Clovis News

From our archives: Valley woman with made-up royal lineage, faked death lands in court

Genevieve de Montremare is pictured in 1997 at her ranch in Clovis.
Genevieve de Montremare is pictured in 1997 at her ranch in Clovis. Special to The Bee

Note: Because ABC's 20/20 will show a special on Genevieve Marie de Montremare tonight, we're bringing back our story that broke the news in 2011.

Genevieve Sanders was a Valley kid through and through.

Her father was a Tulare County supervisor; her stepmother was the mayor of Lindsay. Sanders studied psychology at Fresno State, then reigned as National Raisin Queen. She worked as a waitress in Fresno. She got married.

Genevieve Marie de Montremare was royalty.

Born in France, brought up on estates across Europe, she held multiple university degrees and was known worldwide for her work in horse genetics. She was a recognized authority on the Friesian breed, and the horse-judging events on her Clovis ranch drew well-to-do horse owners from far and wide.

The strange tale of how Genevieve Sanders reinvented herself as the flamboyant -- but fake -- Genevieve Marie de Montremare was a well-kept secret. Not even her closest friends suspected her French accent was made up.

And they might never have found out if her husband -- a prominent Fresno doctor -- hadn't faked her death in 2007.

Dr. Michael Weilert, 60, is director of pathology and clinical laboratories for Community Regional Medical Centers and a founding member of Pathology Associates in Clovis. He acknowledges that he told friends his wife -- now 48 -- had died after a long illness. He said he did it to protect her privacy because she is gravely ill.

Now their secrets are being exposed in a lawsuit unfolding in Fresno County Superior Court. A couple who paid $2.3 million for a horse ranch the Weilerts owned in Parlier say the faked death was a real-estate fraud that enabled the doctor to trick them into paying too much.

The Weilerts, however, contend they sold the ranch "as is," and that they told the Orange County buyers -- Brian Gwartz and his wife, Cheryl Skigin -- that they should investigate the property before they bought it.

The buyers weren't the only ones fooled.

Equestrian magazine, a national publication, published an article in 2005 describing de Montremare's genetics degree and her French heritage. Reporter Kim Miller said recently that she never met de Montremare, but she had talked to her on the telephone for two hours.

"She was very interesting," Miller said. "I liked her a lot."

And the International Friesian Show Horse Association -- which de Montremare founded -- gave out a memorial trophy in her honor in 2008 and 2009.

"A lot of people were fooled by her," said Gareth Selwood, the organization's president. "I'm sure one day it will be a movie of the week."

Valley roots

Genevieve Sanders was born June 23, 1962, in Burbank. Her family eventually moved to Lindsay and became pillars of the community.

Her father is Bill Sanders, who retired from the Tulare County Board of Supervisors in 2005. Her stepmother was Peggy Sanders, a City Council member and mayor of Lindsay in the 1980s. She died in 2009.

Genevieve Sanders was 24 when she was named National Raisin Queen. During her 1986-87 reign, while she was a Fresno State senior, she hobnobbed with local and state dignitaries, including Gov. George Deukmejian at the opening of the California State Fair in Sacramento.

Back then, former Bee reporter Eli Setencich wrote that a news release said Sanders "not only studies psychology at FSU, sings opera, trains quarter horses and signs for the deaf, but also fixes cars."

What happened to her afterward is detailed in a stack of court documents.

Fresno attorney David J. Weiland -- who represented the couple who sued the Weilerts, alleging fraud, breach of contract and conspiracy -- didn't know de Montremare was alive until her alleged signature appeared on a document four months after her reported death.

"So it put at issue whether or not the deed for the Parlier property was valid," he said.

The couple -- Gwartz and Skigin -- recently dismissed Weiland as their attorney for undisclosed reasons. By then, Weiland had written in detail in court papers how Sanders had transformed herself from a waitress who used a French accent to get better tips to a woman who pretended to be a French princess.

The transformation began soon after she married her first husband, Gary Hoffman, a college psychology professor. In a sworn deposition, Hoffman said his ex-wife was a waitress in Fresno when he met her. She worked at such places as Sutter Street Bar & Grill at the Ramada Inn, Lyon's and El Toro Tambien, he said.

One evening he came home to find his wife studying French and reading books about the French Revolution. She explained that she could get big tips pretending to be French, he said.

"At first, I thought it was kind of funny, I thought it was kind of playful, [and] I thought it was kind of intriguing to me," said Hoffman, who now is director of mental health for the California Department of Corrections.

"But in the end, it was very much estranging, and I started to take it as a bit of a slap in the face because it struck me as just over the top," Hoffman said.

He filed for divorce Aug. 14, 1990. By then, he said, his ex-wife was well on her way to reinventing herself.

On Jan. 15, 1991, she petitioned the court to change her name to Genevieve Marie de Montremare and told her friends that she was reclaiming her ancestral name, Weiland said in court documents.

"The boring Genevieve was gone," he wrote. "If Genevieve the French waitress could get extra tips, there was no end in sight to what the new French countess could do."

She claimed to be of the House of Rochechouart. From then on, her names included Sylviane Genevieve Marie Victurnienne de Rochechouart-Mortemart, Dame de Vivonne and Princesse Tonnay-Charete, Weiland said.

Horse business

She met Dr. Weilert while working in his laboratory in Fresno.

The two married in December 1991 and soon began holding keurings -- judging of horses according to breed standards -- at their Clovis ranch, an 18-acre spread with a riding arena on Shaw Avenue near Leonard Avenue. The keurings drew judges from Holland, along with dozens of spectators.

According to Weiland, de Montremare used these events to brag that "her French family had been breeding horses for a thousand years and that they owned properties throughout the world."

As the Weilerts' breeding business expanded, de Montremare founded the International Friesian Show Horse Association, also known as IFSHA, around 2004 and quickly became known as "the queen of the Friesian world," Weiland wrote.

Because of her clout, "she could make or break you," said Nina Miller, owner of Checkerboard Farms, a Friesian horse ranch in Southern California.

Everyone believed de Montremare's credentials because she was so convincing, Miller said recently.

"She knew judges and people in the Dutch registry, so why would we doubt her?" said Miller, who attended several keurings at the Weilert home in the 1990s.

Miller said she used to be de Montremare's friend, visiting her and spending hours on the telephone with her. "Her stories were fascinating," she said.

But Miller said de Montremare was "very controlling." For example, she would intervene in Friesian breeding arrangements, approving or disapproving matches, Miller said.

"If you were on her bad side, she would bad-mouth you in front of the judges and that could ruin you," Miller said.

She said she last saw de Montremare in 1999, when de Montremare rode around her Clovis home in a golf cart with an intravenous tube in her arm. Thinking back on that day, Miller said, she believes de Montremare was faking it.

"She not only fooled me, but she fooled everyone," Miller said.

Equestrian magazine featured her in a 2005 article, in which de Montremare talked about her French heritage and said her initial desire was to use her genetics degree to find a cure for cancer in humans.

"I was going to save the world," she told reporter Kim Miller.

But fighting cancer was not practical. De Montremare said she had leukemia, and chemotherapy made her weak, the article said. That's why she turned her attention to Friesians, saying "small" accomplishments could be just as worthwhile as "big" ones, the article said.

Kim Miller said recently that she relied on de Montremare to tell the truth. After the article was printed, Miller said, de Montremare sent her two compact discs of classical music. Miller said de Montremare told her that she was the pianist playing the music.

"I thought she was delightful," Kim Miller said.

The Parlier property

In 2005, the Weilerts moved from their Clovis home to a 15-acre ranch at 7292 S. Kings River Road in Parlier. They bought the Parlier ranch for $1.6 million from Fred Ruiz, co-founder of Ruiz Foods Inc.

The couple told friends that, based on de Montremare's specialized training and expertise, they were going to develop the ideal horse ranch, which would include relocating the covered riding arena, a barn and laboratory from the Clovis property, Weiland said in court papers.

But to capitalize on their investment, Weiland wrote, the Weilerts had to "kill her off -- not literally, but in a way that would surely make her a martyr and increase the value of her horses and the property."

According to Weiland, in the summer of 2007, de Montremare began telling others that her heart had been weakened by years of chemotherapy and that she needed a dangerous surgery to repair it.

Her husband and an employee on the couple's ranch later told friends that the surgery left de Montremare blind, speechless and in a coma, Weiland wrote.

Soon afterward, Dr. Weilert told friends that his wife had died suddenly on Nov. 30, 2007. He helped write her obituary and obtain a French death certificate so he could sell her assets, Weiland said.

The doctor shared his sorrow with his wife's friend, Tammy Hildreth, who raises Friesians with her husband in Southern California.

In her deposition, Hildreth said the doctor cried when he talked about finding his wife's body and feeling helpless to save her. He also explained how his wife's family came to Fresno and immediately took her body to France, where her heart would be buried in one church and her body buried in another, she said.

"He was dramatic about it, and it was heart-wrenching," Hildreth said.

Liquidating the estate

Weilert talked about liquidating his wife's "estate," Weiland said in the court documents. The doctor asked Hildreth, at the time an IFSHA board member, for help finding potential buyers for the Parlier property and his wife's horses.

He marketed the property on the Internet as having a covered riding arena, landscaping that was ideal for raising horses and a barn with a lab for breeding, Weiland wrote.

Gwartz, an anesthesiologist, and Skigin, a lawyer, became interested after receiving an e-mail from Weilert's ranch employee, Weiland said. The e-mail included a detailed description of the property and several misrepresentations, he said.

The e-mail falsely claimed that de Montremare's French family owned 6,000 acres surrounding the property and that the property already had the covered riding arena, barn and laboratory, Weiland wrote.

Gwartz, a competitor in horse-carriage driving, and his wife relied on these representations to negotiate a contract -- both verbal and written -- with the doctor, Weiland wrote.

"Unfortunately, my clients did not receive the benefit of their bargain," he said before he was dismissed.

The Weilerts sold the Parlier property to Gwartz and Skigin in spring 2008. A year later, the couple sued the Weilerts, contending they had committed fraud by creating de Montremare's phony legacy. By pitching the Parlier property as a shrine to her, the Weilerts knew full well that it "would sell for a premium to a horse enthusiast versus a mere homebuyer," Weiland said in court documents.

In the lawsuit, Gwartz and his wife are seeking to rescind the property deal and recoup their $2.3 million, plus interest, damages and attorney fees. Currently, no one lives on the property, but caretakers live nearby.

Attorney Steven Paganetti, who represents the Weilerts, said the plaintiffs don't have a legitimate case.

In a motion to dismiss the case, Paganetti said the buyers signed a written contract that said the Parlier property was sold "as is." The contract also urged the buyers to conduct their own investigation before buying it, Paganetti said in his motion.

In addition, Gwartz and Skigin did not rely on any alleged misrepresentation by the Weilerts prior to entering into the agreement, Paganetti wrote.

Judge Alan Simpson, so far, has allowed the case to go forward, but a trial date has not been scheduled. The next hearing is April 27.

Paganetti and his clients declined a request to be interviewed. But a woman who answered the telephone at the Weilert home on March 25 said the plaintiffs are trying to smear the doctor's "good name" by taking advantage of his wife's "neurological and physical illnesses."

The woman, who identified herself as de Montremare's personal nurse, said de Montremare is gravely ill, suffering from major depression, hypertension and diabetes, and hasn't left her home in more than a decade.

"Please leave this poor woman alone," she said. "This was a simple property transaction, and she had nothing to do with it."

Still elusive

The pleadings and evidence comprise more than 15 thick court files. The doctor and the plaintiffs, as well as their witnesses, including the Weilerts' only child, have given depositions.

The 17-year-old daughter said in her deposition that her parents never told her that her mother descended from French royalty. But she said her mother told her "out of the blue" one day that people thought she was dead. She also said she found her mother's obituary.

It has been difficult for the plaintiffs to get de Montremare's account. Few people have seen her in recent years, and she does most of her communication through e-mails and in telephone conversations, Weiland said before he was dismissed.

Weiland tried to get her deposition last summer at the Weilert home in north Clovis. He was directed to a dimly lit bedroom, where he found a bedridden woman.

"We had to use flashlights to read the documents," he said.

Weiland was told the woman on the bed was de Montremare, but she wouldn't answer any questions. Because the deposition was unsuccessful, Weiland tried again to depose de Montremare in March. Paganetti obtained a court order and stopped the deposition after submitting doctor reports that said "a deposition might kill her," Weiland said.

Weiland said de Montremare is faking it. The plaintiffs' experts have reviewed her medical records and determined that she is not gravely ill, he said.

But he conceded: "She's not normal."

De Montremare's father, Bill Sanders, said in a recent interview that he hadn't seen his daughter "in some time" and that her legal troubles are none of his business. But, he said, the allegations sound "far-fetched."

Although the public hasn't seen de Montremare in years, her husband said in a deposition in February that his wife is alive. Weilert said he told others about her death to protect her from the outside world.

"The Genevieve that used to be with me is gone," he said. "I'm facing the loss of a whole lifestyle and the whole existence that I previously enjoyed."

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