Millionaires Clash Over Shadyside Mansion

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It was just after 6 on a still Friday evening in December when a man Rahul Nath had never seen before approached his beige-brick two-story mansion tucked behind the iron gates among the oak trees. The doorbell wasn't working, so the man walked inside and began calling for Nath. In the weeks and years that followed, as this day was laboriously parsed and unpacked over hours of court testimony and depositions, this man, J.J. Cortez, was called many things. He was cast as a servant, a chef, an employee, someone who could intimidate. But at this moment, as Nath, an affluent surgeon, descended a broad stairwell to greet this unexpected stranger, Cortez wasn't anything other than a messenger.

And the message was this: You've been summoned. Your next-door neighbor, Tony Petrello, wants to see you. Nath, still clad in scrubs from work, had never heard of Petrello. He'd just agreed to purchase the house — for the staggering sum of $8.3 million — earlier that week. Nath, surprised and fearing some medical emergency, pattered after Cortez. They passed through an eight-foot iron gate and onto a driveway where, before a 17,000 square-foot manor, Petrello waited. Then began an encounter unlike any Nath had had before.

Arms crossed and leaning forward, was a bespectacled and jowly Anthony G. Petrello, one of the richest men in Houston. A widely known philanthropist in the medical community, he's the CEO of Nabors Industries, the largest land-based oil-drilling company in the world. "The most powerful man in town," one lawyer calls him.

Their conversation as they stood there, reconstructed through court testimony and depositions, is remembered very differently by both men. Neither agreed to speak with the Houston Press. According to Nath's deposition, he said hello to Petrello, but moments later felt threatened and discomforted. Petrello, whose every word carries New Jersey twang, was shouting and wouldn't make eye contact. Petrello started in on his demands: He and his wife, Cindy, needed Nath's house. His daughter, Carena, was disabled, and the house effectively belonged to him. He'd already orally claimed it, and Nath had to leave immediately.

Nath's house, a 1920s affair with a wine cellar and servants' chambers, was supposed to be a personal "clinic" for his handicapped daughter, Petrello said. There were plans to reconfigure it entirely. Petrello, Nath said, then raised his arm and pointed down the street, 100 yards in the distance. "You'd be better off living down the street, not next door," he said. "We could buy your house and you could potentially rent it from us for a few days, but you'd be better off living down there."

Nath, of Indian ethnicity, discerned bigotry, saying Petrello belittled him like "one of his servants." He surmised the oilman didn't want people like him and his wife, Usha, as neighbors, and was "humiliated." (Everyone the Press talked to who knows Petrello vociferously decried allegations of ­bigotry.)

Judging from Petrello's deposition, it seems as though he'd attended an entirely different meeting. To him, this was a "pleasant" talk — downright neighborly. He told Nath, who was exceedingly friendly, that his daughter had cerebral palsy and he wanted to use the house for her care. He'd heard another house was about to open up in the neighborhood. So would Nath kindly step aside? The men parted like bowling buddies.

Despite the competing narratives, one fact never changed: Petrello's got a huge crush on the house next door. This became utterly apparent over the coming years as the oilman deployed fleets of expensive lawyers, voluminous lawsuits and millions of dollars in what would become something of a crusade to claim the property — Petrello's whale, sitting in eyesight at all times, but out of reach. His dedication to the quest has made some Shadyside residents a little nervous. Murmurs shot through the community, three unrelated sources familiar with Shadyside said. Perhaps Nath's house was only the beginning. Everyone knew Petrello was rich. Maybe there were plans to annex more of the neighborhood.

The few agreed-upon facts are these: In 2007, Petrello's former next-door neighbors, Matt and Sheri Prucka, decided to move to Park City, a mountainous resort town in Utah, departing this small and wealthy community. Petrello heard the news and told Prucka he was interested in buying his house for $8.2 million, and without brokers' fees, but — and this would become extremely important — never made an offer in writing. Prucka ultimately refused and sold the house to Nath, who furnished $8.3 million in cash. So Petrello, a man of incredible academic and professional achievement who some say gets his way no matter the financial sacrifice, dialed up his lawyer, David Berg.

Shortly after, the lawsuits began — and they haven't stopped. Seeking the house, Petrello sued Prucka and the involved real estate agent, Peggy McGee, alleging breach of contract and, later, conspiracy and discrimination against his daughter. Nath, himself no stranger to lengthy litigation, sued Petrello when the oilman placed a lien on the manor to stop the transaction, accusing Petrello of bigotry, an unsubstantiated claim later dropped. Petrello sued him back, and a bizarre and confounding story began to unfold, its arc enveloping the City of Houston and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court itself.

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Terrence McCoy
Contact: Terrence McCoy