Hoax author's twisted tale


By Caroline Overington
August 21, 2004

A note signed by Norma Khouri.

Hoax author Norma Khouri has been on the run from the Chicago police and the FBI for more than five years. Now, they are about to catch up with her.

A source within the Chicago police department told The Age yesterday that they had reopened a metre-thick file on Khouri - whose real name is Norma Toliopoulos - with the aim of charging her. "We believe she is a con woman," the source said. "One of the best we've ever seen."

After a month-long investigation, The Age can today reveal that Khouri, 34, is alleged to have spent the best part of 10 years stealing from friends, lovers, family, and the sick and demented. She has netted at least $1 million from her crimes, perhaps more.

Chicago police were on the verge of issuing a warrant for her arrest in 1999 but she took flight, eventually resurfacing in Australia, where she wrote the best-seller Forbidden Love. The Sydney Morning Herald's literary editor, Malcolm Knox, last month revealed the book as a hoax. Documents since obtained by The Age show that, in 1996, Khouri took 97 US government bonds worth $US408,000 ($A563,000) from a safety deposit box owned by her elderly, demented neighbour, Mary Baravikas. Police believe Khouri also stole the old woman's house and $US33,000 in cash that was also in the deposit box.

Khouri has also been accused of taking $US40,000 from a man who claims he was her lover. According to documents obtained by The Age, a man called John Closterides told Chicago police in 1999 that he had a romance with Khouri.

He said he wanted to marry her but, according to notes made by a police investigator, Khouri told him that she had "multiple real estate holdings . . . and she feared if she got a divorce, her husband John Toliopoulos would get all her money". He gave her $US40,000 so she could transfer one property to her own name but Khouri refused to show him the house.

Mr Closterides eventually went to the house, and found Mary Baravikas, 90, living there.

According to the Office of the Public Guardian in Chicago, which is now responsible for Mrs Baravikas' legal affairs, Khouri stole everything the old woman had.

First, she convinced the old woman to put her name on a safety deposit box that held cash and bonds. "That is very easy to do, when somebody is old and frail," said Dawn Lawkowski, an attorney at the Office of the Public Guardian.

Khouri then forged Mrs Baravikas' signature on a power-of-attorney document. She then signed the woman's house into her own name and borrowed against it. Then she took the bonds and cashed them.

When police visited Mrs Baravikas, she told them that Khouri's mother, Asma Bagain - who had been her friend and neighbour for almost 20 years - had "warned her that (Khouri) was not to be trusted".

Police obtained a letter that they believe was written by Khouri before she fled the US.

"I am not running from the Chicago Police Department or the FBI," Khouri wrote, but from people who were guilty of "theft, fraud, counterfeiting, arson, money laundering, murder, extortion . . . I have to get away from them".

"If I talk, I would need to disappear . . . I know they won't hesitate to kill me or the children in order to keep me quiet."

Another note, which also bears the first part of Khouri's signature, reads: "I f up. I signed the bonds. I did it all." Police never issued a warrant for Khouri's arrest, in part because they believed she was in Greece. Instead, they arrested her mother-in-law, Zoi Toliopoulos for "theft by deception in that she assisted her daughter-in-law (Khouri) in deceiving an 89-year-old victim (by) having victim sign over her money".

The Office of the Public Guardian is now trying to get the $US408,000 from the bonds back. "We've had to refer it to the Secret Service," Ms Lawkowski said.

Lawyers from the Office of the Public Guardian last week met Chicago Police detectives, who have reopened the file on Khouri.