A federal judge awarded former Playboy centerfold Anna Nicole Smith nearly $89 million of her late husband's estate Thursday, finding that she truly loved the 90-year-old Texas oil tycoon even though his fortune was the "central facet" of their romance.
The ruling culminates a legal soap opera that has bounced between courts in California and Texas for six years, a tale of sex, money and a dysfunctional Houston oil family that has been a staple for supermarket tabloids and late-night comedians.
The case centered on the former stripper's claim that her husband, J. Howard Marshall, promised to leave her half his fortune and on whether Marshall's son tried to swindle her out of it.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter agreed with Smith, now 34, to a point. He ruled that she was entitled to half of the investment income Marshall earned during their brief marriage, plus $44 million in punitive damages because of her stepson's "willful, malicious" plot to deceive her.
The total comes to about 8% of Marshall's fortune. The rest goes to his son, Pierce Marshall, who has taken to calling his stepmother "Miss Cleavage." Marshall has vowed to continue the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
'Lives . . . Driven by Greed and Lust'
The monthlong appeals case delved into the intricacies of estate law. But in the end, the judge focused on matters of the heart.
Despite a 63-year age gap, Carter concluded that the romance between the Texas oilman and the pinup was real, giving credibility to Smith's claim.
"Their lives were intertwined in need, driven by greed and lust. Nevertheless, the court is convinced of his love for her. J. Howard referred to [Smith] as the 'light of my life' and the lady [who] saved his life," Carter wrote in his opinion. "The court is more cautious about her love for him. . . . J. Howard used his money to get [Smith] to fall in love with him, and in her own way, [she] loved J. Howard."
Still, Carter appeared disturbed by what he described as Smith's selfishness, greed and exaggerated portrayal of herself as an innocent, helpless victim.
"While she detested being thought of as a gold-digger, her actions leave little doubt that money was the central facet of her relationship with J. Howard. Her appetite for money, once developed, was incessant and outlandish by everyday standards," the judge wrote.
Smith's inability to grasp the facts while on the stand was striking, the judge noted.
At one point during the trial, Carter asked a lethargic Smith if she was on medication. "Not at this time," she said, adding that she had recently stopped using antidepressants.
When asked her date of birth, Smith hesitated. When asked to explain how she mistakenly listed a $4,800 diamond to be worth $48,000, Smith told the court "I'm not too good on zeros."
Smith met Marshall in 1991 when she was dancing at GiGi's, a Houston strip club. Marshall went at the behest of his chauffeur, who wanted to save the oil tycoon from the deep depression he had fallen into when both Marshall's wife and mistress died within a few months of one another, according to court records.
On June 27, 1994, the day Smith married the man she called "Paw Paw," J. Howard Marshall was 89 years old. Smith was 26. She wore a white-beaded gown. He wore a white tuxedo as he slipped a 22-carat diamond onto her finger.
Marshall died 14 months later.
His son, Pierce, was not on the wedding guest list, a coincidence that didn't escape the judge when he assessed Pierce's relationship with both his father and new stepmother.
Carter ruled that Smith's stepson lied, falsified documents and tricked his own father in an attempt to rob Smith of any share of J. Howard Marshall's estimated $780-million fortune.
"The evidence of willfulness, maliciousness, and fraud is overwhelming," Carter wrote. He found that Pierce and one of his father's legal advisors engaged in a pattern of deceiving the elder Marshall for nearly two years--making sure he had no control over his money.
"They presented documents under pretenses, suborned perjured notary oaths, falsified and backdated documents, and altered documents, all with the intent of denying [Smith] the gift that J. Howard intended to make to her," the judge concluded.
Carter recommended that federal prosecutors investigate his findings of perjury in the case, and also called on the Internal Revenue Service to take a closer look at tax deductions made on J. Howard Marshall's behalf.
Smith, who was not present in the Santa Ana courtroom, said in a statement that she felt victorious and vindicated.
"She's very happy, particularly that the judge found her testimony so credible," said her attorney, Philip W. Boesch of Los Angeles. "This is all about what Howard Marshall the man wanted. He loved his wife. . . . This is really a victory for the love a husband had for his wife, and the fact that love has no age limits."