Heiress reaches age to acquire a fortune

Thierry Roussel, his wife Christina Onassis, and their daughter, Athina, pose on the deck of their yacht, "Athena R" as seen in this 1985 file photo. Athina Roussel, one of the last descendants of a tormented family, reaches the inheiritance age of 18 on Wednesday.

(AP Photo)
Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 12:35 a.m.
ATHENS, Greece - A few signatures in a Swiss office and it will be over: half the Onassis shipping fortune will pass to the young heiress who is one of the last descendants of a tormented family.
Athina Roussel, who reaches the inheritance age of 18 Wednesday, takes on a difficult role along with her great wealth.
What will she do with the fortune, estimated at $700 million to $1 billion, that has made her one of the world's wealthiest teenagers? Can the granddaughter of Aristotle Onassis, the "Golden Greek," end the bickering and bitterness that have marked her childhood and estranged her from her ancestral homeland?
The answers, it seems, will come only when she is ready to assume a more public profile. She rarely gives interviews and appears to cherish privacy as much as her grandfather thrived in the limelight.
The cliche "poor little rich girl" has fit her well.
Her grandfather died brokenhearted two years after a 1973 plane crash killed his son Alexander. His other child, Christina, died in 1988, leaving her 3-year-old daughter Athina to be raised in Switzerland by her French-born father, Thierry Roussel, and his Swedish wife.
The fortune was divided two ways: Athina's inheritance from her mother, and the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, named for the late son, which controls the shipping business and a charitable trust.
Roussel and the foundation have fought bitterly in the courts, trading charges of mismanagement, embezzlement and defamation. Roussel even accused the foundation's Greek trustees of plotting to kidnap his daughter.
Athina was not directly dragged into the fray. But for many Greeks, she was conspicuous by her absence. Her visits to Greece have been brief and infrequent - the last in 1999.
"I want to forget the name Onassis," she told the Italian magazine Oggi in 1998. "It's the cause of all the problems."
But it's also the source of her dazzling wealth that reportedly includes gold, art masterpieces, property in France, England, Switzerland and Argentina and the private Greek island retreat of Skorpios, where the family's "Pink Villa" was lavishly decorated by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the former American first lady and second wife of the shipping tycoon.
On her birthday, Athina plans to meet with Swiss authorities and KPMG Fides auditors, who have overseen the estate since 1999. At that time, the inheritance "officially will be passed into her hands," said Alexis Mantheakis, the former Roussel family spokesman and author of a book on Athina.
Management of her estate shifted to the Swiss auditing firm after years of bickering between the foundation and Athina's father. He claimed the trustees squandered Athina's money and even plotted to kidnap her.
They denied the kidnap claim and a Swiss report said they managed the estate well. The trustees also accused Roussel of isolating Athina from her roots, complaining that she speaks little Greek and doesn't know her family's history.
But Mantheakis said she has taken Greek lessons and knows her family's background.
Snippets of Athina's life have appeared in the tabloid press - most notably her horse-riding and her reported romance with Alvaro de Miranda Neto, a Brazilian Olympic equestrian medalist who is 29 and has a child with his longtime companion.
The rumors of the relationship "haven't been denied by the family," said Mantheakis.
He said Athina, a brunette who resembles her late mother, is fun-loving in private but "very reserved, cautious of herself" in public. She is widely regarded as having had an ordinary upbringing, in-line skating from home to her school bus stop until the alleged kidnap plot brought in the bodyguards.
Her next dynastic milestone will be her 21st birthday when she could take the reins of the foundation that controls the other half of the Onassis empire, valued at about $1 billion.
That's not a certainty, however. The foundation's board has indicated it might oppose her taking over the organization's presidency. The current board head, Stelios Papadimitriou, declined comment.
Mantheakis, one of the few Onassis insiders who is willing to talk on the record, expects her to "slowly, slowly get involved with the management of her fortune," but not for several years.
Meanwhile, there's also a $2 million lawsuit filed by the Greek trustees claiming overtime pay for managing Athina's money.
If it's any consolation for the heiress, the Greek public loves her and hopes to see her ride at next year's Olympic Games in Athens.
"She is an icon in Greece," said Mantheakis. "There is this perception of 'our girl."'

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