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.
Goodman Gone Bad
Courtesy of Dave Chronicle

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

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