Murder mansion at centre of crumbling portfolio
Simone Semmens. Photo: Gerry Angelos
THE tradesmen spent five hours sanding blood and bodily fluids from the floorboards. The stains had seeped into the Baltic pine years ago, a permanent reminder of the brutal murder of former owner and eccentric millionaire Peter Shellard by his former girlfriend and two drug-addled accomplices.
Flamboyant beauty queen turned property developer Simone Semmens purchased the historic Rosecraddock estate and had millions to spend on its restoration - and a pool, tennis court and six-car garage. But not for a new bedroom floor. Instead, workers were told to sand down the boards and cover the old crime scene with carpet.
''When the sander hit [the stains], it smelt like an abattoir in there,'' a tradesman said. ''It was cheaper than replacing the boards.''
They also claim the the former Miss Victorian Grocery Industry and Miss Victoria 1985 winner never paid them for completing the grim task.
Bought for $7.8 million, Rosecraddock and its sprawling, subdivided Caulfield North grounds were eventually sold, all up, for $17.4 million. The deal cemented the reputation of the former Telstra media spin-doctor and Channel Seven news presenter as one of the most celebrated boutique developers in Victoria.
But Fairfax Media has found the stunning deal concealed signs of a business empire edging towards collapse, with court records showing Ms Semmens allegedly owes $35.8 million in debts and unpaid taxes.
The 52-year-old is embroiled in four lawsuits in the Supreme Court, with creditors mounting actions to seize Rosecraddock and a 30-room Toorak mansion, Edzell House, that Ms Semmens bought for $11 million.
The Australian Taxation Office alone is seeking $10 million in back taxes, interest and penalties after Ms Semmens allegedly failed to pay income tax in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Unnamed ''serious medical issues'' have also reportedly caused Ms Semmens ''significant emotional and physical distress'', with her doctor saying in an affidavit that she was no longer in a ''fit or appropriate'' condition to assist her legal counsel in a suit brought by Westpac. An affidavit by her clinical psychologist was also lodged with the court but it has been sealed.
The legal actions mark a dramatic change of fortune for the savvy developer whose sterling track record for renovating and flipping luxury homes for multimillion-dollar returns was widely perceived as the property equivalent of a ''Midas touch''.
Famously, Ms Semmens reaped $6.8 million alone by subdividing and selling the grounds surrounding the Rosecraddock mansion, nearly recouping the $7.8 million price tag for the entire estate.
But Ms Semmens' highly leveraged property play began to unravel in mid-to-late 2010, amid mounting renovation costs and a failure to find a buyer for Rosecraddock over the next year. Nevertheless, she went on to purchase Edzell House for $11 million as her next renovation project.
Court documents show Westpac loan officers estimated that Rosecraddock would only be valued at $9.5 million when the project was completed. But the bank showed faith in Ms Semmens, extending funding based on Ms Semmens' claim she could ''upgrade'' the renovations and sell Rosecraddock for $15 million.
After overdrawing her account putting a deposit on Edzell House, Westpac provided an additional $450,000 but warned Ms Semmens that completion of the Rosecraddock deal had become ''critical'' in light of her latest purchase.
As Rosecraddock languished on the market, court documents reveal that in late 2011 Ms Semmens and her company, Hamilton Bay Pty Ltd, began to rely on costly credit deals with private lenders. They included taking out six-month and one-year loans that threatened penalty interest rates of more than 16 per cent.
One of the financiers was Michael Spivakovsky, son of famed pianist Jascha Spivakovsky, who sold Edzell House to Ms Semmens and provided nearly $6 million to fund her purchase of the property.
Salvation appeared to come when a buyer offered to pay $13.1 million for Rosecraddock in early 2012 but the buyer backed out. Falling into default, Ms Semmens' debt with the private lenders was mounting by $5400 a day on just two of the loans.
Kmart chief executive Guy Russo and wife Deanne Bevan ultimately bought Rosecraddock for $10.6 million in October 2012 but settlement - and payment of the funds - has been in doubt due to pending court actions.
Creditors are also now facing the bleak prospect that the landmark properties have been bought or sold for less than the value of the loans, a reality Ms Semmens has acknowledged in relation to Rosecraddock in court documents filed in response to the Tax Office suit. About $12.5 million worth of credit is secured by Edzell House, which Ms Semmens bought for $11 million. Westpac lent $11.4 million against Rosecraddock - rising to $13 million with interest - but Mr Russo paid only $10.6 million.
Ms Semmens' former partner, John Prescott Halstead, is also set to lose a Portsea property after acting as a guarantor for $6 million in credit from Westpac that is now in default.
Ms Semmens did not respond to a request for comment but her legal representatives, Clamenz Evans Ellis, have threatened legal action against Fairfax Media on her behalf. She has disputed each of the four suits.
In her written defence against the Westpac claim, Ms Semmens alleges bank officers knew she could not afford to service the loan but they gave verbal assurances that she would not have to pay back the loan until the sale of Rosecraddock had been completed. The bank has denied the claim.
A similar defence - that repayment of money would be made upon the sale of Rosecraddock and a Portsea property held in the name of her former partner - has been lodged by Ms Semmens in the suit brought by Michael Spivakovsky and his wife, Cheryl.
Ms Semmens has also contested the Tax Office's claim on the basis that her property activities do not constitute a business. In immigration documents obtained by the Tax Office, Ms Semmens lists her occupation as ''home maker''.
It is also unclear whether Rosecraddock's buyer will be allowed to settle the transaction. Industry sources say the deal has been completed but title records have not been changed.
Ms Semmens has been attempting to sell a portion of Edzell House's grounds along the Yarra River for a price believed to be around $9 million.
In early 2011, Ms Semmens also attempted to gain control of four properties in Caulfield North and Portsea - including the historic seaside home Noorah - in a suit she brought against her former partner, John Halstead.
Ms Semmens alleged that the properties were gifted to Mr Halstead to hold in ''trust'' for Ms Semmens, a claim he disputed. The proceedings were reportedly settled in February 2012 but title records show no properties have yet changed hands. Mr Halstead, who resides in Singapore, could not be reached for comment.
The latest lawsuits come on the heels of several other disputes involving Ms Semmens. Fairfax Media reported last year that one disgruntled electrician tried to block the sale of Rosecraddock over an allegedly unpaid $15,000 bill.
Ms Semmens was also ordered to compensate a builder $37,000 for unpaid work after losing a legal dispute in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal last year.
Former lawyers for Ms Semmens, Best Hooper Solicitors, also won a $19,579 claim plus costs against their client in the Melbourne Magistrates Court in 2012.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @chrisvedelago