“I trust my friends to pay me back,” Paul Cronin testified.
It was June 2017, and the U-M radiologist was being deposed in one of many lawsuits swirling around the construction of a dream house for his colleagues, Brad Foerster and Myria Petrou (“The Battle of Geddes Ridge,” January 2018). Cronin testified that he had loaned the couple $130,000 and paid at least $20,000 of their legal fees. He’d even joined them in court a few months earlier to provide what he called “moral support.”
Cronin presumably didn’t expect to be paid back with a lawsuit demanding $15 million. But that’s what Foerster filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles this September.
For readers of the couple’s blog “Goosileaks,” taken down from the Internet after a court order, Foerster’s September lawsuit had a familiar ring: it claimed that the couple were being targeted by a criminal conspiracy–which was somehow linked to Russian money laundering and interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
In previous versions, the central conspirator was alleged to be Petrou’s mother, Maria Petrou, a retired school principal from Cyprus now living in Ann Arbor. In the California filing, Cronin is described as the conspiracy’s “main controller” in Ann Arbor–and the mastermind of a “comprehensive plan to target and discredit” Foerster.
Foerster’s suit blamed Cronin for the couple’s eviction from the Geddes Ridge home in May–it claimed he’d promised to loan them the money to redeem it, then reneged. The 182-paragraph complaint also accused their former friend of hacking the couple, stealing their identities, and bribing and extorting their attorneys to undermine their legal defense. It further alleged that Cronin was really an architect with “a cover identity as a physician”; was “part of the Irish Republican Army”; and had “stated specifically that he works for Russian intelligence and has a direct line of communication to Vladimir Putin.”
It’s not clear when Foerster turned against his benefactor, but there is a clue in two letters he included as an exhibit in the lawsuit. Sent in January and May this year to special counsel Robert Mueller, both allege that Foerster and Petrou are the victims of a racketeering network that concocts “criminal allegations aimed to discredit us.” Only in the second letter, however, is Cronin said to be part of the conspiracy.
Yet as recently as August, the suit alleges, Foerster texted Cronin to say that the couple was writing a book about the Russian conspiracy–and wanted him to contribute. Cronin replied he wanted no part of it because it was “fiction (and not factual).”
In his response to the lawsuit, filed in October, Cronin agreed that this was an accurate account of his text. But he denied every one of Foerster’s substantive allegations–and that same day, Foerster dropped the case.
Foerster had filed his lawsuit “in pro per,” without an attorney. Cronin also represented himself. In that, he got off more lightly than many of the others the two doctors have tangled with in court during the dispute over the house, including their builder, architect, Maria Petrou, and some of their own attorneys. The couple lost every case–but not before running up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills on both sides.
Washtenaw Circuit Court judges Carol Kuhnke and Archie Brown handled most of the many cases the doctors pursued. In separate judgments, they dismissed the couple’s claims against the home’s builder, Christopher Laycock, and architect, Teresa Angelini. Angelini alone was awarded nearly $300,000 in attorneys’ fees and sanctions. In court documents, her attorney, Greg Thomas, noted that “the defense … was extremely complicated as a direct result of plaintiffs’ aggressiveness and scorched-earth pursuit of the unfounded claims.”
The couple lost another legal round on Sept. 14, when Kuhnke entered a default order restoring $236,000 that Petrou had taken from her parents’ investment account. Maria Petrou’s attorney, Jim Reach, says his client can get $128,000 of the judgment from the couple’s bank account, because Kuhnke imposed a trust on it in May. The doctors have filed an appeal, but it was sent back by the court of appeals as defective. At press time, Reach said he was waiting to see if the appeal would be remedied.
The house, meanwhile, is back on the market. In mid-October, it was listed at $1.775 million, with a sale pending. And its former owners seem to have parted ways with U-M and Ann Arbor. Petrou and Foerster now give an address in Monrovia, California.
According to his September lawsuit, Foerster was terminated from his job at the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center last year. (He said an appeal was pending.) He also wrote that after he complained about fraud in research grant work at U-M and joined in a sexual harassment complaint filed by a colleague, he was forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation by the university this summer–and that on Aug. 18 the U-M initiated termination proceedings against him.
The U-M says it did not find any evidence of research fraud. It will not comment on other internal investigations or on the doctors’ employment status. Petrou, however, says she recently resigned from her position there–in part, she says, because of the Observer articles.
In October, Petrou filed a libel lawsuit against the Observer. According to her complaint, “Dr. Petrou recently resigned from her faculty appointment at the University of Michigan effective 9/30/2018 in part based on the defamatory statements published by Defendant Ann Arbor Observer.”
She says that she was defamed by the January feature and follow-up articles about litigation over a neighbor’s cat (“Cat Fight,” Inside Ann Arbor, April) and the couple’s eviction from their home (“Losing Geddes Ridge,” Inside Ann Arbor, June). The suit seeks at least $15 million, plus punitive damages.
Petrou claims that “The thesis of Defendant Ann Arbor Observers’ defamatory articles are that Plaintiff Dr. Petrou files untrue and false statements to: 1) the courts, 2) law enforcement which includes the FBI and by association would therefore be a felonious act, 3) other governmental officials, and 4) others. Further, the Ann Arbor Observer advances the false narrative that Plaintiff Dr. Petrou steals neighbor’s cats and refuses to return them, defrauds builders and attorneys, extorts her colleagues, terrorizes witnesses, forges signatures on court documents, and embezzles her mother’s retirement funds.
“Defendant Ann Arbor Observer sets out to discredit Plaintiff Dr. Petrou who is a material witness to independent party witness testimony regarding a Russian money laundering operation in the state of Michigan as well as the subversion of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.”
But the Observer did not “[set] out to discredit Petrou,” and said none of the things she alleges. In reporting on the conflicts surrounding the construction of the couple’s home on Geddes Ridge, the Observer accurately quoted both sides in their disputes and reported the outcome of the litigation as it was resolved.
Petrou’s complaint replays many of the arguments the couple made in those earlier court cases. For instance, she says that the Observer’s statement that Laycock was “suing to collect liens for $274,000 in unpaid work” was “false and misleading” because in an early ruling Judge Brown had “set a bond for the liens for only $79K.” She doesn’t mention that Brown eventually awarded Laycock the full amount of his liens. The builder also won attorney fees, and a countersuit against the couple for defamation–more than $700,000 in all.
Laycock wouldn’t talk to the Observer while the court battles were raging. But after he’d won, he sat down this summer for an interview in his office in his modest ranch home in Saline.
Laycock says that he was quite proud of the way he completed the home after a previous builder bailed. A custom carpenter who’s often worked on high-end remodeling projects, he says he came in under budget and even was hoping he’d win an award for his work. Instead, he says, he was “blindsided” when the couple disputed his final bill.
He spent a year and a half fighting to get paid–while simultaneously defending himself against the couple’s counterattacks. On their blog and in court, they accused him of bank fraud, violating their civil rights, and criminal conspiracy, alleging that he had plotted with their bank, architect, two title companies, Myria’s mother, and others to deprive them of their dream house.
Going to court is not good for any builder, much less being accused of a vast criminal enterprise, however outlandish. Laycock says that he often spent more time litigating than on job sites, but is now rebuilding his business.
Like the couple’s other legal adversaries, however, he is wondering how the couple will pay all the judgments against them. “I’m starting to believe we will never collect,” he says.