A bitter, long-running battle over the $12-million estate of a Simi Valley woman is about to heat up in Ventura County Superior Court.
Almost as soon as Lucile Chandler Estes died on Christmas Eve, 1989, the struggle began over who should inherit the fortune in real estate she left behind.
Did the 85-year-old woman want the bulk of it to go to Billy Baker, a former Simi Valley councilman 25 years her junior, whom she married a few years before she died?
Or did she mean for some of it to go to the five nieces and nephews who have filed suit in Ventura County Superior Court to get a share of her estate?
In the lawsuit, the relatives say Baker befriended the ailing Estes and her elderly sister, then talked Estes into placing her assets into a trust with him in sole control.
Baker solidified his position, the suit says, by marrying Estes in a Las Vegas ceremony. Then Baker alienated his bride from them, the relatives say, and persuaded her to remove them as beneficiaries of what was supposed to be an irrevocable trust.
And even though Baker told them that he would receive less than 1% of the trust, the relatives say, he ended up with half of it.
Baker's attorney, Larry L. Hines, acknowledged that his client received half the proceeds of the trust, but denied any wrongdoing on Baker's part. Baker did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The relatives have asked the court to remove the trust from Baker's control. They also want Baker ordered to account for his handling of Estes' fortune and to pay damages for depriving them of their rightful inheritance. On March 25, Judge Richard D. Aldrich will hold a hearing on whether to suspend Baker as trustee pending trial of the lawsuit, which is expected to take five weeks and involve as many as 60 witnesses.
Baker's dealings with Estes have already been the subject of investigations by the Ventura County district attorney's office and the Ventura County grand jury. Neither took any action.
Hines said that the relatives' lawsuit portrays his client as a scheming opportunist who profited from an old lady's frailties. "What doesn't filter through the paperwork is their relationship," Hines said. "They knew each other for 30 years and were close friends."
Although Estes owned more than 600 acres in Simi Valley and Moorpark, "it didn't produce any money" for her and her sister until Baker, a retired real estate broker, took a hand in Estes' affairs, Hines said. "They were literally living in an impoverished condition" until Baker stepped in, the attorney said.
He said the nieces and nephews simply resent the fact that their aunt changed her mind about leaving them money. "They didn't treat her the way she liked," Hines said, "and she cut them out."
Everyone seems to agree on these facts:
Lucile Chandler, the eldest of four children, was 17 when her family moved to Ventura County in 1922. Five years later she married Clarence Estes, the son of a Moorpark apricot grower. The couple acquired a walnut ranch in Simi Valley. For decades, Lucile taught school and handled the business end of the ranch.
"She was a large woman, over six feet tall," recalled M. Stephen Davis, a Los Angeles attorney who also has done legal work for Baker. "She treated most people as though they were her pupils."
Over the years, the couple acquired other parcels of farmland in east Ventura County that have become ripe for development. The trust recently sold a Moorpark tract to Bugle Boy Industries for $4.5 million.
The couple had no children. Clarence died in 1973, and a few years later Lucile's sister, Alma Chandler, came to live with her in the big Estes homestead on Carmel Drive in Simi Valley.
It is unclear how Billy Baker entered Estes' life. In a 1986 interview, Baker said he had known Lucile Estes for 24 years and had often given her free business advice. When he successfully ran for Simi Valley City Council in 1978, Estes donated $100 to his campaign. (Baker resigned from the council under pressure 2 1/2 years later after missing seven consecutive meetings.)
In 1985, Estes broke her hip and became more dependent on her sister. About the same time, Baker started visiting her several times a week.
About a year later, when complaints from Estes' relatives prompted a grand jury investigation, Alma Chandler testified that it was Baker who suggested that Estes set up a trust.
He also recommended that Estes hire a Simi Valley attorney, Joseph G. Vlad III, to draw up the paperwork, Chandler said, even though Oxnard attorney Stanley E. Cohen had been Estes' attorney for many years.
"She had been told by numerous people that she needed a trust, and I feel that she did, too," Chandler told the grand jury. "Her taxes were just kind of in a muddle. She really needed . . . someone businesslike to take over and take charge because it really was beyond her."
The grand jury testimony does not indicate whether Baker, Vlad or someone else suggested to Estes that she put Baker in charge of the trust. Vlad could not be reached for comment.
In her answers to the grand jury, Estes, then 81 years old, seemed unaware that the trust gave Baker complete control over her holdings, including the right to buy and sell property. For example, the record contains this exchange with Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert D. Meyers:
Meyers: We're trying to see . . . what he told you about it.
Estes: In fact, I didn't pay much attention.
Meyers: Did you think you were giving Mr. Baker the power to sell property and handle your financial affairs without your consent?
Estes: Goodness, no. I don't need him to do that.
Several other times during her grand jury appearance, which took place June 5, 1986, Estes said she wished she had not created the trust.
"I don't know why I ever did it. . . . I don't need it. I don't want it," she said. "I just don't even remember signing the thing. . . . Sometimes you sign them kind of quickly, and then you read them, and you realize that you shouldn't have."
Yet on numerous occasions in the interview, Estes also expressed complete confidence in Baker. "Billy is a good man," she said. "He's a good friend. . . . Bill's been good to me. . . . He didn't do it for the money."
Cohen, Estes' longtime attorney, wasn't so sure about Baker's motives. Three months after the trust was established, he met with Estes and filed a lawsuit on her behalf claiming that Baker had duped her.
Within days, however, Estes sought to rescind the lawsuit and fire Cohen. At least three Superior Court judges made efforts to find out what Estes really wanted. Eventually, the lawsuit was dismissed on Sept. 9, 1986.
The next day, Baker and Estes announced their engagement. Two weeks later they were married in the presidential suite at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.
"What we want to do is be an all-American family, settle down and enjoy life," Baker said as the two held hands during an interview shortly before the wedding.
"I love him," Estes said. "He's honest."
Some of the same relatives who now are suing Baker approved of the match, according to published accounts at the time.
"We trust Bill, and he's done a lot of good things for my two aunts," said Estes' nephew, Jeff Showers, according to one newspaper story. "He's going to protect her interests, and if she wants to marry him . . . good for her."
But when Estes died without leaving them any money, Showers and four other relatives--Gregory Showers, Nancy Haddad, William A. Spencer and Lilia M. Gillespie--filed suit against Baker.
At first Baker resisted giving them any information on the trust, arguing that since they were not beneficiaries, they had no right to it. After two appeals to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, Baker finally released records detailing Jeff Showers' rise and fall in his aunt's estimation.
In March, 1986, Showers was to get $2,000, according to the records provided by Baker. In September, his bequest was cut in half, but a few months later skyrocketed to $100,000. In September, 1987, Estes reduced her nephew's share to $25,000, and a year later cut him out altogether.
Cohen, representing the relatives, argues in court papers that the trust was irrevocable and could not be amended after Estes created it.
Hines agreed that "an irrevocable trust normally is truly irrevocable." But he said Estes' trust specifically provided a mechanism to make changes.
He said Baker is only one of many beneficiaries of the trust. "About 10 people got pretty substantial sums of money," he said, adding that Chandler also was provided for. "All the people she gave stuff to were people involved with her and close to her in her later years."
He said Baker has a legal duty to defend the trust. "Lucile didn't want these people to have any money and he's going to do his best to make sure that happens."