A career con man brings his talents to Cleveland’s art world

white-collar baddies Collinwood

Six years ago, Zachary Coleman looked like a godsend to the founders of Arts Collinwood. They were trying to turn the abandoned storefronts and ghostly corners of Waterloo Road into the Tremont of the East Side. Coleman seemed perfect to lead the charge.

He was smart and charming, a wealthy lawyer from Bratenahl with an abundance of free time. With his closely cropped beard and tailored suits, he had an air of effortless gentility that put him at ease among the pedigreed set. He also came highly recommended by his wife, Betty Vandenbosch, an associate dean at Case Western Reserve's Weatherhead School of Management, who was known for her dedication to the arts. Soon, he was voted chairman of Arts Collinwood's newly formed board.

That's when things got weird. Coleman began taking control of the finances, keeping the books at home. He set up different committees, appointing himself chairman of them all. And though the nonprofit group was on a shoestring budget, he lobbied to spend its scarce resources on big fund-raisers with valet parking, catered food, and invitations that cost thousands of dollars.

He was trying to reel in blue-blood donors, he explains. But "we weren't attracting anything of the sort," remembers executive director Sarah Gyorki.

Finally, Gyorki had enough. No one was looking over Coleman's shoulder, and she worried that he would bleed the organization to death. She tried to resign, but she had helped found the group — and her parents were among its biggest donors. The board begged her to stay.

Months of wrangling followed. Coleman tried to turn the blame on Gyorki, saying she should have applied for more grants. She countered that her hands were tied, because he was keeping the books at his house. It got so bad that they stopped speaking.

Board members took sides. Some resigned. It looked like the fight would kill the group in its infancy.

"It was really horrifying and scary and confrontational," remembers Cindy Barber, owner of the Beachland Ballroom and a board member at the time. "There was a lot of conflict on the board as to who to believe."

Only after an outside consultant sided with Gyorki did the board finally ask Coleman to step down. The whole episode might have been dismissed as another bureaucratic catfight, a fur-flying episode common to the arts world. Then the people of Collinwood discovered how much they had escaped.

Isaac Coleman Jr. grew up in Cleveland in the 1950s, raised — as he likes to mention at appropriately sympathetic moments — primarily by his mom. She took him to the orchestra and the art museum. He learned early the value of cultural smarts and impressive résumés, and he would later brag of degrees from Amherst College and Columbia Law School.

But his real history suggests he's a ladder-climber of more sordid accomplishments. In the late '70s, when his résumé claims he was in a New York law school, he was actually in Cuyahoga County, pleading guilty to writing bad checks.

By 1983, he had resurfaced in New York City with a new name, calling himself Courtney Isaac Saunders and landing a $63,000-a-year job in Mayor Ed Koch's human resources department. His credentials seemed impeccable. Along with the Ivy League education, he claimed to have been a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm headed by Joseph Califano Jr., the former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter.

Coleman fit in well at City Hall. Burt Neuborne, an NYU law professor, remembers thinking he was a lawyer for the city. Neuborne liked him so much that he considered recruiting him for the faculty of NYU.

"He was a very impressive guy," the professor says. "I had no reason to believe, when I was talking to him, that he wasn't a good lawyer. I could see how he could fool a lot of people."

But two months into the job, city officials finally conducted the requisite background check. Turns out Coleman hadn't gone to Amherst or Columbia; nor had he worked at a D.C. law firm. What he had done was rack up more than $3,000 in personal expenses on the city's dime — everything from plane tickets to stays at the Ritz. This scam won him a conviction for attempted grand larceny.

But prison only brought time to conceive fresh schemes. In 1989, he answered a woman's personal ad in The New Yorker, then ran up charges on her credit card as soon as he was released.

By 1994, he was introducing himself by yet another name — Zachary Coleman — and had amplified his credentials. Now, he wasn't just a lawyer, but had run restaurants as well. He moved to Kansas City and started dating Teresa Petrovic, the chief financial officer of a real estate company. A mutual friend introduced them, and she fell for him quickly, allowing him to move in. Within three months, Coleman was gone. But he left a parting gift: Petrovic discovered that he had used her name and Social Security number to apply for a Citibank Diners Club card. Luckily, the bank checked with Petrovic before the card was issued.

But he seemed to have found his life's calling: betraying women who were disarmed by his charm. Coleman's motives were less about pure theft than an addiction to the finer comforts of life — stays at the Four Seasons, lavish parties, and fine suits. And he knew how to manipulate wealthy women to get them.

Despina Gurlides was an advertising exec who hoped to sublet her Manhattan apartment for two months while she vacationed in Greece. Enter Coleman, who claimed to be a freelance writer recently returned from South Africa. He was well dressed, elegant of speech. Though intuition told Gurlides to be cautious, she was desperate for a tenant. She never thought to lock away her financial files before she left. "I was sort of naive," she admits.

An immaculate apartment, fresh flowers, and a dinner invitation from Coleman awaited her when she returned from Greece. He said he had broken up with his girlfriend back in Cleveland. Gurlides got the impression that he now wished to be more than just her tenant. She turned him down, and he left quietly the next day.

A week later, however, she got a call from the bank, asking if she was enjoying her new credit card. Apparently, her "friend" Zachary Coleman had applied for cards in both of their names.

"Aw, shit," she thought.

Turns out Coleman was also using her MasterCard for everything from plane tickets to alcohol. When the final damages were tallied, he had burned through $17,600.

Gurlides reported the theft to police. A detective told her to let him know if she heard where Coleman had gone. In the meantime, she tried to repair her financial life, canceling her credit cards and bank accounts. "It was pretty hellish for a while, because I didn't know what was gonna happen," she says. And it wasn't over.

A few weeks later, her mail mysteriously stopped. It was being forwarded to Coleman somewhere in Massachusetts. Gurlides talked to a postal inspector, who began looking into Coleman's past. The inquiry would reveal more thefts — and a perpetrator without shame. He'd stolen a briefcase from a men's room at the Kansas City airport, using an American Express statement he found within to buy plane tickets. He'd even applied for credit cards using the Social Security number of his cousin, Rodney Coleman, a retired Shaker Heights lawyer.

As the inspector's probe continued, Gurlides' ordeal got even stranger.

One day she got a phone call from a woman asking for Coleman. They had gone out once, the woman said, and now Coleman was back in town. He had invited her to a homecoming party he was throwing himself. Incredulous, Gurlides explained what Coleman had done to her and asked for the caller's help.

The party was just four blocks from Gurlides' apartment. Coleman was subletting another swanky place from a wealthy owner, faking his tax returns to show he could afford the rent, Gurlides says. Caterers were delivering flowers, food, and liquor when police knocked on his door.

At first, Coleman played the offended socialite. "What is this about?" he demanded. But when Gurlides stepped up to identify him, he just rolled his eyes.

He was arrested that night for grand larceny, but posted bail and remained free for two years until the U.S. Attorney's office in New York brought federal charges against him. He was indicted for multiple counts of fraud for the scams involving Petrovic, Gurlides, his cousin, the man whose briefcase he had stolen, and a woman named Teresa Bosch, whose mail he had stolen. In a unexpected twist, Coleman decided to serve as his own lawyer, referring to himself in the third person as he cross-examined witnesses.

The prosecutor discovered that Coleman had been arrested 14 times in seven states and laid claim to eight names, three birth dates, and six Social Security numbers. After a weeklong trial, it took the jury only a few hours to convict Coleman on all counts. His impressive arsenal of aliases made it so easy for Coleman to move unnoticed that Judge Sidney Stein labeled him "a danger to the community" and refused to release him while he was awaiting sentencing. Yet even Stein was impressed by Coleman's legal skills.

"I think you've wasted great gifts," the judge told him. "You're articulate, you're intelligent, and you've devoted those gifts to a history of financial crimes and defrauding people."

Stein sentenced Coleman to nearly five years. The judge could only hope that this time, after Coleman had spent two decades betraying those who got close to him, he would finally learn his lesson.

At least one person believed he would.

Sitting in the courtroom as the trial concluded was Coleman's latest girlfriend, Betty Vandenbosch. The Canadian immigrant had short-cropped hair and an affection for cooking, sailing, and the underdog. She also possessed the two things Coleman craved in his victims: wealth and pedigree.

Vandenbosch had a home in Bratenahl, was a professor at Case Western Reserve, and had made a name for herself in Cleveland's close-knit arts world. She served on the boards of DANCECleveland and the Cleveland Music Settlement, where her son went to school. She was also a longtime friend of Sarah Gyorki's father, Miles Kennedy, who'd also been a Case professor. "Betty is absolutely what she says she is," Gyorki says.

Undeterred by the parade of women who took the stand to describe how Coleman had exploited them, Vandenbosch stood by her man. She even helped pay his bail while he awaited trial.

Four months after his release in 2001, the couple married.

It seems astonishing that a business school professor would marry a man with a zest for financial crimes — and a career built on betraying women just like her. It wasn't a decision Vandenbosch took lightly. "I'm not here to say that Zachary Coleman duped me," she says. "I knew the kind of person that I was marrying, and I believed that he deserved another chance."

They bought a $600,000 mansion in Bratenahl and a $22,000 boat, and joined the Edgewater Yacht Club. Coleman says he cooked, cleaned, and entertained guests at her faculty parties. His wife's wealth and prominence bought him entrée into higher circles.

They became the quintessential power couple, attending Democratic Party functions and arts fund-raisers, rubbing shoulders with the likes of politicians such as Eric Fingerhut, Tim Hagan, and Peter Lawson Jones. Coleman liked to wax poetic about being raised in poverty by a single mom and gleaning inspiration from great arts institutions like the Cleveland Orchestra. The tale he told was one of triumph, how he rose above adversity to become an Ivy League success.

Elite Cleveland lapped it up. In addition to running his consulting firm, ZBK Partners, he served as executive director of Race for Success, which was raising money to build an African American Business Hall of Fame. Cleveland Heights businessman George Fraser, who spearheaded the project, remembers Coleman as "an Ivy League graduate, a brilliant attorney."

Then there was his arts work, which Coleman expanded after leaving Arts Collinwood. He moved on to the boards of Art House, a nonprofit near Old Brooklyn that provides classes and promotes artists, and the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, one of the area's biggest cultural agencies.

"Art had always been important in my mother's life and in my life," Coleman says. He wanted to make sure other children got the same opportunities.

None of the groups had any idea about Coleman's past. And at least one had high praise for his service.

"I've had fantastic interaction with him. I have found him to be an excellent member of the board of trustees," says Amy Craft, executive director of Art House.

It was a plush lifestyle, and Coleman might have ridden it for years. But he couldn't resist slipping back into old habits.

Four years ago, when he was still on good terms with Arts Collinwood, Coleman launched a small venture with Gyorki's father, Miles Kennedy. A retired professor, Kennedy is a beloved figure in Collinwood. He and his wife, Nancy, helped found Arts Collinwood and have invested much time and money in creating an arts district.

Coleman told Kennedy that he was a real estate developer and suggested they buy a building on Waterloo Road to house galleries. They would be equal partners, and Coleman would manage the project, Kennedy remembers.

But two years after purchasing the structure, it housed no gallery. Coleman claims renovations cost twice as much as budgeted. Kennedy has another take: "In my opinion, he turned out not to be so good as a real estate developer."

Coleman had also resumed his trademark scam. He opened an American Express card in Kennedy's name, then ran up $24,700 in charges. Some of the purchases were genuine business expenses, Kennedy says. Others were for travel and clothes, and Kennedy never gave Coleman permission to open the card.

Finally, in 2006, Kennedy bought Coleman's stake, then sued him, alleging that Coleman owed him at least $20,600 in addition to the credit-card fraud. The case is still in court.

When Kennedy was contacted by Scene, the disgust in his voice seemed palpable. But because they are still battling in court, his lawyer had urged him not to talk.

Meanwhile, the rest of Coleman's carefully constructed life was unraveling. Last fall, the hedge fund Manchester Partners sued his consulting group, claiming Coleman had defaulted on a $25,000 loan. Coleman never bothered to defend himself, and the judge issued a default judgment.

Then, last August, the final blow came. A decade after she saw Coleman's litany of scams exposed in a New York courtroom, Vandenbosch filed for divorce. Her complaint alleged that Coleman had hidden some of his criminal past from her and "committed other acts of fraud to induce her into marriage." He'd also begun to threaten her.

During one argument, she wrote in an affidavit, Coleman picked up a sledgehammer and repeatedly slammed it into a door, scaring her so much that she called police. She asked for a court order barring him from their house.

Realizing that a divorce would entail agonizing exposure of his past, Coleman went into attack mode. He sent his wife an e-mail, detailing how expensive a long court battle would be and noting that "the only person who benefits from an ugly protracted war is your faggot motherfuckin' lawyer . . . The other question is, do we need the hassle, embarrassment, reputation risk, legal risk (to both of us) and plain grief so that the cocksucker can afford another visit [to] Disneyworld?"

His wife was undeterred. By October, the couple was divorced. Vandenbosch took a job as a dean at the online Kaplan University, moving to Florida to start a new life.

Back in Cleveland, Coleman wasn't faring as well. As more lawsuits against him appeared on the court docket, word of his past leaked through Collinwood. He clung to his new identity, trying to hide behind the name he'd adopted since he'd left prison — Zachary Coleman — and to distance himself from the criminal records listed under Isaac.

When first interviewed by Scene, he pretended this was all a mix-up. "People have relatives," he said. "It could be a relative of mine."

Still, he wasn't behaving like an innocent man. Within two days of speaking to a reporter, he resigned from the boards of Art House and the Community Partnership. It happened so quickly and with so little explanation that Art House director Craft still didn't know of Coleman's past by the time a reporter called. "I am unaware of any of this information," she said.

Thomas Schorgl, president of the Community Partnership, was in the dark as well. All he knew was that Coleman sent the group a resignation letter on April 10, saying that he was moving to Washington, D.C.

Wherever Coleman was going, he had good reason to run. Bratenahl police confirm that there is a warrant for his arrest, but won't talk about the case or release any records.

Three weeks after his first interview with Scene, Coleman requested a second interview. Fittingly, he suggested a meeting at the downtown Ritz.

He arrived late, wearing a blazer and jeans, but without the famed bravado and charm of his high-roller days. He looked tired and unexpectedly old. White hair, trimmed close to his head, framed a gaunt face. With legs professorially crossed, hands folded in his lap, he spoke slowly and quietly.

He still claimed Scene had the wrong man, though his denials sounded curiously like a confession. "Regardless of whether it's true or not, whatever life I had is over," he said. "Assuming it is true, it has the same result."

He complained that Scene's inquiries had already blown his chances of starting a new life. He said he felt "exploited" and asked for more time to get his family's affairs in order before telling his full "backstory."

Finally, realizing his pleas were in vain, he resorted to threats. "I've already talked to a lawyer about filing a lawsuit," he began.

Then he mentioned the name of the reporter's apartment building, asking how she liked it there. The not-so-subtle message: I know where you live.

But in the end, he seemed to understand that his words were meaningless. He walked back toward the Ritz's elevators and disappeared.

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