Patricia Cornwell and the strange case of the missing millions

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Her bestselling crime novels made her a fortune – millions of dollars of which appear to have gone missing. Patricia Cornwell reveals all about the mystery that threatened her very livelihood.

"I would be the first to say I have a lot of strange things happen to me. A lot really, truly aren't something I did. How many people get escorted off a plane because [Federal Marshals] think you're armed? I didn't cause that. I just had a cell phone on my belt. Or my dalliance with [FBI agent] Margo Bennett: who would think that could be related to what happened years later when this guy tied up a priest, and got into a shoot-out in a church? Who would ever think? I don't know. It is what it is."

Everything, it seems, happens to Patricia Cornwell. So when my phone rings one evening and Cornwell herself is on the line saying she wants to discuss one of the most trying periods of her life, I am intrigued to say the least. Whatever could it be? Alien abduction? When she mentions she is coming to London to continue her infamous research on Jack the Ripper, I wonder whether she has finally cracked the case. I am summoned to the Savoy for an audience.

Interviews with Cornwell are never mundane, frequently entertaining and often profoundly confessional. She discusses issues many people would hesitate to share with their closest friends. In previous conversations, she has talked frankly (sometimes, she admits, too frankly) about her father abandoning his family on Christmas Day, her mother's subsequent battles with depression, the abuse she suffered as a child in foster care, her own mental-health issues, her sexuality and marriage to Staci Gruber, her public support for President George Bush Sr and her comparably public falling out with his son, George W. Some habits die hard. "Some of the people I have supported [politically] were personal friends," she tells me today. "George W Bush – may god forgive me – because I knew his parents really well. I didn't realise until later that I wasn't going to support him any more."

When I arrive at the Savoy, I am greeted by Cornwell's personal manager, but only after he confirms my appearance with his iPhone. I feel a flutter of nerves. As we move through the lobby, I realise we are being shadowed by a security guard who silently accompanies us in the lift. "Hello," I say, attempting small talk. After a granite-hard stare, he smiles thinly. My nervousness increases.

Cornwell herself is more welcoming. Wearing trademark designer jeans, cowboy boots and a T-shirt featuring the family crest of Kay Scarpetta, the forensic pathologist heroine of 20 of her novels, she shows me into a sitting-room with a view of the Thames. Two others are present: Cornwell's sister-in-law Mary Daniels, and Joan Lukey, her attorney. Those nerves flutter again.

For the next two-and-a-half hours, Cornwell exhibits an array of emotions, from frustration to resolution, outraged disbelief to righteous indignation. "You don't do this to me and my family and friends and have me throw in the towel," she says defiantly. "One thing people don't tend to anticipate about me is that I have an unbelievable capacity to endure misery because I have had so much of it. It doesn't mean I enjoy it or that it doesn't take a toll. But I am no stranger to it. I have not lived some charmed life where if you trip me up I don't know what to do because I have never felt this before. There isn't much I haven't felt."

Cornwell is referring to the lengthy, complex and "staggeringly" expensive lawsuit she began in October 2009, seeking damages estimated at $180m against her business managers, Anchin, Block & Anchin, whom she accuses of fiduciary mismanagement of her money and assets. Anchin were hired in 2004 to manage Cornwell's investments and tax liability. A personal business manager, Evan Snapper, was engaged to oversee everything from buying her helicopters to paying Cornwell's personal cable-TV bills. "I felt I had made the smartest business decision of my life. You are going to use a real firm that handles real people in the entertainment industry."

After almost five years, Cornwell ended the relationship with Anchin, Block & Anchin believing that her net worth, which she estimated to be in the region of $35m, had seemingly remained stagnant despite substantial yearly earnings in the low-eight figures.

Cornwell's initial suspicion was that there had been a significant mismanagement of her investments and expenses: paying over the odds for her part-ownership of a Warren Buffett NetJet, for instance. In reviewing files returned to her in September 2009, Cornwell found a cancelled $5,000 cheque, made to Cash, that Snapper directed be paid to himself from her funds, purportedly as a Bat Mitzvah gift to his daughter Lydia. Cornwell had never met Lydia, nor had she authorised the present. "I can't even put my hands around the fact that hiring Anchin [would turn out to be] the most dangerous thing I could have done in terms of my business, my finances and my reputation."

Cornwell's examination of her records brought other inconsistencies to light. It took months to trace the sale of a Ferrari, valued at $220,000. Although money was wired into her account, Cornwell could find no documentation (a traditional bill of sale) proving that this was the total sum paid by the vendor. "How do I know that what was wired into my account was the exact amount that was paid for that car and that someone didn't take a commission?" Cornwell asks.

Although the total sums can only be estimated, Cornwell and her legal team are attempting to trace between $40m and $60m in lost and unaccounted-for earnings. Cornwell is of the opinion that her manager, Evan Snapper, was primarily responsible for business mismanagement issues. Anchin, who are fighting Cornwell's suit, denied any money was missing, and informed Cornwell that her financial situation was a product of a costly lifestyle.

The story soon took another twist. Anchin did not take Cornwell's lawsuit lightly. In December 2009, they hired James Cole, then an attorney and now the United States' Deputy Attorney General. Late that same year, Anchin self-reported to the Department of Justice and the FBI a number of campaign donations: to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, and also to Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore's short-lived run to be Virginia's senator. These contributions were made on behalf of a variety of parties, including Snapper, who were later reimbursed using Cornwell's funds.

As a consequence of these payments, Cornwell was accused of masterminding an illegal conduit scheme in violation of federal campaign finance law. The disputed donations included an estimated $50,000 for tickets to a fundraising concert by Elton John for Hillary Clinton in New York on 9 April. Cornwell had intended to go, along with Gruber, friends and family, including her brother Jim, his wife Mary and their son. In the end, none of the k original party attended: Cornwell flew to London to accept a Galaxy Book Award the same night. Snapper went in her place, along with several Anchin employees.

This made the donations technically illegal: Cornwell had already given the maximum allowed by law ($4,600) to Clinton's appeal. She accepts that her funds were used in a felony, and is prepared to pay any fine imposed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). This is because the FEC imposes fines not just for intentional improprieties, but for reimbursements that are unknowing and not willful. Cornwell strongly disputes that she had any knowledge the reimbursements were made, that they were illegal, or that she ever intended to commit a felony.

Snapper later admitted that he reimbursed the cost of the tickets ($2,300 apiece) from Cornwell's funds. This was the felonious conduit scheme. What would become significant is that Snapper not only used Cornwell's funds to reimburse members of the original party, including Jim and Mary Daniels, who did not attended the concert, but also the Anchin employees who did go. What he would plead guilty to in 2010 was falsifying entries in Cornwell's account ledgers. The Elton John tickets bought by Anchin were not presented as campaign donations, but journalled under headings such as clothing and meals.

Cornwell believes that the timing of Anchin's self-reporting to the Department of Justice is crucial. It was two years after the Clinton fundraiser, and two-and-a-half years after Gilmore's senate campaign, but literally within weeks of the filing of Cornwell's multi-million-dollar lawsuit.

That timing, and the fact that Anchin's submissions pointed a finger directly at Cornwell, caused a delay to the litigation. "[Anchin and Snapper were saying] that I orchestrated [the campaign donations]. That I directed payments. That's a lie. I did not orchestrate anything. I did not direct any repayments. They are saying that nice little Patricia Cornwell, the Queen of Crime, is really the Queen of Criminals."

The FBI began a criminal investigation into the campaign donations, seeking proof that Cornwell orchestrated the conduit scheme and knew that her conduct was illegal. Cornwell says the first she knew about it was when her brother called in January 2010. Although neither attended the Elton John concert, both had been reimbursed for the tickets. Both he and his wife were questioned by FBI agents without warning on the same morning. Jim had just arrived at his woodworking company. "Jim used to be Deacon in a Baptist church," Cornwell says, describing her brother. "He won't even jaywalk. There is very little political activity."

Mary was pulled out of a nail salon in Brandon, Mississippi, where the family lives. "I was done with my manicure, waiting for my friend to finish," she recalls. "The next thing I knew, I get a phone call. Someone says, 'Is this Mary Daniels? You need to put the phone down and step outside.' I was, like, 'You got to be kidding me. Who is this?'"

The "who" was an FBI agent. "She came into the nail salon, in front of everyone in the place, flashed her badge, and said, 'We need to speak to you – now.' It was unbelievably intimidating. They made me go sit in the back of a car. They sat in the front turned around, and stared at me. I was terrified what to say about anything."

Mary Daniels says the events of that day began a year-long rift in the family that healed only in December 2010. That is when the Department of Justice informed Cornwell, through counsel, that she was no longer a target of their investigation. In January 2011, Snapper pleaded guilty to a criminal charge relating to falsifying 21 campaign donations, although he maintained that he did so as an "ill-advised favour to Patricia Cornwell". A civil investigation by the Federal Election Commission is still to be resolved, as is Cornwell's original lawsuit.

Of all the elements in the case, Cornwell names the implication of illegal activity on her part as the most grievous. In practical terms, a guilty verdict could have had a grave impact on her work, preventing her from accessing high-security institutions such as prisons, FBI offices and police mortuaries. "I always joke that I am trying to get into places that everybody else is tying to get out of."

But this only goes so far in explaining Cornwell's determination to clear her name. Throughout the conversation, she returns time and again to the topic of her reputation. "It means everything to me. My guiding principle in life is the same thing that guides Kay Scarpetta – you don't abuse power. To have willingly and knowingly committed a felony in a matter of campaign contributions would absolutely be an abuse of power and I'd never do such a thing. Why would I take such a chance on something like that?"

It's a good question, one that places Cornwell's credibility and integrity squarely on trial. As the case of the campaign donations turns upon conceptions of intention and responsibility, should we believe that she is a master manipulator, or a naïve celebrity?

Unravelling Patricia Cornwell's character is quite a job. One defining challenge is distinguishing fact from fiction. In a career spanning 21 years, the 56-year-old could measure out her life in vivid media headlines. Many have centred on her phenomenal success as a crime writer: she has sold more than 100 million books in 120 countries, has been translated into at least 36 languages and her heroine, Scarpetta, has inspired a slew of imitators (from Kathy Reichs to CSI). Cornwell herself escaped a broken home and troubled childhood to become a publishing superstar with a private helicopter and celebrity friends. "Suddenly I'm in Los Angeles being introduced to Jodie Foster. I'll never forget my first visit to the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was walking around my room coming out of my skin because I was so nervous. I couldn't believe I was there."

Other headlines were more sensational. A night out with Demi Moore ended with Cornwell crashing a car while over the alcohol limit. In 1997, Cornwell was outed, in part after that "dalliance" with FBI agent Margo Bennett went public: Bennett's husband held Margo hostage, along with a Methodist minister, in a church in Virginia. Margo managed to call the police after incapacitating her husband with pepper spray and firing a warning shot.

In 2007, Cornwell successfully sued a cyberstalker, Leslie R Sachs, who accused her of, among other things, plagiarising his novel The Virginia Ghost Murders, participating in a global anti-Semitic conspiracy and, in a heartfelt poem, of being responsible for the death of his cat.

"I went from being this crime-busting trendsetter to being this source of scandal. Where I grew up [in the small mountain community of Montreat, North Carolina], scandal is not a good thing. Let's be honest, especially back in those days, not everybody will give you a standing ovation if they find out you are gay. There's no telling how much it affects the savage reviews I get on Amazon. Are they really about my books or about me?" k

It's another pertinent question to ask of someone whose life and work are in constant and fluid interrelation. "From a young age, when the world was too difficult for me to live in, I could create one of my own. I have always been going back and forth through the looking glass. I had an imaginary friend, and I would send myself on imaginary missions. I lived very much in a fantasy world."

Part of the Cornwell enigma is the shadowy presence of Kay Scarpetta, her fictional alter ego. What they share, apart from a love of fine wine and sharp sense of humour, is a courageous need to uncover the truth, no matter the odds. But there are differences, as Cornwell makes clear, talking about Snapper. "It's a problem because people think I am Scarpetta. First of all, she would have figured this guy out in one second. It may come as a shock to my fans, because Kay Scarpetta is supremely competent about running her affairs, but I am a dolt when it comes to business. I am not interested in it. I never have been. I have always got other people to do that while I am running around morgues, chasing Jack the Ripper. I don't understand investments – I wouldn't touch them with a 10ft pole. I am scared to death of losing money."

Cornwell is a complex and often contradictory personality. At its heart is a tantalising blend of determination and stubbornness, egotism and generosity, bravado and insecurity that defines many self-made, and self-reliant, success stories – something she herself concedes. "I have always felt I was on my own. I have a tremendous survival instinct. It is belied a little bit by the fact that I have this humongous artistic temperament: I am very sensitive. Those two things are kind of at war with one another. But those two characters stick together and I manage."

Her ambition drove Cornwell to keep writing after publishers rejected her first three novels. This self-confidence rubs shoulders with what appears to be a naïve candour. More than once attorney Joan Lukey corrects her outspoken client: for example, on the subject of that drunken car crash. Cornwell: "Why on earth would I commit a felony? I hadn't had a speeding ticket in over 30 years. I am fastidious, to the point of almost obsessive, about trying to play by rules and being careful." Lukey: "20 years." Cornwell: "Well. That wasn't a speeding ticket. That was a DUI [Driving Under the Influence]." [Lukey laughs, in slight disbelief]. Cornwell: "I am open about that. That's the only thing I have gotten in trouble with. Everybody knows about that. My DUI in 1993. It's not a speeding ticket." Lukey: "It's worse than a speeding ticket, Patricia." Cornwell: "I have admitted to it. That doesn't make me a felon now."

There are times when Cornwell adopts a grandiloquent, Scarpettian tone, as if the story-teller in her has got carried away narrating her quest for justice. For instance, when I ask whether she ever considers giving up: "If I did that, what about all those people out there who don't have the means to fight someone who has grievously wronged them, and they have to live with that for ever?"

At the same time, you can't help warming to someone who clearly lives at such an intense pitch, who fights so tenaciously for what she believes in, and who is so willing to lay her cards on the table. How many other writers would admit they have encouraged friends to review books on Amazon? "I never said give me a five-star review, but I would recruit friends and family and say, 'If you know anybody, get them to post a fair review.'" Few other writers describe fame with such guileless humour. "If you are walking through the grocery store and a stranger wants to see what's in your cart, I don't particularly enjoy that. God only knows what was in it. Preparation H. 'Hi!'"

And few other writers blow their own trumpet with such winning and wide-eyed wonder. "I love my career. It's like I woke up and won the lottery. I am amazed by this every day. Yes, it's extremely hard work. This isn't something you can cause to happen. It's like a lightning strike."

If this unguardedness occasionally leaves Cornwell vulnerable, then it also underlines vulnerability as a defining theme of her life and work. From her debut on, she has transformed her deepest fears into compelling crime fiction: Postmortem, the first book in the Scarpetta series, was inspired by a serial killer terrorising women in Cornwell's neighbourhood in Richmond, Virginia.

Traces of her recent ordeals can be found in her most recent fiction. The climactic homicide trial in new novel, The Bone Bed, takes place in the same courtroom that was due to host Cornwell last month, before the trial's postponement. "My way of dealing with fear is to walk right into it," she says. Last year's Red Mist opened with Kay Scarpetta visiting a women's prison in Tennessee. "The emotional part was I was checking it out for myself. 'Here are the people who would cut your hair' – no, I'm not going to let them colour it. 'Here is the classroom where they teach English.' 'Here is the library.' I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn't imagine [my wife] Staci being put through something like this."

Talking to the inmates re-opened wounds from Cornwell's childhood – in particular, the trauma of the foster-mother who took her in whenever her own mother suffered a breakdown. "I felt that same gut-wrenching terror and grief that I felt when I would see my mother lose it. Next thing, I would go back to that awful house and that lady who would torment me for four months at a time. Psychologically, there is probably not much worse that you could have done to me," Cornwell concludes. "The only thing they could do worse would be to physically hurt Staci or me. We have really stepped up security."

After September's postponement, Cornwell's trial is due to start in January. Relief mingles with trepidation. "[The case is] not going to be without exposure. These people know everything about my life. They know what I spend. They know what I do. They know where I have lived. The good thing is, I have lived a very open life. I don't have dirty secrets."

I ask why people should sympathise with a multimillionaire seeking multi-million-dollar damages at a time when many can't pay basic bills. Cornwell admits she can't predict how the public will react. "There may be people who are appalled. There may also be people [for whom] it becomes a point of criticism about me. You are never going to please everybody. But I need to get the truth out there."

Whatever the verdict, another dramatic chapter is being written in the Patricia Cornwell story. Two things seem certain: there will be fresh fodder for Kay Scarpetta; and Cornwell herself will persevere. She recalls talking to Gruber, as they arrived to be deposed by Anchin's lawyers. "I said, 'We are not pulling up to a clinic for chemotherapy. Put it in perspective. There are things so much worse than this. This isn't losing someone you love, or finding you are bankrupt. I am still so much luckier than most people. I am able to shoulder this. And I will.'"

'The Bone Bed' (Little, Brown, £18.99) is out now

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