Law and Disorder

John O’Quinn didn’t just set out to be a lawyer, he set out to be the best (and the richest) lawyer who ever lived. And over the course of a long career, he amassed the astronomical courtroom paydays, outrageous car collection, luxury homes, and list of mortal enemies to prove it. Now, a year after his shocking death, he’s got the bitter, tawdry estate battle too.
Law And Disorder
John O’Quinn

Darla Lexington sleeps in a very dark room in a very large bed, alone. Like a particular kind of Houston woman, the fact that she lives on the top floor of a luxury apartment building is a sign of reduced circumstances, though in her case the loss of an impressive River Oaks home resulted from a death instead of a divorce. The bedspread and curtains are black, giving the room the gloom of mourning. Beside the bed, leaning against the wall, is a large portrait of her lover of ten years, John O’Quinn, the infamous trial lawyer who died in a terrible car accident in the fall of 2009. Darla, who at 59 has the courtesan’s hourglass figure, the geisha’s will to please, and a soft, baby girl voice, talks to the portrait often, especially when she is lonely or sad or, as is frequently the case these days, really, really mad.

Once, Darla was a happy person, and she still tries to be that way. “I’m a hugger,” she said as she embraced me the first time we met. She served drinks around the holidays with napkins that read “What happens under the mistletoe stays under the mistletoe.” Her eyes still gleam like a kid’s at Christmas when she recalls her life with O’Quinn—the multimillion-dollar shopping sprees for art and cars (27 Duesenbergs!), the first-class trips to far-off locales (China for the Olympics!), the five-thousand-acre riverfront ranch near Wimberley, and the birthday parties featuring the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis. (O’Quinn’s sixtieth, in 2001, cost $250,000 and had a retro theme—O’Quinn wore a custom jacket that read “Leader of the Pack,” while Darla had a matching jacket that read “Leader of the Packettes.”)

Darla is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person. She came from a modest background, got a modest education, and, before she met O’Quinn, had worked as a health clinic administrator and a flight attendant. So life with the man that the National Law Journal once named one of the hundred most influential lawyers in America, the man named by Forbes in 1995 as the second-highest-earning attorney in the country—O’Quinn took in $40 million that year, behind his nemesis Joe Jamail—well, it must have seemed, on good days, like something out of a fairy tale. “He was the sweetest man I’ve ever known in my whole life,” Darla told me, her voice nearly disappearing in sadness. “I loved him.”

And then, on a gray morning in October 2009, O’Quinn took a sharp curve on a rain-slicked Houston parkway at more than 60 miles per hour and lost control of his Suburban, which jumped the median, barely missed oncoming traffic, and struck a thirty-foot-tall oak tree. The breaking of glass and the crushing of metal could be heard blocks away. Neither O’Quinn nor Johnny Cutliff, the man who usually did his driving, was wearing a seat belt, and both were killed instantly.

Almost as instantly, the legal and social gossip mills started to churn. O’Quinn was a famously bad driver—he sometimes sped down city streets while reading the Houston Chronicle. Why was he piloting the car instead of Cutliff? News accounts had him rushing home to pick up papers after missing a flight to San Antonio at Hobby Airport. Why hadn’t he flown his private plane, and what documents could possibly have been so important that they couldn’t have been faxed or e-mailed? Then there were O’Quinn’s past problems with alcohol. Had he been drinking and driving again? The National Enquirer even stepped in, suggesting that O’Quinn’s death might have had something to do with his upcoming testimony in a financial probe of fellow trial lawyer and doomed presidential candidate John Edwards. But in Houston, most of the talk was about Darla. What in the world was going to happen to her now that John was gone?

In the maelstrom that has become her life since that day, Darla Lexington’s love for John O’Quinn is just about the only fact not in dispute. Many people, including the handful who considered themselves close friends of the couple, knew that loving him could not have been easy. Sure, O’Quinn was six feet four, wavy-haired, and so ruggedly handsome that he was often compared to the Marlboro Man. Sure, he had an intellect that decimated his competitors and a charisma that jurors couldn’t resist. But O’Quinn was also a tortured soul who could never leave behind his troubled childhood and was known to brutalize not just his legal adversaries but those closest to him.

Darla was often credited for changing O’Quinn, for persuading him to find and enjoy a life outside the courtroom. “He gave her security, she gave him humanity,” explained Mike Kerensky, who is one of Darla’s attorneys and also worked for O’Quinn from 1981 to 1996. A remarkable number of photographs exist of the couple embracing—a tiny, dark-haired woman enveloped by an eager, hungry giant. Before he met Darla, O’Quinn was known as a workaholic who wanted it that way (just ask his two ex-wives). “I can tell you this,” said Rocky Romano, who managed the couple’s Wimberley ranch. “John O’Quinn would have died a lot sooner if it hadn’t been for Darla Lexington. She kept his ass alive. She was the best thing that ever happened to John O’Quinn, and anybody that says any different is flat-out lying.”

Yet in his last will and testament, dated July 2008, O’Quinn left his entire estate—a conservative estimate puts it in the neighborhood of $400 million—to his foundation, to be dispersed to prestigious Houston charities like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Menninger Foundation (at whose clinic he was successfully treated for alcoholism). He designated his friend T. Gerald Treece, the associate dean of the South Texas College of Law, as executor; another friend and former real estate investment partner, Robert C. Wilson III, was put in charge of the John M. O’Quinn Foundation, of which he had been a trustee. The woman O’Quinn called his Darling Darla—but to whom he was never formally married—got

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