Goodman Gone Bad
When Houston millionaire John Goodman got drunk and killed a man while driving his Bentley, I couldn’t believe the news about my old boss. Then his trial began, and tragedy turned into farce.
It’s hard to imagine a criminal court with a more stunning view than the chambers of the Honorable Jeffrey Colbath. Each day as I stepped off the elevator and onto the eleventh floor of the Palm Beach County courthouse this March, I couldn’t stop myself from staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows. The sun’s rays knifed through the clouds over the Atlantic, casting shafts of light on the Belvedere towers at the Breakers. Millions of dollars’ worth of mega-yachts packed the Intracoastal Waterway. Along the shore, Mediterranean-style villas and manicured lawns—the essential elements of the Palm Beach experience—were perfectly placed.
As I waited in line to enter the courtroom, I also caught glimpses of Worth Avenue and Marjorie Merriweather Post’s palatial estate, Mar-a-Lago, two landmarks that Houston native John Goodman had introduced me to. Given that my 48-year-old former employer—whose family’s company sold for more than a billion dollars—was now facing up to thirty years for DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fabulous life he had once led—and how far it had veered off course.
Early on the morning of February 12, 2010, John, whose blood alcohol level was later found to be twice the legal limit, plowed his Bentley convertible into a Hyundai sedan driven by a man named Scott Wilson and launched it into the dark waters of a drainage canal. The 23-year-old drowned less than a mile from John’s polo farm.
Like so many other Texans, I couldn’t believe the stories I was reading about John in the months that followed. I had first met him in 1997, after I was hired as an editor at POLO Magazine, which he had just acquired. He was an easygoing guy who had gone to Houston’s T. H. Rogers Middle School before getting shipped off to Winchendon School in Massachusetts and attending Wesley College in Delaware.
Thanks to his father, Harold, a prominent Houston businessman, John had inherited an up-at-dawn, last-one-to-leave work ethic. Following Harold’s death, in 1995, John became CEO of Goodman Manufacturing and shepherded his family’s business to unprecedented heights. In 2004 the Houston-based air conditioning company was acquired by Apollo Management for $1.43 billion. John stayed on as its chairman.
His ability to close big deals made him rich, but his true obsession has always been polo. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve watched him spend tens of millions of dollars on his quest to give high-goal polo the following he believes it deserves. In the late nineties, John’s team, Isla Carroll, featured Memo Gracida and Mike Azzaro, the game’s superstars. He invested millions developing his own franchise, and he would spend millions more converting hundreds of acres of citrus groves into the International Polo Club Palm Beach, the site of this year’s Nespresso U.S. Open.
John was the guy who had once shown me the ins and outs of Palm Beach. It was his personal playground. Each night started at the posh Breakers resort. The moment we stepped inside the Seafood Bar, his favorite barman, a wiseass from Philly named Kenny Wiggins, would crow John’s name and make a mad dash for a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. No matter how packed the place was, seats would materialize, and John and I would soon be served flawless martinis in ice-cold glasses. And that was just the start of the show.
Kenny wanted to know where our dinner reservations were: Bice? Chez Jean-Pierre? Taboo? Then he would tell us what late-night joint to hit. Sometimes he would lean toward E. R. Bradley’s. Or maybe he’d suggest we head over to West Palm and check out a dance club on Clematis Street. Au Bar, Ted Kennedy’s favorite haunt, was still open. Kenny never mentioned it.
I remember one night we were out on the town discussing the dismal fortunes of the magazine, which had become embroiled in a nasty lawsuit with Polo Ralph Lauren. Out of the blue, John’s driver suggested that John fire the entire staff. I was appalled at the thought of losing my meal ticket. John couldn’t stop laughing. “That’s it,” he told the driver. “I’m firing them and hiring you as my publisher.”
John and I had been chauffeured around Palm Beach in a black-and-red Rolls-Royce that had belonged to his wife’s grandfather Harris Masterson III. (That’s the same Harris Masterson who, along with his wife, Isla Carroll Sterling Masterson, donated their personal residence, Rienzi, to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.) Only later would I realize the tragic irony: that a man with not one but two drivers on his personal payroll would end up being charged with DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide—it was like Warren Buffett bouncing a check.
At the time, John was still married to Carroll Reckling, an outgoing and engaging blonde who was, in many respects, the exact opposite of her shy husband. Somewhere up Carroll’s family tree, Humble Oil had gotten its start. But with Carroll in Houston expecting their second child, John was alone in Palm Beach. On one occasion, I can recall the two of us downing a magnum of Château La Mission Haut-Brion with our entrées. I can also recall enduring a blistering hangover or two. Much to my chagrin, my six-foot-four colleague did not feel my pain. At more than 250 pounds, John was bulletproof. On those mornings that I limped to breakfast, he laughed openly as I licked my wounds.
I didn’t think much of Carroll’s absence or realize their marriage was in trouble. (The couple divorced in 2008.) And I certainly didn’t know about the existence of the JBG Children’s 1991 Trust, which would ultimately help spark global interest in John’s trial.
As the legal proceedings moved forward, it became clear to me that on February 12 he had made two terrible mistakes. The first was a horrific lapse in judgment that cost a young man his life. The second was much more calculated. John assumed that his personal fortune could save him—so he lawyered up. By the time he was released from Wellington Regional Medical Center, where he was treated for a broken wrist, he had begun assembling his legal team. And as Kelsey Grammer and Rush Limbaugh can attest, when you find yourself in court in Palm Beach and money is no object, the trial attorney you call is Roy Black, the Dick DeGuerin of South Florida.
As Black discovered, however, the case against his client was fraught with challenges. Take, for instance, John’s whereabouts immediately after the crash. One thing was certain: he was not where he should have been—at the scene of the accident. He explained his hour-long absence with a far-fetched alibi, one that exonerated him for drunken driving by having him down half a bottle of liquor after the collision. Running the stop sign? John’s attorneys introduced a witness who claimed that a malfunction in his $190,000 Bentley caused it to accelerate out of control precisely as their client approached the intersection and T-bone the Hyundai.
The state attorney categorized John’s disappearing act as criminal. Because he failed to render aid and fled the scene, the two principal charges filed against him were elevated to first-degree felonies. John’s name was further tarnished when it was revealed how long he had waited to alert the police. He claimed his cell phone wasn’t working, which is why he left the accident and ended up banging on the door of Lisa Pembleton, asleep in a nearby trailer. The terrified 26-year-old equestrian found her phone (and her Mace) and then watched as John chose not to call 911. Instead, he dialed one of his drivers. The line went straight to voice mail. Then he called his girlfriend, Heather Hutchins, and told her that he had “f—ed up” and that he had been in an “end-of-the-world accident.” Finally, 54 minutes after the crash, John called 911. Yet John told everyone he encountered—deputies, EMTs, emergency room staffers—that he had come to a complete stop at Lake Worth Road, looked both ways, and then driven into the intersection and hit something.
No doubt Black and his associates had counseled John on the value of maintaining the lowest possible profile. Unfortunately, someone on John’s team did not get the memo. That became clear earlier this year, when John became the punch line for countless jokes thanks to one of the most audacious legal ploys ever unveiled: the 48-year-old adopted his 42-year-old girlfriend. By doing so, he made Hutchins a beneficiary of the JBG Children’s 1991 Trust, which had grown to a reported $300 million.
When word of this charade got out, the response ranged from bemusement to outrage. Judge Glenn Kelley, who presided over the wrongful death suit filed by Scott Wilson’s family, said that John’s actions bordered on “the surreal” and took the court into “a legal twilight zone.” His Honor was kind. Others were not. “A Florida Millionaire Adopted His 42-Year-Old Girlfriend. Isn’t That Incest?” read the headline at Slate. At TheDaily.com, the title was “Foul Heir.” A legal website called Lexology noted that “girlfriends come and go, but daughters are forever.”
According to one of John’s attorneys, the rationale was “to preserve and grow the assets of the trust for his two minor children, even should he personally be unable to continue his historical role in achieving these goals.” Did anyone believe that adding his girlfriend as a beneficiary would protect the interests of his children? I sure didn’t, but I know absolutely zero about wills and estates. As most people saw it, John’s adoption of Hutchins was all about cash flow. Beneficiaries of the trust are reportedly eligible to receive disbursements of $14 million a year when they turn 35. John and Carroll’s two children are still teenagers. But his 42-year-old adopted daughter? Ka-ching!
To her credit, Hutchins was poised and direct when she took the stand and described the phone call she received from John. But the witness for the defense who raised the most eyebrows—and pulse rates—was professional polo player Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras. Assistant State Attorney Ellen Roberts had already eviscerated another polo player named Kris Kampsen, who had worked as a celebrity bartender with Figueras at an event John attended the night of the accident. By the time Roberts finished slicing and dicing Kampsen on the stand, the entire courtroom knew that he earned $120,000 playing polo for John, was a bad tipper, and would never make a good bartender. Kampsen admitted that he had poured so many drinks for himself that he became too drunk to remember much of what happened that night.
Figueras, however, proved why he is also the spokesmodel for Ralph Lauren. Impeccably dressed in a bold pinstripe suit, he was unflappable. When Roberts pressed him to describe his consumption that evening, “a beer” was all Figueras said. As hard as Roberts tried, she failed to trip him up. The Argentine exited the courtroom to a chorus of lovelorn sighs.
Misjudging Figueras was one of the few miscues the veteran prosecutor made during the trial. John’s case could have been the pilot for CSI: Palm Beach, complete with crash-scene physics, 3-D simulations, and the chemical analysis of John’s blood. The lead investigator, Troy Snelgrove, didn’t miss a beat. Over the course of his career, the barrel-chested deputy has made more than five hundred DUI arrests. Together, he and Roberts, who has headed Palm Beach County’s traffic homicide unit for almost two decades, formed a perfect team: she teed up the questions, he piled on the evidence.
John did himself no favors when he took the witness stand. When Roberts asked him why he was driving so fast at one in the morning, he replied that he was hurrying to Wendy’s before it closed to buy a Frosty. No one in the courtroom could bear to look at Scott Wilson’s parents when that pathetic excuse escaped John’s lips. How did he get drunk after the accident, not before? John said he had stumbled into a polo barn owned by everyone’s favorite celebrity bartender, Kris Kampsen, and helped himself to an ungodly amount of alcohol to dull his injuries. But when asked to identify the type of liquor he had chugged, he could not offer any specifics.
The other pillar of John’s defense, the unexpected acceleration of his convertible, rested on a similarly weak foundation. After examining the wreckage of John’s Bentley, the defense’s auto expert concluded that one of the engine’s throttles wouldn’t close and that this had caused the Bentley to rocket through the stop sign. The state’s expert agreed that the throttle was wedged open. Then he pointed out that this malfunction had not been present before the accident; it had occurred because of the accident.
John’s pricey legal smoke screens fooled no one. On March 23, after deliberating for just five and a half hours, the jury found John guilty on all counts, and he was immediately transferred to the Palm Beach County detention center, where he was sequestered from the general inmate population. For the next two months, John was on 24-hour lockdown, but he had his own phone, his own TV, and his own shower.
In the weeks following the conviction, Black flexed his muscle, filing a flurry of motions seeking everything from a new trial to a new judge. All were denied. John agreed to a $40 million civil settlement with the Wilsons for the wrongful death of their son, and on May 11, Judge Colbath sentenced John to sixteen years in prison. “At the moment of truth, when given an opportunity to do the right thing,” Colbath said, “he ran to hide and try to save himself.”
Yet John had one more card to play. Thanks to a record-setting $7 million cash bond posted by his family, he is back on his polo farm, along with two off-duty police officers. Over the course of his appeal, which could last as long as two years, they will shadow him around the clock at an estimated cost to John of $2,000 per day.
As for Heather Hutchins, another judge is currently considering whether John’s adoption of her is legal. If Hutchins does in fact become a beneficiary of his children’s trust fund, John, his security detail, and his defense team will find themselves back in court, where the Honorable Jeffrey Colbath will review the bail order. From the court’s perspective, the millions that Hutchins would receive could help John flee from justice. And based on what the judge has seen so far in the sad, bizarre case of John Goodman, anything is possible.