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Fool for Love

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Joint custody: Mitchell Rothken doing time on Rikers Island before being transferred upstate.  

In the early nineties, Mitchell Rothken decided he wanted to be a player. He wanted to be a guy people looked at and talked about, a guy who was out every night at the clubs and bars with a beautiful woman on his arm. He developed what was virtually an addiction to nightlife, and for the better part of eight years, he was deliriously happy -- including almost all of the time he was with Barbieri.

"You remember the scene in GoodFellas when they walk into the nightclub with their dates?" Rothken asks one afternoon in prison. "That's what it was like for us at Scores. Whenever we showed up, we always got the best table and the best girls."

Rothken went to Scores several times a week and spent several thousand dollars a night on his friends and clients and himself. "It was beautiful," he says. "There was this mystique about the place and the girls. And when I went there, I was the man."

Rothken's obsession with strip clubs and topless dancers began routinely enough. At first, it was simply a part of doing business. It was a way to entertain clients, close a deal, or attract new accounts. Of course, it was also fun.

The year was 1993. And Rothken, a graduate of Fordham law school, where he'd met his wife, was working for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac). The position enabled him to get to know the key players in New York real estate. In 1995, he capitalized on his connections and opened his own practice.

"Mitch was one of the toughest attorneys in that business," says real-estate lawyer Andrew Albstein, who's been his friend since law school. "At Freddie Mac, he got to know all the borrowers and all the properties, and he was disliked because he did his job so well. Believe me, you'd love to have him represent you."

Rothken's nightlife accelerated when he went into business for himself. "It got to the point where I'd be spending four or five thousand dollars a night a couple of times a week," he says. "And on special occasions, it could go north of ten grand. But I was making the money back. It was an investment. A lot of these guys, the bankers, were never exposed to this kind of thing. They'd be drinking champagne all night with a beautiful girl sitting on each knee. So when it came time to do a deal, who were they going to give the business to? Me or the guy who took them to Peter Luger? And yes, I paid for prostitutes for clients many times."

Rothken's business was primarily the B-level real-estate market -- transactions that involved small-to-medium-size residential apartment buildings in the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan. "A lot of these guys hired Mitch to get an edge on someone in a contract negotiation," says Albstein. "Even if it meant flirting with the ethical line. He was their hired gun, often used to screw other people, and if he did it well, there'd be high fives all around."

But the Scores scene was much more to Rothken than a place to show off for clients or escape the confines of family life. "It's weird, but it's almost like he made a second family at Scores," says Sarah Hirsch, one of half a dozen strippers he befriended there and at VIP over the years. He helped them with their problems, he listened when they needed someone to talk to, and he didn't demand anything -- including sex -- in return.

In an over-the-top expression of this bond, Rothken invited several of the dancers -- including Hirsch, Barbieri, her two sisters, and her mother -- to his sons' bar mitzvahs. "His wife thought I was a client," Hirsch says casually. "I'm used to the unusual, but I have to say that this was pretty weird. But Mitch doesn't think like everybody else. He said Kym was one of the most important people in his life and he wanted her there on such an important day."

He also used his legal talents on their behalf. "When I first met him, my house was in foreclosure, and he got involved and I never had to worry about it again," says Hirsch. "He took care of everything, and he never charged me. He's a really, really nice person. We went out together, we went away together. I could go crazy, and he never judged me. He's my best friend."

In September 1996, Rothken was sitting at his regular table in the restaurant section of Scores when a dancer friend introduced him to Kym Barbieri. She was dressed in a long, clingy gown with spaghetti straps -- the dancers' uniform at Scores when they're not onstage -- and Rothken was smitten. She danced for him, and then they spent several hours talking (the tab for this kind of time from a dancer could easily reach $1,000 without the tip).

A few nights later, Rothken was back at the club, but Barbieri wasn't there. "It was like high school," he says. "You know, when you go on a date and the girl's friend tells you later she really likes you. So then Kym and I had a long phone conversation, and she was all bubbly and giddy that I called."

They arranged to meet at the club the following Thursday. Barbieri brought pictures of her kids. "I remember thinking it was so cool that she was so into her kids and that she thought so much of me that she wanted to show me their pictures."

After a few more giggly phone calls, they made a lunch date. Barbieri went to Rothken's office in jeans and a loose sweater and very little makeup. It was the first time he'd seen her in daylight. "She looked adorable, like a college girl."

And then they began to see each other regularly. Barbieri had been complaining about how hard it was not having a car, so one day near the end of October, Rothken took her to a friend's dealership in Connecticut. "She had no credit, so I put $3,000 down for her on a used Acura Integra, and I got her a $10,000 loan, which I guaranteed, from a friend who has a finance company. At Christmas, I paid off the loan for her. She said it was the nicest thing anyone'd ever done for her."

A short time later, the car was broken into, so Rothken had her trade it in for a Honda Passport that he simply paid for. "We'd been going out about four months," he says, "and we were still just holding hands, kissing a little, and hugging."

The next defining moment came when Barbieri hysterically showed Rothken an eviction notice she'd received. She said her husband, from whom she was supposed to be separated, had failed to pay the rent and she was being kicked out of her apartment. Rothken worked his legal magic and managed to actually get her some money to move out.

At that point, in the summer of '97, almost a year after they'd met, Barbieri moved back to St. Louis. This, of course, could've ended things between them had Rothken been less obsessed. But while she was back home, he helped her with expenses, persuaded her to get a real-estate license, and was FedExing her salamis, knishes, and other goodies from the Second Avenue Deli.

"When she decided to come back," he says, "I took it as a message from God that there should be something between us."

Rothken said he'd find her an apartment, which they both knew meant he would pay for it; instead, he rented her a house in White Plains. He wrote a check for the security deposit, and from that point on, they were, he says, "off to the races."

Rothken was now fully committed, emotionally and financially. He got her a job at Citi Habitats, and they'd meet for lunch almost every day. But she hated the job. It was too much of a hassle, so she quit and enrolled at Westchester Community College. Rothken paid her tuition. She wanted to be a teacher.

Since she was no longer dancing, he tried to get her set up as a civilian: He helped her open a checking account, got her insurance, and cleaned up her credit. All this time, he was buying her gifts: jewelry, furs, clothing. And when she complained that the rented house was too small, he bought her a $310,000 house with a big yard and a swing set.

The house is now the object of a legal battle. Barbieri tried to sell it, but Rothken got an injunction to stop her. She claims she put up the $55,000 down payment, which she had saved from dancing. Rothken says she never put in a penny.

"Here I am in jail, with no money, and she's selfishly fighting me and lying and trying to sell the house."


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