Cover Story

Page 8 of 9

In March of 1989, Phelps signed an agreement with the Count's nephew, Christer Lilliestierna, the other principal beneficiary, that recognized the estate was short of cash and pledged to sell whatever properties needed to be liquidated to pay all the beneficiaries. In July 1988, Phelps had mortgaged the Carol City kennel property he was due to receive as part of his own bequest. And with the help of a real estate broker in Maine, Phelps appraised and sold two parcels of land and transferred the proceeds to the estate bank account. He continued paying estate debts and some bequests, including $50,000 as a first installment to the Count's sister in Tennessee, who was due to inherit $100,000.

Although the sale of land in Maine had apparently never been mentioned to Judge Tendrich in court or in any court document, Tendrich certainly knew about it on March 2, 1989. And his attitude toward Phelps appeared something less than friendly, convincing Phelps that MacNamara had been talking in private with the man Phelps says the lawyer once described as his "good buddy":

The Court: Where is the money?
Mr. Phelps: We have been paying debts.
The Court: Where is the money?
Mr. Phelps: We -

The Court: What I am doing is on my own motion now. Are you serving [as the estate's representative] with a bond?

Mr. Phelps: No.
The Court: I am on my own motion. I am going to require you to file a bond in the sum of $500,000. If not I will remove you and appoint an administrator ad litem. An estate this size cannot be administered in this court without a restricted account, a bond, and I don't care what the will says. Were you related to the deceased?

Phelps: No, sir.
The Court: Are you a lawyer?
Phelps: No, sir
The Court: I'll tell you now, that's what this Court is doing.
Phelps: Yes, sir.
The Court: How much was the property sold for in Maine?
Phelps: There are two parcels which totaled $234,000.

At the request of MacNamara - and despite the fact that the Count's will explicitly stated that no bond would be required of the estate's personal representative - Judge Tendrich considered putting Phelps in jail until he could post a $500,000 bond, then enjoined him from leaving the jurisdiction and gave him 30 hours to come up with a gigantic stack of cash. Unable to raise the bond, Phelps was forced to resign as personal representative to the Count's estate and as co-trustee of the Count Tassilo Szechenyi Trust.

After Phelps claimed in open court, on March 13, 1991, that MacNamara had described himself as a personal friend of Judge Tendrich, the judge "went through the roof," according to one witness, and recused himself from the estate proceedings. Before doing so, he appointed Miami lawyer Richard Milstein administrator ad litem to the Count's estate. Less than a year later, on February 28, 1990, Milstein resigned, saying AmeriFirst and MacNamara had made it impossible for him to do his job. "AmeriFirst has failed and refused to fund the costs necessary to administer the estate in any proper fashion, in spite of its request that an administrator ad litem be appointed by this court," Milstein wrote in April 1990, in response to criticism by MacNamara of an estate accounting he had prepared. "The undersigned believes that the court should surcharge AmeriFirst Florida Trust Company and its attorney, Peter M. MacNamara, for the continued harassment and obstruction in administration of this estate...." Milstein, though awarded approximately $51,000 in fees by the court to be paid from the estate, has not yet collected any money.

Accountant Paul Salver, who is also trying to collect money from the Count's estate, echoes Milstein, criticizing MacNamara for challenging the disbursement of accounting and brokerage fees that do not represent any threat to the Count Tassilo Szechenyi Trust: "Litigation of relatively minor issues in the probate of this estate is being pursued at the expense of the creditors and beneficiaries of this estate by parties that are uninterested in the resolution of such issues," Salver wrote to the court in August. "Further, due to the severe animosity and hostility between the `MacNamara group' and the `Phelps group,' significant legal, judicial, and financial resources are being expended to pursue matters which are not intended to resolve the probate of this estate."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sean Rowe