He had been the subject of an FBI investigation in the months leading up to his death.
Roland Von Kurnatowski, the former owner of Tipitina’s nightclub and an “unlikely but pivotal player in the New Orleans music community,” according to the Times-Picayune, died on Sunday (Sept. 1) in a bizarre hunting accident, the paper is reporting.
Kurnatowski famously once use bolt cutters to remove a ring from the swollen hands of New Orleans legend Fats Domino and had never been inside the nightclub Tipitna’s before he bought it in 1996 based on a “fundamental misunderstanding of how music clubs operate,” according to writer Keith Spera.
Kurnatowski would go on to be the flagship club’s longest owner and helped restore the Orpheum Theater after Hurricane Katrina. In the months before his death, he sold Tipitina's to the funk band Galatic and became the subject of an FBI investigation into an alleged Ponzi scheme with victims that included his own relatives, a Catholic priest and a retired weatherman, according to CBS affiliate WWL-TV in New Orleans.
He was also sued by five investors who had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his Bond Fund One, which was supposed to trade U.S. Treasury bonds but was allegedly illegally diverting money to Von Kurnatowski's real estate investments. Those real estate projects include New Orleans' Orpheum theater and several commercial real estate ventures throughout Louisiana. In May, Von Kurnatowski told a reporter at WWL-TV that his financial problems were the result of a falling out with his business partner.
Von Kurnatowski’s death was as dramatic as his life — he apparently died while hunting wild boar in rural Mississippi. WVUE-TV reports that Von Kurnatowski was standing on a ladder propped against a tree below a hunting stand “when the weapon fired, striking him in the chest.” Hancock County Coroner Jim Faulk told the TV station the death was "under thorough investigation."
Besides the Ponzi allegations, Von Kurnatowski was also facing a lawsuit from his sister Joan Hooper and her two sons Christian and Andre Hooper over a real estate deal that went south.
While the last years of Von Kurnatowski’s life saw him spiraling downward, Spera wrote that Von Kurnatowski did a lot of good work through his charity the Tipitina's Foundation and “put instruments into the hands of thousands of young musicians.” In 2015, Von Kurnatowski and his wife Mary were given OffBeat Magazine’s best of the beat award for lifetime achievement in music business.
Spera said that Von Kurnatowski bought a controlling interest in Tipitina's in 1996 after redeveloping a nearby motor hotel into a storage and rehearsal space. Von Kurnatowski thought that more bands would rehearse at the building if they were promised an audition at the famous New Orleans club and paid owners Jim and Mientje Green “six figures” for a 51% stake.
Shortly after the sale closed, Von Kurnatowski discovered that acts don’t audition to get club gigs — bookings are almost always set up by an artist’s agent and the venue's talent buyer. Von Kurnatowski had a falling out with the couple a year later and took sole ownership of the club in 1997.
Tipitina’s was unprofitable for years and Von Kurnatowski later said he considered selling the club, but a character on the popular scripted show Northern Exposure regularly wore a Tipitina's hat and months later, a local cartoonist referenced the club in a political cartoon in the paper that became famous.
“It all started with that cartoon,” Von Kurnatowski told the Times-Picayune years later. “If Tipitina’s was a recognized benchmark for the cultural well-being of New Orleans, then I didn’t want to sell it.”