The Party Crashers: A look at Tareq and Michaele Salahi before they were famous

By Liza Mundy, Amy Argetsinger and Ian Shapira
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; C01

All the unmarried men at the party wanted to know who the tall blond woman was. She was striking and effervescent, unknown and intriguing: She wasn't overexposed, hadn't been seen at a lot of social events. But Casey Margenau, hosting his 2000 Christmas party, didn't have much to tell the men who kept pumping him for information. He knew Michaele Holt socially, knew she didn't have a high-powered job or inherited wealth.

Instead, she was "just beautiful and had a great personality and was lots of fun and was hard to get," says Margenau.

And one of the men responding to her siren song was Tareq Salahi, he recalls.

Salahi was more of a known quantity on the Northern Virginia party circuit. He'd grown up in Fauquier County; his parents were vintners and he'd gone to college to study winemaking, returning with plans to not only take over the family business but make the Virginia wine industry more high-profile, with more events and entertainment. He was a flamboyant man with a proven pull over women. Still, Margenau told him he didn't stand a chance with this one.

At that, Tareq Salahi began pursuing Michaele Holt so single-mindedly that she would eventually marry him, setting off a high-drama marital narrative that would lead to a walk into a White House state dinner, a congressional summons, a string of angry creditors and -- less publicly -- the destruction of the Salahi family business.

The dynamics of a marriage are often a mystery to outsiders. But it appears that rather than curbing each other's excesses, Tareq and Michaele Salahi indulge and enlarge them. "Everyone thinks that these two have an alchemy together," says Ted Latimer, an interior designer from the Middleburg area who has run across them socially.

The question that lingers is: Was one the driving force?

"Tareq is the instigator," says Pamela Vito, who co-owns a bridal boutique in Alexandria, has long known the Salahi family and says she was involved in a payment dispute with Tareq that was resolved in her favor. "Michaele, she got caught up in it."

Tareq Salahi's mother, Corinne, wonders about Michaele's role.

"I certainly would be interested in my daughter-in-law's biography," says Corinne Salahi. "I have no idea who she is, or where she came from. . . . But now, I wish I knew it."

Missy's simple roots

By the time she met Tareq, Michaele was transformed from what one family acquaintance described as a pretty but nondescript girl called Missy.

"She's just a nice girl from a simple family," says her mother, Rosemary Holt, originally from Scranton, Pa. Michaele is one of four siblings -- she has two brothers and a sister -- and grew up, her mother says, mostly in Florida, where she went to Catholic school. Her father, Howard Holt, now deceased, was described by a knowledgeable family acquaintance as a salesman for a printing company, an assertion that could not be confirmed. When the family moved to Northern Virginia, Missy Holt attended Oakton High School in Fairfax County, graduating in 1984. Her senior yearbook photo shows a young woman with long, brunette hair whose hope was to be a model and move to California.

She went after the first goal right away, deciding at 18, her mother says, to give modeling a try. "I wasn't thrilled with it. It was a business I didn't want her to be in," says Rosemary Holt, who accompanied her to New York to talk to agencies.

Michaele also tried college. Though a wedding announcement in Washington Life would later describe her as a "graduate" of King's College, which is in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., she attended only for the 1989-90 school year, according to the college. By the mid-1990s, people who knew her say, she was working at a makeup counter at the Tysons Corner Nordstrom, where she went by Michaele.

She was blond by then, and striking, recalls co-worker Arlie Morgan, who now co-owns Sisters3 boutique in Arlington. Often wearing a full-length fur, Morgan recalls, Michaele would glide through the aisles doing a classic beauty-queen wave, cooing "Hellooooooo, friend!" to all and sundry. She was, Morgan says, "everything a 'cosmetics girl' was supposed to be back in the day: drop-dead gorgeous, sparkling personality, ambitious and a real sales shark."

She did have one quality the others resented, Morgan says. Michaele "could never remember anyone's freaking name."

Rachel Harshman also got to know Michaele around the same time and considered her a friend. (Their relationship eventually deteriorated over a payment dispute: Harshman claims she wrote the Salahis checks toward a charity event and asked them not to cash the checks until she had funds to cover; she says they cashed them right away, then accused her of nonpayment via a police complaint and threatening letters from their lawyer. The Salahis have not responded to repeated attempts to contact them through e-mail, telephone, Facebook and a representative.)

Harshman remembers that Michaele had an out-of-town boyfriend. Harshman never saw him, though she did see a photo of him once: a tall, handsome guy who sold insurance. "I think he was more of a simple guy."

Margenau also recalls that Michaele had a boyfriend at the time of his Christmas party, but that they were "on the outs." And Tareq was besotted and "kept working it," as Margenau puts it.

"He would show up everywhere he thought she would be," says Harshman. Michaele, she says, was more reserved. She "treated him like a good friend." He bought her gifts. "He started setting a lifestyle for her," Harshman says.

And then, he was talking about marriage. Michaele wavered, Harshman says, but soon after she moved onto the Oasis property, where Tareq lived with his parents.

For young Tareq, an Oasis

Tareq, 40, came from more elevated circumstances. His father, Dirgham Salahi, is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian. Together with his wife, Corinne, he founded the Montessori School of Alexandria. Corinne also helped raise Ismail, a son from Dirgham's earlier marriage who is now a doctor.

The Salahis had a brush with scandal in the 1970s, when they began holding bingo games to fund the school. In 1978, Dirgham testified in court that he had paid bribes to Commonwealth's Attorney William Cowhig, who, he alleged, had threatened to shut down the games. Cowhig, who denied the charges, was acquitted but later resigned.

Around that same time, they founded the winery. Dirgham, who had studied geology, became a man of the soil, carefully selecting French hybrid grapevines. "Tareq's dad was smart in business and shrewd," says Chris Pearmund, who has worked in Fauquier County, in the wine industry, for 25 years. "Tareq's parents have done well by working hard."

The winery also proved a setting for an idyllic childhood. Located in Hume, in the rolling Piedmont countryside, it served as the weekend getaway for many boarding students at Randolph-Macon Academy, the military school Tareq attended as a day student. Otto Hoernig III was one of the lucky boarders invited over. "The vineyard was a playground for us. And Tareq had his own private residence [an apartment on the grounds] and we all could stay there on the couches and bed," recalls Hoernig, now a defense contractor.

Another classmate, Scott Harwood Jr., now an insurance agent in Farmville, Va., says Tareq got decent grades, was funny and well-liked, especially among the school's administration, which appointed him a squadron leader. "I was in a group that was into breaking the rules, sneaking off and partying, and he wasn't really much with that crowd at all. He was kind of a straight arrow," Harwood says.

While most of their classmates had little idea what they were going to do in life, Hoernig says, Tareq had always been enthusiastic about running Oasis one day. After high school, Tareq graduated from the University of California at Davis, where he studied oenology and business marketing management. His ambition to operate Oasis, Hoernig recalls, was nurtured by close bonds with his parents. "They got along very well," Hoernig says.

'Hellooooooo, friend!'

In 2002, Arlie Morgan was working as a promotional model at an event in the D.C. convention center, scrambling an egg-white product on behalf of the company that made it, when she heard a familiar voice calling, "Hellooooooo, friend!" She looked over to see Michaele Holt wearing a blue spandex leotard, hawking an exercise DVD. Even as she was beginning her ascent into high society, traveling with Tareq to places like Rio and London, Michaele found the time to take small modeling jobs.

The wedding was scheduled for that year but delayed, apparently more than once. Hoernig recalls traveling to Las Vegas for a bachelor party and learning either just before or en route that the ceremony had been postponed. Harshman attributed the delay to Michaele's ambivalence. "I don't think she was in love with Tareq. It was the flashy stuff. Ever since I've known her she's wanted to be this flashy person. He bought a yacht, fancy car."

Yet he was not always willing to indulge her when it came to expenses. In an e-mail addressed to "all Wedding Vendors," now included in court documents, Tareq wrote that many wedding orders were over budget and that "Should Michaele Holt make any orders, you must have approval by Tareq Salahi in order to guarantee payment -- otherwise, vendors will not get paid."

The wedding finally took place Nov. 1, 2003, in the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in downtown Washington. It was an extraordinary spectacle. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, described in the program as a "family friend," gave a talk in which he joked, according to an item in the New York Post, that the wedding had been postponed so many times he felt like subpoenaing the couple. (The Supreme Court press office says Kennedy has no comment on the relationship.)

According to the program, there were more than 50 bridesmaids and groomsmen. Pamela Vito, the bridal boutique co-owner who provided dresses, recalls that one bridesmaid was a woman Tareq and Michaele had met on a trip -- she "was so fun and had such a good time that they invited her." Also in the lineup was Charis van Metre, a former Miss February in Playboy magazine.

One guest, Nicole Backus, remembers walking in, looking at the crowd, and thinking: "This isn't a wedding. This is an emerging new nation."

The reception at Oasis was elegant, Backus recalls. But guests did have to submit to one pesky indignity. "All wedding guests will be required to show original Invitation card, Car Pass & legal Photo Identification upon arrival to the ceremony and/or the Oasis Winery," warned the wedding Web site. "Thank you for your understanding."

Trouble in paradise

The couple lived at the winery, where things did not go well domestically, according to a suit the elder Salahis would file against Tareq. After founding Oasis around 1980, Corinne and Dirgham jointly operated it for nearly 15 years, developing the business into a 15,000-case-a-year operation, and grossing as much as $1 million in annual revenue in some years, they said in court papers. In 1994, they formed Oasis Vineyard Inc. and appointed Tareq general manager.

In 1998, Tareq wrote in court papers, he gained a 5 percent interest in Oasis Vineyard. In the following years, he started calling "himself 'president' of the Company and 'owner' of the winery, although he never held more than a 5 % minority interest," according to his parents' lawsuit.

Tareq also began operating a new business out of the vineyard, Oasis Enterprises, which included a limo operation, wine country tours and an events-and-catering business. Around 1999, according to his parents' lawsuit, he "diverted" a "substantial amount" of the vineyard's wine to Oasis Enterprises and had not paid the vineyard back. By 2002, the suit alleges, he was paying Oasis Enterprises' bills with Vineyard Inc. funds and using Vineyard employees for Oasis Enterprises.

Many of those who know him say Tareq never seemed very interested in making wine. Instead, he spent a lot of time expanding the winery's scope and using it to stage events, including weddings, which resulted in a number of lawsuits and complaints from clients saying the Salahis had racked up excessive charges. He was also active in a number of charitable causes. In 2002, in recognition of his fundraising achievements, he was named National Man of the Year by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

But in their winery-related endeavors, Tareq and Michaele were less effective, say some of those who worked with them. Tom Higginbotham worked part time during 2006 and 2007 as a driver for the limousine company, which, he says, was run out of a tiny office inside Oasis and went by a number of names. Higginbotham recalls that Michaele was "very friendly, loved to give you a hug," but that the limo company was poorly run. "They were constantly going through drivers," he says, and terrible when it came to organizing itineraries.

Meanwhile, the winery "was like a Peyton Place," Higginbotham says, the animosity between the younger and older couple thick in the air. "It was very awkward to work there and be professional. His parents were telling you things like, 'This is not Tareq's property; leave it alone.' Once, Higginbotham complained to Tareq and Michaele that he needed to be reimbursed for expenses he had shelled out personally when a Salahi credit card failed. "They took the money out of the winery cash register, which didn't have anything to do with the limo business."

In 2003, the Oasis winery started losing money. That year, according to the lawsuit, it posted a loss of $187,949 on revenue of $806,641; in 2004, it lost $271,661 on revenue of $726,115; in 2005, it lost $277,498 on $833,525 in revenue. Tareq's company was also supposed to pay the Vineyard with site fees from customers for events, but the Vineyard never got them, according to the lawsuit.

In 2006, the Oasis board had a telephone meeting -- just Corinne and Ismail Salahi, Tareq's half brother -- and they formally voted to remove Tareq as an officer, close the winery to the public immediately and "to hold Tareq Salahi responsible for the financial problems of the Company," according to a copy of the meeting's minutes contained in the lawsuit.

Later that same year, Corinne and Dirgham sued their son and Oasis Enterprises for $1.5 million in damages and reimbursements; asked the court to evict him and Oasis Enterprises from the winery's premises; and to appoint a receiver to handle the company's affairs.

In March 2007 Tareq countersued. He argued that Oasis Enterprises actually raised the winery's profile and enabled it to "increase sales," and that it was his parents' mismanagement that had imperiled the family business.

Two months later, in May, the parents amended their original suit, seeking more than $3 million and adding Michaele, 44, as a defendant.

The family dispute would wind on, a modern Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. The court record grew to include e-mails and bulletins in which Tareq allegedly called his mother a "liar" and referred to her "destructive instability." In 2008, Corinne wrote in an e-mail that the past years had been "intolerable," saying, "I can no longer fight. I want this to be all over."

Both enterprises ended up filing for bankruptcy, and earlier this year, a judge signed an order dismissing the suit after both parties agreed to stop fighting in court. "They couldn't afford the lawyers' fees anymore," said Paul Morrison, who was Tareq's attorney during most of the suit and said his firm is still owed about $50,000. Corinne has petitioned to be appointed guardian for her husband, who is suffering from dementia. On a recent day the winery was dark and quiet; yellow flags fluttered at the gated entrance and over a pavilion in the rear, but the premises felt deserted.

Polo and paychecks

It was around the time that his parents moved to evict him that Tareq embarked on plans for an annual event called America's Polo Cup, which he wanted to make into one of the country's premier polo events, with charity funds going to a group called Journey for the Cure. At that time, he was well-regarded in the polo community. Charlie Muldoon, who gave him polo lessons, says that until recently, he thought highly of Tareq and would involve him in charity events. "He could bring the wine, so the charity wouldn't have to pay for it. He would trade his wine for polo."

Muldoon says he joined the board of America's Polo Cup originally because it was to raise money for lymphoma. He brought the first event to Morven Park, a historic property and equestrian center near Leesburg where he was head of development, since the park needed the exposure. "He did everything by the book with us," fulfilled the contract, gave the park $5,000, says Muldoon. But he adds that later events were increasingly troubled. In 2008, there was no money to give to charity at the end. "Vendors would come to me because they hadn't gotten through to him," Muldoon says. He says he left the board in June 2008.

The Salahis continued to live large. Gregory Wooddell drove for them in the run-up to this spring's polo cup, mostly driving Michaele; he says they still owe him for several weeks' work as well as out-of-pocket expenses. "She'd take me to lunch and Starbucks," he says, and tell him that Tareq worked for the government in an important job. "A few weeks later it was, 'He's going to be appointed ambassador -- he can choose what ambassadorship he wants, and he chose ambassador to Palestine.' " A spokesman for the U.S. State Department confirms that there is no ambassador to Palestine.

But Michaele was believable when she made claims like that, Wooddell says, and her charisma was still remarkable. One day she was driving to McLean in her Audi and he was following in his truck. When they got lost, she stopped in an intersection and put her car in park. "Before I knew it, she had people coming over and talking to her and smiling. She has that persona. Blocking four lanes of traffic, she was the honorary traffic queen."

The same phenomenon held true when Michaele and Tareq developed ambitions to be included in Bravo's "Real Housewives" series set in the D.C. area. Latimer, the Middleburg interior designer, recalls attending the America's Polo Cup fall event on the Mall earlier this year, where television cameras were in attendance. At some point, he says, guests realized that the entrance passes they were wearing included elaborate language giving permission to be included in a television segment.

"Everyone was nervously looking sideways," Latimer says. "She was running around, as if she were running the whole thing, like it was her deal. I thought that was odd," he says. It felt as if the crowd was being called to service on behalf of Michaele's dream. "Everything," he says, "was revolving around her."

Staff researcher Alice Crites, and staff writers Wil Haygood, Mary Jordan and Neely Tucker contributed to this report.

WEDNESDAY: A shocking trail of debts, accusations and cross-accusations across the region.

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