Love and Gunfire
09/09/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
AS SHE DROVE TO A DOUGHNUT SHOP A few blocks from her Houston apartment on the evening of Oct. 20, 1980, Barbra Piotrowski began to sob uncontrollably. After seven months, the 27-year-old California beauty, a former Miss Wahini Bikini, was still shaken by the breakup of her passionate affair with Richard Minns, a Texas health club tycoon 23 years her senior. Moreover, she had become convinced that Minns, who was furious that she had walked out on him, was having her followed and might even do her harm. Three months earlier her car had stalled unexpectedly, and police discovered that an ignition-cutoff device had been planted under the hood.
Pulling herself together, Piotrowski bought an apple fritter and a glazed doughnut. As she climbed back into her 1980 red Firebird, she noticed a man approaching the car with a pistol in his hand. Then four gunshots rang out, and her body went numb.
Piotrowski awoke in a hospital bed, paralyzed by two bullets that had severed her spine. Two hit men from California, who were apprehended immediately by police, were convicted five months later of the attack on Piotrowski. Another California man was jailed in 1985 after confessing that he ordered the hit on behalf of Dudley Bell, a Houston private investigator who is now serving 38 years for solicitation of capital murder. But though Bell was a known associate of Dick Minns's, no criminal charges were ever filed against Piotrowski's former lover. Nevertheless, in a separate civil action last February, a judge ruled that there was a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that Minns had caused Piotrowski's injuries, and he awarded her $32 million in damages, plus accrued interest. It will be difficult to collect, however; Minns left the U.S. in 1982 and, according to Piotrowski's attorney, was spotted this summer in the Bahamas. (In a 1980 statement to the press he said, "The only crime I committed was to fall in love with a beautiful girl from California.")
In one sense, then, former Houston trial lawyer Suzanne Finstad's recent book about Piotrowski's ordeal, Sleeping with the Devil, is a story that still needs an ending—which the book may yet help to supply.
The romance began in 1977 when Piotrowski, then a UCLA premed student, met Minns on a skiing vacation in Aspen, Colo. A walking advertisement for his nationwide chain of 32 fitness clubs, Minns liked to demonstrate his athleticism in feats such as waterskiing three times around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe and doing 2,000 consecutive sit-ups. "He was so strong and energetic and youthful," recalls Piotrowski. And he came into her life at just the right time. The daughter of working-class Polish immigrants who settled in Los Angeles, Piotrowski had been a standout student in Catholic schools and had won a number of beauty pageants by age 17. But that year she was raped at gunpoint by a stranger; she quit competing and found a refuge of sorts in cocaine and heroin. Now, at 23, she was clean and hoped to embark on a medical career.
Enthralled by Piotrowski's looks, Minns pursued her relentlessly and persuaded her to move to Texas by promising to pay her tuition at the University of Houston. Eventually, he said, they would retire to his permanent home in Austin, Texas, but until then they would keep a small apartment together near his Houston office. "It all seemed too good to be true," says Piotrowski, whose first months with Minns consisted mostly of travel to exotic resorts. "Everything was magical. We never argued. The most important thing we had to worry about was waterskiing from point A to point B."
After her rape, Piotrowski had been wary of men. Minns was the first person with whom she enjoyed sex, and it became a mutual obsession. When he asked her to get breast implants to make her "more perfect," she obliged. In turn, he was the consummate romantic. "He would dodge cars on the freeway to pick me a wild-flower," she says.
In time, though, Piotrowski began to realize that Minns was a liar. She discovered he wasn't from a family of doctors, as he had claimed, and that although he had told her he was divorced, he was still married—to Mimi Minns, who lived with his four children in a Houston mansion. "That's where I should have gotten off the boat," says Piotrowski. "But I was spellbound."
When Mimi found out about Barbra and filed for divorce in the summer of 1979, Piotrowski claims Richard could not handle the stress and became abusive toward her, once breaking her nose. Finally, in March 1980, she moved out of their rented town house, taking all the furnishings with her. In retaliation, Minns had her arrested for theft. He and Piotrowski, friends say, fought furiously after the breakup. "I knew something bad was going to happen if that kept up," says Al Dugan, a longtime associate of Minns's who tried unsuccessfully to mediate the battle over the furniture. "But there was no dealing with them."
After the attack, Piotrowski changed her name to Janni Smith and returned to L.A., where she became active in research to help paralyzed people walk again by means of electronic stimulation. Today she does fund-raising and public relations for Dr. Jerrold Petrofsky, who has pioneered this research. Though she has returned to Houston periodically for court appearances, she still lives in fear and has tried to maintain her new identity. She was horrified in 1987 to learn that Suzanne Finstad was working on a book about her case, and at first she refused to cooperate. "But I didn't quit," says Finstad, who spent 3½ years interviewing people in Houston and poring over court documents. "Every time I got some new information, I would call Janni. After months of this, she became curious and wanted to help."
"She provided me with a lot of information that helped me in my civil suit," says Piotrowski. Still, she was disturbed that Finstad planned to write about her rape and subsequent drug use. "I tried to talk her in to leaving it out," Piotrowski says, "but she told me why she had to put it in. It was completely objective."
Thanks partly to Finstad's efforts, the Houston police department has kept their investigation of the case active. After Finstad interviewed Adrian Franks, an assistant to private detective Dudley Bell who installed the cutoff switch in Piotrowski's car, Franks said he was ready to testify that Bell was working for Minns. He claims that he made the same offer to the police in 1982 but they never followed up on it. Even with Franks's testimony, officials say they would still lack enough evidence to indict Minns. "Dudley Bell is the only one who could prove Minns did it," says Houston Assistant District Attorney Ted Wilson. "And he has never said Minns hired him to kill her."
To this day Piotrowski does not like being alone in a room or a car because she is afraid someone will appear and shoot her. Angered by her plight, Finstad has vowed to keep fighting to see Minns brought to justice. "I quit law and became a writer to expose the inequities and corruption of the system," Finstad says. "I won't ever drop this until it's settled."
ANNE MAIER in Houston