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JOHN Z. DeLOREAN | 1925-2005

Maker of Futuristic Car Lived Fast Life

March 21, 2005|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

During 12 weeks of testimony, prosecutors relied heavily on the videotapes. Hoffman, the prosecution's star witness, was on the stand for 18 days, testifying that DeLorean had suggested a drug deal to save his failing company.

To counter the accusations of the prosecution, defense attorneys put the government on trial.

The defense, led by attorney Weitzman, contended that DeLorean had been conned by a lying government informant and enticed by prospects of big investments in his dying company. Weitzman said government agents lied, destroyed crucial notes, backdated documents and withheld important evidence.

Weitzman's team said those same agents, blinded by publicity and the prospects of promotion, manufactured their case against the defendant by choreographing the videotapes, talking about narcotics, choosing a smuggler and providing much of the money for the scheme.

Hoffman was branded as an admitted felon, perjurer and con man who had sold his services to the government to escape prison and then lied on the witness stand.

The defense attorneys admitted that DeLorean had used poor judgment in his desperate efforts to save his company, but they said he committed no crime. And they said that if the jury thought he had committed a crime, he still should be acquitted because he had been entrapped by government agents who used deceit and the power of the government to ensnare him.

DeLorean never took the stand.

On Aug. 16, 1984, after 29 hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted him on all counts.

One juror said entrapment was the key.

"The way government agents acted in this case was not appropriate," the juror said.

In magazine interviews months later, other jurors called Hoffman a "shabby creep" and said he was "totally unbelievable" on the stand. But some of the jurors felt that, despite the unanimous verdict in his favor, DeLorean was morally culpable.

Juror Harry Graves objected to DeLorean's claim that the panel had found him innocent.

"I do not believe it was 'innocent,' " Graves said. "It was 'not guilty.' "

Regardless of jurors' post-trial comments, Weitzman reiterated Sunday to The Times that DeLorean "really was innocent. He did not commit the crime."

Two months later, Ferrare, who during the trial had stood publicly by her man, filed for divorce. She later fulfilled DeLorean's prophesy and married another wealthy man -- entertainment executive Tony Thomopolous.

DeLorean retreated to the imposing two-story Georgian mansion on his estate in Somerset County, N.J., and began a protracted and ultimately futile battle to fend off creditors.

On top of what amounted to more than $4.7 million in unpaid legal bills, he was unable to keep up payments on the estate -- the last of his real estate holdings -- eventually owing the mortgage holder, Merrill Lynch Equity Management Inc., more than $9.7 million.

"I can't pay them," he told a reporter in 1998. "I have nothing."

But if John DeLorean had nothing, he didn't live that way.

The estate, which included acres of manicured lawn, a dozen handsome outbuildings, a helicopter pad, several ponds and a stable full of expensive cars, was splendidly maintained. The mansion was furnished with antiques.

No one knew quite how he managed it, but there were accusations -- never proved -- that DeLorean had siphoned off some of the money provided by the British government. He denied it.

Weitzman successfully defended DeLorean in one Detroit fraud case in 1986 in which DeLorean was accused of stealing $17.5 million from the DeLorean partnership that funded the car company. The lawyer said Sunday that DeLorean "was lucky to be acquitted in the fraud case in Detroit.

"If I pulled off any miracles," the lawyer said, "that was the miracle."

Weitzman said that after that acquittal, DeLorean "was never quite the same. He turned out to be ungrateful for the help he received and blamed others for his plight."

DeLorean talked repeatedly about starting another company to build "a radical new car," but mostly kept to himself in his later years.

In the fall of 1999, his mounting debts forced him to declare bankruptcy. In January 2000, a federal judge approved the sale of the Bedminster estate to a golf course developer for $15.25 million. All of the money went to DeLorean's creditors.

A few weeks later, DeLorean watched in silence as vans hauled away the furnishings, most of which also were sold to satisfy outstanding debts.

In 2000, DeLorean started a new company, DeLoreanTime, to market watches.

He had been living in an apartment in Bedminster, N.J., and gave his final interview last Thursday, the day he suffered the stroke, when he spoke by phone with Peter Robison of Bloomberg News.

Interviewed about his former employer GM, a jocular, strong-voiced DeLorean told Robison: "When I was with GM, they had 50% of the industry. Now they're down to probably 20% when you consider the prices of the vehicles they're selling. It's a shame. And GM is so important to America, it's a crime."

DeLorean said he doubted GM's decline could be stopped but added, "There's one or two ways they could make it, but they're both long shots. If they want to know [how], they have to pay me."

DeLorean is survived by his wife, Sally Baldwin DeLorean; son, Zachary Tavio DeLorean; daughters, Kathryn Ann DeLorean and Sheila Baldwin DeLorean; three brothers; several nieces and nephews; and two grandchildren.

Private burial is scheduled for Thursday in Troy, Mich.

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