Three weeks after he was ordered to turn over the assets of his bankrupt jewelry store, Daniel Rohricht was back in business.

But there was something familiar about his new store in Woodbury. Not only was it in the same location, it had much the same merchandise, according to a court-appointed trustee.

Rohricht's quick comeback astonished the trustee, who concluded that the small businessman essentially looted his own store to keep jewelry out of the hands of his creditors. An armed guard was even hired to protect the store after Rohricht was spotted hauling mysterious tubs from it.

But like many who have battled the 58-year-old businessman in court, the trustee came up short in the end.

Though a bankruptcy court judge ordered Rohricht to pay $253,000 for his "theft," the trustee settled the case last month for $17,000 following fruitless attempts to satisfy the judgment. Rohricht originally claimed total business assets of $1.8 million.

Rohricht's two-year bankruptcy court battle was only the latest chapter in the extraordinary career of a serial litigator who doesn't back down from a court fight, a law school graduate who was never allowed to practice law.

Since 1980, Rohricht has been sued at least 53 times. He defaulted on six bank loans. Fourteen vendors sued him for not paying his bills for services ranging from jewelry supplies to electrical work and legal services. He was accused of reneging on real estate agreements and not making necessary repairs as a property manager. Unhappy jewelry customers filed lawsuits.

Altogether, his opponents collected at least 22 judgments against him and his companies totaling $521,194. Rohricht agreed to out-of-court settlements in at least another 10 cases.

Despite his many court losses, Rohricht lived lavishly. He bought a $1.4 million home in Lakeland overlooking the St. Croix River. He acquired a fleet of luxury cars and an art collection that included work by Picasso and Dali. He had a yacht and time-shares in Florida, Hawaii and Mexico.

Except for the Lakeland home and a Jaguar, most of that property is gone now, sold or lost to divorce and bankruptcy.

Rohricht said he is no villain.

"Everybody thought I had all this money hidden and it was another mini-Denny Hecker deal," Rohricht said, referring to the auto magnate now in prison for fraud. "I'm not gonna say that I'm lily-white, but I'm gonna say that anything I did was not done in a malicious way. I was a guy doing business, trying to make a living and pay his bills."

Still, Rohricht's bankruptcy case appears unusually lopsided, according to attorney Claire Ann Resop, a Wisconsin trustee and a board member of the National Bankruptcy Institute. She said business owners typically do much worse in bankruptcy court, where trustees are paid a percentage of what they eventually recover for creditors.

"I don't know why he wouldn't have been referred for criminal prosecution," Resop said. "Maybe that can still happen."

A source familiar with the situation said that the case was referred to the U.S. attorney for possible criminal investigation. Rohricht's attorney, David Hellmuth, said any such investigation would be the product of a personal vendetta by trustee Nauni Jo Manty.

"She would probably love it if he was prosecuted, but frankly I don't think he did anything with any criminal intent, and I'll stand by that," Hellmuth said.

Manty declined to comment.

Trail of unhappy customers

As a businessman, Rohricht reinvented himself many times. He dabbled in music, real estate and jewelry design. His real estate license was suspended twice.

Rohricht launched Wedgewood Jewelers in 1996. He later closed it and opened a new store called Woodbury Jewelers. He also operated Apple Valley Jewelers. Rohricht said his two locations generated as much as $1.1 million in revenue per year. His annual income was about $100,000.

"You can't do that kind of business and have that rapport with people if you're a crook, if you take advantage of people, if you lie to them, if you're not trustworthy," Rohricht said.

In 2005, the Minnesota Department of Revenue -- citing years of late payments -- threatened to revoke the sales and use tax permit of Rohricht's Woodbury jewelry store. Some customers also complained about his conduct.

In 2008, a retired school teacher from Eagan sued Rohricht, accusing him of selling an inherited Rolex watch she brought in for repairs, with the watch melted down for its gold. Rosemary Dosch won a court judgment of $7,565 against Rohricht, but it remains unpaid because he sought bankruptcy protection for his two jewelry stores shortly after Dosch filed suit.

"The whole thing infuriates me," Dosch said. "I feel so helpless."

Since the bankruptcy filing, six other customers filed police reports after Rohricht allegedly failed to return pieces of jewelry, including rings and expensive watches, records show. In most of the cases, the jewelry eventually was returned.

Rohricht acknowledges mistakenly losing Dosch's watch, but he maintained she could have been reimbursed by his insurance company if she hadn't sued him.

Suspicion, then liquidation

Rohricht filed for bankruptcy on behalf of his two jewelry stores in 2009. In court filings, he blamed his bankruptcies on a poor economy and the loss of $500,000 in credit.

While Rohricht tried to reorganize his business, he and his wife, Leslie, filed for divorce. It was a contentious proceeding. In a legal filing, she contended that her husband was sneaking around with "tens (or possibly even hundreds) of thousands of dollars in jewelry in his pickup truck that he had removed from one or more of his stores."

The two trustees overseeing Rohricht's bankruptcy cases were also suspicious, court records show. He repeatedly failed to submit financial reports on time and moved cash and inventory between his stores without court authorization.

Rohricht blamed mistakes on the hazy state of mind he had during a key meeting with Manty and his creditors, which took place 11 days after he had open-heart surgery.

"I was on medication and the trustee was explaining to me what I can and can't do, and I don't remember a darn thing," Rohricht said.

Frustrated by Rohricht's lack of cooperation, the trustees decided to convert the proceedings into a Chapter 7 liquidation and sell remaining assets to pay off his creditors. But just three days before the liquidation was to begin, Rohricht reportedly was seen leaving his Woodbury store with tubs full of something -- presumably, the trustees claimed, jewelry under the court's protection.

In May 2010, Manty sued Rohricht, accusing him of stealing the jewelry, misrepresenting his conduct and starting a new store with the purloined merchandise. He also was cited for paying off a large loan and lying about it.

Once again, Rohricht denied wrongdoing, claiming he stocked the new store with jewelry from his vendors or from his personal collection. A judge didn't buy it.

"This individual defendant stole stuff, a lot of it, a lot of jewelry, about a quarter of a million dollars worth of jewelry," U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Nancy Dreher said in court. "I think he's lying to me right now, and I don't think that I can dare let him get away with it."

Dreher ordered Rohricht to pay $253,276 to compensate for the missing jewelry. In May, sheriff's deputies visited Rohricht's Lakeland home to satisfy the judgement. They seized a 2003 Jaguar plus about 200 designer handbags, several fur coats, artwork and other personal property, court records show. But they had to give it all back because the property actually belongs to Rohricht's third wife, who recently relocated to Minnesota from Connecticut. The couple married in February.

At a court hearing, Rohricht said he sold his remaining inventory to satisfy his creditors, even if he couldn't produce receipts. The only jewelry he had left, Rohricth testified, is "what I have on today."

The trustee gave up. In July, the dispute was settled for $17,500. After Rohricht delivered a check to the trustee's office, he was able to retrieve his Jaguar and a few personal items.

Rohricht's last jewelry store closed in April. For now, he's taking it easy as he ponders a return to the business.

"I've been doing it for so long, I've got a lot of happy customers," he said. "But I'm really going to think long and hard about whether I want to do it again."

Staff Writer Jane Friedmann contributed to this report. Abby Simons • 612-673-4921