Harvey Strother was a multimillionaire with a small empire of Georgia car dealerships, but when his mistress wheeled him into his lawyer's office to change his will one last time, he was a wine-soaked shell of his former self.
Less than a month from death, he was chugging a gallon and a half of wine each day, court records say. But his mistress, Anne Melican, contends he knew what he was doing when he changed his will in December 2003 to guarantee her about $6 million of his $37 million estate, including a condo in Cape Cod, Mass., and boat slip in Marco Island, Fla.
The last-minute changes are the focus of a fierce legal fight involving some of Georgia's most powerful attorneys. On Monday it landed before the Georgia Supreme Court for the second time.
Strother, who ran his business from Cobb County, Ga., in Atlanta's northwestern suburbs, built his reputation as a gregarious silver-tongued salesman. But his 23-year-old daughter's 1988 death from diabetes sent him in a downward alcoholic spiral.
His family's attorney, former Gov. Roy Barnes, on Monday put it this way: "He was a man of great wealth, he was a man of great intellect. But he had a great demon — and that demon was alcohol."
Strother had signed a will in 1988 leaving the bulk of his assets to his wife Betty, their children and their grandchildren. But in three amendments in 2000 and 2003, he signed over some prime pieces of his estate to the mistress.
$7,900 a month allowance
One amendment gave Melican, his mistress of seven years, a monthly allowance of $7,900 and a second gave her a Marco Island, Fla., condominium and health insurance. A third gave her a condo in Cape Cod, Mass., a Florida boat slip and a Florida property for her son.
As Strother aged, his alcoholism worsened. A friend testified that when he saw Strother in December 2003 — shortly after he made the final changes to his will — he was drunk, wearing a diaper and filling a 16-ounce plastic cup from a box of wine.
After Strother's death in January 2004 at age 78, his grandson challenged the amendments, arguing that Strother was a fragile alcoholic who was conned into changing the will. He depicted Melican as a canny manipulator who used sex and alcohol to get her way.
Melican's attorneys countered that the changes were legal and valid, and said the lavish gifts were consistent with the expensive diamond rings, elaborate overseas vacations, plastic surgeries and other luxuries Strother showered upon Melican over the years.
They asserted that no one could control Strother, not even his closest relatives.
When the case made its first trip to the Georgia Supreme Court last year, the justices said only a jury could determine whether Strother had been manipulated.
2008 trial satisfied no one
But a two-week trial in July 2008 satisfied no one. The jury sided with Melican on two of the three amendments and with Strother's family on the third. Both sides appealed, leading to Monday's return trip to the state's top court, where they sparred over the finer points of Georgia estate law.
Barnes contends one of the amendments should be thrown out because two witnesses listed on the document were not actually present when Strother signed the changes.
Melican did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on Monday. But her attorneys note that Strother's family, which had wanted a jury to decide the case, now wishes to overturn parts of the verdict that displease them.
Melican attorney Douglas Salyers said the two aging witnesses may have simply forgotten they were present for the signing.
"The jury got it right," he said. "They had all the evidence. And they looked the witnesses in the eye."