Austrian Fights Extradition; Did He Bilk His Best Man?

While lawyers try to extradite him, an ex-con from Austria sits in the Pierce County Jail, accused of posing as a worldly businessman to bilk Austrian investors and of sticking his best man with the tab for his wedding in Seattle.

In January, Michael Spitzauer was arrested by U.S. marshals in West Seattle at the request of authorities in Austria, where he is wanted for fraud.

He came to the United States in April 1995, shortly after he was released from an Austrian prison, and within three months had married a Seattle woman, with whom he now has two young sons.

A warrant for his arrest alleges he defrauded Austrian victims of more than 9 million schillings - about $720,000 - in unrecovered loans and credit-card bills incurred in travels from Vienna to Seattle to Lagos, Nigeria.

While much of the credit-card allegations involve trips he took after his release from prison, authorities say he orchestrated some of the loans while still in custody, with the help of his mother and her husband.

Spitzauer, 39, is resisting the U.S. government's effort to extradite him. At the heart of his defense is a contention that the U.S.-Austrian extradition treaty of 1930 is void - rendered defunct by the "Anschluss," the German takeover of Austria in 1938.

Those familiar with the case say it is the first time the treaty's existence has been challenged in court.

Spitzauer has lived in the Seattle area since 1995, when he met Melissa Larson during an extended stay at the downtown Stouffer Madison Hotel. Larson, then working as a cocktail waitress, called it "love at first sight."

She said they didn't talk much about the circumstances that brought him to Seattle from Austria, but she believed it was for business purposes. After a whirlwind courtship, they were married by a judge on July 18, 1995 - just before the expiration of Spitzauer's 90-day visa - and Larson became Melissa Spitzauer.

"He's just very loving," she said. "I guess not a lot of American guys are very nurturing, and that's what attracted me to him."

The couple had a formal wedding ceremony two months later at St. James Cathedral on Capitol Hill, attended by family and friends, some of whom traveled here from Austria. Expenses from the wedding and a honeymoon in Hawaii are among the issues raised in the Austrian warrant for Spitzauer's arrest.

The warrant alleges that Spitzauer fraudulently used a credit card belonging to his best man, an Austrian, to pay for more than $30,000 in guests' bills and travel arrangements.

Among the other allegations in court documents:

-- Two Austrian brothers claim they loaned Spitzauer 5.3 million schillings - $424,000 - for a Nigerian oil deal that never materialized. The warrant contends that Spitzauer portrayed himself to several victims as a successful international businessman - and, in at least one case, as a Paraguayan diplomat.

-- His best man, Adolf Tscheitschonig, claims he lost 1.8 million schillings in loans and credit-card expenses prosecutors attribute to Spitzauer. In one instance, Spitzauer allegedly persuaded Tscheitschonig to wire $37,000 from Austria to Spitzauer's account at Seafirst Bank in Seattle - money he said he needed because a business partner's check had bounced.

Austrian officials contend Spitzauer defrauded his victims to pay back victims of an earlier fraud scheme, for which he had served four years of a six-year sentence before his release on parole in 1995.

-- Federal authorities here are also after Spitzauer, contending in a criminal complaint that he lied on his application for permanent residency by claiming he'd never been convicted of a crime.

Attorneys for both sides declined to speak for publication about the case.

But in court documents, Spitzauer's attorney, federal public defender Margaret Smith, said the warrant describes "essentially nothing more than nonperformance of contractual arrangements."

Smith argues that the U.S.-Austrian extradition treaty was voided in 1939 when, after Germany had invaded Austria, the U.S. State Department agreed that Germany's treaty would govern Austrian extraditions.

The State Department, however, maintains the U.S. government went along with that arrangement for practical purposes only, and that the U.S.-Austrian treaty was effectively revived by both governments after the war.

Arguments over treaties are often a focal point in extradition cases, said Cherif Bassiouni, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago familiar with Spitzauer's case.

"Extradition is based on a treaty, and a treaty is like a contract," said Bassiouni, who has written a book on extradition law. "A contract can go on for years without being questioned, and then somebody in Seattle says someday, `Wait a minute - that treaty should be null and void.' "

Judging from past extraditions - which prosecutors said have taken up to 18 months to resolve - it may be several months before Spitzauer's case is closed.

Melissa Spitzauer, meanwhile, said she's just anxious for her husband to return home. Michael Jr., 18 months old, constantly asks for his father, and 7-month-old Zachary has seen him only in court, she said.

"He's got two infants that he never sees," she said. "I really need him. He's a very caring, loving person. He's not this criminal everyone is making him out to be."

Jake Batsell's phone message number is 206-464-2595. His e-mail address is: