The phony French life of a Clovis horse breeder and the lies of her doctor-husband who faked her death caught up to them Thursday when a Fresno jury ruled they committed fraud in the sale of a Parlier ranch four years ago.
Jurors deliberated less than three hours before finding that Dr. Michael Weilert, 61, and his 50-year-old wife, Genevieve de Montremare, had committed fraud in selling their ranch to a Southern California couple who contended Weilert and his wife concocted a story about de Montremare's French ancestry and faked her death in order to jack up the price.
Beyond the legal issues, the lawsuit, which was filed in March 2009, exposed a strange family story.
Weilert is director of Pathology & Clinical Laboratories for Community Regional Medical Centers and is a founding member of Pathology Associates in Clovis.
His wife grew up in Lindsay as Genevieve Sanders and was once the National Raisin Queen. But in 1991, she legally changed her name to Genevieve Marie de Montremare and began telling friends that she was French royalty and that her French family has been breeding horses for 1,000 years.
That same year, she married Weilert, who admitted on the witness stand that he went along with his wife's phony claim of being a member of the House of Rochechouart, using such titles as Sylviane Genevieve Marie Victurnienne de Rochechouart-Mortemart, Dame de Vivonne and Princesse Tonnay-Charete.
Weilert testified that there might be truth in his wife's account of being of French royalty. "It has something to do with a great-grandfather that is connected to the family, to that history," he told jurors.
But he also told the panel that his wife lied about being a medical doctor who was looking for a cure for cancer and being an expert on horse genetics. Weilert said he faked his wife's death because "she is very ill and her desire was to be dead. She wanted to be left alone."
The purported death of Genevieve de Montremare from leukemia in 2007 rocked the world of Friesen horse aficionados, who often traveled to the couple's Clovis ranch for horse shows and for keurings, which are physical assessments used in breeding, the Associated Press reported.
De Montremare was not allowed to testify at the trial, a penalty imposed by Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan because Montremare refused to participate in pretrial depositions. According to court records, she suffers from depression and a fear of public places, AP reported.
Weilert wrote his wife's obituary in late 2007 and told others she had died of leukemia, said Daniel Spitzer, attorney for the plaintiffs, Dr. Brian Gwartz and his wife, Cheryl Skigin. Spitzer call de Montremare "the ultimate puppet master."
According to Spitzer, Weilert faked his wife's death to evoke sympathy from the buyers. He was able to carry out the scheme because "he is a respected member of the community" and the buyer relied on him to tell the truth, Spitzer told the jury.
Attorney Steven Paganetti, who represents Weilert, tried to keep the jury focused on the sale contract that said Gwartz, an anesthesiologist and a competitive horse-carriage rider, and Skigin, a lawyer, bought the ranch "as-is."
Paganetti didn't have a defense for the Weilerts' strange tale, saying it was wrong for Weilert to pretend his wife was dead. "He is embarrassed and humiliated," Paganetti said. But de Montremare's phony life and fake death had nothing to do with the sale, he contended.
The jury ruled that Weilert and his wife failed to live up to several oral agreements with the buyers and intentionally failed to disclose important facts about the property. It awarded Gwartz and Skigin $700,000 in damages the difference between the $2.3 million selling price in May 2008 and the $1.6 million appraisal value.
But the case isn't over. Monday, both sides will return to court for the next phase of the trial. In their verdict, jurors ruled that the conduct of Weilert and his wife was so egregious that they should be held liable for punitive damages to not only punish them for committing fraud, but to stop them from doing it again.
"We are pleased with the verdict," Spitzer said, while Skigin cried. "Hopefully, my clients can put this sad chapter behind them."