Testimony began Monday in what one courtroom wag predicted will be a "real soap opera:" the trial to determine if the late Councilman Gilbert W. Lindsay's girlfriend and her family took advantage of Lindsay's advanced age to gain control of his property in the last two years of his life.
The proceeding is the result of a civil suit filed by the Lindsay estate against Lindsay's onetime fiancee, Juanda Chauncie, 40; her sister, Ann Stevens, and their mother, Alberta Hysaw.
Chauncie is accused of improperly using her romantic influence over Lindsay to force him to transfer, either wholly or partially, interests in four pieces of property he owned. Her relatives are accused of conspiring with her.
The trial got off to a rocky start when Chauncie, who was scheduled to be the first witness, failed to show up. Superior Court Judge F. Ray Bennett come close to issuing a bench warrant for her arrest but instead chastised her for not appearing to take the trial seriously.
He allowed Stevens to take the first turn on the stand while Chauncie, who was "taking care of personal business," according to her lawyer, Geraldine Green, was being tracked down.
Lindsay, a former City Hall janitor, served on the City Council for 27 years. He referred to himself as the "emperor" of his "Great 9th" council district, which included most of downtown. He suffered his last illness, a stroke, in September, 1990, and never recovered.
Lawyers for both sides have indicated that they may call current and former members of the Los Angeles City Council to testify about Lindsay's mental soundness in the two years before he died at 90 in December, 1990. The estate lawyers say they may call Mayor Tom Bradley as a witness.
In her opening statement, Green argued that Lindsay was neither senile nor in feeble health when the couple met in 1988, adding that the councilman once spent six hours at a fashion show with Chauncie without becoming ill or needing special attention.
During their relationship, which ended in the summer of 1990, Lindsay had "too much pride and ego" to be duped by Chauncie and a man the estate's lawyers contend was involved romantically with her at the time, Green said.
Green portrayed Chauncie as a loving and inseparable companion to Lindsay, a widower. The councilman voluntarily lavished money, jewelry and property on Chauncie, Green argued.
"Whether (Chauncie) loved him or not, she took the time to make him feel loved, needed and wanted and he gave her things," Green told jurors.
Green's depiction of the couple's relationship was in stark contrast to the one painted by lawyers for the Lindsay estate and Lindsay's stepson, Herbert Howard.
In interviews, they depicted Chauncie as a ruthless gold digger who had Lindsay paying her bills within weeks of their meeting and forced him to put her name on his bank accounts and property deeds.
Proceeds from the sale of one property were gone from the bank within three days of being deposited and proceeds from another property sale were gone within weeks, lawyers for the estate said.
"In Mr. Lindsay, she found the goose that laid the golden egg, a gold mine," said Dion-Cherie Raymond, who along with Carl Douglas represents the estate.
The lawsuit filed against Chauncie and her relatives contends that the councilman lacked the mental capacity to comprehend that she was systematically stripping him of his property.
Chauncie, the lawsuit says, manipulated Lindsay's "failing health, old age and senility" to coerce him into signing over to her all or part of four pieces of property and putting her name on his bank accounts.
When he balked, the lawsuit contends, she would threaten to leave him.
The estate lawyers say Chauncie's mother, a retired meat plant worker, and sister, part owner of a real estate business, conspired with Chauncie to obtain the property.
In her testimony, Chauncie's sister maintained that Lindsay appeared to be healthy and active, and broke into dance upon entering her home for a Thanksgiving dinner in 1988.