Roman M. Leimer, who disappeared eight months ago after his Exxon tank truck was found ablaze along a Virginia interstate, telephoned his Montgomery County home three times last May from the home of a New Orleans restaurant owner with whom he stayed, the businessman said yesterday.
Konrad Klein, who owns The Alpine Restaurant in New Orleans and befriended Leimer, said yesterday that his May telephone bill included three one-minute calls on May 14 to a telephone in Maryland. The number is the same as the one at Leimer's home in Burtonsville, where his Austrian-born wife, Antonia, and two of his children have remained since he disappeared Jan. 13.
Klein, who grew suspicious of Leimer and reported him to Louisiana police three weeks ago, said he and his wife, Edna Mae, do not know anyone in Maryland and did not make the calls.
Klein said in a telephone interview last night that Leimer regularly received long-distance telephone calls at his home from a woman who called herself "Maria". He said that Leimer conversed with this woman in his native German and would take a cordless telephone to the backyard or the basement to talk with her.
Richard Paugh, a lawyer who has represented Mrs. Leimer and the couple's three children in an effort to have Leimer declared dead and collect life insurance benefits, declined to comment on Klein's statement.
Until his arrest last weekend in New Orleans on a traffic charge, Leimer was known to acquaintances in the city's French Quarter as Antonio or "Tony," a grief-stricken man who had lost his wife and three children last year when their car plunged off a cliff in the Austrian Alps.
Leimer had become friends with a German artist in New Orleans who said yesterday they had discussed plans to marry. "I didn't know he had a wife," said Helga Forsloff, who said she met Leimer last spring as he strolled past an outdoor exhibit of her paintings.
"I'm very hurt. I'm very hurt," she said. "I'm telling you it her relationship with Leimer was a fraud."
Leimer, 39, will be arraigned in Front Royal, Va., Thursday on charges he purposely set his 8,900-gallon gasoline tank truck on fire. He was believed dead for two weeks after the tanker fire until a Smithsonian Institution expert concluded that charred remains found at the scene were not human, but those of a pig. If convicted on the felony arson charge, Leimer faces a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Law enforcement authorities say they also are investigating the possibility that others may have been part of a scheme to cheat Leimer's insurance company out of thousands of dollars and pay off debts faced by a now-defunct wine distributorship he ran in Jessup, Md.
Restaurateur Klein said he received a letter written in German with a Maryland postmark and realized as soon as he read it that it was intended for Leimer.
Edna Mae Klein said she opened the letter, which had no return address, and saw the letters "FBI" in the first paragraph and the words, "Mein Lieber" (my love) at the top. Mrs. Klein, who does not speak German, says she passed the letter to her husband, who does.
Klein said he had just begun reading it when Leimer, apparently expecting the letter, took it from him, saying it was his. "He gave no outward indication of anything," she said. "He just took the letter and went from the room."
Klein said he became increasingly suspicious of Leimer, who spent much of his time in the restaurant and gave many conflicting stories about his past. Klein said he called New Orleans police three weeks ago, an action that led to Leimer's initial arrest on a charge of failing to display a license plate on the rear of his BMW automobile.
Leimer assured Klein he had ownership papers and a drivers license, but refused to show them, Klein said. After Leimer tried three weeks ago to obtain temporary Louisiana license plates for the car, Klein said he decided to report Leimer's Maryland tag numbers to a New Orleans police officer.
New Orleans Police Sgt. Dewey Varnado said yesterday that police ran a check on the car and found it had been stolen in the District of Columbia. That disclosure and the discovery of a federal fugitive warrant for Leimer led to his arrest, the officer said.
When he arrested Leimer Friday night, the officer said Leimer told him: "I did a foolish thing nine months ago."
Leimer's artist friend Forsloff and the Kleins said Leimer was a warm and outgoing man who used tales of his family's tragic death, sometimes showing off family pictures, to play on the sympathies of his new acquaintances.
While Leimer told friends in New Orleans that he was a renowned chef and part owner of one of Vienna's best restaurants, Klein said that Leimer could not cook and botched even the simplest recipes, once dousing potato salad with so much dressing that it turned into soup.
Although Leimer supported himself by doing odd jobs in Klein's restaurant and living off the generosity of friends, he never mentioned Maryland or the massive financial problems he had left there. Lawsuits and claims totaling more than $100,000 have been filed against him in various courts, according to court records and sources involved with the case.
Forsloff said Leimer had told her he was a wealthy restaurateur from Vienna. She paid his legal expenses after his arrest last weekend, placing her exclusive house near Lake Pontchartrain as collateral on Leimer's initial bond. "I paid the money, and I don't know how I'm going to get my money back," she said. "I was a very good friend of his and I was taken to the cleaners."
Since the truck crash last winter, agents from the FBI and Interpol, the international police agency, have questioned Leimer's friends and relatives in the United States, Austria and Germany, according to Warren County prosecutor David Crump.
Leimer was indicted by a Virginia grand jury on an arson charge in February, and was reported seen in his home in Montgomery County on one occasion by a process server who came to the front door, law enforcement authorities said.
The investigation of Leimer's disappearance began two weeks after the $100,000 tanker burned, when a forensic anthropologist concluded that the remains found in the truck's cab were actually three ham bones.
Later, a Virginia state trooper disclosed that he had seen a man fitting Leimer's description standing next to the tanker at the side of Interstate Rte. 66 near Front Royal 15 minutes before the blaze was discovered. Shortly before, the trooper had stopped to check on a blond woman with a German accent who had parked a small blue car a half a mile away. Police have declined to say whether they have identified the woman from composite sketches.