A soap opera—style drama—starring Galveston’s first family—plays out in federal court.
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Consider the following scenario: A rich man gives property to his lover of more than thirty years and decides to pay the lover a monthly stipend as a show of affection. When the man declares bankruptcy and even goes to jail, his lover is his number one defender. When the man gets sick, his lover stays by his bedside. Yet when the man dies, his family tries to prevent his lover from claiming title to the property and collecting the money. So the lover files a lawsuit.
If it sounds like a juicy story, something out of a TV soap opera, you don’t know the half of it. The rich man is the late Shearn Moody, Jr., banker, insurance mogul, and roguish scion of Galveston’s venerable Moody clan. And the lover is a he: James A. Stoker, a onetime Las Vegas dancer and choreographer and more recently a designer of exhibits at Moody Gardens. On October 5 Stoker went to federal court in Houston with his case against Shearn’s brother, Robert Moody; their elderly mother, Frances Moody Newman; and David Philley, the administrator of Shearn’s estate. The complaint had two components. First, Stoker insisted he was the rightful owner of a ranch house and ten acres given to him by Shearn. Second, he said he was owed more than $900,000. According to the terms of a trust Shearn set up in 1980, Stoker was to be paid $3,000 a month until Shearn’s death and half the income earned by the trust thereafter—but Stoker stopped getting his monthly checks in 1984 and hasn’t received any income from the trust since Shearn’s death in 1996. Stoker’s lawyer, Keith Ellison, believed his client was entitled to $36,000 a year times eleven and a half years, or $414,000, plus perhaps as much as $500,000 in trust income.
Lawyers for the Moodys and Shearn’s estate disputed those figures along with nearly everything else in Stoker’s claim. They acknowledged that he and Shearn were, in essence, husband and wife (at least one Moody heir referred to Stoker behind his back as Aunt Jimmy, according to a source close to the family), but they said there was no money to be paid from the 1980 trust because his creditors gobbled up all of the trust’s assets during his mid-eighties bankruptcy proceeding. But more important, they said, the judge who presided over that proceeding found that both the transfer of property to Stoker and the creation of the trust were void, since they constituted an attempt by Shearn to shield assets from the bankruptcy—a finding subsequently upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. “We stand by those prior rulings,” said Andrew J. Mytelka, the Moody family’s lawyer.
Ellison did not deny that the courts so ruled, but he saw the issue as one of fairness. “I’m amazed that a family of such wealth won’t satisfactorily provide for someone who cared for Shearn,” he said. A longtime observer of the Moodys agrees. “It is unconscionable and despicable to deny James Stoker that to which he’s entitled,” said Galveston native A. R. “Babe” Schwartz, a former state senator who was Shearn’s lawyer in the sixties and seventies.
The judge who heard Stoker’s case apparently agreed. On October 7 he announced he was ready to rule that Stoker had free and clear title to the property, at which time the Moodys elected to settle: Stoker gets to keep the ranch and land—and $65,000 for his trouble.