By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
There was a time, before the lawsuits, the criminal complaints and the machinations of a has-been actress, when the Saabs and the Rhoduses were friends, although what they had in common besides Park Cities addresses is a mystery. Tom and Debbie Rhodus are both attorneys, nearly as intelligent as they are genteel. Even when they swear, and the drama in their lives lately gives them plenty of reason, they sound as solemn and sober as a commencement speaker at Harvard.
The Saabs came to Dallas after a floundering real estate venture led to an ugly bankruptcy in New Orleans in which a federal judge criticized them for making misleading financial statements. After a few lean years in Dallas, the Saabs reinvented themselves as an enterprising business family.
Anthony Saab had a thriving financial services company that helped New Mexico and Mississippi manage their money. His wife, Elaine, aided her husband's business while launching a partnership that blended jewelry and movie production in the same business plan. Her cohort from the start was her friend Linda Gray, the actress best known--perhaps only known--for playing Sue Ellen Ewing on the prime-time soap Dallas.
Nearly three years ago, the Saabs and Keith Rhodus, the youngest son of Tom and Debbie, flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to secure financing for a promising screenplay called The Yentas of Sunrise Lakes that the Saabs' daughter, Emily, had discovered. The Saabs' financial services company, CMG, was a broker for the state treasurer's office, which took the lead in offering incentives to filmmakers who shot their movies in New Mexico. Hoping to parlay their connections to fund their movie project, Elaine Saab and Rhodus met with Robert Vigil, the state treasurer of New Mexico. Midway through their discussions, a strange-looking man sauntered into Vigil's office as if it were his own,Rhodus recalls. Wearing a bolo tie that brought attention to his scarred, leathery face, the man kicked up his boots on a round wood table and pretended to sniff Elaine as if he were a dog and she a sliver of meat. You smell like money, he said with a scowl.
After the meeting ended, Saab told Rhodus that she needed to talk to Vigil alone. She walked back into his office with an envelope tucked under her arm. After a few minutes, she returned without the envelope.
"'It's about money, Keith,'" he says she replied when he asked her what was going on. "'What, do you think these people do business with us because they like us?'"
Rhodus brushed off Saab's remark. That's just like her, always exaggerating, concocting drama and intrigue where there was none, he thought. Besides, Rhodus wasn't going to worry about what might have happened between Saab and Vigil. They had a movie to produce.
But two years and many lawyers later, Rhodus felt differently. Elaine Saab had filed a criminal complaint against him for the high crime of checking her business-related e-mails. The partnership was irrevocably fractured, his family's friendship with the Saabs dismantled, the option on the screenplay a distant memory. So he consulted with his attorney David Finn, who suggested he call the FBI. In September 2005, Robert Vigil was indicted on public corruption charges. Prosecutors allege that Vigil, along with his predecessor Michael Montoya, participated in an elaborate kickback scheme in which they solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from the state's outside money managers. But Rhodus knew they didn't have the whole story, and now he had a compelling reason to fill them in.
Rhodus told them of the man with the bolo tie. He mentioned the envelope. And he had a few things to say about Elaine Saab, who, he discovered, was no stranger to authorities. They already had pictures of Saab along with her friend Linda Gray that Vigil's secretary had taken.
Not long after meeting with Rhodus, the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico added another allegation against the former state treasurer:
"Mr. Vigil extorted funds under the color of official right from Elaine Saab and others in return for his assistance in obtaining state funding for a possible motion picture project," read the federal pleading. "Mr. Vigil accepted the funds knowing that they were offered to affect his official conduct."
Prosecutors flew Rhodus to Albuquerque to testify in Vigil's trial last spring, which resulted in a hung jury after a lone juror opted against a conviction. Rhodus never took the stand, but prosecutors wanted him there in case they needed him. A new trial is under way.
For the last three years, Keith Rhodus, 29, has served as a largely unwitting protagonist in a bizarre and bitter drama that nearly tore his life apart. Even now, it's hard to understand how the two families' relationship spiraled so far out of control, growing so toxic that they could never, under any imaginable circumstance, resume their friendship. After a business dispute in which Rhodus accessed work-related e-mails Elaine Saab had been writing about him, she filed a criminal complaint. That charge triggered an exhaustive investigation by the police department and Dallas County District Attorney's Office, forcing Rhodus to go through a bevy of high-priced lawyers to elude what would have been a career-killing felony indictment.