A federal bankruptcy judge in Los Angeles awarded Playboy pinup and Guess jeans model Anna Nicole Smith nearly $450 million on Wednesday, finding that she was deprived of the estate her late husband intended to leave her.
Judge Samuel L. Bufford ruled that Smith's stepson deliberately interfered with her ability to inherit her share of an estimated $2-billion fortune amassed by the richest oilman in Texas. The judge also ruled that Smith was entitled to punitive damages to be calculated later.
Bufford awarded Smith $449,754,134--the amount the stock rose in her late husband's company, Koch Industries Inc., during their brief marriage.
The ruling comes on the eve of a probate trial in Houston, pitting the 32-year-old Smith, also known as Vickie Lynn Marshall, against her 64-year-old stepson, E. Pierce Marshall. Jury selection already has begun, setting the stage for a Texas soap opera about the May-December romance between a comely dancer and a lonely billionaire.
After J. Howard Marshall II saw Smith at Gigi's, a Houston topless joint, she became "the light" of his life, according to testimony at a five-day trial in federal court last year.
"I think the most compelling evidence was the testimony that her husband loved her more than any other human being on the planet--to the point where he tried to adopt her and marry her at the same time," said Smith's lawyer, Philip W. Boesch Jr.
Lawyers for Pierce Marshall could not be reached.
Smith testified last year that the younger Marshall defrauded her of between $556 million and $820 million she was entitled to as her share of her late husband's estate.
The judge agreed that her husband had every intention of taking care of Smith after his death.
Her victory in bankruptcy court is but a first step in a complex legal scenario. It declares her right to inherit from Marshall's estate, and says she can claim any future inheritance as a personal asset. In effect, the ruling clears the way for her to claim half of the Marshall fortune in Texas probate court.
"There is no doubt in this case that Vickie Lynn Marshall has an expectancy to receive a substantial portion of J. Howard Marshall II's wealth after his death," Bufford found. "Marshall repeatedly told her that she would receive half of what he owned after his death. However, [he] never made a will with any provision for her."
And she never signed a prenuptial agreement.
The court battle has lasted far longer than the marriage did--four years versus 14 months.
He was almost 90 on June 27, 1994, the day Smith married a man she called "Paw Paw" at the White Dove wedding chapel in Houston. She wore a white-beaded gown and curlers in her hair. He wore a white tuxedo as he slipped a 22-carat diamond onto her finger. They celebrated their union by releasing two white doves. Then off she went--alone--to a photo shoot in Greece.
As Health Fails, Estate Fight Begins
A few months later, the elder Marshall's health began to fail. Enter Pierce Marshall, who referred to his stepmother as "Miss Cleavage."
He asked the court to appoint him his father's legal guardian, then froze all the money in the accounts.
"Upon learning of his father's marriage," Bufford wrote, "Pierce Marshall took quick action to assure that this did not interfere with his own expectation that he and his family would inherit all of his father's wealth." The judge found that the stepson consulted attorneys, who advised him on how to "preserve his own entitlement to the entire estate and to cut Vickie Lynn Marshall out of any inheritance."
He tried to cut her out of the family trust by inducing his father to sign a document called the "J. Howard Marshall II Post Nuptial Fine Tuning of Estate Plan." Then, the judge found, Pierce Marshall altered that document.
In a written opinion, the judge sharply criticized the younger Marshall for such tactics, finding that he not only altered some documents but concealed or refused to turn over others. Court-imposed sanctions had little effect, considering billions of dollars were at stake, the judge observed.
As her husband's condition worsened, Smith also sought refuge in the courts, demanding financial support from trusts controlled by Pierce Marshall. At one point, the electricity was turned off at the couple's mansion because the utility bills weren't being paid.
The rivals accused the other of exerting undue influence over a vulnerable old man. And when the elder Marshall died, they fought in court over his ashes, which were divided between them. They held separate funerals.
On the sidelines was another Marshall son, J. Howard Marshall III, who had been disinherited by his father years earlier over a business dispute. He owns a Los Angeles electronics company and also is suing for a portion of his father's money.
He rallied for Smith at her bankruptcy trial, offering testimony that supported her claim that his father wanted Smith cared for after his death.
"He was clearly very attracted to Vickie," he testified. "He referred to her as 'the light of my life.' "
During his turn on the stand, Pierce Marshall was confronted with a series of letters he had written his father. In one, he accused his father of "profiting for yourself" and "throwing your family to the wolves."