By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Pleading with the latest judge, Edmund Newbold, to strike Phelps's bar complaint from the court record of the Count's estate proceedings, MacNamara this past September 27 called Phelps's allegations not only "personal and confidential" but "slanderous and libelous..., prejudicial in nature and void of any merit." In an October 5, 1990, letter to the Florida Bar, MacNamara went much further, denying he had ever actually represented Phelps, and accusing his accuser of looting the Count's estate. "Mr. Phelps made unauthorized distributions to himself of $486,483.43 in cash and additional `in kind' distributions of other assets in the amount of $173,729," MacNamara claimed. "As a result of the unauthorized distributions, the estate is insolvent."
MacNamara hinted that Phelps tricked the Count into naming him personal representative, then used his newfound powers to embezzle substantially all of Szechenyi's assets. "Mr. Phelps held a confidential relationship with the decedent prior to his death, and exerted a strong force and control over the decedent in his declining years and capacity," MacNamara wrote. "The fault in this case lies with the broad powers given the personal representative in the decedent's last will and in the misuse of those powers by Mr. Phelps." MacNamara described himself and his confederates as dutiful functionaries, members of a legal salvage team struggling to learn what happened to the Count's wealth, and perhaps recover some of it.
Shot through with animus, swollen by bombast and bile to near-epic proportions, the squabble over what may or may not be left of Count Szechenyi's fortune now transcends simple greed, and grinds on because of something vaguely resembling honor.
This month a regional grievance committee of the Florida Bar will meet to hear testimony inspired by Phelps's accusations, and determine whether the state Supreme Court will be asked to appoint a judge to review them. Jackson, now president of the Bank of New York Trust Company of Florida, has not been asked to testify at the bar hearing. But an increasingly impatient Judge Newbold has ordered the banker to submit to depositions by Phelps's attorney as part of the continuing probate process.
For Phelps the past three years amount to an opera of corruption over which the ghost of Count Szechenyi seems oftentimes to hover, giggling. "The Count was cremated, so I can't say he's rolling over in his grave," Phelps says. "He's not rolling over in his grave, and his ashes aren't fluttering up and down over the Everglades. But he's here. He loves this sort of thing. He loves a fight. I never did lose a fight with his bankers, and I'm not going to lose the biggest fight of all."
The asphalt T formed by Northwest 34th Avenue and 191st Street is one of the more barren addresses of suburban Dade County. Near the crossroads, stony lots are interspersed with cheerless bungalows. Passersby are rare; the wind sweeps through the scraggly branches of a few stunted trees.
It was on this site in November 1984 that Count Tassilo Szechenyi and Mike Phelps began one of their loonier ventures. Over the objections of Carol City residents, the pair persuaded the Metro Zoning Appeals Board to let them transform an existing dog kennel into an elaborate, air-conditioned pet spa. The resort would feature carpeted suites with brass beds, fancy food, and a $39-per-night fee.
Phelps, a former dog trainer, became president of American Pet Resorts, a corporation he dreamed would one day sprinkle the United States with upscale doggie motels. The Count, a lifelong animal lover, became Phelps's financial backer, even donating his 1962 Rolls Royce for use as a pet limousine. Based almost totally on snob appeal, the scheme proved unprofitable. Even the Count's royal connections couldn't generate enough business. "He ended up investing maybe a quarter-million or so," Phelps recalls. "We ended up losing most of it."
No matter. The project was the temporary passion of both men, just one of many interests they cultivated together. Its pursuit solidified their unlikely friendship, and its monetary failure did nothing to mar their affection for one another. "Over 23 years, it became a father-son relationship," Phelps says of his association with the Count. "This was a guy who spoke seven languages. He was very intellectually inclined, very cultured. His knowledge covered a vast array of subjects. I remember walking in the woods for the first time with him in Maine. `Do you know what kind of tree that is?' he asked. Of course I didn't, and he probably knew I didn't. He was a teacher. He was the type of guy who had suffered much, and he wanted to save you from suffering what he had already been through."
Phelps had been through plenty himself. After growing up in a poor and broken home in Indianapolis, he did a hitch in Vietnam with the air force, worked as a cop for three years, got married and divorced, spent ten years in New York as an executive recruiter, and eventually moved to Miami in search of a warmer climate.
He had met the Count a few years before in New York, and bumped into him again outside the main post office in Miami in 1968. Within months Szechenyi hired Phelps as his executive assistant, a sort of white-collar handyman who filled prescriptions, answered mail, and negotiated business deals on the Count's behalf.