The Millionaire and His Daughter
Everybody in Wichita Falls knew Vincent Murphy and his daughter, Dottie. Vincent was a multimillionaire, an oil man and a cattle rancher -- some say the richest man in town. When he was president of the Lions Club, Dottie was its sweetheart. She was homecoming queen, Miss Archer County and later, a lawyer. Dottie takes after her dad; she has his slender build and black hair. Like him, she's a storyteller, the life of the party, smart, successful and hardheaded. "It's been said, complimentary or otherwise, that's she's a chip off the old block," Vincent says. "She don't quit trying."
And that, to Vincent, is the problem. Now 84, he calls Dottie Ann Murphy his D.A.M. daughter (or "Devils Advocate Murphy," as he wrote beneath her signature on a letter). According to Vincent, 56-year-old Dottie is trying to steal all his money and reduce him to "slavery." As his legal guardian, she took control of his cash, canceled his driver's license and stopped his Social Security payments from coming to him. She put his assets into a trust and, as its managing partner, lent herself money to buy a big new house while Vincent lived at a none-too-swank Best Western.
Dottie contends that her father isn't sane enough to handle his financial affairs. Fourteen years ago, after Vincent suffered a head injury, his wife, Marie -- Dottie's mother -- became his legal guardian. Vincent, who now spends much of his days in the offices of his Houston lawyers, maintains that his discombobulation was only temporary and that Marie's guardianship of him was something he and Marie forgot to cancel once he felt better.
But when Marie fell seriously ill, Dottie took over the guardianship and tightened the reins. In court, Dottie held that Vincent is still not capable of handling his own affairs, pointing out that since the accident he has been in and out of a mental institution.
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Psychiatrists who originally testified in the matter said that Vincent's sanity isn't a clear call: He's controlling and frustrating to interview and concentrates on irrelevant details. That behavior is easy to see while talking to the old man in his lawyers' offices: Sometimes his stories don't seem to make sense, and he's muddy on dates. But usually, eventually, he arrives at his point -- the point, that is, that he wants to make, which might or might not be related to the question he's responding to. He might be mentally unbalanced, or he might just be an old, ornery Texan.
Late this spring, Harris County courts ruled that Vincent is mentally competent. Though Vincent recovered control of his life, he didn't recover control of his money, which his lawyers estimate at $20 million to $50 million. Dottie and Marie had maneuvered to place it in an irrevocable trust.
Vincent lives at Houston's Four Seasons Hotel, across the street from his downtown lawyers, Crain, Caton & James. With them and attorneys at Hennessy, Gardner & Barth, he's battling to dissolve the trust, get back his money and triumph over the daughter he once adored.
"She is a Jezebel and a threat to humankind," Vincent declares in his lawyers' L.A. Law-style conference room. "I love her. Of course I loved her. I worshiped her. I'm like the feller who said, 'I love you, honey, but I hate your damnable ways.' Your damnable, low-down, thieving ways. "
"Is that a song?" asks Darlene Smith, one of his lawyers.
"Maybe we ought to write one," he says.
Vincent could buy an outhouse, and in two years it'd be worth $50,000, says Don Herron, who owns a pawn shop in Wichita Falls. Vincent started making smart deals when he was 13, working at his daddy's livestock breeding business. He picked cotton and was the first boy from Van Alstyn to graduate from the town school. He did it with honors.
By the time he was 23, Vincent owned a country store and filling station. He met 17-year-old Frances Marie Murphy on a Saturday night playing slot machines at a cafe. She had on little white boots and had the prettiest red-blond hair he'd ever seen. He gave her and her friends a ride home in his new pickup and three months later drove to Oklahoma and married her.
Vincent closed that store and bought a bigger one. He started buying land and cattle, opened pool halls, a breeding barn, a mule business, loan companies, a John Deere dealership and a pawn shop. He struck oil and bought the Chevrolet dealership shown in The Last Picture Show.
He and Marie had two children, Vincent Jr. and Dottie Ann, born 11 months apart. As viewed through court documents, their family life appears to have been turbulent. (Neither Marie nor any of Vince's children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren was willing to be interviewed. Some cited legal concerns; others simply didn't return calls.)
In a deposition, Dottie testified that she saw Vincent beat her mother and brother many, many times. She said she was there when Vincent threw Marie in a bathtub and stomped on her skull. And Dottie told a consulting psychiatrist that she saw her father tear up the furniture.
(Vincent says none of those things happened, that he tries never to get mad, but court records show that his temper runs hot. In one case, a jury awarded a man drilling oil on Vincent's land $625,000 over a 1985 disagreement in which Vincent allegedly pointed a loaded rifle at the man and threatened to kill him. Vincent has also been successfully sued for attacking two other oil lessees; Vincent allegedly reared his horse onto its hind legs so that its front hooves hit one of the men, and he later appeared to point a concealed weapon at them.)
Vincent Jr. now runs American Thrift, Vincent's loan company in Wichita Falls. By most accounts, he hasn't spoken to his father since he was 18.
But however fiercely Vincent behaved toward everyone else, he doted on his blue-eyed, black-haired daughter -- at least until other men entered Dottie's life. She has been married and divorced five times, first to her high school band director, whom Vincent says he had to run out of town. Vincent didn't much like the boyfriends and husbands who followed, either.
In 1983 Dottie passed the bar exam and began practicing family law. In her deposition, she testified that she handled all of her parents' legal affairs without charge.
And there was plenty of legal work to be done. In the early 1980s Vincent owned five rigs, and oil soared to $40 a barrel. Vincent and other oil barons believed the price would hit $80, but it dropped to $12. As prices plummeted, Vincent's deals went bad, and lawsuits poured in. Everyone wanted a share of his money before it was gone.
In late 1985 Vincent hopped in his Chevy and went to look at some horses. He was driving east out of Wichita Falls, down Highway 287, when an old lady smashed her car into his. The blow threw him from the truck. Still conscious, he got up, walked around and asked what the hell had happened.
I don't know, son, she told him, I just didn't see you.
Vincent called his brother, Dale, to come get him, then slipped out of consciousness.
After the car wreck he just couldn't get better. He didn't feel like himself: He was tired and sad and didn't want to talk to anyone. The day after Christmas 1985, he checked himself into a mental health facility, Red River Hospital (its name has since changed to Red River Behavioral Health Services).
There, he was aloof and seclusive and diagnosed with profound depression, according to psychiatrist Richard Bibb's discharge report. After three months Vincent was transferred to Rolling Meadows, a retirement/assisted living home.
Vincent doesn't like old people. He says he was kicked out for being too spry. Hospital records say he threatened to break out; Marie said in a deposition that Vincent somehow got himself out without her consent.
Either way, that summer he made his way back to the ranch in Dumas. And that's where he stayed. The lawsuits were brewing, and life in town was stressful. Out on the ranch he did what he loved to do: work on the land and work with his cattle.
While Vincent was in the hospital, Marie was appointed his temporary guardian so she could sell his oil rigs and yank the business back into order. "Temporary" is the key word, Vincent says, conveniently leaving out that later, in May 1986, the guardianship was made permanent.
Everyone agrees that Vincent's empire was in deep trouble, but it's hard to say how deep that trouble ran or who set things aright. Vincent admits that the family business was going broke. He owed $1 million to a man in Dallas, he says. But Vincent maintains that he worked everything out himself when he got a $1 million rebate from the IRS (he says he overpaid his taxes) and sold some land in Colorado for $2 million.
Joyce Moore, Dottie's lawyer, says the debt was closer to $50 million and that Vincent ignored it while Dottie and Marie fought to pay it, selling off assets and settling lawsuits. (Vincent's lawyers say that number is wildly inflated.)
At any rate, Vincent didn't find Marie's guardianship a problem; they had always seen things the same way. Marie worked every day with Vincent. She's soft-spoken, generous, works the crossword puzzle every day and never misses Larry King. When she watches Oprah, she gives her own opinion. She's not a complainer.
Vincent says he got better and that he and Marie forgot about the guardianship. He worked the ranch and went to weekly cattle auctions just like he always had. Marie stayed in town, working during the week, and came to visit him on the weekend.
Joyce Moore says that Marie and Dottie let Vincent think that everything was fine, but his mind never got better, just worse. She says they let him buy cows so he'd have some semblance of normality.
After the accident, Vincent checked into Red River Hospital nine more times. He claims that as his attorney, Dottie told him to act crazy, to check in to avoid getting sued. And in fact, some of the dates he was scheduled for depositions coincide with his stints at Red River.
But Moore says Vincent was hospitalized because he needed to be, and the medical records back her story. Doctors found multiple problems every time they examined Vincent.
The records say Vincent didn't eat or sleep; he was forgetful, irritable, unpredictable and bitter toward life and God. Vincent told a social worker that he felt like an old car with too many miles on it.
In 1992 Marie was diagnosed with kidney cancer. While surgeons were removing her right kidney at M.D. Anderson, she had a heart attack; they performed open-heart surgery while she was on the table. When the hospital released her only four days later, Vincent was sure she'd been sent home to die.
Taking morphine, Marie couldn't handle Vincent's business anymore. Unbeknownst to Vincent, Dottie and Vincent Jr. became co-guardians of Vincent's person, and Dottie became the guardian of his estate. She paid herself $150,000 a year.
When the guardianship switched hands, the trouble began. Vincent doesn't like to ask for anything, even if it's his own money he's asking for. He didn't want to be his daughter's child. According to court records, on May 19, 1993, he stormed into Dottie's office and was so violent she called 911; the police removed him. Dottie went to Red River Hospital and filled out the paperwork for an emergency commitment.
Vincent avoids talking about the altercation in Dottie's office. In his version of events, the Moore County deputies showed up at his ranch in Dumas, handcuffed him and drove him to Red River Hospital for no apparent reason. Yet he signed himself in and stayed for more than a month. He didn't have to sign himself in -- the court order was to escort him to the hospital, not to commit him. Vincent says he thought he had no choice.
"He felt persecuted and was obsessed with having been betrayed," Dr. Bibb wrote on the chart. Vincent told Bibb he couldn't imagine why he was at Red River.
Outraged, Vincent called a family meeting in the hospital. Vincent Jr. resigned as co-guardian. Dottie didn't.
This time, instead of depression, he was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder -- that is, he was subject not just to depression, but to fits of manic activity. Vincent's defenders say he wasn't manic, just mad.
In 1995 Dottie decided to do some estate planning for her parents. Death taxes could consume most of their fortune; to prevent that, she created the Murphy Family Partnership Limited. Marie chipped in about $11 million of her and Vincent's community property, plus $1.5 million from each of the two trusts Vincent had already set up for himself and Marie. Dottie and Vincent Jr. contributed less than $50,000.
Dottie became the managing partner of the trust. One of her first acts was to lend herself about $300,000 to buy a new house. Vincent's lawyers offer photos of it, eager to contrast it with the low-rent digs Vincent ended up in.
In August 1996 Vincent locked Marie in the house on their ranch. Vincent claims he was protecting her -- he was going out to feed his cow pony, and he didn't want her to stumble outside and get knocked down by the barn cats. She'd fallen before, he says, and was still weak, fragile and frail. But Marie got mad and called Vincent's brother Dale. Dottie says the family rescued Marie.
Marie moved in with Dottie. Vincent wanted to be near his wife, but he didn't want to live with his daughter. Lonesome, he moved into the Best Western in Wichita Falls. It was across the street from the hospital and within walking distance from everything he needed. He and his buddy Eldon Bell ate lunch together every day at the Holiday Inn and, Eldon says, went dancing most nights.
In June 1997 Henry Sanchez-Leal, a psychiatrist at the Texoma Psychiatric Center, evaluated Vincent. He thought Vincent's judgment and insight were "fair" but noted that Vincent made some troubling mistakes. Vincent said he and his wife were married in 1939 (true) but that his wife had died from kidney cancer in 1975 (not true). He said he had two children (true): his son, 56, was named "Mac," and his 55-year-old daughter, "Carol," had seven husbands and 15 "live-ins" (not true). Vincent explains away this report; the doctor, he says, must have confused him with some other patient.
In late 1997, Vincent says, he received two threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. A dark voice told him to call off his dogs or he'd be going to his own funeral. He wrote Dottie to tell her stalker that it would take more than phone calls to kill him. His buddy Eldon Bell says the stalker called him, too, and told him to quit hanging around Vincent.
In November Vincent started writing letters to Dottie, reminding her that the First Commandment says to honor thy father. He clipped a Dear Abby column about a mother and daughter fighting over money, circled the words "cold hearted" and wrote DARK DEEDS at the bottom. He wrote about ill-gotten gains and asked if getting his money was so important that she was willing to face eternal damnation. He drew a picture of the gates of hell and said it was her choice: She could do the right thing or burn forever. "Power corrupts!!!" he wrote. "Remember 'Hitler.' "
Dottie photocopied the letters and clippings and sent them to his psychiatrist with a note saying she thought his mental health was unstable and getting worse. She heard that Vincent had hired a hit man to get her.
"He called my house and told me I was a goddamn whore and a Jezebel and a thief and a liar," Dottie testified March 25, 1999. "And I said, 'Daddy, you know, I just want you to be well.' "
Vincent told Marie at Thanksgiving that he wanted out of the guardianship; he wanted to be able to write his own checks, drive his own car and sell his own cattle. He said he didn't need any mental medication anymore. According to records, Dr. Bibb prescribed lithium, but Vincent stopped taking it, as he had done before.
With the help of a Wichita Falls attorney, Spencer Crouch, Vincent took his daughter to court. On March 24, 1998, a Wichita Falls judge removed Dottie as Vincent's guardian and appointed a new one.
That same day, Marie placed all of her and Vincent's community property and the guardianship funds into an irrevocable trust. Marie became trustee of the Murphy Management Trust, established to take care of her and Vincent. The trust pays for any and all legal fees the trustee deems necessary for Marie and Dottie, but none of Vincent's. With his money in that trust, Vincent couldn't pay a lawyer to dissolve it.
Marie wanted the lawsuits to be over, she said in a deposition. She thought that if there wasn't any money left in the guardianship's bank account, the litigation would end. Maybe without money to fight over, her family could heal, she said in her affidavit.
Marie said she was also worried that, unprotected by a guardian, Vincent would make bad investment decisions and lose the family fortune. She was pretty sure that Dottie would take care of her, but she wasn't sure what would happen to Vincent, and she wanted him to be provided for.
She also said that she'd heard Vincent had rewritten his will, cutting out her and the kids.
Marie had heard right. "I have written several wills, and they have no meaning because I'll probably write another or two before I die," Vincent says. "If they keep stealing from me, I won't need to make a will."
Six days after the trust was formed, Vincent sued for divorce. He didn't want to divorce Marie, a woman he loved and still loves. But this wasn't about love; this was about money -- and feelings never hampered his business.
He says he cried for three days and then dismissed the divorce suit. But Marie had already countersued. Dottie changed the locks on the ranch.
In October 1998 a Wichita Falls jury ruled that Vincent was incompetent and still needed a guardian. But the judge wouldn't allow Vincent's lawyer to present to the jury any of the negative things Dottie and Marie had done to cause Vincent's angry actions. Competency is a complex question in Vincent's case, wrote Harvey Martin, a Red River psychiatrist who evaluated Vincent in 1995 and 1997. It's not a black-and-white call, because in many ways Vincent can take care of himself. Other doctors Dottie hired worried that since his estate was so large, he might mismanage it or allow people to swindle him.
Feeling scared and unsafe, Vincent left town this January. He'd won $1,000 when the Broncos beat the Jets in a football game he'd bet on. With that money in his pocket, he moved to Houston. He checked into the Four Seasons Hotel under the name I.M. Free.
And not long after, he was free. Three more psychiatrists paid for by Vincent's side examined him, and this time the doctors said he seemed fine -- pleasant, gracious, well groomed and well mannered.
Three days after Vincent's 84th birthday, Harris County Judge Russell Austin restored his competency. Dottie, Marie and their lawyers were barred from the courtroom; the judge said they had an adverse interest in Vincent's welfare.
Dottie and Marie are appealing the ruling, and the Harris County probate court clerk looks sick at the mention of the case, with its continuing stream of injunctions and rulings. Piled under her desk there are 37 Murphy files, soon to be 38.
Vincent spends most of his days at Crain, Caton & James, just across the street from the Four Seasons. He's suing Dottie, Marie, Dottie's son David Phillips, Dottie's attorneys and the interest company that issued the bond for Dottie's guardianship. The divorce case is still pending; Marie has two divorce actions against him now, and in the law firm, he's safe from being served papers.
He likes to hang out in the snack room, reading his newspaper, making popcorn and smiling at the staff. Everyone knows him, and everyone knows his story. He has created his own small town, a miniature Wichita Falls -- except here he's the only one wearing a cowboy hat and boots. And here, everyone is on his side.
Back in the real Wichita Falls, opinions are decidedly more mixed. Vincent's old protege, Donnie Park, is now the senior vice president of First National Bank. He says that Vincent's fine, that he has forgotten more than most people ever learn.
But other townspeople point out that Dottie's a good person, that she helps organize the Cattle Baron's Ball. And Don Herron says that the last time Vincent stopped in at his pawn shop, he couldn't remember much. "He's getting awful senile," Herron says.
Despite such opinions, Wichita Falls still exerts a powerful pull on Vincent, and against his lawyers' advice, he flew back twice this month. He says he and his brother Dale were driving downtown when he spotted Dottie's "funny little foreign car." Whether she saw him or not, he doesn't know; he and Dale cut down a side street because he sure didn't want to see her. He just wanted to see his friends -- the people on his side, not Dottie's.
And those defenders remain as staunch as Vincent could hope. Dottie, says Eldon Bell, is the worst thing that ever hit this part of the country. "Anybody that'd do their daddy that way don't deserve anything. I hope she gets nothing -- maybe a little time.
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