Sarita’s Secret

Once the seat of a famous ranching empire, this sleepy town has kept hidden for eighty years the answer to one of South Texas's greatest riddles: Is Ray Fernandez, the descendant of a Mexican maid, the heir to the gigantic Kenedy fortune?

September 2004By Comments

THE TRAIN DOESN’T STOP IN SARITA anymore. They tore down the depot years ago, along with the hotel, the lumberyard, and the cotton gin. It has been a century since anyone referred to this part of South Texas as “the French Riviera of Texas,” as land speculators once did. Driving a desolate stretch of U.S. 77, twenty miles south of Kingsville, I almost missed Sarita entirely: The only visible landmarks are a green sign identifying the town, a blinking yellow light, and a water tower off in some distant trees. Sarita has an elementary school and a Catholic church but no shops, cafes, or even a convenience store. The closest supermarket is in Kingsville; the nearest major medical center is in Corpus Christi, seventy miles north; and the pharmacy of choice is in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, an hour-and-thirty-minute drive for cheap drugs. The only place to spend the night is a one-suite bed-and-breakfast run by Patti Fain, who is also the justice of the peace; her husband, Mike, a retired game warden, is the local gunsmith. The only source of soft drinks is a vending machine at the Kenedy County courthouse, a dim cavern of mostly empty hallways and faded photographs. When I was there in June, a dog slept in the dusty street between the courthouse and the former home of the old Kenedy Pasture Company, now a museum.

Sarita is not a ghost town in the usual sense. But the ghosts of the Kenedys—Captain Mifflin Kenedy and his star-crossed heirs, especially his two grandchildren, John G. Kenedy Jr. and Sarita Kenedy East, for whom this unincorporated county seat is named—hover like the hot blue sky over the tiny town of around 250, which appears as a footnote to the huge ranch that the captain founded after the Civil War. Though all the Kenedys are dead, their legend is as alive as the front page of your morning newspaper. It crackles with the legacy of the patrón system: tales of stolen land and inheritance, racial and religious conflict, endless courtroom battles, violence, avarice, and shadowy family secrets, all of which connect the cultures and histories of South Texas and northern Mexico.

Mifflin Kenedy was one of the three great ranchers of far South Texas, the others being his close friends Richard King and Major John Armstrong. Though he was a Quaker from Pennsylvania, he never let religion get in his way. He met and fell in love with a beautiful 26-year-old devout Catholic from Mier, Mexico, Petra Vela de Vidal. Depending on which version of history you believe, Petra was the wife, mistress, or widow of Luis Vidal, a captain in the Mexican army. Some historians believe that Kenedy arranged the murder of Luis, who had already fathered at least six children by Petra. Kenedy moved his bride to Brownsville, where they had six more children. Most of their sons lived fast and died young. Tom Kenedy, the eldest, was killed by a deputy sheriff in Brownsville whose estranged wife the young ranching heir was courting. Adrian Vidal, Mifflin’s adopted son, was executed in a Mexican prison while the captain stood helplessly outside the prison walls. After driving a herd of cattle to Dodge City and getting into a fight with the town’s mayor, James Kenedy barely survived a shoot-out with a posse that included Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, only to succumb later to typhoid fever. When Mifflin died intestate, in 1895, the 400,000-acre ranch ended up in the hands of his sole surviving son, John Gregory Kenedy, known as Don Gregorio.

The dynasty might have gone on indefinitely, except that neither of Don Gregorio’s two surviving children produced an heir. John G. Kenedy Jr., known all his life as Johnny, was a boozer and a womanizer who died in 1948 in Saltillo, the home of his Mexican-born wife, Elena, who inherited his half of the fortune. According to family legend, Johnny was rendered sterile by a childhood case of the mumps, and his sister, Sarita, the last of the Kenedys, died childless in 1961, leaving the bulk of her estate to the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation, named for her parents. Elena died in 1984, leaving her estate to the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust. The two institutions are handled by administrators and lawyers; together, they control assets valued between $500 million and $1 billion, of which about 80 percent of the income goes to the Catholic Diocese of Corpus Christi, the Christus Spohn Health System, and various Catholic charities. In the final years of her life, Sarita was attended by a number of ambitious men, including clerics, with designs on her millions. “Vultures,” she called them. Lawsuits over her fortune began two months after her death and continue to this day.

In the heyday of the Kenedys, the ranch headquarters was located far from town, down a long, narrow road toward the coast that dead-ended at La Casa Grande, the thirty-room family estate. Sarita bequeathed the house and the 10,000 acres surrounding it, including the family chapel and cemetery, to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Today the Oblate fathers use the property—since reduced by settlements to 1,010 acres—as a religious retreat called Lebh Shomea House of Prayer. (“Lebh shomea” is Hebrew for “listening heart.”) This veneer of peace and tranquillity is profoundly deceptive, however. One of several lawsuits still pending threatens to expose the darkest secret of all: that Johnny Kenedy may have sired a child by one of the Kenedy maids in 1925. The allegation started bubbling to the surface on Mother’s Day, 2000, with a chance remark to a Corpus Christi man named Ray Fernandez by his dying grandmother. Speaking in Spanish, she told her grandson: “You look just like your grandfather Johnny Kenedy.” Assuming she was talking about the late son of the late president, he dismissed it as the babbling of an old woman with dementia, dying of bone cancer.

But as Ray began to research his family’s history, he realized that it seemed intrinsically linked to the Kenedys. He eventually uncovered evidence that he believes establishes that his mother, 78-year-old Ann Fernandez, is the biological daughter and sole living heir of Johnny Kenedy. She was born in a home for unwed mothers in Waco in 1925 to Maria Rowland, who was at the time a teenage maid on La Parra, as the Kenedy ranch was known. After the birth, the child was sent to live with an aunt in Driscoll, and Maria went to work in the Kenedy mansion on Upper Broadway in Corpus Christi. Two years after Ann’s birth, Maria may have conceived a second child by Johnny, a boy named Raul. The boy died mysteriously at age two, the victim of some poisoned food apparently provided by a stranger who appeared at the family home; Ann, who was four at the time, also ate the poisoned food but recovered.

In May 2002, acting as a guardian for his mother, who had by then slipped into dementia, Ray filed a lawsuit in Kenedy County against the estates of John G. Kenedy Jr., Sarita Kenedy East, and Elena Kenedy. The lawsuit claimed that Johnny’s will did not make a disposition of his real property, and accordingly his interest in La Parra and all of his other real estate should have passed at least in part to his daughter, Ann Fernandez. Therefore, the lawsuit contended, Elena never properly owned Johnny’s real estate and wasn’t capable of leaving it to the trust. If all this is true, Sarita’s closest surviving biological heir, Ann, has a claim on the assets of the foundation.

Attorneys for the foundation and the charitable trust argue that even if Ray wins a legal battle to exhume Johnny’s body and DNA testing proves that Johnny Kenedy is Ann Fernandez’s father, the lawsuit was filed years too late. Attorneys for the Fernandez family counter that it couldn’t have been filed earlier because the Kenedys concealed the truth. Ray hasn’t decided what he will do if the DNA proves that he is descended from the Kenedys. “This is not about the money or the land or the mineral rights or one of the great ranches of Texas,” he told me. “This is about my mom and our family.”

THE OFFICE OF THE NUECES COUNTY MEDICAL examiner is located across the parking lot from the giant Christus Spohn complex, in Corpus Christi. Ray Fernandez, who has held the position since January 2003, grew up in this West Side neighborhood. His father’s family came here from Beeville before World War II and opened a grocery nearby. His father, Reynaldo Fernandez, worked in the grocery and later as a fingerprint and identification specialist in the Nueces County sheriff’s department. Ray was close to his father’s family but knew hardly anything about Ann’s. And he knew nothing at all about the Kenedys, although, as he is now discovering, the crosscurrents between the families ran deep. He knows now that the cathedral where he sometimes attended Mass was built on the site where the Kenedy mansion once stood: The Kenedys donated the property to the church in the thirties. Christus Spohn Health System is named for Arthur Spohn, who was married to Mifflin Kenedy’s daughter, Sarah Josephine, after whom Sarita was named. Ray’s first job was working as a janitor at the hospital, the year after he graduated from high school. After a 22-year odyssey of medical schools and hospitals across America, he returned to take the job as medical examiner. “I’ve still got my name badge from when I was a janitor,” Ray told me, producing from his desk the badge, now brown and faded, issued to him in 1977. Earlier that day he had testified at a murder trial in San Patricio County, one of fourteen South Texas counties that contract for his services, and now had changed into his customary work clothes—baggy green scrubs. In his years as a student and as a medical examiner, he has done roughly 2,500 autopsies and testified in more than one hundred trials. Solving puzzles is what he does for a living, and the puzzle of his heritage is his greatest challenge.

Forty-four years old, Ray is darkly handsome, with shaggy black hair, a broad chest, and—as others have remarked—the trademark Kenedy jowl. He is pragmatic, stubborn, and acutely aware of who he is and where he is going, traits that Johnny Kenedy is said to have possessed. The walls of his small office are covered with certificates and diplomas testifying to how he learned his profession: an associate degree in applied science radiology from Del Mar Community College, in Corpus Christi, where he first heard about forensic science; a bachelor of arts in biology from the University of Texas, where he worked his way through school as an x-ray technician at the student health center; an MD from the UT Health Science Center, in San Antonio, where he trained in the office of Vincent Di Maio, the noted Bexar County medical examiner; a degree in anatomic and clinical pathology from the University of California, Irvine; an internship at Frankford Hospital, in Philadelphia; training in forensic pathology at the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department. “I’m just now paying back the last of my student loan,” Ray told me. “It totaled about $100,000.”

Ann was about eighteen when she met Johnny and Sarita Kenedy. Their mother, Marie Stella Turcotte Kenedy, was dying on the hospital floor where Ann served as a volunteer, and at different times she introduced the young nurse to both of her children. On another occasion, she introduced Ann to Johnny’s wife, Elena. At the time, Ann’s mother, Maria, lived in a small house near the Kenedy mansion in town. She had married a vaquero named Desiderio Peña two years after Ann was born. One month after the wedding, she gave birth to her second child, Raul, the boy who died of poison. Peña left her and married another woman after Raul was born. When Ann was thirteen or fourteen, she left her aunt in Driscoll and came to live with her mother in the small house in Corpus Christi. Her mother never talked about her past or about working on the Kenedy ranch, and when Ann asked questions, Maria would turn away in anger.

Ray was working as an assistant medical examiner in Miami when the secret began to leak out. He had taken a week off to teach a course in forensics in Latin America and stopped to spend Mother’s Day in Corpus Christi on the return trip. The family visited Ray’s grandmother Maria, who was in a nursing home. Her remark about him looking like his grandfather Johnny Kenedy didn’t start to register until a few days later, when he returned to Miami and found his wife, Marie, distraught and near tears. While searching the Internet, trying to locate the burial place of her father, who had supposedly died years ago, she learned that he had died recently in Oklahoma. Apparently, Marie’s mother had lied to conceal the humiliation of a divorce. Marie soon discovered that someone claiming to be her brother had moved into her father’s home and stolen his coin and stamp collections. “These few things were her only connection to him,” Ray explained. “We hired an attorney and went to court to get my wife title to the house. It was just one house on one lot—it wasn’t the Kenedy ranch—but this is what lawyers for the foundation and trust don’t understand: It’s not the property that’s important, it’s the link to family.”

When Ray saw what his wife was going through, he decided to look at his own family history. He began by gathering baptismal certificates, which provided the first clue that his grandmother might have told him something important. He knew that his mother was born in a home for unwed mothers but had assumed that her father was Desiderio Peña; the certificate issued by St. Francis Church in Waco, however, left the space for “father” blank. Next, he telephoned the Corpus Christi library and asked for information about a John Kenedy Jr. “I didn’t know anything about this man, even how to spell his name,” Ray recalled, “but the librarian did. She sent me John G. Kenedy Jr.’s obit.” When Marie saw the old photograph of Kenedy, she said, “This looks like your mother.” It looked like Ray too. Same long face, same hefty build, same prominent jowl.

Old newspaper articles led Ray to the discovery that a man in Raymondville named Max Dreyer was a grand-nephew of Mifflin Kenedy’s, which made him a cousin to Johnny Kenedy. Ray telephoned a DNA expert in Miami, who said that a match with a paternal cousin could establish his mother’s relationship to the Kenedys. Dreyer agreed to give a DNA sample, and the expert concluded that there was a 25 percent likelihood that Ann and Dreyer were related. In the courthouse at Sarita, Ray’s wife discovered a sealed envelope that had been licked by Marie Stella, Johnny’s mother. An analysis of this DNA sample revealed a 72 percent likelihood that she was Ann’s grandmother.

Finally, Ray tracked down Maria Rowland’s brother, Daniel Rowland, who after considerable prompting confessed the family secret: He and Tom Goates—a Corpus Christi detective who was Maria’s second husband—both knew that Ann’s father was John G. Kenedy Jr. But they never discussed this with other members of the family. In a sworn affidavit, Daniel explained: “We were frightened of what the Kenedy people might do. We wanted to protect [Maria’s] reputation. She was only a teenager. . . . South Texas was a much different place in the thirties and forties for working-class Mexican Americans. Those with money and large ranches made the rules.” He remembered on one occasion going with Goates to La Parra to ask for money from Johnny Kenedy. Daniel waited in the truck while Goates went into the house. He returned with a stuffed envelope.

Ann viewed a video of her uncle’s conversation with Ray over and over, her confusion mounting. In an advanced stage of dementia, she gave her own deposition a short time later, telling conflicting stories. She remembered first meeting Johnny Kenedy at the hospital but later recalled that he had brought her dolls and fruit baskets at Christmas when she was much younger. She also remembered sitting on Marie Stella’s lap at the mansion and that Johnny’s mother had once talked of sending Ann to a convent to be a nun. Did Ann ever suspect that John G. Kenedy Jr. was her father? Once, when she was fourteen or fifteen, she recalled, her cousins made some vague reference to her real father. But when Ann asked her mother about this, Maria shot her a glare that warned her to ask no more questions.

Ray had an older brother, Joe David, who died in 1997 after an agonizing 48-year struggle with cerebral palsy. Watching Joe David live and die, while his mother tried desperately to find help, was one of the formative factors of Ray’s life and a reason he chose medicine as a career. “My mother quit her job as an elevator operator and took care of him full-time,” Ray says. Money was a constant problem. Ray’s dad worked at the courthouse by day and moonlighted in the evenings, guarding county prisoners at the hospital. Ray learned later that the family had borrowed money and had gotten $100 from the March of Dimes to pay for a bus trip to New York, where there was a hospital that specialized in treating cerebral palsy. The hospital might have been able to treat Joe David, but the cost was far more than the Fernandez family could afford. When Ray talks about lawyers for the defense claiming that Ann has known for years that John G. Kenedy Jr. was her father—a charge that, if proved, would mean that Ray’s lawsuit is barred by the statute of limitations—his face twists with anger. “If that was the case,” he says, slamming his hand on his desk, “don’t you think my mother would have moved heaven and earth to get the Kenedys to help my brother?”

MIFFLIN KENEDY AND HIS LIFELONG friend Richard King made their fortunes during, after—and mainly because of—the Mexican War of 1846­1848, which changed the face of South Texas. Kenedy and King had a virtual monopoly on the steamship trade on the Rio Grande from the 1840’s until after the Civil War, freighting passengers, cargo, and troops up and down the river and running Union blockades with shipments of cotton for the Confederacy. The Mexican War erupted over a border dispute following the annexation of Texas into the United States. The U.S. claimed that the boundary was the Rio Grande. Mexico argued that the true boundary lay 130 miles to the north, along the Nueces River. From 1767 until the Texas Revolution in 1836, Mexican families had received land grants and established ranchos in the region. Known to the Spanish as the Wild Horse Desert and to Mexicans as the Desert of the Dead, this great sea of grass and scrub stretched across the Rio Grande to the present sites of Del Rio and Corpus Christi and everywhere in between. Tejanos ran herds of Longhorns and sheep across their ranches, some of which covered many thousands of acres.

In the years after the war, the Tejanos and their land grants were the focus of a bloody and brutal conflict that continued to rage over the disputed land between the rivers, which became known as the Nueces Strip. Raiders from both sides of the border burned, murdered, and pillaged at will. Texas Rangers, sent to restore order, were viewed by the Tejanos as mercenaries in the employ of the big Anglo ranchers. At a fair in Corpus Christi in 1852, Kenedy and King and others discussed what they saw as the chance of a lifetime: They could buy abandoned or vulnerable land grants in the Nueces Strip for a fraction of their worth. In 1868, after King and Kenedy dissolved their partnership, Kenedy bought the Los Laureles grant, north of Baffin Bay, and made ranching history by enclosing 131,000 acres, making it the first fenced ranch of any size west of the Mississippi. In 1882 he sold Los Laureles to a Scottish syndicate (which later sold it to King) for $1.1 million, money he used to purchase more land grants, including La Parra, the site of the future ranch headquarters.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, as the railroad moved south, the Kenedy ranch prospered beyond all expectations. Mifflin Kenedy had once used his political connections to stop a railroad, lest it hurt his steamship business, but his son Don Gregorio helped found the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway, which later was acquired by the Missouri Pacific. Don Gregorio and others began buying land rights along the proposed path of the railroad. Small towns sprung up along the tracks—Skidmore, Alice, Robstown, Bishop, Kingsville, Riviera. Theodore Koch, a promoter from Minnesota, founded the tiny community of Riviera Beach on Baffin Bay, an inlet of the Laguna Madre that separates the northern part of the Kenedy Ranch from the King Ranch. Koch built a resort hotel, a wide boulevard with flowers and tropical trees, and a dance hall and pavilion that extended over the water. All that is left of his dream are the cypress pilings of the old pavilion at Riviera Beach, a few feet out into the bay.

When the tracks finally reached the Kenedy ranch, in 1905, Don Gregorio donated land for the right-of-way and chartered a town, which he named for his daughter, Sarita. He lived in the four-bedroom plantation-style ranch house Mifflin had built, on the highest point on this relentlessly flat coastal plain, a sand dune 37 feet above sea level. But in 1918 he hitched the house to teams of oxen and mules and moved it two hundred yards to the east. Then, on the dune, he began construction of La Casa Grande, the “Great House.” He built a wharf on Baffin Bay and had material shipped from New Orleans. The Spanish Revival­style estate had eighteen-inch reinforced concrete walls and ten bedrooms. A Gatling gun was mounted in a watchtower above the second floor for protection against Mexican bandits, and an escape tunnel was concealed within a walk-in safe in Don Gregorio’s office. He and Marie Stella had a suite of rooms at the south end of the second floor. Sarita and her husband, Arthur East, had a suite on the opposite side of the house. Johnny and his wife, Elena, lived in Mifflin’s old house east of La Casa Grande. The Kenedys divided their time between the mansion in Corpus Christi and the ranch.

The Kenedys took care of their Mexican workers, known as Kenedeños, in the patrón style, providing housing and medical care and seeing that their children were educated. The Kenedeños, particularly the vaqueros, whose ancestors had pioneered the cattle business in the New World, taught the Kenedys how to ranch. About three hundred Kenedeños were needed to run a spread that huge: cowboys, wranglers, fence menders, groundskeepers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, butlers, chauffeurs, cooks, maids. In the early twenties, one of the maids was Maria Rowland, a pretty teenager of Cherokee and Spanish descent. Her family was from Kingsville, but she lived on the ranch. In the era of the patróns, it would not have been surprising for a liaison to have taken place. Many a wealthy South Texas rancher took a mestizo mistress and stashed her in a casa chica, a small house convenient to the rancher’s needs.

JOHNNY WASN’T THE MOST DYNAMIC Kenedy, but he had the most fun. He had an eye for the ladies and a weakness for the grape. His drunken benders frequently included his neighbors, King Ranch boss Bob Kleberg Jr. and Major Tom Armstrong. The three ranching scions hunted, partied, played poker, and caroused together. In the Kenedy County courthouse, at Sarita, there is a faded photograph of the trio, strapping men all, taken at La Parra Ranch in 1930, after a well-oiled hunting trip. In their book about the Kenedy family, If You Love Me You Will Do My Will, authors Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth give an example of Johnny’s “boyhood prodigality” that so dismayed his parents. While he was a student at Texas A&M, Johnny read about polygamy among the Mormons. “Mistaking a religion-based practice for promiscuity,” they wrote, “he and a pal took a train out to Salt Lake City to sample this imagined lotus land of unfettered carnality.” Don Gregorio had to send the Pinkertons to fetch him home.

Sarita tolerated and probably enjoyed their rowdy behavior. She was a cowgirl all the way, able to ride, shoot, and drink whiskey as well as any man. After Don Gregorio died, in 1931, Sarita rather than Johnny or Arthur East took charge of the ranch. Her brother loved the ranch but not ranching, and her husband didn’t mix well with the other men; he spent most of his time alone at Sarita’s San Pablo Ranch, near Hebbronville, adjacent to a ranch owned by his nephew Tom East Jr. Fluent in Spanish, Sarita was comfortable around the families of her vaqueros and sensitive to their needs. She was a devout Catholic, same as her mother and grandmother, but she was the only Kenedy woman seen by the Kenedeños as a true patrona.

“She was a very beautiful lady with a very big heart,” Rafael Cuellar told me one rainy afternoon as we sat in the cab of his pickup. “You could see her everywhere, drinking coffee with the people, eating tortillas. She made sure nobody suffered needlessly.” The 66-year-old Cuellar has lived in the town of Sarita all his life. His grandfather came to the ranch as a vaquero in the 1800’s, at age sixteen, and his father achieved the rank of corporal, boss of a crew of vaqueros. A retired three-term sheriff of Kenedy County, Cuellar lives east of the tracks in a small house that Sarita gave to his father; in her will, Sarita deeded ranch-owned houses to all the cowboys who had worked for her for at least 25 years. Elena bequeathed a permanent fund that supplies all the citizens of Sarita free water and sewage services, but she is not remembered as fondly as her sister-in-law. “Elena was a fine lady, but different,” Cuellar told me. “Some people help because they think they have to, and others help because they enjoy helping. You know what I mean?” I asked Cuellar what he thought about exhuming Johnny’s body and testing it for DNA, as Ray Fernandez wants to do. To my surprise, he showed me a newspaper clipping taped to the underside of the sun visor of his pickup. It had a photograph of John Kenedy Jr. next to a photograph of Ray Fernandez. “See?” he told me. “They look alike.”

The vaquero way of life is dying. There is still livestock to be worked, primarily on land leased from the foundation by the family of Tom East Jr., but the number of cattle pales in comparison with Don Gregorio’s time. The foundation and the trust own all of the land except for the relatively small parcel given to the Oblate fathers, and they lease it to various corporations who in turn sublease parts of it for hunting and birdwatching. The surviving Kenedeños live in dozens of small houses on both sides of the tracks, on Sarita’s narrow, mostly paved streets. Some are retired; others, like 86-year-old José Salazar, who started work here in the early thirties, still ride every morning. Their yards tend to be neat and orderly; some are fenced and many display the flags of Texas and the United States.

In June the range was surprisingly green and lush, thanks to near-record rains. Vast waist-high pastures of native grasses, growing much as they did centuries ago, stretched as far as the eye could see, interspersed with patches of oak and mesquite. The best place to view La Parra is from the tower that sits atop La Casa Grande. I climbed up there one afternoon with Father Francis Kelly Nemeck, the director of Lebh Shomea House of Prayer. The soft-spoken 68-year-old priest wore a cowboy hat, a short-sleeve sport shirt, and sneakers. Entrance to the former ranch house is normally restricted to those approved for silent meditation by Father Kelly or one of the nuns who assist him, but it was closed for repairs, and we were alone except for a few workmen. A stiff sea breeze blew in from Baffin Bay, which appeared as a gray-blue sliver on the eastern horizon. From this magnificent perch the world seemed bucolic and peaceful. An alley of tropical palms led to the back of the house, where wild turkeys, javelinas, rabbits, and roadrunners wandered about like pets on the manicured grounds.

In the family cemetery, next to the chapel, the grave sites of the Kenedy clan are laid out in a single, neat row. Johnny and Sarita rest beside their parents. Curiously, I found no graves for Captain Kenedy or Petra. I learned later that Sarita had removed her grandparents from a Corpus Christi cemetery and reburied them in Brownsville, surrounded by four of their children. Father Kelly told me that he strongly opposes exhuming Johnny’s body. “His will left everything to his wife. That should be the first issue,” the monk said. “Even if he is the father, he chose not to give anything to the child.”

JOHNNY KENEDY’S HANDWRITTEN WILL is what this lawsuit is all about. It bequeaths “all of my property of every character and description both personal and mixed”—no mention of real property—to his wife, Elena. Austin attorney Mark Schwartz and other lawyers representing Ann Fernandez contend that the will was effective only to dispose of Kenedy’s personal property and that it did not specify who got the ranch. In such cases, they argue, the law requires that two thirds of the real property goes to the child and one third to the widow, with her portion reverting to the child upon her death. The defense argues that Ann is not a legitimate heir and that even if she is, Johnny clearly intended to leave his fortune solely to Elena. “In Texas you can leave your property to whoever you want,” Buster Adami, a lawyer for the trust, told me. “You don’t have to include children, either legitimate or illegitimate.”

Schwartz believes that Elena and her lawyers were aware that the will was flawed. In 1949, the year after Johnny’s death, they prevailed upon Humble Oil and Refining Company, which held oil and gas leases on the ranch, to file a friendly suit asking the court to declare Elena the rightful owner of the ranch. “This was a put-up job,” Schwartz says. “They didn’t even bother to introduce the will into evidence.” Nor did they make any attempt to determine the heirs of Johnny or Sarita Kenedy. “The fact that they didn’t invite Ann Fernandez to be part of the proceedings means it is not binding on her,” Schwartz told me. Is it possible that Elena didn’t know that the baby born to their maid was Johnny’s? “A wife knows,” Schwartz says. “If a maid gets pregnant and leaves for five months, then returns not to the ranch but to the family mansion in Corpus Christi—that couldn’t have happened without the wife knowing.”

Ray Fernandez came to the same conclusion as he began piecing together the parallel stories of his family and the Kenedys. “Elena was a little Napoleon,” he said. “I talked to an old cowboy at Kenedy ranch named Duckett who told me that cowboys had to ask Elena’s permission to get married. Elena would have done anything she could to keep the blemish from her husband’s reputation. I think Elena kept the secret from Sarita.” If Sarita had known that she had a niece, might she have included Ann in her will? In her later years, Sarita openly mourned the Kenedys’ vanishing bloodline. In the evenings she would take her bottle of whiskey to the tower above La Casa Grande and stay there for hours. Vaqueros told of hearing her plaintive sobs and moans.

When Johnny died, Sarita and Elena became co-owners of the ranch, but the relationship was decidedly chilly. They found a common interest only after a Trappist monk who called himself Brother Leo came into their lives. He appeared one Sunday after Mass when they were placing flowers on Johnny’s grave. Brother Leo had been released from his vows of silence and sent out to convince rich Catholics that the way to heaven was to trust their fortunes to his Trappist order. Handsome and magnetic, the monk became Sarita’s closest spiritual adviser for her remaining thirteen years; some historians suspect he was her lover too. Sarita had already written at least two wills, one after her mother died and a second in 1948, after Johnny died. On his visits to La Parra, Brother Leo began to comfort Sarita, coaxing her to go easy on the whiskey and to think about leaving her fortune to a foundation, which he would be happy to oversee. Both Sarita and Elena made frequent and generous contributions to Trappist charities in South America and, at Brother Leo’s invitation, took an ocean voyage to visit the missions their charities supported.

By the mid-fifties, there were many contenders for the Kenedy millions, including Sarita’s husband’s nephew Tom East Jr.; Peter Grace, a wealthy New York businessman who was active in Catholic charities; and Bishop Mariano Garriga, of Corpus Christi. Grace had been a friend and mentor to Brother Leo but eventually fell out with the monk and developed his own agenda. Sarita opened several bank accounts at the Grace National Bank, in New York, apparently without telling her lawyer, Jake Floyd, of Alice. (Floyd was known as El Víbora Seca, “the Dry Snake,” a nickname bestowed by his bitter rival, political boss George Parr.) Brother Leo used one of the accounts to finance his various activities. Bishop Garriga warned Grace and Brother Leo that some South Texas “hothead” might do them irreparable damage if they continued funneling Sarita’s money out of Texas. But the real power behind the scene, according to authors Michaud and Aynesworth, was Jake the Snake. He represented the Alice National Bank and wanted the bank to control the foundation Sarita planned to establish. In 1960 Sarita rewrote her will again, cutting out family members and leaving most of her estate to the foundation. Grace and Floyd continued to fight over control. Brother Leo, meanwhile, was helping Sarita make plans for another trip to South America. Already in failing health, she was diagnosed with cancer while in Argentina and was flown back to New York, where she died in February 1961 without ever seeing her beloved ranch again. Leo claimed that he was at Sarita’s bedside at the end (although several nuns reported that he was in the cafeteria) and that on her deathbed she signed a document naming him the sole director of her foundation.

With Sarita’s death came a mighty flood of lawsuits and more than 180 claimants, including Mexican descendants of Petra Vela de Vidal and descendants of Mifflin Kenedy’s younger brother, Elisha. A nephew of Marie Stella filed a suit charging that Brother Leo and Grace had exerted undue influence over Sarita and asking the court to remove them from the foundation board. The dispute reached the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII supported the decision of New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman to give the Texas Catholics 20 percent of the money and the New York Catholics 80 percent. This provoked an angry tirade from Bishop Garriga. In 1964 a papal negotiator settled the suits, mostly on Floyd’s terms. Grace received $14.4 million to start his own Sarita Kenedy East Foundation, devoted to worldwide Catholic charities. Brother Leo was frozen out, forced to resign from the foundation board and exiled to a remote monastery in Canada. Bishop Garriga was reduced to an ex officio board member of the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation, and control went to Floyd’s allies at the bank.

In the eighties rumors that the bank was fleecing the foundation found their way to Attorney General Jim Mattox, who launched an investigation. A new bishop in Corpus Christi, Rene Henry Gracida, wrested control from the bank, with Elena’s help, and began funneling the bulk of its grants to his own diocese. This caused a revolt by the bishops of other dioceses in Texas, who in 1996 took their case to another attorney general, Dan Morales. He filed suit against Gracida, alleging misallocation of foundation funds. The mess over church control was finally resolved in 1997, when the makeup of the board was changed so that independent voices could prevail. But other messes remained. Descendants of Mifflin Kenedy’s adopted daughter, Carmen Morrel, claimed that Sarita’s father, Don Gregorio, had stolen her inheritance. The foundation settled for an undisclosed amount, and the trust is still fighting that one in appeals court. Then came a claim by descendants of a prominent Tejano family, the Ballís, who said that Mifflin Kenedy had leased their ancient grant rather than purchased it. They offered several ancient documents as evidence, but the nonprofit corporation won a summary judgment. The case is now on appeal.

The last of the cases is Ann Fernandez’s. The legal obstacles are formidable. Buster Adami, on behalf of the trust, and Richard Leshin, on behalf of the foundation, will argue that the wills of Johnny and Sarita Kenedy took effect decades ago, and unless those outcomes are set aside, this finality bars a claim by Ann. Moreover, they contend, this lawsuit could destroy all those charities so dear to the Kenedy family. Mark Schwartz rejects this contention: “We’re not asking for the moon. We want the charities to continue. We’re asking pennies on the dollar and a seat at the table.” Ray Fernandez would like to sit on the boards of the two nonprofits, help decide who gets the Kenedy money, and maybe expand the Hispanic representation.

Since Kenedy County doesn’t have a probate judge, the case was assigned to the court of Travis County probate judge Guy Herman. In early 2004 Herman reviewed the evidence and decided that the law required the exhumation of Johnny Kenedy’s body and a comparison of his DNA with that of Ann Fernandez’s. Two times Herman ordered exhumations—in February and again in June—but both times lawyers for the two charitable institutions temporarily blocked it with appeals to higher courts.

But sometime in 2004, the exhumation is likely to happen, and forensic science will reveal what happened on the Kenedy ranch in 1925. Nobody has come right out and said it yet, but this case is really about the history of South Texas and a century and a half of cheating and lording over Mexican Americans by patróns. Even the darkest secret can’t hide forever.

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