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Far from heavens

Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, shortly after his 77th birthday, Chuck Yeager went for his usual walk. The man who broke the sound barrier had been widowed for 10 years, lived next door to his daughter and was all but deaf in one ear. Still, when a much younger woman materialized on the path and struck up a conversation, he says, he got the message.

Twenty-four hours later, they were dating. Within a month, she had moved in.

It happened so fast, Yeager’s children would later say, that they couldn’t help wondering about the then-41-year-old girlfriend, an out-of-towner named Victoria Scott D’Angelo who claimed to have had careers in show business and investment banking, yet appeared to be unemployed and transient.

Discreetly, Yeager’s daughter Susan looked into her background. What she found -- lawsuits, restraining orders, claims of harassment and misrepresentation, an alleged physical attack on an elderly woman -- so troubled her that she confronted the couple.

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D’Angelo denied everything, then blamed her accusers, then claimed to have changed her ways, according to Yeager’s children. Within months, acquaintances and business associates of Yeager contend, D’Angelo began telling them that Susan Yeager, who managed her father’s finances, was stealing from him. By the following year, the retired brigadier general had fired his accountant, his estate planning lawyer, his longtime personal secretary -- and his daughter. Last year, in a ceremony to which his children and friends weren’t invited, Yeager wed D’Angelo.

Now, in a private legal proceeding scheduled to begin today, a court-appointed referee here will harvest the fruit of the now 81-year-old Yeager’s romance -- a tangle of bitter lawsuits that officially center on two pieces of property, $113,000, a tractor, some lithographs and the rights to Yeager’s life story. The children, though, say it’s really about the woman who, as one son, Don Yeager, put it, “has pretty much succeeded in killing our family.”

Not so, she counters.

“They’re just trying to make a circus sideshow and use me as a decoy,” said the new Mrs. Yeager, who, with her husband, contends that the case is just about whether Yeager’s children broke the law in their zeal to thwart his new love. “They don’t really care about their father,” she said. “They just care about having his money for themselves.”

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It is, in some respects, a common family trauma -- aging father falls for a woman younger than his grown kids. In this case, however, the conflict comes juxtaposed against Yeager’s heroic reputation: the flying ace who in 1947 made history in a Bell X-1 rocket aircraft named for his first wife, Glennis. The man’s man from West Virginia who, as Tom Wolfe so memorably put it, epitomized “The Right Stuff.”

It also comes with his new wife’s back story.

“I never had any problems with anybody in the 47 years I’ve been alive until I invited her into my house,” said Nansea McDermott, a single mother in the San Fernando Valley who briefly leased Victoria Yeager, then Victoria D’Angelo, a room in 1997 and “had to call the police every day.”

“She was like that movie ‘The Bad Seed,’ ” said Michele Leavitt, a Winnetka homemaker whose now-deceased mother, then a 77-year-old with bone cancer, also rented a room in her home to D’Angelo, only to end up seeking a restraining order against her. “Horrible. Awful. And to have this happen to someone who’s like an American hero. It’s so sad.”

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“Oh, yes, it’s ‘too bad’ -- that’s always the last paragraph of these letters I get from people since all this started,” said Yeager as his wife nodded at their kitchen table here in Gold Country. This was on a recent Saturday and he was slightly flushed, having just spent half an hour, at her behest, changing the locks on the ranch house his daughter built for him in 1997.

“I don’t give a rat’s fanny what the kids think of me and what I do,” Yeager continued, his jaw set. “They’re not going to control my life.”

*

Mother as linchpin

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“How did it come to this? That’s a real good question,” Don Yeager said by phone from his Colorado home. “My dad has never been in a lawsuit in his life, nor have any of us kids.”

The son, a 58-year-old Vietnam combat veteran who runs a vacation lodge near Powderhorn, Colo., is the eldest of Chuck and Glennis Yeager’s four offspring. Michael Yeager, 57, retired to Springfield, Ore., after a 20-year career in the U.S. Air Force. Sharon Yeager Flick, 55, raises horses in Fallon, Nev. Susan Yeager, now 54, managed her father’s business affairs until the falling-out prompted her to move from the ranch they shared, and where he still lives. She moved to Hawaii in 2003.

“My mom pretty much raised us; my dad was out flying or fighting wars most of the time, but when he was home, he was a great father,” said Don. “We were like the all-American family.”

By all accounts, though, Glennis was the linchpin, managing the clan -- and its finances -- from the lean military years through the prosperity that arose after Wolfe’s history of the space program, “The Right Stuff,” turned Yeager into a pop culture icon.

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“Glennis used to laugh and tell me that she controlled everything, that he didn’t even know what he was worth,” recalled Leo Janos, who co-wrote “Yeager,” the famed pilot’s bestselling 1985 autobiography. According to court records, Glennis managed their estate plan, minimizing taxes by making regular cash gifts to their children and grandchildren. She saw to it that Yeager’s book royalties went straight to their children and that his speaking fees, endorsements and other assets were shared via Yeager Inc., a family-owned corporation. When Glennis became ill in 1986 with ovarian cancer, it was she who trained Susan to assume her financial duties.

Then, on Dec. 22, 1990, Glennis Yeager died.

The loss, Chuck Yeager said, was swift and painful, though initially little changed in his life. What had been handled by his wife was now handled by his daughter. His calendar remained filled with hunting trips and speaking engagements. When he finally left the home where he’d retired with Glennis, it was to move to the ranch he had developed with Susan.

“He’d come over to my house to do the mail at 8:30 in the morning at the kitchen table,” said his former secretary, Cindy Siegfried. “Then he’d leave and call in at noon for messages, then head out on his walk, then check in again at 4 in the afternoon.

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“Everything was just the same for years, just so predictable. And then all hell broke loose.”

*

A show business interest

Victoria SCOTT D’ANGELO had been in and out of Nevada County for two years when she met Yeager, and in and out of California for nearly two decades. Her father is a Philadelphia lawyer, as are two of her three brothers. Her late mother was a social worker who gained brief notoriety for persuading former First Lady Betty Ford to go public with her alcoholism. “Tori,” as Victoria was nicknamed, graduated from the University of Virginia in 1980 with a drama degree.

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In 1984, she landed a bit part as a female police officer with Harrison Ford in “Witness.” There was a part in “Blades -- Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Putt,” a low-budget horror film about a possessed lawn mower. And in a February deposition regarding the Yeager case, she said she appeared in a Jay Leno comedy special, having known him from an acting class they took together. Leno says he doesn’t remember her.

Her show business career not taking off, D’Angelo returned to school for a master’s degree in business administration, taking a job in 1985 with Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh, she said. In her deposition, she added that she has not held a full-time job since, and she quit after four months in a dispute over client billings. A spokesman at Mellon said the institution has no record of her employment, or of the lawsuit she says she subsequently filed against them.

Her brother, David D’Angelo, who she said represented her, said he was “not in a position to say anything” about his sister. Other immediate family members also refused to comment. Dale Casey D’Angelo, her father’s ex-wife, said in a phone interview that Victoria had a long history of conflict with her family. In her deposition, Victoria Yeager said she hadn’t spoken to her father or brothers for more than three years.

Eventually, she moved to California, where she would sneak into Hollywood parties in the hope of making industry contacts. This, she said, was how she met the late NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff and ended up in a dispute over an idea she sold to him for $25,000.

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When the idea -- about a party crasher who witnesses a murder -- was turned into a novel in 1998 and she wasn’t acknowledged, she went to the press, though her legal claim had ended with her payment. Tartikoff had died the previous year, leaving a grief-stricken wife and a child who was recovering from severe injuries sustained in a car crash. In a Times story that ran at the time, D’Angelo expressed disbelief at the lack of sympathy she was getting from his lawyers.

She said disillusionment finally led her to drop the matter. “What’s sad is they think the threatening letter is what put me off, when what really just put me off is their lack of integrity,” she said. “And who’s going to bother to sue?”

She would, as it turned out -- if not in that instance then in many others. Court records in Los Angeles, Ventura and Nevada counties show more than 30 court cases filed by and against her over the last decade. They range from a small claims suit in which she sued the phone company for static on the line to a personal injury case in which she sued the city of Beverly Hills after falling off a chair in the Police Department.

Her most heated battles, however, involved a series of strikingly similar evictions that date to at least 1995, when she failed to pay rent on an apartment in Santa Monica. That dispute dragged on for months before both she and the landlord won restraining orders (she claimed he harassed her, he claimed she repeatedly threatened his dog’s life). Eventually, she obeyed a court order to move out but records show at least three more such orders in the next three years.

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In each case, she rented spare bedrooms from private homeowners who shortly thereafter asked her to move, citing unsettling or bizarre behavior. In each case, she refused to leave until the landlord sought a court order, then denied the allegations and, in all but one instance, attacked the landlord’s character in public court papers.

McDermott, the single mother in Calabasas, for instance, said in court documents that after she asked D’Angelo to stop trying to discipline McDermott’s 12-year-old son or move out, D’Angelo retaliated by harassing her, taping her conversations and telling lies about her and her child to McDermott’s doctors, relatives, neighbors and creditors. When McDermott went to court to request a restraining order, court files show, D’Angelo wrote a 19-page letter to the judge denying the accusations and portraying McDermott as an alcoholic, a drug addict, a bad credit risk and a “psychotic.”

By then, McDermott and her child had moved, asking the judge not to give D’Angelo their new address; at D’Angelo’s request, the subsequent restraining order was again mutual.

Another two landladies in Venice, who sold their home out from under D’Angelo after an alleged physical altercation, were similarly disparaged by her in court documents as being “married to an alcoholic” and having “had two to three abortions by [the age of] 21.”

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Leavitt said that in her elderly mother’s case, attacks preceded the court case. In 1998, when Lorraine B. DePuy rented a room in her Woodland Hills home to Tori D’Angelo, Leavitt said, D’Angelo “started this psychological campaign, saying all these strange things to my mother about how [DePuy] was all alone in the world and her children didn’t love her -- which wasn’t true, we have a very strong, loving family -- but it was to the point that my mom just called me, sobbing, one day.”

Leavitt said when she drove to her mother’s home and evicted the tenant, “Tori just turned from this sweet Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, and said, ‘You just try to get me out.’ ” Three days later, according to police reports and the late DePuy’s sworn declaration, D’Angelo shoved the elderly woman against a wall, threatened her with a kitchen chair and kicked her hard in the stomach.

DePuy was granted a permanent injunction and D’Angelo was forced out. In an interview, Victoria Yeager denied ever physically attacking anyone and downplayed the court orders.

“A restraining order is just a way for a landlord to get a tenant out,” she said. “And what’s so funny about these restraining orders is that, you look at people like me -- and on paper you can say whatever you want -- but I had a policeman say, ‘You’re different from them, you settle things with words and they settle things with fists.’ Somebody raises a hand, I’m out the door. Because I can break easily.”

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She said it was 1998, shortly after the evictions and the Tartikoff dispute, when she first visited Nevada County on a day trip with an old friend. On a whim, she said, they visited a local woman with whom she had once served as a juror for six days. The woman, she said, was in her 70s and had just had a stroke, and was so grateful for company that she invited D’Angelo to stay with her for a year and “help with rehab.” But she stayed only three months, she said, adding that she couldn’t remember her host’s last name.

She then moved in with Daniel Bertsch, a local disc jockey whom she had by then begun dating, she said, but left within another three months. In court documents, Bertsch, a single father with two small children, said that when he asked her to leave, she refused and became so belligerent that he feared for his family’s safety. Several times, he said, he called the local sheriff’s department to have her removed from his home, though she would always leave before they arrived.

His co-workers at KVMR radio said the harassment went on for so long that Bertsch eventually left the station. “She was unrelenting,” said Brian Terhorst, the general manager. “She was making phone calls and being disruptive, and he had young kids. We’re live, and if he was on the air, she knew where he was.”

Not so, says Victoria Yeager.

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“When he said I harassed him I was elsewhere,” she said. “And I have all sorts of alibis.”

*

Meeting on a trail

“I was comin’ down the trail, and she was goin’ up,” Chuck Yeager recalled, smiling. “And she said, ‘What’re you doin’ on my trail?’ Well, I said, ‘Number one, it’s not yours, and number two’ -- anyway, we started talkin’. I was just back from Australia and she was just back from South Africa, I think it was, or New Zealand. You know, she’s traveled all over the world.”

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Yeager spoke while walking uphill from his garden, having spent the morning tending tomatoes. His wife entered their green-and-white ranch house several feet ahead. Tall, slim and wearing no makeup, she was dressed in khaki pants and an oversized shirt with a logo for the Gen. Chuck Yeager Foundation, one of several entities they founded together after Yeager’s break with his children.

What drew him to her?

“Oh, horny. Any other questions?” he laughed.

“We went around for, oh, I don’t know, a year and a half. Then I just said, ‘Let’s get married.’ She said OK. We drove up to Incline Village, walked into the courthouse, exactly 28 minutes later walked out married and $105 poorer. Everybody [says], ‘How come you didn’t invite us to your wedding?’ Well, number one, it’s none of their ... business. And number two, that’s just the way it was.”

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Victoria Yeager said she was on the verge of optioning a book for a television movie when she met her husband. “I walked away from a sure $25,000, although they were doing away with the spirituality of the project anyway, when I met Chuck,” she said. “It was called ‘The Prophetess’ by Barbara Wood -- a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ with spirituality -- and I’d sold it to CBS, but a third party was reneging.”

(Wood’s agent and the network executives who heard her pitch all had a somewhat different recollection, saying her proposal went nowhere because she didn’t hold the film rights to the book and yet was demanding a six-figure fee and an executive producer credit. The author herself said she had never heard of the deal or of D’Angelo.)

Victoria Yeager said she didn’t know who Chuck Yeager was when she met him and had to look him up afterward on the Internet. This, too, is disputed. In a deposition, a longtime acquaintance of Yeager said Victoria had openly boasted that she had orchestrated their meeting. Another witness is expected to testify that Victoria posed as a Los Angeles Times reporter at a Nevada County air show in 1999 to gather information on him.

Indeed, almost every aspect of the Yeagers’ love story has lately been questioned, with one exception -- his feelings for her.

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“Whatever he’s got going with her, I’ve never seen him happier,” said Dan Brattain, an Oregon pilot who has known Yeager for 13 years.

“He follows her around like a lovesick puppy,” agreed Yeager’s son Don. “That’s what’s saddest. He really loves her and she just uses and uses him.”

Yeager says it’s his children who have taken advantage. With his wife next to him, he echoed a charge she made repeatedly in separate interviews and that his children dispute angrily -- that they “don’t really work,” and “live off their father’s income.”

“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,” he said.

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By the time he met her, he says, he had disbursed so much of his wealth that “the children were spoilt with money.” He estimated that his estate now “is worth maybe $400,000 or $500,000, which isn’t a helluva lot compared to the four or five million the kids have already gotten out of royalties and movie rights and things like that.”

“Ten to 20,” Victoria Yeager interjected.

“What’s that?”

“Ten to 20 million,” she said more loudly, and then: “ten to 20.”

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“I don’t know,” Yeager murmured, his brow furrowing. “If so, that’s the top.”

In fact, according to court documents filed by his lawyer, Yeager channeled between $65,000 and $100,000 a year in dividends and gifts to each of his grown children, on average, in the dozen or so years between his wife’s death and his second marriage. In 2001, however, Yeager says he informed his children that he wanted to dissolve Yeager Inc. and start a new corporation that would channel future income to his girlfriend.

“The kids didn’t live near,” he said, though later he acknowledged that Susan, at the time, was next door and Don had offered to build him a summer place at his lodge. “They had their own families. I had to solve a problem that would exist as I became older, that nobody was going to take care of me.”

After making some calls to a friend in Los Angeles, Yeager said, he decided he didn’t care about his girlfriend’s past.

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“Victoria’s been on her own most of her life,” he said as she sat next to him, her eyes downcast. “And there’s a helluva lot of predators out there that love to prey on exactly what you’re seeing sitting here. Well, when that happens, it’s unfortunate but the majority of gals’ll set back and take it. Victoria doesn’t. She fights back and I admire her for it.”

Don says he and his siblings told their father that they had no intention of abandoning him in his old age but would abide by any decision he made. Their only request, the son said, was that he not take away gifts already given, such as the rights to his autobiography, which various producers have talked about making into a movie.

“We were fine with it,” he said. “We’re not after his money. We just have a birthright. My last name is Yeager. I was raised as Chuck Yeager’s son. If they want to go do their thing and Dad never wants to think of us again, it’s a tragedy but it’s his prerogative. But I’ll be damned if I’ll give back what he’s already given us.”

Yeager and his new wife say in court filings that when he asserted himself, the children “embarked upon a program whereby they sought to take complete control of Gen. Yeager’s assets.” First, they say, Susan used her power as co-trustee to diminish his available cash, channeling money into less liquid investments and making the usual gift distributions without his knowledge.

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Then, after the ill will escalated to the point that he suggested she move, Chuck and Victoria say, Susan had the trust buy her out of her home in a way that netted her $624,000 and amounted to illegal self-dealing. “A trustee isn’t supposed to make a profit, it’s that simple,” said Yeager’s attorney, David A. Riegels. In her deposition, Susan denied any malfeasance, saying her actions throughout were above-board.

The children contend matters degenerated as Victoria began openly attacking their reputations, and Yeager moved to take back assets that he had already given to the family.

Copies of e-mails filed in the court record and depositions from Yeager’s associates indicate that, prior to the suit, Victoria was charging in both casual conversations and in business dealings that the children had stolen millions. Meanwhile, court records show, the couple had begun making inquiries about the rights, not to his autobiography, but to his life story, and whether it might be legally construed as a separate asset. Yeager said he also had told his children that he wanted Yeager Inc. to return a tractor he’d earned as a speaking fee from the John Deere Corp., some lithographs and $113,000 he had earned signing model airplanes for the Danbury Mint.

Shortly thereafter, he said, his children voted him from the board of his own family corporation and moved the $113,000 into a bank account he couldn’t access. Yeager then deeded to Victoria half of a condominium that Susan had taken in partial payment for her ranch house, clouding the title. An attempt at mediation fell apart.

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When Susan went to court last year to quiet the condominium title, Yeager and Victoria fired back with a cross-complaint charging that Susan had breached her fiduciary duty, escalating matters into the feud that will be heard today. Neither side believes much will be settled by the judge’s ruling.

“As one of Chuck’s friends has said, I could be the woman with the broom, but that’s what Chuck wants,” said Victoria Yeager.

“This isn’t about money -- this is about what happens when you get an evil person sticking hand grenades into your family,” Don Yeager acknowledged. “But when this is all over, we’ll be out a father. And they’ll walk out of the courtroom hand in hand.”


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