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Battle-of-the-Wills Drama Played Out in Courtroom

March 15, 1987|ART BERMAN | Times View Editor

In August of 1983, Ruth D. Chapman was legally blind, hard of hearing and her mind was fading. She was 96 and had no close relatives.

And her stock portfolio was worth more than $600,000.

What happened to the elderly widow before she died on July 10, 1984, and what will happen to her estate--now grown to about $800,000--was the subject of a three-week trial that concluded with little notice a few days ago in a Santa Monica courtroom.

While four courtrooms down the hall, TV camera crews, reporters and court watchers swarmed to Courtroom C for the Billionaire Boys Club murder trial, hardly anyone stopped by Courtroom G, where lawyers battled over the Chapman estate.

Yet the Chapman case proved to have a drama and intrigue of its own, including handwriting experts and a "psychological autopsy." Most of all, it offered glimpses into the lives of Ruth Chapman and those who knew her as she moved over the years from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to classy apartments in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, to a Laguna Hills retirement home and, finally, to a small house in Pacific Palisades. She was a small woman, cultured, carefully groomed, charming and religious, whose life was increasingly dominated by fear as old age tightened its grip on her.

True, for anyone who dropped in on Superior Judge Irving Shimer's courtroom for a few minutes, as some did, the testimony out of context probably made little sense.

But for the 14 jurors (including two alternates) for whom the drama was played out, it was--as more than one remarked--"like a novel."

I happened to be one of those jurors and I shared that view.

The case focused on the validity of a will dated Feb. 23, 1984, that, aside from minor bequests, left one-sixth of Ruth Chapman's estate to a nonprofit Colorado foundation for homeless children and five-sixths to the 76-year-old woman who cared for her in the last 11 months of her life.

The plaintiffs, four charitable or religious groups, said the 1984 will was a phony.

And they accused Ruth Chapman's caretaker, Anna Maria Reiter, who stood to gain well over $500,000, of forging the will.

Reiter, a white-haired, grandmotherly woman who walked with an orthopedic cane clamped to her forearm, spent hours on the witness stand tracing her life from Southern Bavaria through 2 1/2 years of imprisonment in the Netherlands at the end of World War II to becoming an American citizen in 1962.

"I have never had a life of myself," she testified with anguish, adding that she had "pleased and pleased and pleased" others as a housekeeper, baby sitter and practical nurse. "I have never asked anybody for anything."

"My life hasn't been easy," she said at another point. "It's just been terrible."

Divorced, she said she worked at whatever job she could find to raise her son and daughter. In 1972, she worked for Ruth Chapman's cousin, Harriet Robbins, at Ocean Towers, a Santa Monica apartment building overlooking the ocean. Ruth Chapman, who had been an original resident of the Park La Brea apartments in mid-town Los Angeles, took an apartment down the hall from Robbins.

It was here that the lives of two women, one in her 60s, one in her 80s, became so closely intertwined and yet were so different.

Reiter in a way became part of a group of affluent elderly women, sometimes joining them for shopping trips or lunch in department-store tearooms. Other times, she drove them to beauty shops or church services. She had her own room, a car and was paid about $250 a month. But she was also the servant. "I did everything I could to be of service," she testified.

By other accounts, Anna Maria Reiter did more than serve. A fastidious and strong-willed woman, she took increasing control of the lives of the older women, to the point of ordering Ruth Chapman to bathe at certain times, and Reiter bickered endlessly with Harriet Robbins, some witnesses testified.

"We had our differences once in a while," Reiter said, but at another point she remarked, "I liked Harriet very much and I had love for her."

Friends of Ruth Chapman testified that she became so unnerved by Anna Maria Reiter's domineering ways that she moved out in 1978 and took an apartment at Villa Valencia, a Laguna Hills retirement home.

"If I ever get to the point where I can't take care of myself, never, never let Anna Maria take care of me," Chapman told a friend, Marie Kennedy Kahn of Palm Springs, Kahn testified. Others recalled similar comments.

But Reiter insisted theirs was "a friendly relationship." Chapman was "a very sweet person, very gentle, but she can be sturdy, she knew what she wanted."

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