This story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Standing atop a verdant summit near Benedict Canyon, Brad Pitt smoked a cigarette and gazed toward the ocean. A gentle afternoon sun played over the chaparral and sage below. It was 2002, and Pitt had come to Beverly Hills to take stock of a coveted piece of real estate. From the San Gabriel Mountains to Malibu, Los Angeles stretched out in a quiet, glittery panorama. It was the highest peak for miles, a true king’s plot. He turned to Gary Morris, a developer and friend. “So?” mused Pitt. “You think I should buy this?”
Morris told Pitt that if he “made another movie or two,” he could probably afford it. An L.A. native with salt-and-pepper hair and a wiry frame born of years of ultra-marathons, Morris knew better than to be more than a sounding board. He had watched as one figure after another became entranced with the property known as The Vineyard Beverly Hills before moving on. A few years after Pitt’s visit, Tom Cruise placed about 3 percent of the $25 million sale price for one lot in escrow. But on the last day before the transaction went “hard,” locking the actor’s money in, Cruise’s business manager canceled the order, according to multiple people familiar with the transaction. There had been other offers, and yet two decades after Morris first got involved, a single house never had been built.
Perched on a summit ridgeline with huge views looking down on the homes of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, The Vineyard is one of the last undeveloped plots in Beverly Hills, and arguably the most impressive. Visitors can peer down on estates belonging to Warren Beatty, Seth MacFarlane and the rooftop mansions of Beverly Park. For decades, the 157-acre property has bewitched some of Hollywood’s most illustrious residents, from Merv Griffin to the Shah of Iran’s sister. With little money, no real estate license and a lot of gumption, the de facto owner for the past 11 years has been Charles “Chip” Dickens. “I’m the most improbable character in this whole thing,” Dickens, 54, tells The Hollywood Reporter. His main partner is an amiable convicted felon named Victorino Noval; together, the two now are marketing The Vineyard for $1 billion.
The saga behind one of the most pedigreed and controversial pieces of property in L.A. could be torn from the pages of a Coen brothers script. After 15 years of intense legal drama over ownership, family squabbling and an inheritance, The Vineyard might be changing hands again. And what once was no more than a dusty mountaintop has been transformed into an exquisite plateau with a helicopter pad and ample room for any architect’s wildest fantasies. “It’s the most spectacular property anywhere in Los Angeles,” says Robert Mann, an attorney who is familiar with The Vineyard. Now, with real estate prices soaring in Los Angeles and foreign buyers pouring in, The Vineyard is poised to be the most talked-about trophy property in years. “This is one of the most exceptional properties I’ve ever seen in my 30-year career,” says Jeff Hyland, whose agency, Hilton & Hyland, has exclusive rights to The Vineyard. “This is as good as it gets.”
Long before Pitt or Cruise, The Vineyard was a prized plot. Hollywood producer Jack Bean and his wife, actress Mitzi Gaynor, owned a piece before selling during the late 1970s. Title deeds indicate a single buyer purchased several small lots and possibly combined them. Around this same time, a Middle Eastern princess also became interested. Shams Pahlavi was the elder sister of Iran’s last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The princess, a convert to Catholicism who loved animals, left Iran for the U.S. during the 1970s and settled in California with her second husband, a former minister of culture and art.
Shams had lush tastes and an affinity for grand building ventures. In 1966, she commissioned architects from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to build a huge palace for her in Karaj, on the outskirts of Iran’s capital, Tehran. Completed in 1972, the 50,000-square-foot Pearl Palace (kakh-e Morvarid) was a sensuous wreath of circular and crescent-shaped buildings that included a zoo, gold faucets and a spiral ziggurat leading to the princess’ bedroom, which was adorned with a $25,000 gold bedspread. According to Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford who has done extensive research on the shah’s global financial movements, Princess Shams was a crafty operator. “When I began to look and asked about her financial dealings, it became clear that she was very much involved in shenanigans,” says Milani. “She clearly had a lot of money when she left.” Milani says he found evidence that Shams might not have paid the architects who designed the palace what they were owed and that she might have left Iran with as much as $700 million in tow.
While other members of the Pahlavi dynasty made headlines buying land on Spain’s Costa del Sol, or in Paris, New York and New Orleans, Shams looked to Beverly Hills. People familiar with The Vineyard indicate she purchased it around 1977 (THR was unable to locate a title in her name). According to Morris and others, Shams began grading and permitting the slopes. “They were going to create this grand plateau for a single estate,” says Morris. “And that was really going to be for the shah — but it was not going to be in his name.” According to Reza Farahan, one of the stars of Bravo’s hit reality TV show Shahs of Sunset who is well acquainted with the history of Iranian-owned real estate in L.A., Shams (who had another home in Beverly Hills) was planning to build on The Vineyard until January 1979, when long-simmering tensions turned into revolution in Iran. In Los Angeles, Iranian students marched up to the princess’ property and threw Molotov cocktails. “They set a Beverly Hills police car on fire, chanting, ‘Death to the Shah,’ ” says Farahan. “Ayatollah Khomeini was ordering executions left and right across the world, and here was Shams, super high-profile, living in a house in Beverly Hills, and owning The Vineyard — she would have been giving those thugs a road map.” Farahan says the shah called Walter Annenberg, who offered the princess refuge at Sunnylands, his estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif., until she moved to a home in Santa Barbara, where she lived until her death in 1996.
Shams’ decadent plans for The Vineyard faded, and the property sat fallow until 1987, when Hollywood mogul Merv Griffin, then 61 and unmarried, bought it. Like Shams, Griffin’s tastes in architecture were extravagant. He’d later buy The Beverly Hilton, casinos in Atlantic City and the Bahamas and a Palm Springs resort. In an early encounter, Griffin took Morris aside and asked, “What’s the biggest house in L.A. right now?” Morris looked into it and came back a few days later: Producer Aaron Spelling‘s house, then under construction, was on track to be more than 56,000 square feet. Recalls Morris: “And then Merv said to me, ‘You know, the house I want is about 58,000 square feet.’ “
But when Morris began to crunch the numbers, he ran into trouble with fire department officials, who said that The Vineyard’s acreage would necessitate a second exit and entrance to meet city codes. He reworked the zoning to reduce the number of buildable plots down to six and offered up several acres on the fringes to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which placated city officials. Morris carved off the top of the mountain, moving 1 million cubic yards of dirt, roughly the equivalent of a football field piled 160 yards high, to level it out. During the grading, one of Morris’ contractors was killed when a scraper he was driving along a hillside flipped.
But then Griffin started having trouble with his holdings. “Merv [wasn’t] doing as well financially as the world thinks he [was] doing financially,” says Morris. With so many properties in development, The Vineyard took a backseat. Griffin’s purchase of The Beverly Hilton within the next year seemed to satisfy his grandiose designs, and he asked Morris to “quietly” put The Vineyard on the market.
Though none of the plots at The Vineyard have seen home construction yet, refined driveways and fountains already are in place.
It wasn’t long before Herbalife founder and CEO Mark Hughes got in the game. A billionaire entrepreneur and Hollywood playboy, Hughes (with just a ninth-grade education) had launched Herbalife in 1980 at age 24. Within 20 years, it was a global behemoth with an estimated worth of nearly $1 billion and distribution in 50 countries. Then, in his early 40s, Hughes, who was married to his third wife, Suzan Schroder, a certified court reporter and former Miss Petite USA, bought The Vineyard from Griffin in 1997 for $8.5 million, a deal brokered through Hyland (the Los Angeles Times reported at the time that it was the most expensive property ever sold in Southern California). Hughes’ close friend and attorney Conrad Klein, a real estate buff, and others urged him to develop it. Hyland suggested that Hughes consider hiring star architect Richard Meier, who had just completed The Getty Center. Hyland arranged for Meier to give Hughes, himself and Klein a personal tour of the Getty before it opened to the public. “It was unheard of,” says Hyland. “Like having Picasso showing you how he paints.”
Hughes envisioned a 45,000-square-foot Mediterranean villa with tennis courts, a million-gallon pond and a wildlife sanctuary. On many evenings, he and Morris would sit and fantasize about the palace they would build. “Mark would look over to me and say, ‘This is f—ing awesome, isn’t it?’ ” recalls Morris. Hughes had budgeted about $100 million for his gargantuan dream.
Hughes and Suzan divorced in 1998, and Hughes married his fourth wife, Darcy LaPier, another former beauty queen, in 1999. By this time, Hughes lost interest in The Vineyard. He turned his attention to a Malibu house he and LaPier shared instead. “[The Vineyard] was too big for [LaPier], too grand,” says Klein. During the evening of May 20, 2000, during his grandmother’s 87th birthday celebration, Hughes collapsed. He died the next day. According to news reports, a coroner’s report later determined the 44-year-old’s death had been caused by a toxic overdose of the antidepressant doxepin mixed with alcohol. Hughes’ 8-year-old son, Alex, his only child, stood to inherit his father’s fortune, an estate that included The Vineyard, when he turned 35. (Alex, now 23, declined to speak to THR for this article.)
Hughes had entrusted the management of his estate to the Mark Hughes Family Trust, which was run by Alex’s paternal grandfather, Jack Reynolds, and Herbalife executives Christopher Pair and Klein, the latter of whom acted as the principal trustee. Hughes had stipulated that Suzan, Alex’s mother and legal guardian, be treated as if she had “predeceased” him, according to trust documents (Suzan says her divorce included joint custody and child care). Klein now had a fiduciary duty to responsibly oversee Alex’s inheritance, and he began to pursue options that would result in development of The Vineyard.
Morris, Dickens, Klein and an army of contractors spent two decades and millions of dollars to transform a once-dusty hilltop into a property that is graded and zoned to handle up to six estates with unrivaled panoramic views of Los Angeles.
One day in August 2003, a jovial 6-foot-1 man with a wisp of a graying mustache and an insistent but friendly demeanor ambled into Klein’s office. In a Southern drawl, he introduced himself as Charles Dickens but said his parents had called him “Chip” and so should most everybody else. Bright-eyed and eager, Dickens told Klein that he had come to Los Angeles because he had heard about a fantastic piece of real estate and he wanted to figure out a way to make a deal that would work for everybody.
At first glance, Dickens seemed an unlikely high-end real estate operator. He had grown up in a “Christian household” near Atlanta and had been a high school football star. He received a scholarship to play quarterback at Tennessee Tech, near Nashville. He preferred the field to the classroom and got mediocre grades. But Dickens had paid attention when a political science professor had told him to “find out what the professor wants and give it back to him.” In the manner of people who live by creeds, Dickens made this one his own: “That’s my philosophy.”
After three years of college, Dickens dropped out and worked his way into a couple of business deals. One, during the 1996 Summer Olympics, involved selling tickets, which he says earned him the sobriquet “The Ticket Master” among local businesses. Dickens wanted to get his hands onto something big, something truly spectacular. He hadn’t yet earned enough to retire with any of his ventures in Georgia, but he had proved himself a hard worker with ambition and drive. And he also had developed connections to several wealthy investors — one of whom approached Dickens in 2003 with an opportunity in L.A.: Would he go there on behalf of another group of investors in Chicago and meet with an L.A. attorney who was working on a deal? Dickens jumped at the chance.
Two days later, Dickens was sitting in an office on Sunset Boulevard with a business, entertainment and IP lawyer named David Rudich, who was working with the Chicago investors on putting together a $20 million offer for the property. Dickens was casual, wearing jeans and a polo shirt; Rudich wore an expensive suit. Dickens found him intimidating. Rudich took Dickens for a drive that day, through Beverly Park, a star-soaked gated community of 60 or so large homes. Along the way, Dickens asked (as he later recalled in court testimony): “I’m not as smart as you guys. I’m not as astute. What do you need me for?” Dickens says Rudich told him he had orchestrated part of a deal but needed more funds than the Chicago group would contribute. As they reached the summit where Tower Grove Drive ends, Dickens took one look at The Vineyard and fell in love.”I gotta figure this out,” he thought.
The deal with the Chicago group sputtered along. But that afternoon had whetted Dickens’ appetite. He started working on the problem on his own. Everything was conspiring against him. He hardly knew anyone in L.A., and he had no money of his own to make a deal. Dickens says he realized that his best chance of finding a way into the deal was to meet directly with the people who controlled The Vineyard. Dickens says he drew funds from his financial backer in Atlanta and paid an L.A. attorney a $50,000 finder’s fee for an entree to the man whose name kept coming up — Conrad Klein. A few days later, after securing an appointment, Dickens strolled into Klein’s office for the first time.
Klein is a short, gruff man, now 87 but then in his late 70s, who enjoys a good Dr Pepper. He and his wife, who recently retired as presiding justice of a California Court of Appeal district, live in a beachfront apartment complex in Santa Monica. A former Air Force JAG officer, Klein cut his teeth as a tough litigator for legendary L.A. attorney Harry Weiss before eventually going to work for Hughes with three lofty titles: executive vp, senior consultant to the president and chief business affairs officer. After Hughes died, Klein and Suzan Hughes began clashing frequently about The Vineyard and other issues related to the Mark Hughes Family Trust. They were in court repeatedly as Suzan tried to have a greater say in how the trust was administered. “I originally planned on trying to develop the property with the trust,” says Klein. “When I say ‘I,’ I mean the trust I had.” He bided his time as the property’s value rose. As trustee, he says he drew a “pretty good” salary. According to Klein, a judge had declined to rule but said that he was free to develop it, but if a financial loss occurred, he wouldn’t be exempt from litigation.
A helipad for firefighting helicopters was built at The Vineyard years ago as a zoning concession.
A few land speculators had approached, but none of the deals went anywhere. “More hopeful people and crooked people were interested,” Klein tells THR. “The hopeful people couldn’t come up with the money, and the crooked people never intended to come up with the money. So, deal after deal didn’t go anywhere, and these people gave up.” Meanwhile, the deadline for the zoning regulation requiring that the property have a “tract map” — a complex subdividing process usually undertaken by developers — was approaching. If the tract map wasn’t completed by September 2004, the possibility that more than one house could ever be built on the 157 acres might vanish forever, agree Klein and other parties familiar with the property.
Klein says Dickens struck him as smart, a hungry go-getter. Through back channels, Klein investigated his new acquaintance and concluded that though Dickens didn’t have much of a formal education, he was ambitious and hardworking, with “a very high IQ.” Klein and Dickens began spending a lot of time together. “He was a very smooth salesman, and I don’t want ‘smooth’ to be a word of derogation,” says Klein. “He knew what he wanted. He was a poor boy.” Soon, the “poor” hustler from Atlanta and the experienced L.A. lawyer were, they agree, becoming fast friends. Other people familiar with their relationship put forward a different view. “I guarantee you 100 percent that Conrad was thinking Chip was a dupe,” says one person who knows both men well and was familiar with the deal. “Conrad is a very Machiavellian guy. Very. Extremely. But from the first moment, Chip figured this out.”
Over the coming months, Klein and Dickens met constantly. They had long talks in Klein’s office, or over lunch at Via Veneto and La Cachette Bistro in Santa Monica. They went to events together, like the King Tut exhibit. Dickens says he began to see Klein as a sort of father figure. “I could sit with him for hours,” says Dickens. “I was consulting him on everything. I did my MBA sitting at Conrad’s feet. I learned everything I know from him.”
Dickens reckoned that more than anything else, Klein wanted to stay in the real estate game. “Conrad had to figure out how to develop it without being the developer,” says Mann, who was hired to facilitate the deal between the two. “That’s what this whole thing was about. Chip was the only guy smart enough to figure out in about five seconds that Conrad did not want to sell, that he wanted to develop.” Even as their relationship blossomed, Dickens tried to get Klein to reduce the price for a down payment on the property. Klein, always negotiating on behalf of the Mark Hughes Family Trust, eventually agreed to accept a $2 million down payment on the $20 million Chicago deal, which increasingly was becoming anemic, says Dickens. And while others had soured on Klein in the past — and he on them — Dickens used their good relationship to his own advantage. “I found favor in his eyes,” says Dickens. “I enjoyed it.” But by winter 2003, the investors were bickering with each other and still hadn’t come up with the $2 million.
Crunch time arrived that winter. On the afternoon of Dec. 15, 2003, Dickens went into Klein’s office. Despite his good standing with Klein, Dickens and the other investors had failed to raise the money. “We were dead in the water,” Dickens later recalled in court testimony. He decided to play his last card. He sat down across from his mentor. In court testimony later, Dickens recalled, “I went by to tell him how much I really appreciated learning from him, being with him … and that it was a sad ending, but I had to go home. But before I left, I wanted to ask him one — one last question.”
Then Dickens dropped a bombshell: “I want you to give it to me.” Dickens called this new option “The Chip Deal.” In court, Dickens said, “I wanted him to give me an option to finish the [tract map] and potentially buy the property.”
Klein, agree both men, wasn’t happy.
“He said I was out of my mind,” recalled Dickens in court, “and as much as he liked me, I should go home and have a nice Christmas.”
“I understand,” replied Dickens, retreating. He left, planning to return after Klein mulled it over.
He came back at 5 p.m. As Dickens later said in court: “He put his feet up on the desk and says, ‘Let’s talk about the Chip option’ … so I knew I had a chance. At least I wasn’t going to go home that night.”
Klein, who as a trustee might have been exposing himself legally if he developed the property himself, says Dickens had demonstrated enough initiative and native intelligence to convince him he was the man for the job. “You get the tentative tract map work complete, on time, and I’ll do the deal with you,” Klein recalls telling Dickens.
“It’s worth a billion dollars,” says Dickens, who has spent 12 years developing The Vineyard.
In an arrangement they hammered out, Klein agreed to give Dickens an option to buy the land for $23.75 million in cash if Dickens could complete the entitlement work before deadline, according to court records. As owner of the first title deed, the trust would recoup its money in the event of a foreclosure or a sale. “Chip is a very good salesman,” says a person who has worked with Dickens for more than a decade. “He can make people do things that ordinarily they would never do in a million years. Loan money. Do work for no money.” Klein says he had his own rationale for the deal; in the event of a foreclosure, the trust wouldn’t lose anything. One close observer of these dealings believes Klein viewed the whole transaction favorably because he thought his influence over Dickens never would be challenged. “Envision a Pinocchio and Geppetto kind of relationship,” says this person. “If I’m the trustee, I want to have maximum control over who’s doing what. If I’m Conrad, and I sell to somebody who’s got more money than God who just tells me, ‘Conrad, get the f— out of the way. I don’t need you; I’ll just pay you off,’ I’m no longer in a powerful position.” Meanwhile, Dickens says he surmised, correctly it turned out, that Klein’s involvement also ensured his own survival as a player — and if he was smart, and luck stayed with him, he might just be able to pull it off.
As Alex’s legal guardian, Suzan Hughes says she vehemently objected to the idea of selling The Vineyard at that time. As a continuation of terms laid out from the Chicago deal, Dickens tells THR (and has testified in court) that he arranged for a $250,000 payment to be made to Suzan Hughes for her consent, confirmed by a contract dated Jan. 9, 2004. Suzan, however, now says she never understood all the details. “I was stunned,” she tells THR. “I never saw a sale. I never saw anything to sell the property. I thought the $250,000 was for the tract map. The point is, they were scheming. There’s only one person they had to fool, and that was me.” Last year, in comments published in California Lawyer, Suzan said she had accepted the payment but insisted that Klein told her he had secured an all-cash transaction for The Vineyard. “We had nothing to do with [the payment],” says Klein.
With Klein’s approval, Dickens moved ahead. The trust loaned Dickens $1.5 million to complete the entitlements and the tract map. Dickens delivered in August 2004, a month before his latest deadline. A month later, surprisingly, Klein and Dickens modified the terms of their deal, turning what had been an all-cash purchase into a seller-financed purchase. In this new arrangement, according to court records, the trust now would loan the $23.75 million to fund the transaction. “The value of the property was always higher than the amount of money Dickens owed,” making it a smart investment, says Klein. Suzan says she was taken aback by the sale. “The trustees never explained to me … that they were going to sell the property for no money down to a man with no money, no financial backing and no real estate experience,” she was quoted in the California Lawyer story. But one attorney close to the deal disputes this. “I never thought it was appropriate for Klein to do what he did,” says this attorney, who asked for anonymity. “But Suzan made a deal with the devil because she was paid to withdraw her objection to all this. And she did. If Suzan was the legal guardian and she decided to sell Alex’s mountain for a few pieces of gold, that’s a decision she has to live with. She could have said no.” On Sept. 16, 2004, Tower Park Properties, an LLC Dickens had formed, signed the deal with the Mark Hughes Family Trust. Chip Dickens effectively was the owner of The Vineyard without spending a penny of his own.
In the wake of “The Chip Deal,” real estate brokers, lawyers and people familiar with the history of The Vineyard watched on in blurry astonishment. “A lot of people in town were utterly bewildered by what had happened,” says an attorney who asked not to be identified. “[Chip] pays no money and nothing to develop the property. It was unheard of. [The Vineyard] was the best deal in town by a country mile.”
With the tract map completed, the value of The Vineyard climbed, say people familiar with the property. Offers started flooding in. “The money is all going into the property, and the value’s going up, up, up,” recalls a bemused Morris, who still was the developer, now working with Dickens and Klein. In 2006, Klein loaned an additional $12 million from the trust for construction costs, according to court records. Dickens, who still was living in Atlanta and commuting to L.A. every week, now could develop the property so six high-end estates could be built. The first real offer was for $34 million. Other offers for the whole property went up from there: $44 million, then $50 million, then $55 million. “Giddyup, giddyup, giddyup, it keeps going up,” laughs Morris. “Seventy-four million, then $104 million. Every time an offer comes in, Chip evaluates it — but so does Conrad.” Over and over again, the duo declined to sell. Other times, the offers fell apart. Says Hyland, who had obtained an exclusive right to sell the property, “I’ve had offers of $50 million per lot.” Dickens recalls one incident when he and Klein were talking on the phone to a potential buyer with a solid offer of $103 million. Dickens says Klein put the buyer on hold. “If he’ll pay $103 million, he’ll pay $107 million,” Dickens says Klein quipped.
“Their view was, ‘This is nice, but we can do better,’ ” says Morris.
By 2007, the deal with Cruise was ramping up. Dickens says the actor had imagined having a large house on the uppermost plot. Another plot was going to be used as a soccer field for his kids. But by early 2008, the deal was dead, and more than $9 million of the initial $12 million credit line had been spent on contractors and development. Klein says he felt that things weren’t moving fast enough and that at least some of the money wasn’t being spent wisely. So far, Dickens had stayed on Klein’s good side. But not everyone was so fortunate. In early 2008, Klein, Morris and several contractors were meeting in a construction trailer on The Vineyard discussing the development projects underway. “We’re way over budget and running out of time, and I’m sitting in on the meeting because I’m still the biggest creditor, and I want to know what they’re doing,” recalls Klein. An argument ensued. Klein became visibly irritated. “Conrad just goes, ‘That’s it,’ ” recalls Morris. “Literally he just gets up and walks out. I followed him out and said: ‘Conrad, you can’t do this! There’s a grading contractor sitting in there who’s owed a lot of money.’ He was getting real cautious, starts pulling back.” According to Mann, who also was present, when the group met again, Klein announced that, for the time being, no more money would be available. “I said, ‘I’m not giving you anymore money, that’s it,’ ” Klein tells THR. Mann says it was a “portent of the future,” adding, “He with the gold makes the rules, and that was Conrad.”
Throughout his arrangement with Dickens, Suzan, in her role as Alex’s guardian, had exerted constant pressure on Klein to foreclose on Dickens and find a more suitable buyer, one who could bring in his own funds. Debt had started to build. And, despite the solid relationship Dickens and Klein shared, Dickens had, technically at least, been in default from the beginning, as he later testified in court. Eventually, Klein’s decision to pull the rest of the funding from the $12 million line of credit set off a chain reaction that imperiled Dickens’ hold on the property. Jarred by Klein’s decision, another of Dickens’ creditors, a real estate company that had obtained a second trust deed, began foreclosure proceedings. In summer 2008, Dickens responded to these threats by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was Klein who had pulled the funds, but it also was Klein, says Dickens, who now told him that declaring bankruptcy would allow him to reorganize his debt and, perhaps, keep the property. “I think he’s said that I told him to file bankruptcy, and the answer is I never told him to do anything,” says Klein. “I was always very careful not to.” But while not exactly up for grabs, the fate of The Vineyard suddenly was in doubt. In this corner of Beverly Hills, an epic legal battle was about to begin.
Distinctive outdoor entertaining spaces at The Vineyard have been used at the celebrity-studded charity events that have been held there.
The contours of the legal storm that ensued are vast and complex. But within the space of a few years, the players who had been battling over The Vineyard settled into new and uncomfortable relationships. As Dickens maneuvered to get out of bankruptcy, he hired a lawyer who was prepared to make a case that Klein could be sued for “lender liability.” On April Fools’ Day 2010, a federal judge ruled that Tower Park Properties successfully had emerged from bankruptcy and Dickens was declared a debtor in possession — still in charge of The Vineyard. Dickens had a four-year plan to develop the land and, having reconciled with Klein, had secured another $7 million loan from the trust for developing flat lots, a road, helicopter pad and generator system. But no sooner had he emerged from bankruptcy, Dickens and Klein again were butting heads. About six months later, after funding $5.6 million of a new $7 million credit line, Klein again pulled funds from Dickens, then began foreclosure proceedings, which sent both parties back to court. “I don’t know why he did it,” says Dickens. “Maybe it was a power play.” Klein says he wanted a partner who had money.
Dickens’ salvation came in the form of an amiable ex-con with a killer Rolodex named Victorino Noval. During a visit to his Beverly Hills home, Noval, 53, sat at a large round table, sipping a lemonade and sporting square hipster glasses that masked a set of heavy-lidded eyes. An inflatable pink flamingo twice the size of a grown man floated in the backyard pool. A $294,000 white Rolls-Royce Wraith sat in the driveway. For several weeks, since returning from Cannes, Noval had been partying. He enjoys women, he says, and they enjoy him. “He’s like a jovial bigfoot,” says one person who has worked with him. “He views himself as a latter-day Hugh Hefner.” Noval was born in Cuba to Spanish parents. The Noval family got caught up in one of the Cold War’s longest-running disputes during the 1960s when, claims Noval, the CIA recruited his father, Victorino Noval Sr., as a paid asset in its continuing attempts to destabilize Fidel Castro‘s regime. In 1961, during the Bay of Pigs invasion, Noval says Cuban authorities caught Noval Sr. driving a truckload full of weapons for the counter-revolution; he escaped by ramming his truck through the gates of the Uruguayan embassy and claiming political asylum. He stayed there for a year, Assange-like, while his wife and children remained at home in Havana. Eventually, the rest of the family, including 5-year-old Victorino Jr., left Cuba; in 1966, they landed in L.A., where Noval quickly became an American. Even as a child, Noval dreamed of being in real estate, and he had a license by the time he was 18. He was ambitious, driven and had a hard time relaxing. His father had amassed a fortune in real estate. Noval Jr. wanted to make a name for himself.
But by the late ’90s, federal prosecutors were investigating Noval in connection with an elaborate $60 million mortgage fraud scheme. Prosecutors alleged that Noval and a partner had purchased inexpensive properties all over Los Angeles, inflated their values through cooperative appraisers, then recruited low-income people to buy them with loans from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to court documents. In 1997, Noval pleaded guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud. He spent three years at the federal prison on Terminal Island near Long Beach. Noval says he struck the deal to be closer to his three children. While he was there, he worked as the warden’s gardener.
Rihanna hosted a charity ball at The Vineyard on Dec. 11, 2014.
But now, says Noval in a soft voice, he has left all that behind him. He spends his time traveling with his friends, mostly to the Middle East and South America. For years, he says he has been lobbying the U.S. government to lift the embargo on Cuba. He throws charity parties, raising money for breast cancer, hungry children and a host of other causes. Noval doesn’t work, exactly, except to dabble in interesting projects that come his way, like one that appeared a couple of years after he left prison, when he started hearing about The Vineyard.
When Noval first met Dickens in 2007, he says he didn’t like him much. That Dickens had obtained such a valuable property for no money down seemed too improbable — even for a man with a biography as improbable as his own. But he saw that Dickens had a way with people, and soon the two became friends. And in late 2010, after Klein withdrew development funds from Dickens for the second time, telling him he couldn’t help him anymore, Noval got involved. He approached Dickens in December 2010 and offered to buy him out. Dickens, weary from the battle and eager to spend time with his family, took $1.5 million from Noval and returned to Georgia. Noval, through his own company, LA Starz LLC, began working with Klein. It didn’t last long. Within a month, by February 2011, Noval and Klein were arguing bitterly over contracts and payments. Noval pleaded with Dickens to return to L.A. and, when he did, returned to him the title of managing partner of Tower Park Properties LLC. Noval kept 40 percent in the company, and together the two were majority shareholders in Tower Park (Dickens and Noval say Rudich had retained a 20 percent stake, though Rudich would not confirm that. “I don’t want to have anything to do with those people,” Rudich told THR, declining further comment). After several more months of litigation, TPP and LA Starz entered into mediation with the Mark Hughes Family Trust in October 2012, a process overseen by a retired federal bankruptcy judge. Meanwhile, Klein had another problem to deal with. Alex Hughes had followed up where Suzan had left off, suing Klein and the other trustees in a bid to remove them. Alex’s attorney Eric Rowen subpoenaed Dickens, who testified in court about his long association with Klein.
As the trustee removal trial proceeded, TPP, LA Starz and the Mark Hughes Family Trust — Dickens, Noval and Klein — finally reached a settlement in January 2013, which specified a $57.5 million limit on the debt owed to the trust and a payment schedule. Judge Barry Russell, the country’s longest-sitting federal bankruptcy judge, approved the settlement. Meanwhile, Noval, who had accrued an eclectic and diverse set of friends and acquaintances over the years, reached out to one of them. Dickens and Noval, wanting to protect the man’s identity, only would say that he is a member of a prominent royal family in the Middle East and that he enjoys a good meal. “All those guys in the Middle East and Russia want to get their money over here,” says a source familiar with Noval’s contacts. “They’re all petrified that tomorrow morning they’re going to wake up and some guy from ISIS is going to be standing over their head.” Noval says the Middle East lender, eager to be part of a promising real estate deal in the financial safe haven of Beverly Hills, immediately wired Noval’s LA Starz LLC several million dollars, and Noval promptly paid a $5 million fee to the trust that also was part of the settlement. The Middle East money would continue to flow for the next several years.
Two months later, the removal trial concluded, and in March 2013, a judge ruled in Rowen’s favor, ordering that Klein and the other trustees be removed. L.A. Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff issued a rare and, for Klein, humiliating ruling that removed him and his two partners as trustees. Beckloff wrote that their actions as trustees were “a vivid illustration of imprudence” and called The Vineyard property Klein had sold to Dickens “the single most valuable nonliquid asset essentially owned by the trust.” A new trustee was chosen to look after Alex’s interests. “I was devastated,” says Klein. “We did a good job, but we did a bad job of being friends with Alex’s mom, and that was too bad.”
Noval and Dickens set about publicizing The Vineyard. The first efforts faltered. In March 2014, Charlize Theron threw a party on the property to benefit her Africa Outreach Project, but it devolved into a chaotic mess of poorly catered food, party crashers and malfunctioning porta-potties that ran out of toilet paper. One media report called it “a massive disaster.” Noval and Dickens persisted. “This is it in terms of the most exclusive land in America,” beamed the newly created website for The Vineyard, “the world’s most exclusive and private residential piece of real estate.” The property had evolved to the point that things like price and the number of lots nearly were irrelevant. “Someone who would come up here doesn’t have price as an issue,” says Hyland. “It’s not, ‘Can I afford it?’ It’s ‘Do I want it?’ “
Says Dickens, “It’s worth a billion dollars.”
To date, the Middle East investor has provided funds to cover every contingency, which has had the effect of cementing Dickens’ and Noval’s stewardship of the property as well as increasing the investor’s share of the holding. According to Dickens and Noval, he recently wired nearly $60 million into an account so that Dickens was in a position pay the debt specified in the settlement, which covers the sale price, development costs and interest, to the trust. (The new trustees objected to the settlement and still do.)
Klein recently appealed to have his status as Alex’s trustee reinstated, but this past April, a judge declined his bid. Klein says he continues to receive legal summons in the mail each week. “When is this going to end?” he asks. “My wife and I would love to, now that we’re retired, go off and live in peace. We’d like to die in peace. We are in the process of dying not in peace.”
Panoramic views of city lights, mountains and the ocean unfold from the grassy heights of The Vineyard.
In December 2014, Noval and Dickens helped Rihanna host a “diamond ball” charity event at The Vineyard. Salma Hayek, Jimmy Kimmel and Kim Kardashian attended. Also at the sumptuous hilltop on the star-studded evening was an old Vineyard familiar: Brad Pitt. He could have been talking about The Vineyard when, introducing Rihanna, Pitt jokingly referenced a line from Fight Club, “I’m just like the rest of you — I hate to see such potential squandered.” The fate of The Vineyard isn’t yet sealed. Ancillary lawsuits continue to simmer. Earlier in August, after months of bitter fighting, Dickens and Noval received a huge boost when a federal district judge ruled in their favor over an appeal that had challenged the legitimacy of the settlement agreement TPP had signed with the Mark Hughes Family Trust before Klein was removed as trustee. For the first time in more than a decade, Dickens says, “I exhaled.” Rowen was disappointed with the ruling. “Important issues were addressed inappropriately,” he tells THR. “Klein settled the bankruptcy litigation in a way that, among other things, gave TPP a $24 million discount.”
For all Dickens’ court victories, his history with The Vineyard has been strained. During the long months when the settlement was being disputed, the Middle Eastern investor, through his company, had obtained Dickens’ share of the equity in the land as well as an option to buy The Vineyard. The result of all this: If and when The Vineyard is sold, Dickens won’t make much money without further litigation. What money he does live on, he says, is “borrowed” mostly from the Middle East. The trust, meanwhile, with Alex as the beneficiary, hasn’t yet decided whether to accept the $57.5 million to resolve the debt provided by the investor that Dickens and Noval say is sitting in a Beverly Hills bank account.
Still, Dickens believes he has a strong lawsuit against the current trustees alleging contract interference. Dickens says when the new trustees objected to the terms of his settlement with Klein, it stripped him of millions in potential income. He and several of his advisers say the suit could be worth tens of millions of dollars. Noval claims lawyers approach him all the time, offering to take the case on a contingency basis. “It makes me feel great that we won but makes me feel hollow that all I’m left with is a lawsuit,” says Dickens.
The property, meanwhile, continues to enchant. Dickens visited The Vineyard recently. Wearing jeans, a loosely flowing white shirt and loafers, he hopped into a golf cart and moved uphill from the steel gates that guard the entrance toward the summit. At plot No. 3, he got out and ambled along a graded stretch of perfect green. The ocean glowed in the distance. A few birds drifted by. Dickens claims he recently turned down a $350 million offer, though he declined to name the buyer or present evidence of the offer. More funds, rising into the billions, soon might be made available from the Middle East to pursue other development projects.
When pressed, Dickens finds solace, and a whiff of the familiar, in the biblical story of David and Goliath. “I always felt like David,” he says. “What I’ve learned and how I’ve grown far outweighs the monetary gain. I’m stronger and better for having gone through all this.” Hyland, who has his own elaborate dreams about the architectural wonders that could be constructed on the property, says that Dickens and Noval, while improbable victors, did what no one else could. “I deal with Chip and Victorino and the investor,” says Hyland. “Everybody wants to get involved in this and claim they have an ownership right or some obligation due to them, and it’s all bogus.” Hyland predicts a tsunami of lawsuits in continued fallout over The Vineyard. “The day of judgment is approaching,” says Hyland.
Says Dickens: “All these people were painting me out to be the stupid one all these years. But I was the one who was able to hold on to the property.” It’s been 12 years since he first started dreaming about The Vineyard. Klein says his years of acquaintance with Dickens has left him mystified. “He’s a very complex character,” says Klein. “He’s both brilliant and unsophisticated. He’s enigmatic.” Dickens’ wife finally moved out from Georgia in July. They bought a house four doors down from Noval.
Back at The Vineyard, Dickens got back into the golf cart and continued on up to the sixth and highest plot, with unfettered views of the entire city. Who knows, he says — after all that work, maybe nothing ever will get built here.
Maybe it’s just a good way to do more deals.