promise to get married by June 1979. Thomas further displayed the pride and confidence he had in his future son-in-law in Condition No. 9, which stated that the deal was dead if "Gary Doelling's parole is revoked, or if he is charged or convicted of any felony offense." The couple agreed and moved onto Grape Street.

To Thomas's relief, his daughter decided less than a year later that she didn't want to get married. She moved out, but Thomas let his daughter's ex-fiancé stay in the house as long as he continued making payments.

In the meantime, Gary Ross Doelling found a new girl.

She was only around 21 years old, young enough to be enthralled when, at a house party, she saw Gary jump into the swimming pool with his clothes on. She thought he'd be fun. Plus, he drove a Porsche, and while he was vague about what he did for a living, he always seemed to have cash.

And it didn't stop the courtship when Ross was charged with possession of three pounds of cocaine in early 1980. After the bust, Thomas went to court to have the title to the Grape Street home taken out of his (Thomas's) name. It was a battle that would take six years.

Meanwhile, Ross pleaded not guilty to the cocaine charge and got married.

Shortly before the marriage, he was assessed by Houston psychologist Richard Austin, to determine "his emotional and mental status" for court. Based on Ross's conduct over the next three decades, it's difficult to tell just whom Austin was assessing in 1980. There's no record of what Ross told Austin, but Austin walked away with a sympathetic notion of a man whose only real victim was himself.

"Ross's early history indicates that he was a scapegoat for family turmoil and conflict," Austin's May 1980 report states. "He was blamed for problems. This affected his self-esteem and created an image of himself as a troublemaker and a source of trouble...He is also more aware than the usual person that he says things in order to please others or to get their approval. Although he was a bright youngster, winning a spelling bee and reading very well, the family conflict was intolerable."

It continues: "Because he is a bright person, his I.Q. is estimated no lower than 'superior,' or in the 125-130 range, he was actually bored in school. However there was little or no encouragement from his family."

Austin's report describes Ross's mother as a deceptive, narcissistic woman who resented Ross's alcoholic father "and displaced much of that rage to him." She also rejected Ross "as a person." His father was apparently "self-destructive, and [Ross] identified with that male model."

The report also contains observations that were probably crystal clear to the man who wrote them but which drip with dubious terminology, à la "He has what would be described as a 'hole' in his reality testing."

Ross needed to see himself as a "winner," Austin wrote. Because, "in essence, the only person that he really 'cons' is himself."

Fortunately, per Austin, "Gary can definitely learn from experience and...there is a good prognosis that he will learn and change in the future." The doctor believed that prison was no place for this poor young man — a misguided former spelling bee champ without loving parents and positive role models: "To see himself as a loser, or a member of a criminal population, will only hamper his rehabilitation and deny society his capabilities."

Ultimately, Austin's evaluation was moot: The coke charges were dropped, although there does not appear to be a record explaining why.

This good news was compounded with the birth of his first daughter in 1981. By this time, according to his first wife (who asked not to be named for this story), the family lived in an apartment on Memorial, rent courtesy of Ross's father-in-law.

The couple divorced in 1983. As with Karen Thomas, it didn't take long for Ross to move on.

This next one was a knockout: Ten years Ross's senior, she started modeling for Florida businesses in her teens, and by her twenties, she was frolicking through commercials for Kodak, Maxwell House and Aqua Velva. She was under contract for a game show, filmed at a Palm Beach resort, where contestants paddled around man-made lagoons in little boats, searching for prizes. Remarkably prolific, she modeled for both the Sears catalog and Playboy. She threatened to sue the Houston Press if we printed her name, so we'll call her Victoria.

In 1973, she and her husband moved to Dallas and opened an absolutely enormous Christmas gift store. She divorced her husband in 1983, the same year Ross divorced his first wife.

It's unclear how Ross met Victoria, but because the former model was often spotted cruising around Houston in a Rolls-Royce, it makes sense that Ross took an interest. Almost immediately after they met, Ross got her to lend him $24,000. For collateral, he promised the house on Grape Street that was still in his ex-girlfriend's father's name.

The couple was married June 29, 1984, and split up 27 days later. Victoria sought an annulment, and Ross sued her over what he called a fraudulent prenuptial. Ross accused Victoria and her lawyer of conspiring against him, but he may just have been jealous of the fact that Victoria had so much more, like an $800,000 house, a vacant lot valued at $900,000, a $600,000 American Express cash management account and a 1983 Porsche convertible. Ross loved Porsches.

Victoria's petition for annulment claimed she was coerced into the marriage, and that Ross had surreptitiously relieved her of $250,000. Her lawyer accused Ross of dodging deposition questions, and not producing the documents he asked for — namely, tax returns, passport and information on any bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. And when Ross petitioned to depose Victoria, her lawyer accused him of going on a fishing expedition.

In a 1985 motion for protective order, Victoria's lawyer wrote "the Respondent Gary Doelling is currently under investigation by the Harris County District Attorney's Office for [alleged] acts of fraud and theft [perpetrated] against [Victoria] and other victims. Respondent intends to use the deposition...as an artifice to obtain general discovery to prepare for his criminal offense." [There are no records of fraud or theft charges against Ross in Harris County; if there were an investigation, that information would not be in the public record.]

Meanwhile, Ross's attorney, Mark Atkinson — now a criminal court judge — filed a motion to withdraw as counsel, stating his belief that "conflicts of personality, philosophies and respect for the laws of this state differ in such wide degrees that representation of the client would be at best ineffectual, and not in the best interest of this client, the practice of law and the ethics, rules and regulations under which any attorney should practice law."

While the lawsuit languished, Ross met his third wife.

Donna Hughes already had two teenage daughters when she met Ross.

By this time, there was a judgment against him for the Grape Street house, and he decided he needed a fresh start. In June 1986, he legally changed his last name to Ross, stating in court documents that he "wants to avoid the embarrassment that accompanies the charge of a felony that was subsequently dismissed." (The motion does not state the nature of the charges, and a search of court records did not turn up any relevant documents.) That same month, Ross welcomed his second daughter into the world.

Ross's brother Randall, a real estate agent, wasn't too embarrassed by Ross's past troubles to let Ross's new family move into a Sugar Land home kept in his name. It appears that, shortly after he met Donna, he began rounding up investors for a stake in a massive time-share resort in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, called the Pond Bay Club. He would, of course, have to spend a great deal of time on the island to oversee the project. It turns out he would wind up living there a lot sooner than expected — and not necessarily by choice.

According to a 1987 Fort Bend County Children's Protective Services report, an investigator looked into allegations that Ross abused his 17-year-old stepdaughter. Investigator Mable Rogers wrote the following: "The allegations of physical abuse were validated."

Per the report, the initial complaint came not from the stepdaughter, but from one of her friends, who told their high school principal, who in turn called CPS.

After interviewing the stepdaughter at her high school, Rogers wrote the following: "Child went to summer school today with sunglasses on — her mother told child to tell everyone she was in a car wreck, but child told [her friend] that her stepfather beat her last night. Child has a black eye, a welt on her forehead — looks like a knuckle print; and lots of scratches on her face....Child's 13-year-old sister verified that stepfather beat child."

According to Rogers's narrative, the stepdaughter explained that the incident occurred the day after her 17th birthday: "She told me she had been out all night long because it was the night of her birthday. She stated that when she got home the next day at 4:00, her stepfather told the maid to leave and take the other children. She stated that he threw some notebook paper on the floor and told her to pick it up. She stated that she told him, 'No, if I pick it up, you are just going to hit me,' and he yelled 'pick it up.' [The girl] stated that she bent over to pick it up and her mother hit her, but she said her mother didn't hit her hard, and then her stepfather started hitting her. She stated that he hit her in the face with his fist, he kicked her in the side, in the stomach, and in the back. She said he threw her into the closet and kicked her while she was down. [The girl] stated that her mother was saying, 'That is enough, Gary, that is enough'...It is very obvious that [the girl] has been beaten by her stepfather. It is unknown the role her mother played in this." (Donna Hughes did not respond to requests for an interview.)

In a letter the girl wrote describing the abuse which is part of Rogers's report, she claimed that, after the beating, Ross "told me to take a shower, so I went to the shower and he told me I had five seconds to get my clothes off...so I got in the shower and Gary kept coming in and pulling the curtains away from me and he told me he was sorry and that he loved me."

Rogers stated in her report that she told the girl to see a doctor. The girl said she was making plans to stay with family out of state, and that she wanted to wait until she was out of Texas to see a doctor.

"She stated that her mother told her she could go and stay with her grandmother and father if she didn't tell anyone what had happened," Rogers wrote in the report.

Rogers states in her report that she took a male colleague to the girl's Sugar Land home for a late July interview with her parents, "as I had been informed by several of the neighbors that I should not go there alone, because the man was violent."

Rogers wrote that Ross wasn't home, but his wife Donna was, and she said nobody beat her daughter. Rogers spent the rest of July and most of August interviewing the girl's friends and family, as well as following up with the girl. She was able to interview everyone except Ross, who was now in St. Thomas.

Rogers's notes state that, on August 26, 1987, she received a call from Donna Ross: "She stated that Gary would not be coming back anytime soon, because he has a special project that looks real promising in St. Thomas." Donna Ross's main concern during the phone call was that, if it was found out that Ross had changed his last name, "he would not be able to get financing for the project."

In her findings, Rogers indicates that, at some point, Donna Ross corroborated her daughter's story: "Gary Ross is in the Virgin Islands, but physical abuse was verified by a written statement [from the girl] as well as verification from the mother. Mr. Ross has a quick temper and lacked physical and emotional control." It was a far cry from psychologist Richard Austin's 1980 evaluation of Ross as a guy who deserved hugs, not prison.

Apparently, Rogers's concern wasn't limited to Ross's stepdaughter. In September 1987, Ross's first wife sued to modify Ross's unsupervised visitation with their six-year-old daughter.

"I have reason to believe, and do believe, that he has been involved in abusive treatment of other children," she swore in an affidavit. "I derived this belief from my conference with Mable Rogers with Children's Protective Services, who has made an investigation of Gary."

The ex-wife also stated that Ross "is apparently moving his permanent address to the Pond Bay Club, St. John, Virgin Islands. He has taken my child out of this country during the 1987 summer visitation period. I fear, based on his past actions and involvement with drugs, the sale of drugs and other illegal activities, that his moving to the Virgin islands is to facilitate his continuation of these activities....I believe the foregoing history on the actions of Gary shows his complete disregard for the welfare of [his daughter] and that his unsupervised possession of and access to the child has a potential for bringing about immediate injurious harm."

While Rogers concluded that physical abuse was found in the case of Ross's stepdaughter, the case was closed because the perpetrator was not living in the continental United States and the victim no longer lived in Texas. Ross was free to embark on his most ambitious, lucrative plans to date.

In the early 1990s, Ross split his time between the Virgin Islands and Palm Beach, building a reputation as a colorful, resourceful real estate developer.

By this time, the stepdaughter who was the subject of the Fort Bend abuse allegation was again living with Ross and her mother. The reunion was not without its problems. In late 1992, the stepdaughter filed a petition for injunction against domestic violence, which was quickly dismissed. After she filed again in early 1993, the petition was granted. In 1994, Donna Ross filed an identical petition, which she quickly withdrew. The couple divorced in 1995.

While family life may have been rocky, Ross had worked his way into the glitzy world of Palm Beach real estate. A big coup was befriending one of the most prominent brokers in town, Jeff Cloninger.

In 1999, Ross agreed to pay Cloninger $250,000 for his interest in what might be rightly described as an extremely ridiculous plan to relocate a historic mansion. Known as La Encantada ("The Enchanted"), the home was owned by Amway founder and Orlando Magic owner Richard DeVos. DeVos wanted to demolish the 8,000-square-foot mansion, but Cloninger approached him with a proposition: He'd round up investors to buy the home and move it about 80 miles from the tiny community of Manalapan in Palm Beach County to Sewall's Point in neighboring Martin County. Cloninger wasn't able to proceed on his own; he sold his rights to Ross, who got a Maryland-based thoroughbred owner and horse breeder to invest the bulk of the money.

Ross told reporters he decided to save the mansion after his 14-year-old daughter Lauren saw it while she was attending a birthday party nearby. She wanted to save it from the wrecking ball, and Ross, a loving father, wanted to fulfill his little girl's wish. Newspapers in southern Florida loved the ensuing drama, as the mansion was chopped into three sections and placed on barges headed to Sewall's Point. The Stuart News reported that, almost immediately, the barge carrying the first chunk of historic architecture plowed into a sandbar, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection fined the investors $86,000. This was followed by the town of Sewall's Point — the mansion's destination — denying the necessary permits. The barges spent the next year trolling up and down the Intracoastal Waterway, seeking sanctuary.

Reporter Bob Markey II, who followed the story for The Stuart News, was there when the first section found its home in 2001. Ross had been on the tugboat hauling the home, and when it arrived, he hopped onto land, hugged his partners and knelt to pray.

A few months later, Ross's business partner James Moran filed a lawsuit accusing Ross of defrauding him out of a few hundred thousand during the purchase of the mansion, and the home sat vacant while its ownership was hashed out in court. Ross denied the allegations. The case was settled out of court. Robert Critton, the attorney who represented Ross's business partner, said the settlement was for "mutual relief" and no money changed hands, because "my client wouldn't have paid him a nickel." As for Critton's client agreeing to the settlement, Critton said, "We settled because [Ross] didn't have a pot to piss in." Twenty-one months after its journey from Manalapan to avoid the wrecking ball, the historic mansion — the apple of Lauren Ross's eye — was demolished.

Ross seemed to find business prospects in everything, and Hurricane Ike was no exception.

A few months after the storm, Ross found himself sitting next to a contractor on a flight from Florida to Houston. Brian Fines was a manager of Palm Beach-based Watlee Construction. The Houston office was repairing homes damaged by Ike, and they tried to relieve homeowners' headaches by dealing directly with insurance companies.

Now that Ross was a River Oaks mainstay, he could drum up business for Watlee, as long as he got a commission on each referral. One of these referrals was a home belonging to John Kloss.

It's not clear why, but in June 2009, Kloss granted Ross power of attorney. Ross subsequently acted as liaison between Watlee Construction, Kloss and Kloss's insurer. Ross wanted to be on top of repairs to Kloss's home, as well as an assisted-living-expenses application he submitted to USAA on Kloss's behalf. The payments would go to cover Kloss's rent while he waited for his home to be repaired.

On June 19, Ross e-mailed two Watlee managers, stating that he now had Kloss's power of attorney. "Please DO NOT talk with USAA, including [insurance adjuster Carlos Cortinas] without us discussing it first. Wherever [sic] either of you speak with John, please continue to remind him NOT TO TALK WITH USAA, and I will instruct them not to call John as well."

In a July 3 e-mail to the same managers, as well as the president of Watlee Construction, Ross describes "a call that I had received from Ms. Amanda Kelly, who identified herself as a 'special investigator' with USAA." According to the e-mail, she asked about a lease form submitted to USAA that suggested Kloss was actually living in one of his other properties, but was still trying to get money out of USAA by "attempting to lease back to himself."

That's when it appears Ross kicked up the charm: In the e-mail, Ross states he denied any knowledge of the lease, and "I spent an additional fifteen minutes speaking with her concerning Mr. Kloss' medical condition...She seemed much more at ease with me and we continued to chat about many unrelated things."

Ross's e-mail also states: "I have verified through Kloss' CPA that he personally has an $80,000 tax refund coming, as well as an even larger corporate refund."

Kloss still owed Watlee Construction from previous work, and the company didn't want to begin on the hurricane damage until Kloss paid the balance, which he didn't have. So he signed over a classic Corvette and a Harley-Davidson for collateral. Somehow, at least one of these vehicles wound up on eBay. A prospective buyer in Miami contacted Kloss to get the title information, but, after the initial contact, he found himself dealing solely with Ross.

A series of e-mails between Ross and Watlee representatives shows that, while Ross believed he had a right to sell Kloss's vehicles, Watlee claimed the cars and bike were the company's.

Soon afterwards, Ross's relationship with Watlee Construction went further south, with Ross claiming the company never paid his commission, and Watlee claiming Ross pocketed a portion of insurance money that was supposed to go straight to the company. The bickering meant a handful of River Oaks residents' homes were left completely or partially unrepaired. Plus, Ross was telling these homeowners that they owed him money for coordinating the repairs, and he threatened to place liens on their homes. By this time, he suspected that someone from Watlee Construction was behind the anonymous dossiers distributed throughout River Oaks.

According to an e-mail between the prospective Corvette buyer in Miami and a representative of Watlee, Kloss severed his ties with Ross by August. He no longer wanted Ross to have power of attorney.

In September, Ross e-mailed his Palm Beach attorney and Watlee representatives, demanding in bold capital letters that they resolve this untoward business immediately because Ross had colon cancer and was at death's door. He demanded that Watlee wire his lawyer $25,000.

Less than a month later, Kloss was dead.

Ross, who had kept in contact with at least one of Kloss's sisters, allegedly approached the family in a burst of tears, mourning the loss of his troubled friend.

But his friend's apparent suicide hasn't seemed to slow Ross down. Last month, Ross hired an attorney named Evan Moeller to enforce an oral contract between Ross and Watlee Construction. Ross is demanding $63,000 to avoid a lawsuit. Moeller also demanded that no one from the company delete any defamatory e-mails about Ross that Ross believes the company sent to "various individuals, including but not limited to" George Murray, Carolyn Farb and a reporter with the Press, as any such e-mails may become material to a lawsuit.

That Moeller is even able to pursue justice for his client is the result of an incredible run of good luck: If Ross had served more than 11 months on triple five-year concurrent sentences, he might not have met Karen Thomas, which means he wouldn't have been able to move into a Meyerland home paid for by her father; and if the cocaine charges against him weren't dropped, he wouldn't have been able to use that property as collateral for a $24,000 loan from his second wife, Victoria; and if Victoria had told Ross's next wife that she believed he took her for a quarter-million bucks, Donna Hughes might not have married him, which means that her daughter's face might never have been bashed in; and if CPS had pursued charges against Ross instead of letting him live in a Virgin Islands resort, he might never have headed to Palm Beach and then River Oaks; and if at least one powerful socialite had warned the community that Ross might not be who he said he was, then he might not have been able to get money out of one homeowner and the next and the next, including John Kloss. Better for everyone involved — especially the wealthy ones — to keep their mouths shut, even if it means someone else gets screwed.

The ultimate good news is the alleged specter of terminal colon cancer hasn't kept Ross from finding sweet investment deals for people. If you're interested in property in the Virgin Islands, Ross has a real peach. It's best to let Ross describe it in his own words, as found in an e-mail to an associate:

"...while in St. John last week, I ran into a New York hedge fund guy I know who owns an incredible parcel of land inside the U.S. national park. The property is less than a two-minute drive from Laurence Rockefeller's Caneel Bay Resort. My friend told me he is in the middle of a brutal divorce and the markets have devastated him, so rather than start construction on the home he had designed for the property, he intends to sell the property, along with his complete set of totally approved construction documents...He was going to list the property next week, but I asked him to give me a few weeks to try and find a buyer first...The incredibly beautiful, proposed home can be placed in a short-term rental program with my friend....I cannot afford to purchase and construct the proposed home on this property, along with my other project, too, but thought of you because this is truly the 'once-in-a-­lifetime' opportunity to obtain the absolute finest property you could ever purchase inside the national park; it's a legacy."

It can be tough to keep up with the money aflow, for investors, partners and investigators alike.

In the early 1990s, Gary Ross had no trouble finding investors for projects in Florida and the Virgin Islands.

In Palm Beach, he made fast friends with another colorful entrepreneur named Greg Holloway, and Holloway's wife, a woman who sometimes refers to herself in court documents as "The Baroness Laura Andre."

Holloway opened up a whole new world for Ross when he turned him on to rare coins. In 1989, Holloway, then based outside Philadelphia, and a partner had bought an interest in a nearly $2 million proof set that included the 1804 Silver Dollar, one of the world's rarest coins. Several years later, he found a group of Palm Beach high-rollers to invest in a coin fund. One day, the investors received a notice that all the money was gone.

The resulting 1995 lawsuit uncovered a massive fraud, and in 1997, Holloway was socked with a $5 million consent judgment. Holloway claimed he was destitute and didn't pay one single coin, rare or otherwise; by 2003, interest and attorneys' fees bumped the judgment slightly north of $17 million. In 2008, a Pennsylvania judge issued an arrest warrant for Holloway, for failing to disclose "the nature and extent of his assets." Holloway allegedly fled the country. Michael Zindler, the attorney representing the investors, believes he's living in Belgium. Holloway didn't reply to e-mails from the Houston Press.

Zindler's 2007 motion for Holloway's arrest alleged a complex scheme of financial hide-and-go-seek, with money flowing in and out of corporate accounts belonging to Ross, the Baroness and Holloway's elderly parents. This would later lead to a falling-out between Holloway and Ross. Some of this money allegedly went to the purchase of the River Oaks home that Ross moved into in 2004. By 2007, Holloway believed Ross secretly squeezed all the equity from the house, robbing Holloway's parents of any money they could have made off the property.

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In July 2007, Holloway fired off a heated e-mail to Ross and their attorney, Kent Huffman, stating, "I just found out that Gary/Holly have taken out second and third mortgages on the property that has wiped out almost all, if not all, of the equity. My dad has been cheated out of $500,000..."

Holloway also accused Ross of scamming the Baroness out of $350,000 after the sale of a St. John home in which she held interest. "I expect Gary to stop the BS right now and offer restitution for the above," Holloway wrote. "No more excuses."

That month, Holloway also faxed a River Oaks resident familiar with Ross, accusing Ross of playing the pauper the whole time: "Gary told me that he has no fax or telephone at his $500 a month apartment. He has told me that he has been living there for a year now. He even went so far as to say that he had to jump through all kinds of hoops to keep this hidden from his friends in the community. For instance, he said he had to pretend he was driving to visit a sick friend, as the apt. was in a bad section of town...Gary begged me just two weeks ago for $2,000 so he could pay his back rent, as he was about to be evicted and thrown out on the street....Gary told me he was working as a laborer to get food money. He told me that he frequently went without money for food for days at a time. I have really been played for a sucker." — Craig Malisow


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