San Diego 'You're blond, you're thin, you're gorgeous," Christianne De Marco remembers telling then-25-year-old Karina Ivanova (not her real name) the only time she met her. The two women sat by themselves in Harvard business graduate and investor Lou Coutinho's Point Loma living room sometime near Valentine's Day 2004. De Marco continued her advice to Ivanova, saying, "You could have anyone you want. Why are you messing with Lou?"
De Marco maintains that by this time Coutinho, now 36, was saying he wanted to get rid of Ivanova. "But Lou's such a sweet, trusting guy," De Marco says, "and that's what got him in trouble with her." De Marco, who works for a local hospital, denies that she and Coutinho have any kind of romantic relationship of their own.
Coutinho and Ivanova dated for two years. De Marco thinks that the trouble began in June 2003 when Ivanova vacated her apartment and "showed up at Coutinho's door, asking, 'Can I stay with you for a few days?' Any guy would be thinking, 'Oh, my God, commitment. Scary, scary.' He didn't want her living there," says De Marco.
Ivanova stayed at Coutinho's just the few days she requested. But the visit launched a conflict that didn't end until almost two years later in San Diego County Superior Court. In a lawsuit filed this February, Coutinho charged Ivanova with "intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, slander, and libel." Since then, the couple has agreed on a confidential, out-of-court settlement.
I could get no information about the case from Ivanova, who came to San Diego five years ago after earning a master's degree in business administration from the University of Alabama. She did say that on Valentine's Day she became engaged to another man she has dated since November.
Coutinho would not discuss the suit either. But in court papers filed by attorney David Ebersole, his allegations against Ivanova emerge: He came to believe that Ivanova searched his personal address book while she stayed in his home. He believes she then began contacting "female friends listed in the book." During the same time, Ivanova asked Coutinho "if he would marry her so that she could gain United States citizenship." Ivanova is a Russian national.
During a visit to Coutinho's home several weeks later, on July 2, and after phoning one of his female friends, Ivanova "became hysterically upset...and shouted that she would make [him] sorry." She left the house and called the San Diego Sheriff's Department, according to legal papers in the case. A sheriff's officer met her at a gas station, where Ivanova reported "that she had been pushed down, assaulted, and battered by [Coutinho]. Thereafter, he was arrested and booked into the San Diego County Jail." Ivanova filed a criminal complaint against Coutinho, which the court later dismissed "because [she] failed to present testimony." Court documents reveal she also filed for a restraining order against Coutinho but subsequently asked the court to revoke it.
The court record observes that "at this point, the relationship between [them] became strained; they saw less and less of each other." But in March of 2004, Ivanova went on the Web as Lou Coutinho and solicited "sexual encounters and activities from homosexual men." In subsequent communications, she directed interested men to Coutinho's home, where some of them knocked at his door or jumped "over his fence in order to approach [him] with the expectation that he would engage in homosexual activities with them."
In May, claims Coutinho, "a large Russian male" followed him into his neighborhood, cornering, threatening, and assaulting him. During the encounter, the man made "mention of Karina Ivanova's name."
That summer, Coutinho had a Fourth of July barbecue at his home. While he grilled food and attended to guests in the back yard, Ivanova showed up uninvited and entered his home office to use the computer and telephone. She began informing various women that she was living with Coutinho as his fiancée and "that they should therefore not contact him."
Descriptions of the next event vary. Maurice Samuels, a friend of Coutinho, remembers witnessing a fall taking place at the foot of a set of back-yard stairs. He says that several other people witnessed it, too. Ivanova's fall occurred at a moment Coutinho was approaching her. She used their proximity, according to Samuels, to blame the fall on the host.
But the court record presents a confusing picture, saying that Coutinho "left the deck and went into his home...[as the defendant came] tumbling down in a heap, screaming hysterically that he pushed her down and assaulted and battered her. During this entire time Plaintiff was in the back yard at the barbecue and had only gone inside for a brief moment, just in time to attempt to prevent her tumbling fall." For that reason, Coutinho alleges that "[Defendant] was waiting for [Plaintiff] to come upstairs before she staged her fall."
Whether the events occurred upstairs or downstairs, outside or inside, Coutinho's suit alleges that his guests that day "were with him at the barbecue and were talking to and visiting with [him] during the entire time that Defendant [Ivanova] was there and thus during the period of time of the alleged assault and battery."
That day, Ivanova filed another police report charging that Coutinho "assaulted and battered her and pushed her down the stairs in his home." But the charges were dropped later "when Defendant recanted her allegations at the criminal hearing."
Nevertheless, the court documents assert, Ivanova contacted Coutinho's friends, family, and business associates, "stating that he was violent, unstable, and he had assaulted her." She further wrote letters and sent copies of the July 4 police report to Coutinho's mother, sister, and the San Diego chapter of the Harvard Business School Alumni Association.
Coutinho's lawsuit alleges that Ivanova's actions caused him "humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional and physical distress." He became depressed, could not sleep, lost his appetite, and worried about how significant people in his life "perceived him in the wake of...the false allegations made by Defendant." To cope, Coutinho sought medical care that, to date, has cost him $58,546. He says that the episode with Ivanova further prevented him "from attending to his usual profession as a business investor and his employment with an international consulting firm." He therefore lost earnings and believes that he will sustain additional losses in the future.
Jana Vorce, a real estate agent and friend of Coutinho, is convinced, as his "friend and mentor," that he never could have battered Ivanova. Vorce once suffered at the hands of a "boyfriend who battered me," so it angers her that any woman would file abuse charges when she hasn't been abused.
Vorce admits to thinking about "immigration issues" when remembering the relationship between Coutinho and Ivanova. Yet she says she "has nothing against Russian women," who are often stereotyped in American media as conniving to escape Russia. The Web has numerous sites that debate the suitability of Russian brides for American men and whether in the long run the Russians are "gold diggers."
Vorce and De Marco differ on how genuine Coutinho and Ivanova's relationship was. "He did love her," says Vorce, "but he did not want to marry. Then the ultimatums made him pull away."
But De Marco doubts there was ever anything solid in the relationship. "Men get into that trap of beautiful women," she says. "Lou is handsome and a sweetheart and he's been married. But the Russian girl turned him off women."
But a new woman has stepped forward to claim she is Coutinho's current girlfriend. "Not all foreigners have bad intentions," Brazilian Najla Abdala, 36, writes me in an e-mail. "Most of them actually date and marry for love and not because they want an easy green pass to America."