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Brooke Astor's son guilty of looting her estate

Anthony Marshall faces up to 25 years in prison for tricking the New York philanthropist into changing her will to leave her nearly $200 million fortune to him. The estate attorney is also convicted.

October 09, 2009|Tina Susman

NEW YORK — After four months of testimony that cast a harsh light on the operatic lives of East Coast social royalty -- with tales of greed, abuse and bitter family feuds -- a jury on Thursday convicted legendary philanthropist Brooke Astor's son of tricking her into changing her will.

The jury, which deliberated 11 full days, found Anthony D. Marshall guilty on 14 of the 16 counts against him, including grand larceny involving the theft of cash and art, possession of stolen property, and conspiracy to defraud Astor. Marshall, 85, could receive up to 25 years in prison.

Astor, who died in 2007 at age 105, was known for her lavish giving to New York's most venerable institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library, as well as universities and hospitals.

Estate attorney Francis X. Morrissey Jr., who faced trial alongside Marshall, was convicted of all five counts against him, the most serious of them forgery for altering Astor's will to divert her nearly $200-million fortune to her son. He faces up to seven years in prison.

"I'm stunned by the verdict," said Marshall's attorney, Frederick Hafetz. "We're greatly disappointed, and we will definitely be appealing."

Marshall, a Tony-Award-winning Broadway producer and former U.S. diplomat, sat stone-like as the jury forewoman read each verdict aloud, the word "guilty" resonating in the otherwise silent courtroom. His wife, Charlene, gripped the side of a wooden bench in the public gallery and stared straight ahead, wide-eyed. After the jury was dismissed, she stood behind her husband, stroking his head.

In the courthouse corridor afterward, Charlene Marshall -- her blue eyes reddened from weeping -- said loudly when asked her reaction to the outcome: "I love my husband!"

He leaned on a cane with one hand and clutched his wife with the other as they pushed through a crowd of photographers, reporters and curiosity-seekers without stopping. They walked wordlessly down the steps at the back courthouse exit, got into a waiting black limousine and drove away.

Morrissey, 66, left the courthouse without comment.

The district attorney's office released a brief statement, saying: "The jury has spoken. We appreciate their hard work in reaching this conclusion."

The prosecution had presented a huge case that included 72 witnesses but was based largely on circumstantial evidence.

Most of the witnesses -- who included Barbara Walters, Nancy Kissinger and Annette de la Renta, the wife of designer Oscar de la Renta -- could not testify as to Astor's mental condition during the moments when she signed changes to her will.

Instead, they recalled moments when they had seen her in apparent states of confusion, a result of the Alzheimer's disease she was diagnosed with in January 2001.

They recounted lavish dinner parties at which Astor could not recognize close friends, and instances in which she displayed irrational fears or erratic behavior.

Prosecutors said Morrissey and Marshall took advantage of Astor's diminished mental state to coerce her to change her will and give Marshall proceeds from sales of valuable artwork.

Their witnesses also included Astor's former butler, chauffeur, maids and nurses who tended to her needs at her Park Avenue apartment, her seaside home in Maine and her estate in Westchester County, north of New York City.

The defense, which called just two witnesses, said jurors should focus only on Astor's mental state during the brief meetings she had with lawyers to amend her will in 2003 and 2004.

Changing her will to give money to Marshall rather than to her favorite charities was simply the result of a mother wanting to show love for her son and reward him for decades of loyalty, Hafetz said in his closing arguments.

"The one enduring relationship in her life was Tony," Hafetz told the jury.

But Marshall's son, Philip, told a different story. In 2006, he accused his father of letting Astor live in squalor -- which prompted a judge to remove Anthony Marshall as her legal caretaker.

Annette de la Renta, a longtime friend of Astor's, replaced Marshall in that role.

The case fascinated New Yorkers, offering a glimpse into the jeweled lives of the super-rich. The Astor fortune carries a particular aura: Brooke Astor's husband, Vincent, who died in 1959, had inherited the wealth from his father, John Jacob Astor IV, who died in the sinking of the Titanic.

Items introduced into evidence during the trial included pieces of expensive jewelry and a video of Astor's 100th birthday bash.

But the case also underscored the vulnerability of the elderly.

Catherine Wettlaufer, a New York estate lawyer, said the aging U.S. population was leading to an increase in clients with Alzheimer's. And Thursday's convictions, she said, pointed up the risks of relying on family members to determine "what our clients might have wanted."

"I believe this will be the beginning of a line of cases dealing with the competency of our aging population," Wettlaufer said.

Prosecutors sought after the verdict to have both defendants held on $5-million bond.

The judge rejected the request and set sentencing for Dec. 8, allowing Morrissey and Marshall to remain free until then.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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