Cover Story

Page 3 of 9

Part Two
In a motion filed three months ago, Phelps accused MacNamara of lying in open court and conspiring with Jackson to commit "legal malpractice, civil fraud, possible criminal wrongdoing, conversion of assets, and other acts" in their handling of the Count's estate. He also charges that MacNamara carried on illicit private conversations with Dade Circuit Court Judge Moie Tendrich, attempting to poison the judge's impartiality in the complicated case. "I was set up by AmeriFirst Florida Trust Company and a lawyer hired by them," Phelps alleges. "They have cheated me out of more than three-quarters of a million dollars."

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."

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Sean Rowe