A bitter family feud between Gen. Chuck Yeager and the elderly test pilot's grown children appeared on the verge of a long-awaited settlement Wednesday, legally if not emotionally.
After nearly a year of deliberations, a Nevada County Superior Court referee notified attorneys that he planned to rule that Yeager's daughter violated her duties as his trustee in her zeal to protect her father and his fortune from the woman who would become his second wife.
The "intended ruling" by retired judge Richard L. Gilbert -- which is subject to revision during the next 10 days -- marks the beginning of the end of a complex civil court fight that made international headlines and sundered the American icon's close-knit family.
Though the case dealt with a tangle of lawsuits involving two pieces of property, some cash, a tractor, lithographs and the rights to Yeager's life story, its emotional center was the 82-year-old widower's decision in 2003 to marry Victoria Scott D'Angelo, a former actress who is 36 years younger and whom his heirs distrusted.
The general and his wife contended that his children were merely afraid that they would lose control of their father's fortune.
Yeager was an ace fighter pilot in World War II who went on to break the sound barrier and become the hero of the book and movie "The Right Stuff." Over the years, court records show, millions of dollars in speaking fees and book royalties had been disbursed to his children, and his daughter, Susan Yeager, managed his financial affairs.
"What it boils down to is that when I started runnin' around with Victoria, what they saw was that I would probably get married and Victoria would inherit my estate," Yeager told The Times last year.
His children, however, said they simply loved their father and feared that he had been taken in by a troubled opportunist. Court records showed more than 30 lawsuits and numerous restraining orders filed by or against D'Angelo in the years when her acting career was failing, and which, in at least one instance, included an allegation that she'd physically attacked an elderly landlady after trying to persuade her that she was unloved by her grown kids.
Though the initial lawsuit involved the title to a condominium that Yeager had deeded first to his daughter and then to his then-fiancee, the allegations and countersuits quickly ballooned. Eventually, the case narrowed to a few financial issues involving Susan Yeager, who lived next door to her father and who had been his co-trustee since Yeager's first wife, Glennis, had died in 1990.
"It is clear Susan disliked and distrusted Victoria and viewed her as someone eager to take advantage of her father and his financial largesse," the referee wrote, adding that her siblings shared those feelings.
"The evidence supports the conclusion these feelings arose out of mixed motives -- genuine concern for their father and, at least to some degree, fear of loss of his historic generosity."
As the suspicions worsened, the referee found, Susan Yeager quietly took steps to place his assets out of his reach, fearing that control would shift from her and her siblings to his new girlfriend. Because Yeager had given her free rein over his finances, she was able to act without getting his permission, and did.
But as Yeager and D'Angelo's relationship became serious, the general made it clear to his children that he and D'Angelo would be handling their finances alone. Eventually, Susan Yeager and her father became so estranged that she decided to move. But when she did, the judge found, she had the trust buy her out of her home in a way that netted her an illegal profit of more than $850,000.
Gilbert tentatively found that Susan Yeager should be held liable for that and several smaller negligent transactions, totaling a little more than $900,000. But, he added, a condominium that had been deeded both to her and to Victoria Yeager belonged to the daughter.
Gilbert also found that, though Yeager's children had been granted the rights to his autobiography, the general alone would control the rights to his life story, which has periodically been discussed as a film possibility.
Though Yeager's wife had contended that millions of dollars were at issue, the net loss for the Yeager children appears to be more like a few hundred thousand dollars, if the ruling stands. Both sides indicated that they plan to ask that parts be reconsidered and revised.
Yeager's attorney, David Riegels, said the retired brigadier general was "very pleased" with the outcome.
"The general and his wife had to go through hell to protect their rights, including all the adverse publicity that was generated, but I think it's a vindication for them."
Susan Yeager, who now lives in Hawaii, did not respond to requests for comment. However, Yeager's son, Don Yeager of Powderhorn, Colo., who has acted as family spokesman, said the tentative decision left him both saddened and relieved.
In the two years since his father's marriage, he said, the family has become estranged to the point that they scarcely speak now, and the general has seen little of his 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
"There are no winners in this, only losers, however it turns out," he said. "We're still out a dad, and he's still out a family."