A drone’s-eye view of the 157-acre property at 1652 Tower Grove Drive in Beverly Hills.
A drone’s-eye view of the 157-acre property at 1652 Tower Grove Drive in Beverly Hills.
Courtesy of subject

Beverly Hills' Billion-Dollar Fire Sale: Inside the Implosion of a Historic Hilltop Real Estate Deal

How did the expansive property, known as The Mountain, list for 10 figures and end up selling for $100,000 in a Pomona courtroom? Infighting, a Hollywood wannabe and a big bluff caused America's all-time trophy property to end up in legal chaos.

One night in April 2018, Victorino Noval opened the doors of his Italianate mansion on Summit Drive in Beverly Hills for a spring gala. The event's co-host was John Travolta and the guest of honor was Italian producer Oscar Generale. Travolta had starred in several of Generale's films, including The Fanatic, in which he plays an obsessed fan of a movie star (the film would gross just $3,153 on its opening weekend). The guest list included financier Ron Burkle, actors Tom Sizemore and Tara Reid, Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst (who wrote and directed The Fanatic) and an unusual mix of former professional athletes, including Italian soccer star Alessandro Del Piero and MMA fighter Chuck Liddell. (Reps for Burkle say he did not attend and never received an invite). Upon entering Noval's house, everyone had to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

The 56-year-old Noval, tie-less in a black suit and white dress shirt, seemed giddy. Partygoers watched him glad-handing guests and grinning widely as he helped cut a cake that had been sculpted into a director's slate. The fact that he was co-hosting an event with Travolta represented a Gatsby-like reversal of fortune for the Cuba-born Noval. A regular fixture on L.A.'s B-list party scene, Noval has been a perplexing figure — part entrepreneurial impresario, part shady dealmaker; he's hobnobbed with Donald Trump and helped American politicians broker deals in the Middle East. His most notorious endeavor, however, had to do with his role in an illegal real estate scheme that in 1997 attracted the attention of federal prosecutors and landed him in Terminal Island, where he served a three-year prison sentence for tax evasion and mail fraud. Upon his release, Noval moved to Los Angeles and, in 2010, established the Victorino Noval Foundation, which, according to its website, supports "charitable and humanitarian projects" with assets that exceed $1.2 billion.

A few years after his release from prison, Noval found himself involved in another real estate deal, one with potentially gargantuan profit margins. Through a convoluted series of maneuvers, Noval had become a part owner of a 157-acre spread of perfect grass and graded slopes at the top of a summit in the heart of Beverly Hills. It arguably was the most valuable and — among billionaires, at least — coveted piece of property in the country.

In recent years, Noval and his business partner, a Southerner named Charles "Chip" Dickens, had been marketing the property with a goal of selling it for $1 billion. They had hired premier real estate broker Aaron Kirman — who has sold more than $6 billion in real estate in his career and hosts a CNBC show about flipping distressed luxury properties. Kirman was going to rebrand the property as The Mountain (it was previously known as The Vineyard) and spend $1 million marketing it to the world's richest people. When it was listed in July, the media ate it up worldwide. Stories appeared on CNBC and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among many others (including THR).

If the tenor of Noval's April 2018 fete was any indication, the expectation was that things were only going to get better. The Mountain looked ready to move.

***

The mountain of Beverly Hills is more than just the country's first-ever billion-dollar property. For decades, it has been both a fantasy and a curse for a steady stream of dreamers and hustlers. In the past quarter century, it has been owned by Middle Eastern and Hollywood royalty, changing hands from the Shah of Iran to Merv Griffin in 1987. Perched at 1652 Tower Grove Drive, the land is a pristine expanse, which now includes six fully permitted plots of land, a helipad and stunning vistas of the entire Los Angeles basin. On clear days, views stretch from the San Gabriel Mountains to Catalina Island. But the one thing the property has never had is an actual house: Throughout its history, the land has remained vacant, even as it has become the subject of one of the fiercest and most acrimonious legal disputes in L.A. real estate.

Noval's partner, Dickens, is a longtime player in The Mountain's drama. It was Dickens who, in 2004 — before Noval even was involved — figured out a way to wrest control of the property from the trust of Mark Hughes, the billionaire founder of Herbalife who bought it in 1998 for $8.5 million (a record sum at the time). When Hughes died in 2000 at the age of 44, the property passed to his trust. Dickens obtained control of The Mountain by cultivating a close relationship with the former lead trustee of the Hughes estate, Conrad Klein (in 2013, a judge forcibly removed Klein as a trustee in part because of the deal he struck with Dickens, which the judge at the time called "imprudent").

Dickens is an unlikely figure in this saga. Before he dropped out of college, he played football at Tennessee Tech and then built a reputation as a swashbuckling wheeler-dealer in Atlanta. His entree to the world of high-end Hollywood real estate began in 2003, when he came to Los Angeles and first heard about the property. As he previously told THR, Dickens "fell in love" the moment he laid eyes on the property. Together, he and Klein arranged a scheme whereby the trust would lend Dickens $23 million to develop the land; the controversial deal ultimately resulted in Dickens wresting control of the property for a limited window, albeit with significant debts owed to the trust.

When Dickens and Noval were first introduced in 2007, Dickens needed a financial lifeline to develop the property quickly. Noval, through connections he says come from "the Middle East" and a small fortune he had managed to retain from his pre-conviction life, provided one. They made an unexpected pairing: Dickens is a teetotaler and devout Christian; Noval makes no secret of his playboy lifestyle. Together they would ultimately become majority shareholders in the holding company that owned the property.

Sensing that its former head trustee had made a terrible deal relinquishing control of the property in the first place, the trust wanted The Mountain back and mounted a legal offensive. Nonetheless, over the ensuing years, Noval and Dickens racked up an impressive number of victories against the trust, only strengthening their hold. Still, the perpetual legal battles cost both sides a small fortune.

Meanwhile, thanks to L.A.'s overheated real estate market, the property's value soared, sometimes by as much as $500,000 a week. The appreciation was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it led to a steady stream of high-profile suitors curious about the trophy property. Jeff Bezos visited the property four times, usually arriving via his helicopter. (Whether Bezos, who reportedly thought the property was overpriced, ever was a serious buyer is in dispute. One source says he feigned interest because he enjoyed parking his helicopter there.) In 2018, during his highly publicized three-week American tour, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the 32-year-old heir to that country's throne, took time out of his schedule meeting with Oprah Winfrey, Rupert Murdoch and Tim Cook to tour the property — one of only a handful of properties he looked at (months after MBS toured the parcel, he would be implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi). Financier Ron Burkle also had walked the grounds, as did Los Angeles Clippers owner and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Several legitimate offers were made, though nothing close to $1 billion. Noval and Dickens held out.

But there was trouble on the horizon. Starting in 2018, L.A.'s luxury real estate market was showing signs of cooling after its historic seven-year run. The region's most high-profile trophy properties were being hit the hardest. The price of British heiress Petra Ecclestone's Holmby Hills mansion, The Manor, was slashed from $200 million to $160 million (in July, the home would sell for $120 million, still a record for L.A. County). In 2017, 924 Bel Air Road, offered by megadeveloper Bruce Makowsky, had come on the market for $250 million. That price has been chopped to $150 million — and still no takers. "I think if they had priced [The Mountain] around $500 million, it would have sold for around $300 million, but they didn't pivot fast enough," says a source who worked on the project. "It could've been a slam-dunk, but people got greedy."

There also were some troubling personnel issues. Several sources involved in the process were growing increasingly concerned by the involvement of Noval associate Tony Toutouni, an Iran-born Instagram personality. On the lookout for buyers, Noval told associates that Toutouni had a deep Rolodex of wealthy individuals. Toutouni and Noval seemed to share a passion for women and parties. Toutouni, meanwhile, had gained a modicum of notoriety by authoring an explicit Instagram page that showed various women in compromised and, in certain cases, degrading situations. His posts alternated from images of himself flying on private jets and flashing wads of cash to women posing in various states of undress. One post showed a bikini-clad woman being walked on a leash like a poodle. A spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, confirmed to THR that Toutouni's account was disabled at the beginning of 2019 for repeated policy and community violations. "Tony was Victorino's frontman, and he was taking a lot of meetings with contractors and potential investors," says a source who was involved in the deal. "He claimed to be a former Wall Street investor, and he'd throw around elementary venture-capital terminology. They always had a lot of women around, and there were a lot of parties. These were not good people." (Noval did not respond to a request for comment.)

Kirman, meanwhile, was doing his best to market the property, hiring architect Richard Landry to draw up renderings for a luxury compound on The Mountain. Landry is known for building some of L.A.'s largest and most extravagant homes, including Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen's moated Brentwood mansion (the couple since has sold it) and private-equity billionaire Alec Gores' 31,000-square-foot faux French chateau in Beverly Hills.

In early 2019, Scott Gillen, an ultra-high-end developer, made a $400 million offer on The Mountain. Gillen, who recently brought a portfolio of 13 bespoke Malibu homes to the market for $500 million, checked a lot of boxes. In 2017, he listed an $80 million spec mansion (since reduced) and weeks later purchased a 24-acre land parcel in the area for $50 million. By all appearances, his latest step was a bid to up his profile in L.A. At least that was the headline splashed across TMZ when it announced Gillen's bid. "I saw an opportunity to expand my brand in the city — something I've wanted to do for some time," Gillen told the website.

And though his offer was less than half the listing price, it still represented a staggering sum that would have dwarfed the next closest L.A. land deal. More important, it just might provide resolution to a property that had been legally jammed up and undeveloped for decades. "If they're smart, they'll take the offer," Gillen told TMZ. Instead, Noval and his partners passed, demanding $600 million instead, according to a source involved in the deal.

***

There was a hidden reason the partners rejected the bid. They knew it was a ploy — a stunt engineered to gin up more interest and motivate real potential buyers, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the deal. (Kirman disputes having any knowledge that the bid was a stunt: "I got a written offer from very credible agents and a buyer who was known to buy expensive properties," he says.)

"It backfired on them big-time," says attorney Ronald Richards, who represented Noval's son, Victor Franco Noval. (In 2016, Victorino Noval's holding company, Tower Park Properties, technically transferred ownership of The Mountain to his son's holding company, Secured Capital Partners.) Lawyers for the Hughes Trust declined to comment.

The bid's intended purpose was to create a new round of headlines, which it did. But those headlines also caught the attention of the Mark Hughes Trust, which was still owed a large amount of money on the loans. Says Richards: "Right after the [TMZ] article, we started getting more aggressive responses from the lenders. There was a direct correlation between lender activity and the article — it upset them."

Over the years, Dickens had borrowed a reported $45 million from the Hughes estate to develop the property. The trust's lawyers claimed that the sum had ballooned to $200 million after accounting for fees, penalties and interest. Noval and Dickens believed it was closer to $80 million. On May 31, sensing another legal assault by the Hughes team, which was attempting to initiate a foreclosure on the property, Richards filed for Chapter 11 on behalf of his clients — a day before the trust could foreclose on the property.

***

The auction took place on a quiet morning under a grove of shade trees and a fountain in Pomona's Civic Center Plaza, more than 40 miles from Beverly Hills. Lawyers for the Mark Hughes Trust, dressed in impeccable suits, milled around waiting for the attorney in charge of the sale to open the bids. Within minutes, The Mountain, which just months before was still being touted as the country's first and only billion-dollar parcel, went on the auction block for a paltry opening bid of $100,000. The Mark Hughes Trust bid unopposed, paying that amount, and more significantly, assuming the property's $200 million in outstanding debt. Dickens was there that day and watched silently as the property for which he'd fought for 16 years was sold back to his rivals for 1/10,000th his original asking price.

To many, including Mark Hughes' ex-wife Suzan and the army of lawyers who've been fighting to retake control of The Mountain for more than a decade, the auction represented a major win. In all likelihood, however, the lawsuits will continue and may even get uglier. "It's an illegal foreclosure that's going to come back and bite them in the ass," says one person close to Noval who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is the 12th round, but there are 13 rounds in this story."

"[The Mountain] has been fraught with litigation since we sold it to Mark Hughes 19 years ago," says Hilton & Hyland's Jeff Hyland. "It's been a gold mine for every lawyer that's touched it. But you could argue that everyone else involved has lost."

***

L.A.’S RICHEST RESIDENTIAL SALES

Even if the city’s real estate market isn’t ready for a billion-dollar transaction, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t shattered records during the past seven years. These are the all-time most expensive residential home sales in the history of L.A. County — for now.

The Manor: $120M
In July, a 56,500-square-foot chateau in Holmby Hills owned by heiress Petra Ecclestone sold for $119.75 million, the highest home price in L.A. County history. It was built in 1991 for TV producer Aaron Spelling (who died in 2006) and his wife, Candy Spelling, who sold it to Ecclestone for $85 million in an all-cash deal in 2011.

Peter Morton's Malibu Mansion: $110M
In 2018, Hard Rock Cafe co-founder and hotelier Peter Morton sold his 8,000-square-foot oceanfront property on Carbon Beach — known in real estate circles as Billionaire's Beach — to natural gas tycoon Michael S. Smith and his wife, Iris Smith, for $110 million.

Ron Meyer's Malibu Compound: $100M
While there have been three $100 million sales in L.A. County history, Meyer's is the most recent (the other two are the Playboy Mansion and 310 N. Carolwood). The NBCU exec initially sought $125 million for his 14,000-square-foot home, which sold in August.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.