JOAQUIN DE MONET'S FRENCH-STYLE château was the most ostentatious home in California's Napa Valley. Because of it, some locals called him Count de Money. Poised on a hilltop, with a commanding view of the area's sprawling vineyards, the 18,000-square-foot mansion featured a 37-foot-high marble-and-limestone foyer, six fireplaces, 10 bathrooms and nine crystal chandeliers. Completed in August 1991, the château stood as a monument to conspicuous consumption until a month ago. On April 27 it was lifted off its foundations by a deafening predawn explosion, and a towering orange fireball engulfed De Monet's dream house. By the time firemen arrived, there was nothing left except a single brick chimney.

De Monet, 48, a real estate developer, was vacationing at Lake Tahoe at the time with his third wife. Regina, and her two children from a previous marriage. When they learned their house had been destroyed, says De Monet, "I looked at my wife and said, 'Does that mean we won't go fishing?' Then we both started crying."

The Napa County Sheriff's Department immediately classified the explosion as arson. They believe someone filled the mansion with propane gas from a 1,100-gallon tank used to heal an outdoor swimming pool, then set it off with an incendiary device. Investigators have been questioning De Monet's business associates and family and have yet to determine the motive or come close to identifying the culprit. "We're still looking at De Monet as a victim," says Del. Mike Collins. "But we haven't eliminated him as a suspect."

Part of the investigation has focused on De Monet's business dealings. "It's a paper chase," says Collins. Though Collins has uncovered no evidence to prove De Monet is on the ropes financially, the developer has had his share of money problems. His latest project—a $130 million office complex planned in East Palo Alto—has been slowed by lawsuits and the recession. In January 1992, just four months after he moved into the château. De Monet put if on the market for $12.5 million. He had recently dropped the asking price to $8 million and still found no takers. If his insurance claim for the fire is accepted. according to investigators, he could get up to $9.1 million.

Regardless of the difficulties De Monet had trying to sell the mansion, his friends find it hard to believe he would want it destroyed. "Joaquin loved his toys," says Sherman White, a neighbor. "He wanted the most fabulous place in Napa valley. He wanted to outdo the other mansions." White finds it equally unimaginable that the explosion might be an act of vengeance by one of De Monet's associates. "For someone to do something like that, it has to be more than a business deal gone sour," he says.

One of the many people detectives questioned during the investigation is De Monet's second wife, Gail, whom he divorced in 1988. Last October De Monet filed suit against Gail, accusing her of having a sexual relationship for five years with his son Philip (one of three children from his first marriage). De Monet claims Gail seduced Philip at age 15, in 1983, and concealed the relationship so "she might continue to enjoy indefinitely the very substantial material fruits of her marriage." (Gail, who has two children with De Monet—Aaron, 11, and Nicole, 9—denied the charges. On the day of the explosion, she accused De Monet in a countersuit of inflicting "severe emotional distress" on her by having an affair during their marriage. Despite these hostilities, investigators no longer seriously consider Gail a suspect.

De Monet has declined to discuss details of the suit or the pending arson investigation. Currently, he says, his priority is to find a new home for his family. "It's been a shock," he says. "We're just zombies now."

DAVID GROGAN
LIZ McNEIL in Napa Valley

  • Contributors:
  • Liz McNeil.