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Inside Story: The Salahis, way before the dinner

Whenever I've interviewed Tareq Salahi, it's always been for a story about something gone awry among the upper crust in the Washington region's horse country. In my first at-bat with Tareq in 2003, he was eager to be included in the story--a rather grisly one. I was writing about Susan Cummings -- pronounced Suz-ahhn -- the heiress to an arms fortune, and how she was getting sued for the wrongful death of her Argentine polo-playing lover Roberto Villegas, whom she had shot to death on her 300-acre estate in 1997. Cummings spent less than two months in jail and, in 2003, was being sued by Villegas's 10-year-old son.

I was casting about for society types in Fauquier, and Tareq eagerly dished about rare sightings of Cummings, who he said broke out of her isolation to occasionally frequent his Oasis winery in Hume, Va.

That sort of advertisement hasn't exactly worked out for Tareq. Later in 2003, I chronicled his bout with the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors, who were receiving complaints about noise at the winery. I'll never forget how Michaele Salahi showed up at a board hearing dressed as if she were attending a gala, and in keeping with such etiquette, tried to kiss my cheek at the end of our interview, even if we were surrounded by people dressed in Red Wing boots. The Board rejected Oasis's request to make its events bigger and longer. Here's a classic exchange from the hearing:

"You haven't quite lived until you encounter a stretch limo that can't quite navigate the curve," said Carol Scott, a lawyer who has lived about a mile away from the winery for 12 years.

Barbara Groschnas, an Oasis supporter, asked: "Cattle trucks and horse trailers are larger than limos. Are we to ban those, too?"

Several years passed and one day last year, I noticed a real estate sign listing Oasis Winery for sale. So, in October 2008, I interviewed Tareq Salahi again, along with his parents Dirgham and Corinne, for a story about a complex legal dispute that had split the family.

Here's the thrust of that story:

The family tensions are exposed in a civil suit in Fauquier County Circuit Court in which the parents allege that their son has interfered with the winery's sale and falsely advertised on the Internet that Oasis was closed. The parents also sought to evict him and his wife from an apartment on the property. The son responded in court documents with allegations that his parents' attorney assaulted him and a request that he be removed from the case. (The attorney, Thomas Brownell of the firm Holland & Knight, has denied those allegations in court papers.)

As I was wrapping up work on that story, Tareq called back excited about the news that he was in talks with a television network to do a reality show on his family's legal problems. That became the kicker--the ending--for my story.

What I've been kicking myself over these last few days is that I spiked all my notes from those stories about the Salahis. As the news about the couple's alleged crashing of last week's state dinner broke, I found that not only had I tossed my notes, I'd even disposed of their cell phone numbers. I had vastly underestimated the Salahis' future newsworthiness.

Anyway, check out this picture, taken last year, of Dirgham Salahi, Tareq's father, who founded Oasis. I interviewed him while touring the winery last year and he struck me as a thoughtful man completely undone by his family's tension. But Dirgham is not without his own controversies: As founder and director of a Montessori school in Alexandria, he had testified in two trials that "he bribed former commonwealth's attorney William L. Cowhig with $32,000 skimmed from bingo profits in order to buy protection for the games," according to our archives from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

dirghamsalahi.jpg(Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post)

By Ian Shapira  | December 2, 2009; 10:12 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism , The inside story  
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