REAL ESTATE

Widow sues Fontainebleau owner over chopper crash in Bahamas that killed her husband

 
 
Jeffrey Soffer, Fontainebleau Hotel owner.
Jeffrey Soffer, Fontainebleau Hotel owner.
AL DIAZ / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

dhanks@MiamiHerald.com

A lawsuit accuses Fontainebleau owner Jeffrey Soffer of improperly taking the controls of a helicopter before it crashed in the Bahamas, then scheming to cover up his role as pilot to prevent litigation from the widow of a close friend who was killed.

Soffer claimed he was a passenger in the chopper that crashed to the grounds of an exclusive Bahamas resort on Thanksgiving Day last year. Lance Valdez, a tax attorney living in the Bahamas, died upon impact. Soffer, pilot David Pearce, and Soffer executive Dainel Riordan and his wife, Paula, were injured. The lawsuit claims Soffer’s pilot license didn’t allow him to fly the chopper, and that he hustled away from the smoldering wreck in order to “flee” before any crash investigation could be conducted.

Soffer arranged for a trip to Miami in a friend’s corporate jet and was admitted to the Ryder Trauma Center.

The federal lawsuit, filed in Miami by Valdez’s widow, Daria “Dasha” Pastouhkova Gogoleva, quickly gained national attention, thanks to Soffer’s status as the new husband to supermodel Elle Macpherson.

Soffer, who helps run a family real estate empire that includes the Aventura Mall and Turnberry development, declined an interview request. His lawyer issued a statement that denied the allegations in the suit and noted Gogoleva had already signed a release in a $2 million settlement from the chopper’s insurance carrier.

“Throughout the post-accident period, Mr. Valdez’s wife was represented by several lawyers, including two of the top aviation accident specialists in the nation, who investigated fully the facts of the accident and the applicable law and advised Mrs. Valdez to sign the release,’’ said the statement from Roberto Martinez, of Colson Hicks Eidson.

The statement added: “Jeff Soffer is very sympathetic to Dasha and the children for their grave loss. He still mourns deeply the death of his good friend Lance Valdez. The Riordans and Mr. Soffer were seriously injured in the accident and are still on a long road to full recovery.”

The suit claims Soffer, widely reported as a billionaire, cajoled Gogoleva to accept all of the insurance proceeds from the crash as a gesture of goodwill. But, according to the suit, the settlement played into Soffer’s plans because Gogoleva had to sign a waiver indemnifying Soffer from any liability related to the crash.

Soffer also is accused of offering life-time employment in his aviation company to Pearce, the pilot, in exchange for Pearce signing a document saying he was at the controls during the crash. Pearce signed the document, but has since changed his story, according to Gogoleva lawyer Jeffrey Rosenberg.

Rosenberg, who called Valdez a close friend, said Gogoleva had heard rumors that Soffer was responsible for the crash and became suspicious when she stopped hearing from Soffer after she signed the waiver. Her concern grew when she wasn’t invited to Soffer’s August wedding with Macpherson, who Rosenberg said met Soffer through Valdez.

“This was one of her husband’s dear friends,” Rosenberg said. The lack of a wedding invitation “was a disappointment to her. I think that perhaps [made] her reflect on who her friends really were.”

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