Socialite or swindler? Mysteries surround Madame Giselle
Socialite or swindler? Mysteries surround Madame Giselle
By MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA
Jan. 15, 2018
CHEVY CHASE, Md. (AP) — The swanky apartment where the mystery woman told her tales has been emptied out.
The fine crystal baubles have been boxed, the exquisite carpets rolled up, the artwork stuffed roughly into the back of a rented truck and taken away under cover of night.
All that remains of the shadowy woman known as Madame Giselle, a charmer with a taste for the high life and a knack for extracting large sums of money from unwitting neighbors, are shopping bags full of foreign court files, and questions. So many questions. Such are the remnants of a carefully constructed, then hastily unassembled life of deceit.
The end of her infamous run in the Washington suburbs is as cloaked in intrigue and drama as her arrival. A woman who burst onto the social scene of a clubby, upscale apartment building in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with tales of jet-setting glamour and unusual access to the powerful, has slipped away in a fog of suspicion and unpaid rent.
Madame Giselle, as neighbors called her, went by the name Giselle Yazji while she lived in a high-rise apartment with a grand lobby within walking distance of some of the area's most expensive department stores. She boasted, according to neighbors, of being the secret wife of Egypt's president, the ex-wife of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and a mentor to Ivanka Trump with a White House office.
In the three months since The Washington Post detailed allegations by neighbors who say they were swindled by Giselle, her once-charmed life has grown more perilous. In her native Colombia, where she is known as Giselle Jaller — a Bogota judge has sentenced her to 11 years in prison in a multimillion-dollar fraud case involving a Spanish bank, though she remains free while the decision is being appealed. In Panama, a former president's confidants have alleged that she tried to trick him into paying her tens of thousands of dollars with promises of securing political asylum. And in Montgomery County, Maryland, federal investigators have been making inquiries about her activities. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
Giselle has denied wrongdoing. In response to written questions, she sent a series of emails portraying herself as a victim of BBVA, the bank she is accused of defrauding, an argument that has so far been rejected by the Colombian courts.
"I HAVE EVERY PROOF THAT THE BBVA OWE ME 40 MILLION DOLLARS I WILL NOT STOP UNTIL THEY WILL BE JAILED," she wrote.
Giselle, now 58, embodied international sophistication to the friends she made in Chevy Chase. She talked about how the Secret Service had a key to her apartment, according to text messages, and she boasted of using private jets. But it all began to unravel in the past year as two neighbors started digging into her past. The neighbors each claim that Giselle bamboozled them into giving her about $70,000 in cash to fund a business that would sell T-shirts to the Venezuelan army. One of the neighbors has sued, claiming he was defrauded and the business never existed. The case is pending in the Montgomery County courts.
The Post published an article about the allegations in September. In the weeks and months to come, a cascade of other accusations have been made against Giselle, and she appears to have left the United States and resettled in Bogota.
Abelardo de la Espriella, an attorney for former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, has accused her of a brazen scheme. Martinelli is in a federal detention center in Florida after his conviction on corruption charges.
Giselle contacted de la Espriella last summer, he said in an interview, offering to help Martinelli and his family members get political asylum in the United States in exchange for a payment of $36,000 per person. It wasn't just the offer that grabbed his attention, but all the other things she told him.
Giselle claimed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer, though there is no evidence that is true, de la Espriella recalled. She bragged about being close to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and being "like a mother" to Ivanka Trump, de la Espriella said.
"I thought it was very strange," de la Espriella, who first made his allegations to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, said in an interview.
Nonetheless, he said, he took the offer to his client. Martinelli told him to explore the deal. That's when his firm started looking into the woman who had cold-called him with a deal that sounded too good to be true.
De la Espriella and his investigators dredged up many of the same scandals that Madame Giselle's neighbors had been uncovering. He learned how she had admitted to stealing her sister's identity in the 1990s in order to get contracts with the Colombian military. They tracked down old newspaper articles that detailed how she'd been accused of conning the military out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, but escaped justice by fleeing the country until the statute of limitations for her alleged crimes expired. They saw that she'd been given a nickname by the Colombian press: La Mona, or "The Blonde." In those days, she went by the name, Giselle Jaller.
"It was clear she was a professional swindler," de la Espriella said.
They refused to make the deal, and they reported their allegations to federal law enforcement officials in the United States, he said.
Giselle did not deny having contact with the former president's team, but told El Tiempo that she had only suggested that Martinelli's attorney spend $35,000 on a study about the former president to be used in his asylum application. And she asserted that she never claimed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer. She also sat for a lengthy interview with a magazine-style television news program in Colombia with her Louis Vuitton bag in hand last November. She proclaimed her innocence and repeated her claim that she was married to Chavez, saying the FBI was aware of the relationship.
"I think that I am among the people in the world who guards the most secrets of presidents," she said on the program "Los Informantes," without going into details.
All the while, her legal troubles were mounting. The criminal case against her was working through the Colombian courts. She had been represented by one of Colombia's most famed attorneys, Jaime Lombana, whose clients have included former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe.
But by November when a crucial hearing was held in her case, she had parted ways with Lombana and was being represented by a public defender, according to Colombian court records. The charges against Giselle were serious ones. Colombian authorities have accused her of using false documents and other fraudulent means to steal $20 million from the Spanish bank BBVA.
Under the Colombian system, she was allowed to appear by videoconference, according to court records. She sought to turn the glare of accusation onto the bank, arguing that allegedly corrupt officials had actually swindled money from her, according to Colombian court records. But the argument appeared to fall on deaf ears, and she was sentenced to 11 years in prison, a decision she is in the process of appealing. Giselle did not respond to a request to provide contact information for her attorney.
As her legal crisis deepened, her toehold in the United States was slipping away. She wasn't paying her rent at her apartment in Chevy Chase. Her building began eviction proceedings, culminating in a court order evicting her from the building for failing to pay more than $9,000, according to Montgomery County court and sheriff's department records.
That set off a last-minute scramble to take away her stuff. In her interview on Colombian television, she had said that her possessions were valued for insurance purposes at $1.5 million. But when it came time for her to vacate the apartment she had once boasted about, no professional moving crew arrived at her apartment.
Still, there was a flurry of activity at the apartment in the final hours before sheriff's deputies and an eviction service called, Your Outta Here Eviction arrived to formally eject her from the building. Several people were spotted racing in and out of the apartment, hauling valuables into the hallway and down to the loading dock.
A man in camouflage pants answered a knock at the door. He said Giselle was not there. But would say little about what he was up to, and less about the whereabouts of the apartment's enigmatic former inhabitant. Asked where he was taking Giselle's possessions, he said they were being donated to an African Methodist Episcopal church in Washington. He initially said he was a member of the church, then said he was merely a mover. He declined to give his name or the name of the church.
"People need things all day," he said.
Down at the building's loading dock, he stuffed the contents of Giselle's apartment into a rental truck. An elegant white sofa was tipped into the dusty corner of the truck, alongside a delicate, wooden end table and a large silver platter that a neighbor recalled once held the Turkish coffees Giselle would serve.
The man in the camouflage pants drove the truck out of the building's parking lot, speeding south and eventually coming to a stop, parking illegally across from a coffee shop at 14th and U streets in Northwest Washington. He shuttled between the coffee shop and a liquor store next door for nearly an hour, then guided a man in a ski cap across the street. He rolled up the truck's tailgate and showed him what was inside.
In a few minutes the pair were off again. But their destination wasn't a church. It was a private home near Howard University. The man in the camouflage pants and the man in the ski cap pulled chairs and paintings out of the truck, and took them inside. (The owner of the house did not respond to an interview request.)
Then the man in the camouflage pants closed up his truck. He glanced down the block, and drove away into the night, adding another layer to the mystery of Madame Giselle.
Information from: The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com