Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Leona Helmsley: 'The Queen of Mean'

Tax-Fraud Troubles

Dunnellen Hall, arial photo
Dunnellen Hall, arial photo

In 1983, real estate tycoons and hoteliers Harry and Leona Helmsley bought the weekend retreat of their dreams. The newly acquired 21 room estate, known as Dunnellen Hall, was situated on 26 sprawling acres in Greenwich, Connecticut. The cost of the enormous house and surrounding property was a staggering $11 million.

Although the property was beautiful by most standards, the Helmsleys decided that they wanted to make changes and a lot of them. Several years of remodeling and redecoration went into the house, totaling some $8 million dollars. It was an outrageous sum of money they were reluctant to pay, despite the fact that they were worth well over a billion dollars. They were even more hesitant to shell out the taxes due on the extra expenditures. Instead of paying up, the Helmsleys chose to take an illegal route. Greed would eventually get the better of them.

During and following the work on the house, a group of contractors, including decorators, gardeners, painters and landscapers, attempted to collect on the money owed to them for their hard labor and materials. To their dismay, they learned that the Helmsleys were unwilling to pay the bills. Leona claimed that much of the completed work was inadequate and they were being grossly overcharged. Angered and frustrated, many of the contractors were forced to file suit against the Helmsleys. Leona and Harry eventually settled some of the outstanding debts but by then it was too late.

Harry and Leona had grossly underestimated the contractors. Those who had worked on the renovation and remodeling of the house knew that much of the work they had performed for the Helmsleys was being billed to some of Harry's other properties. Although it was not an uncommon practice to falsify business expenses in order to evade taxes, it was highly illegal. Exasperated with the manner in which they were treated, the contractors decided to wage their own campaign against the Helmsleys. They wanted the world to know that the work they were doing on the mansion was being written off as a business expense and they had the invoices to prove it.

Palace Coup
Palace Coup

According to Michael Moss' book Palace Coup: The Inside Story of Harry and Leona Helmsley, the contractors mailed a stack of invoices to the New York Post, resulting in the release of an article in 1985 revealing to the world how the Helmsleys did business. It wasn't long before the government caught wind of the Helmsleys' illegal business practices, instigating an investigation that would eventually land Harry and Leona in serious legal trouble with the IRS and ruin their reputations for years to come.

It took three years, but eventually the Helmsleys were indicted. They faced 188 counts of tax fraud for illegally charging more than $4 million of personal expenses to Helmsley Enterprises subsidiaries and conspiracy to defraud the government of over $1 million in personal income taxes. To make matters worse, Leona, in particular, faced federal charges of extortion and mail fraud. However, the Helmsleys were not the only ones to be indicted.

Harry & Leona Helmsley in 1989
Harry & Leona Helmsley in 1989

Two ex-staff members, Frank Turco and Joseph Licarci, who had been previously employed by Helmsley Enterprises were also charged as accomplices to Harry and Leona's scheme to defraud the government. Allegedly, the two men were believed to have falsified documents and conducted fraudulent practices, among other crimes, in an effort to assist the Helmsleys in hiding their growing expenses. They, too, were to stand trial for their alleged crimes. Moreover, there was a good chance that all four would spend a considerable amount of time behind bars and be forced to pay back taxes to the government.


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