About a year after her New Hope mansion was scorched for the third time in five years, Claire Risoldi visited Tina Mazaheri, a family friend.
Risoldi suspected her family was under investigation for the fires at the 10-acre estate they called Clairemont. She wanted to suggest what Mazaheri might tell a grand jury if called as a witness, Mazaheri said.
Mazaheri, a lawyer, said she told Risoldi it would violate her professional duty to lie. That's when Risoldi exploded into a rage, according to Mazaheri.
"Why . . . do you keep telling me you're an officer of the court?" Risoldi yelled across the kitchen table, Mazaheri told a judge Monday.
Her testimony came on the first day of what is expected to be a nearly weeklong preliminary hearing in Bucks County Court.
The Risoldis, well-connected local Republican fund-raisers, are accused of bilking insurers out of $20 million to fund their extravagant lifestyle, then attempting to intimidate witnesses when a grand jury began looking into the legitimacy of those payouts.
Defense attorneys have argued, among other things, that the payouts were legitimate and approved by the insurers' own investigators. They also sought to point out that Mazaheri, an alleged victim of witness intimidation, never told police or prosecutors about feeling threatened.
Risoldi, four relatives, and two others were charged in January with conspiracy, fraud, and other felonies. Risoldi's husband, Thomas French, was among the defendants, but he killed himself in February, writing in suicide notes that he was innocent but overwhelmed by pressure.
After the preliminary hearing in Doylestown, Magisterial District Judge C. Robert Roth will decide if there's enough evidence against each defendant to proceed to a trial. Defense attorney Jud Aaron said he does not expect any family members to testify during the preliminary hearing.
Earlier Monday, emergency personnel recounted the 2013 fire scene. Timothy Johnson, of the Buckingham Police Department, testified that members of the Risoldi family were sobbing in the driveway as smoke billowed from the mansion's attic windows that fall afternoon.
Claire Risoldi even fainted, he said. But since this was not the only recent fire at the 5,600-square-foot home, Johnson asked a paramedic if Risoldi's fainting was real or an act.
In questioning witnesses, defense attorneys sought to point out that the causes of all three fires - in 2009, 2010, and 2013 - were ruled "undetermined," and never classified as arson.
The defendants sat quietly behind their lawyers in the courtroom, occasionally passing them notes. Claire Risoldi, wearing stilettos and donning all black, traded friendly waves with a few members of the small audience throughout the day.
Through their lawyers, the family declined to comment.
Several attorneys have said they hope the proceedings will ultimately result in their clients being dropped from the case.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that testimony will likely last until at least Thursday.