Daddy Dearest Olympic gold has turned to dross for 17-year-old Dominique Moceanu, whose abusive father may have looted her trust fund and tried to have her coach killed

Dec. 21, 1998
Dec. 21, 1998

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Dec. 21, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

Daddy Dearest Olympic gold has turned to dross for 17-year-old Dominique Moceanu, whose abusive father may have looted her trust fund and tried to have her coach killed

Pale and exhausted, looking even younger and more vulnerable
than her 17 years, Dominique Moceanu sat back in her seat at
Houston's Intercontinental Airport last Wednesday and said in
quiet resignation, "It kills me to do this to my father. I never
meant to hurt him, but I had no choice."

This is an article from the Dec. 21, 1998 issue Original Layout

It has been a nightmarish autumn for the 1996 Olympic gold medal
gymnast. In October she successfully sued for legal and
financial independence from her bullying father, 44-year-old
Dumitru Moceanu, who, it now appears, has squandered his
daughter's trust fund to finance a monstrously oversized
gymnastics facility outside Houston and allegedly tried to hire
a hit man to kill two of the people who have helped Dominique
wrest control of her life from him. "The money's just money,"
says Dominique, who has earned an estimated $2 million to $2.5
million since she burst onto the international gymnastics scene
at age 10. "Sure, I could have been set for life, but I can
start over. I wish we'd never had money and still had a family."

There won't be a family reunion anytime soon. On Dec. 9, after
listening to four hours of emotional testimony from Dominique
and her father, among others, Texas district judge John
Montgomery ordered Dumitru to stay away from Dominique for one
year. The elder Moceanu, who moved to the U.S. from Romania in
1979, was barred from coming within 500 feet of Dominique's
residence, school or training facility and is forbidden from
communicating with her except through a lawyer or in writing.

Dominique has always been afraid of her father, an obsessively
controlling man who, she testified, slapped her in the face two
or three times a year for offenses such as gaining weight or
sneaking candy. According to his daughter and several other
people who know him, Dumitru has a violent temper. Dominique's
fear turned to outrage on the morning of Nov. 13 when three
Houston police officers came to her apartment and asked her to
telephone a close friend of hers, Brian Huggins, and invite him
over so the officers could talk to them together. Dumitru has
accused Huggins, 32, of having an affair with Dominique; both
Huggins, who is married and has a child, and Dominique
vehemently deny this. "Never was, never will be a relationship,"
she says. "It's pretty sad my father would say those things.
I've never even had a boyfriend."

Huggins recalls arriving at Dominique's apartment and being told
by Sgt. Hal Kennedy, "Mr. Moceanu doesn't like you."

"I know that," Huggins replied.

"You don't understand," Kennedy said. "He really doesn't like
you. He's taken out a contract on your life."

The officers told Dominique and Huggins that Dumitru had also
been talking about having Dominique's coach, 26-year-old
Luminita Miscenco, killed. Huggins and Miscenco, who has coached
Dominique since last January, had helped her escape from home
and begin the legal process of being declared an adult. The
police have three tapes in which Dumitru allegedly discusses the
hits with a confidential informant, believed to be a private
investigator he had hired. A source who has listened to the
tapes--the contents of which have not been made public--says
that Dumitru was prepared to pay $10,000 for the two hits, which
were set for Nov. 20, six days before Thanksgiving. He even
discussed how to dispose of the bodies and suggested that the
murders be made to look like drug overdoses. The only thing
preventing police from making an arrest, Huggins and Dominique
were told, was that her father, who is notorious for delaying
payment of all debts for as long as possible, had yet to make a
down payment on the contract.

"To arrest someone for conspiracy to commit murder in Texas, the
suspect needs to make a down payment, provide a
weapon--something," explains Sgt. D.D. Shirley, one of the
investigating officers.

Three days later, with Huggins and Dominique in hiding in the
Cayman Islands, Dumitru abruptly broke off contact with the
informant, according to police, who believe that someone,
probably an associate of Miscenco's, inadvertently alerted
Dumitru to the investigation.

During last week's hearing, when Dumitru was asked by
Dominique's attorney, Ellen Yarrell, "Did you discuss hiring
your investigator to kill Brian Huggins and Luminita Miscenco?"
he declined to answer, citing his constitutional protection
against self-incrimination.

"I got most scared when they couldn't catch my dad," Dominique
says. "I had no problem believing in the plot. He's capable of
it. I don't know what happened to him. I don't know what makes
him tick."

Many of those who have done business with Dumitru Moceanu, a
former used-car salesman, will tell you that money is what makes
him tick, and for the past month he's had a hard time coming to
grips with the fact that his money train, Dominique, has left
the station. "His true colors didn't show until after the
Olympics," says Dominique's former agent, Stan Feig, who dropped
her as a client last summer when he became outraged at her
father's mishandling of her trust fund. "You saw all this money
going out--additions to the house, the building of that
ridiculous gym--and he hadn't had a job since 1996. He's going
to lose the gym. He might lose his house. He's a bad guy.
Dominique's truly a victim."

Moceanu Gymnastics, Inc. is built more on the scale of a blimp
factory than a gym. Opened in May 1997, the structure is
preposterously outsized--72,000 square feet, the equivalent of a
football field. Dumitru refuses to discuss the building, but
people familiar with its construction estimate that the gym cost
about $2.5 million; public records show that Dumitru took out at
least two loans for the project totaling $989,000 from the
Woodforest National Bank, both of which must be paid back by
November 1999. They were secured by his daughter's trust, which
will be responsible for the balance of the debt if Moceanu
Gymnastics, Inc., goes bust, as seems increasingly likely. The
gym, now without its marquee athlete, has fewer than 200
students, and enrollment is dropping every day as a result of
the recent publicity. Also, at least three coaches, fed up with
Dumitru's skinflint ways and imperious manner, have quit, and he
has been unable to replace them.

A monument to inefficiency, the gym has 48-foot-high ceilings
covering some 3,370,000 cubic feet of space, which must be
air-conditioned during Houston's sweltering summers. Former
employees report that the gym's electric bills run between
$5,000 and $7,000 a month--five times the cost at a gym about a
mile down the road, Basel's Gymnastics and Cheer, which trains
more than 1,000 students in a modest 20,000-square-foot area.

According to some of Dumitru's former employees, he has tried to
cut costs by either turning down the air conditioning or
shutting it off completely. "He used to set it to 80 degrees,"
says Sally Clark, 20, who coached at the gym for a year before
quitting last month. "One four-year-old started throwing up from
the heat, and the mother had to put the child in a cold shower
to get her body temperature down. Parents started turning up the
air conditioning themselves, so Dumitru put locks on the units
so no one could adjust them."

Dumitru has been so late on payments that several contractors
have gone to court and won judgments that resulted in liens
against the property. According to court documents, four
contractors--a trucking company, a concrete company, an
equipment company and an architect--have sought a total of
$62,274. "He's drowning in the finances," says Brad Hunt, head
of Gold Medal Management, who is trying to recoup the balance of
a $25,000 advance his firm paid Dumitru on Sept. 18 when he
agreed to let Hunt represent his daughter. (Dumitru has paid
back $2,000.) Gold Medal, at that time unaware of the family
dynamics, subsequently released her from the contract, and in
November she signed with the firm on her own.

"He's under financial pressure," Dumitru's lawyer, Katherine
Scardino, says of her client. "People are leaving the gym every
day, and the continuing publicity doesn't help." But when
Dumitru is asked if he's worried about the solvency of Moceanu
Gymnastics, Inc., he says, "I'm not worried at all."

"He's a snake and a con artist," says Huggins, a representative
for a large equipment firm who says he lent machinery for the
construction of the gym pro bono because Dumitru had told him
the facility was going to be used not just for Moceanu
Gymnastics, Inc. but also for community recreational programs.
"I would vouch for him with business associates, and it put a
black mark on my reputation."

For now, Dominique is living off what remains of the $10,000
check she got for winning the all-around title at the Goodwill
Games in July, a crown that heralded her return to the top of
her sport after a frustrating year in which she grew six inches,
to 5'2". She still receives $800 a month from U.S.A. Gymnastics
for being on the national team, though she hasn't set foot in a
gym since Oct. 17--the day her father fired Miscenco, a move
that precipitated the emotionally shattering events that have
followed. Dominique, a high school senior who until this year
had never had her own checking account, has had to make the
overnight transition from overprotected, tightly controlled
gymnastics prodigy to independent young adult.

"I'm figuring out a budget," she says, "paying my own rent. I'm
a little behind in school, but I hope to catch up and graduate
this year on time. Then junior college or college. There's a lot
out there besides gymnastics. I have a lot of options."

One of those options is returning to the Olympic team, but
Dominique, who until this fall had rarely been away from a gym
for more than a few days at a time, doesn't have a place to
train yet, and her coach, who is rumored to have returned to
Romania, is still lying low. "You have to be so focused to try
to make the Olympic team," says Dominique, who is reluctant to
relocate to another city. "And Luminita would be the only coach
I'd do it with."

Hunt is unsure whether the recent publicity has been good or bad
for his client's image. An argument can be made--as figure
skating fans can attest--that there's nothing like a good
scandal to boost ratings. "Certainly there's a keener awareness
of who Dominique is, and the gymnastics exhibition market is a
growing one," he says.

For now, it's difficult for Dominique to look much beyond her
first Christmas away from home. "I'm going to invite my mom and
my little sister [Christina, 9] over to my apartment. Maybe my
dad will realize soon what he's lost. Maybe it'll be the wakeup
call he needed."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY [Dominique Moceanu]COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM SNYDER Targets? Dumitru allegedly looked into having Dominique's friend Huggins (above) and her coach, Miscenco, murdered. [Brian Huggins]COLOR PHOTO: DAVE BLACK [See caption above--Luminita Miscenco]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID STRICK/OUTLINE BEFORE THE FALL Dominique and her folks seemed a happy trio in '96. [Dumitru Moceanu, Dominique Moceanu, and Camelia Moceanu]
Dominique has always been afraid of her father, who would slap
her for gaining weight or sneaking candy.
Dumitru has had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that
his money train--Dominique--has left the station.