Their paths first crossed on Jdate, the online dating service for Jewish singles in search of life-long partners.
Robbie Johnson, a Florida real estate agent who made a bundle selling "equestrian" properties and luxury homes, believed she'd found a soulmate that day on Jdate. But Mitchell Gross, the Marietta author of a fantasy trilogy and murder mysteries, had his eyes on a different prize. And so began the lies.
That first encounter, they chatted online for hours and then had a long phone conversation. Three days later, he flew to Ft. Lauderdale to meet her.
Gross must have seemed to be quite a catch.
He told her Steven Spielberg had optioned three of his murder mysteries, according to outlines of what happened in three years of federal court filings by Johnson. Filming and production had already begun with actors Pierce Brosnan, Alan Rickman and Kirsten Dunst cast in starring roles, he said. Yet another book was optioned with Bruce Willis and Diane Lane in the lead roles.
But none of that was true. Nor was it true what he wrote about himself inside his books: that he held a doctorate in neuropsychology and was once a member of the U.S. National Fencing Squad, having won more than 35 titles worldwide.
Beginning the day they met face to face June 14, 2006, Gross moved quickly in his pursuit of Johnson.
He told Johnson he felt like he’d known her for decades, that he was taken with her, according to court records. He said he believed they’d be married and live together forever.
They both agreed to remove their profiles from Jdate. He took her to meet his family; she held “meet Mitch” parties for her friends and agreed to remodel her son’s room to make an office for him. They went on ritzy vacations to Japan, Brazil and Panama.
Just as Gross hoped and planned, Johnson fell in love with him, she said in court filings.
Within 18 months, a recent federal indictment alleges, Gross had swindled the Wellington, Fla., real estate agent out of almost $3 million.
Gross, now 61, was arrested by IRS agents on Oct. 6 at the home of his new fiancee and charged with wire fraud and money laundering. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is being held without bond pending trial.
It marked a dramatic turn of events for Gross, who until recently was driving a Corvette and honing his swing at the Golf Club of Georgia.
The indictment alleges that before Gross defrauded Johnson, he did the same thing to an Atlanta lawyer he’d lived with for more than a decade, bilking her out of $1.4 million. Federal prosecutors and lawyers familiar with Gross’ past say they have documented a breathtaking string of Gross’ cons, crimes and lies that spans decades.
“He ended up selling everyone on the fiction that he was a prominent author and on the ridiculous fantasy that people were making movies on his books,” said New York attorney Richard Garbarini, who represents Johnson. “In reality, he was a failed author and the title of one of his books -- ‘Circle of Lies’ -- should be of no surprise to anyone who came in contact with him.”
Gross did have one talent, said Garbarini, who has been trying to recover Johnson’s lost investments. “He’s good at conning vulnerable women," he said. "He fed into it and he acted with complete impunity.”
Gross’ lawyer, a federal public defender, declined to comment on the accusations.
Gross attended South Texas College of Law, from where he was asked to resign for breaking into an administrative office to alter his transcripts, according to court records. In 1976, he earned his law degree at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.
By 1990, three clients had accused Gross of embezzling their funds and failing to maintain adequate records. He argued it was inadvertent, attributing it to mathematical ineptitude and an untrustworthy bookkeeper.
The Georgia Supreme Court didn’t buy it. It disbarred Gross and ordered him to cease practicing law.
That didn’t stop him. Gross continued to hold himself out as a lawyer and represent clients in various matters. But his brazenness caught up with him. In 1992, he was convicted in Cobb County for practicing law without a license and given a three-year sentence, with 20 days in custody and the rest on probation.
Even so, Gross kept his hand in legal field. The following year, publishing companies sued Gross for copyright infringement, contending he had illegally copied their CD-ROMs of appellate court decisions and sold his pirated versions at steep discounts. Federal judges ordered Gross to stop.
In 2000, he was convicted in Cobb County once again, this time for insurance fraud for filing an auto accident claim listing himself and his father as victims. But his father wasn’t in the car. In fact, he wasn’t even alive. This time, Gross was sentenced to only probation.
By now, Gross was living with Jane Schlachter, an Atlanta domestic relations lawyer. Gross had also begun his fantasy trilogy under the pen name “Mitchell Graham.” The trilogy was published between 2003 and 2005 by a HarperCollins imprint. He dedicated the first book, “The Fifth Ring,” to Schlachter -- “For Jane, who is all my reasons.”
The recent federal indictment against Gross accuses him of conning Schlachter out of $1.4 million much the same way he allegedly swindled Johnson.
According to federal prosecutors, Gross’ scam went like this: He told his lovers he was independently wealthy, thanks largely to his broker, Michael Johnson of The Merrill Company. Johnson invested funds through a special bond program that provided safe and profitable returns, Gross said.
Gross, while defrauding Robbie Johnson, went to great lengths to convince her that Michael Johnson was legitimate, prosecutors said. On one occasion, he gave her the broker’s phone number and told her to call him. He warned her about the broker’s unusual voice, the result of having his larynx removed due to throat cancer.
When she placed the call, Gross -- not Michael Johnson -- was on the line. Gross was using a pre-paid phone and a device that disguised his voice, the indictment said. Later, Gross showed Robbie Johnson fake IRS forms that falsely reported the dividend and interest income she earned.
In April 2007, Gross told her he’d asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to audit Michael Johnson’s investment business. He gave her a letter, with a fake SEC letterhead, from the office of general counsel that said it found no irregularities, the indictment said.
“Michael Johnson himself has testified before the U.S. Congress on at least six separate occasions, not only for this agency but the Justice Department as well,” the letter said. “In addition, he has been a senior member of the Council [sic] of Economic Advisers [sic] to four presidents and enjoys tremendous respect within the industry.”
All completely false, federal prosecutors said.
By March 2008, Robbie Johnson finally figured out she had been duped by Gross. Days later, she filed a federal lawsuit seeking to recover her lost investments. Months later, Gross reached a settlement in which he admitted to defrauding Johnson and also signed a $2.94 million consent judgment against him, court records say.
Since then, Johnson has received just $12,000, according to contempt motions filed by Johnson’s attorneys. Johnson’s lawyers say Gross has all the while continued to live a lavish lifestyle and hidden his assets.
Johnson’s frustration boiled over earlier this year when she filed a second lawsuit, this time against Gross, his publishing company, Schlachter, the Golf Club of Georgia and others. The suit says these defendants received money Gross stole from Johnson and must return it to her. The Golf Club of Georgia in Alpharetta recently settled with Johnson, court records show.
Prosecutors say Schlachter was one of Gross’ victims. But Johnson’s suit contends otherwise and notes that Gross sent $206,000 in checks to Schlachter from 2006 to 2008.
Ryan Isenberg, Schlachter’s lawyer, called the claims “ridiculous and offensive.”
Gross stole more than $4 million from Schlachter, he said, asserting that while Gross was wining and dining Johnson to win her over, he was doing so with money he’d stolen from Schlachter.
Schlachter believed the money she later received from Gross was restitution, Isenberg said. “Any intimation that my client was ‘in on it’ with Mitchell Gross is not only a reckless and defamatory lie, but also re-victimizes my client yet again,” he said.
This summer, a federal judge in Atlanta signed an order allowing Johnson’s lawyers, accompanied by deputies, to seize Gross’ computers to help them determine what he was doing with the money.
When they arrived at the home of Gross’ fiancee on May 11, deputies saw a .38-caliber handgun and a .22-caliber Long Rifle that Gross admitted were his, said Atlanta lawyer Clay O’Daniel, who also represents Johnson and was at the home to seize the computers. Gross was then arrested for being a felon in possession of firearms. Those charges are pending.
While going through Gross’ computers, Johnson’s lawyers say in court motions, they found evidence showing how Gross hid his assets and perjured himself to conceal his wrongdoing.
Johnson’s lawyers said they found something else in the computers: glowing reviews Gross had written under assumed names of his own books and then posted on bookselling Web sites like Amazon.com.
“There’s so much he did it’s almost impossible to grasp the whole big picture,” O’Daniel said. “It’s truly remarkable he was able to pull so much off for so long.”
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