By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The Kings of Probate
Dorothy Richards hadn't spoken to her Aunt Delores for years when she decided to look her relative up in early 1988. A few inquiries led the Newport Beach, California, resident to Delores Reichwein's home in Mesa. But Richards' visit to Arizona was short and sad.
Her aunt's husband, Merlin, was slowly dying in a Mesa hospital. And Delores Reichwein herself, once so vibrant, was now bedridden and barely aware of her niece's presence. A stroke had left her unable to swallow properly, much less to carry on a conversation. Doctors had been forced to amputate one of Delores' legs. From then on, Richards contacted Delores Reichwein only through cards and an occasional letter. She learned that Merlin Reichwein had died in November 1988, but never heard back from her aunt.
Over the years, however, Richards received Maricopa County Probate Court reports about her aunt's once-healthy estate. Though they lived modestly, the Reichweins had accumulated more than $650,000 in assets during their long lives, much of it through an inheritance. Their holdings weren't overly complicated--stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit and some property.
The Reichweins' wills were also simple, naming each other as sole beneficiary. After both were deceased, everything was to go to a Masonic lodge in their native Iowa.
But almost all of the money had disappeared by the time Delores Reichwein died last June. In 1987, the estate had been assessed at $654,326. By the end of 1990, it had shrunk to $281,618. A few months ago, all that remained were a few thousand dollars and a house on Mesa's East Contessa Street, assessed at $74,000.
Delores Reichwein would have been put on welfare if she hadn't died. Public records reveal the reason: Her estate had been squandered by the men legally responsible for protecting her, Mesa attorney Wayne Legg and her guardian-conservator, Webber Mackey.
Legg and Mackey had access to Delores Reichwein's money because in the late 1980s, the Reichweins had joined the 500,000 elderly Americans who are "wards" of a court. Because of advanced age or other incapacity, wards are compelled to turn their financial affairs over to a guardian-conservator, usually a family member or a court-appointed private fiduciary. Wards are among society's most vulnerable citizens.
What is especially distasteful about this case is the prominence of Legg in Arizona's legal circles. For three decades, Legg was a partner in the venerable Mesa firm founded by U.S. Congressman John J. Rhodes and C. Max Killian, father of current Arizona legislator Mark Killian. Legg was chief counsel for Arizona State University, a former president of the university's alumni association and a former Republican party county chairman. In the 1980s, some mentioned him as a possible candidate for governor.
Nonetheless, he and Webber Mackey ran the once-healthy Reichwein estate into the ground, while collecting almost $200,000 in fees for themselves. Legg and Mackey proved to be as cunning and as predatory as the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. The movie dinosaurs sought fresh meat; so did their real-life counterparts.
Delores Reichwein was not their only victim. For years, the two men--senior citizens themselves--gained the trust of more than two dozen East Valley elderly and then took their money.
Legg and Mackey ran amok for years, long after the Probate Court judiciary should have detected the estate-gouging and irregular financial arrangements.
A New Times investigation has uncovered a pattern of fiscal abuses costing the aged and their heirs untold dollars and grief. The newspaper relied on public records and on interviews with 47 people in 13 states to complete its investigation.
Among the findings:
ù Legg and Mackey double-billed and questionably charged the estates of at least two dozen elderly Valley residents, shrinking those estates in many instances to practically nothing.
ù With rare exception, Maricopa County's Probate Court judges and commissioners--most often Michael Jones, Stephen Ventre and Elizabeth Yancey--rubber-stamped the fees submitted by Legg and Mackey. New Times examined 94 probate files, including dozens not involving Wayne Legg and Webber Mackey. Approval of fees is the rule, not the exception.
ù Using Delores and Merlin Reichwein's money, Mackey bought a home in the couple's name in Mesa. Legg and Mackey used the property to start a for-profit group home for the elderly, and moved in several ward-clients. The money for the group home's employees, utilities and other bills--even the attorney's fees to incorporate it--came from the Reichwein estate.
ù Mackey bought a new Dodge van with money from the estates of two aged ward-clients, Rosalie Steele and Chester Brewer. The two appparently didn't even know each other. Mackey then charged thousands of dollars in "service fees" to the estates of numerous other wards. These "fees" came on top of Mackey's rate of $40 per hour plus mileage.
ù Wayne Legg and his family took the Dodge van on vacation trips without permission from or compensation to its aged owners. Under Arizona law, that could be felony theft.
ù Elderly ward-clients signed new wills that meant more money for Legg and Mackey. Legg drew up such a will for Mona Van Volkenburgh shortly before she died in March 1990, even though a doctor wrote that Van Volkenburgh was "unable to make any decision and unable to take care of her financial affairs." The amended will named Mackey as the estate's sole beneficiary and executor.