An Inquiry into the Murder of Ben Read.

Friday, November 19,1976. This evening, as always, the old man was a captivating dinner companion for the younger woman and her husband. Ben Read was a marvelous talker, witty, urbane, as erudite on the subject of Louis XIV furniture as on the flex defense of the Dallas Cowboys. Tonight he was talking expansively about his upcoming trip to New York for Christmas: He would stay at the St. Regis, dine at The Four Seasons, make the rounds of the galleries. Benjamin Franklin Read lived like a crown prince and, the woman reflected, derived more pleasure from the good life than anyone she’d ever known.

Ben seemed his old self. But she knew the loneliness gnawed at him relentlessly. After two months, he had not come to grips with Roy’s sudden death. Roy: His friend, his business partner, his constant companion for nearly 30 years. Ben’s friends had tried to take his mind off the loss. Even without Roy Pate, he was still one of the most respected and sought-after interior designers in the country, a man who dictated the dream homes of Texas’ super-rich and consulted on the refurnishing of the White House. In 30 years of telling the finicky nouveau riche of the Southwest what chairs they should sit on and what draperies they should draw at night, Ben Read had never had a dissatisfied customer.

None of that could dissuade him from his almost suicidal self-pity. In his mind, he was old, feeble, washed up. The nights were long for him, the woman knew, and often sleepless. She worried about the sleeping pills he might be taking to get through those nights, about his blood pressure. Despite doctors’ warnings, Ben continued to gorge himself on rich food and to eschew exercise.

Mostly, she worried about his mind. He’d become eccentric and forgetful. Maybe it would be good for him to get away from Dallas for his first Christmas without Roy. The young man who was traveling with him was a loyal and understanding friend, a protege of Ben’s who knew he needed companionship more than ever.

As the waiters brought dessert and coffee, she could see that he would not make it through dinner without allowing his depression to surface. The warmth left his face and he began to brood. Finally, he spoke: “Virginia,” he said, avoiding her gaze, “I’m not going to drown myself in that.” He pointed at his half-empty cocktail glass. “If I have to have a paid companion to get me through this, then so be it.”


October 17, 1977.

About 9 a.m. The Park

Towers Apartments,

Fairmount Street.

The walls and carpets were spattered with blood. Even the ceiling bore the red-brown traces of violent death. The nude body of a 63-year-old man lay in the living room, face down on the hardwood floor, slack-lidded, tongue protruding from loose jaws. Above him, over the mantle, a portrait of his mother stared out at the room. Homicide detectives Gus Rose and Charles Hallam poked about the room. The body, identified as Benjamin Franklin Read, an interior designer, had been discovered about 8:15 that morning by the maid. He had been bludgeoned to death, struck 40 times with a blunt instrument. A partially consumed meal on the dinner table suggested that Read had dined with his killer. In a corner of the dining room, Read’s robe lay neatly folded on the carpet.

There were no signs of forced entry, or even that the victim had struggled with his assailant. No lamps or chairs were overturned; apparently, none of the antiques in the apartment had been disturbed. Fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry was found on the victim’s dresser; nearly $10,000 in cash was discovered in a desk drawer.

From the concentrations of blood, the detectives concluded that the death blows had been struck in the dining area. The body had then been dragged ten feet into the living room. Bloodstains on the fabric-covered walls of the dining area had been sprayed with spot remover; a mirror had been wiped clean with paper towels. An Oriental screen that served as a partition between the dining and living areas had also been cleaned.

Hallam and Rose inventoried what they had. It wasn’t much. The murder of Ben Read was without apparent motive. During their combined 30 years in homicide investigation, Hallam and Rose had seen many such killings. A few had been solved-some of them by tenacious investigation, but most by pure luck. The motive was the only sure foundation for investigating a murder. Unless there was an eyewitness willing to talk, or, even less likely, a windfall confession, a murder without an apparent motive was nearly unsolvable.

The detectives had only one lead. The neighbors had heard that Read was to have attended the Cowboy game the afternoon before with his new business associate, Stuart Seaver. Apparently, Read had not gone, since the tickets to the game were discovered on his dresser. Second-hand, Hallam and Rose learned that Read had called Seaver early that Sunday afternoon to say he wouldn’t be able to go to the game. He had told Seaver only that he would be “entertaining Bryan.”

Virginia was not surprised to see an ambulance in front of the Park Towers as she pulled out of the parking garage that morning about 8:20. Since she and her husband had moved into their apartment in 1964, she had heard the siren and seen the flashing red lights many times. The Park Towers is one of the most elaborately secured co-op apartment houses in the city, so it has become a favorite residence of wealthy elderly people. Heart attacks are common at Park Towers.

Still, she thought briefly of Ben as she left the building. He was still being hard on himself, and this past week he had seemed unusually distracted. The Friday before, he had come back from a trip to Lakeway in Austin. While he was away, one of his closest friends, an elderly acquaintance of his mother’s, had died after a long illness. Virginia had broken the news to him gently, knowing he would be heartbroken.

Instead, Ben had seemed almost nonchalant. Virginia knew he was a brooder and a griever; death and loss touched him deeply. That Ben had reacted so calmly, even coldly, was proof to her that his preoccupation with Roy’s death had consumed him.

Virginia hoped the emotional strain of the past year hadn’t finally taken its toll. But she ran her errands, shopped a bit at NorthPark, and returned to the Park Towers a little before noon. The ambulance was still there, and it had been joined by two police cars.

As she entered the foyer of the apartment house, one of the staff met her. “Virginia,” the young woman said, “we’ve been waiting for you. We knew you’d be so upset.

“It’s Ben. He’s dead.”

Virginia’s eyes asked the obvious question: What was it?

“You won’t believe it,” the woman said. “Ben’s been murdered. He was bludgeoned to death.”

Virginia could only think, over and over, “Ben was murdered.” Never in her concern for him had she expected that. Some men’s lives portended murder. But as far as she knew, Ben’s life had been completely free of conflict and enmity.

Her life would be less without Ben, she knew that. He had depended on her for an almost maternal attention, and she had found that relationship rewarding. Shaking herself out of her self-pity, she prepared for the police to call on her. Maybe she knew something that would help them find the killer. She owed that to Ben.

Monday afternoon and Tuesday passed. The police hadn’t called. Finally, on Wednesday, Virginia called them herself. The detective, a cordial man, told her what they knew. It wasn’t much. Are we safe here, she asked-myself and the rest of Ben’s friends? “Oh yes,” the detective replied. “It wasn’t that sort of killing.”

Virginia hung up the phone and wondered just what sort of murder it was.

Later that Wednesday, Hallam and Rose went over Ben Read’s blood-spattered apartment one last time, then released it from police custody. They had gotten all they could from the scene, but it was pathetically little. No murder weapon had been found; no complete set of prints had been lifted; no witnesses had been found who had heard or seen anything strange; no motive had been established.

As for the mysterious Bryan the victim had supposedly seen that afternoon, the detectives had come up with nothing to support even his existence, let alone his presence in the apartment that day. Several of Read’s friends had heard of Bryan; none of them had ever seen him. One piece of hearsay had it that Bryan was a companion sent to Read after Roy Pate’s death by a Longview oilman. Another rumor was that he was a wealthy young man from Southern California who lived behind the Pink Wall at Preston and Northwest Highway. One of Read’s associates recalled that a week or so before the murder, Read had complained of a serious argument with Bryan. Food for speculation, but as an investigatory lead it was worthless.

The odd attempt to clean up the scene of the murder also led them nowhere. Either Read’s assailant had been struck with remorse after the killing and had desperately tried to clean up as a kind of penance, or he had actually considered making the apartment look as if no crime had been committed there. The fact that Read’s body had been moved tended to support the latter theory. Perhaps the killer had discovered that a 210-pound corpse was harder to get rid of than he supposed.

Finally, Rose and Hallam called on Read’s partner, Stuart Seaver. The Read-Pate offices were just up the street from the Park Towers in a stylishly remodeled house at the corner of Fairmount and wolf. Seaver, a trim and handsome young man, met the detectives in the outer office and informed them that he was with a client. He returned to his office, and emerged a few moments later with another man. He introduced him as his attorney, Ron Clower.

The detectives began asking questions of a very general nature. What did he know about Read’s whereabouts on Monday? Was he aware of any enemies Read had? What did he know about Bryan? Seaver refused to answer any of their questions; “on advice of counsel,” he repeated evenly. After a few more futile attempts to persuade Seaver and his attorney to cooperate, the detectives left.

Like most people, I learned of the murder of Ben Read by reading the sketchy account of the crime in the morning paper. Most weekend murders enter the police blotter without attracting much attention. The murder of Ben Read, because of his prominence and the violence of the crime, was one of the few that received more than routine press coverage. And it immediately became an item on the cocktail circuit. There was gossip that Read had been out cruising and had picked up the “wrong sort,” that he had been the victim of a prostitution ring, that his assailant had castrated him.

A few days after the murder, a colleague mentioned that a friend of his was upset and angry about the rumors. Read’s close friends, the source said, were also concerned because the police investigation was going nowhere, adding more fuel to the gossip. The implications of the “entertaining Bryan” story, which had been reported in the papers, just didn’t ring true. Read had always kept his private life to himself, he insisted, and the notion that he had stooped to cruising and one-night stands was absurd.

I agreed to check with the police and to examine the autopsy report. The report was awkwardly worded, full of medical jargon. But the medical examiner who had performed the autopsy, Dr. Linda Norton, was articulate and helpful in interpreting it. Dr. Norton is something of a sleuth, one of the new breed of path-ologists who believe the nature and circumstances of a murder can be inferred from a cold, objective medical analysis. How a man dies, she said, can sometimes suggest who, or at least what kind of person, killed him: man or woman, friend or enemy, acquaintance or stranger, a cool killer or one moved by sudden passion.

According to the report, Read died of “massive blunt trauma to the face and head.” He had been struck between 10 and 50 times with a large, heavy instrument approximately eight centimeters in diameter. The beating had taken place between six and twelve hours before the body was discovered.

Dr. Norton conjectured that the murder weapon was a rounded object made of a substance not easily shattered. It was definitely not wood: No splinters or wood fibers had been found in Read’s skull. And it probably wasn’t something with sharp edges, like a poker: None of the injuries to Read’s head was of the “depressed” variety. Dr. Norton’s best guess was that the weapon was a small lamp or sculpture, possibly made of a pink or orange substance: A tiny sliver of salmon-colored porcelain or paint had been found in the rear of the victim’s skull.

If the weapon were a lamp or a statue, that would suggest that the murder was “semi-spontaneous”-in other words, it hadn’t been conceived until after the assailant had entered the apartment that night. No one planning a murder uses a weapon obtained at the scene. Dr. Norton also concluded that Read knew his killer, possibly well. The first blows he suffered, she said, were to his lower temples. This suggests sideward swipes from someone he was facing. Read was staring his assailant in the face when the violence erupted.

The rest of the blows to the body suggested that Read and his assailant had been arguing before the killing took place. There were numerous fractures in the back of the skull and a massive “chest crush,” suggesting that Read’s assailant, after knocking him unconscious, leaped on him and beat him repeatedly on the back of his head.

Ben Read had not been killed easily. He was a large man, about six feet tall, weighing 210 pounds. He was in good health for a sedentary 63-year-old man. Dr. Norton concluded that the killer was male, younger than Read, and probably as large as, if not larger than, his victim.

The one thing Dr. Norton could not infer from the medical examination was a motive. She found no conclusive evidence of sexual activity before the crime. Read’s nudity suggested a dispute involving sex, but there was no way, Dr. Norton warned, to tell whether he had been disrobed before or after the killing. The killer could have removed Read’s robe to make it look like a sex crime. Since nothing at the scene suggested robbery, why Ben Read was killed remained an enigma.

The lack of motive was one of the few things the police were willing to concede when I talked to them a few weeks later. Hallam and Rose were understandably skittish about discussing the case. Publicity can often help a police investigation, but the detectives were afraid it would hurt this one. And I got the impression that they simply didn’t have much to tell me.

They, too, were working on the assumption that Read had known his killer and had known him well. The Park Towers was too well secured for forced entry. Read must have admitted his assailant that afternoon. Was he the mysterious Bryan? The detectives didn’t think so. None of the leads they had on Bryan had panned out. The Longview oilman mentioned on the rumor circuit admitted that he knew Read, but said he hadn’t been in touch with him for two years. He didn’t know anything about a Bryan.

A photograph of a boyishly handsome male model, clipped from a men’s fashion catalogue, had been found on Read’s dresser. At least one associate of Read’s told the police that Read had identified the man in the photograph as Bryan. The model, whose name wasn’t Bryan, was tracked down and questioned: He was convincing in his statement that he had never met or even heard of Ben Read.

The detectives were beginning to doubt that Bryan existed. Perhaps it was a cover name contrived by Read, or even a “fantasy companion” of some kind. Both explanations were pretty exotic, but they were beginning to sound more and more plausible.

“The problem with a case like this,” one of the detectives said wearily, “is that you just don’t have a tree to shake.” Some of Read’s friends and associates had been cooperative, but for the most part, compiling a dossier on the victim had been like pulling teeth. Many of the people they had talked to were frightened, either of reprisal by the still-at-large killer or merely of “being involved.” Some of them felt they could only hurt Read’s reputation by talking to the police about his private life.

Most of all, the detectives were stymied by Stuart Seaver’s refusal to talk. Read’s young partner was, they admitted, well within his rights in refusing to talk to them about anything involving the crime. Under state criminal law, an individual who is a suspect in a criminal investigation-which Seaver technically was, since he hadn’t cleared himself with an alibi-cannot be compelled to answer police questioning. Nor did they have grounds for arrest; that requires “probable cause,” a piece of physical evidence or testimony that links the suspect to the scene of the crime. The detectives had no such evidence on Stuart Seaver; he was clean, and he was silent. “He doesn’t have an alibi,” Hallam said ruefully, “but he sure has a lawyer.”

To this day, 1 don’t know if I had any right to investigate the murder of Ben Read. Over the year that I followed the case, I wondered more than once what I was trying to find out-and more important, why I was trying to find it out.

The murder struck me as tragic: A good man, brought to a bad end by some aberration of circumstance or character. I wanted to answer the question posed by my colleague’s friend the first time we discussed the case. “How,” he asked, “does a man who lived a life like that come to die like that?”

Ben Read grew up sheltered by the huge oak trees outside his family’s Beverly Drive home-and by his mother. He was the only child of a well-to-do family. His father had been a prominent banker in the tiny West Texas town of Gorman; his uncle was Douglas Chandor, the well-known Texas portrait painter. While Ben was still a child, his father was named an officer at Mercantile Bank, and the Reads moved to Dallas.

Ben went to Highland Park High School and SMU. After a brief stint in the Navy, and an even briefer stint as a brokerage trainee with Rauscher-Pierce, he decided to go into interior design. Under his mother’s tutelage, he had developed a flair for color and design.

Though it disappointed his father. Read returned to school to get a degree in interior design. In the late Thirties, he took his first job with Neiman-Marcus, which then had one of the most respected decorating studios in the South. There he met Roy Pate.

Ben Read and Roy Pate were almost instantly inseparable. Their personalities were perfect complements: Read was fair and flaccid, shy and soft-spoken; Pate, 10 years his junior, was dark and burly, with a gregarious and domineering personality. Ben was refinement and class; Roy was mostly rough edges. The combination worked so well that in 1948 the two decided to open their own studio in a small house on Fairmount in Oak Lawn. They were joined by a third Neiman-Marcus designer, Nena Claiborne.

It took about ten years, but Read-Pate eventually became one of the decorating studios for the rich and near-rich of the Southwest. They achieved national recognition for their work on Jim Ling’s lavish offices at LTV, and Read was asked to serve on the panel that re-designed the White House library for the Kennedys.

The Read-Pate style was extravagant. They preferred formal French furnishings, particularly of the Regence. They generally demanded a free hand from their clients, and the willingness to spare no expense. Roy’s expertise was in his architect’s eye for room sizes, ceiling heights, partitions and doorways. Ben was the master accessorizer, a passionate collector who filled his clients’ homes with the finest clocks, vases, sculpture. Though most of his decorating schemes were ornate and complex, he seemed to have an artist’s sense of how to make colors blend.

Despite their prestige, Read and Pate were never financially successful. Their accountants would later testify that the business “lost money most years.” In fact, between 1972 and 1976, Read-Pate lost nearly $60,000. Some of this had to do with the firm’s excessive inventory: Ben and Roy bought what they wanted, when they wanted it, without worrying about whether they could actually sell it to a client later on. “He didn’t need the business,” one friend says of Read. “His inheritance was plenty to live on. It was just something he enjoyed doing.”

Read continued to live with his mother in their Beverly Drive home until her death in the late Sixties. Soon afterward, he and Roy bought a penthouse apartment at the Park Towers. They spent at least four months of the year traveling around the world, buying for clients and for themselves. When they were at home, they were lavish entertainers. Ben loved to throw dinner and cocktail parties. He was a gourmet cook and a genius at innovative table settings.

Ben Read and Roy Pate wore custom-tailored suits, stayed in penthouse suites and rode in Rolls-Royce limousines when they traveled, bought expensive paintings and objets d’art without a second thought. After Read’s death, the contents of their apartment were appraised at nearly half a million dollars.

Roy was the salesman, the drummer who got business for the partnership; he was also the one who kept track of the accounts to allow for Ben’s lavish spending. Ben expressed a desire to prove himself as a businessman, but he could never overcome the side of himself that wanted beauty at any price. Roy once bragged, perhaps jokingly, that he could get anything he wanted out of Ben if he just worked at it long enough.

There was a dark side to their partnership and friendship. Nena Claiborne left the studio in the late Fifties under less than amicable circumstances. All she will say of the matter today is, “I’m sorry my name ever has to be brought up in connection with this. The partnership was the most unpleasant experience of my life.” And following the death of Ben’s mother, a serious rift developed between Ben and his kin in Weatherford. Apparently, the conflict centered on Pate. Some family members thought his interest in Ben’s considerable estate was becoming proprietary. At least one family member says Ben “cut off” his Weatherford family and friends after his mother’s death, and characterizes Roy Pate as a loud and obnoxious personality – “one sorry son of a bitch.”

But nothing in the successful career and solid friendship of Ben Read and Roy Pate seemed to be an omen of murder, a harbinger of Read’s horrible death. More and more, what one of Read’s friends said to me made sense: “Ben was the sort of man everyone expected to die quietly in his sleep.”

Virginia greeted me tentatively. She had agreed to talk about her friend on the condition that she not be identified by her real name in this story. She was a bright and charming woman of about 50, a demonstrative talker with active green eyes and a ready smile. And like most of Read’s friends, she wanted to tell me the good things about him. He had been one of the kindest, gentlest men she’d ever known, she said. She was still shocked at the way he had died.

Bryan? Yes, she’d heard of him, but that was all. I got the impression that, like detectives Rose and Hallam, Virginia didn’t believe he ever existed.

The conversation meandered through the police findings, the autopsy report, the established facts. As we talked, the nervousness left her face. Her voice grew confident, then urgent. She stopped in mid-sentence and reached for a folder of papers. She leafed through them slowly.

“There’s really only one thing you need to know,” she said firmly. “Up until the fall of ’76, Ben was the last man on earth you’d expect to die that way. But after that, after Roy died, he was so different.” Her voice trailed off. “1 don’t have any idea who could have done it, but I just know it happened because of something that happened or something that Ben did that last year.”

She opened the folder, which contained her recollections of Ben Read’s final year, of the “other” Ben that emerged after the death of his alter ego, Roy Pate. The memories were scattered, and there was nothing earth-shattering about them. But they confirmed what had been only a hunch on my part: That Ben Read could have become a man someone else wanted dead.

My colleague’s friend went straight to the point as soon as I answered the phone: “Thought you might be interested. Some of Read’s kin in Weatherford have contested his will.” I wasn’t surprised, I replied; he was probably worth a few million.

“You don’t understand,” he continued. “They’re challenging a will nobody knew about. It’s a will he made just a few months before he died. It names Stuart Seaver as his sole beneficiary.”

That afternoon, I visited the Dallas County probate department.

There were three separate contests to the last will and testament of Ben Read: One was in the name of Read’s paternal kin, his aunt, Ina Chandor, and his cousins, H.W. Kuteman and his wife Allard. The second was filed by a dozen or so first and second cousins on Read’s mother’s side. The third action was brought in behalf of Read’s friend and colleague, Louis Scott.

All three were aimed at the same point: That the will dated March 24, 1977, deeding Read’s $5-million estate to 24-year-old Stuart Seaver, was invalid because, in part, “Ben Read was not of sound and disposing mind and memory and did not have testamentary capacity to execute a valid will.” And that, when Read had drawn and signed the will, “he was unduly influenced to do so by the compulsion, persuasion and argument of certain persons, including Stuart Seaver, and . . . that he [Read] allowed the mind of such other persons, on account of his mental and physical condition of instability and weakness, to take the place of his own mind and to guide him in the execution of such instrument without in fact, his assenting thereto.”

Freely translated, that means that the plaintiffs were claiming that Stuart Seaver had preyed upon a lonely and distracted old man and persuaded him to sign over his earthly possessions. If they could prove their claims, the estate would revert to the first will, a document executed in 1973 deeding the estate to Roy Pate. Since Pate was dead, the estate would then be parceled out according to bloodlines.

The trial promised to be a sensational one, but the plaintiffs would have serious problems proving their claims. They could subpoena some friends who would testify that Read had changed in that last year, but they couldn’t bring forth any expert testimony to prove physical or mental illness. And they would be equally hard-pressed to present tangible evidence of undue influence on Seaver’s part. The police had received no complaints of physical threats against Read, no peace bonds had been requested, none of Read’s friends could testify to having witnessed potentially violent conflict between the two men. Like the detectives, the contestants to Read’s will had plenty to speculate about, but little they could prove.

At first, the attorneys in the probate challenge were about as cooperative with me as attorneys usually are with reporters – not at all. They had even arranged to have the judge, David Jackson, slap a suppression order on the file, sealing it from public examination. (I had already read and copied the significant documents in the file before the order was agreed to.) But in the ensuing weeks, some of the attorneys began to loosen up. It may be that they thought I could help them in their investigation. Or that they couldn’t resist the publicity. In any case, I was eventually made privy to some of the plaintiffs’ investigation and discoveries. How much I wasn’t allowed to see is something I’ll never know. It could be that the lawyers kept some bombshell secret from me, but from what I learned elsewhere it doesn’t seem likely.

With what I learned from the lawyers’ investigation, I was able to double back on some of the friends and associates of Read I had talked to earlier. Sometimes the only problem a potential source has is volunteering information. If allowed merely to confirm things, he will open up a little more. Over the next few months, a picture of Ben Read’s final year emerged. It would never be a complete picture, for at some point, everyone investigating the case began to learn more and more about less and less. But it would answer at least one question about the death of Ben Read: He had a weakness that led to his death. He could not stand to be alone.

On September 14, 1976, the life of Ben Read was shattered. Some time before dawn that morning, his friend Roy Pate, recovering from open heart surgery, arose from his hospital bed to go to the bathroom. On the way, his recently repaired heart failed, sending him gasping to his death on the cold tile floor. Only a few hours later he would have been released from the hospital.

Friends saw an immediate and radical change in Ben: The charming, talkative man became a brooder. He seemed constantly distracted, forgetful and distant. He took to childish fabrication about inconsequential matters. He stopped looking others in the eye when they spoke to him.

Many of Read’s friends came to his aid, including 28-year-old Robert Whiteside, a highly regarded local craftsman, antique restorer, and marble sculptor. He had been a casual friend of Read’s for about six years. Read’s other friends were pleased to see that Ben was considering bringing Rob into the design business: He was well-liked and talented, a perfect protege for the old man. And Ben needed help in the business, which had begun to flounder after Roy’s death.

Late in 1976, Whiteside went to work for Read on a trial basis. He quit after two weeks. At Christmas, he traveled to New York with Ben, who had told friends he couldn’t stand to spend the holidays in his apartment alone. On their return in January, Whiteside moved in with Read. He moved out after four days.

Read’s friends were never told what had happened, but Whiteside explained the incident in a deposition taken in the probate challenge. “Our friendship,” he testified, “became very erratic … he was very unstable. 1 did not know where I stood as a friend … I at times tried to console him and sometimes it would work and sometimes it didn’t. . . .

“When Pate died, Mr. Read was without friends, or so he thought, and immediately turned to me for some kind of companionship. He became extremely moody. It was out of complete desperation that he asked me to move in. . . .”

Robert Whiteside was a victim of circumstance in the Read case. His early contact with Read during that final year made him an object of curiosity to both the police and the probate attorneys. But nothing, other than the help he offered Read after Pate’s death, ever implicated him in Read’s murder. He was a loyal friend who by chance was swept up in the bizarre world of the “other” Ben Read.

Some time in early February, friends first heard Read mention two names they’d never heard before: Stuart Seaver and Bryan. No one ever saw Bryan, and to this day he remains an enigma. Stuart Seaver, however, was and is real. Friends recall hearing of Stuart before they met him. They gathered that he was a bright young man Ben was considering bringing into the business. When they finally met him, they were impressed: He was a clean-cut, well-mannered young man, articulate and well-schooled. Though he had no experience in interior design, he seemed to have the flair and the willingness to learn.

Some time later in February, Seaver officially joined Read’s firm. He was paid a salary of $12,000 a year, plus the use of a new Continental Mark IV. He was quiet and deferential during business discussions with clients; it was clear that Seaver was the student, Read the mentor. Read’s friends unanimously approved of the new partnership. As Virginia later recalled in her notes about Read’s last year, “I felt Stuart would work out as a business partner for Ben, as he had a refinement about him. Ben told us that Stuart wanted to learn the business. This was a great relief to us, and Stuart’s manners and knowledge seemed to verify the fact that he was well-traveled and from a good background. We did not want to see Ben taken advantage of when he was so vulnerable.”

Under the Texas “dead man’s” statute, the beneficiary of a will cannot be required to testify concerning his discussions with the deceased. So Stuart Seaver’s deposition was never taken. However, Seaver’s mother, Isabella Seaver, did have a deposition taken. According to Mrs. Seaver, Stuart was born in El Paso in 1952; his parents were British and became U.S. citizens two years after his birth. Stuart’s father was an engineer for Exxon, so much of his youth was spent hopping around South America and Asia. By the time he was 18, he had attended schools in Peru, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Miami, Jamaica, and Singapore.

After he graduated from high school, Stuart came to Dallas, where he studied at three different colleges before he gave up his studies to find work. According to his mother, the job with Read-Pate was his first. Until that time, his parents had supported him, and had bought an $80,000 house in Bluffview for him. Mrs. Seaver described her son as close to the family, patient, not particularly strong-willed or persuasive. He had never been in the military and had never been arrested.

As far as Mrs. Seaver knew, Stuart was with his roommate Donald Hahne and other friends on the weekend Ben Read was murdered. She said that she and Mr. Seaver had flown to Dallas from Venezuela when the news came of Read’s death. Ten days after the murder, she, Stuart, Mr. Seaver, and Read’s secretary, Florence Krol, went to Read’s apartment to clean out spoiled food from the refrigerator.

Read’s friends recall a marked change in him after Stuart was hired. Ben was still vague, a little distant, but the moroseness was gone. He was animated, almost giddy; “high as a kite,” one friend put it. Most of them regarded it as a distinct improvement over the Ben Read of a few months before, who would call them in the middle of the afternoon to talk about his loneliness, and would often break down and cry.

The signing of the Seaver will is recounted in the deposition of Read’s accountants, Clinton Crisman and David Crockett, who witnessed the will and may have been the only ones to know about it other than Read and Seaver. Crisman testified that he called Read soon after Pate died to suggest that he update the will, which named Roy as the sole beneficiary. Read replied, “Lord behold, I’d turn over in my grave if my relatives were going to come in on this thing.” In February 1977, Crisman said, Read came to him and outlined a transfer of Read-Pate stock to Stuart Seaver. The transfer, involving almost 40 percent of the stock, was nixed by the accountants because of gift-tax problems. Less than a month later, in mid-March, Read came back to their offices at One Main Place with a different proposal.

Read had revised his will and wanted them to have it clean-typed and then witness it for him. The previous will had been altered with a script typewriter and a red felt-tip pen. Pate’s name had been crossed through and Seaver’s typed in above it. Most of the alternative beneficiaries from the first will had been purged by the red pen.

The accountants thought the request unusual because as far as they knew, Read had not consulted his attorneys about revising the will. They had never before prepared and witnessed a will of any sort, let alone one in which a man handed over a sizeable fortune to someone who had worked for him for less than two months. As Crisman testified, “It stands to reason that he wanted to do something with his estate in a hurry, in case something happened to him. Maybe Stuart Seaver was standing there, so he put in Seaver.”

Under questioning by the attorneys, Crisman admitted that Read seemed to be acting as if he were in a hurry. Later in the deposition, Crisman added that it was his opinion Read had become a “fatalist.”

Though they thought it strange, the accountants agreed to their longtime client’s request. The will was typed, and on March 24, a week later, Read returned to their offices to sign it. According to Crockett, Read had not read a clean copy of the revised will before that day. He signed it, with the accountants as witnesses. Crockett also recalled that Stuart Seaver was present at one of the two meetings – he wasn’t sure whether it was when Read first brought the revised will to them, or when he signed it.

In the months before his death, Read became increasingly distant, a stranger to those who had been his friends. He traveled some, and became an even more lavish spender, buying furnishings and objets d’art he didn’t need. One friend said, “It was as if he knew he was going to die.”

The week before his murder, Read told a friend he was going to Wichita, Kansas, to discuss business with an Arab investor opening a new chain of restaurants. He said he would return Friday and attend the Cowboy game on Sunday. He and Stuart had made plans to fly to Mexico City the following Monday on a buying trip.

But when Read returned on Friday, he told the same friend that he hadn’t gone to Wichita after all, but that “we” had gone to Lakeway in Austin and had had a “marvelous time.” He didn’t say who his companion or companions had been.

As for Stuart Seaver, the only record of his activities in the days around the murder is in the deposition of his roommate, Donald Hahne. Attorneys John Biggers and William Burrow took extensive testimony from Hahne. The deposition finally provided Stuart Seaver with an alibi.

Donald Hahne, a 25-year-old Dallas native, met Seaver in 1975. Hahne graduated from Richardson High School and was studying to be a physician’s assistant at Richland College. He had been a child care worker at Shadybrook School in Richardson and had worked at Richardson General Hospital as a psychiatric aide. A year and a half after Hahne met Seaver, he decided to room with him in Seaver’s Bluffview home. (Hahne testified that Seaver paid all the bills.) According to Hahne, on Friday, October 15, 1977, he got off work at 4:15 p.m., met Seaver at home, and they went to a party at a friend’s house. The next morning they went back to the friend’s house for breakfast, where another friend joined them. At noon, they all went to the State Fair.

On Sunday, October 17, the day of the murder, Hahne worked the early shift at the hospital, and came home at 4:15 p.m. He and Stuart went back to their friend’s house for the third time in three days. They returned to Stuart’s house about 6:30 p.m. and watched television until 9:30. Hahne said he read until about 11. The next morning, Hahne left for work about 7:20 a.m. Seaver was still asleep, and had not packed for his trip to Mexico that day. Nor had Seaver left him money or instructions on what to do with the house, or an itinerary in case someone needed to reach him. When the attorneys asked if he found that unusual, Hahne said, “it would be more usual for him to pack at the last minute.”

Hahne said Stuart had called him soon after being notified that Read’s body had been found. Hahne joined Seaver and Florence Krol, Read’s secretary, at Seaver’s house. The following day, Seaver’s parents arrived from Venezuela. The four of them moved out of Seaver’s house to a friend’s for the rest of the week, “to get away from phone calls.”

As far as he knew, Hahne said, Stuart Seaver and Ben Read had a “great relationship.” He had never heard them quarrel.

On June 26, 1978, the parties met in Judge David Jackson’s Probate Court No. 2 to adjudicate the probate contest of Ben F. Read. No agreements had been made or even attempted before the meeting, so a trial by jury seemed imminent. All four attorneys for the plaintiffs maintained stiff upper lips as they began arguing motions in limine that morning, but anyone who knew anything about the case knew they had a problem. Even if they could get all of their discovery in – no easy proposition, since Judge Jackson seemed decidedly nervous about the case – they still might not be able to prove either lack of testamentary capacity on the part of Ben Read, or undue influence or coercion by Stuart Seaver. In both cases, they were relying on circumstantial evidence.

They could prove that Ben Read had acted a little unusually around the time he signed the Seaver will, even that his personality had undergone a change. They couldn’t prove that he lacked testamentary capacity: The will was properly drawn and witnessed. As for Stuart Seaver, they could prove only that he and Ben Read met sometime in the winter of 1976, a couple of months after the death of Roy Pate; that in February of 1977 Seaver had joined Read-Pate at a salary of $1,000 a month plus a company car, though he had no previous experience in interior design; and that four to six weeks after he joined Read-Pate, Stuart Seaver was made the sole beneficiary of Ben Read’s $5-million estate. And that from all accounts, the will was made hastily, changed by Read in longhand, without consulting his attorneys.

As for the murder, the plaintiffs had turned up little to implicate Stuart Seaver. They could prove only that Ben Read was murdered six months after he signed the Seaver will; that the morning after the crime, Seaver had not packed for his trip to Mexico; that following the discovery of the body, Seaver moved away from his house to “get away from phone calls”; that Seaver picked up Read’s black Seville for his parents’ use a week after the murder; that 10 days after the murder, Seaver, his parents, and others went to Read’s apartment to clean up; that Seaver reportedly told Read’s maid he would be moving into the apartment and that Mr. Read had left instructions for him to take care of her. And finally, that Stuart Seaver had refused to discuss the case with police.

It sounded like a lot, but it didn’t add up to much. But later that morning, to everyone’s surprise, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs said they had developed some “inferential” evidence that Ben Read had planned to change the Seaver will the following spring, significantly diminishing Stuart Seaver’s portion of it. He added that they also had some indication that Read planned to fire Seaver. If they could prove what they were alleging, they could establish a motive in the crime, a motive that implicated Stuart Seaver. Seaver’s attorneys, Ron Clower and Terry Sanford, objected. They argued that the allegations were an “inference on an inference” and clearly inadmissible. The judge concurred, and instructed the plaintiffs’ attorneys to introduce specific evidence of the charges before even mentioning them during a trial.

Apparently, the attorneys didn’t have that evidence, or weren’t confident of what they had. For in the next breath, they stunned the courtroom by asking for a continuance in the case. A witness, they said, was out of the city because of illness in her family. Her testimony was crucial; they could not take the case to trial without her. Judge Jackson balked at the suggestion and instructed the attorneys to track the witness down, then recessed the session and said he would take the motion under advisement.

When the court reconvened after lunch, it was the judge’s turn to shock the courtroom. He granted the motion for continuance and re-set the trial for September.

Only a day or two before the trial in September, Virginia sat down with her notes one last time. She would be giving her deposition in the case the following morning, and wanted to be as precise as possible. She would tell them what she knew, though she found the whole business rather distasteful. She was willing and eager to help find Ben’s murderer. But this trial would only help decide who got his money.

The next morning she received a phone call from one of the attorneys. Forget the deposition, he said. The case has been settled out of court. No details until everything is signed by all parties. Virginia hung up the phone, and began putting her notes away. She had a feeling she would never need to refer to them again.

This story doesn’t have an ending. It is a mystery without a solution, a tragedy without a catharsis.

I suppose the point of the Ben Read story is that no one will ever know why a good man was murdered, or who did it; and that’s a shame. But it’s not likely to shake the foundations of City Hall or the Dallas Police Department. There are more than 200 murders in Dallas each year, and 15 to 20 of them are never solved. That’s the law of averages.

But Ben Read didn’t deserve to spend his final moments sprawled on his living room floor, battered almost beyond recognition. He didn’t deserve to have his name tarnished by cheap rumors. And he certainly didn’t deserve to have his murder virtually forgotten.

That’s what has happened. Everyone, except Virginia and the few other close friends who are haunted by the murder, is living happily ever after. Read’s family members have their share of the fortune – about half, as I understand. (A perverse irony, since that was one thing Read didn’t want to happen.) Stuart Seaver is now a very wealthy young man – apparently wealthy enough to shut down Read-Pate. The office on Fair-mount is now styled “The Ben Read Collection”; it has been selling off Read’s considerable inventory of antiques and fine furnishings. Read’s apartment is on the selling block, reportedly for $225,000. The lawyers dropped the case with professional detachment. The police, for their part, are dogged in their contention that the Read file is still active. I believe them, but I also think the odds that the crime will ever be solved are slim to none.

When Ben Read died, he was notmourned in the traditional ways. Hedidn’t want a funeral. He asked that he becremated and that his ashes be scatteredwhere Roy Pate’s had been strewn only ayear before. This story is the eulogy henever received.


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