PROBAYE'S REPROBATES

SOME PLUNDERED ESTATES WIN COMPENSATION, BUT CRIMINAL CASE FACES DELAYS

Several victims of the Valley's fallen "King of Probate" may get some financial satisfaction in the next several weeks.

Bonding companies are expected to cut checks totaling about $800,000 to the heirs of 14 estates that were plundered by Mesa attorney Wayne Elmer Legg and his sidekick, Webber Mackey. The pair ran those estates and others into the ground while siphoning off enormous fees for themselves over a period of several years ("As Helpless As Children," September 8, 1993).

Settlement of most of the civil cases--there are another five to be resolved--is a positive step in the twisted saga of Legg and Mackey, says Alissa Gray, a Phoenix attorney hired by the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary in April 1993 to handle the matters.

"This has given us an opportunity to help some people who otherwise wouldn't have inherited anything," Gray says. "It took so many people to unravel what those two men did. It was like a horrible web--the abuses of trust, the outright rip-offs."

Legg, 64, was among the Valley's most prominent attorneys for three decades. Dubbed the "King of Probate," he was a partner in a high-powered Mesa law firm, a county chairman of the Republican party and he was--in the 1980s--mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate.

But earlier this year, a state grand jury indicted Legg and private fiduciary Mackey on numerous felony charges, including theft, fraud and--in Legg's case--forgery. The two have pleaded innocent, and have remained out of jail since the Attorney General's Office brought the charges.

The oft-delayed case won't be set for trial until early next year for various reasons, prosecutors say. That continues to frustrate the victims' heirs and loved ones, who are scattered around Arizona and the nation.

"It feels like this has been going on for decades," says Cinthia Gannett, whose grandparents' estate shrank from about $120,000 to $42,000 in less than three years under the control of Legg and Mackey.

"We have all been waiting anxiously for word about what's going on out there with Legg and Mackey."

Gannett, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire, was one of the first people to air concerns about the two men to the Probate Court. But for years, no one paid attention to her complaints.

Wayne Legg was the trusted, churchgoing attorney who convinced scores of senior citizens and their families that their money would be safe with him. Many of his victims had become wards of the state in their last years, compelled to turn financial affairs over to guardian-conservators, sometimes to court-appointed private fiduciaries.

That's where Legg's longtime crony, Webber Mackey, 79, fit in. Mackey owned a gas station before he became a private fiduciary--his best qualification to manage millions of dollars in estate assets as a guardian-conservator was that he knew Wayne Legg.

Guardian-conservators usually work in concert with probate attorneys, supposedly to monitor and preserve an elderly person's assets and well-being. But instead of protecting them, Mackey did Legg's bidding and bilked those in his care.

The downfall of the Legg/Mackey empire has been widely felt in the probate law community.

Robert Myers, the presiding probate judge, says the Maricopa County judiciary has become far more vigilant in examining probate-related fees sought by attorneys and fiduciaries. During the years that Legg and Mackey held sway, automatic approval of fees was the rule, not the exception.

Another change has been the onset of licensing requirements for Arizona's private fiduciaries. Before July 1, the state's only requirement for becoming a private fiduciary, according to a Probate Court investigator, was "the ability to breathe."

The new law mandates that anyone--current and prospective--who wishes to become a private fiduciary must pass a series of background checks and tests. There now are about 100 private fiduciaries in Arizona.

Myers cautions, however, that it may take until next July for the licensing mechanism to function. "There will be a disciplinary process involved here," the judge says, "and the Supreme Court frankly needs to get more money to be able to implement it."

Of the 14 settled estates, the biggest beneficiary by far will be the Boone, Iowa, chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. The late Merlin and Delores Reichwein of Mesa left the fraternal organization almost their entire estate, which was once estimated at $700,000.

Evidence indicates that Legg and Mackey nearly bled the estate dry over a period of about four years. But a bonding company has agreed to pay Eastern Star about $400,000, plus the proceeds from the Reichweins' Mesa home, which sold for about $75,000.

A spokesperson for Eastern Star says he's unsure what his organization plans to do with the windfall.

(Actually, the check to Eastern Star won't be for $475,000. First, Alissa Gray's law firm--Jones, Skelton and Hochuli--is expected to collect about 27 percent of the final total for legal fees and costs. That's less, by the way, than the 33 percent many plaintiffs' firms routinely demand for fees alone in similar cases.)

The glacial pace with which prosecutors are pursuing the criminal cases against Legg and Mackey rankles more than just the victims' heirs and families.

"Maybe something will be done someday," says Judge Myers. "It's been a long time. There's an old truism about delays and stalls helping a defendant to escape a conviction. I hope that's not happening over there."

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