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Rattlesnake Island Revealed! 

A Glimpse Inside Bob Serpentini's Exclusive Lake Erie Getaway

All Matt Boggs wanted was a cool job. And what could be cooler than working at a private club on a place called Rattlesnake Island?

Boggs was familiar with country clubs. While studying at Kent State, he'd worked at Twin Lakes as sous chef, learning the ins and outs of serving the wealthy - respect, manners, discretion. And he liked island living. In 2007, he'd spent the summer managing St. Hazards Resort on Lake Erie's Middle Bass Island. So when he saw the online ad seeking managers for Rattlesnake Island, he sent in his résumé. Not that he was optimistic. The Rattlesnake Island Club, which owns the small island two miles west of Put-in-Bay, is perhaps the most secretive and exclusive country club in Ohio. The cost to join is purported to be around $90,000, and the identities of its 68 members have never been revealed.

Days later, though, Boggs got an e-mail from a woman named Anastasija Pak-Galvin. Nastia, as she called herself, was the RIC's club manager, a Lithuanian expat who, he would later learn, had married the club's chef, Bay Villager Terrance Galvin. She asked Boggs to meet her for an interview at a steakhouse in Independence during the first week of May.

Arriving at the restaurant, Boggs was greeted by caretaker Keith Folk, the only yearlong resident of the 85-acre island. But Nastia did most of the talking. She said she planned to have children and wanted to train a replacement before the kids came, someone who could manage front-of-house business - keeping the books for the club's small boutique, supervising the bartenders and servers, setting up appointments for the on-call masseuse, stuff like that. They needed someone accustomed to island life, someone who wouldn't go crazy from the isolation. Boggs' experience on Middle Bass set him apart from other candidates.

To Boggs it sounded like a grand adventure. But that wasn't the end of the interview process. The president of the RIC's board of directors - Bob Serpentini, the successful auto-dealership owner ("American and proud of it!") - wanted to meet with him as well.

Serpentini asked Boggs to come out to Ken Stewart's Lodge in Bath to interview with him and fellow board member Gary Taylor, chairman of the board of telemarketing giant InfoCision. While Serpentini chatted on his cell phone, Taylor quizzed Boggs on his résumé -where had he worked before, what experience did he have working with international students, etc. When he was done, according to Boggs, Serpentini looked at Taylor and asked, "Any more questions?" Taylor shook his head, and Serpentini turned to Boggs and said, "You can leave now."

It was a strange, off-putting meeting, and for the next two weeks, Boggs considered taking another job on Mackinac Island instead. Then the caretaker called and told Boggs he was hired. But Boggs' island adventure was no vacation. THE OTTAWA INDIANS named the island for the two craggy islets on the north end, which resemble a snake's rattles. During Prohibition, it was rumored to be a bootlegging station, but it appears that Toledo entrepreneur Hubert Bennett was the first person to build a house on the island, in 1929. He floated logs from the mainland to build a cabin with a servant's wing, a guest cabin, dining hall, a small electric plant and gas generator, as well as a 185-foot dock, according to the RIC's website (rattlesnakeislandclub.com). Most of the historical structures have since been modified by the club, turned into party pads for this poor city's upper class.

After Bennett died, the island passed through many hands. At times, Rattlesnake Island was a summer retreat for Catholic boys, a sanctuary for Barbary sheep and a public resort. One owner, Dr. James Frackelton (who would eventually become another member of the RIC), established his own post office there, under a little-known federal law that allows privately run posts where the government does not provide regular service. Frackelton's stamps are must-haves for collectors.

The current owners are secret investors who bought the island for $4.6 million in 1998.

Visits to places like the Catawba Inn on the mainland or the Boardwalk at Put-in-Bay will likely turn up barnacled barflies who will tell stories about how Rattlesnake is a hideaway for Cleveland mobsters, though there's little evidence to support these theories. Frackelton believes a previous owner started the rumors to scare people away from the island during the winter months, when you can walk to it from Middle Bass; people had been trespassing during the off-season and stealing mementos.

Lake Erie charter captains know not to take tourists to the island without a member's permission. And if you try to dock your boat, someone will turn you away. Unless you know an RIC member, the best view you'll get of Rattlesnake Island is from atop Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial.

A few of the members can be identified through public records. A liquor license purchased in 1999 lists Bob Serpentini as the president of the island's board of trustees. Listed as vice president is Victor Arsena, a local contractor who was sued, along with his brothers, by the U.S.

Department of Labor in 2004 for transferring $765,000 from their employees' retirement plans for their own benefit. The case was settled in 2005, when he and his brothers agreed to pay back the money with interest.

The Ottawa County auditor's office shows that the island is divided into 15 parcels, on which some RIC members have built homes. Frackelton has his own lot. So does Gary Taylor. Former CEO of Charter One, Bud Koch, has a place there too. As does Cincinnati developer Craig Hilsinger, Kenmore Construction owner William Scala and Nathan Zampelli, a manager of Zampelli Construction Inc. At least two lots were purchased by limited-liability companies using third-person agents.

Beyond these few scant records and unreliable scuttlebutt from the mainland, not much was known about this exclusive club and how it operates. But then Matt Boggs started talking.

 

JUDGING FROM Boggs' descriptions, Rattlesnake Island is not nearly as opulent as its secrecy suggests. Sure, there's the Golden Pheasant Inn, where there's no cash register because everything is billed to your account, and Chef Galvin will "prepare anything to your exact wishes," according to the club's website. But the golf course is only four holes - nine if you play it again backward and then down the middle of a runway for the final hole. The hot tub hasn't worked for years.

Rattlesnake Island is staffed mostly by beautiful young women from Eastern Europe, who are hand-selected from dossiers that include their pictures, says Boggs. They come from places like Moldavia, Belarus and Ukraine, though most are also students of Lithuanian Christian College's International University, a school devoted to "servant leadership," a belief that one should sacrifice selfish desires if they do not benefit the group as a whole. That may be why the women, who are paid minimum wage, also pool all their tips so that Nastia can distribute them evenly among the entire staff.

Boggs, who accepted the job in part because of the tips he thought he would earn and who once got a $100 tip on four beers, was miffed about sharing his loot with the landscaping crew. When he complained, he was told he was being too "American." Suddenly, the job on Mackinac Island was sounding better, but it was too late. "By that time, all my stuff was on the island," says Boggs. "What was I supposed to do?"

Boggs says he also encountered resistence when he suggested a different hiring philosophy. He noted that most of the women were business and economics students, with no restaurant experience. Why not hire people who wanted to work in the serving industry? Nastia, once an LCC student herself, didn't like that idea at all, says Boggs, and seemed to complain about his presumed greed to anyone who would listen. Things came to a head when Nastia demanded to inspect Boggs' bedroom.

There are two dorms on Rattlesnake Island for the 25-28 staffers who cater to the members during the summer season. Essentially, the dorms are three mobile homes pushed together, with a common room in the middle. The first week, Boggs watched Nastia inspect the other staffers' bedrooms, "showing them how to clean the shower and toilets, like they were children," he says. Then, she asked to see his room.

"I thought she was joking, but she was serious," he says. "I never let her do it and told her the entire practice was an invasion of the students' privacy and rather insulting. We're talking adults here, not sixth-grade camp kids."

The workers' only days off were Mondays. Leaving the island was expensive - $50 each way - so most weeks, the women just stayed on Rattlesnake. Boggs took trips to South Bass on Mondays until Folk, the caretaker, suddenly demanded that Boggs start clearing those trips with him first.

Boggs also took issue with their system for waste management. Everything that could be burned was placed in an incinerator behind the men's dorm. And each night, Boggs would see someone outside, stoking the flames and burning their garbage. "When I asked Keith [Folk] about this, his response was simply that they only have their garbage picked up once a year," he says. "I just thought it was odd that it was not in their budget to simply pay to have a normal garbage pickup."

And then there was the "masseuse," as she's known on Rattlesnake. She is a gorgeous sporty-looking blonde from the Toledo area who visits Rattlesnake if members call the island in advance to request a massage, says Boggs. Boggs met her inside the Golden Pheasant. He had to ask other staffers why the woman was helping herself to drinks behind the bar. He was told, "She can do what she wants."

Online, the masseuse advertises massotherapy provided "anywhere in the country" and claims she is a licensed massotherapist. But the Ohio Medical Board, which licenses massotherapists working in the state, has no record of anyone by her name. She did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The members of the RIC, Boggs knows, will spend a lot to feel good. "The strangest thing that happened to me up there was this one member came up to me and said, 'I've got $10,000 in my pocket. I'll give you $3,000 if you bring a Russian girl back to my place.'" Boggs says he politely declined. But there was no happy ending for Boggs. On July 6, as everyone was cleaning up after the busy holiday weekend, he noticed the foreign women waving goodbye to him, as if they knew something he didn't. Then Folk came up on his golf cart. Normally, Boggs just walked back to the dorms. On the ride back, Folk informed Boggs that he'd gotten a complaint about him over the weekend. Boggs was told that the wife of RIC member Doug Price (CEO of the K&D Group) had said that he was rude to her. And now Folk had to let him go.

"He wouldn't tell me what the complaint was about," says Boggs. (The only contact Boggs recalls having with Price's wife was when the woman sitting beside her had asked for cigarettes and gave him $5 to track some down.) "It was very bizarre. He said it was Bob Serpentini's decision." Boggs believes he was fired because he didn't agree with Nastia's management style.

Folk gave him a ride back to the mainland on a boat and left him there, jobless, in the middle of summer, when other resorts had already hired their crews. He filed for unemployment, and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services ruled in Boggs' favor, stating that "the employer has supplied general information that does not cite specific dates or incidents."

Boggs tried to contact Serpentini, but the auto king told him to call back later and then didn't answer when Boggs called back. "He pretends to be 'American and proud of it,'" says Boggs. "But Bob Serpentini doesn't favor hiring Americans on his staff. It's cheaper to hire these women from Russia."

 

SERPENTINI AGREED to be interviewed for this story, but then backed out before the meeting. For a man known for self-promotion, it's an odd way to treat the media.

Serpentini's life is a made-in-America dream. According to a 2006 Akron Beacon Journal profile, Serpentini worked his way up from a washboy at Spitzer Dodge in Brook Park to owning five Chevrolet dealerships that now gross more than $300 million a year.

His closest friend is Ken Stewart, of Ken Stewart's Grille in Akron and Ken Stewart's Lodge in Bath. The two met at a health club in Montrose in 1993, according to the Beacon Journal. Since then, they've been nearly inseparable, often going on vacation together with their wives and children. For his birthday, Stewart once bought Serpentini a pair of cuff links engraved with "K" for Ken and "B" for Bob.

Though Stewart is not an RIC member, says Boggs, Serpentini often takes his friend to the island.

Many evenings, Serpentini can be found at one of Stewart's restaurants, eating at a table in the corner or sipping an Absolut Citron with soda and lemon at the bar. Cleveland Scene caught up with him at the Lodge one evening as he was standing outside the restaurant with another RIC member, George Zampelli, who flies to Rattlesnake in his helicopter. When asked why Boggs was fired, Zampelli says, "I have a pretty good idea." But Serpentini cuts him off. "Don't say a word, George," he says. He then demands that I leave. Zampelli, whose business constructed the Lodge and whose name is inscribed on a plaque beside the door, walks inside to find the manager.

"Matt Boggs was let go because he was rude," says Keith Folk, when reached on the island. "It wasn't a good fit. It wasn't working out here." He refused to elaborate.

"I don't know why he was fired," says member Frank Ilcin, a partner at Deloitte & Touche. "If you want to write your article, write your article. But you'd better know your facts, or you'll get your balls knocked off. Look, I'm not trying to be a prick or anything, but we're a private island. We're kind of free to do what we want to do."

I also contacted Chef Galvin, who agreed to share what he knew only if Boggs signed a letter authorizing him to release the information and only if that letter was notarized and mailed to the island. Later in the conversation, he became frustrated, and asked, by name, how my wife and young son were doing - like a heavy in a B movie trying to sound threatening. It is unclear how he obtained personal information about my family.

Nastia did not want to talk either. She hung up the phone as soon as Boggs' name was mentioned. Through their assistants, Doug Price and Gary Taylor said that they would not participate in any article about Rattlesnake Island.

 

MATT BOGGS recently found a job at another private resort, though he kept his experience with Rattlesnake off the application, for fear of what the island staff might say if contacted. He's more weirded out by his experience at Ohio's most private resort than angry at his dismissal. "It was like The Twilight Zone," he says, shaking his head.

He wonders about the two Russian women, Ireana and Zima, who were supposed to contact him after they got their Social Security cards. They were unhappy on the island, he says, and wanted him to find them jobs on the mainland. He hasn't heard from them since he left. A friend of his who speaks Russian called the island to check on them, only to be told they had gone home early, though Boggs himself has no way to verify this. "That's Rattlesnake," he says.

jrenner@clevescene.com

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