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Akin vs. Dahl

For love or money? When a daughter seeks custody of her father and his wealth, a prominent family splinters in the courtroom.
By David Bauer |
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Akin vs. Dahl

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The trial then focused on Dahl’s business judgment. There was exhaustive testimony regarding Dahl’s sale of the Gold Crest, his investment considerations, tax situation, and his management of the trust. There was testimony that Dahl was definitely not as sharp in his business judgments as he once was. There was counter-testimony that Dahl was every bit as keen a businessman as he had always been.

On the eighth day, Ted Akin was called to the witness stand. He was examined initially by Leigh Bartlett, Vial’s assistant. Early questioning had to do with the Lillie Dahl trust; almost immediately Lou Bickel began raising objections as to the admissibility and use of certain pieces of evidence. Both Vial and Bickel had, to this point, avoided heated debate. Now Bickel began objecting to the leading of the witness and the volunteering of information. It was clear that, in Bickel’s mind, Ted Akin’s testimony was occasionally over-responsive, with embellishment beyond the scope of the question. Finally Bickel exploded: “Excuse me, Judge. Is there any way we can stop this sales pitch in form of testimony? Is there any way, Your Honor? I’ve asked for instruction twice. I realize the gentleman is a judge, I’m at my peril to do it. I must ask that it be stopped.”

A new element now entered the trial: Attorney Lou Bickel versus Judge Ted Akin. It was an awkward situation. Bickel, an active civil attorney, often has reason to be trying cases in Ted Akin’s appellate court. They were well-acquainted. As a matter of form, it was uncomfortable for both Bickel and Akin to face off here; it was uncomfortable as well for Judge Jackson to serve as referee. To legal observers, it was also highly interesting.

On cross-examination, Bickel immediately questioned Akin about Akin’s financial losses, despite objections from Ms. Bartlett. When pressed by Bickel for confirmation of loss figures, Akin repeatedly answered that he did not know. Suddenly, Bickel asked, “Have you ever suffered from any mental infirmities … any mental diseases?” Vial jumped to the floor in objection, calling it “a degrading exercise in supposed cross-examination.” Bickel explained to the court that in prior testimony Akin had complained of the memory lapses of Dahl as indicative of mental infirmity; noting Akin’s lack of recall, he asked if there were associated mental infirmities. Vial called it “grossly improper” and asked the court to instruct Bickel to “keep it at least a foot above the gutter.” Jackson sustained the objection.

“I object to that, Your Honor,” Bickel retorted. “This gentleman and his wife have uttered the defamation of incompetency publicly against my client and to now dignify by saying my examination of him is on a gutter level, as Mr. Vial suggested, is an outrage.” Jackson quickly instructed the jury not to consider the exchange as evidence and again sustained the objection.

Bickel continued to pound at Akin. Vial made a motion “that common courtesy not be dead in the courtroom.” Judge Jackson dismissed the court for the day and when the jury had gone, reprimanded Bickel for being “abusive of the witness.” Testimony resumed the next morning without further incident.

On Friday, June 9, Gloria Akin took the stand, the 26th witness to offer testimony. Her testimony chronicled the story of a family’s love turned bitter. Her voice carried the dull edge of regret. The cross-examination by Bickel was relatively mild. She stepped down, and Bob Vial rested his case. The court recessed for lunch.

Lou Bickel had a decision to make. To what degree would he offer up a defense of the man? It was his feeling that the evidence presented by the appellant had been less than overwhelming. Certain key elements had been blunted by cross-examination. His best guess was that the jury had not been convinced that Dahl was senile. To parade a host of witnesses to the stand in defense of Dahl now (Bickel had some 20 witnesses at the ready) might serve only to work against him. He decided to gamble. He would call no further witnesses.

By the time the trial resumed for final arguments, the courtroom was filled to capacity. Judge Jackson read the charge of the court with instructions to the jury. Leigh Bartlett began her final argument to the jury. She recounted the body of evidence that pointed to Dahl’s incompetency. She stressed the medical testimony. She stressed that he is “not the same man at all, a different man than he was in 1965 … who doesn’t react the normal way, doesn’t react the way he would have in the past, and doesn’t react the way a man of sound mind would react.” She stressed the incident with Clara. And she stressed that Gloria had brought this case out of love and sought only to take care of him.

“My client is guilty all right; he’s guilty of being rich, he’s guilty of being 84, and he’s guilty of not dying,” Bickel said.

Bob Vial took over. His tone was casual, anecdotal, almost amused, as if there could be absolutely no doubt as to the verdict. He focused on Dahl’s financial judgment. “It’s my opinion,” he said, “that the Captain is no longer the Captain in this incident … I’m convinced that George Dahl’s ego is as big as Mount Everest … He’s been out of the architectural business for years. His family is set back for five years since he sold out to Dahl-Braden. Letting him have his office, I mean, gosh, let’s face it … If he wants to play in his own mind and say ’I’m still that great architect,’ and spend another $130,000 a year, let him. Let him for five years, but doggone, you know, enough is enough.” Vial then deferred to Bickel; Vial would still have the last argument.

Lou Bickel was intense. Besides refutation of certain evidence, he assailed the entire trial as preposterous. “This man has been dealt the ultimate insult. He has been dealt it, in the name of all things, love … This is just sort of self-made, homemade, across the coffee table and breakfast table and at a debutante party made-up kind of mental case … My client is 84 years of age. When he goes home tonight, I want him rid of the Akins. I want them out of his system. He has been Akined to death, except he hasn’t. He’s guilty all right; he’s guilty of being rich, he’s guilty of being 84 years of age, and, worse yet, he’s guilty of not dying; and for that combination of three sins, he will not be forgiven. They wouldn’t go to his wedding; I wonder if they’d go to his funeral? … They said that he rejects the ones that love him most. What are they talking about, loved him most? Expose him to a public trial and undress him, put every medical fact that ever existed, put supposition, speculation, public ridicule, and bring in a 14-year-old to tattle on her grandpa … He can run his business just fine. He can’t do too good a job of it in court, listening to a bunch of lawyers ranting and raving at one another, nor locked up in Presbyterian Hospital. But, give him his freedom, he can … The sole concern of these people is with respect to the property. They started talking money the minute they walked in this courtroom, and their charts all talk with money. Everything talks about it: money, money, money, money, money, money … Gentlemen, I’m going to be abrasive, I’m just going to be abrasive. I want him out of this courthouse by 5 o’clock tonight with a verdiet in his favor. I want him rid of these people. You are the only ones that can get him rid of these people … In due humility and all humility, I ask for my client’s verdict.”

Bob Vial had the last words. “It seems that Mr. Bickel’s oratory is more eloquent when he lacks a case than, having tried other cases with him, when he has evidence. I think he climbs to soaring heights, but I wonder what’s under him but air? … We are a country and a state and a county and a city founded on evidence, not flowery legal oratory. If Mr. Dahl is competent, as he would insist, then it is about 19 feet from where the man has been sitting to the witness stand to answer questions and to demonstrate to you gentlemen that he is not emotionally labile … And with regard to the Lady Renfro … gentlemen, I thought marriage was based on mutual love, mutual trust, and mutual understanding … A marriage that’s founded with that sort of property exchange is no marriage at all … If for all other reasons aside, but just for Mr. Dahl’s own best interest, his own best health interest, he needs someone to look after him and someone to be responsible for him … He has no business driving … Somebody is going to get hurt and seriously. Both Mr. Dahl and some innocent people … We feel that when you consider the evidence, and you consider the Court’s definition of unsound mind, that there is only one inescapable finding that you can make, and that is that Mr. Dahl is of unsound mind. Thank you for your attention.”

There is no jury room in the Probate Courts. The jury confers in the courtroom, while all others wait outside in the hallway. For the number of people milling there, the hallway was quiet. Bob Vial and Lou Bickel both looked tired. Everybody, in fact, looked tired. It had, indeed, been an ordeal. The only person who didn’t look tired was George Dahl. If he was concerned, he didn’t show it; he was chatting with a friend about investments. Everyone waited.

In only 25 minutes, the court was called back into order. The jury had reached a verdict. The thick, silent tension was relieved only by the drone of rush hour traffic outside the courtroom windows.

Judge Jackson addressed the jury. “You have reached your verdict. I’ll read out the question and the answer to the question and then ask you if that is the answer to the question. ’Do you find from a preponderance of the evidence that George Leighton Dahl is of unsound mind?’ Your answer being ’He is not.’ Is that your answer?”

The jury foreman replied, “That’s our answer, Judge.”

A joyous shout went up in the courtroom. There were many tears, many hugs. There were tears in the eyes of George Dahl, but he remained the calmest man in the courtroom. As he shook hands with members of the jury, he told them in his raspy voice, “I hope your family never does to you what mine has done to me.” Now, crying, Gloria approached her father as if to take his hand or hug him. He turned away. They haven’t spoken since.

• • •

Six months after the trial, George Dahl married Joan Renfro. Their wedding was a very small affair, in the Canterbury House chapel at SMU. The Akins did not attend; they would not have attended had they been invited. A few weeks later, the newlyweds hosted a gala open house reception in their apartment. Friends noted that George still played the cavalier husband, teasing about how long it had taken to find the girl of his dreams. Joan still played the demure bride; her sweetness with George was as sugary as a teenager’s.

A few weeks later, they went on their honeymoon trip to the Caribbean.

But when a family commits its private troubles into the hands of the law, the law does not easily let go. The guardianship case has been appealed; the appellate materials are currently awaiting the scrutiny of the Court of Civil Appeals in Amarillo. Four related suits have been filed. The Akins have filed a state court action suit on the three notes they are owed by Dahl. They have also filed a suit requesting the removal of Dahl as trustee. Dahl has filed a damage suit against the Akins in state district court alleging defamation of character, false arrest, wrongful imprisonment, abuse of process, and seeking return of property. That action was originally filed as a federal civil rights action suit, was initially rejected, and is now being appealed.

It is a legal snowball that no one is happy about. Says Gloria: “I wish it had never happened. I know the Lord must have a reason for this. I just hope other families can learn from what has happened to us.” Says Ted Akin: “George Dahl was a brilliant man. I hope he will be remembered for that, not this.” George Dahl prefers not to talk of it at all; he loves to talk of his career, and hates to talk of his family. Says Lou Bickel, “It’s an absolute shame that this old man can’t live out his days in peace. It’s a case of another modern legal tragedy — nobody wins but the lawyers.”

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