George and Linda Bridges are relentless in their pursuit of more than $1 million embezzled from their company, Bridges Enterprises, Inc.
First, they sued their former accountant, A. Ernest Cruz, who was convicted of grand theft for taking money earmarked for improvements at a West Broward park their company manages. Cruz remains in prison and has appealed an order that he pay $1.01 million in restitution.
The Bridges also sued Cruz’s brother, his sister and his parents, as well as his ex-wife and her parents. The couple bought half the duplex where Cruz’s parents live and are trying to force a sale that could result in their eviction.
So far, the Bridges have won judgments against Cruz, his wife and the bank that handled the business account Cruz depleted.
They have yet to recover a dime.
The bank, Ambassador Savings and Loan, is insolvent, and the Bridges expect an appeal of the judgment they won from the Resolution Trust Corp. With payments unlikely from the thrift, the Bridges went after Cruz’s relatives.
Stewart Chambers, who represents Cruz Family members, says his clients are innocent victims of the Bridges’ vengeance.
“They are so angry that they are convinced that A. Ernest Cruz had to have either assistance in pulling this off or his family members benefited in some way,” Said Chambers of Fort Lauderdale’s Benson, Moyle & Chambers. “I don’t begrudge the Bridges from feeling that they’ve been victimized. When that sense of victimization leads to senseless revenge and vengeance-seeking against innocent parties, that’s when they have overstepped the line and that’s what this system has failed to protect.”
Chambers says his clients have spent $100,000 on lawyers fighting the Bridges.
“[The Bridges] put four-family members in bankruptcy,” he said. “It just sickens me to death that somebody could do this.”
The Bridges’ attorney, Peter Kneski of Miami’s Kneski & Kneski, denies the suits are part of a “vendetta.”
“[The Bridges] are innocent people who were ripped off,” he said. “All whey are trying to do is get their money back and they are getting all these roadblocks. The reason they haven’t collected anything is because of the delays and the bankruptcies.
The Bridges hired Cruz in 1985 as an accountant and business consultant for Everglades Holiday Park. Cruz helped the Bridges open a money market account at Ambassador Savings. Without the Bridge’s knowledge, Kneski said, Cruz managed to get a signature card for the account.
The Bridges discovered the embezzlement in 1989 when they wanted to withdraw $125,000 for improvements at the park. Only $1,600 remained in the account, Kneski said.
“When Linda Bridges found out about it she was in bed for a week,” said Paul Kneski, Peter Kneski’s co-counsel and twin brother. “They were financially ruined.” The embezzlement nearly caused the Bridges to lose their company, which has 35 employees, he said.
The Bridges and Cruz’s ex-wife, Ann Marie Biondolillo, for $25,000 in “household money” her husband gave her to pay the bills, Chambers said.
Biondolillo, an elementary school teacher, filed bankruptcy after the Bridges obtained a $40,000 judgement against her and her ex-husband for attorney fees.
“She didn’t do anything,” Chamber said, “The Bridges didn’t care how much they had to spend, they were going to make her suffer. By the mere filing of the complaint, they accomplished their purpose”.
The Bridges claimed that Biondolillo received a salary for working for her husband. But Chambers said Biondolillo was a housewife, whose husband spent the money on lavish gives on another woman.
During a 1992 hearing in Miami, visiting Bankruptcy Judge Richard l. Bohanon found that the Bridges had no case against Biondolillo.
“She didn’t work and was a housewife, had an education not in business matters, but in criminal justice, and there is no indication that she had any knowledge, training or sophistication of any kind in business dealings,” the judge said.
Kneski said that his clients brought the complaint in good faith. Bohanon agreed during a hearing in March and denied a motion for sanctions.
In one case, now pending in Dade Circuit Court, the Bridges bought half of a $120,000 duplex from the trustee of Ernest Cruz’s bankruptcy for about $6,000 as part of their attempt to recoup their losses. Biondolillo owns the other half.
Now, under a so-called partition, the Bridges are trying to force the sale of the duplex. If sold, Biondolillo would be paid half for her share. But Cruz’s parents, who are in their 70s and rent one of the apartments, could be evicted, Chamber said.
The Bridges are willing to sell their half of the duplex to Cruz’s parents, Kneski said, but the parents, Abelardo and Celica Cruz, offered only $6,000 when the Bridges believe they could recoup $17,000 from a sale.
Said Peter Kneski”:” This is personally the most frustrating case I’ve ever handled.”