|By Ruffin Prevost, Billings Gazette,
Mont.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 3, 2009 - CODY -- A former Red Lodge real estate broker who pleaded guilty in January to writing a bad check for $155,000 is being sued in Park County for $200,000.
Jeanne Rizzotto, who has been in the national media spotlight for raising two chimpanzees as family members, has faced legal difficulties in her efforts to develop a series of planned, high-end recreational vehicle and golf resorts.
A Powell taxidermist and his wife, along with his parents, filed a complaint in December in District Court in Cody alleging that Rizzotto defrauded them after promising a 50 percent return on their investment within one year.
Steve Werbelow declined to comment on the pending litigation, other than to state that neither he nor his parents, Clarence and Barbara Werbelow, were wealthy, and none of them could afford to lose the $100,000 that each couple loaned Rizzotto. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defendant declined to comment, and Rizzotto did not respond to messages left seeking additional information.
The complaint alleges that Rizzotto offered the Werbelows promissory notes described in writing as being for sale only to accredited investors, a category of high-net-worth individuals that does not match their financial profile.
Rizzotto planned to use the money to repay herself part of $400,000 she said she was owed by Of Course RV Resort, a corporation formed to develop a Red Lodge property.
Clarence and Barbara Werbelow wired $100,000 to Rizzotto in October, but were never issued a promissory note, while Steve and Kathy Werbelow loaned Rizzotto $100,000 and received a promissory note in November, the complaint states.
The suit alleges that Rizzotto has "failed to pay anything on the promissory notes, even though plaintiffs have made demands for payment" and that she has "refused to return any of plaintiff's repeated inquiries and demands for repayment."
It further claims that, under state and federal laws, the notes are unregistered securities and should not have been sold to unaccredited investors such as the Werbelows.
In Billings, District Judge Gregory Todd last month ordered Rizzotto to transfer ownership of four Red Lodge area properties to James and Connie Casey, to whom Rizzotto has owed $155,000 since writing a bad check in January 2008.
Rizzotto issued a press release a year ago stating that the planned 190-acre Of Course development was "the first of many motor coach resorts in the nation to include a designer golf course," including other properties with pun-based names.
The March 2008 release said that planning was under way on six RV and golf properties, including the Hole in Juan resort along the San Juan River in northern New Mexico and the ParForFore resort near the Grand Canyon.
Rizzotto appeared in justice court in Red Lodge last month, where a not guilty plea was entered on her behalf for a misdemeanor public nuisance charge stemming from an incident in which one of her chimps allegedly bit a woman.
A pre-trial hearing is set for May 12 on that matter, while a status hearing is scheduled for April 27 regarding the ordered property transfers. No trial date has been set in the Wyoming civil lawsuit.
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