- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A thriving French bakery that helped revive a stretch of a major boulevard has become a symbol of betrayal for Robert Smylie.

The women behind the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood’s La Maison Du Pain on Pico Boulevard said a trip to Paris inspired them to open a neighborhood bakery. Carmen Salindong and her sister said they took out second mortgages, sold property and pooled their life savings to do so.

“It was a wonderful story - but it wasn’t true,” said Smylie, 67.

Instead, court documents say the women embezzled $5 million from Smylie’s law firm, where Salindong’s sister-in-law kept the books, the Los Angeles Times reported (https://lat.ms/1JxGC5T).

The FBI is now investigating, and the bakery is likely to close after a judge’s ruling that its assets be sold to repay the stolen money.



Smylie started a real estate law firm in the early 1990s with Salindong as his office manager. Her sister-in-law, Esterlina “Lina” Santos, kept the books. In 1998, Salindong began using her authority to write checks to pay off personal credit cards belonging to her and her extended family, according to court records. Santos falsified the books so that the payments looked like legitimate recurring expenses.

Smylie said he never caught on to the scheme.

He said he discovered the theft after spending 12 years on the brink of financial ruin — and that he confided in the women about his financial worries. He told them how he mortgaged his Malibu, California, home and then lost it to foreclosure and wanted to send his daughter to private school but couldn’t afford it.

Meanwhile, Santos was living in a million-dollar Westchester, California, home and sending her daughter to an elite, all-girls school.

Salindong opened the bakery with her sister, Josephine Santos, after Smylie let her go for unrelated reasons. Esterlina “Lina”Santos continued bookkeeping while taking over Salindong’s responsibilities.

The bakery thrived.

The sisters brought in top-of-the-line French ovens and hired a French chef. They also used embezzled money to take lavish vacations and buy luxury cars.

Smylie began unravelling the theft in 2010, tipped off by a call from a bank fraud investigator. He hired a forensic accountant who concluded that the women stole at least $5.7 million.

Last year, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lisa Hart Cole found the women guilty of “death by a thousand cuts,” saying they systemically stole millions. She ruled that Josephine Santos was not directly involved in the theft but complicit for taking some of the money.

Salindong declined requests from the Times for comment. Santos could not be reached.

Smylie is trying to reach a settlement that would have the sisters turn over ownership of the bakery, but they have refused so far, he said.

“These people are amoral,” he said. “They’ve never apologized. They’ve never shown any form of remorse or contrition.”

___

Information from: Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/

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