(We've updated this story here.)
Randall Patterson's 1998 feature on Houston / Palm Beach polo patron John Goodman ends with the billionaire playboy getting a champagne bath.
Right now, Palm Beach police want to know if he also soaked in a little too much booze last Thursday night. That was when Goodman, the founder of the Palm Beach's International Polo Club, got behind the wheel of his $250,000 Bentley Continental convertible in the wee hours and blew through a stop sign and collided with a Hyundai. The Hyundai was literally sent flying into a canal, where it landed upside down and sank. Scott Wilson, a 23-year-old recent mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Central Florida, was trapped inside and killed.
Palm Beach County police have said that they believe alcohol may have been a factor. Goodman's blood was tested at the hospital that treated the minor injuries he suffered in the wreck, but results could take a month to come in. As of now, he is not charged with any crime.
Shades of "Crash Reports," our recent feature on auto deaths: Palm Beach police say they want to have all the information they can get before they decide what, if any, charges to file. But that seems only to apply in non-(allegedly)-alcohol-related collisions. And at least in Florida, maybe only in cases in which the accused is a reputed billionaire, or at least multi-hundred-millionaire:
Bob Norman, revered columnist at our sister paper New Times Broward Palm Beach, certainly thinks that's the case:
I believe the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is already handling Goodman -- who has a net worth suspected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars -- with kid gloves. I've seen a whole lot of fatal car crashes like this, and usually you'll see the driver go to jail and a mug shot in the next day's newspaper. PBSO let Goodman, who suffered minor injuries and has hired big-name Miami attorney Roy Black, go free.
And this from the Palm Beach Post:
"[PBSO spokeswoman Teri] Barbera said traffic fatality investigations often take months to complete, and that the sheriff's office would likely forward its evidence to state prosecutors to decide if any charges would be filed."
Roy Black, Goodman's attorney, issued a statement claiming that Goodman was "devastated" to learn of Wilson's death. The statement also says that Goodman would remain in contact with officials and that he would continue to cooperate as needed.
Goodman was known to have been at two well-lubricated functions in the hours before the wreck. He spent dinnertime at a local tavern, where the YMCA Polo Bartender's Challenge was ongoing. After that, he whiled away several midnight hours at a swank joint much in favor with the area polo set called the Player's Club. He was there until about ten minutes before the wreck, which took place a little after one AM, one block south of the Polo club he founded.
At this point Hair Balls just has to step back and say Jeez Louise...Palm Beach, a Bentley, polo, a sympathetic victim killed by a billionaire playboy, and a bar called the Player's Club. Surely Graydon Carter is sporting wood in his Vanity Fair office suite. And has this been a bad 12 months for bazillionaire Houstonians with odd sports fetishes or what?
Some sources say Goodman is worth $1.4 billion dollars, a fortune he inherited from his father, the late air conditioning magnate Harold Goodman. Harold built Goodman Manufacturing, America's number two AC firm, from the ground up. As Patterson ably shows in his feature, the younger Goodman was aimless before he discovered polo in the '90s.
John Goodman had a big, blue-collar kind of body, and at T.H. Rogers Junior High, he was on the football team. Then his dad began raising thoroughbreds, and John was sent off to boarding school in Massachusetts. There was no football team at the Winchendon School; John took up lacrosse.
He can't remember ever having a goal as a child. Goodman always knew there was room for him in his father's business. From his Massachusetts boarding school, he went to his Delaware college. After graduating from Wesley, Goodman came back home to Texas with a brand-new marketing degree and an abiding love for lacrosse.
Dad right away made young Goodman vice-president of international sales. Goodman married a girl from the neighborhood (Tanglewood), moved into a $2.6 million house in a better neighborhood (River Oaks), and though the company was soon bringing in about $400 million a year, he went looking "for something to do."
... Goodman was drawn to polo for its tradition and camaraderie, he said. He wanted to compete on horseback, in something more vigorous than dressage. In 1989, on the green fields of the Houston Polo Club, Goodman began taking lessons, and when he began playing in club matches, he found himself living as he never had. Within the span of a game, he felt sadness and joy, fear and power. "It's like a war," he said. "Something bad can happen to you, and then something good happens." Life was more interesting when it was threatened; polo was the perfect antidote to boredom.
"I guess it's helped build my... um, I don't know if I should say that. It's certainly given me a lot of confidence," he said.
Here's Goodman talking about his love of the sport:
Today, Goodman reportedly winters on his 78-acre ranch in Wellington, Florida, next to Palm Beach. HCAD reveals that he still owns a Tanglewood-area house worth $2.2 million, along with the million-dollar vacant lot next door. Through polo, he has rubbed elbows with royalty -- he has lined up alongside Prince William -- and celebrities. (Fellow enthusiast Tommy Lee Jones is reportedly a friend, or at least was, back in 1998.)
Polo is a weird sport. Team owners get to play alongside real players -- it's as if Mark Cuban got to be point guard for the Mavericks and square off against Les Alexander, while Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki went easy on them. Nobody ever speaks ill of patrons -- in polo, it's always pronounced with the accent on the "o" as in Spanish -- like Goodman.
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But it looks like the polo crowd might be turning on their former hero. Two days after the wreck, there was a key polo match at the club Goodman founded. The champagne was flowing in the stands, but the crowd did quiet for a moment of silence to honor Wilson, the recent grad killed by the club's founder.
And then a polo fan named Jerry Resnick told a reporter from the Palm Beach Post that Goodman's crash would have no effect on the sport's image.
"There are bad people in every crowd," Resnick said. "It had nothing to do with the game."
For a guy like Goodman, who apparently thought that he had at last bought his best friends for life, words like that have to sting.