Gino A.G. Bianchini made quite an impression on this slightly jaded university city when he arrived here two years ago. He told many who asked that he was a rich Italian industrialist with a family lineage dating to 43 B.C., a castle in Milan and a commission in the Italian navy. He also claimed to have been at Jackie Onassis' wedding, Princess Grace's funeral and a recent lunch with the pope.
Now Bianchini is the talk of the town but not for the reasons he may have hoped. To its surprise, Charlottesville has learned that the engaging 58-year-old businessman, whose money and charm had been such a hit on the social circuit here, is wanted in Italy on criminal charges of illegal export of currency and pursued by several Italian banks for millions in outstanding loans.
Bianchini's American lawyers won't comment on the Italian allegations and have filed papers saying that Bianchini will mount "a substantial defense" to remove the liens the Italian banks have placed on his Virginia properties.
"Bianchini has not been convicted in Italy or the United States, and he has not been charged in the United States," said Ronald S. Liebman, a Washington attorney representing Bianchini, last month. "Under our law, a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty."
The Bianchini story, a summertime soap opera that has been unfolding one episode at a time, has this community hooked. People eagerly await each day's paper for new developments: One woman told a friend she had been thinking of canceling her subscription but had decided to wait for the outcome of "The Italian story."
Since May, the local courts have been hit by a spate of lawsuits, including one brought by four Italian banks charging Bianchini with setting up an elaborate scheme of import-export fraud to swindle them out of $8.6 million in loans. There is another brought by an Italian company that has charged Bianchini's Milan-based company, Montepelma S.p.A., with promising a shipment of a $2.8 million computer but instead sending boxes of spare smoke detector parts.
It was Bianchini himself who initiated the first legal action when, apparently stung by a young woman's refusal to marry him, he sued her father, a local real-estate developer, and accused him of manipulating the romance to make a profit. That in turn led to a suit by the father, Leonard Winslow, who alleged that the gregarious Italian offered somebody $10,000 to "commit acts of extreme physical violence . . . namely, breaking Winslow's legs."
Bianchini, who declined to be interviewed for this story, vehemently denied Winslow's charge, according to The Charlottesville Daily Progress. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've heard," he was quoted as saying. "It would be against my nature and against my upbringing as a Roman Catholic."
Many people in Charlottesville say they don't know what to make of Bianchini, the stocky, bespectacled Italian who arrived in their midst two years ago, shortly after he bought--sight unseen--a mill that had been converted into a house in Vesuvius, 45 miles outside of town.
During the course of the long-distance negotiations over the mill, Bianchini beamed his credentials--via telex--to real estate broker J. Schuyler Alland. In those telexes, now filed in state courts here, he dropped repeated hints about his ancient lineage 43 B.C. his ranking position in the Italian Socialist Party he had to postpone his trip to Virginia first for party conventions and then for a local campaign tour and his wealth. "Sorry, limo is waiting for me," was the way one message ended.
Those references, plus a biography in Who's Who in the World in which he stated that he served "to a commandr." in the Italian Navy and as a representative of the Italian Socialist Party to the European Economic Community, were enough to convince Alland. Spurred by Bianchini's promise to bring business to Virginia, Alland arranged a meeting with then-Gov. John N. Dalton.
"I would be delighted to meet the governor of a state which is regarded by all Europeans as a ticket of U.S. history right from the arrival of the first pilgrims," replied Bianchini, with a florid, if somewhat garbled, recollection of Virginia's past. According to Alland, Dalton met briefly with the newcomer.
Those telexes were the first clue to the identity Bianchini assumed in Charlottesville. The stories are legion: One local law firm even has a file reserved just for Bianchini's claims. Several people remember his telling them that he had two popes in the family, that his cousin was the recently deceased cardinal of Florence, that he had once served as the mayor of Florence, that he had helped in the production of Walt Disney's "Fantasia" and had been left a bequest in Disney's will, that he had turned down an offer from the president of Italy to become ambassador from the tiny nation of San Marino and that he had PhDs from: the University of Milan, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology and one from Princeton that was signed, he told one business acquaintance, by Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
All four universities have since sent letters to the law firm of Smith, Taggart, Gibson and Albro saying no one by the name of Gino Bianchini had been issued a degree. The European Communities shows no record of Bianchini serving as a delegate. San Marino has no ambassador here, only a consul who is not appointed by Italy. Walt Disney Productions has denied in writing any connection with Bianchini, and it could not be confirmed that Bianchini held any rank in the Italian navy.
Some of Bianchini's statements appeared to have Charlottesville in mind. Speaking at a seminar on entrepreneurial studies at the University of Virginia last spring, Bianchini announced his intention to bequeath to the university a topographical map that he claimed had been drawn by Thomas Jefferson and discovered in the castle where Bianchini had been born. A lawyer in the audience said the offer was met with applause.
The map never materialized, which came as no great surprise to the numerous Jefferson experts here who immediately doubted its authenticity. In fact, many of Bianchini's boasts fell flat in Charlottesville, a city populated by some very rich, widely traveled people not likely to be impressed by flashy wealth, aristocratic titles or claims of friendship with the jet set. Told that Jackie Onassis said she'd never heard of him, Bianchini insisted that his ties were really with the late Aristotle Onassis.)
"I think he misjudged this place. He must have thought it was a lot sleepier than it is, that people here wouldn't ask any questions," said one resident who, like many others, asked to remain anonymous.
Still, many chose to overlook the extravagant boasts, which they considered a minor flaw in the character of a man described by all as charming, erudite, polite and generous. Business acquaintances say he would send flowers and thank-you notes in return for the smallest favors and was a welcome addition to parties and country clubs. "He was extremely well traveled, spoke six languages and knew American history well," said one acquaintance. "He had read all of Dumas Malone the Jefferson biographer . Until the last several weeks, he was a great guy to have to dinner."
Even now, there is a hesitancy to comment on someone who had come so close to being admitted into the inner circles of Charlottesville society. "I don't think it would be in good taste to say whether or not someone is a member," said a spokesman for the Farmington Country Club, where Bianchini reportedly lived for several months this year.
Donna McClenahan, an interior designer hired by Bianchini to redecorate the mill in Vesuvius, was one of few to meet Bianchini's first wife, Ivana, a pharmacist, and his son, Roberto, then a university student in Italy, who came with him during his early visits. In those early encounters, McClenahan said she found Bianchini "very laid back," a more subdued version of the effervescent man whom others in Charlottesville later got to know.
Indeed, the blue-gray mill, which he bought for $160,000, was modest compared with some of the estates available in the surrounding countryside. According to McClenahan, his plans for its decor were hardly extravagant. When she tried to interest him in a $1,800 antique dining-room table, he turned her down, saying it was too expensive. Another friend said Bianchini's wife looked upset when her husband spent money lavishly.
Later, when he returned to Charlottesville alone he told friends he divorced his wife in July 1982 , Bianchini's flamboyance became more pronounced. By then, he was riding around town in a Lincoln Continental "stretch" limousine, complete with darkened windows and a uniformed chauffeur. His friends had advised him against the limousine, which raised eyebrows in a community where the rich often drive old station wagons. "I told him it was too ostentatious, that it just wasn't done in Charlottesville," recalled McClenahan.
The limousine turned out to be part of an emerging pattern. After establishing a new company, Enercons Virginia Inc., in July 1981, Bianchini began spending money around town, planning new ventures, buying real estate and even talking about buying a Rolls-Royce. As the town was to learn later in the extraordinary and bitter exchange of lawsuits between Bianchini and Leonard Winslow, one object of his prodigious generosity was Mary Beth Winslow, who was 26 when she was hired as a secretary at Enercons in November 1981.
Mary Beth Winslow was "rapidly promoted up the corporate ladder," as noted in Bianchini's suit. By June 1982, she was made company president at $75,000 a year. That same month, Bianchini treated Mary Beth and her parents to an all-expenses-paid trip to the Grand Cayman Islands.
Bianchini's suit says there were more trips -- to Europe, to Florida and to New York. There were also numerous presents, of jewelry and other items that Bianchini claimed in his suit totaled more than $350,000. And then there was the $550,000 Bianchini spent buying property owned by Leonard Winslow that was then turned over to Mary Beth Winslow.
In his suit, filed several months after the Winslows severed all connections with Enercons, Bianchini accused the father, whom he had hired as a consultant and then a director of Enercons, of using Bianchini's affections for the daughter to "make substantial fees and profits for himself" on some real-estate deals. The suit alleged Bianchini had proposed to Mary Beth Winslow "on at least two occasions" and each time, she told him "she needed more time to think." In fact, the suit charged, Mary Beth Winslow only "pretended to be in love with Bianchini and to be seriously considering his marriage proposal."
It was a bizarre allegation against a prominent local family and one that some say raised the first serious questions about his credibility in Charlottesville. Those who knew Bianchini say the suit arose from his wounded pride. "He couldn't understand why they had never thanked him," said one friend.
Bianchini's suit, filed May 3 in Charlottesville Circuit Court, was followed by Winslow's countersuit, with its claim that Bianchini had offered to hire someone to break his legs. Bianchini's suit seeks $1.5 million in back fees and damages from Winslow; Winslow's suit is for more than $3 million. They have yet to come to trial.
Despite the bitterness between Bianchini and the Winslows, about 40 members of Charlottesville society showed up for a reception at the mill in Vesuvius on the Memorial Day weekend to celebrate Bianchini's marriage to Ina Levy, owner of a local sportswear store. Bianchini, who had obtained resident status in February, was on his way to becoming an American citizen -- a status he told several people he coveted more than any other.
If Bianchini's rise to social eminence was swift, his fall was even swifter. Two days after the reception in Vesuvius, his Italian-based company was declared bankrupt. A warrant for his arrest on charges of currency violations and fraud was issued soon afterward in Italy, where local newspaper articles, on file in state court here, report that the "scandal" involves more than a dozen banks seeking to retrieve about $14 million in outstanding loans.
By June 8, three Italian banks were in the Albermarle County Circuit Court here to obtain an attachment order freezing more than $6 million in cash, securities and property including an office building, the mill, the limousine and several other cars accumulated by Bianchini during his two years in Virginia. The attachments, which Bianchini's lawyers have tried once to challenge in federal court without success, remain in effect. In New York, a lien was placed on two apartments in the newly built Trump Tower bought by Bianchini with a $700,000 down payment.
In the course of the attachment proceedings, Bianchini's attorneys noted that he would mount "a substantial defense" against the banks' suit. Bianchini, who told the court last week that he is without counsel, is scheduled to file his response to the case on Thursday.
The suit -- by Banca Agricola Mantovana, Banca Populare di Sondrio and Banca Emiliano and joined last week by Banco di Santo Spirito -- claims Bianchini was involved in a "pyramid" loan scheme, based on falsified invoices and purchase orders exchanged between Montepelmo, his bankrupt Italian-based company, and Enercons Virginia, the company he created in Charlottesville.
In one case, the suit alleges, Bianchini told a bank that Montepelmo had an order to sell $1 million in microprocessors to an American company in Huntsville, Ala. The goods, never ordered, never arrived and the bank, which had loaned Montepelmo on the basis of the purchase order, says it never received its money. According to documents filed in the case, the original order, transmitted by telex, was sent not from Huntsville but from Bianchini's home in Vesuvius.
There were a string of similar, specific allegations about Bianchini's business dealings -- all which, the banks say, led to loans that never have been repaid. Another suit, brought by Assoleasing, seeking to retrieve the $2.8 million it had paid for a computer, followed shortly afterward. A hearing in the Assoleasing suit is scheduled for Aug. 17. Bianchini, representing himself in this case, has filed papers, claiming that American courts have no jurisdiction in the matter.
As the clouds gathered over Bianchini's Virginia transactions, an Enercons representative tried to free $1.6 million held in a Washington account. One check, issued by American Security Bank for $652,000, made its way to a bank in the Netherlands-Antilles; the other for $1 million was intercepted before it reached Bianchini's Swiss bank account which, in the meantime, had also been attached by one of the Italian banks. That check has since been held up by American Security.
Meanwhile, in Italy, officials in Busto Arsizio have referred the currency charges to the prosecutor in Milan and taken the first step toward bringing Bianchini back for trial, according to the U.S. Consulate in Milan.
Stories about Bianchini are all over Charlottesville. The problem is no one knows how to sort fact from fiction. "If you were to ask me whether anything Bianchini said about himself was true, I would have to say I don't know," said Thomas Albro, an attorney representing Leonard Winslow and the Italian banks in their suits against Bianchini. "At this point, I don't know who he is or where he came from. He is a man of great mystery." graphics/photo: Italian bank suits allege Gino Bianchini was involved in "pyramid" loan scheme through his firm Enercons Virginia. By Jon C. Golden for TWP