How a local restaurateur fell from grace

How a local restaurateur fell from grace

Eva Christian chronology:

July 1997: Cafe Boulevard opens in Dayton’s Oregon Historic District.

February 2007: Cena Brazilian Steakhouse opens in front of the Dayton Mall.

April 7, 2009: Cafe Boulevard files for Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy, continues to operate.

April 18, 2009: Eva Christian files for Chapter 7 (liquidation) personal bankruptcy.

August 2009: Cena Brazilian Steakhouse files for Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy, continues to operate.

October 10, 2009: Eva Christian reports break-in at her Washington Twp. home, files an insurance claim five days later.

Dec. 24, 2009: Christian reports vandalism and burglary incident at Cena Brazilian Steakhouse, and later, after police leave, a fire is reported in the restaurant.

March 4, 2010: Under pressure from creditors, Cena bankruptcy case is converted from reorganization to liquidation (Chapter 7).

July 19, 2010: Cincinnati Insurance Company, which had paid a $52,000 settlement to Christian for the home break-in and burglary, files civil lawsuit against her.

Cafe Boulevard, now operating at Boulevard Haus, emerges from bankruptcy after successfully reorganizing.

March 18, 2011: Christian is indicted on four counts of insurance fraud and making false alarms; a count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity is added later.

May 22, 2012: After a two-week trial, A Montgomery County jury convicts Christian on all five felony counts.

June 6, 2012: Judge Barbara P. Gorman sentences Christian to nine years in prison; prosecutors say she faces deportation upon release.

Evidence at her trial last month showed that Eva Christian set one of her restaurants on fire and staged a break-in at her private residence, then sought thousands of dollars in insurance settlements to help resolve her financial woes.

It didn’t work. Instead, the 44-year-old restaurant owner is starting a nine-year prison sentence, losing her Washington Twp. home and facing possible deportation when she emerges from prison sometime in 2021.

The punishment represents a humiliating fall from grace for a woman who has owned and operated a respected Oregon District restaurant for 15 years.

“I’m sad for her, for her family, her employees and her patrons,” said Shanon Morgan, president of the Miami Valley Restaurant Association. “She has been a big part of the restaurant industry here for many years.”

An early success story

On her Facebook page, Eva Brcic Christian lists her hometown as Dubrovnik, Croatia. She grew up in Germany and has German citizenship. Eva Brcic met Rodney Christian in Germany, where he was stationed while in the military. The couple married July 18, 1992, two months after the birth of their son, Julian, now 20. It was her second and his first marriage.

The family eventually moved to the Dayton area, where Eva worked in restaurants, including a brief stint at the fine-dining standard-bearer at the time, l’Auberge.

Eva Christian founded Cafe Boulevard on East Fifth Street in the Oregon District in the summer of 1997. It was a stylish place that offered appetizers such as smoked salmon and baked Camembert. The restaurant — enhanced by a picturesque patio and later a martini bar — attracted a steady stream of diners and multiple chefs over several years.

Eva and Rodney Christian filed in November 2006 to dissolve their marriage, with Eva keeping the family’s home on Saint Laurent Circle in Washington Twp. and a 2002 Mercedes 320 as part of the final decree. She also kept her interest in Cafe Boulevard, and in what was then the soon-to-open Cena Brazilian Steakhouse. The restaurant served its first customers in July 2007, serving a variety of meats carved tableside.

A year of financial turmoil

Christian’s finances unraveled in 2009. That year, she filed three separate bankruptcy petitions: one for her personal finances and two for the Oregon District and Miami Twp. restaurants she owned, listing a combined total of $2.7 million in debts. Both restaurants were still operating, however, as Christian worked to reorganize their finances.

In July 2009, the restaurant owner was featured in a front-page story in USA Today that focused on small-business bankruptcies, telling the national newspaper, “When I decided to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, I felt crushed. But my attorney said that Donald Trump did it, and GM did it, and Delta did it. It gives people the opportunity to bounce back.”

But the problems persisted, especially for Cena. Christian’s own monthly reports, filed in bankruptcy court, showed Cena was still losing money. Court officials would later conclude she was overstating the restaurant’s revenues, meaning the actual losses were even larger than what her ledger sheets were showing.

In the fall of 2009 — within three months of the USA Today story — Christian conspired with a couple and their son to stage a break-in and burglary at her Washington Twp. home in order to collect an insurance settlement for items that would be reported stolen from the residence, according to court documents and testimony from Christian’s trial.

The three family members — all of whom would later go to prison themselves for a subsequent, unrelated theft in Englewood — removed from Christian’s home televisions, computers, jewelry, purses, rare coins and cash in dollars and European currencies. Christian filed a claim, and the Cincinnati Insurance Co. paid nearly $52,000 to cover the cost of the stolen items and the damage done to her home. Meanwhile, the “burglars” stored the items for several weeks, then returned the goods to Christian, prosecutors said.

When investigators obtained a search warrant, about two dozen items in Christian’s home closely matched the descriptions of items Christian had reported stolen, prosecutors said. Christian testified that she replaced the stolen items by buying similar merchandise, but had no receipts for the purchases because she bought them at garage sales and flea markets.

Targeting her own place

Christian had the $52,000 insurance settlement, but the red ink still flowed at Cena. On Dec. 23, 2009, National City Bank (now PNC Bank), which was owed about $245,000 for a loan it had made to Cena in 2006, filed documents with U.S. Bankruptcy Court claiming the restaurant failed to make three consecutive loan payments totaling $15,000. The payments had been agreed upon when bankruptcy protection was sought.

Paul Spaeth, an attorney who was a trustee in both Christian’s personal Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy and Cena’s Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy, testified at trial that the bank’s filing threatened Cena’s survival. If a judge ruled in favor of the bank, the bank could start liquidating Cena’s property, and that would have likely caused the bankruptcy case to be converted to a Chapter 7 liquidation. The reorganization plan would be finished, and the creditors would start taking what they could to satisfy Cena’s debts. Cena would be finished.

Christian again turned to Darryl Adams Sr., one of the same co-conspirators who had participated in the staged break-in at her home, to damage Cena so she could collect another insurance settlement, according to prosecutors and testimony from Adams’ wife, Diane Jones. It was set up to happen Christmas Eve after the restaurant had closed.

Christian saw the damage done to her restaurant and, prosecutors believe, wasn’t satisfied. The damage wasn’t severe enough to generate a large settlement check.

Shortly after police investigators cleared the scene, a fire was reported at the restaurant. Christian was the only one at the restaurant. Christian acknowledged that she had been smoking inside Cena — “I did smoke and I was very upset,” she told a Dayton Daily News reporter a day later — but she said she did not know how the fire started. Initially, investigators said the fire appeared to have been caused by improper disposal of smoking materials.

But Bruce Van Dorpe of Fire Investigation Services, who was hired by Erie Insurance Company to investigate the cause of the fire, reported that no ashtrays or cigarette butts were found in the restaurant’s office.

Van Dorpe concluded in his report that the “probable cause of the subject fire was determined to have been the result of a human act.” There was a short time for the fire to develop, about 10 minutes, he said. “The lack of a viable ignition source being present in the immediate fire area suggests the use of an open flame, such as a lighter, to ignite the available combustibles,” his report said.

Escalating damage

Investigators and insurance adjustors noticed something else peculiar: The damage to the restaurant appeared to escalate in subsequent visits.

One exhibit entered by prosecutors during the trial was a chart based on three damage estimates done by Mike Jaskolka of the Greater Dayton Construction Group. The first two were done from a Dec. 29, 2009, visit to Cena. The first estimate was $24,350, the second just over $31,000. But after a Jan. 5, 2010, visit, a third estimate jumped to nearly $104,500. Two toilets, including one used by Jaskolka on his prior visit, now needed to be replaced, according to testimony from several witnesses.

Christian filed an insurance claim with the restaurant’s insurance company for the vandalism, fire damage and water damage from the sprinkler system’s activation. Christian told the Dayton Daily News in the days following the incident that the vandalism was “a very malicious thing to do” and said she felt bad for the more than 30 employees who were out of work because of the incident.

In March 2010, a bankruptcy court judge granted creditors’ request to convert the Cena bankruptcy case from Chapter 11 reorganization to Chapter 7 liquidation and ordered the restaurant’s assets liquidated. Christian said in an interview at the time that she was “devastated by the situation that caused the ultimate closure of Cena. Had the break-in not happened, I’m sure we would have pulled out of bankruptcy by the end of the year.”

Assistant Montgomery County Prosecutor Mary Montgomery holds a different view.

“Cena was bleeding money every month,” Montgomery said last week. “Cena was going down. Cena was not going to come out of Chapter 11.”

Christian acted from both greed and spite, Montgomery said. Bar furniture was slashed. Knowing she was facing liquidation if her bankruptcy was converted to a Chapter 7, Christian wanted to make sure that no one could use the appropriated property.

“I think it was a vindictive act,” Montgomery said.

During the trial, a portion of testimony that was not fully explained appeared to suggest an even more dangerous side of Christian. It came when prosecutors questioned Darryl Adams Sr. about his prior statements to detectives. Adams, an inmate at Chillicothe Correctional Institution, testified May 8, eight days before he was released from prison. In that testimony, Adams denied nearly all of his prior statements to investigators, including that he shot someone in the leg for Christian.

After the trial, Montgomery said that Adams gave no details about who the victim was or when it occurred. But he seemed scared to be connected to the gun he used to fire shots at Christian’s house, the prosecutor said.

A judge’s tongue-lashing

A grand jury indicted Christian in March 2011 on four counts of insurance fraud and making false alarms. Subsequently, a count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity was added.

Christian’s trial started in early May of this year. Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Barbara P. Gorman presided over the trial.

Christian took the witness stand in her own defense and denied any wrongdoing. The jury heard several days of testimony and viewed more than 400 prosecution exhibits from law enforcement officers, insurance company specialists and fire department officials. Among the witnesses was Adams’ estranged wife Diane Jones, who testified that Christian essentially recruited her and her husband and her husband’s son to become part of Christian’s insurance fraud scheme.

The jury deliberated for about five hours over two days before reaching a verdict of guilty on all charges on May 22.

After the conviction, and while she was being held in the Montgomery County Jail awaiting sentencing, Christian sent a hand-written letter to Judge Gorman that said in part, “I would never commit such a senseless, selfish act, jeopardizing my life, future, and my business that I have had for 15 years. This is not my character.”

Christian also told the judge that 24 Boulevard Haus employees depend on her for their livelihood, and said her 20-year-old son “needs me.” She remained defiant about the jury’s decision to convict her, saying she “cannot confess to a crime I have not committed.”

Christian’s attorney, Bobby Joe Cox, requested probation rather than prison time for his client, noting that she had no criminal record.

During sentencing, Gorman made it clear she was not moved by either the letter or by Christian’s emotional pleas for leniency.

“I don’t think you know the difference between the truth and a lie,” Gorman told Christian. “These offenses may sound nonviolent, but your plan could have hurt a lot of people. ... You conspired with someone to blow up your unsuccessful restaurant.”

Cox told Judge Gorman the verdicts and sentence will be appealed, although he said the appeal would be handled by a different attorney because he does not do appellate work.

When the judge informed Christian that if she could not afford an attorney for her appeal, one would be appointed for her, Christian told the judge she had enough money to hire her own lawyer. Her plea to be freed on bond during the appeal was denied by the judge, who told her, “I do believe you are a flight risk.”

Other legal woes

Because Christian is not a U.S. citizen and has been convicted of felonies, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will move to deport her after her release from prison, according to agency spokesman Khaalid Walls. Because she has been a legal permanent resident, Christian will have an opportunity to challenge the deportation and appear before an immigration judge, Walls said.

By law, according to prosecutors and the judge, Christian must relinquish her home, because it was used in the commission of the insurance fraud and corrupt activity. It will be forfeited to the state so it can be sold, with the proceeds going toward law enforcement.

Even while free on bond awaiting trial, Christian’s legal woes worsened. On April 2, Christian was charged in Dayton Municipal Court with operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OVI), a charge that was later reduced to failure to maintain physical control. On May 31 — after her felony convictions but before she was sentenced — Christian pleaded guilty to the reduced charge and was given an 180-day suspended jail sentence.

And Christian also is involved in a civil lawsuit with the insurance company that paid her the $52,000 settlement. The Cincinnati Insurance Co. sued Christian in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court to force her to answer questions about the claim that it paid to her. She initially refused, citing her Fifth Amendment rights protecting against self-incrimination. A judge has ordered her to submit to being interviewed under oath by the insurance company’s attorneys, ruling that she can seek to invoke her Fifth Amendment rights in response to certain questions, and the judge would determine whether she must answer.

It is unclear what impact her conviction and prison sentence will have on the civil lawsuit.

Boulevard Haus still open

It’s also not clear what impact Christian’s prison sentence will have on Boulevard Haus, which successfully emerged from bankruptcy and continues to operate. Donald Stamper, a longtime employee, said the restaurant will continue to operate as usual.

“We’re definitely going to stay open,” Stamper said. “Our entire staff has pulled together as a team.”

On Thursday, officials transferred Christian from the Montgomery County Jail to the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville so she could begin serving her sentence.

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