The conman who stole the home of Oscar-nominated art director Ross Bellah and then wired the proceeds to his sister in Tel Aviv before fleeing the country has confessed to Deadline that the money should be returned. Aron Shlain is also cooperating with the attorneys for the trust fund that had been established to provide for Bellah’s widow, Eunice, who died in 2012. If recovered, a portion of the $2.8 million a judge has ordered him to repay will go to the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which was one of the Eunice’s beneficiaries.
“I am available for deposition,” Shlain told Deadline in a telephone interview from Israel. “We can do it over Skype, but I will speak only to people involved in the case.”
His main reason for talking appears to be to implicate his ex-wife, Alla, in his scheme to steal the Bellahs’ home in Studio City, although there is no proof she had any knowledge of his crimes. “She knew everything,” he claims. “This is why the house should go back to Eunice. Everything should go back to Eunice’s estate.”
“Everything” includes the mansion on Mount Olympus where Shlain’s ex-wife now lives and the expensive jewelry he says he bought her with the money he stole. Much of the rest of the money he stole was either squandered on his lavish lifestyle or lost in the stock market — or so he says.
Shlain was cagey and evasive when interviewed by Deadline. Asked if he ever intends to return to the U.S., he said: “Maybe. I don’t know. You can never say never. Who knows?”
Asked why he stole the Bellahs’ house, Shlain, who had been their longtime tax accountant, said: “I can’t tell you that.” Asked why not, he said: “Because I don’t want to. I don’t want to talk to you. You are just a journalist, or maybe not, and are going to misrepresent something in the press. I really don’t want to discuss this anymore.”
Asked if he feels bad about stealing their house, he said: “I am not going to answer that.” Then, in the next breath, he said: “I know a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you.”
While he refused answer questions about the theft, his acknowledgment that the funds should be returned is tantamount to a confession. Not that one is necessary: In 2011, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roy Paul entered a default judgment against Shlain, ordering him to pay $2,819,312 to Eunice’s conservator. The judge ruled that Shlain had committed “financial abuse” against Eunice by causing her “to lose her primary residence and the proceeds from the sale thereof, and substantial loss of property set aside for her retirement and for her personal care and maintenance.”
“We will try to recover what exists,” said Liat Cohen, the attorney representing Eunice’s trust fund. “I believe he wants us to recover it.” Cohen, who spoke to Shlain two weeks ago, said that he gave her an accounting of the money he stole from the Bellahs. “He gave an itemization of what he did with the money,” she told Deadline. “He spent $300,000 to pay off the mortgage on the house on Mount Olympus; $200,000 to remodel his own house in Netanya, Israel; $180,000 to buy his wife Alla jewelry, including a Tiffany white and gold diamond necklace; $60,000 for an engagement party for his daughter; $150,000 for the wedding; $100,000 for vacations and trips; a gift of $20,000 he gave his daughter, and $200,000 he lost in the stock market playing options.”
“He said the same thing to me a couple of years ago,” laughed attorney Alex Gordon, the conservator for Eunice who got the default judgment against Shlain. “I think he’s trying to get to the point where he can come back here. He gave me information about what happened with the assets and how his wife was complicit and spent $100,000 on his daughter’s wedding.”
Added Gordon, who is no longer involved in the case: “If he comes back to the States, they’re going to get him. One of the lawyers indicated to me that the DA had him in the system.” The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office declined to say whether it has sought a warrant for Shlain’s arrest.
Recovering the money he stole may be no easy matter; the courts will have to decide whether the jewels and the house on Mount Olympus legally belong to Shlain – which would allow Eunice’s trust fund to seize them – or whether they legally belong to his ex-wife as part of their divorce settlement, which could put them out of reach of the trust fund, which has appraised the house at $2.5 million.
For Gordon, however, it’s a no-brainer. “During the time of the elder abuse, he was in a divorce proceeding, and when he left the country, his wife got a judgment against him for everything. She got a judgment awarding her to the entire community estate. She never gave notice to the trust or the conservatorship, even though she knew about it, and the trust is now saying, ‘Hey, that was a community asset, and we have a judgment for malfeasance. You can’t take it all and shield it from that judgment.’ ”
Shlain and his ex had an ugly divorce. In a petition seeking a restraining order, she accused him of punching her so hard in the stomach that she “thought he broke my spinal cord.” Deadline reached out to Alla through her former attorney, but did not hear back.
Ross Bellah had once been one of Hollywood’s top art directors, working in the art department at Columbia Pictures Television for 35 years and retiring as the head of the department in 1989 at age 82. He was the art director on hundreds of episodes of Bewitched, Fantasy Island, I Dream Of Jeannie and other hit TV shows. He’d been nominated for an Oscar in 1957 for The Solid Gold Cadillac and received three Emmy nominations along the way. But his greatest pride was the home he designed for his artist-wife in Studio City, complete with a studio where she could paint, and a Japanese garden that his neighbors called “an oasis.”
Shlain had been his accountant since 1986, and when Ross’ health began to fail in 2003, Shlain got him to sign a document making him his successor trustee. That meant that in the event of Ross’ death, Shlain would become the trustee of their estate if Eunice were ever to be declared incompetent. Ross died the next year at age 97, and Eunice continued to live in the house until 2008, when Shlain put her in a convalescent home and found two doctors who declared her incompetent. He was then in charge of her finances and in control of her estate.
On August 28, 2009, he sold her house, a separate guesthouse, and two lots on Bellingham Avenue for $900,000. According to court records and subpoenaed documents, Shlain also sold two of her cars and listed for sale on Craigslist her personal possessions — including her sketches and artwork dating back to the 1930s, and her two wheelchairs and walkers. Court documents show that he then put the money from the sales into his own CPA account, wired the money to his sister, Natalya Vronsky, in Tel Aviv, and after closing his accounting office on Wilshire Boulevard fled the country.
His sister, who also goes by the name of Ida Shlain, declined comment. Asked if he knows Natalia Vronsky, Aron Shlain said: “Of course I know Natalia Vronsky, but I’m not going to answer any more questions about this case.”