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Is Winston Lum a criminal mastermind or a patsy? 

Wednesday, Aug 4 2010
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In Lum, Niroula seemed to have found a gullible sidekick.

This story echoed ones told to other alleged victims of Niroula's. In 2007, he apparently conned the president of New College of California into giving him academic credits and the ability to obtain a student visa on the promise of a $1 million donation to the school. The donation never came. When Niroula's scheme was revealed, regulators yanked the school's accreditation, causing it to collapse.

Later, Niroula allegedly posed as a wealthy investor in Hawaii. Claiming he had a fortune tied up overseas, he stole more than $50,000 from a Japanese woman, according to her lawyer. Niroula then told a Silicon Valley technology executive that he was an international art broker with connections to the British royal family in order to obtain a $400,000 deposit on a painting he never delivered. In August 2008, he was accused of befriending a failed Marin County video producer to steal $300,000 worth of jewelry. Niroula is now in a Palm Springs jail awaiting trial on charges he conned and robbed an elderly man and murdered him.

For Lum, Niroula concocted a special version of his standard yarn. Rather than reveal he'd been jailed in connection with his alleged swindles, Niroula said he was supposedly locked up on domestic violence charges contrived by his partner, who he said was Shirley Hwang. She was maneuvering to usurp some of Niroula's assets while he was preoccupied with visa problems and cancer treatments.

Hwang was actually a San Francisco real estate investor who'd never met or even heard of Niroula. But she happened to have bought prime and conveniently empty luxury condominiums on the 48th, 49th, and 55th floor of One Rincon, which Niroula had identified with the help of a real estate agent.

To Lum, Niroula had a simple, compelling story: "He was about to get deported by an angry Asian woman," he says.

Lum opened the letter. Niroula wrote that he was anxious to get started with tennis lessons. The two men went out for Chinese food. "Then he said, 'Let me buy you dessert,'" Lum recalls.

Niroula proceeded to turn on a particular version of the charm described by patrons of several Castro bars, who had seen Niroula toss around $100 bills, playing the part of a billionaire Nepalese prince. They went to a wine bar, where Niroula ordered expensive bottles of dessert wine. He told Lum he wanted to beat his old university buddies in tennis during an upcoming visit to the Hamptons.

"I really wanted his tennis business," Lum recalls. "He walked me to my car like a date. I said, 'You don't have to do that.' He said, 'I'll be calling for you later.'"

Niroula took Lum to the Financial District law office of attorney David Replogle. Replogle is a reputed former boyfriend of Niroula's who police say is his accomplice. But to Lum, Replogle was a high-class lawyer who promised to expunge his yard-long shoplifting record.

Lum recalls another expedition in which Niroula introduced Lum to Shah, a purported real estate investor.

Shah "is like Don Corleone with a poker face and very smart," Lum says.

Niroula took Lum in a limousine to a hotel construction site in Sunnyvale, supposedly part of Shah's empire. Once the hotel was completed, Shah said, Lum would stay there for free while making $130,000 per year as the hotel's tennis pro. For someone who'd dreamed only of tennis since he was a kid, events were unfolding well.

"They'd say all these amazing things about how they were international financiers with huge amounts of money," Lum recalls. He believed them.

Once Niroula's promise of the easy life was firmly lodged in Lum's head, things began to turn strange.

One Saturday morning in March 2009, Lum was giving tennis lessons to a girl at McCoppin Square Park in the Sunset District when a limousine pulled up and Niroula and an associate got out.

"They kind of came up to him, talked to him, said they had to do something or whatever, and me and my kid were kind of left sitting there, wondering what the hell was going on," recalls Toa Duong, the student's father.

Lum was told he needed to quickly sign some papers. The explanation for the urgency was confusing, but to Lum it seemed vaguely consistent with Niroula's story about needing to protect his assets from his unscrupulous domestic partner, Hwang. Her name appeared on the condo deeds Niroula placed before him. Lum wasn't concerned with what the papers were for; he was more worried that his clients were waiting for him across the street.

"I asked them if this couldn't wait until later, because I couldn't interrupt a tennis lesson," Lum recalls. "They're all pissed off, and say I have to do it now. They walked me across the street to the [Trolley Caffe] at 24th Avenue and Taraval. They kept telling me there were more papers to sign. I kept telling them, 'I've got to go because my student is waiting.'"

Not long afterward, Replogle called Lum, telling him to meet Niroula in the lobby of a downtown hotel. A few minutes after Lum arrived, "here comes Kaushal, stepping out of a minivan, his hair bleached blond. I said, 'What's up?' He said, 'There's some people who need to meet you about my properties, which I have to have signed over to you.' He said, 'Do you speak Chinese?' I said, 'Yeah, I'm the only Cantonese-speaking tennis pro in Northern California.'"

The visitors included Peter de Witte, a so-called hard-money lender from Santa Barbara doing what turned out to be farcically lax investigation on an application for a $2.2 million home equity loan, based on the allegedly forged deeds for the three condos. Niroula ordered Lum to speak only Cantonese, apparently to prevent Lum from saying anything to contradict the story given to the mortgage brokers.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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