Jeffrey L. Gabbour was a successful Blue Ash businessman who traveled the world to sell upscale flooring in such exotic locales as India and Europe. He was a suburban dad who seemed to be well-liked by his neighbors, a respected member of the community and law-abiding citizen.

Today, the 40-year-old self-described “family man” sits in a medium-security jail cell inside the Lebanon Correctional Institution, serving a six-year sentence for taking out a contract on the life of a former business associate as well as the man’s wife and two young children.

What happened? How could someone who had so much tumble so far and so fast? By all appearances, a combination of bloodlust, rivalry and rage stirred to create the perfect storm for Gabbour and everyone around him.

Time was, Gabbour led an enviable life, residing with his wife and family in a comfortable home on Orchard Club Drive, a peaceful cul-de-sac in Montgomery. In the criminal case’s aftermath, however, one neighbor likened the street to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane, with horrific murders being planned in bucolic suburbia.

Gabbour traveled the globe as a vice president for Prestige Enterprise International Inc., a flooring company — based on Grooms Road in Blue Ash — which bills itself as one of the global leaders in the manufacture and export of commercial and sports hardwood and synthetic flooring. Operating in 55 countries since 1978, Prestige provides athletic flooring for the Olympics and NBA as well as outfitting hotels, department stores and sports centers worldwide.

With satellite offices in Egypt, Poland, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Canada, as well as factories in Montreal and Italy, the international firm fit Gabbour well. Recognized in the industry as an authority on the installation and maintenance of gymnasium floors, Gabbour was a fixture at trade shows and industry conferences. (To this day, Gabbour’s slide-show presentation on “Gym Floor Protection” is still available on the Prestige web site.)

Any given day might find the high-profile executive hopping flights to a number of European and Far East locales. Not long ago, he flew to Hyderabad, India, for the opening of a super-sized aquatics complex and air-conditioned indoor stadium that would serve as the primary venue for India’s equivalent of the Olympics. “I can confidently say that the city is ready to host the Asian Games,” he proudly told the assembled crowd in a speech covered by The Hindu, India’s national newspaper.

A FALLING OUT

Then suddenly — on one day, in fact — things went horribly wrong, and Gabbour’s life began to seriously unravel.

It was that single day — May 17, 2002 — when Jairo Vargas, an international seller who had worked for Gabbour for five years, abruptly left Prestige to sell for a rival company, Robbins Sports Surfaces on Eastern Avenue.

Gabbour didn’t take the defection well. Not well, at all. According to a civil lawsuit that Vargas would eventually file against Gabbour in 2006, the Prestige vice president engaged in “a pattern of harassing and defamatory conduct” toward Vargas. The lawsuit cites defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional interference with business relationships and emotional distress.

As the feud progressed, Gabbour would repeatedly claim that Vargas, shortly before his departure, lifted confidential materials, including a list of international dealers and price lists, from Prestige’s offices. At every opportunity, cites the civil lawsuit, Gabbour bad-mouthed Vargas to potential customers and to trade show participants. Gabbour even sent an e-mail to a Universal Sports Inc. executive in the Philippines, charging that Vargas “was hired into our company when he was nothing and he stabbed us in the back and stole much of our information. Now you work with a thief.” Gabbour eventually convinced the Blue Ash police department to launch an investigation into Vargas; officers questioned Vargas about theft of trade secrets, but ultimately declined to pursue the probe.

There’s a back story to all this, observes one attorney familiar with the case. At one time, Prestige actually distributed Robbins floors. “It’s ironic that the alleged trade secrets really were never that much of a secret,” notes the attorney, since Robbins and Prestige shared any list of customer contacts during the period when the two companies had a business relationship.

“The market for sports flooring is fairly obvious, anyway,” he continues. “Who builds gymnasiums? Universities, schools, the Olympics and so on. Most of this is put out for public bid, as it is.”

ESCALATING TENSION

The public feuding might have remained a simple disagreement between two businesses. But the bizzare tale took a deadly turn early last year when Gabbour sought a final solution. He decided — a year ago this month— to recruit a hit man by contacting yet another former employee of Prestige. During the months of February and March, Gabbour had several phone conversations during which he solicited the ex-employee to either kill Vargas himself or hire a third-party killer. Finally, the former employee agreed to meet and accept payment.

Their illicit meeting was set for a parking lot behind Hooters restaurant on Springfield Pike in Springdale. Gabbour brought $750 in cash as a down payment. According to Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters, the fee included “$450 to hire a hit man and $300 for the purchase of a handgun.”

Gabbour even drew a map to the Vargas home, and told the man to be sure the killings occurred while Gabbour was on an out-of-town vacation with his family, creating an ironclad alibi. One grand jury filing states that Gabbour actually volunteered to personally drive to and point out the Vargas home, and gave “the co-conspirator instructions as to the method by which the murder of the victims was to be carried out.”

Jeff Gabbour didn’t just want Jairo Vargas shot to death. For good measure, he demanded that the would-be assassin also murder Vargas’ wife and two young children. Then, by the way, could he burn down their house when he’s done. And, for good measure, plant drugs in the family’s car. What Gabbour didn’t plan on was that his hit man had already informed Springdale police of Gabbour’s scheme. (The man’s name has never been released in court, as he’s protected as both a confidential police informant and as a key prosecution witness.)

As soon as cash exchanged hands, detectives arrested Gabbour on the spot. Moments later, Springdale police also called the Vargas family and warned them of the murder-for-hire plot. As all this was happening, Gabbour continued to insist to the arresting officers that it was actually the other man who wanted to harm Vargas, that Gabbour was merely an innocent party.

RISK OF FLIGHT

Gabbour landed in the Hamilton County Justice Center, incarcerated on a $2.5 million bond. As assistant Hamilton County prosecutor Richard Gibson told the court, “He is the owner of a multi-national business with offices in several countries and we feel ... the risk of flight is great.” If he did manage to make bail, the prosecutor asked that Gabbour be cuffed with an electronic monitoring device and ordered to surrender his passport. Gabbour’s attorney, Mark S. Krumbein, immediately introduced a motion to reduce bond. Instead, Gabbour was surprised in court after prosecutors achieved a new, much higher bond of $5 million because of the anticipated flight risk.

“My client has absolutely no criminal background,” Krumbein would eventually tell the court. “He’s lived out his, approximately, 40 years of life with no trouble whatsoever. He’s been a hard worker. ... He’s gotten a good education in the United States and in Japan.”

After much legal wrangling, which dragged on most of the year, Gabbour finally managed to reach a plea bargain with the state and avoid a jury trial.

Judge Ralph E. Winkler sentenced Gabbour to three sentences of two years each — a total of six years to be served without chance of early release — inside the Lebanon Correctional Institution, after Gabbour pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit murder and three charges of attempted murder. (He had faced up to 40 years in prison before the bargain was struck.) The sentence also includes five years of probation that will follow the six-year prison sentence, during which time Gabbour cannot move out of Hamilton County without court permission.

Standing in Hamilton County Courthouse Room 380, the judge finally asked Gabbour if he had anything to say on his own behalf. “No,” was Gabbour’s only response.

In an unusual move, Winkler also instituted a separate probationary sentence that takes effect when Gabbour leaves prison which, in part, reads: “The defendant is to stay away from and have no direct or indirect contact whatsoever with the prosecuting witness, victims and their families.” If Gabbour violates this mandate, he’ll automatically be forced back to prison for 30 years.

“The victims are just petrified,” is how assistant Hamilton County prosecutor Mark Piepmeier portrayed the situation. “They’re comfortable with him in prison, but we need to make sure when he gets out that he doesn’t do anything.”

Judge Winkler told the assembled courtroom that the 30-year threat was necessary “to ensure that this defendant doesn’t have any further contact with them [the Vargas family] once he is released from prison and that they can get some security and some peace of mind, that they can get on with their lives.” He also instructed Gabbour that, upon release, if he ever encountered Vargas in another country on business, the 30-year penalty still applies.

“A VICIOUS, VICIOUS MAN”

While the principals in this true crime tale have all declined requests for interviews, a portrait of Gabbour does emerge from a series of former colleagues.

“What Jeff has done comes as no surprise to me,” says one former employee who worked for Gabbour for several years. “He figured $400 as a down-payment was plenty. There is no value on human life to him. “I pray for his entire family daily, believe it or not. I’m sure this has to be difficult for them all. … Poor Qing, Jeff’s wife. Her marriage has been nothing but betrayal. May she find a way to run away from the Gabbour name and start a new life. … She’s the innocent one whose life has been destroyed.”

Another former employee characterized Gabbour as “a vicious, vicious man” and adds that “When I worked for Jeff … I thought mean-spirited thoughts about [him] every hour on the hour. However, I never acted upon it. “What I didn’t do is take that anger … and hire a hit man.”