TAMPA — In late September, a U.S. Marine Corps four-star general and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency sent letters to a court in Washington, D.C., testifying that a single mom in Tampa named Natalie Khawam was fit to parent her 4-year-old son.
Gen. John R. Allen praised Khawam — the twin sister of Jill Kelley, the woman who sparked an FBI investigation that exposed retired Gen. David Petraeus' affair — for her "maturity, integrity and steadfast commitment to raising her child." Petraeus told the court Khawam "dotes on her son and goes to great lengths — and great expense — to spend quality time with him."
The court had a different opinion.
"Ms. Khawam appears to lack any appreciation or respect for the importance of honesty and integrity in her interactions with her family, employers, and others with whom she comes in contact," a judge wrote after a litany of hearings and psychological evaluations. "The court fully expects that Ms. Khawam's pattern of misrepresentations about virtually everything, including the most important aspects of her life, will continue indefinitely."
She was more than $3 million in debt, records show. She had blown through four jobs in five years and sued a former employer for sex harassment. She had had three failed engagements, left her new husband and moved in with her sister where she quickly began hobnobbing with military brass and others in Tampa's elite circles.
What moved the top government brass to go to bat for a woman the court said suffers from "severe" psychological deficits? The answer can be found in Jill Kelley's social climb in the last decade, since she and her surgeon husband moved south from Philadelphia and found a niche hosting lavish parties for military brass from MacDill.
South Tampa's decades-long reputation for genteel hospitality toward the military has transformed over the past several days into a soap opera of sexual misconduct and improper emails that has already cost Petraeus his job and threatens Allen's career as well. Ground zero is not the Pentagon, but a mansion on Bayshore Boulevard inhabited by a family with lavish appetites and gigantic debts.
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In the spring of 2003, the Kelleys hosted a dinner party at Tampa's Palm Restaurant to celebrate their decision to make their adopted city a permanent home. Among the select group of Tampa's business, government and military elite were Marine Lt. Gen. Michael "Rifle" DeLong, then second in command to Gen. Tommy Franks at CentCom, former Mayor Dick Greco and his wife, Linda, and retired Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen.
DeLong's wife, Kathy, recalls meeting Jill Kelley, 37, at a "patriotic function in Tampa."
"They (the twins) could work a room better than any politician," she said. "They're bright, fun, just who you'd want at your party."
The DeLongs began including them at base functions, "and once you're on the list, you're on the list," she said. That friendship extended to Gen. John Abizaid, who ran CentCom from July 2003 to March 2007.
"They really connected because of their shared Lebanese heritage," said DeLong.
Determined to make her footprint, Jill Kelley knocked on doors up and down Bayshore Boulevard, asking homeowners if their house was for sale. She wanted the prestigious address, and she got it. In June 2004, the couple paid $1.5 million for a 4,800-square-foot brick mansion with stately white pillars and a view of Hillsborough Bay, just six miles from MacDill Air Force Base.
Kelley's husband, it seemed, could afford the good life on his salary from Moffitt Cancer Center, where he worked in the department of surgery after a two-year fellowship.
"He was a highly talented guy. Great interpersonal skills,'' said Dr. Richard Karl, the founding medical director at Moffitt, who hired Kelley. "He and his wife were very charming when I knew them back then."
The Kelleys were known for their "extravagant parties; there was always more than you could possibly eat," he said.
Records show the Kelleys created a cancer charity in 2005. According to its 2007 tax return, The Doctor Kelley Cancer Foundation's primary purpose was to "conduct research studies into efforts to discover ways to improve the quality of life of terminally ill adult cancer patients." Natalie Khawam was also named as a director of the nonprofit. But of $157,284 raised in revenue that year, meals and entertainment accounted for more than $43,000 in expenses, legal fees more than $25,000, and automotive expenses more than $8,800. According to state corporate records, the group was dissolved in 2007. But as late as February 2010, Jill Kelley solicited contributions for the group to provide a dinner for the homeless. In an email to prospective donors, she asked for " 'in kind' donations (i.e. more food, drinks, banners, decorations)" and noted that her group was a "tax write-off."
In 2008, Kelley moved to Lakeland to start an esophageal cancer/surgical oncology program at Lakeland Regional Medical Center. He established his practice at the 200-physician Watson Clinic in Lakeland, a well-regarded practice that's one of the biggest in the area.
Soon after Petraeus arrived at MacDill in 2008, the Kelleys invited the general and his wife to a small dinner at which they introduced them to noteworthy Tampa residents, said retired Army Col. Steve Boylan, a former Petraeus aide who is acting as his unofficial spokesman.
Petraeus and his wife, Holly, became friends with the Kelleys after that. The friendship continued after the Petraeuses moved to Washington, Boylan said. When the Kelleys would go up to visit her family, the families would see each other.
Lawsuits show the Kelleys were treading water by then, when Scott Kelley was making just the minimum payment on a Visa Signature card that had accumulated a balance over $70,000 and was taking on hundreds of dollars in interest each month. According to a lawsuit filed this year, Kelley defaulted on that card in 2010, the same year Regions bank sued him and his wife over a debt in excess of $250,000. Chase sued for more than $25,000 and Regions Bank filed to foreclose on their Bayshore home. The bank said it was owed more than $1.7 million, and that it had not gotten any payments since Sept. 2009.
They defaulted on more credit cards and the lawsuits stacked up, but they continued to host parties and held tight to their friendship with Petraeus.
It was a friendship between couples, Boylan said, the kind where the families visited each other at Christmas.
"Based on my conversation with David Petraeus, he was very, very clear, very adamant: It is strictly a close friendship that grew out of their time in Tampa and continued when they moved," Boylan said. "No romantic involvement whatsoever."
Noting that he's not speaking for the military, MacDill or CentCom, Boylan said, "In many towns there are people of note who take an interest in the military community and try to support them in various ways."
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When Natalie Khawam moved to her sister's house in Tampa in March 2009, she brought her own baggage, records show. She had moved south from Washington, D.C., with her infant son without her husband's permission. Grayson Wolfe would spend nearly two years fighting in court before he regained custody of his son. Khawam had changed the boy's name to John and didn't correct him when the boy called Scott Kelley "Dad," court records show.
When her husband tried to get custody of their son, Khawam began filing allegations of domestic violence in Tampa, part of "an ever-expanding set of sensational accusations against Mr. Wolfe that are so numerous, so extraordinary, and … so distorted that they defy any common sense view of reality," a judge wrote. She accused Wolfe, a lawyer, of repeatedly putting a gun to her head, pushing and hitting her on a daily basis, ripping the nursing child from her bosom, shaking the child and throwing shoes, dishes and porcelain figurines at her and the child. She accused Wolfe of impregnating her through "non-consensual" sex, but she sent Wolfe an email a month after the pregnancy saying she was "Looking forward to phone sex, with an exclamation point."
Khawam, who worked as a lawyer at the Tampa law firm Cohen, Foster and Romine, sued her employer, accusing the firm's business consultant of sexual harassment. The firm's founder Barry Cohen shot back with a giant stack of evidence to the contrary, accusing Khawam of "fraud." He presented Khawam's bankruptcy filing from April 2012, which showed she owed $3.6 million to creditors, lawyers and others who had loaned her money. The filing showed she owed a lawyer in Rhode Island $300,000, a man in St. Petersburg $600,000 and Scott and Jill Kelley $800,000.
Arnold Levine, another Tampa lawyer, intervened in Cohen's lawsuit because he had yet to be paid for representing Khawam, as well. He represented the Kelleys, too, and says he wasn't paid for that work, either.
But Cohen had trouble serving a subpoena on Khawam. A memo from his process server provided to the Times lays out a strange set of events the morning of Aug. 8. The private investigator noted that four cars were in the driveway, but no one would answer the door. Several people came and went but wouldn't say who they were and wouldn't accept the papers. Then a man stood in front of her car, blocking her exit. Then a black SUV pulled into the driveway, blocking the investigator. Two men climbed out and the investigator called 911. "An officer from TPD appeared by the two men who I was told were FBI agents," she wrote. "The owner of the house came out … screaming that I assaulted her guests and employees."
The officer told the investigator that screaming woman was Jill Kelley.
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Petraeus resigned Friday. Allen's nomination to head NATO forces is on hold. An FBI investigation has surfaced emails from Petraeus' lover and biographer to Jill Kelley. The same investigation found that Allen had sent "inappropriate" emails to Kelley.
Boylan, who was in touch with Petraeus on Tuesday, said "this is not easy" but at this point "his sole focus right now is to his family, doing whatever needs to be done at whatever speed it needs to be done."
"He knows how much he has hurt his family," Boylan said. "He regrets immensely the error in judgment and poor decision that he made. He hurt his family terribly. He gave up a fantastic position with a great organization. That's just hard to walk away from without feeling a lot of regrets."
Jill Kelley and someone else at her house made five calls to Tampa police on Sunday and Monday asking for help with trespassers. She also complained about reporters and cameramen blocking access to her home. In one call, Kelley invokes some sort of title and asks about protection.
"I'm an honorary consul general, so I have involability [sic] … They should not be able to block my property. I don't know if you want to get diplomatic protection involved as well."
Kelley called back later to complain about people in and around her property.
"There's a man at my front door. He just won't leave. … There's trespassers bashing on my door. … They're trying to push the door open. They won't leave."
Alexandra Zayas, Richard Danielson, John Martin, William R. Levesque, Irene Maher and Letitia Stein contributed to this report.