In the late 1990s, Marise Cipriani was a successful businesswoman, captaining a thriving airline and meatpacking plant built by her rags-to-riches grandfather in Brazil and planning a four-season resort with thousands of homes at her ski-and-golf property in Grand County.
Now, according to a lawsuit filed by her sister, 66-year-old Cipriani is on the run from creditors, hiding assets in offshore shell companies and smuggling precious stones.
The lawsuit filed this month in Denver District Court accuses Cipriani, who spent 24 years developing Granby Ranch before surrendering it to creditors in 2019, of using “a complicated, international network” to hide assets as her empire spectacularly collapsed. The schemes — outlined in the lawsuit filed by her sister, Valeria Fontana, who lent Cipriani $19 million in 2013 — include a “mind-boggling … web of companies” created in the names of her cook, housekeeper and “spiritual guru,” and illegally smuggled stashes of uncut gems and diamonds.
Cipriani’s son, Guilherme Cipriani, was arrested by federal agents in April at Miami International Airport on charges of smuggling 14 loose cut diamonds and 53 rough uncut diamonds through customs. The arrest followed an investigation by U.S. and Brazilian authorities and included charges of smuggling goods and lying to federal customs officials. In early Guilherme Cipriani in August pleaded guilty to the smuggling charge and faced up to 20 years in prison. In late October, court filings in the U.S. Southern District Court in Florida show research into the smuggling charges revealed “there is no tax or duty owed on loose diamonds” and Cipriani asked the court to vacate the guilty plea and refer him to a diversion program that would not require prison time.
The Fontana lawsuit, which includes claims against eight mining companies controlled by the Ciprianis in Brazil and Hong Kong, says the arrest of Guilherme calls “into question the legality and business purposes of Marise Cipriani’s many mining related entities.” The lawsuit seeks “to pierce the corporate veil as to this complex network” and expose “fraudulent transfer, conspiracy and … violations of the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act.”
It’s the latest chapter in the unending drama that engulfs Granby Ranch, where property owners for decades have squabbled with owners old and new.
☀️ READ MORE
Cipriani and her husband Celso Cipriani paid $12 million for the ski area and property in 1995, nine years after the previous owners were killed in a plane crash. As the couple shepherded the collapse of her grandfather’s airline, Transbrasil, through negotiations with creditors seeking hundreds of millions in unpaid debt, the Ciprianis launched plans for a $600 million four-season resort at Granby Ranch. Surrounding the 400-acre Granby Ranch ski area and 18-hole golf course, Cipriani envisioned more than 4,300 homes, a million square feet of commercial space and many miles of trails on her 5,000 acre property along the Fraser River.
In 2017 she announced she was selling the project.
“I will take forever the memories and experiences of this magnificent place with me, as I enter the next chapter of my life, a story, as of yet, unwritten, and continuing to reveal itself with each turn of a page,” she wrote in a letter to the community’s 600 homeowners in the fall of 2017.
Two years later she surrendered the resort to a Delaware-based investment company that loaned her $55.8 million in April 2016. And her sister, Valerie Fontana, sued her in 2019, saying Cipriani defaulted on a 2013 loan from J.P. Morgan Chase Bank. Fontana lost $19.3 million in collateral she provided to back her sister’s loan. Cipriani promised to pay her sister back, but Fontana never received any payment so she sued.
That 2019 lawsuit was settled in 2021 with Cipriani agreeing she would repay the $19.3 million with 8% annual interest. As Fontana sought payment from the judgment, “Cipriani began offering non-traditional methods of payment, namely what she claimed to be several million dollars worth of uncut gems,” reads the lawsuit. Fontana declined those offers and has only been able to recover “minimal assets to defray some interest on the judgment from 2021,” reads the lawsuit.
The new lawsuit makes claims against Marise and Celso Cipriani, their children Guilherme and Melissa Cipriani, four of the family’s friends who were named as owners of different companies controlled by the family and nearly two dozen Cipriani-controlled trusts, companies, aviation businesses and mining companies based in Brazil and Hong Kong.
The lawsuit alleges Cipriani secreted assets and funds into shell companies created under the names of her friends in Brazil and Hong Kong. The lawsuit, which notes Cipriani “drove the business her grandfather had created, Transbrasil (once Brazil’s third-largest airline) into bankruptcy,” also alleges she “has remained on the run from creditors in the Transbrasil bankruptcy actions in both Brazil and the U.S.” The lawsuit says the bankruptcy court in Brazil has frozen the assets of her family “based on evidence that the Ciprianis diverted significant Transbrasil assets to themselves using their offshore companies.” The Cipriani family has battled the Transbrasil bankruptcy process in the U.S., fighting to protect personal assets that could be swept into the airline’s dissolution.
The lawsuit filed this month asks the court to issue a ruling to hold the Ciprianis as individuals liable for the actions of their many shell companies and trusts.
“Defendants’ actions in perpetrating their fraudulent scheme were pervasive, long running, organized, concerted, and are still presently on-going … and demonstrate a pattern of unlawful activity designed to conceal funds from creditor by utilizing means of fraud, omission, and deception, through multiple shell entities, all working in concert with one another for the overall benefit of a single unlawful enterprise,” the lawsuit said, claiming the conspiracy by the Ciprianis violated Colorado laws against organized crime and “constitute a pattern of racketeering.”