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.
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 nothing. It wasn’t long before friendships collapsed and lawsuits followed.
Today, a little more than a year after O’Quinn’s death, the file on the case is as thick as a Sealy Posturpedic. Darla feels that she has been abused in a way that would enrage her former lover. “Gerry Treece and Rob Wilson don’t want me to be married to John O’Quinn,” she told me, folding her arms over her chest. “After ten and a half years I’m a gold digger. That’s why my bank account has so much money in it.” The estate’s attorneys fired her from her job managing the couple’s multimillion-dollar antique-car collection, ejected her from the mansion on Shadder Way, and made her ask permission to visit the ranch. Representatives from Sotheby’s and Christie’s stopped by to assess various possessions for sale. “Initially, my clothes weren’t even mine,” Darla said, her eyes filling with tears.
If, as Tolstoy wrote, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, the same can be said of all estate battles. They dredge up the unfinished business left by the deceased—literally and metaphorically—and the previously unspoken hurt feelings and/or feelings of entitlement reemerge too, fueled by the familiar emotional land mines of sex and money, power and greed. The bigger the fortune, the more intense the feelings, and the longer (and more lucrative for the lawyers) the struggle. The battle over the estate of J. Howard Marshall, to whom Anna Nicole Smith was married for all of thirteen months, is going into its second decade, even though both principals are now dead. Suffice it to say that nobody who knew John O’Quinn is surprised that the chaos that surrounded his life has continued unabated after his death.
As it has unfolded, a frisson of fear has shot through the hearts and minds of many in Houston’s upper echelons, inspiring phone calls to attorneys to review prenups and long silences between husbands and wives when the subject comes up at fancy dinners. The arguments usually split along gender lines: Men tend to think that being named as the beneficiary of O’Quinn’s $1.82 million life insurance policy and getting to keep some personal items the couple bought together is plenty for a longtime girlfriend; while women—in particular women who are rich by marriage and serve as everything from glitzy arm candy to indulgent mommies 24/7—tend to think Darla is entitled to much more, like the $70 million in property and cash she claims O’Quinn promised her.
The first time I visited her apartment, Darla pointed to a small painting above the bed, showing a fiery sunset in a forest of leafless trees. The couple had bought it on a San Francisco sojourn. “They want that one too,” she said. “I’ll go to jail before I give it to ’em.” And then she turned to face O’Quinn’s portrait and looked him straight in the eye, her voice flinty. “They can’t have it. Right, baby?”
Houston became a center of personal-injury law largely because of the carelessness of local corporations and, for a time, the willingness of juries and the Legislature to see things from the plaintiff’s point of view. The plaintiff’s attorneys were a club of eccentrics who enjoyed their lives, their families, and their wealth as much as they enjoyed the fight. At the top was the rough-hewn, unpretentious Joe Jamail, the King of Torts, a role model for several generations of Houston trial attorneys. As time went on, these men attracted national attention partly because of their skills, which were virtually unmatched, and partly because they spent their money like, well, Texans. There were the obligatory airplanes, the obligatory mansions, the obligatory supplemental ranches, and the obligatory political contributions. More was always better: One local lawyer kept a herd of zebras at his ranch north of town, another had Dolly Parton perform at his Christmas party. These good-time guys—and they were almost always guys—were impossible to dislike. They were brilliant self-made scalawags fighting for the common folk, even though most of them were as rich as or richer than the oilmen they sometimes faced in court.
This was not true of O’Quinn, who may have been the most gifted but also became the most despised of all Houston plaintiff’s lawyers, not just by the corporations he sued but by other lawyers, who believe he did damage to their profession. “I think John wanted to be a good person,” said Ronnie Krist, a seasoned plaintiff’s lawyer who had many encounters with O’Quinn. “He wanted to do what was right and good, but he didn’t understand what was good and what was evil.”
The story of O’Quinn’s early life has become part of local lore: how his mother, an alcoholic, abandoned the family when he was four; how he was left in the care of an angry, drunken father who repaired cars for a living at his shop in West University Place; how, as soon as O’Quinn got his driver’s license, he drove to a small town in Louisiana to find his mother, only to discover she had died six weeks earlier. He grew up solitary and studious, with a single parent who never thought his son was good enough and slapped him around to make the point. “John had a big hole in his heart,” said Krist. “Nothing could satisfy it.”
O’Quinn was much smarter than his father could have imagined. He struggled a bit at Rice University, where he tried, unsuccessfully, to become an engineer, but eventually found his way to the law school at the University of Houston. He was an impossibly tall, gangly kid who wore thick glasses. “He would stand up in class and say, ‘Comes to me like as how’ and then give these incredibly profound answers,” said attorney David Berg, a friend from those days. O’Quinn, who had a near-perfect ability to recall cases and citations, was editor in chief of the law review, became a moot court champion, and, while still working at his father’s garage after school, graduated first in his class in 1967. He was such an intellectual powerhouse that he was the first attorney hired from U of H by Baker Botts, the whitest of Houston’s white-shoe law firms.
But it was not a perfect union. “I kinda found myself empathizing a lot with the victim,” O’Quinn told the Chronicle in 1998. “Sometimes our client was in the wrong, and the object was to get the cases settled. In those cases, I’d get to meet the victims or their families and take their depositions. Some of these were terrible injury cases.” They were, mostly, people from modest backgrounds like his own, whose only power against massive corporations rested with their attorney. After two years he left to join a plaintiff’s firm.
“John was created out of force of will and brilliance of mind,” explained plaintiff’s lawyer Mark Lanier. But he was also still raw, and he set about learning how to speak and dress and practice his craft from some of the best trial lawyers in the country. He read hundreds of books on psychology. He watched old movies, looking for characters and lines he might appropriate for trial (his favorite was To Kill a Mockingbird). He had an uncanny ability, common in abused children, to read people. He was constantly calibrating his persona—one moment he was a dazzling intellectual arguing an esoteric legal point before a judge, the next he was the down-home son of a car mechanic. “John O’Quinn was five or six different people,” Treece told me. “Anyone who tries to put John in one dimension didn’t know who John was.”
But most importantly, he worked—around the clock, seven days a week, never stopping for vacations, holidays, or just to take a breath. In 1981 he founded his own firm. “Sweat beats brains every time,” he told his associates, whom he expected to work just as hard. His goal was simple: He wanted to be the best lawyer who ever lived.
There was a time when that seemed entirely possible. Not long after the firm opened, the huge victories started rolling in, along with tens of millions of dollars in fees. In a case against Monsanto he won $100 million for his client, the biggest award ever for a wrongful-death case. “One hundred million is not as big a verdict as it used to be,” explained Jimmy Williamson, Darla’s attorney. “When O’Quinn first did it, it was spectacular.” In another case, a natural gas dispute in Wharton County, he won a $600 million verdict. In 1993 he won a $417 million verdict against Amoco and, a year later, two victories in breast implant lawsuits—$25 million and $44 million. In the late nineties he scored the biggest victory of all, against the tobacco companies, a verdict in which a handful of Texas attorneys divided a $3.3 billion fee.
By that time he had styled himself as an avenger of the common man, Shane in a suit. He was immensely proud when Fortune magazine featured him and his partner on a 1995 cover as “Lawyers From Hell” and only mildly rattled when, around the same time, the Wall Street Journal compared him unfavorably to the Antichrist. Let critics accuse him of venue shopping, call him a proponent of junk science, and suggest that he tampered with juries—they were just jealous. “My average jury verdict in a breast implant case—I’ve tried five of them—is $15 million,” he told the Houston Press. “They hate me. They cannot beat me in the courtroom, so they try outside of the courtroom. They try to beat me in the court of public opinion.”
It is not surprising that his soaring success did not endear him to the vain, competitive crowd of top Houston trial lawyers. What was surprising was that O’Quinn seemed determined, early on, to lose friends and win enemies. “He didn’t know how to win with dignity,” his former associate Kerensky told me. “He’d tell you he was gonna beat you, he’d beat you, then he’d put a stick in your eye and remind you he’d beat you. He was a bad winner.” Worse, he chiseled good lawyers out of fees and had an unfortunate tendency to steal cases. When he pushed the edge of the law too far, usually by soliciting cases, powerful attorneys were only too happy to haul him up before the State Bar. The first investigation, in 1989, resulted in a slap on the wrist, but the second, in 1997, almost cost him his law license. Eventually memberships in prestigious organizations like the American Board of Trial Advocates and the Inner Circle of Advocates (O’Quinn once said that the day he was admitted to the latter was the happiest of his life) were revoked.
Friends and colleagues came and went, for the same reason. O’Quinn could be unfailingly generous—picking up the tab to take a crew to the Super Bowl or the Final Four—but he was demanding, calling associates like Wilson and Treece at all hours of the day and night, expecting them to drop everything on his behalf, which they often did. O’Quinn didn’t keep a schedule; if Wilson had a land investment he wanted to show O’Quinn, he might wait all afternoon outside his office for the chance. “It was always life or death with John,” said Treece, who joked about a time O’Quinn went to Europe before the days of cell phones; Treece’s wife was immensely relieved that their phone didn’t ring for three weeks.
The O’Quinn law firm was as dysfunctional as a mental ward. Most of the people who stayed for any length of time found themselves locked in strange, symbiotic death struggles with the boss, who often refused to pay them fees they’d been promised. “John was funny about money,” Kerensky said. Lawyers who challenged O’Quinn about what he owed them would find themselves on the losing end of a contest of wills. But if they allowed him to stay in control and pay them what he thought was right, O’Quinn was often generous, adding a bonus. He had his own personal, sometimes mystifying set of rules: For years he refused to pay the broker who had arranged for the purchase of his $15 million Wimberley ranch the commission he deserved. As a philanthropist, he was something of a bust for the same reason: He might agree to contribute to a project, then change his mind down the road for reasons that remained unexplained. When O’Quinn did give, he drove a hard bargain. “He was incredibly generous but ego-driven in his generosity. John needed to have his name on things,” explained Scott Basinger, an expert in addiction who would later help O’Quinn in his battles with alcoholism.
No one seems to know exactly when his heavy drinking began, because for many years he drank in secret. Some say it was after his father died, in 1984, in a fire that started when the elder O’Quinn fell asleep while smoking in a chair. Or it could have been when the second bar investigation threatened not just his livelihood but his very identity. Or maybe there was just something broken in him that could never be fixed. As he once told his friend and fellow attorney Berg, “I don’t understand it. I drive around this city, I’ve got all this money, and I’m still miserable.” He tried to fix himself with alcohol, and the results were predictable. In 1996 he was arrested for drunk driving. On at least one occasion after that a friend had to knock down the door when O’Quinn had gone on a binge and locked himself in his room. He went in and out of rehab—Hazelden, Betty Ford—but nothing seemed to help. During the tobacco trial, when he was supposedly lead counsel, he suffered a relapse so bad that two other attorneys had to force their way into his hotel room after he’d drunk himself into a stupor.
“John had to be the best,” said Lanier, who was both protégé and rescuer at different times. “It was ingrained in him that there could be no one better. If there was anyone better, he was a failure. There was only a gold medal. There was no silver, there was no bronze.”
In 1992 Darla Lexington was a three-time divorcée, nearly bankrupt and sick with lupus, which had been attributed to her breast implants. She found her way to O’Quinn’s office and wound up as one of the lead plaintiffs in a suit against the manufacturer, 3M. O’Quinn won her an $11 million judgment two years later. “I saw him as a hero because he really saved my life,” she told me. “If you were his client, he fought his butt off for you every second.” She built herself a mansion—Darlington—in Memorial and proceeded to live in not quite the manner of a typical Aldine High School graduate.
In May 1999 she read in the paper that her former attorney and hero, John O’Quinn, was getting divorced. “I called him on the phone and got through,” she told me. “I said, ‘Hi, John, this is Darla. I read about you in the paper.’ ” They set a date for the coming Sunday, and as Darla puts it, “We were together every day since then.”
Like a lot of people, Darla did not realize that O’Quinn was an alcoholic when the two started dating. Within a year, however, she was calling his friends to come and lift him off the floor after he’d passed out or emptying the vodka from his hidden bottles while he threatened to kill her. O’Quinn wound up at Menninger, and this time the treatment took. He stopped drinking in June 2000 and became a regular at Second Baptist Church, home to many of Houston’s rich and reformed. “Before then he couldn’t have found his way to Second Baptist if he’d had a limo and a motorcade,” cracked Wilson.
What followed, by all accounts, was a halcyon period. Darla and O’Quinn started appearing as a couple in Shelby Hodge’s society column in the Chronicle. They sold Darlington—O’Quinn was listed as an owner of the house, along with Darla, when it sold for $5.9 million—and she moved into his River Oaks home, happily giving him her money to invest. For one of his birthday parties, Darla rented out a portion of Reliant Stadium and decorated it with red carpets, 21 chandeliers, and a replica of a casino. Don Henley was the musical guest. They traveled to Europe—O’Quinn had never been. At the ranch, he would sometimes strip off his clothes and float down the Blanco River. They lived for a time in a trailer on the land, just the two of them. “Where’s my friend John?” one of his old pals asked Darla. “My friend John doesn’t know how to have fun.” Now he was judging pumpkin-carving contests in Wimberley and dressing as Santa Claus in a benefit for the Children’s Assessment Center. In 2001 Hodge reported that Darla and O’Quinn had announced their engagement at a Houston Grand Opera opening-night gala. The yellow diamond was bigger than a gum ball. “No date set for the ceremony,” Hodge wrote.
In August 2003 O’Quinn woke up one Saturday morning and announced that they were going to an automobile auction he’d read about in the paper. They bought fourteen cars, celebrating each purchase with a hot kiss. From that day on, assembling a collection became a shared obsession. The couple spent much of their free time going to auctions and buying cars, from the Batmobile to the Popemobile to a 1938 Talbot Lago, one of the rarest and most expensive cars in the world. O’Quinn was particularly fond of Duesenbergs—he remembered as a child that his father had told him there was no better car. Eventually they had three warehouses full of about 860 cars valued at more than $200 million when the market was high. They became regulars on the auction circuit, competing for cars with the likes of Jay Leno and making plans for a car museum that would ultimately be a gift to the city of Houston. Darla ran the business (in 2008 O’Quinn would name her president of the company), sometimes working from a Duesenberg with a deep-purple interior. “I used to sit in it and make my conference calls,” she told me.
That same year, on Memorial Day weekend, the couple had a ceremony at the ranch in which they exchanged rings and unofficial marriage vows. In the following months and then years, they had the kind of relationship that would—to Darla’s way of thinking, at least—meet the standard for common law marriage. (According to Texas law, two people must live together, agree that they are married, and hold themselves out in public as man and wife.) After the ceremony, for instance, their pastor at Houston’s Second Baptist, Ed Young, sent them his book titled The Ten Commandments of Marriage. In the next few years, O’Quinn opened brokerage accounts in Darla’s name and gave her medical power of attorney. Darla gave him her money to invest, among other things. They were introduced as Mr. and Mrs. O’Quinn at several galas, and the names John and Darla O’Quinn were used on their license plate frames at car shows.
Yet despite Darla’s love and affection and his newfound sobriety, O’Quinn’s conversion to all-around nice guy was never complete. The firm remained chaotic, as did his many business dealings, most of which were in real estate around the United States. “You never wanted to be his business partner,” said one local CEO. “If things went south, he’d sue you.” In 2007 he lost a big case and a humiliating one: Joe Jamail represented a cadre of women who claimed O’Quinn had overcharged them on expenses during one of the breast implant suits. The judgment was about $40 million. Afterward O’Quinn took out a loan from Bank of America for about the same amount, using the ranch as collateral.
He became obsessed with day trading, spending hours alone in his home office watching stock reports on the computer; sometimes he wouldn’t make it to the firm until late afternoon. He was also fighting a losing battle with diabetes. Sometimes he was so weak that he fainted in public or lost the use of his legs. In denial, he would forget to take his insulin and then overdose himself when he remembered; he mumbled and stumbled through a 2007 hearing on a case involving Anna Nicole Smith’s estate, prompting rumors that he was drinking again. Despite Darla’s best efforts, he’d become so focused on his investments that he’d refuse his morning medication and also refuse to eat, adding to his weakness. Darla began to hide his insulin, just as she’d poured out his vodka, in order to keep him on a regular schedule. O’Quinn’s mood darkened: Sometimes he was so cruel to her at dinner parties that Romano, the ranch manager, told me he couldn’t stand it and would have to leave.
Still, Darla and O’Quinn managed to make it to the 2008 Olympics in China, where, dressed as emperor and empress, they took part in a wedding ceremony often offered to tourists. That same year, O’Quinn gave Darla a band of yellow diamonds to match the engagement ring he’d given her in 2001. He also agreed to her many suggestions for improvements on the ranch, though not without some squabbling. According to Romano, O’Quinn would promise Darla something and then, in private “pickup talks” in Romano’s truck, say he wasn’t going to go along. Then, back home with Darla, he’d give in.
In July 2009 O’Quinn was hospitalized at St. Luke’s. He was near death and delirious from diabetes, unable to recognize Darla. “John was going to die two deaths,” Kerensky told me. “There was his physical death but also his ability to practice law. The second one may have scared him more than the first.” O’Quinn recovered enough to go home, but on some days he was so deeply depressed that he couldn’t get out of bed and would beg Darla to stay with him instead of going to work at the car warehouse. “I’d get dressed and then get undressed and get back into bed,” Darla said. “John was my twenty-four-hour-a-day job.”
All along, Gerald Treece and Rob Wilson had been there as backup, gratefully accepting donations to the law school and enjoying O’Quinn’s largesse on trips. Like so many other people who had dealings with O’Quinn, they seemed to know exactly what Darla’s role in his life had been. “I thank you for your friendship, and I thank you for caring for my friend,” Treece wrote her at the end of a long poem he gave Darla on her birthday in 2004. Two years later, Wilson toasted Darla with his stentorian voice on O’Quinn’s birthday as his friend’s “better half.” O’Quinn too had sent myriad cards over the years, proclaiming his gratitude and his love. On their anniversary, in May 2009, O’Quinn wrote, “Darling Darla, our ten years together have been for me the best ten years of my life. . . . You have given me happiness, kindness and the most love of my life.”
But what O’Quinn never did was update his 2008 will. According to Darla, he promised her 750 acres of the ranch, $20 million in cash, his life insurance policy, and 27 cars from the collection. The couple met once with David Griffis, O’Quinn’s longtime attorney, who handled business and real estate transactions. According to an affidavit provided by Griffis, O’Quinn visited privately with him first, and then called Darla in. They discussed property that “she wanted Mr. O’Quinn to give her,” though nothing was resolved. Still, taking care of Darla was clearly on his mind: In early fall 2009, O’Quinn drove around the ranch with Romano looking for the right acreage to leave Darla, as well as a burial spot for himself near the river. Later that day, with Romano present, he told Darla he intended to leave her the property. Then Darla left the room. “Now this is pickup talk,” he said to Romano; he couldn’t give Darla the land he’d promised.
“Why not?” Romano asked, appalled.
“Because of the taxes,” he said.
Around the same time, the couple considered ways that they might have a child together. “John really wanted an heir,” Darla said. According to her, they consulted with specialists about in vitro fertilization and considered using her grown daughter, Michelle, to carry the baby to term. O’Quinn underwent surgery to collect his sperm, though it was unsuccessful. But they continued to explore their options.
Then, on October 29, he went to catch a plane at Hobby. His pilot was on vacation, so he was traveling commercial. Running late, he skipped his breakfast but still missed his flight, despite trying to convince Southwest to hold the plane. His driver, Johnny Cutliff, a good-natured, long-suffering man in his late fifties, knew never to leave an airport until O’Quinn called him to say he was boarding. Sure enough, O’Quinn stormed out of Hobby and shoved Cutliff aside, insisting on driving. He wanted to go home and pick up his latest stock report, one hundred pages thick with all of his markings, before the next flight.
John O’Quinn’s funeral took place on November 4, at Second Baptist Church, almost a week after his death. Thousands of people showed up for the event, which Darla planned. The bountiful spray of blooms across O’Quinn’s coffin suggested there wasn’t a red rose left in Ecuador. Michelle gave a tearful eulogy, but you could see others wrestling with the complexity of the deceased. Gerald Treece, who had called O’Quinn “the best big brother in the world,” admitted sadly that “in the last ten years he had beaten the monster of alcoholism but not the monster of low self-esteem.” From the lectern, his white hair shimmering and his voice weary, Treece extended a hand toward Darla and noted “how much John cared about his family and how much he loved you guys.” The Reverend Ed Young followed with a dramatic retelling of O’Quinn’s abandonment of alcohol through his conversion to Christ and then gave Darla props for helping O’Quinn to know what it felt like “to be a little boy on Christmas Eve.” He closed on a surprisingly bracing note, calling O’Quinn “a great hero and a coward . . . who leaves behind a legacy that will never be understood.”
Those words would prove prophetic. Treece, in his duty as executor, had read the will the day after O’Quinn died and given Darla the bad news: O’Quinn had left his entire estate to his foundation, to be distributed to various local charities. She wasn’t named, and she should get a lawyer. By mid-November, she had hired Jimmy Williamson, a well-known local plaintiff’s attorney, who, like many lawyers in Houston, had worked alongside O’Quinn until they’d had a falling-out.
For Treece, the situation was personally wrenching. “Darla is my friend, and she’s been my friend for a long time,” he told me dolefully. On the other hand, as a law school dean he didn’t feel that he had much wiggle room. “John authored a will that said he was an unmarried man,” he told me, adding that O’Quinn told him he never intended to marry again. Treece doesn’t believe there was a common law relationship. “What is fair in life is not always fair in the eyes of the law,” he said. “My duty is to honor the will, not to distinguish between right and wrong.” Wilson agrees. “The will says what it says,” he told me. “There’s no ambiguity to it.”
But with so much money involved, the case quickly became a legal free-for-all. Dale Jefferson, O’Quinn’s main litigator, was representing Treece; Griffis, the attorney who had met with Darla and O’Quinn during their estate planning, was representing the estate, though in order to do so he’d decided to resign from the board of the O’Quinn Foundation, where he’d worked closely with Wilson. The accountant who had managed O’Quinn’s affairs for decades (often working with Darla toward the end) was now working on behalf of the estate as well. As Judge Mike Wood would later remark, trying to hurry along the battalion of high-priced talent assembling at the trough, “I’m looking at five-thousand dollars an hour here.”
Treece’s fee as the executor of the estate was an estimated $8 million to $10 million; Wilson’s firm, in which he’s a partner, was already taking commissions for arranging sales of O’Quinn’s various properties. The fact that he could potentially distribute millions to Houston charities also made him, suddenly, one of the most sought-after men in town. Wilson’s power could not have eluded Treece: South Texas College of Law undoubtedly hoped to benefit from the O’Quinn Foundation in the future, as it had in the past. But the will stipulated that if the executor didn’t probate the estate as O’Quinn requested, he could be replaced by Wilson. Clearly, there had been some pickup talk that Darla had not been privy to, and maybe Treece hadn’t either.
In mid-November, Williamson sent a letter to Treece requesting a meeting to discuss Darla’s “claim to community property” as a common law wife. “Darla and I are anxious to preserve John’s legacy as a philanthropist,” Williamson wrote, in what he described to me as a friendly overture but, given what followed, might have been perceived as a threat. It soon became obvious that the two sides were nowhere close to a compromise when it came to determining a fair settlement for Darla. She wanted the $70 million she said she’d been promised. The estate side was offering less than $7 million.
But Treece had another equally pressing problem. John O’Quinn had died with about $180 million in debt. Not only had he mortgaged the ranch to the tune of about $48 million, but he owed another $40 million or so on the judgment won by Jamail on behalf of O’Quinn’s former breast implant clients. He had spent tens of millions on cars and had played the stock market desperately at a time when it was crashing with frightening speed. Though Treece was able to settle with Jamail almost immediately—O’Quinn had kept fighting, literally, till the day he died—he realized he’d have to sell some property to pay off the other debts, specifically the ranch, the house in River Oaks, and the cars.
In the beginning Darla cooperated, but then the estate began firing employees at the car warehouses, including her nephew, who lost his job on Christmas Eve in 2009. During the next few months, the relationships between Darla and various estate and foundation lawyers began to deteriorate. She didn’t think the lawyers knew what they were doing, she told me. She could get better prices than they ever could. Whether they did not believe in her expertise or had grown weary of her demands or simply felt the pressure of Bank of America breathing down their necks, the executor’s team soon cut Darla out of the loop. As she would later testify, “They treated me like I never knew John O’Quinn.”
Treece tried to make peace by suggesting to Darla that she could claim O’Quinn’s undesignated $1.8 million life insurance policy and by giving her the run of the River Oaks house until it was sold. The estate also continued to pay Darla the $6,000 monthly stipend O’Quinn had given her to maintain the household. But when the estate moved to appraise the contents of the house—O’Quinn had also left his possessions to the foundation—she balked. Many of the items inside had been hers before she had moved in with O’Quinn, she claimed, and others had been given to her by O’Quinn as gifts. More negotiations followed, with no resolution.
Finally, in July, Wilson had had enough. His lawyers petitioned the court to intervene against Darla, to declare that she had never been O’Quinn’s wife and to stipulate that the foundation was the sole beneficiary of his estate. Five days later, the estate filed a similar plea. The game had switched from softball to hardball. According to the estate’s filing, Darla’s marriage claims were utterly false. She and O’Quinn had filed tax returns as single people for the decade they had been together (not unusual for some married couples), and Darla had, in fact, sworn in an affidavit that she was not married to O’Quinn in both 2000 and December 2003, months after the May ceremony at the ranch. (These happened to be documents she had signed at O’Quinn’s direction that he had used in the sale of various properties.) Worse for Darla’s claims, a letter surfaced that had been sent to U.S. Customs in 2009 regarding some items left behind at the Beijing Peninsula Hotel and identifying her as O’Quinn’s fiancée. Darla says she didn’t write the letter.
Actions that might have been completely innocent suddenly took on a very sinister cast. At the scene of the car accident, Michelle had told officials that her mother was O’Quinn’s wife, and the funeral home had identified her the same way on the death certificate. Now the estate’s pleading accused Darla of lying to the funeral home by claiming that she was O’Quinn’s common law spouse. When Darla wanted to bury O’Quinn at the ranch, Treece and O’Quinn’s longtime accountant agreed. Darla arranged for a two-person mausoleum to be built, with her name and O’Quinn’s carved into it, and had it put in place at the site of his burial. Now the estate accused her of ordering that O’Quinn’s remains be placed at the ranch. Accidentally or on purpose, Darla’s actions were holding up any sale, since there weren’t too many people who wanted to spend millions on a property containing the former owner’s bones.
Darla was also accused of disputing ownership of the jewelry and art set for sale. And then there were the cars. The pleading claimed that the estate needed to sell many of the cars to service the debt, but Darla insisted that 27 of the cars (worth about $30 million) had been promised to her by O’Quinn; she wanted them for the museum, she said. Unfortunately, none of these cars were in her name. They were held in open title (making them easier to sell quickly to other collectors). Darla had only the testimony of a few employees who said that O’Quinn had frequently singled out certain cars as hers.
Things went from bad to worse as the case became more personal and the parties more intractable. Darla countered Treece’s pleading by filing an injunction attempting to halt the sale of some of the cars—and then suing Treece, demanding the return and delivery of property she insisted was hers. The suit also contained a claim against O’Quinn for breach of “fiduciary duty.” In other words, Darla was alleging that she had been married to O’Quinn, but if she hadn’t been married to him, then he had sure as hell been her lawyer—and had done a piss-poor job of protecting her interests.
From then on, the earth was irrevocably scorched. After the judge ruled that O’Quinn’s body could be moved to land at the edge of the ranch (which could be parceled off if the property were ever sold), the estate did so without alerting Darla. She must now ask for permission, in writing, to visit the ranch, which is sometimes granted and sometimes not (she claims that on two recent holidays she’s been denied access). She and Wilson continue to disagree over the sale of a luxury condo: Darla says he sold it out from under her; Wilson says she told him she didn’t want it, so he sold it to a third party. The estate did inventory after inventory at the house and the ranch, which Darla saw as pointless. In September 2010, Michelle gave birth to a son, leading to false speculation that O’Quinn had produced a “popsicle heir” (a term that Darla and Michelle find offensive). Shortly after this, Michelle got notice from the estate’s lawyers that she had to be out of the town house O’Quinn had long paid for. Michelle’s health insurance, and Darla’s, which O’Quinn had funded through the firm and which ran out at the end of the year, would no longer be paid for by the estate either. “It’s war,” Darla told me.
In December she got a break. Judge Wood ruled that a jury trial was necessary to resolve the case. This was good news for her: Harris County juries tend to be generous with women, particularly older women, and particularly older women who devote even a portion of their lives to caretaking. “It’s a dangerous case for the estate,” a former judge told me.
Maybe it’s admirable that O’Quinn’s closest friends are honoring his wishes to the letter, enabling him to achieve in death the prestige and redemption he struggled for in life. Along with the O’Quinn Medical Tower at St. Luke’s and the John M. O’Quinn Campus of the Children’s Assessment Center and the O’Quinn Law Library, we might one day see the John O’Quinn Cancer Center and the John O’Quinn Medical College and who knows what else. He will be remembered as he wanted to be—a savior of the little guy, as a generous benefactor of the city he loved—regardless of whom he forgot.
But estate disputes are negotiated and resolved every day, and the question remains: Why, when there seems to be plenty of money to go around—$20 million in tobacco receivables will continue to come in to the estate each year for at least another decade—those closest to such a great and powerful attorney don’t just settle the case and move on.
Of course, that wouldn’t be O’Quinn’s way, and Treece and Wilson both learned at the feet of the master.
Unfortunately for them, so did Darla.