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Israel Conned Recluse, Family Says

Courts: A Leisure World millionaire was promised burial in Haifa in exchange for his fortune, but the government never came through, relatives allege.

September 05, 2002|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To his Leisure World neighbors, Simon Lechtuz seemed the penniless eccentric--a disheveled lifelong bachelor who seldom changed clothes and sought treasure in trash containers around Laguna Hills.

Little did they know Lechtuz was a millionaire who, in the final years of his life, had agreed to leave his $5-million fortune to the government of Israel in exchange for his burial there with full religious observance.

But when the 88-year-old died shortly after collapsing over a grocery store garbage bin, there was no trip to Israel.

Instead, he was buried unceremoniously in a secular Orange County cemetery.

A group of Lechtuz's distant relatives went to court Wednesday, claiming that Israel and lawyers representing its Los Angeles consulate conned the retiree into willing his fortune to Israel by falsely promising him a proper Jewish burial in Israel.

The family, which has members in Southern California and Israel, exhumed his body from Orange County and reburied him in Israel. But they maintain the government broke its contract with the Polish immigrant. They are demanding that Judge James P. Gray void the will, a move that could clear the way for the family to receive the proceeds of his estate.

"It's outrageous what they did," said plaintiff Yoseffa Teitel, a niece from Woodland Hills. "They preyed on this man. They pursued him relentlessly and waited until he wasn't well to get him to sign. Then, when he dies, they don't even give him the one thing that he wanted: burial in Israel."

Lawyers representing Israel deny any wrongdoing, saying they talked to Lechtuz about his funeral plans but never promised to bury him in Israel. They say opportunistic relatives are now foiling Lechtuz's final wishes, which were to give roughly $1 million each to the Israeli army, navy, air force, the Israel Institute of Technology and the Hadassah Medical Organization.

"The fact is, the people who are bringing this suit never met Mr. Lechtuz," said attorney Michael Greene, one of the group representing Israel. "Mrs. Teitel never had any communication with him in his life. It's incredible they're pursuing this. It's a shame."

Greene said the last thing Lechtuz wanted was for his family to inherit his fortune.

"He did not want them to benefit," he said. "He stated that he wanted them to earn it."

The case marks a rare instance in which a U.S. citizen agreed to will his estate directly to the government of Israel.

While testamentary gifts to Israeli organizations are common, they usually involve donations to intermediaries connected to Israeli veterans, health organizations or social service groups.

"I'm real surprised to hear that someone actually made a bequest to the government," said Chelle Friedman, director of the Leisure World Region of the Jewish Federation of Orange County.

"Even here, people may think the Marines are wonderful, but who leaves money to them in their will?" Friedman said.

Much of the dispute focuses on Lechtuz's state of mind when he signed the will, as well as the motivations of Israel's lawyers. Lechtuz did not use his own lawyer to draft the document. Instead, he had lawyers working for the consulate draft the document and create a trust for his holdings.

Lawyers representing Israel argue that certain documents and correspondence between the consulate's lawyers and Israel's Ministry of Justice cannot be admitted into court because they are protected by diplomatic immunity. Lawyers for Lechtuz's relatives said the documents are crucial to understanding the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the government.

Determining Lechtuz's thoughts could prove equally difficult. Even close friends describe him as a recluse who rarely discussed his personal life and rebuffed those who inquired about it. Friends who knew Lechtuz as a 15-year resident of Leisure World said they were shocked to learn that he had amassed such a fortune.

"I felt sorry for him," friend and neighbor Jonel Konstanin said in court documents. "People avoided him because of his dirty appearance, his difficult foreign accent, his lack of personal hygiene and his odd, even weird, behavior. He looked like he didn't have a dime and he wore the same clothes day after day."

Born in Poland in 1912, Lechtuz moved to Palestine when he was 12 and later enlisted in the British Army during World War II. The two sides dispute portions of his history. His family says Lechtuz served in India during the war; the Israeli government said he also served with the Israeli Army.

In 1950 he immigrated to the United States, where he earned a living by bartering and trading leftover flour sacks and steel drums he collected from bakeries, and later he owned a furniture business, according to relatives. Eventually, he owned a number of properties.

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