CANDY & ABEL
Fiction © 2017 by Barry Zalma
The corpse lay flat on the ground, arms spread to the side, legs crossed at the ankles with his face in a fish pond. Bright colored carp nibbled around his nose. The body was surrounded by yellow police tape as I approached.
Standing, just behind the yellow tape, snapping photographs with an old 35 mm metal bodied Nikon was an enormous bear of a man. He stood 6′ 4″ tall, weighed at least 350 lbs., yet moved about the crime scene with the grace of Nureyev. The huge man photographed everything around and about the body. He photographed every foot of space above the pond. He changed nothing.
As he kneeled in front of an aluminum camera case and changed lenses, I realized that this was the man I had come to meet, Marion Orpheus Montague, private investigator. I was a young lawyer, only three years out of law school and working with the prestigious Beverly Hills law firm, Guernsey, Lamb, Kropotian and Cohen, a 1200-lawyer international law firm whose named partners had been dead for twenty years.
It was a Saturday evening and the managing partner had called me at home instructing me to meet Mr. Montague at the scene of the death. I was to help him in protecting the interests of certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London who had insured the life of the corpse only two months before. The policy agreed to pay the beneficiaries $10 million and, if an accidental death, they would be required to pay $20 million. The senior partner’s description of Mr. Montague left me no doubt I had the right man.
I approached him as he screwed a close-up lens into his camera and began taking detailed photographs inches from the thing he focused upon. Every inch of the corpse and the area surrounding the corpse were covered in detail.
I approached him closely when he put another 36-picture roll into the Nikon and said: “Mr. Montague, I’m Louis Gold, an attorney that Underwriters have asked to accompany you on your investigation.”
“Okay, son,” Montague replied, his voice rising in a deep bass from the diaphragm hiding behind his corpulent belly. “But stay out of my way until I’ve completed photographing the scene and be sure to touch nothing.”
He went about his task efficiently and with great detail exposing seventy-two frames of 35mm color film as I stood by watching him change from a close-up lens to a panoramic lens and then a fish-eye so that nothing at the scene of the incident would be missed. When he was finished taking pictures, he meticulously replaced the camera lenses in the case, closed the case and extended his hand to me.
“Marion Orpheus Montague, at your service, sir.”
“Please call me Lou,” I replied while my hand disappeared completely in his enormous paw. “Although I’m required to wear wing tipped shoes and a pin striped suit, I was an enlisted man. I find I am uncomfortable with the title, ‘sir.'”
“Then, we’re off to a good start,” Montague replied. “My friends simply call me MOM, for my initials since they’re often uncomfortable with my given name.”
Thus, began a lifetime friendship between a lawyer and an investigator. Of course, as a young lawyer full of confidence who had not yet learned how little he truly knew, it seemed to me that the Underwriters had erred in sending this lummox. I was amazed they could trust this man with a woman’s first name and a head of thinning ginger colored hair and a full beard that was so thin the red of his cheeks glowed through. He was dressed in blue jeans, a long sleeved flannel shirt and a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap. He looked more like a New Orleans chef on vacation than a private investigator.
What convinced me that he was my equal, and probably more knowledgeable, were his piercing green eyes that seemed to never blink as he analyzed me from head to toe without hesitation.
What he saw was a 28-year-old male in fairly good physical condition who stood 6’ 2″ tall and weighed a solid 200 lbs. My body was only beginning to show the softness in the belly that a new wife, who aimed to please with exceptionally good cooking, would invariably cause. I wore black wing tips, a blue pin striped three-piece suit purchased for more than I could afford at Nordstroms, a stark white, starched dress shirt topped by a red silk power tie. I had a full head of tightly curled black hair and hid watery hazel eyes behind a thick pair of bifocals. It seemed, although I would never admit it, that I was playing the part of a young lawyer on the move upward. My demeanor at the sight of a most unusual death gave away my total lack of experience to a professional investigator.
“Well, young man,” MOM asked. “Did Underwriters explain to you why they wanted you here?”
Trying to appear professional I began to recite, in the tone my law school moot court professor told me was appropriate to impress a jury, what I knew:
“The deceased was Abel Worthington. This is his house. He was the president and CEO of Abel Injection Plastics, a manufacturing firm that specialized in injection molded resin furniture. His company started five years ago with $10,000 in assets and after selling his line of cheap garden furniture to Wal Mart, Target and the K-Mart stores, Worthington Furniture’s gross is now $420 million a year and growing.
A policy of Key-Man Life Insurance was purchased from the Underwriters, through Makepiece & Makepiece Insurance Brokers in Los Angeles, in the sum of $10,000,000. The premium was financed. Only the first installment on the premium had been paid to the lender who will probably demand a return of the unearned premium. Underwriters had been told that Worthington was in exceptional good health, 34 years of age, a nonsmoker, who traveled on business around the world almost 100 days a year.
The Underwriters were concerned because the death happened so soon after the policy was purchased. Underwriters hoped that a thorough investigation would determine that there was nothing suspicious about the death and that they were the entire truth at the time the policy was acquired.
The sole beneficiary of the policy is his sister, Candy.”
I was impressed with myself and proud of my professional recitation of the facts as I knew them. Then I made the error of looking over to the corpse just as the Coroner’s investigators removed Abel Worthington’s face from the water. As they did so, a large white and yellow Koi was pulled out of the water with its teeth clamped tightly on Worthington’s right eye. The fish, with the eye held in its teeth, fell back into the pond, never to be seen again. Whatever dignity I possessed was lost with that scene. I ran to a nearby planter surrounding a large jacaranda tree that I immediately fertilized with what remained of my lunch and dinner.
Restraining his laughter, MOM was kind enough to pull from his case a large wad of tissue and a bottle of spring water that I gratefully accepted to clean out my mouth.
After five minutes of wiping and sipping I regained my composure, loosened my power tie and sat on the planter facing MOM.
“I would truly appreciate it if you forget my breach of decorum.”
“Worry not. If you’re feeling better, I think it’s time we went to work.” MOM gave me his hand and led me back into the house where the beneficiary, Candy Worthington, Abel’s sister, awaited our sympathetic ministrations.
We introduced ourselves to the grieving sister who suggested we join her in a large snifter of Napoleon brandy. Her tears, if there had been any, had been cleared away, her makeup redone, and her hair combed. She stood a rather trim 30-year-old woman with auburn hair tied back in a severe bun. She wore a navy-blue business suit with a skirt hanging a demure one inch below the knee clearly custom tailored for her. The suit was set off with a bright yellow silk blouse and a gold herring bone chain circling her long neck.
The formality and severity of her dress failed to hide the fact that this was a beautiful woman. If she was suffering from grief, it was well hidden. Although she had a brandy snifter in her hand, she was not under the influence. Rather, she continually warmed the brandy with a circular motion of her left hand outlining the glass with five long, burgundy red, manicured nails.
With a soft contralto voice, she asked us to sit across from her on a seven-foot, cream-colored leather sofa:
“The police have asked me interminable, obnoxious and offensive questions. I can’t understand their methods. I would hope that you, as representatives of Lloyd’s of London, will be gentlemen.”
“We will do our best,” I replied in my most sincere lawyer’s voice. “Please, accept our condolences on your loss.”
“We hardly spoke. I saw very little of my brother. But thank you for your kind words. Now, what is it you want of me?”
“At this time, there is very little.” MOM responded. “I would like to see the business cards of the police officers and coroner’s investigators you spoke with so that I can contact them. She handed the cards to me and I handed them to MOM who dutifully wrote down all the information and returned the cards politely to Ms. Worthington.
“I do have a few questions whose answers will help us in our investigation, if you are willing. If you’re not able, we will understand and return tomorrow.”
“Ask your questions, I’m sure I’m in as good condition as can be expected now and will probably be worse tomorrow when the relatives start to get together. Ask your questions.”
“Who bought the life insurance policy?”
“I was the first person to speak with our broker about insuring Abel’s life.”
“About two months ago, when that commuter plane crashed in the mountains between New York and Pittsburgh.”
“Did your brother frequent commuter airlines?”
“Yes, he keeps a ranch in Santa Ynez. He flew from Santa Barbara to LAX every Monday morning and from LAX to Santa Barbara every Friday.”
“You said you didn’t know your brother well, why insure his life?”
“I own 49% of the shares of the company. When our parents died four years ago, I inherited the shares. I know nothing about the business. The business will probably die without him. It is my sole source of support. I don’t understand business. I don’t work in the business. In fact, I hate it. I felt I needed a cushion to protect my interest if he should be silly and ride on a plane that flies into a mountain.”
“Were you the first to discover the body?”
“No, William, Abel’s valet discovered him lying in the pond at 9:00 this evening.”
“Where were you?”
“Sleeping, in my own bed in my house in Malibu. I was exhausted and retired early, at 8:00”
“What is your address?”
“133246 Big Rock Mesa Road.”
“How did you learn of the tragedy?”
“Albert telephoned me and I arrived here about noon.”
“Did you call anyone else?”
“Yes, as soon as I was dressed, I telephoned our attorney. He called the police and our broker to advise Lloyd’s.”
“How long did it take you to get here?”
“I must have been speeding. I took PCH to Sunset and Sunset into Beverly Hills and was at the house in less than 45 minutes, so I arrived approximately 15 minutes to eleven. When I arrived, the police were here spreading their tape around the pond.”
“Did the police say anything to you?”
“Yes, they said my brother was dead.”
“Only, just like you, they asked me where I was at the time the body was discovered and how I learned of my brother’s death.”
“And you told them exactly what you told us?”
“And did they say anything else?”
“Only that it appeared to be an accidental death, although they found a bruise on the back of my brother’s neck which seemed inconsistent with the manner in which he fell.”
“Did they explain it any further?”
“I’m sure Mr. Gold and I will have more questions for you,” MOM said to her in a most grandfatherly tone, “but they can wait until after the funeral. We will be in touch with you and hopefully we have convinced you that some investigators and lawyers are gentlemen.”
“You’ve been very kind. Thank you, gentlemen. Excuse me, but it’s almost midnight and I think I am going to retire to the guest room to see if I can get a little sleep.”
“Thank you for your cooperation.” I said, “We hope you can rest. If Mr. Montague or I can be of any assistance in this sad time of difficulty, you have our cards, please call.”
“Thank you again, gentlemen.”
“We can find our way out. It is time we left the lady alone.” MOM said, levering his bulk out of the wing chair in which he sat, and then leading me to the door.
After leaving the house, MOM and I met at the Bagel Nosh in downtown Beverly Hills. Over strong coffee and thick, chewy onion bagels piled high with cream cheese and lox, MOM and I discussed the future of our investigation. Sleep, at 1:00 a.m., after viewing the corpse and the Koi was out of the question.
“Did the coroner’s investigator give you any indication of the cause of death?” I asked.
“There was nothing he could say that I couldn’t see for myself,” MOM replied, while taking a large bite out of his bagel. I could do nothing but wait for him to finish his chewing before he continued. “There were no unusual marks, bullet holes, stab wounds, or other indications of an unnatural death, except for a small mark at the base of the skull.”
“What about those marks?”
“Blood, without a heart to pump it, tends to settle. I’m not a pathologist, but those marks don’t appear to be bruises to me.”
“So, are you saying his death a few weeks after the policy is purchased is serendipity for the sister. The time sequence raises many red flags.”
“The sister’s attitude, almost as if she is pleased her brother is dead, raises others.”
“You can’t think she killed him for the insurance money?” I responded with surprise.
“Ten to twenty million dollars can be a severe temptation for even the most honorable of people. I’ve seen cases of dearly loved husbands, wives and mothers who would kill for the insurance money. But I have an open mind and try to think the best of people until the evidence proves me wrong.”
“Well,” the lawyer in me retorted, “Gut feelings and experience are useful in every investigation. No matter how experienced or massive the gut, however, it’s not evidence we can use in a court of law.”
“Of course, that’s why you and I are sitting here, munching our bagels to work out a plan to find the evidence, if it exists. I’ve worked with the Underwriters at Lloyd’s for more than twenty years and I know they want to pay every legitimate claim promptly and fairly. They do take umbrage, however, at being cheated.
Since the money paid in claims comes from the pockets of the individual human beings who are the Underwriters, they are often more offended by an insurance criminal than the corporate minds that run American insurance companies. So, tell me where you think I should go from here with my investigation.”
I knew, when the question was posed, that MOM had a plan of action plotted out in his mind. I watched intently as he laid two more slices of lox on top of quarter inch of cream cheese he had just spread on his onion bagel. As he took a healthy bite, I responded:
“It seems we need to know more about the deceased and his sister, the beneficiary. I would like to see their entire civil and criminal litigation history in the Superior, Municipal, Federal and Bankruptcy courts; I want to read a copy of the company’s last report to shareholders and current financial statements. We need the personal financial condition of the beneficiary and the deceased. You should immediately pull all records in the state on real property owned, UCC-1 filings, partnership agreements and other corporations with which they might be involved. Then, a Dun and Bradstreet, Equifax and a TRW credit search should be run on the individuals and the company. The records you collect should give us a basic background on the individuals which we’ll need before you can interview the potential witnesses who can fill in the spaces that are left by the public records.” I took a breath, and, spreading some cream cheese and strawberry preserves on my water bagel tried to come up with more ideas so that MOM would not think of me as the beginner I really was.
“A basic start.” MOM replied, swallowing the last of his onion bagel and drinking a sip of his now cool coffee. “What witnesses do you think we should speak to since no one saw him die?”
“I’d start with the valet who discovered the body. I think. The person who finds a body, if murder is involved, should always be a suspect. You and I should then, as soon as possible, meet with the attorney who had the foresight to call his client’s broker immediately after learning of the death. It seems odd to me that he would call an insurance broker at the same time he called the police.
“In the typical tragic and unexpected death like this one the last person the relatives or the lawyer calls is the insurance broker. Since the policy does not require more than a report within a reasonable time they usually wait until after the funeral. I think the Underwriters would want to know why he was so concerned about her interests.”
“I agree.” MOM replied. “Reporting the claim to an insurer before the body is removed from the scene of death is the third red flag raised in this case. I will speak to him first. I think I should bring you along so that you can speak to him ‘lawyer to lawyer.’ Some lawyers think it’s below their standards to speak to a mere investigator. Together we should be more effective than me interviewing him alone. I’ll try to arrange a meeting as soon as he gets in the office. I should be back to you with a time and place by noon. Who else do you think we should interview?” MOM asked, yawning.
The waitress came by and poured a full cup of steaming hot coffee into MOM’s cup. As he gingerly brought it to his lips and took a small sip I responded: “The broker who sold this policy should be interviewed. We need to know why he placed this business at Lloyd’s. A healthy young man, like Abel, should have no difficulty buying life insurance from an American insurer.”
“That’s right, the California Surplus Lines law requires that the broker cannot even request insurance from Lloyd’s until three American insurers have refused to write the insurance.” MOM noted. “I can think of several major life insurance companies with offices here in Southern California who would have no qualms about issuing a $10 million key-man life insurance policy to chairman of the board of a major corporation. A CEO as young and apparently healthy as Abel should have been easy to market.”
“I think we need to get the records of Abel’s primary care physician and any other doctors he has seen in the last five years.” I replied. “I also would like you to interview the primary care physician to find out if he has any knowledge of any conditions that might have caused the untimely death. Once those interviews are completed, they should lead us to further investigation culminated by a lengthy and detailed statement from the bereaved sister.”
We finished our midnight snack and drove to our respective offices, agreeing to meet again on the telephone at noon to discuss further investigation. By the time I arrived at my office a complete copy of the policy wording was on my desk. Before reading it, I dictated a detailed report of the evening’s events. The dictation was completed at 5:00 a.m., well before the secretaries and partners had thought about coming to work. Since it was 1:00 p.m. London time, I busied myself with other work until 7:00 when I telephoned the claims handler for the leading underwriters, Kevin Warhorse, confident he had returned from lunch by 3:00 p.m. I had met Kevin two years before when he was visiting our offices just before he testified effectively in the trial of a major lawsuit against Underwriters.
Kevin was somewhat drowsy, having just returned from a lengthy luncheon with some Australian barristers seeking his business. I briefed him on the facts of the case, what MOM and I had seen at the home, our interview with the beneficiary, Candy, and our preliminary plan of action. Faced with a potential, legitimate, $10 to $20 million claim on a policy where even the first year’s premium had not yet found its way to London, Kevin immediately became sober, wide awake and efficient.
“Underwriters agree your plan of action. I will put up an e-mail to you shortly. Is there anything you require of Underwriters?”
“Yes, I need the entire placing file of the Underwriters and the London broker. I have the wording of the policy you sent earlier and I need to study it. I would also like to retain, on Underwriters’ behalf, an independent pathologist to review the remains contemporaneously with the Los Angeles County Coroner (if they allow it) or after the coroner has completed his job if they don’t.”
“Agreed. We shan’t be happy if the evidence goes up in smoke in some high-priced crematorium.” Kevin replied.
“Finally, if the policy authorizes it, I would like to require that the beneficiary submit to an examination under oath. Then I can ask detailed and searching questions of her concerning the purchase of the insurance, the representations made as well as the details of the brother’s death. All of these requests will be in my report which should be prepared and on your desk first thing tomorrow morning when you arrive.”
“You will have an immediate response agreeing to your recommendations.” Kevin replied. “By the way, I spoke with MOM before you called and he told me that for a lawyer of your youth, you impressed him with your analytical mind.”
“Please convey my thanks to MOM.” I replied, blushing. “I hope I can live up to his comments.”
“Do you believe Underwriters were lumbered?”
“Lumbered? I am unfamiliar with the term.”
“It is English for being burdened.”
“At this stage of the investigation, Kevin, I can’t answer your question. The most I can say is that fact of the death and the report of the death to Underwriters is unusual and requires additional investigation.”
“I will leave the conduct of that additional investigation to you and MOM. Keep me posted.”
“Have a good evening.” I hung up the telephone believing I had made a fool out of myself. I certainly proved that Britain and the US are, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “two great countries divided by a common language.” Vowing to learn enough English to be able to translate my American to words a British person can understand, I set to work.
After the funeral Candy Worthington made herself available to be interviewed by me at her lawyer’s office. I had arranged for a certified shorthand reporter to be present to give Ms. Worthington the oath and take down everything said. MOM would be present to help me.
I prepared for the interview most of the day before and wrote out questions and areas of questioning I needed to cover. I sought advice from MOM so often that I was certain he considered me to be an incompetent pest. I was nervous but prepared to do my best in obtaining the truth from Candy Worthington.
While waiting to schedule the statement MOM used his considerable investigative talents and learned that although the business Abel Injection Plastics (AIP) was healthy Candy Worthington was in serious debt. She was three months behind on her mortgage payments, her Bentley Turbo-R Convertible was about to be repossessed by the bank and she had no source of income other than her brother.
Our interview of the lawyer, Samuel B. Snakgrass, was non-informative. He only admitted he was corporate counsel to AIP, had been called by Ms. Worthington on the night of the death and asked to call the police and the insurance broker. He claimed to know nothing else. He had no idea why Ms. Worthington asked him to call the police and the insurance broker. He explained that he just did what he was asked to do by his client.
There was no question that Candy Worthington would be a difficult person to interview. She was represented by competent counsel who had earned more than $500,000 a year from AIP each of the last five years. He would protect her from all but the most innocent questions. I would need to be quick witted and give the impression that I was a novice who could cause neither Candy nor her lawyer any concern.
Although a novice in the practice of law I was not a novice. I had served three years as an investigator with the Office of Naval Intelligence after college – thus avoiding the Vietnam era draft – and worked my way through law school as an insurance adjuster for a property and casualty insurer. Although I had gone to a small, night law school, the Guernsey firm took a chance on my practical experience carrying more weight than attendance at a prestigious ABA accredited law school.
On entering the polished oak paneled walls of the corporate conference room, MOM and I sat in soft leather swivel chairs behind a marble-topped, 20-foot-long, conference table that could seat 20. I started with my best, innocent, amateur routine.
“Thank you for letting us use the corporate conference room, Mr. Snakgrass” I exhaled with a voice that barely escaped my throat. “You have a most impressive office. Is that a Rothenberg I see on the wall?”
“Yes,” Snakgrass replied, preening. “He is an artist of great potential. I believe we at AIP were one of the first to hang his works.”
“As much as I enjoy your taste in art and would prefer to spend time viewing the rest of the collection, I must work.”
“When you are done today, I will be pleased to show you through the office and our collection of other modern and pop artists. I personally have two Warhol’s in my office.”
“I hope to complete this interview quickly and with as little strain on your client in this time of her sorrow so I can take the time for the tour.”
“You are welcome, Louis” Snakgrass replied with disdain, attempting to gain control by addressing me by my first name to show his contempt and superiority over a young lawyer fresh out of law school who could be easily impressed with a few paintings.
“You remember Mr. Montegue, the investigator retained by the Underwriters to help me.”
“Hello, Sam, good to see you again.” MOM said, stretching his hand out to swallow Snakgrass’ like a Python swallowing a mouse and returning the ploy of addressing the lawyer by his first name.
“Has Ms. Worthington arrived yet?” I asked, ignoring the control tactics MOM used more effectively than Snakgrass’ attempt on me.
“She should be here shortly. Just before you arrived, she called from her car to say she was delayed in traffic.”
Perhaps, while we wait for her to arrive, you could show me some of the documents I had requested.”
“Certainly.” Snakgrass then placed in front of me five inches of paper and said, calmly, “I believe these documents meet your requirements.”
As I began to look at the documents, Candy Worthington entered the room, dressed in a fashionably tailored dark gray suit with a skirt which reached one inch above the knee. Its drab color was set off by a lavender silk blouse four buttons open at the neck that was set off by a four carat, blood red, ruby dangling on a thin, 16 inch chain that set the ruby directly at the place where her handsome cleavage began. She was dressed to appear conservative, businesslike, and to distract and confuse a young and impressionable lawyer.
I introduced myself and began the interview immediately. After she took the oath I explained the importance of the oath and the penalties available for the failure to tell the truth. I advised her of the rules of testimony with a court reporter and how important it was to speak audibly since the reporter could not take down nods of the head or responses like “uh huh” and “Uh uh” since, in print, they are unintelligible from one another. She promised to try to abide by the rules.
For the first half hour I asked innocuous and unimportant questions concerning her life history, education, training, experience and background. I complemented her dress and worked to establish rapport with her. By this line of questioning I put her at ease and established in her mind that I was neither effective nor dangerous to her. The comfort level rose as I stumbled over the easiest questions. Ms. Worthington and her lawyer laughed at my self-deprecating comments on my own inability to phrase a question and, as I intended, they both relaxed their guard.
The interview then, without changing my tone of voice or posture, changed direction to that which was important to me and the Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London. I had the results of an extensive and detailed investigation. I knew more about AIP and Ms. Worthington than she and her lawyer knew. By not changing my tone or demeanor I convinced Ms. Worthington and her lawyer that nothing had changed and the next questions were as innocuous as those that had gone before. Neither noticed the change as I asked:
“Have you read the insurance policy?”
“You must be joking?”
“No, I really need to know.”
“I tried to, yesterday, so I could speak to you intelligently about it, but I didn’t understand a word in the document. I had a very good liberal arts education but the policy seemed to be nothing more than gibberish.”
“You did understand that part of the policy that said, if the Underwriters asked you, they could require you to submit to questioning by a representative of the Underwriters, like me, didn’t you?”
“Not really. Mr. Snakgrass informed me that you had the right to question me before the insurance company could be asked to pay $20,000,000.00.”
“Thank you for your candid response. The Underwriters try to write their policies so they can be read, but, unfortunately they often hire lawyers to write them. What is clear to a lawyer is often not understood by a non-lawyer.”
“When you bought the Key-Man life insurance on the life of your brother, did you ask your broker to explain the policy to you.”
“What did he say to you?”
“That if my brother died, I would get $10,000,000.00 unless the double indemnity clause came into effect if he died accidentally and the, I would receive $20,000,000.00.
“Other than the amount of the premium he really didn’t say anything else I remember. It was very fast and efficient.”
“Did your broker ask you to sign an application?”
“I believe he did.”
“Did you read the document before you signed it?”
“No, I trusted my broker.”
“Well, is it true that your name is Candy Worthington?”
“Yes, and no. Actually, my name is Candace Shirley Worthington.”
“Was your broker aware of your true name?”
“I doubt it, I haven’t used ‘Candace’ since I was six.”
“Was your brother’s true name Abel Worthington.”
“Was your brother aware that you had purchased a Key-Man policy on his life?”
“No. He was a very superstitious man. If he knew I had done so he would have been very angry.”
“Did anyone at AIP know that you had purchased a key-man policy on your brother’s life?”
“To tell you the truth, Abel and I were the only stockholders. He was in absolute control of the business. If I told any of the officers or employees they would have told Abel and he would have made me cancel the policy as a jinx.”
With that response I sensed MOM stiffen in his chair beside me. He swiveled his chair so that he could have a clear view of Candy as she sat, cross-legged on the other side of the table. MOM and I both knew that a witness, under oath, that finds it necessary to preface an answer with “to tell the truth” after taking the oath to tell the unvarnished truth may be speaking falsely. I noted also, that as she spoke her answer her eyes flickered to a position approximately seven inches above and to the left of my head, seemingly looking straight at me and yet not making any eye contact.
“So, at the time of his death only you and your broker knew about the policy?” I continued, without comment or movement that showed I had detected her apparent prevarication.
“That’s correct. The broker told me, because of my holdings in the company, I had … what he called a clear … ‘insurable interest’ in my brother’s life. There was no reason for Abel to know I bought the policy.”
“At any time after buying the policy did you tell anyone you had such a policy?”
“No, there was no one I could tell who would not pass the information to Abel.”
“Where did you store the policy after it was delivered to you?”
“I put it in my safe-deposit box at First International Bank, downtown.”
“Has it been in the bank since you acquired the policy?”
“No, I took it out yesterday to give to you since you asked for it. Doesn’t the insurance company have a copy?”
“Actually, they do not. They would be buried under paper if they kept complete copies of all the policies they issue. They only keep data about the policies they issue. I asked for the original policy so I could learn that the information I have from the Underwriters is correct.”
“Was yesterday the first time you took the policy out of your safety-deposit box since you received the policy?”
“Yes.” Candy replied, picking up a pencil and tapping it on the table.
“Are you becoming fatigued?” I asked. “This is not an inquisition. We can take a break anytime you want.”
“I would appreciate that,” Candy said, “I do need some time to powder my nose.”
“Certainly, let’s go off the record and take a 15 minute break.”
Candy and Snakgrass left the room in apparent good spirits. MOM and I expressed our concerns.
“Such a good looking and educated woman,” MOM said, the words rumbling from deep in his considerable diaphragm. “I wonder why she lied to you about the people who knew about the policy.”
“That was my concern, as well MOM.” I replied. “She asked Snakgrass to report the death to the broker almost immediately after the death of her brother. He had to know to follow her instructions.”
“Yes, that’s why I did some background on counsel. I just got the results this morning. Although his offices are quite impressive here at AIP, it seems his income has gone almost entirely to preparing this fancy show. His overhead presently exceeds his income. I think you might want to delve into Ms. Worthington’s relationship with Snakgrass.”
“That seems to be a logical place to continue my interview. Do you have any other investigation results I should know about?”
“None that I haven’t already shared with you. But her testimony raises a question. I’ll make a call.” MOM went to the conference room telephone and spoke quickly to his office as I left to use the facilities.
I ran down the hall to the Men’s Room that seemed more like a Roman Bath or a room William Randolph Hearst transplanted from his mansion at San Simeon. I felt almost like I was desecrating an alter to use the marble pieces for the purpose for which they were designed.
Refreshed, the interview began anew with both Ms. Worthington and I more comfortable and ready for each other. MOM was still whispering into the telephone as I resumed my questioning.
“Is Mr. Snakgrass your private counsel?”
“He is today.”
“Has he represented you before?”
“No, he is AIP’s corporate lawyer and the only lawyer I know.”
“Did you consult with him about the purchase of the insurance?”
“No, I told you, Abel would have been upset if he learned about the policy.”
“But lawyers must keep the confidence of their client’s, you weren’t concerned that Mr. Snakgrass would disclose to your brother something you told him, as your lawyer, in confidence?”
“I am not sophisticated with regard to lawyers. I had never had a reason to retain a lawyer before you asked for my testimony. All I know about lawyers is what I learned from watching Perry Mason on television.”
“When did you decide it was important to have a policy of insurance on the life of your brother?”
“It was when that plane crashed in the hills of Pennsylvania. I knew my brother used commuter airlines regularly and I was afraid he might fly into a mountain. I knew nothing about the business. If he should die stupidly in a tiny plane I would lose everything. I live very comfortably and I simply did not want my stupid brother to lose it all for me by flying in one of those commuter planes that don’t even have a toilet aboard.”
“Who did you consult with once you made the decision.”
“The Yellow Pages.”
“I looked for a life insurance broker in the phone book whose office was near my house in Malibu. I went to his office, told him what I needed and he obtained the policy for me.”
“What did you tell the broker in Malibu?”
“That I needed a policy on the life of my brother to carry me over in the control of a $10,000,000.00 business if anything should happen to him.”
“Did he ask you any other questions?”
“Did he tell you what it would cost?”
“Not then, later.”
“When he told you the premium was $60,000.00 a year, were you surprised?”
“Yes, I thought it would cost more?”
“Did you pay the premium in full?”
“Of course not, I financed the premium?”
“Because my brother taught me, when the business first started, that we should never use our own money for business, we should always use ‘other people’s money.'”
“How much did you pay down?”
“Did you make any payments?”
“No. My brother died before the first payment was due.”
“Where did you get the money?”
“From my checking account. My earnings from AIP are $20,000 every month.”
“You could have paid the premium in full, then?”
“What were your regular, monthly expenses at the time you acquired the policy?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you pay a mortgage holder on the house in Malibu?”
“Yes, $3,600 every month.”
“How about your Bentley?”
“The lease payments were $2,300 a month, it’s an older car.”
“Did you have to pay on any other continuing obligations?”
“Yes, my credit cards, the mortgage on the house in Arrowhead, the membership in the California Club, the fees for the Riverside Country club, and the lease on my Ferrari.”
“Were they all paid to date?”
“Do you consider yourself financially well off?”
“No. I consider myself rich. I have never, since AIP came into existence wanted for anything or ever been short of money.”
MOM had resumed his seat. He gave the impression he was bored so it seemed to Snakgrass and Ms. Worthington that he thought I was getting little useful information. He reached into his Aluminum briefcase, pulled out a sheaf of papers, looked carefully at the first two, and while I was attempting to formulate my next question, tapped me on the shoulder. He handed the papers to me and whispered in my ear to study them carefully. He also whispered that he what he had learned on the telephone.
I studied the papers — they were blank. I nodded knowingly to MOM and, taking the hint from his whispers, decided to try a few ultimate and decisive questions that should only be answered “yes” or “no.” I looked up from the papers, then down to them again as if I was drawing my questions off the page, and asked:
“Isn’t it true that at the time of your brother’s death you were three months behind on the mortgage payments for your house in Malibu?”
I looked down at the papers again and then to MOM. He looked up at the ceiling and emulated a very tired and disappointed sigh, looking like a sad Buddha with a fuzzy beard. After a pregnant pause, I asked:
“Isn’t it true that you had notice from the lender that it would repossess your Bentley if you missed one more payment, just a week before your brother died?”
MOM and I passed knowing looks at each other. I went on to my next question and Candy Worthington sat unmoving, as if carved from stone, in her chair.
“Isn’t it true that your brother had cut off your $20,000 a month?”
“Of course not, why would he do such a thing?” I paused, carefully passed the pages behind each other and gave the appearance I was studying the papers. MOM crossed his hands over his belly and said nothing.
“Isn’t it true that you had received no money from AIP for six months before your brother’s death?”
“Where did you get such a silly idea. As God is my judge, the business was doing fine and I was receiving money regularly.”
Now I was sure she was becoming unraveled.
As a famous Old Bailey Judge once said to a man in the dock who tried the same ploy by saying “as God is my judge, I’m not guilty” the judge replied: “He isn’t, I am, you are.”
Whenever a witness draws on the almighty to confirm the truth of his or her statements I become more certain that person is not truthful. So, I sat silent for two minutes, just looking directly at the frozen in place Ms. Worthington before I asked:
“Isn’t it true that you borrowed” I paused again, looked down at the paper before continuing “$12,000 from your lawyer, Mr. Snakgrass, to pay the down payment on the policy?”
I knew she was in trouble. I knew she thought I knew much more than I knew, so I bluffed, hoping that my guess was correct and that Snakgrass was involved somehow in the purchase of the policy.
“No.” She answered as beads of perspiration began to form on her upper lip.
“Can I confer with my lawyer.”
“Of course. Off the record.” I replied.
Snakgrass and Candy left the room and conferred for a few minutes. I took a deep breath. MOM had confirmed that what appeared to be a bluff was based upon logical inferences from the testimony to that point. I also knew from MOM that the selling agent remembered that the check used to purchase the policy was drawn on the account of Samuel B. Snakgrass, Esq.
They returned as if they had been discussing the weather. Snakgrass said:
“Isn’t it true,” I pushed, based on the information I received from MOM. “The check that was used to pay the premium down payment was issued on Mr. Snakgrass’ account?”
“How did you know that?”
“It is not my job to answer questions Ms. Worthington, only to ask them. You denied he was involved in the purchase at all. Do you want to change your testimony. Why didn’t you tell me the truth about the check?”
“I instruct the witness not to answer on the grounds the question invades the attorney client privilege and is argumentative.” Snakgrass shouted, making himself heard for the first time. “Don’t answer that question.”
“Do you intend to follow your lawyer’s instructions?”
“You recognize, of course, that your refusal to answer any relevant and material question posed by the Underwriters can be construed as a failure of cooperation sufficient to allow the Underwriters to deny the claim?”
“No I did not.”
“They can’t, the attorney client privilege is inviolate. I am shocked, Louis, that you would even attempt to violate the privilege and intimidate my client.” Snakgrass was perspiring profusely. Dark stains were beginning to form under the arms of his suit coat jacket. He was agitated and his cheeks flared red.
“I had no such intention Mr. Snakgrass. Let me go to another question.
“Ms. . Worthington,” I continued. “Isn’t it true that you only decided to buy a life insurance policy on your brother’s life after meeting with your attorney and after he agreed to give you the money to pay the down payment on the premium finance agreement?”
“I object on the same grounds – don’t answer that question.” Snakgrass snapped.
“Well, isn’t it true you were in severe financial difficulties at the time you bought the policy?”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘severe.'”
“I mean, you couldn’t pay your bills. That’s true, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that was temporarily true.”
“Because there was a dividend due that would clear all my debts.”
“Has it been paid yet?”
“No. Everything came to a stop when Abel died.”
“When we started this examination I advised you that it is a crime in California to wilfully deceive an insurer – do you remember that?”
“What do you think would be an appropriate punishment for a person that lied to an insurer about a claim?”
This is silly, counsel” Snakgrass snapped. “What relevance could such a question have to your investigation. I object.”
“Understood – but it is, in my opinion, quite relevant. What is your answer, Candace?”
Snakgrass, incredulous, nodded affirmatively and Ms. Worthington answered:
“I think they should not be allowed to collect on the claim. They are not violent criminals so I would not want them put in jail with murderers and rapists. Probation and a fine would seem fair.”
All of my doubts about the claim were resolved. Candace Worthington was attempting to perpetrate a fraud against the Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London.
“Isn’t it true that you bought the policy because you knew your brother would be dead before the first payment was due?”
“Of course not! I thought you were a nice man. You are horrible to even suggest such a terrible thing.”
Snakgrass rose slowly to his full six foot six inches. In a stentorian voice worthy of his $6,200 Armani suit, he shouted: “This interview is terminated. That question was the most obnoxious and offensive act of bad faith I have ever heard in my entire career. Counsel, your professional life is ended. I intend to immediately sue your client and you personally for slander, libel, and bad faith breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”
“I look forward to it counsel. Remember, however, that you and your client have a duty to respond truthfully to me and the Underwriters. Your client has sworn falsely in this statement on sufficiently material facts that Underwriters can declare the policy void whether the answer to my last question is ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I am not a policeman. I am not a prosecutor. I just want to know the truth.”
Candy Worthington began to cry. Tears stained her lavender silk blouse. “Oh, why bother, Sam. They know. They know I intended to kill Abel as soon as I could get a policy issued. They know you helped me.”
“Shut up, you stupid bitch! I told you not to talk anymore. You are still on the record.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want the money. Your idea was that we could get all the money and the company. It isn’t worth it. I hated my brother. He was a bastard and deserved to die. That’s why I put the Poison in his tea pot. I know when its over.”
“I only have one more question: Do you withdraw the claim you have made to the Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London for the benefits of the policy you purchased on the life of your brother?”
“Don’t answer that question.” Snakgrass shouted.
“Shut up, Sam.” Candy responded. “Yes, I withdraw my claim. My brother’s death was not due to a cause that was the subject of the insurance policy.”
“Thank you, I have no further questions. Ms. Reporter, send the original transcript to counsel so that Ms. Worthington can read, correct and sign it. Make an extra copy and send it to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and one more copy for the Fraud Division, California Department of Insurance.”
Candy was convicted of Manslaughter and attempted insurance fraud. She was sentenced to three years in state prison, suspended, subject to five-year’s probation. She is now living a rather sedate life in Malibu on the earnings of AIP which continued as a successful business under the guidance of its CFO who was promoted by the board to CEO to replace Abel.
I was still young and full of vigor and did not know enough to know I couldn’t expect to receive a confession. My innocence and inexperience resulted in a result for the Underwriters that made them life-long clients.
MOM and I ended the day with a Stolichnaya on the rocks and fried zucchini at the bar in the basement of AIP’s office building. We have been close friends and colleagues ever since.
Many cases have been successfully pursued but never again did MOM and I obtain a confession on the record.
© 2017 – Barry Zalma
This article and all of the blog posts on this site digests and summarize cases published by courts of the various states and the United States. The court decisions have been modified from the actual language of the court decisions, were condensed for ease of reading, and convey the opinions of the author regarding each case.
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 50 years in the insurance business.
Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of the first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.
Look to National Underwriter Company for the new Zalma Insurance Claims Library, at www.nationalunderwriter.com/ZalmaLibrary The new books are Insurance Law, Mold Claims Coverage Guide, Construction Defects Coverage Guide and Insurance Claims: A Comprehensive Guide The American Bar Association, Tort & Insurance Practice Section has published Mr. Zalma’s book “The Insurance Fraud Deskbook” available at http://shop.americanbar.org/eBus/Store/ProductDetails.aspx?productId=214624, or 800-285-2221 which is presently available and “Diminution of Value Damages” available at http://shop.americanbar.org/eBus/Store/ProductDetails.aspx?productId=203226972 Mr. Zalma’s three new e-books were recently added and are available at http://www.zalma.com/zalmabooks.html
The author and publisher disclaim any liability, loss, or risk incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents of this blog. The information provided is not a substitute for the advice of a competent insurance, legal, or other professional. The Information provided at this site should not be relied on as legal advice. Legal advice cannot be given without full consideration of all relevant information relating to an individual situation.