By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
At the time, Szechenyi was married to his third wife, the Austrian-born Countess Helene Balej. From the beginning, according to Phelps, the royal joinder was a marriage of convenience. The pair had almost nothing in common. "The count was an animal lover; she hated animals of any kind," Phelps recalls. "She would give hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity, but only if she got public acclaim and recognition; the Count would do it privately, anonymously. Frankly, she was despised by most people who knew her. She more or less tried to control the Count. And she definitely controlled all the money."
Count Szechenyi spent more and more time in the company of his newfound friend and liegeman. Their friendship deepened, in part because of the many carefully constructed hangovers they endured together. At some point the Count let Phelps know he could expect to inherit the kennel property in Carol City.
Today the compound at 3400 NW 191st Street is owned and operated by a nonprofit animal-preservation group called Pet Rescue. Approximately 100 cats and dogs reside there, yet the street outside the compound is absent of barks and meows. The double-layer soundproofing installed by Phelps on the property is now the only indication that he once, briefly, owned the place.
The dog motel in Carol City is not the only bequest Tassilo Szechenyi made to his surrogate son. The Count also left Phelps his condo at the Surf Club, worth $126,000; a three-bedroom, two-bath house at 784 NE 80th St., worth $67,000; a $245,000 summer hideaway in Dresden, Maine; and 195 acres of land, also in Maine, valued at $200,000. All the property bequeathed to Phelps was owned free and clear by the Count at the time of his death, except for the Miami home, which carried a $46,000 mortgage.
The Count left his personal effects, two additional parcels of land in Maine, and $250,000 cash to a nephew in Sweden. He left another $100,000 to his sister in Tennessee, $50,000 to Adrian de Menasce in London, and $25,000 to Arpad Beleznay, a retired Hungarian sea captain living in Miami. Szechenyi expressly denied his two daughters any share in his estate because he believed they were married to Communists.
Besides making Phelps the principal beneficiary of his will, the Count appointed him his personal representative, a title that gave Phelps the power and responsibility to execute the will, deal with funeral arrangements, pay the estate's debts, and make sure beneficiaries received their bequests.
One thing became apparent to Phelps soon after the Count's death: the estate in itself was not wealthy enough to pay every sum promised by the will. Cash was a particular problem; Szechenyi's personal checking account was nearly empty. But the will had foreseen this obstacle.
At the time of her drowning in 1979, the Countess Helene Balej Szechenyi left one-third of her ten-million-dollar fortune to a sister in South Africa, and another third to the Miami Heart Institute. The remainder went to establish the Count Tassilo Szechenyi Trust, an investment fund administered jointly by Phelps and AmeriFirst Florida Trust Company, which was used to generate income for the Count's not inconsiderable living expenses. Occasionally over the years the Count had dipped into the fund's principal to pay off debts. By the spring of 1988 it was valued at approximately $874,000.
The first thing Mike Phelps did in his new capacity as personal representative to the Count's estate was to hunt for a good probate lawyer. On his deathbed, Szechenyi had asked Phelps to use the services of his godson, a young Miami attorney named Miguel Rodez. But Rodez, a commercial litigator, had scant experience with probate affairs. Phelps says he decided to ask AmeriFirst president Richard Jackson to recommend a probate lawyer. The choice of advisor made sense; for three years Phelps and Jackson had worked together, amicably enough, administering the Count Tassilo Szechenyi Trust in their respective capacities as individual and corporate co-trustees.
According to Phelps, Jackson first promised to recommend two or three good probate lawyers, then wound up suggesting only one: Peter M. MacNamara. Phelps claims Jackson told him on the telephone on June 18, 1988, that MacNamara "knows the judge [Moie Tendrich] very well, so all will go well for you." On June 22, 1988, MacNamara signed a letter in which he agreed to represent Phelps in probate proceedings, as co-counsel with Rodez, for a fee of $150 per hour plus expenses. Phelps sent him a nonrefundable advance check for $2500. According to Phelps and Rodez, MacNamara described himself in a meeting as "a good buddy" of Judge Tendrich.
Two weeks before retaining MacNamara, Phelps had written to AmeriFirst vice president Karen Shupenko, asking her to transfer all funds from the Count Tassilo Szechenyi Trust to the estate checking account he had opened at AmeriFirst. It was this money transfer that would begin to solve the estate's cash-flow problem. Besides paying the other beneficiaries their cash bequests, Phelps needed funds to pay property taxes and funeral expenses. "In addition," he wrote to Shupenko, "there is a signature loan at Bank Atlantic and a first mortgage on the 784 NE 80th Street residence." In all, Phelps calculated the Count owed about $123,000 at the time of his death.