Phoenix New Times
The Kings of Probate
Dorothy Richards hadn’t spoken to her Aunt Delores for years when she decided to look her relative up in early 1988. A few inquiries led the Newport Beach, California, resident to Delores Reichwein’s home in Mesa. But Richards’ visit to Arizona was short and sad.
Her aunt’s husband, Merlin, was slowly dying in a Mesa hospital. And Delores Reichwein herself, once so vibrant, was now bedridden and barely aware of her niece’s presence. A stroke had left her unable to swallow properly, much less to carry on a conversation. Doctors had been forced to amputate one of Delores’ legs. From then on, Richards contacted Delores Reichwein only through cards and an occasional letter. She learned that Merlin Reichwein had died in November 1988, but never heard back from her aunt.
Over the years, however, Richards received Maricopa County Probate Court reports about her aunt’s once-healthy estate. Though they lived modestly, the Reichweins had accumulated more than $650,000 in assets during their long lives, much of it through an inheritance. Their holdings weren’t overly complicated–stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit and some property.
The Reichweins’ wills were also simple, naming each other as sole beneficiary. After both were deceased, everything was to go to a Masonic lodge in their native Iowa.
But almost all of the money had disappeared by the time Delores Reichwein died last June. In 1987, the estate had been assessed at $654,326. By the end of 1990, it had shrunk to $281,618. A few months ago, all that remained were a few thousand dollars and a house on Mesa’s East Contessa Street, assessed at $74,000.
Delores Reichwein would have been put on welfare if she hadn’t died. Public records reveal the reason: Her estate had been squandered by the men legally responsible for protecting her, Mesa attorney Wayne Legg and her guardian-conservator, Webber Mackey.
Legg and Mackey had access to Delores Reichwein’s money because in the late 1980s, the Reichweins had joined the 500,000 elderly Americans who are “wards” of a court. Because of advanced age or other incapacity, wards are compelled to turn their financial affairs over to a guardian-conservator, usually a family member or a court-appointed private fiduciary. Wards are among society’s most vulnerable citizens.
What is especially distasteful about this case is the prominence of Legg in Arizona’s legal circles. For three decades, Legg was a partner in the venerable Mesa firm founded by U.S. Congressman John J. Rhodes and C. Max Killian, father of current Arizona legislator Mark Killian. Legg was chief counsel for Arizona State University, a former president of the university’s alumni association and a former Republican party county chairman. In the 1980s, some mentioned him as a possible candidate for governor.
Nonetheless, he and Webber Mackey ran the once-healthy Reichwein estate into the ground, while collecting almost $200,000 in fees for themselves. Legg and Mackey proved to be as cunning and as predatory as the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. The movie dinosaurs sought fresh meat; so did their real-life counterparts.
Delores Reichwein was not their only victim. For years, the two men–senior citizens themselves–gained the trust of more than two dozen East Valley elderly and then took their money.
Legg and Mackey ran amok for years, long after the Probate Court judiciary should have detected the estate-gouging and irregular financial arrangements.
A New Times investigation has uncovered a pattern of fiscal abuses costing the aged and their heirs untold dollars and grief. The newspaper relied on public records and on interviews with 47 people in 13 states to complete its investigation.
Among the findings:
- Legg and Mackey double-billed and questionably charged the estates of at least two dozen elderly Valley residents, shrinking those estates in many instances to practically nothing.
- With rare exception, Maricopa County’s Probate Court judges and commissioners–most often Michael Jones, Stephen Ventre and Elizabeth Yancey–rubber-stamped the fees submitted by Legg and Mackey. New Times examined 94 probate files, including dozens not involving Wayne Legg and Webber Mackey. Approval of fees is the rule, not the exception.
- Using Delores and Merlin Reichwein’s money, Mackey bought a home in the couple’s name in Mesa. Legg and Mackey used the property to start a for-profit group home for the elderly, and moved in several ward-clients. The money for the group home’s employees, utilities and other bills–even the attorney’s fees to incorporate it–came from the Reichwein estate.
- Mackey bought a new Dodge van with money from the estates of two aged ward-clients, Rosalie Steele and Chester Brewer. The two appparently didn’t even know each other. Mackey then charged thousands of dollars in “service fees” to the estates of numerous other wards. These “fees” came on top of Mackey’s rate of $40 per hour plus mileage.
- Wayne Legg and his family took the Dodge van on vacation trips without permission from or compensation to its aged owners. Under Arizona law, that could be felony theft.
- Elderly ward-clients signed new wills that meant more money for Legg and Mackey. Legg drew up such a will for Mona Van Volkenburgh shortly before she died in March 1990, even though a doctor wrote that Van Volkenburgh was “unable to make any decision and unable to take care of her financial affairs.” The amended will named Mackey as the estate’s sole beneficiary and executor.
In another case, Grace Gannett changed her will at Mackey’s urging in a Mesa hospital room hours after she had suffered a stroke. It named Mackey as the executor of her $120,000 estate, which meant more money for him and for Legg, the estate’s attorney.
- The Probate Court judiciary has exercised little control over the private fiduciaries it appoints as guardian-conservators and executors. The only requirement to become a fiduciary, says a court investigator, “is the ability to breathe.”
Webber Mackey’s best qualification to manage millions of dollars in estate assets was that he knew Wayne Legg. The 77-year-old Mackey remains a member of the Arizona Association of Professional Fiduciaries, an unlicensed, self-regulating group he helped found and for which, as recently as 1990, he served as president.
No criminal charges have been filed against Legg or Mackey, despite the weight of evidence against them under Arizona’s theft statutes and the state’s elder-abuse law. Enacted in 1991, the law is designed to punish those who physically, mentally or financially abuse senior citizens.
It also calls for criminal charges against anyone–judge, law partner, whomever–who fails to contact police or other authorities after having “a reasonable basis to believe that . . . exploitation of [a] vulnerable adult’s property has occurred.”
The attorneys Legg and Mackey have hired–Harry Stewart Jr. for Legg, Mike Kimerer for Mackey–told New Times that neither man would be available for comment.
Criminal-defense attorney Kimerer predictably blames Legg for what went wrong. “My client relied on the advice of his counsel at the time–Mr. Legg–in these matters,” Kimerer says. “That’s the bottom line.”
Stewart says nothing he’s seen so far “has led to charges or proves that Wayne Legg is guilty of anything. He’s had an impeccable reputation for a long time.”
What happened to Delores Reichwein and the other victims has particular importance to Arizonans because of the state’s vast senior-citizen population. Arizona has the highest percentage of incapacitated wards of any state in the nation, and veterans of the county’s Probate Court say financial abuse of the elderly is widespread.
“The only difference between these men and some other people is they got caught,” warns Deborah Primock, who supervises the Probate Court’s investigators. “What happened to these people can happen to anyone.”
The Team of Legg and Mackey
One of Wayne Legg’s ex-law partners provides little insight into the man and his motives. “I suppose he had some financial needs and was worried about his retirement,” says Douglas Cook.
The irony of that statement doesn’t escape Mesa auctioneer and real estate broker Philip Holmes, who has known Legg for 30 years.
“Wayne always seemed like a holier-than-anybody sort of guy,” Holmes tells New Times. “A lot of people in Mesa still feel he’s the greatest thing that’s ever been. Wayne’s own needs have always been No. 1, and you just don’t say no to him.”
The lawyer apparently has been that way for a long time. A Valley woman who attended ASU with Legg as an undergraduate almost four decades ago recalls that “Wayne was out for one thing–Wayne. But he was good at getting people to go along with him.”
Legg returned to Arizona in the late 1950s, after being graduated from Drake University Law School in his native Iowa. In those days, Mesa was a small town with just a handful of lawyers. Among the most prominent of the town’s firms, then and now, was the one founded in the early 1950s by Max Killian and John Rhodes.
Wayne Legg was a great catch for the firm. He was an aggressive young family man who excelled at beating the bushes for new clients. Legg wasn’t a handsome fellow, nor was he a charmer. But he did excel at networking, long before someone coined the term.
As Mesa and the law firm grew, Legg’s reputation and bank account grew with them. He was a polished public speaker who oozed sincerity as he discussed how to properly prepare for one’s golden years.
Legg spoke often in the trust-inspiring settings of East Valley churches, where he met many future clients. He was masterful at giving probate an aura of complexity it often didn’t deserve.
Legg’s verbal skills and the uncanny sway he held over the county judiciary paid off handsomely for him as the years passed. He bought several large farms in rural Kentucky, where his mother, Ruth, had been raised. He moved into an expansive home on Val Vista Road in Mesa.
Webber Mackey met Wayne Legg more than 20 years ago. Mackey migrated to Arizona after a chain of gas stations he had owned in Pennsylvania failed. In Mesa, he did various odd jobs and attended church on Sundays. It was there that Mackey met Wayne Legg’s parents, who introduced him to their well-known son.
The two eventually became a team. The well-connected Legg would find aging clients with money, ideally those without immediate family in Arizona. At some point, those clients would need a guardian-conservator to manage their affairs. Legg would recommend Mackey for the job.
The job is not easy. A guardian-conservator is responsible for every aspect of an incapacitated ward’s life. A ward may no longer receive money, pay bills, even marry or divorce without permission. The guardian-conservator has a legal duty to submit all expenditures to the Probate Court.
By most accounts, Legg and Mackey’s relationship was not one of equals. Mackey was about 15 years older than Legg, but he was in awe of the younger man. He referred to Legg as “Himself” and constantly fretted about how Legg would react to something.
Deborah Primock of the Probate Court says Mackey appeared to many to be an honest, caring man.
“I wouldn’t place my worst enemy with some of the private fiduciaries in this town,” Primock says. “I mean the cold-blooded ones who could care less about their wards. I didn’t feel that way about Mr. Mackey. I thought of him as a nice old man who happened to hook up with an attorney with clout.”
But New Times’ investigation shows that Mackey demonstrated allegiance first to Legg, not to the “protected” elderly under his legal care.
“Webber always made a statement,” says Philip Holmes’ wife, Geneva, who worked as an assistant to Mackey for three years. “Wayne is the goose that lays the golden egg.’”
The Contessa House
It was 1987, and Webber Mackey was giving Wayne Legg a deposition about an elderly woman’s failing health.
“She just laid there with her mouth open and her tongue hanging out, and she couldn’t talk,” Mackey said of Delores Reichwein. “She was very pathetic.”
Wayne Legg had been the Reichweins’ lawyer for years. That March, he had drawn up the Reichweins’ wills, documents that named Mackey as executor of the couple’s estate.
Legg used the deposition to convince a judge to also appoint private fiduciary Mackey as Delores Reichwein’s guardian-conservator. A few months later, another judge appointed Mackey as guardian-conservator for Merlin Reichwein. Legg became the estate’s attorney.
The Reichweins were perfect victims: They had no children and, as far as Legg and Mackey knew, no close family members. (Delores Reichwein’s niece, Dorothy Richards, wouldn’t come into the picture for some time.) And the Reichweins had trusted Wayne Legg for years.
Legg and Mackey soon flooded the Reichwein estate with bills. The two traveled to Iowa together in September 1987 to meet the future beneficiaries at the Masonic lodge in Boone. The pair charged the estate $2,460 for that visit.
In June 1988, Legg and Mackey submitted their first annual set of bills in the Reichwein case. The numbers were astounding: Legg demanded almost $64,000 in fees–about $32,000 each for the two Reichweins. Mackey’s first bill came to $13,263.
The charges added up to far more than anything considered “reasonable” under Arizona law. A review of the itemized bills reveals a rash of double- and overbillings. Still, then-Pro Tem Commissioner Michael Jones approved the charges.
By this year, Jones and other Probate Court colleagues had given their seal of approval to almost $200,000 in attorney and fiduciary fees charged to the Reichwein estate.
“You wonder if those judges ever bothered to even look at the figures those men were charging,” says Dorothy Richards. “I don’t understand how they could go along with this. I told my daughter at one point, ‘They’re really getting to Aunt Delores.’”
In the fall of 1988, the bleeding of the Reichwein estate became more elaborate. That October, Webber Mackey purchased a duplex in the Reichweins’ names on East Contessa Street in Mesa. Legg told associates that Merlin Reichwein had suggested buying it as a way of keeping his wife out of a nursing home. Merlin Reichwein died in November 1988, three weeks after Mackey bought the home in the middle-class neighborhood.
In early 1989, workers tore down the main wall that partitioned the duplex. Legg and Mackey then moved five elderly women, including Delores Reichwein, into the Contessa House, as it was called, from their own homes or from nursing homes.
Several women and a few men moved in and out of the Contessa House over its three-year history; some died there. Legg was the attorney and Mackey the guardian-conservator for all of them.
“These women were lonely and old. They had to trust somebody,” says Betty Cuney, a Santa Paula, California, resident whose late aunt, Blanche Mulligan, moved to the Contessa House in 1989.
Care at the home was good enough that Wayne Legg moved his own mother, Ruth, there in 1991. But care was only part of it.
The group home presented a host of new financial opportunities for Legg and Mackey. They could charge what they wanted for room, board and other services, and they could pocket much of the proceeds. They didn’t have to explain their constant comings and goings, which they billed the estates for.
Many of the residents paid more there than they had at their previous residences–up to $3,200 per month. Even Delores Reichwein paid that amount each month to live in her own house.
In other words, Delores Reichwein was paying for Wayne Legg and Webber Mackey to run a business inside a home they had bought with her money. The Reichwein estate got the short end of the deal; only Legg and Mackey profited.
In 1989, fiduciary Webber Mackey credited the estate with $13,500 in rent from the other residents. That year, Legg and Mackey charged Delores Reichwein’s estate $22,718 for her to live in her own home. Her estate also paid $37,086 for taxes, electricity, cable television, telephone and other expenses.
In 1990, Mackey credited the Reichwein estate with even less rent money, just $7,200. That year cost Delores Reichwein $38,442 in room and board at her own home. That sum doesn’t include the hourly fees billed by Legg, Mackey and their minions.
In 1991, Delores Reichwein’s estate paid another $43,000 for her room and board, and collected just $8,000 from the home’s other residents. But Wayne Legg’s mother paid nothing for the months she lived in the Contessa House before her death that April.
Hints of Trouble
Things began to unravel after Legg convinced Philip and Geneva Holmes to move to Arizona in 1989. They were a Kentucky couple he had known for decades and with whom he had family ties. Legg promised Geneva Holmes $2,000 per month and free use of what he said was a “company van.”
She spent hours each day driving the van around the East Valley to check on his wards. At night she’d give Mackey a detailed report over the phone.
A long time passed before Geneva Holmes discovered something troubling. “Here I was, writing down my time,” she says, “and Webber was charging those people, too. I found out he was just, like, double-dipping them.”
In 1991, for example, Mackey claimed to have visited Delores Reichwein at the Contessa House 45 times. He also billed the estate for 39 visits by Geneva Holmes. His records indicate that many of the pair’s visits occurred on the same day.
On Valentine’s Day, 1990, Mackey drove over to the Contessa House from his Mesa office. His own records show he joined the five women living there at the time for an hourlong lunch.
Later, he charged each ward for the visit and for the mileage to and from the house. The luncheon made him a quick $200. Mackey charged his wards for everything. He’d buy an elderly ward, say, a box of candy, and would deliver it in person. Later, he’d bill the ward’s estate for the candy, the time it took to deliver it and the mileage expended.
Mackey also billed estates for hour after hour he allegedly spent “in conference” with Wayne Legg. Legg’s hourly rate–$200 per hour, in recent years–was also in effect during most of those conversations.
The two sent their bills to the Probate Court for official sanction. New Times could find no instance in which the court denied them.
In mid-1991, Wayne Legg invited Kentucky salesman Mike Smith to take over the Contessa group home. Smith says Legg promised him free rein, and offered him the post of Contessa House Ltd. president.
As the months went by, Smith also noted Webber Mackey’s unending “overcharging, the excessive charges.” It angered Smith that he was paying Geneva Holmes and that Mackey was charging the wards’ estates for the same services.
“I was paying Geneva Holmes to take these people to the doctors and places like that,” Smith says. “[Then] they get charged again. . . . It’s a joy ride for [Mackey].”
Contessa House Ltd. didn’t prove to be nearly the windfall Mike Smith had hoped for, but he tried to make a go of it for about a year. In early 1992, however, Wayne Legg told him that the home would be shutting down.
“He was saying that his [law] partners wanted it closed,” Smith said in a sworn statement. “I had no intention of closing the business. He come and said, ‘All these residents gotta go.’”
Embittered by his experience in Mesa, Mike Smith resolved to learn more about why Wayne Legg had shut down the Contessa House.
“There was some problems that had come about about the van,” Smith says. “The van that was owned by Rosalie Steele and Chester Brewer.”
Mike Smith recalls the moment he learned that two of Wayne Legg and Webber Mackey’s ward-clients owned the “company” van.
“I was shocked,” says Smith, who returned a few months ago to his native Kentucky. “I thought, ‘Why would Rosalie and Chester need a van, when both of them are incompetent people?’”
But Smith only knew the half of it. New Times’ investigation shows that Mackey purchased the 1989 Dodge Caravan for about $17,000, with money from the estates of Rosalie Steele and Chester Brewer, two wards under his legal control. Mackey then established a checking account at Security Pacific Bank in the name of Webber Mackey Van Account.
Nine ward-clients of Legg and Mackey then paid about $100 each per month “to defray expenses,” Mackey later told Court Commissioner Elizabeth Yancey. Those “expenses” added up to $16,892 over an 18-month period, and didn’t include his or Geneva Holmes’ hourly fees.
Mackey’s records show that Chester Brewer’s estate paid $1,875 to the “van account” during an 18-month period. During that time, says Geneva Holmes, Brewer rode in his vehicle fewer than five times.
“I probably took Chester three times to get his hair cut,” she says. “I also took him to get new glasses and have his eyes examined.”
It’s not certain how many times Rosalie Steele rode in the van she co-owned. Once in 1990, however, Mackey charged Steele’s estate $140 to take her to a Methodist church service honoring Wayne Legg.
Several people allege that Legg, sometimes with family members, took the van on vacation trips to the Grand Canyon, California, Las Vegas, Disney World and Kentucky. This happened, court documents show, while Mackey was collecting the monthly “service fee” from his wards’ estates.
“There would be times when someone would fly in,” Philip Holmes recalls, “and Wayne would call me and say, ‘Could you bring the van over to pick these people up at the airport? Meet us at the Arizona Club for lunch. And then I want you to show them around.’”
Law enforcement sources and defense attorneys contacted by New Times say Legg’s actions with the van may constitute felony theft under an Arizona law that states, “A person commits theft if he converts for an unauthorized term or use services or property of another entrusted to the defendant.”
Legg was on the road with his clients’ property for as long as a month at a time, Geneva Holmes says. That left her without a vehicle. (Legg’s attorney, Harry Stewart Jr., declined comment on the van and on other allegations in this story.) “Webber Mackey always let me drive his pickup truck,” she says, “so I would have to take these ladies and men shopping [in] the pickup.”
Legg and Mackey routinely had their van expenses approved by Probate Court. They had few difficult moments.
In October 1991, Mesa-based Court Commissioner Elizabeth Yancey ordered Mackey to explain why she should approve $1,875 in “service fees” he had charged the estate of his incapacitated ward Grace Gannett. On March 4, 1992, Yancey ruled that the service fees “could be determined to have been in violation of the guardian-conservator’s fiduciary duty to the ward.”
But then Yancey caved in.
“[Mackey’s] fees charged for the ‘trips’ are not unreasonable on their face,” Yancey wrote, approving the service fees charged to the Gannett estate. (Citing the “Judicial Rules of Conduct,” Yancey declined to comment on this or any other case involving Legg and Mackey.)
In May 1992, Webber Mackey sold the van at auction for about $6,000.
The van was one of many things that led members of Grace Gannett’s family to scratch their heads. Once the family members convinced themselves that something very wrong was happening in Arizona, they fought back.
Grace Gannett’s story parallels that of Delores Reichwein, in that much of her estate vanished during the time Wayne Legg and Webber Mackey controlled it. A big difference is how members of her family did something about it.
The Gannett clan flew to Arizona from around the nation in June 1992 to attend Grace Gannett’s funeral, after she died on her 93rd birthday. Only then did the family learn of a second will, one Legg and Mackey had convinced her to sign to their potential benefit.
Born in 1899, Grace Soliday grew up in DuBois, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a farrier. Though her eyesight was poor, she read voraciously as a youngster. It was a love that lasted a lifetime.
During high school, she met Herman Gannett, a teenage emigrant from the Ukraine. The tiny redhead tutored the eager young man in English. The two married in 1922.
The young couple then worked as a teaching team at one-room schoolhouses in rural Ohio. Grace taught the young kids, Herman the older ones. Herman later became a school superintendent.
“They lived the American dream,” says granddaughter Cinthia Gannett, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. “Herman and Gracie. Wonderful people. They weren’t rich, but he made sure she would be financially comfortable if he wasn’t there for her in her later years.”
The Gannetts didn’t have children of their own, but they adopted a son, Paul. Grace and Herman Gannett moved to Mesa after they retired in the early 1970s, because Paul Gannett’s brother, Ed Phillips, lived in the Valley. The Phillipses spent many happy times with the couple.
The Gannetts lived a modest, comfortable life in Mesa that centered on their faith and on each other. Wayne Legg became the Gannetts’ attorney in the late 1970s, after he met them at church. He prepared their wills, which called for the couple’s assets to be split among family members. Grace Gannett’s will called for Ed Phillips to become the estate’s executor after she died.
Herman Gannett died in 1980. In the late 1980s, a series of strokes landed Grace Gannett at a Mesa nursing home.
In August 1988, Probate Court Commissioner Michael Jones declared her incapacitated and appointed Webber Mackey as her guardian-conservator. Wayne Legg would now serve as the estate’s attorney.
That gave Legg and Mackey legal control over Grace Gannett and her money, estimated in late 1988 to be about $120,000. The Legg-Mackey team assured the Gannett family that the estate was in sound shape.
But public records show that the Gannetts’ $120,000 estate shrank to $87,448 by June 1990, then to $42,903 by June 1991. The payments Mackey made from the estate to Wayne Legg and himself accounted for a significant part of the shrinkage.
“We didn’t know they were bleeding off what my grandpa and grandma had earned,” Cinthia Gannett says. “We may not have known much, but we knew they’re not allowed to suck people dry.”
Court Commissioner Michael Jones, however, approved every bill submitted by the men. He tells New Times he doesn’t recall specific cases involving Legg and Mackey, but adds: “I do remember several cases that Wayne and Webber had that were extraordinary in terms of the fees, but I never had a clue that something smelled fishy or looked fishy. They really seemed to care for their ‘protected’ individuals.”
But Grace Gannett’s family was starting to smell something fishy, even if Jones wasn’t. Her relatives started to wonder aloud why more than two-thirds of her assets had vanished in a three-year period.
“We thought the charges were exorbitant,” says Grace Gannett’s daughter-in-law, Joy Gannett, “but we felt we just had to trust the attorneys.”
Cinthia Gannett aired many of the family’s concerns in a 1991 letter to Legg and Mackey. She heard nothing in return.
“We figured that as grandchildren, we just didn’t count legally,” she says, “and we thought that if you have the jobs of guardian and attorney of an old person, it’s a sacred trust. You are supposed to be more ethical than anyone else.”
Grace Gannett died June 30, 1992. Her family gathered in Mesa to say its final goodbyes. After the funeral, the mourners met at Wayne Legg’s longtime law firm for a reading of her will.
No one there that day is likely to forget it.
Cinthia Gannett recalls “this enormous room with a huge table that my mom said had probably cost enough to feed many families for months.” The sprawling table and the spread-out seating arrangement kept family members from conversing among themselves, she says.
Legg wasn’t present that day. Attorney Wilford Taylor ran things. The will reading went smoothly until Taylor informed the family that Grace Gannett had amended her will in February 1990, replacing Ed Phillips with private fiduciary Webber Mackey.
“It shocked me out of my skull,” Joy Gannett says. “I wondered, ‘How could my mother have been legally competent to change her will after she had been declared incapable of handling her own affairs?’”
Some of Grace Gannett’s loved ones had seen enough. Soon after Cinthia Gannett returned home to New Hampshire, she wrote a letter to other family members that posed a difficult question:
“Could there be some complicity in the relation between the [Legg] firm (or just one of its attorneys) and Mackey, protecting each other from any outside interference and skimming/draining the estate in a variety of legal and semi-legal ways?”
The letter struck a chord with the Phillips family in Arizona, which had revered Grace and Herman Gannett. Grace Gannett hadn’t named Ed Phillips’ son, Keith Phillips, as a beneficiary in her will. But Keith was fighting mad about what was happening.
In July 1992, he mailed a letter to Morris Rozar, then Maricopa County’s presiding Probate Court judge.
“I feel that Webber Mackey is cutting himself in for expenses and a percentage of an estate,” Phillips wrote, “that his plan was and is to bleed off what he can. . . . It sickens me. . . . I think Mackey has committed fraud, the way this was handled.”
On August 17, 1992, Keith Phillips showed up at Commissioner Elizabeth Yancey’s courtroom to object to Mackey’s pending appointment as executor of Grace Gannett’s estate. He asked Yancey if he could speak.
“She said I had no standing to say anything, because I wasn’t named in the will,” Phillips recalls. “Then I handed her a copy of my letter to Judge Rozar.”
Yancey soon put the matter on hold. Last October, Mackey withdrew from consideration as the executor of Grace Gannett’s estate. Last March, Yancey appointed Ed Phillips–the friend named in the original will–as the executor.
But problems remain with the shrunken Gannett estate: Webber Mackey apparently can’t find several family heirlooms that had been entrusted to him. And there’s the question of how Legg and Mackey convinced Grace Gannett to change her will.
Webber Mackey’s own journal provides the answer. It includes a notation dated February 15, 1990: “Met ambulance at Valley Lutheran Hospital. Sign paperwork. . . .”
That’s the same date Grace Gannett scrawled her name on the new will.
Hours after Grace Gannett had suffered a stroke, Webber Mackey had gotten his legally “incapacitated and protected” ward to sign a new will that named him executor of her estate. “It’s so ghastly, so tawdry, it’s almost hard to believe,” Cinthia Gannett says. “People who prey on the elderly are just the worst.”
The Fall of Wayne Legg
In 1991, the law firm of Killian, Legg, Nicholas and Fischer assigned Wilford Taylor to assist Wayne Legg with his extensive probate clientele. That move, designed to lighten the load of the aging attorney, would prove damaging to Legg.
The firm’s managing partner, Douglas Cook, tells New Times that Commissioner Yancey raised questions with Taylor about the propriety of the Contessa House and the van. Taylor repeated those concerns to him.
Cook says he then learned a Probate Court investigator had been making comments about Legg and Mackey “ripping people off.” Cook called the court’s chief investigator, Deborah Primock, to complain. She told him that she, too, had heard complaints about the Contessa House and the two men.
Cook spoke to Legg about it, and says Legg promised him he’d shut down the Contessa House and move the wards elsewhere. A month or so passed, then Cook discovered Legg was planning to run the Contessa House operation out of a Mesa nursing home.
He says he confronted Legg again.
“He was looking down his nose at me–arrogant,” Cook says. “I told him that his stories were changing, and that I had lost confidence in him. As a partner, I felt I couldn’t trust him anymore.”
After a long conference with the firm’s other partners, Cook and colleague Paul Fischer told Legg on June 3, 1992, that he was out. Within a few days, the firm took Wayne Legg’s name off the sign on Center Street in downtown Mesa. “Wayne was given two choices,” says Philip Holmes. One option was never to practice law again and to be paid about $175,000, under a partnership agreement, over an 18-month period. The other was to continue to practice law and still be paid about $125,000 during the same stretch.
“His response was that he was going to cease practicing law,” Holmes recalls, “because he wanted the SOBs to pay him every dime he could get from them.”
A few months after Legg resigned, he found himself embroiled in a new fight with his old firm. It concerned the estate of Mona Van Volkenburgh, a Legg-Mackey client who had lived at the Contessa House before her death in March 1990 at the age of 94.
In August 1992, Philip Holmes told Wilford Taylor that Legg had taken property belonging to the wards–a fancy barbecue grill, a flagpole and other items–from the Contessa House to Kentucky.
That sounded like theft to Douglas Cook. But Cook didn’t call the police. Instead, he sent a terse letter to Legg demanding the return of the items. Legg soon wrote back, noting that Mona Van Volkenburgh had named Webber Mackey sole heir to her estate in a will approved by Commissioner Yancey. Legg said that meant Mackey now owned the grill.
The startling revelation led Legg’s former law partners to pore over the Van Volkenburgh case, they say, for the first time. What partner Charles Wirkin learned, he says, “made it very clear to us that Wayne had been ripping this person off.”
Back in 1979, Legg had drawn up a will for Van Volkenburgh, a retired railroad-company stenographer from Mississippi. In the will, Van Volkenburgh left much of her estate to a friend from Ohio, Sam Maxwell Sr. She also nominated Maxwell as her estate’s executor.
Years passed, and Van Volkenburgh suffered the ravages of old age. In late 1987, a court-appointed doctor reported that “most of the time, she is confused, is unable to make any decision and unable to take care of her affairs.”
That led the Probate Court to appoint Webber Mackey as her guardian-conservator. In August 1989, Wayne Legg drew up a new will for Van Volkenburgh. In it, she disinherited Maxwell in favor of Mackey, to whom she left her entire, $45,000 estate (minus a few personal items) and nominated him as executor.
The new will ordered Mackey to use “whatever assets I may have remaining at the time of my demise . . . for the benefit and care of my friends living at the [Contessa House].”
What’s especially baffling about the document is that someone cut off the bottom part of the new will’s last page–the place where two witnesses attest that they saw the person sign the document. That should have rendered the will illegal.
But on April 25, 1990–seven weeks after Mona Van Volkenburgh died at the Contessa House–Commissioner Yancey ruled the second will valid. That day, court records show, Webber Mackey wrote two checks to himself on the Van Volkenburgh estate, each in the amount of $17,500.
Legg and Mackey had no intention of using the money for the “benefit and care” of Van Volkenburgh’s peers at the Contessa House.
Someone, most likely Wayne Legg, instead deposited the two checks at a bank in Greensburg, Kentucky. Legg endorsed both checks and, an examination of his calendar shows, was in Kentucky at that time.
The People’s Bank and Trust Company in Kentucky then issued two certificates of deposit in the names of “Webber Mackey (personal representative) or Wayne E. Legg.”
On September 9, 1992, then-presiding Probate Court Judge Morris Rozar appointed Phoenix attorney Michael Strauber to investigate many of the Legg-Mackey probate cases, including the Van Volkenburgh estate.
Five days later, Killian firm attorney Charles Wirkin asked the Probate Court to reject the second Van Volkenburgh will, because it “may have been obtained through fraud. . . .”
On October 23, 1992, Webber Mackey sent a check for $42,350 to the Maricopa County Clerk of the Court. Mackey’s lawyer says the amount covered the amount his client had received from the Van Volkenburgh estate, plus interest.
The work by Strauber, attorneys Jeffrey Miller and Alisa Gray, county Public Fiduciary investigator John Hardy and others has led in recent months to a series of legal petitions against Webber Mackey and the companies that bonded him.
As for Wayne Legg, he hasn’t slipped away quietly into the night, either. Earlier this year, he was involved in yet another remarkable incident involving an elderly woman and a large estate.
Ellen Davis’ life hadn’t been cushy before she hooked up in the early 1970s with Earl Davis. An emigrant from Denmark, she had moved to the northern Montana town of Cut Bank in 1951.
She outlived her first two husbands, both good men who left her little in the way of assets. After her second husband died, she lived for years in a shack without running water or indoor plumbing. She had two stepdaughters from one of her previous marriages.
In 1953, the tall, slender woman met neighbors Joanne and Glenn Lindberg, who lived about a mile down the road, on their own wheat and barley farm. The three became lifelong friends.
“Ellen learned how to pinch a penny out of necessity,” Joanne Lindberg tells New Times. “Even after she met Earl and had some money for the first time, she stayed very, very tight in that way.”
Earl Davis was a wealthy widower who had homes and property in Montana and Arizona. The elderly couple spent their winters in Mesa and their summers in Montana, a practice Ellen Davis continued after Earl died in 1987.
Earl Davis left his wife the bulk of his $5 million estate. Through an attorney–not Wayne Legg–she set up a trust, a legal device that keeps an estate out of the public forum of Probate Court.
It isn’t certain how Wayne Legg became the attorney for the Davis trust. It is known that Geneva Holmes–the former employee of Webber Mackey–had taken care of the aged Ellen Davis. It is also known that Ellen Davis’ next-door neighbors–who knew Legg–became her trustees.
What can also be gleaned from public records is that, last February, Ellen Davis decided she no longer wanted Legg as her estate’s attorney or her neighbors as trustees.
She apparently made up her mind after hearing horror stories about the Legg-Mackey team from Geneva Holmes and others. The decision stood to cost Legg and the neighbors thousands of dollars each in fees.
In their stead, she chose her accountant, Wendell Jones, as trustee, and Wayne Legg’s old law partner, Douglas Cook, as her attorney.
The matter was a pressing one. Ellen Davis was dying of lung cancer, and was often hospitalized. From her Montana farm, Joanne Lindberg stayed in close contact with her ill, 87-year-old friend.
“She told me, ‘Joanne, I need help. I do not trust this man,’” Joanne Lindberg recalls. Ellen Davis was referring to Legg.
Soon after that, Joanne Lindberg says, “I called Ellen and she was crying. It sounded real bad. We decided to go down there to see her.” The Lindbergs departed so fast, they left “a sinkful of dirty dishes” and hit the road, driving nonstop to Arizona.
“When we saw Ellen at the hospital, she looked so terribly sad,” Joanne Lindberg recalls. “I asked my husband if he’d mind if I spent the night with her. He said, ‘Fine,’ so I grabbed a blanket and drove over there.”
Ellen Davis’ next-door neighbors–the former trustees–were already at Mesa’s Valley Lutheran Hospital. They told her they were waiting for Wayne Legg, who soon showed up.
“He told me, ‘I’m going back to write a new will,’” Joanne Lindberg says. “It will put the [neighbors] back as trustees and me as the attorney. That’s the way Ellen wants it. Don’t let anyone in this room.’”
Joanne Lindberg soon went in to see Ellen Davis. “She told me, ‘I have to sign it. I have to make it up to them.’”
While Legg was gone, his former colleagues Cook and Taylor showed up. An argument ensued between Ellen Davis’ neighbors and the attorneys. “It wasn’t a happy situation,” Douglas Cook confirms, putting his head in his hands at the memory. “It was a bad one.”
The attorneys later left the hospital, but Joanne Lindberg stayed to see if Wayne Legg would return as promised. Shortly after midnight, Legg strode back in and asked Joanne Lindberg to be a witness to the signing of Ellen Davis’ new will.
She declined. She wouldn’t leave her friend’s side. Ellen Davis then refused to sign the document. Flashing his temper, Legg again left.
Joanne Lindberg’s husband, Glenn, came to the hospital a little after 5 a.m., shortly before Ellen Davis’ next-door neighbors returned. A kind of cat-and-mouse game continued between the two couples. But Wayne Legg never returned.
Ellen Davis insisted she would sign nothing. The neighbors left. The following day, the Lindbergs took Ellen Davis home. They stayed with her for the next three weeks, until she lapsed into her final unconsciousness.
Bidding their friend goodbye, the Lindbergs finally returned to Cut Bank the day before Ellen Davis died last March 17.
“If I had not been down in Arizona and seen how bad she looked and gone back to that hospital,” Joanne Lindberg says, “I just know she would have signed that new will.”
During one of her lucid moments in those final days, Joanne Lindberg says, “Ellen said something we’ll never forget. It was this: ‘If I only could live long enough to hear the jail cell clang behind Mr. Legg.’
“She wanted it not just for herself, but for all the people he had taken money from.