SOLANA BEACH — A successful Rancho Santa Fe horticulturist known for growing French heirloom strawberries using his patented inflatable greenhouses is facing accusations of corporate fraud by his agricultural company’s shareholders for the second time in two years.
David Chelf, 59, founder and CEO of Airstream Innovations and now-defunct Wicked Wilds, and his wife, Bridgette Chelf, a Solana Beach chiropractor, are co-defendants in a lawsuit filed on March 26 in San Diego Superior Court.
According to the complaint, investors Patricia Thompson and Dr. Benedicto Masilungan were solicited by Bridgette Chelf to invest in her husband’s organic produce and inflatable greenhouse businesses to “facilitate pesticide-free food production and allow Third World countries to produce food with no electric power and far less water.”
But underneath the surface of a high-end berry farm existed a tangled ecosystem of corporate graft, according to court filings.
The plaintiffs claim that the Chelfs took their investment money and illegally shuffled funds between four companies — all of which were allegedly operating out of the same corporate office located near Cedros Avenue Design District in Solana Beach — including Bridgette Chelf’s chiropractic business, Ocean Wellness.
“…Defendants lacked any real separate legal identities and became, in effect, alter ego of each other, not only when conducting their internal financial affairs but also while soliciting investors and issuing, or failing to issue, stock to investors,” the complaint reads.
Both Thompson and Masilungan further allege they never received stocks or shares for their investment and that the Chelfs have refused to provide shareholders with important financial records as required by state law.
Carlsbad attorney Alan Pitcaithley, representing Thompson and Masilungan, said his clients have been seeking a settlement for the past six months and hope to reach an agreement soon.
“The bottom line is you have to account to the shareholders,” Pitcaithley said. “The law requires an accounting and when you don’t provide tax returns and accounting statements, you’re in violation of the law.”
David Chelf, a former UCLA doctoral candidate in physics, established Wicked Wilds in 2003 to produce a hybridized strawberry known as Mara des Bois at a farm in Ranchita, just southwest of Borrego Springs.
Later filings with the California Secretary of State show Bridgette Chelf and Thompson listed as Wicked Wilds officers, directors or both.
According to the company’s website (which is no longer active), David Chelf first developed an inflatable, temperature-controlled greenhouse to help Wicked Wilds grow “well-nourished plants” with a “higher nutritional content” without the use of any pesticides to better “achieve a level of gustatory greatness.”
Both Airstream companies were formed to protect David Chelf’s intellectual property and to manufacture and sell his signature greenhouses.
In 2006, Wicked Wilds’ certified organic strawberries sold from $60 to $75 for six punnets (or three pounds) including overnight delivery to award-winning restaurants in Las Vegas and across San Diego County, including Picasso at The Bellagio, Bouchon at the Venetian and A.R. Valentine at the Lodge at Torrey Pines.
The Chelfs gradually shifted their business focus from growing strawberries to solely manufacturing, selling and installing inflatable greenhouses.
In 2017, Westside Transplant successfully sued David Chelf and Airstream for breach of contract after the company failed to deliver a 75,600-square-foot Airstream Tunnel Greenhouse Unit and several accessories totaling $286,000.
The following year, David and Bridgette Chelf settled a lawsuit filed by another former Wicked Wilds and Airstream investor Mary Ann Morrison after she alleged the Chelfs took her investment money and refused to hold shareholder meetings or “provide any accounting or record of where plaintiff’s investment has gone,” according to the complaint.
David Chelf could not be reached due to lack of contact information.
Bridgette Chelf declined to comment for this article.
Attorney Doug Walters representing David and Bridgette Chelf also declined to provide comment.