It was all very simple in the beginning, just a routine family will drawn up almost 45 years ago to protect the heirs of a small Camarillo farm.
That was before the fighting started--when one of three warring sisters charged the estate $237 for attending her mother's funeral and $50 an hour for driving her to the grocery store.
It was also before the unsolved murder of one of the trustees, a 73-year-old woman who tried to resolve the dispute but ended up with her head bashed in and her throat slit.
It was before the charges that all the judges of Ventura County were part of a conspiracy to steal local ranches. Before more than a decade of courtroom maneuvering.
It was before the $500,000 in uncollected penalties against two former trustees, still piling up at the rate of $1,000 a day. Before a strange public statement just last month from a new attorney in the case who said he trusts that God will protect him from possible harm.
And, last but not least, it was before the estimated value of a tomato field in Camarillo jumped above $6 million.
Margaret Gisler, the daughter of a pioneering Ventura County farm family, had no way of knowing the total bedlam that was to follow the writing of her will, which she filed in 1955, to parcel out her estate to her children and other relatives.
One of her sons, William, and his wife, Angela, were to have the little farmhouse down the road and a 22.5-acre tomato field nearby. If William died first, Angela would have the house to live in until her death. Then the house and the land would pass to their three daughters, Patricia Wise, Gertrude Hall and Barbara Kennerly.
Thus began an estate battle viewed by some of California's top trust lawyers as one of the most bizarre and protracted probate fights in California history--one that has grown more complicated with every passing year and that could easily continue for years to come.
"This is a very unusual case," said Martin Levine, an expert on family trust cases who teaches at the University of Southern California School of Law. "It is not rare that family members quarrel, but it is striking that the quarrel has gone on so long without the judicial system fashioning some kind of remedy."
To manage what was then a small estate worth about $200,000, Margaret Gisler chose another son, Ralph, as trustee. She viewed Ralph as the most responsible of her three sons, and he took his duties seriously. Things went smoothly for about a decade.
Health Began to Fail
But then Ralph Gisler's health began to fail. A new trustee, the Bank of A. Levy, was named in 1966 to manage the estate, a job essentially calling for keeping track of financial records and leasing the tomato field to the farmers who planted and harvested it. For its services, the bank charged about $2,000 a year.
The first difficulties began after William Gisler died in 1969, leaving Angela alone in the little house next to the tomatoes. After an attempt by the bank to sell the land for about $200,000, full-scale legal war broke out, with all three daughters charging the bank had not kept them properly informed.
By the 1970s, Barbara Gisler, now 50, had married a San Diego attorney named Paul Kennerly, who took over the job of challenging the bank's handling of the Gisler estate. Kennerly suggested that he and a family friend named Frank Brucker be named trustees, with the responsibility of ensuring Angela Gisler's financial well-being in her remaining years.
In 1977, arguing that the Bank of A. Levy had mismanaged the estate's funds, Barbara Gisler Kennerly pledged in Ventura County Superior Court that the new trustees would essentially work for free.
"They promise to waive any and all trustee fees. Kennerly will waive all attorney's fees for any trust work," she said. "Also, daughter and remainderman Barbara Gisler will do the necessary accounting at no costs to the trust. By the above method, life tenant, Angela Gisler, will have more than enough to live on."
Wife Named Co-Trustee
In 1979, citing the need for extra help in running the estate, Kennerly succeeded in having his wife named as an additional co-trustee of the estate but without a similar pledge that she work for free. About this time, the Kennerlys moved into a trailer on the tomato field, just behind the house where Angela Gisler was living with another of the three daughters, Patricia Wise.
Angela Gisler died on March 29, 1983, and the alliance among her three daughters that had pushed the Bank of A. Levy out of the picture died shortly thereafter. In 1984, in an accounting required to partition the estate, the Kennerlys submitted a document saying they felt entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars for services rendered.