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Fool for Love

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Rothken says that because he had so much going on between his family, his practice, Barbieri, and Siren, he essentially just ran everything through one bank account. He knows it was lazy, not to mention illegal, but he claims there was no criminal intent: "If I'd wanted to steal, I could've taken tens of millions of dollars and I would have set up offshore accounts and been much more careful."

Between commissions and escrow money and the like, Rothken says, there were always millions of dollars flowing through the account he used. Consequently, he figured, there'd always be enough money in there, and eventually he'd straighten it out.

He knew before he left Miami that he was finished as a lawyer. His overwhelming concern was damage control. He wanted to keep his creditors from going to the district attorney, because if that happened, everything would come out.

Lawyer John Pollok told him the best strategy was to try to work out a restitution deal with the victims, not to fight. Rothken asked for 30 days to come up with some money, and he managed to raise $300,000. But that was little more than 10 percent of what he needed. And on the thirty-first day, Alfred Groner, who took the biggest hit, went to the Manhattan D.A.

Groner's company had sold an apartment building in the Inwood section of Manhattan, and Rothken was supposed to be holding $880,000 for him, which Groner intended to roll into another building to avoid capital-gains tax. Rothken, however, didn't have the money.

"Rothken was a guy who was probably making $500,000 to $750,000 a year," says Groner. "He was very good at what he did. But the guy went off the deep end. I knew he was in love with some lap dancer, but I never thought this would happen."

Rothken told his wife he was having some business problems. He said it was a real-estate dispute and he had screwed up and was going to have to repay the money. "I didn't see any reason to tell her at that point. Why upset her any more or any sooner than she had to be?" he says with no hint that he realizes how unbelievable this statement is.

The first time Rothken's wife actually found out what had been going on was at his bail hearing. Shonnie, his parents, his in-laws (including his father-in-law, an Orthodox rabbi), and several members of the community had come to court to put up their houses to secure Rothken's bail.

But when the prosecutor stood up and began weaving a sordid tale of strippers and a secret life and a love nest and all of the money Rothken had spent, everyone was stunned. They had no clue this had been going on. After the hearing, in the hallway outside the courtroom, there was bedlam: Everyone was crying and screaming at one another. Rothken's parents were trying to defend him against the onslaught of invective. Court officers actually had to break up the mêlée. Needless to say, after what they'd heard, no one volunteered any collateral for bail.

Shonnie Rothken was devastated. She quickly arranged for a get, a Jewish divorce, while Rothken was in the Tombs. She went down there with two Hasids as the required witnesses, a scribe with a quill pen to draw up the official document, and the prison rabbi.

Rothken's defense was eventually taken over by Joseph Tacopina, who skillfully negotiated a plea agreement. Before Tacopina interceded, the prosecutor had been talking about grand larceny and money-laundering charges, which could've put Rothken behind bars for more than fifteen years.

Like people who skydive or race motorcycles or go heli-skiing, Rothken needs, it seems, to push the limits. Even his time in prison has become another adventure, another walk along the edge. In the Tombs, he was placed on a floor with a variety of high-profile criminals. There were Colombian drug dealers, several killers, and a handful of other seriously violent felons.

Well, one look at Rothken and you know he might as well have been wearing a big sign on his back that said PLEASE KICK MY ASS. To make matters worse, he actually had to wear a plastic I.D. tag that screamed KOSHER in big red letters. Yet rather than suffer at the hands of the other inmates, Rothken actually thrived.

In part, this was because of the friends who came to visit him. When the inmates saw strippers coming to see this zhlubby Jewish guy, that was all it took for them to believe he had to have something going on. A couple of tabloid stories about his escapades didn't hurt, either. He actually went to court one day and came back to find that another inmate had painted his cell. "They simply assumed I was connected," Rothken says with a laugh. "And I didn't do anything to discourage the idea. In fact, they called me Meyer, for Meyer Lansky."

Turning reflective one afternoon in prison, Rothken tells me he should've thought about the consequences of what he was doing. "I know how badly I hurt Shonnie and the kids. But really, more than anybody else, I've betrayed myself."

Though it's clear he still has strong feelings for Barbieri, he can also get very angry when he talks about her, and repeatedly calls her a "pathological liar."

She, of course, has a different view. "He's tried to make me look like the bad guy here," she says. "But the fact still remains that he's the one who put himself in this position. He's the one who stole the money. I had no hand in that. He wants to blame his life going bad on being involved with me, but he's a grown man. He has to take responsibility for his own actions and for the choices he's made in his life."

Whatever Barbieri did or didn't do, she's right about Rothken's need to take responsibility for what happened.

Rothken talks about the Hebrew concept of teshuva, which is, essentially, a combination of seeking forgiveness through repentance and a total change of mind-set and life. The idea is that just saying you're sorry isn't enough. You have to do much more. "I'm trying to figure out how to do teshuva," Rothken says with uncharacteristic humility.

"I need to do it for my wife and my kids and my community. This is like a disgrace to God because I've not only embarrassed myself and my family, I've embarrassed other Orthodox Jews as well. I have to make amends to the community and to my victims, who I've promised to pay back."

But a close friend thinks he has a ways to go. "I believe this kind of thing can absolutely happen to him again," the friend says. "Because it doesn't seem to me that he really understands what happened."

And spending time with Rothken makes it hard to argue the point. He believes he lived every guy's fantasy. Money. Beautiful women. Sex. Freedom. And at home, he still had his family. It was, as his friend says, like he'd found his ticket to ride and wasn't getting off until the very end. No matter what. "I actually did what a lot of guys dream about doing but never will."


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