Image: Richard Lehman
J Pat Carter  /  AP
Florida tax lawyer Richard Lehman was appointed in Panama to oversee the estate of Wilson C. Lucom, who died in 2006 and left the bulk of his fortune to a new foundation dedicated to feeding Panama's poor children.
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updated 11/1/2011 12:11:28 PM ET 2011-11-01T16:11:28

It seemed too good to be true.

When American multimillionaire Wilson C. Lucom died in 2006, he left the bulk of his fortune to a new foundation dedicated to feeding Panama's poor children — not to his politically-connected Panamanian widow, nor to her children.

It would be one of the largest charitable contributions in Panama's history.

The bequest seemed a little odd to people who knew the 88-year-old Lucom, because he wasn't previously involved in such philanthropy, had no children himself and was known mainly for donating to and supporting conservative political causes. But there it was in black and white, and Florida tax lawyer Richard Lehman — Lucom's friend and attorney for three decades — was appointed in Panama to oversee the estate and initiate the plan to grow food for the poor kids from seeds.

"It's a true experience of Lucom," Lehman said of his friend's idea. "He was very good about helping you help yourself."

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But in the five years since Lucom died, not a single seed has been planted. No child has been fed through the estate. Instead, his will has become the subject of a bitter international court battle that has spawned allegations of murder, extortion, slander, bribery of judges, fraud and outright thievery.

The main asset in Lucom's estate, a 7,000-acre tract along Panama's Pacific coast dubbed Hacienda Santa Monica, remains in legal limbo while courts in Panama and the U.S. sort it all out. Estimates of the land's value have ranged from about $50 million to $175 million.

The case pits Lehman against members of the powerful Arias family, which counts two Panamanian presidents in its lineage. Lucom's widow was formerly Hilda Arias, who had previously been married to the son and nephew of the two presidents. Hilda, however, died in August, leaving her children from that earlier union to continue the fight over Lucom's will.

The will left Hilda, described in it as Lucom's "beloved wife," a $20,000 monthly payment and use of their home and personal possessions as long as she lived. Her five children from the earlier marriage were given only single payments ranging from $50,000 to $200,000 apiece.

The Arias family's attorneys contend the will was created by Lehman without Lucom's full knowledge so he could gain sole control over the foundation, intending to set it up for himself in the shelter-friendly Caribbean island of Nevis. The seeds-for-kids plan, they contend, was pure fiction. The family has won several judgments in Panama nullifying the will and putting the estate in Arias family hands, but the legal action there is not yet final.

Lehman fired back in September, filing a $725 million lawsuit in U.S. federal court that accuses the Arias clan, its attorneys in Panama and three Panamanian Supreme Court judges of operating a criminal racketeering enterprise bent on stealing Lucom's estate for themselves. It's the second time he's made similar claims; the first case filed in Florida state court was dismissed in 2009.

"If any of these things had merit, he would have won somewhere," said Matias Dorta, a Miami-based attorney for the Arias family. "He is disparaging and slandering a very good family who stopped him from taking $50 million."

Lucom's fortune itself came from an inheritance: His second wife was Virginia Willys, daughter of Jeep pioneer John North Willys. After she died in 1981, Lucom married Hilda and moved from tony Palm Beach to Panama, where Lehman said he later renounced his U.S. citizenship.

That's where Nevis comes in. Lehman said he advised Lucom to become a citizen of some nation for business reasons, and Lucom chose neighboring St. Kitts and bought an apartment there. When the time came to set up the foundation for his Panama feed-the-children plan, Lehman said, they took the short boat ride to Nevis because a law office was located there.

It was never the plan, Lehman said, to use Nevis to hide Lucom's money and spend it himself.

"I didn't want the taint of Nevis," he said.

The Arias family, meanwhile, has accused Lehman of murder for allegedly disconnecting medical devices when Lucom was in his final days at a hospital. Lehman vehemently denies that, and the charges were dropped. He's also been accused in Panama of aggravated assault, fraud, document forgery and other crimes. All the charges were dismissed, but at one point Lehman was jailed for 15 hours and now fears a return to Panama.

Hector Vidal, attorney for a Panama City firm named as a defendant in Lehman's U.S. lawsuit, called the case a legal strong-arm attempt against the Arias family.

"He wants to force us to negotiate," Vidal said in Spanish, according to an Associated Press translation. "We're not willing to do that."

Vidal also disclosed portions of a 2007 letter Lehman had written to Hilda in which he said "this is a pie that is so big ... Let's not fight, let's share this."

Lehman has some legal problems of his own in the U.S. that raise questions about his true motives and could cost him more than $2 million, according to the Arias attorneys.

A judge in Palm Beach County ruled in 2009 that Lehman had been invalidly appointed as executor of Lucom's will in Florida, making him what the judge called an "intermeddling volunteer" in the estate. The judge found that Lehman improperly spent more than $600,000 from a Lucom bank account to carry on the legal fight in Panama and for other expenses.

"Although Lehman attempted to portray himself at trial as a protector of the assets of the overall estate, the credible evidence showed him to be a covetous opportunist," Circuit Judge John L. Phillips wrote in the order.

Lehman acknowledged making a mistake in mingling Lucom's estate money with his own attorney account but maintained it was done on behalf of the estate. But last week a state appeals court ruled against Lehman, finding there was "substantial evidence" that the money was misappropriated. Lehman said he will ask the court to reconsider its decision.

Through it all, Lehman said his only goal has been complete his friend's wishes to feed Panama's poor children. He said he was once offered a $3 million bribe to go away, but refused.

"I'm not getting out of this unless these kids get something," Lehman said. "I'm not getting out of it for a few bucks."

_____

Associated Press writer Kathia Martinez in Panama City contributed to this story.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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