Texas Gothic

Along the main thoroughfare of the city of Orange rises the great dome of the 1908 Lutcher Memorial Presbyterian Church. Even God, it seems, got a grant from the Lutcher-Stark empire to make this place of worship one of the first air-conditioned buildings in the nation.

Just down Green Avenue looms the modern, boxlike Stark Museum of Art, housing the prized works of Audubon and Southwest artists. Across the avenue is the 1904 Victorian masterpiece the W.H. Stark House, spouting gingerbread trim and classic gables. And beyond the splashing fountain of Stark Park rests the museum's granite-skinned cousin, the six-story Lutcher Theater for the Performing Arts, downtown Orange's tallest building.

Almost every block of the town's center bears witness to the immense wealth of the pioneering Lutchers and their marital merger with the Stark clan. Proportionately, Houstonians could relate to it by trying to imagine the MacGregors, Browns, Jesse Jones, Hermanns and the Worthams -- all rolled into one.

But on this sunlit morning two weeks ago, the entirety of the Lutcher-Stark museum works and theater could never rival what was unfolding only a few blocks away.

By 8 a.m. a small group of relatives and workers approached a small stone structure in the center of the 1840s Evergreen Cemetery. Laborers unlocked the ornate double iron-and-glass doors and began dismantling the granite front plates. In about two hours they'd removed caulking and sealant and struggled out with a pair of opulent bronze caskets. H.J. Lutcher Stark, the philanthropist who went by "Lutcher" but was known simply as Pop to two generations of locals, was interred here 36 years ago. The other to leave was his father, W.H. Stark, dead for 65 years.

Drivers whisked the remains away in a pair of black Suburbans to the Dorman Funeral Home, where a forensic pathologist carefully shaved away samples of the remains.

Descendants of the two are banking on DNA testing to sort out the longest-running mystery around these parts: whether Lutcher's sons were indeed adopted twins, or rather Lutcher's illegitimate sons with his rumored mistress and later wife. The examinations may even reveal more grisly findings about how Lutcher died.

Big bucks as well as disputed birthrights are behind this decades-old battle, one that makes the mega-struggle of the Howard Hughes will look like a simple probate in comparison. A disenfranchised family has been facing off against the $200 million Stark Foundation in continued legal fights over the family estate. The battles are wrapped around the fierce legacy of Lutcher's reclusive widow and third wife, Nelda C. Stark. Her death in late 1999 only intensified battles stretching back a half-century.

By 3 p.m. the Suburbans had returned the bodies to the family mausoleum. And lab technicians would soon be searching for clues to whatever secrets the Stark father and son had taken to the grave.

"We aren't bad people," explains Rebecca Stark Nugent, Lutcher's granddaughter. "We've always tried to treat others fairly, and to do the right thing. I just don't understand why they've kept us in the dark so long.

"This is our family. We have a right to know."

State historical markers and handed-down stories both chronicle a beautiful beginning to the Lutcher-Stark dynasty.

In 1877 Pennsylvania sawmill operator H.J. Lutcher and his partner, G. Bedell Moore, arrived aboard the new railroad into Orange, about 90 miles east of Houston. In the aftermath of the Civil War, they found a near camptown bordering on lawlessness, known for lynchings at the infamous "Hanging Tree" on the Orange waterfront. But the pair also discovered what drew them here: green gold, the lush, untapped pine forests of Southeast Texas and neighboring Louisiana. In some sectors, farmers cursed the trees as nothing more than immovable weeds. Lutcher latched on to heavily wooded acres priced as cheap as 25 cents each.

Using then-modern milling techniques, he sawed his way into an empire. By 1905 he'd bought out his partner and owned millions of acres of land and an operation spewing out 125 million board-feet of lumber annually.

Lutcher (the family pronounces it "Lecher") had no sons. Daughter Miriam married William H. Stark, who took over and expanded the holdings into mining, cattle, farming and even banking and insurance. In 1887 Miriam gave birth to H.J. Lutcher Stark, the first of the family to adapt to the Lone Star lifestyle big-time.

Stark was reported to be the first University of Texas student with a strange contraption known as the automobile. As a student, he managed the UT football team, using his cash reserves to help in ways that would give today's NCAA investigators fits. He was credited with bringing the Longhorn name to UT sports, when he bought blankets for the players and emblazoned them with steer horn logos.

His father had been a UT regent, and in 1919 Lutcher began a 24-year tenure on that board, intent on making Texas a football powerhouse. He engineered a deal in 1936 to lure away famed Nebraska coach D.X. Bible, by combining the positions of coach and athletic director to pay him a then-scandalous $15,000 a year.

Closer to home, young Stark -- who went by the name Lutcher -- created a forerunner of modern high school drill teams, the all-girl Bengal Guards. He would take them on shopping sprees and transport them on his private railcars to glamour appearances back east, even springing for police motorcycle escorts. News accounts say he and the Bengals were dining on chicken in the ritzy Stephens Hotel in Chicago when he stood up and told them to show Yankees how to eat chicken.

Lutcher grabbed a piece with his hands and gnawed away at it, with the laughing girls following suit.

Lutcher was loved by the kids of Orange. But he would have to launch a desperate search for children of his own.

As a UT student, Lutcher Stark watched sorority girl Nita Hill combing her hair one day, and he fell immediately in love, or so the family story goes. She was a football sweetheart and daughter of respected Austin physician Homer Hill, whom Lutcher knew as the team doctor for the Longhorns.

They married in 1911. Nita twice became pregnant, but one child was stillborn and the other died only hours after birth. In 1923 they proudly announced that they were adopting twin babies: Homer Barksdale Hill Stark and William Henry Stark.

These sons seemed to have an idyllic upbringing. Nita regularly received crudely written childhood confirmations of their fondness for her:

I love you so with all my heart.

As no other child could do.

I hope I'll never have to part

With such a sweet mother as you.

By Bill S.

Home made.

By all accounts, their parents were careful to raise the children outside the typical cocoon of immense wealth. So what if they went to a high school bearing the family name -- it was still a public school, rather than the private academies so popular with the rich of that era.

"They were the greatest family," recalls Rebecca Stark Nugent, the daughter of Homer Stark. "Lutcher did everything with the kids. They were well mannered and excelled in every sport. He raised them to be respectful and not to flaunt their wealth or status -- and they didn't."

Photos track the twins from white baby frocks to western costumes as youngsters. Bill and Homer are in black-and-white pictures shooting billiards with their dad, and in all manner of sports uniforms.

Yes, the Stark family moved forward to one of those storybook happily-ever-after endings. But as the twins celebrated their 16th birthdays, tragedy struck. In the Old South jargon that still comes forth in the retelling of events around Orange, "Miss Nita took ill." Lutcher imported doctors and medical aides from their very own Francis Ann Lutcher Hospital in Orange, but his wife never recovered. In 1939 the boys left her behind at Evergreen Cemetery.

About two years later Lutcher married Ruby Belle Childers, his longtime girl Friday, confidante and executive secretary.

And death returned to the Stark home. This time, "Miss Ruby took ill." She died in 1942 at age 39, little more than a year after the wedding. Her attendant as she died was her own sister, Nelda Childers, a commanding presence and former chief administrator of the Lutcher Hospital.

Both women had known the might of the Stark empire since infancy. Their father was night watchman at the lumber company. And Nelda, described by Stark descendants as a dominating force, was determined to become much more.

Whatever grief he'd faced with the death of two wives in three years, Lutcher was now caught up in a far bigger conflict -- World War II -- as he stood on the deck of a ferryboat plying the waters off Bremerton, Washington.

His boys had ended their college education to enlist in the military. Bill Stark turned torpedo bomber pilot. Lutcher took the train to this northwest outpost to see Homer, now a navy man, off to war aboard the USS Richmond. With him was Homer's fiancée, Becky Havens. Her daughter Rebecca Nugent tells the story passed down from her mother years later:

Aboard the ferry, Lutcher carried a letter that had just arrived from their hotel. He carefully opened it and began silently reading, his lips and hands trembling as his eyes followed the lines of neat prose.

"He seemed to get more and more upset," Nugent says. "My mother asked, 'What's the matter?' "

The response came slowly, in measured words. "It's Nelda," he told her. "She's not going to marry me unless I agree to her conditions."

What conditions? his future daughter-in-law asked.

"Live her lifestyle. Give up my career -- and give up my boys."

Then he tore the letter into little pieces that floated on the wind into the bay waters. All he would say beyond that was "It will never happen."

But it did happen.

Months later, on December 16, 1943, Nelda became the third Mrs. Stark.

Stark relatives say her withdrawn personality contrasted sharply with the outgoing nature of sister Ruby. Little was known about her formative years, and Nelda, by all accounts a fiercely private person, preferred it that way. She was one of the few women at that time with a college degree -- getting her diploma in 1930 from Texas Woman's University in Denton.

She'd returned to Orange and taken the administrative job at Lutcher's hospital. Later she was a partner in a medical lab, conducting tests above a downtown Orange storefront.

Nelda was not a registered nurse, but Stark relatives said she almost always carried a small black bag containing the tools of the medical trade, and she knew how to use them. She also carried a keen sense of business and ledgers.

The twins had been surprised on one trip home to find the doors of the family home locked. Bill Stark recoiled. A servant offered an explanation: "Oh, Nelda and Lutcher just had another argument."

Rebecca Nugent tracked down a former Orange-area resident who swore that, as a Depression-era teenage farm boy, he'd struggled with his father to help his seriously ailing brother up the steps of Nelda's hospital. She turned them away, saying they could come in when they had the money in hand to pay for his care.

The father went back to try to sell a cow to get the cash for his son's treatment. "Before he could get back there with the money, the boy died -- his appendix had ruptured," Rebecca quoted the man.

Her blunt manner showed itself even as Lutcher died after a lengthy illness. The twins, who were maintaining a deathwatch at the hospital, recalled that Nelda walked into the waiting room and announced tersely, "Boys, there will be no autopsy."

Homer stared at her and then replied, "I guess that means our father died?"

"Lutcher was one of the wealthiest men in the state, even the nation," says Randy Stark, Lutcher's grandson. "Why on earth would he marry a shrew like Nelda Stark? It just didn't make sense."

Some of those without ties to the Stark family speculate that Nelda may have been just the kind of companion Lutcher sought at that stage of his life.

While no trophy wife by any stretch, she was 21 years his junior. They'd formed a bond in the difficult times of caring for his two previous wives. If Lutcher was looking for a caretaker, no one rivaled the strong-willed Nelda. And judging from the tales, Nelda made sure there were no potential rivals, even within the family.

Imagine Houston's Memorial Park, including the arboretum and its most scenic timber-laden trails, with one substantial difference: It is enclosed in a tall cyclone fence and padlocked gates, to keep the public from spoiling the privacy of the wealthy.

Such is Lutcher Stark's most beloved site, Shangri-La. The dense, 200-acre greenbelt straddles central Orange with thick pine stands and exotic plants Stark imported from around the globe. With few exceptions, Lutcher and Nelda and their selected friends had exclusive access, offering the masses of Orange little more than glimpses through the perimeter fence and chained gates.

At the peak of Shangri-La's grandeur, in the post-World War II era, occupants of a passing car glanced over to admire the lush landscape. Bill Stark, driving his son Bill III, shouted, "Hey! Look! There's Dad!"

He stopped the car. Grandson Bill remembers Lutcher being equally excited as he recognized them and came up to the fence. They asked Lutcher to come over for dinner on Saturday. "We'll cook something up," they said. Lutcher, still beaming, said it would be great.

Minutes later, Nelda walked briskly up on Shangri-La's green carpet. "That's out of the question," she told Lutcher. "We have plans." With that, she led Lutcher away.

Relatives say the twins came back from the war firmly convinced that things would work out fine with their father's new wife. But their invitations were rejected and their calls usually went unanswered. Nelda moved Lutcher into her own father's house, a modest one-story home on Orange Avenue, and usually stayed close by his side.

The twins were torn over what to do. They didn't want to question their dad or his decisions or growing isolation. And it was most comforting for them to continue to believe his earlier assurances, that they were his family and that someday they would be heading the Stark empire.

Living only a few minutes away from their father didn't seem to matter -- it was as if they were on different planets. The grandchildren estimate that, including holidays, they had fewer than ten visits with Lutcher Stark in the years before his death in 1965, at 77.

Why had he forsaken his sons? Stark took the explanation into the tomb.

In 1970, during a slow night at Foley's in Houston's Sharpstown Mall, Rebecca Nugent chatted idly with two other sales clerks who worked for a commercial real estate firm during the day.

"Hey, aren't you from Orange?" one asked her. "Our company just closed its biggest deal ever with a woman in Orange -- a Mrs. Stark. Did you know her?"

"I just said, 'Everybody knows her. She lives on the other side of the tracks.' Both statements are true. But I was just too embarrassed to admit anything more."

Rebecca Stark Nugent certainly knew the widow of her own grandfather. Nelda had just unloaded the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company. With extensive holdings in three states, the overall value of the deal was pegged at a reported $300 million.

Nugent, meanwhile was drawing minimum wage, moonlighting at night shifts to help put her husband through law school.

To be certain, neither of the twins' families were anywhere close to food-stamp status. Homer, Nugent's father, and Bill inherited the bulk of Nita's estate, estimated at about $100,000. Lutcher's death in 1965 provided them with $1 million each, which would be considered a fortune for anyone not on the inside track for the massive Stark estate.

But the boys took on blue-collar jobs; one twin handled drums in a chemical company warehouse, and each had a gas station and other enterprises.

"Everybody would say, 'Why's your dad running a filling station? He's Lutcher Stark's son," Randy Stark says. "'Why are you all not this, or not that?' It seems like that's all we heard, all our lives."

They also began hearing, on a regular basis, the publicity over the grand philanthropy of the Lutcher and Nelda Stark Foundation. Established four years before his death, the foundation split the bulk of his estate -- more than $73 million -- with widow Nelda, who controlled it.

The news media proclaimed Nelda to be a near savior of Orange in the days of the oil bust. Her foundation pumped millions into downtown monuments of grandeur -- the theater, museum, restored Stark home, plazas. They funded faraway artists and local nonprofits with equal zeal.

Relatives read and saw the tributes to the Stark "family" largesse -- even though that family was nearly nonexistent within the foundation. "It got so I couldn't stand to see anything about it anymore," says Bill Stark III. "It was 'the Stark family doing this,' and 'the Stark family doing that.' That wasn't the Stark family at all. That was a bunch of strangers with our money."

Relatives, naive about the workings of probate law, heard the gossip mills so prevalent in small-town life. Former Stark employees, their descendants and others passed along tales of Nelda intently pressuring Lutcher to disinherit the twins from the fortune. The sons were told that the stern old woman was so elated when he finally rewrote his will that she whisked the old one out to the parking lot, burned it and broke out into a brief jig.

The family focused further in the past, to Nita Hill's death in 1939. Her marriage didn't entitle her to the inherited riches of Lutcher, but Texas law clearly entitled her to half of what a spouse gains during the marriage. Nita was the only child of a well-to-do physician, and was Lutcher's wife during 28 years in which his fortune expanded sizably. And yet her entire estate added up to little more than $100,000?

Ida Marie Stark, the widow of Bill the twin, shook her head at the math. Then she paid a visit to Houston civil attorney Mike Gallagher. Some 49 years after the death of her mother-in-law, Ida Marie sued Nelda and the foundation, accusing them of fraud against the other heirs.

As dated as the contested events were, family members had a plausible theory behind their court briefs. By vastly understating Nita's assets, Lutcher would be protecting himself and their then-16-year-old boys from hefty inheritance taxes. And the old man would probably figure they'd fare better than ever when Lutcher himself went to his grave.

And Nelda, as his confidante and later wife, likely would have been in a position to be privy to any deception. She and her later foundation would vastly benefit from any alleged fraud. But for the descendants, just proving that Nita's estate was lowballed would be a daunting task.

The great search began in 1988. By January 1990 an exasperated defense attorney, Houston lawyer Ralph Carrigan, informed the judge that Nelda and the foundation had been complying with plaintiff requests to produce stored documents -- some 322,779 pages of them had been marked as potential evidence, and 228,568 had been copied by Gallagher's team.

The marathon paper chase seemed to uncover the most minute of matters involving the estates. Some 60 pages of inventory surfaced on various properties and holdings.

"Calling to mind the frailty and uncertainty of human life," Nita had written in the prelude to her will, penned in the same year as her death. Listed debts included bills for $150 to Jack Lee and $25 to E.L. Berker, for "blood." There were records detailing Nita's $1 debt to The Orange Leader, her four Pi Beta Phi pins at a buck apiece, the $5 damaged Spalding Gorham watch, and the $13.17 in extra federal taxes that her estate paid in 1937.

Plaintiffs pursued even more: One subpoena went to the American Brahman Breeders Association, demanding any documents regarding "A bull or heifer registered by H.J. Lutcher Stark (membership #73)."

While the case resembled an adversarial archeology dig at times, the relics it unearthed never added up to outright fraud. Nelda's team of attorneys artfully kept her and others from having to give depositions.

State District Judge Buddie Hahn eventually granted a motion that removed Nelda as a defendant. In 1993 a settlement was reached in which the two families of the Stark twins got $2.5 million each.

That kind of payoff would seem to indicate that the foundation had something to fear, a contention that brings only a chuckle from current foundation attorney John Cash Smith.

"It is an interesting deal," the Orange lawyer says. "She gave them $5 million and then cut every one of them out of the will. She gave them less than what they would have gotten had they not filed the lawsuit."

Stark relatives scoff at the explanation, saying mean old Nelda would never have included them in an inheritance. In December 1999 the recluse died at 90 years of age. She had still been living at the modest home of her parents, a house notable only for the security guard station standing outside. Protection was a top priority, residents say. She had a guard force complete with uniform patches that announced Nelda C. Stark Security.

Her will, typed in legal language and signed in heavy bold strokes, left $1 million to her closest associates -- primarily her foundation partner and closest confidante, Eunice Benckenstein. The only surviving Stark twin, Homer, had stayed out of the litigation and received $1 million. The rest, estimated at more than $100 million, went to the foundation, which was already flush with more than $150 million of its own.

Foundation executives walked away from the case with other key concessions: full releases signed by the plaintiffs, vowing that they would never again seek a penny from the estate.

And they didn't -- at least until last year, when the Stark wars raged anew.

Attorney John Cash Smith and other Stark Foundation lawyers listened keenly to a presentation made last year by the host of the meeting, L. Clayton Burgess. The 31-year-old lawyer from Lafayette, Louisiana, was sporting a goatee and go-for-the-jugular approach to law, on behalf of Stark relatives.

Later sworn statements by foundation attorneys tell of Burgess threatening that the remaining foundation directors, some of them already in their late seventies and eighties, "will be forced to spend their last years defending themselves in depositions and court proceedings."

Burgess said he had "evidence of a damning character" against Nelda Stark and others, and criminal prosecutions might even get under way unless Stark heirs got their rightful share of the fortune.

This time the foundation beat the family to the courthouse. It sued, asking for a declaratory judgment finding that these releases legally preclude the relatives from another shot at the foundation's big bucks.

Burgess countered that the releases were negated by the deception and fraud committed by the foundation in the prior case.

Last September, Burgess and others traveled to the VA Hospital in Temple, where a former assistant chief of security at the Stark Museum, Clayton Alan Newberry, was undergoing surgery.

Yes, he told them, during the last Stark suit he had at times seen museum curator Ann Jean Caffey and Benckenstein herself hauling out a briefcase from the foundation office late at night. He believed it contained computer records on the lavish collection of art -- works obtained in part during Nita and Lutcher's marriage. When he asked about it, Caffey confided that they were trying to keep the information away from the Stark relatives during the lawsuit, Newberry said.

Another former guard, Charles McKinney, went further in a March 2000 statement. Various foundation officers, he said, secreted the computer records at their homes, and the security chief would help them be moved on a regular basis, to hide them from attorneys for the other side.

"…I guess they considered them -- considered them such a hot item, they didn't -- nobody wanted to keep them for too long at the one house," he said. "It was pretty much thought that, you know, what they were doing was illegal."

Foundation representatives vigorously deny the accounts of the former employees. The allegations in the suit are "a bunch of baloney," says attorney Smith. "We haven't seen anything that remotely comes close to fraud."

Accusations of fraud, in fact, are hardly the exclusive domain of either side in this conflict. In the mid-1980s the Stark family found itself riveted by more than just another tale about what might have taken place earlier. A laborer who worked on restoration at the Stark House found an old document stuffed in the back of a framed painting.

It appeared to be a codicil, an amendment to Lutcher Stark's will, that called the twins his "true sons" and said they were to have their rightful share of the fortune. While the absence of needed signatures and the passage of time made it unlikely that the document would ever replace the official will, the yellowed piece of paper could still be powerful evidence in the dispute over the estate.

But two years later an Orange man convicted of forgery filed a statement that he had concocted the will. Gary Duhon made the admission in an effort to get released from jail in a separate case. In an affidavit, his father, Bill Duhon, outlined a lengthy series of negotiations with the twins' sons. He said the two sons reneged on a promise to pay for a new motorcycle for his son, and later contracted with Gary to get a cut of whatever they got out of the foundation.

"At one point of negotiation, I understand Mrs. Nelda C. Stark transferred a very large sum of money to the bank in Beaumont in hopes to end negotiation with the Stark boys to a one time out-of-court settlement," Bill Duhon wrote. He said they talked of getting one-third of the total estate, although negotiations broke down after "apparently something happened."

However, the discovered will seemed to self-destruct. A foundation document expert concluded that it was nothing more than a modern photocopy, with traced-over signatures on ink that was then smudged. The water marks and aging stains? Watercolor paint, the expert said.

The family and Burgess refuse to comment on the episode, other than to say it is not part of the current lawsuit. "If one of us wanted a forged will, we wouldn't have waited 40 years to have it done," Rebecca Nugent explains.

Besides, there seem to be plenty of genuine documents -- or at least clues to what really may have happened -- surfacing on several fronts.

Nugent herself remained puzzled at one of the liabilities listed against the estate of Nita Stark: $400,000 in loans that the twins' mother took out only days before her death. "It wasn't like she could get on the Internet and shop, or lose it in the stock market, for that matter," Nugent explains. "She was bedridden, on the verge of death. Why would someone like that take out a $400,000 loan?"

In her quest to find out about the loan, Nugent discovered that Stephen F. Austin University maintained a historical library on the old lumber company. She drove to Nacogdoches and was ushered in to the archives. The ledgers hardly had consistent records -- there was no loan mentioned in 1939, the year of her death. Two years later, it reappears as a note by Lutcher, then in 1945 it appears again, she says.

Nugent is convinced that it was another way to juggle the books to conceal Nita's assets from the estate taxes -- and take them away from the twins in the process.

Speculation turns more sinister about how Nelda could have controlled Lutcher to such an extent. Last year Rebecca and Randy Stark got copies of Lutcher's accounts from three drugstores in Orange. Beginning in the 1950s, they show large amounts of serious pharmaceuticals being delivered to the home -- the kind that would match early employees' descriptions of a tycoon who could turn almost instantly from a keenly alert man into a "zombie."

"It looks like she kept him drugged out of his mind," Randy Stark contends. "It must have been planned. She cut him off from his friends, from his own boys, from everybody."

Nelda was involved in the treatment and care of Lutcher's first two wives, who both died while middle-aged. She insisted that autopsies not be performed on the bodies, and ordered quick funerals. Death certificates were not properly filled out in some instances.

Nugent says a 1965 company memo instructed an attorney to bring "the will" to a dying Lutcher Stark in John Sealy Hospital, which would have been four years after the officially recognized will. Nugent says she checked records at the Jack Tar hotel in Galveston and confirmed that the woman who notarized the 1961 will, and a witness to it, checked in at that same period. That fuels speculation that the will may have been backdated and signed by Lutcher when he was fully incompetent.

To add to the mystery, the attorney involved shot himself in the head years later. Nugent says Nelda Stark was the first one to reach him, and that she cleaned up the mess before authorities arrived.

However, the most intriguing searches go to the very bloodlines of the Stark boys. When the twins went to enlist in the military in World War II, their supposed Virginia birth certificates couldn't be found. Lutcher had it arranged for them to receive Texas certificates of birth.

Rebecca Nugent decided in 1996 to visit her father's reported birthplace of Jamestown, Virginia. It turned out not to be a real city at all but rather a historical site. She expanded her search for birth records to all of Virginia. No births remotely resembling those of the twins were on file.

One explanation was offered by Jim Henderson, the widow of Clemmie Henderson, a longtime domestic servant. She'd accompanied Lutcher and Nita to adopt the twins -- but said they went to Tennessee rather than Virginia. Ruby, his next wife and the rumored mother of the twins, was supposedly attending college in that state at the time, but school records show she'd dropped out two years earlier. Nugent says Ruby's college was probably a clever cover story for the pregnancies.

"Clemmie was the one who told my mom and sister that Lutcher was the father," Nugent says. When a nurse in Tennessee handed over the twins to Jim, "she turned to leave and said, 'Don't you forget. When these boys are old enough, you tell 'em who their daddy really is.' "

Among the others who whispered their versions of family secrets to Nugent was Tracy Corley, who managed the Stark House museum for decades. He said that if Ruby wasn't the mother then she was at least the go-between, Nugent says. Henderson and Corley died in recent years.

The family sees the parent issue as crucial in understanding the family's history. If Ruby bore children by Lutcher or his father -- either in an affair or as an early surrogate mother -- Nelda most certainly would have known this darkest of family secrets.

"And she'd have something immensely powerful to hold over [Lutcher's] head," Randy Stark says. "That's the only thing that makes sense about why he'd marry her, or even stay married to her."

Rebecca Nugent says it has to be put in the perspective of that period. It was a time when even Lutcher's father called an artist back from Chicago to the house to add more covering to the paintings of thinly clad cherubs frolicking on the ceiling of the music room.

As the family left church one day, someone was bold enough to mention an unmarried woman who was pregnant. "Nita fainted and fell down the steps," Nugent says. "Having children out of wedlock is no big deal today, but back then it would have been devastating for anyone to know." Particularly that pillar of Orange, William H. Stark. DNA tests on his remains and son Lutcher's are scheduled to be completed in about a month.

"We've learned a lot," Nugent says. "Everywhere I go, I find something new."

While few friends of the foundation weigh in officially on the battle of words, most believe that the family has nothing more than a collection of old wives' tales and an even older motive: greed.

By law, the foundation can only carry out the dictates of those who established it -- Lutcher and Nelda Stark. Attorney Smith explains that foundation directors aren't the ones in a position to correct any perceived wrongs by the family -- the wills were executed according to the wishes of the deceased.

Yes, Smith acknowledges, Nelda was direct. She was strong-willed. And Nelda, a bank board chairman and director of various companies, was an able administrator of her late husband's empire. Other directors told of wanting to alert the media or call attention to Nelda's good deeds and donations, but she preferred to keep a very low profile. Despite that, the foundation material hardly mentions any other wives of Lutcher's.

Walter Riedel, an accountant and foundation trustee who worked 23 years for Nelda, says she was a caring person with strong morals. "She had good business acumen and was a no-nonsense type of person, but she did have a sensitive side -- she could laugh just like anybody."

"In all the time I was with her, she never, never, ever asked me to do anything illegal, unethical or immoral," Riedel says. He says she never had any unkind words for the Stark relatives, gave them gifts regularly on birthdays and special occasions, and even helped them out financially at times.

Her friends are appalled at the suggestions of sinister motives. "There are so many stupid rumors flying around," Smith says. "We are trying to put some of them to rest."

The Stark relatives themselves sound convincing when they deny that they are after money or prestige -- despite the name of one financial services venture of Randy and Bill Stark's. Just across a side street from an Orange trailer park, the headquarters looks like the incarnation of a convenience store. The name: Wealth Strategies.

The family says it is only on a quest for vindication of sorts for the twins, who went decades without openly confronting the elusive Nelda. "It was like they were making a living, but marking time until the inheritance was theirs," says Ida, the widow of William Stark II. "About the last four years of his life, he became really disappointed in himself. He thought he could have achieved so much more in life if he hadn't ever believed he was going to step into that."

And the relatives bring up their own children in arguing their points. William Stark's son Bill bitterly tells of his own daughter working as a postal clerk, while his 13-year-old granddaughter gets teased regularly by other kids, just like he did as a youth.

"They kept saying, 'You are Stark,' " he says. "I'd tell them I have a little log cabin in [the Orange community of] Pinehurst; my daddy delivers gasoline on the weekends -- and he's supposed to be wealthy? It just got to be where you were on the defensive all the time."

They dream of what they might do on the foundation board. Rebecca Nugent, in an analysis of foundation budgets, shows that it spends enormous amounts -- $5.2 million annually in recent years -- on operations that benefit relatively few patrons. For example, the $3.1 million spent in running the museum in 1999 averaged out to $569 for each of the 5,607 attendees there.

Relatives talk of reopening Shangri-La and other reforms to reach the regular citizens of Orange.

Attorney Burgess says, "All the Stark family is over here -- all the Stark money is over there with the foundation. The non-Starks are being very generous with the Stark money, and the Stark name. But they've kept the family itself on the outside."

As usual in these sorts of cases, one set of participants can count on hard cash coming in. With litigation flying on all fronts, the Stark feud has fed a full-employment act for attorneys. Legal fees over the years are estimated to surpass $2 million.

Early on this April morning in Lake Charles's Calcasieu Parish, Judge Al Gray pleads with the legions of lawyers and family members assembled in court. With an animated wince heavenward, he tells of a docket loaded with four capital murder cases, seven mere homicides and 1,300 felonies. Can't a deal be worked out on a half-century-old probate matter?

Gray answers himself with a shake of the head. With several million dollars at stake, he says, "I know this case ain't goin' away."

In his court, relatives accuse Nelda of concealing estate property in Louisiana, and they want foundation attorneys booted off the case for alleged conflicts.

Weeks later, back in Orange county court, surviving twin Homer Stark emerges from straddling the fence in the war. His lawyers argue that Nelda intended to give him Lutcher's large Colorado ranch "for the wrongs that she had done," but others prevented that from happening. And they allege that Homer was illegally thrown off the foundation board back in 1991 -- in a meeting that they say never took place.

In nearby district court, Burgess shows the kind of bare-knuckle brawl ahead when he seeks to have Judge Hahn removed from the case. The attorney argues that Hahn is a close golfing buddy and former business associate of some opposing lawyers, and has other conflicts as a member of the Lamar State College-Orange Foundation. Last September, around the time of the new suit by the family, the Stark Foundation gave the college $673,000 -- the largest single donation in the school's history.

Hahn pointed out that he advised attorneys in the last case that he had connections to lawyers on both sides, not unusual for the judiciary in a relatively small county. And he noted that the college foundation had no ties to the Stark Foundation contribution. But Hahn stepped aside in the case, which will now be heard by former Houston appellate judge Eric Andell.

Elsewhere, the family demands depositions from the foundation trustees, while the foundation insists that their claims be thrown out. And more motions and directives and orders and pleadings and all manner of legal maneuvers continue to converge on various courthouses.

Late on a weekday morning at the fortresslike Stark art museum, the two guards inside look momentarily startled as their only visitor enters.

The emptiness accents an already strong sense of vast, cool isolation along the sterile walkways and galleries. Past the Steuben crystal and the ceramics and Native American art and Frederic Remington sculptures are subtle suggestions of the strife waiting outside.

The painting A Dangerous Situation follows another title, Return of the Hunting Party. Just around the corner from Andy Anderson's whimsical carving -- a crass courtroom crowd -- is the boldly proclaimed featured attraction:

"Stark Legacy: Selections from a Personal Collection."

Promotional material boasts that these works had been hanging for years in Nelda Stark's home, and were "never seen before by the public."

Other than the politely trailing museum guard, the gallery gives an odd sensation that someone else is watching. There on the wall, between the picture of Lutcher Stark and the doorway, is the photo portrait of a staring Nelda Stark. She's got closely cropped dark hair and a white blouse primly buttoned fully to the base of her neck. Her black-rimmed glasses rest above high cheekbones, eyes locked in an intense protective gaze over this impressive collection.

There's no frown. No smile. Nelda wasn't sharing the fortune or her secrets with the family -- then or now.


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