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THE ART of THE CON

Old age was hard enough for Dmitri Vail, a proud but for-gotten artist. Then he met Bernard Dolenz, a lawyer who made his last years a nightmare.
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THE KNOCK CAME IN THE MIDDLE of their first visit, as they were gathered in the living room of the Highland Park mansion, cooing over a baby just a few months old. The infant seemed to Love the booming voice of the elderly gentleman, whose craggy face and white hair were almost as well known in Old Dallas as the bold signature on his paintings: Dmitri Vail. ■ Amanda Albright had brought the infant to see the child’s 46-year-old grandmother, Nancy. Amanda had gone down to the courthouse with Nancy and the 86-year-old Vail the day after 1990 began, watching as they exchanged marriage vows. In the months that followed, she frequently visited the decaying old house, where scores of Dmitri’s portraits hung or leaned against the walls. ■ Vail answered the door and a man loudly announced that he had come for all of Vail’s paintings, furniture, even his jewelry. Everything, he said, except the old man’s clothes. ■ Moving into the hallway, Amanda could see the visitor. It was Dmitri’s lawyer, Dr. Bernard Dolenz, a squarish bear of a man in his 50s with close-cropped silver hair; behind him was a young woman with black hair and a defiant look on her face.

He announced that two men were there to begin loading. Sure enough, a moving van was parked outside the once-grand house on prestigious Armstrong Parkway.

“Hell, no!” Vail roared. What happened next is in dispute. According to Dolenz, the old man took a swing a( him and missed. Amanda says that Dolenz pushed Vail. Whatever the cause, Vail ended up sprawled on the floor. Dolenz entered the house and told the movers to begin loading.

Amanda rushed to the phone and called her father, Wallace Barbee, a horse breeder who owns the Bar-B Ranch near Denton. Barbee told her to call the Highland Park Police, and within minutes, an officer listened as Dolenz explained that he had notes signed by Dmitri totaling between $90,000 and $100,000. The paintings and household furnishings were pledged against the debt, he said, and he had assigned those notes to Brenda Lievrouw, the young woman with him. Since the notes hadn’t been paid. Dolenz said, they were there to collect the goods.

When the policeman looked as if he was about to let Dolenz begin moving things out. Amanda persuaded him to talk to Barbee, who was still on the phone. Barbee, though he knew little about what was going on, pointed out to the officer that Dolenz didn’t have a court order, that a judge hadn’t ruled that the notes were valid and that Dmitri was a longtime Highland Park resident who deserved every consideration.

The officer agreed. He ordered Dolenz to leave. Enraged, Dolenz shook the papers in the officer’s face, “I’m going to sue you and the whole Highland Park Police Department,” Dolenz threatened.

Though Dmitri Vail was in his late 80s and his eccentric behavior had bordered on senility for years, some would later point to that day-April 12,1990-as the beginning of his spiral into mental and emotional decay. Friends say Vail, virtually penniless, became the victim not only of his own disintegrating body, but of Bernard Dolenz.

Dolenz has his own version of the Vail saga: He says he was simply trying to help Dmitri, that the trouble all began when Nancy White, in the space of a week, met and married Vail. “’Dmitri’s glands overwhelmed his brains,” says Dolenz. “Then she got him drunk and kept him there.” He says the new Mrs. Vail turned Dmitri against him, and he accuses Nancy of having sex with another man. And he claims that Vail’s will, in which he leaves Nancy an estate variously estimated to be worth from nothing to $2 million, is invalid. Dolenz argues that he, as the trustee and co-beneficiary of the Dmitri Vail Trust, is the one who should get Vail’s paintings.

The courts will decide who gets what. What is clear is that Dolenz-a psychiatrist as well as a lawyer-is one of the most litigious individuals in the history of Dallas. Since 1980, Dolenz has filed 30 lawsuits on his own behalf in Dallas County.

He sued an elderly woman who he claimed slandered him during the course of a lawsuit he filed on behalf of his part-time employee, who happened to be the woman’s former daughter-in-law. When a client dared to file a grievance against him with the State Bar of Texas, Dolenz sued for defamation. When the State Board of Medical Examiners suspended his medical license, Dolenz filed suit against the head of the panel, even though the suspension was probated.

Dmitri Vail’s declining years were doomed, for many reasons, to be a sad end to a productive and colorful life. But Bernard Dolenz-with the assistance of his daughter and even some who proclaimed themselves Dmitri’s friends-made his final days a nightmare.



TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, A DMITRI VAIL PORTRAIT WAS CONsidered a must in many of Dallas’ moneyed circles. “It was almost a disgrace not to have a Dmitri Vail over your mantle,” says Lucile Teasel, an octogenarian who has sold an-tiques on McKinney Avenue for more than 25 years. At the peak of his popularity. Vail earned up to $50,000 for his portraits of famous people; his paintings of celebrities such as Carol Burnett, Shirley Jones and Chill Wills hung in the Fair Park Music Hall.

But by the 1980s, Vail’s star had faded. No one cared that he had once been famous: art critics found nothing enduring in his work. His painting school no longer attracted enough students to pay the studio rent. His eyesight deteriorating, his hands unsteady, Vail could no longer even paint-Though he didn’t own the mansion on Armstrong Parkway, he had the right to live in the house until his death. But he had only a small income, generated from social security and money tied up in a trust established by his third wife Dorothy, who had died in 1971. He began selling off the once-handsome furnishings, or giving them to friends who paid his bills. He was unable to sell the paintings that had once brought him such handsome fees. Used to living extravagantly, Vail was bitter, convinced that people of “high society” had betrayed him, says one friend. Always eccentric, he began to slip over the line into dementia.

People in Highland Park became used to seeing the garrulous old man exercising in his yard or strutting down the street on his daily walk, dressed in nothing but a Speedo bathing suit. Police began to get reports from neighbors; one called to tell them that Vail, in his bathing suit, had taken a chair to the curb and was sitting with his back to traffic, “cleavage” showing. He began lighting up the outside of his house with enormous spotlights and would sit on his porch, loudly singing or playing music or inspirational tapes. Inside, he kept numerous lights on at all hours of the day and night.

Vail frequently called police for help-once for a “lacerated toe”-or to complain that someone had robbed him of his paintings. One Highland Park detective investigated his allegation that someone had stolen 75 drawings, only to be taken by his housekeeper to Vail’s studio, where all the “missing” artwork was stacked.

For years, Vail had friends who tolerated his demands and eccentricities. One was Sue Hamilton, who had befriended Vail in 1976.

But she says he was not always easy to like; his booming conversation was usually laced with profanities. He could be funny and charming, then turn rude and ugly if he didn’t get what he wanted.

Hamilton saw it as a sign of his increasing age; it seemed to her that by 1987, he was slipping in and out of lucidity. He sometimes didn’t recognize friends. In 1989, Mariano Martinez, who owns several Mexican restaurants where Vail ate free because he had done Martinez’ portrait, had to ban the old man after he slapped a manager who refused to give him more wine.

But Hamilton and several others stuckby him. They caught frequent glimpses of the man Vail had been: upbeat, positive, charismatic. He was convinced he was going to make a comeback, that he once again would be appreciated as a genius and again have money to regain his lost splendor. Then, a white knight rode into Vail’s life, a man who promised to bring back the glory days: Bernard Dolenz.



WHEN LUCILE TEASEL ANSWERED THE DOOR OF HER ANTIQUE gallery one stormy spring day in 1989, she found an attractive woman in her 50s, blond hair frazzled, wearing mismatched clothes and muddy shoes. Another longtime antique dealer had called Teasel, asking if she might give Caroline Berthelot a job.

But that day when she came in out of the storm, Berthelot said, “Oh no,” when Teasel asked if she was interested in working there. “I want to buy your antique shop for $2 million.’1 She (hen asked if she could take a bath in Teasers apartment behind the shop. Teasel felt sorry for her and invited her to spend the night. The visitor ended up staying for eight months.

Dmitri’s friend Sue Hamilton had managed her own small-scale antique business from an office in Teasel’s gallery for two years. When Berthelot asked about a Vail portrait hanging in the gallery. Hamilton told her that the painter had given it to a woman who had paid an $800 storage bill he owed. But her husband hated the painting, so she consigned it for sale with Teasel. Hamilton told Berthelot about Vail’s history and his current misfortunes, and in mid-August, Berthelot brought Bernard Doienz over to sec the painting.

Though Dolenz now describes himself as a neurologist who spends the majority of his time practicing medicine, in a March 1990 hearing he testified that he saw patients only one and a half days a week. Berthelot worked part time in his legal office, which is also his home on Swiss Avenue. In some legal papers, she listed his address as her residence.

Hamilton told them Dmitri’s sad story. Dolenz asked to meet Vail, saying he might be interested in buying some art.

On Aug. 15, Hamilton took Dolenz to visit Vail. Some time later, Dolenz bought $3,000 worth of charcoal sketches. Vail was thrilled. That day, Doienz also told Vail he had investigated the trust set up by the artist’s deceased wife, Dorothy. He told Dmitri that, as his lawyer, Dolenz could sue the trust and get Vail a lot more money. But that wasn’t all. Dolenz said he would set up a Dmitri Vail Gallery where the public could see his work. But in order to do that, Dolenz had to gather up all the Vail paintings on loan, consignment or display in Dallas and elsewhere-All Vail needed to do, Dolenz told him, was sign some papers. Hamilton suggested that Dmitri think about it for a while, but Vail wouldn’t wait. “I would trust him with my life,” Vail told her.

Vail signed a document giving Dolenz his power of attorney, but Hamilton refused to witness his signature. She didn’t have a problem with Vail hiring Dolenz, but something about the power of attorney disturbed her.

In early September. Dolenz wrote Vafla letter, saying that he had contacted the trust officers at NCNB, making them aware of the shoddy maintenance of Vail’s house and of Vail’s need to keep the lights on at all times to “keep the rats as large as cats confined to darker quarters.” Vail was thrilled.

He began calling Dolenz “God-sent,” and insisted that his friends meet his new savior. Dmitri bragged that Bernard Dolenz was going to get him millions. He would soon be back on top of the world.

That fall, Dolenz did file a lawsuit on Vail’s behalf against NCNB. asking $1 million in damages for withholding money, plus two weeks of profits from the bank and its subsidiaries in punitive damages. Cass Weiland, NCNB’s lawyer, says the suit stunned the trust officers, who had tried to workout ways to accommodate Vail. Dolenz also began to collect Vail’s paintings-and to attempt to sell some of them for him.

Dolenz wrote Frankie Laine October 31. He told Laine that Vail’s paintings were worth $300,000 each, but because he was so fond of Laine, he would sell the singer his portrait for $60,000. Laine declined.

Jean LoMonaco, a gallery owner who had moved to Nashville, had seven of Dmitri’s paintings, including his portrait of President John F. Kennedy. She was trying to sell them for Vail. In early September, Dolenz called LoMonaco and demanded she turn over the paintings.

“He was really nasty, and I didn’t understand it,” she says. “He acted like I wouldn’t give him the paintings. I was happy for him to have them, but I needed something in writing.” Dolenz presented a letter and sent movers to pick up the artwork.

In December, Dolenz filed a lawsuit against Mariano Martinez in an attempt to get the portrait Vail had given to his friend years earlier. Rather than fight the suit, Martinez agreed to trade the original portrait for a photographic print Martinez had given Vail. “It wasn’t worth fighting it,” says Martinez. “I always figured I’d buy it back at a garage sale. Who wants a picture of Mariano Martinez in their living room?”

It seemed that all of Vail’s friends were eyeing each other, speculating about motives. Berthelot says Hamilton was making an “overly fat” commission on selling Vail’s furniture. “I was there to do nothing but help Dmitri Vail,” Berthelot says.

Hamilton got a shock when she received a letter that said Vail was suing her over some frames she had agreed to sell for him. She went to Dmitri’s house, only to leam that he didn’t know what she was talking about. He didn’t remember writing and signing a letter demanding the frames, or agreeing that Dolenz should file a suit against her. Hamilton picked up the frames and took them to Vail’s home.

Documents authored by Dolenz and signed by Dmitri would soon spark a bitter and expensive war over Vail’s assets. It wouldn’t be the first lime that a paper signed by an elderly person who trusted Dolenz would set off a furor



THEY CALLKD THKI.MA VICTORIA RKYN-olds the “Cat Woman.” At any given time, the elderly woman had about 50 felines roaming in and out of her Fort Worth home. It was never proven who drew up the will, but what was undisputed at a later trial was that Reynolds had signed a document in Dolenz’s medical office, witnessed by his two nurses, leaving half of her $1.2 million estate to her psychiatrist: Dr. Bernard Dolenz.

The other half went to Reynolds’ niece, Earlene Hinton. After Reynolds’ death in 1978, Hinton contested the will, arguing that her aunt, in the last years of her life, had been deemed mentally incompetent by a number of other psychiatrists. Dolenz’s response: Every other psychiatrist had mis-diagnosed her.

“He just considered himself a better doctor than everybody else,” says Jim Barlow, an attorney who represented Hinton. Barlow argued to the jury that Dolenz’s actions were “unethical, despicable and outrageous.” The jury awarded the estate to Hinton.

Barlow knew Dolenz well, as did most attorneys in Fort Worth, because he was a spectacularly prolific litigant. Dolenz filed so many pro se suits-representing himself-that Tarrant County lawyers began to groan when they heard his name. Starting in the late Sixties, Dolenz filed at least 45 suits in the county against patients, business associates, insurance companies and other doctors. “He sees himself as a knight-errant helping the downtrodden,” says Barlow.

After losing the fight over Reynolds’ will, Dolenz filed defamation suits against Barlow, Hinton and two Dallas psychiatrists who testified that Reynolds was mentally incompetent. He also filed suit against the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a story it ran about the will challenge, which also mentioned that Dolenz had once been sued by a former business associate who claimed he had been hypnotized by Dolenz into signing some legal papers.

Early in his medical practice, Dolenz had been regarded as a fine psychiatrist. In the 1960s, Dolenz established the Fort Worth Neuropsychiatric Hospital. “He was a brilliant fellow, at one time. That’s the only nice thing I can say about him,” says a Fort Worth psychiatrist who, like many who fear Dolenz, asked that his name not be used.

In 1974, Dolenz was removed from the board of the hospital he had founded. The hospital corporation filed suit, accusing him of taking secret profits when land was purchased for the facility. The hospital’s suit was dismissed in 1978 for failure to pursue the case. Dolenz practiced at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Fort Worth until 1978, when the neuropsychiatry policy committee recommended that his staff privileges be canceled. He promptly filed suit against the hospital and the policy committee.

“He was not available to his patients,” says the psychiatrist who formerly worked with Dolenz at several hospitals, “usually because he was in court. If he had an emergency come up, he would not designate anybody to take backup calls.”

And physicians trying to handle Dolenz’s patients would frequently find records so inadequate they couldn’t prescribe treatment. “I remember very clearly that his patient had a grand mal seizure and there was no information in the chart and he was in court,” the psychiatrist says. “He was warned, but he would never make corrections.”

At Fort Worth’s All Saint’s Hospital, Dolenz also ran into problems. Unlike other psychiatrists, he demanded that the head nurse accompany him on rounds. Though she tried to accommodate him, Dolenz began to threaten her. “All the other nurses support her and feel strained when Dr. Dolenz…[is] on the unit,” reads one administrative report. “On one occasion they have witnessed Dr. Dolenz express a desire that a patient harm [the head nurse]. This is documented.” Dolenz, when asked to respond, told the administrator that the nurse “is aggressively hostile and needs psychiatric help.” That dispute, too, ended in a lawsuit.

Dolenz boasted to some doctors that what he earned in judgments was tax-free and that the majority of his income came not from his practice, but from lawsuits.

Eventually, Dolenz lost all credibility within the legal community in Fort Worth. “It became, ’Who’s he going to sue today?’”

Barlow says. Still, some were surprised when Dolenz decided, after years of medical training, to go to law school.

He left his private practice in 1980 and enrolled in Houston’s South Texas Law School. He made the move alone: That year he divorced his wife, a nurse with whom he had five children. (He later adopted a college student.) After graduating in 1983, Dolenz moved to Dallas and began his new life.



HER NAME WAS NANCY WHITE, AND IT seemed to some of Dmitri Vail’s friends that she came out of nowhere. Forty-eight, with long, curly bottle-blond hair, she sometimes speaks hesitantly and moves slowly when she’s tired, the result of a 20-year battle with multiple sclerosis. The disease gives her a fragile, somewhat mysterious air.

Twenty-five years ago, Nancy had been an aspiring artist herself. She had met Vail one afternoon when she and an East Texas friend visited him to talk about Vail painting a portrait of the friend’s late husband.

In 1989, she moved back to Dallas from Daytona Beach, Fla. After living with one of her daughters for a while, she moved in with a high-school friend’s mother. Looking for a new direction after two failed marriages, she decided to see if Dmitri was still teaching art. He called her in late October. It was impossible to make the old man understand her on the phone, so she wrote a letter praising his work and asking if he was still taking pupils.

In late November, they finally met again. She took him to a family party during the holiday season where Wallace Barbee was present. “This is the prettiest damn woman I’ve ever seen in my life,” Dmitri bellowed. “I wish I’d painted her.”

In the evenings they went on dates. Neither could drive, so Nancy’s daughter Amanda or an old high-school friend provided transportation. Someone else always had to pay; it was clear to everyone, including Nancy, that Dmitri had no money.

One day in December, she visited his house. “We spent the afternoon together, and he said, ’Will you marry me?’” says Nancy Vail. “I said, ’Yes, yes I will.’” They celebrated New Year’s Eve with hats and noise-makers, and on Jan. 2, 1990, Amanda drove them to the courthouse where Nancy became his fifth wife.

But not everyone was happy for Dmitri. His friend Lois Williams, who had been helping him for two years, doesn’t accuse Nancy of marrying Dmitri for money, but she does suggest that perhaps Nancy got interested after overhearing Dmitri boast about getting a lot of money in the lawsuit Dolenz was pursuing. Dolenz and Williams both say that Dmitri showed them a letter in which Nancy introduced herself and promised to have sex with him every night. (The letter, postmarked Nov. 4, reads like a schoolgirl’s crush on her teacher, but says nothing about sex. Nancy says that’s the only letter she ever wrote Dmitri.)

Nancy met Bernard Dolenz when he came over to have Dmitri sign papers. “He resented me,” says Nancy. “He let me know right off I was out of place.”

Dolenz was affronted that Dmitri had wed without his knowledge. “It’s a very strange situation,” says Dolenz. “They don’t even tell me about it and I’m his lawyer.” He accuses her of marrying Vail because she thought he owned the house on Armstrong. For her part, Nancy felt protective. “One day Dolenz came over and asked him to sign something,” says Nancy. “I asked him what he was signing. He said, ’I don’t know.’”

The bad blood wasn’t dispelled when, shortly after the wedding, Dmitri and Nancy contacted Warren Lyon, an attorney recommended by a friend, to draw up a new will for Vail. On Jan. 16, Vail signed a will leaving his estate to Nancy, as well as a document giving her his power of attorney. As a courtesy, Lyon called to let Dolenz know that the power of attorney had been changed. Dolenz asked the lawyer to meet with him at the Vail residence on Jan. 22.

Dolenz arrived with Lois Williams, one of Dmitri’s only friends who was sympathetic to Dolenzs and taped the meeting. “They insisted on the will being read,” says Nancy. She adds that Dolenz “had a fit,” saying, “You don’t mention your old friend Lois Williams.”

On the tapes Dmitri repeatedly says that he wants to give the power of attorney to Nancy, but Williams can be heard haranguing the old man to leave it with Dolenz, almost yelling in an apparent effort to make him hear. “She was in his face, pounding on his chest,” Nancy says.

Vail repeats over and over: “I want Nancy protected,” and says that his estate and the power of attorney should go to her. But how much he understood of the proceedings is unclear. “I’m a mixed-up kid,” says Vail at one point. Later, he shouts, “I want money!” and “I need money and I’m not getting any from Dolenz!”

Dolenz never raised his voice; he just quietly said he would withdraw from the suit against NCNB if power of attorney went to Nancy. He refused to consider Lyon’s suggestion of a joint power of attorney. A power of attorney is not necessary for a lawyer to represent a client; Dolenz repeatedly refused to answer Lyon’s questions about why he needed Vail’s power of attorney, except to say that that was their original agreement. Lyon declined to comment for this story.

Clearly, Dolenz’s threat to withdraw from the suit had a powerful impact on Dmitri Vail. In response to Dolenz’s pressure, the bank had already paid for some electrical and maintenance work on the house. In a signed affidavit, Vail says Dolenz led him to believe that the bank had offered to settle for $100,000, plus $5,000 per month for the rest of his life. According to Nancy. Dolenz also had told Dmitri that if Dolenz withdrew from the suit, no other attorney would handle i(. Vail believed him.

No suit-no money. Faced with that possibility, Vail backed down. After Lyon left, Dolenz gave Dmitri a document to sign revoking Nancy’s power of attorney and restoring it to Dolenz. In addition, he dictated a codicil to Vail’s will, splitting the estate equally among Nancy, Lois Williams and Barbara Scholl. Dmitri’s only living child, whom he hadn’t seen in more than 60 years. Then, at Dolenz’s request, Vail wrote out another copy of the codicil, this one for Dolenz to keep,

Over the next two months, Dmitri’s relationship with Dolenz deteriorated rapidly. The Vails discovered that Dolenz had represented Caroline Berthelot in a 1987 fraud suit, brought by Commercial Union Insurance, after Berthelot reported that goods worth almost $250,000, including rare, museum-qualily antiques, had been stolen from her home; some of those items later were found at an antique gallery, where she had placed them for sale on consignment.

The insurance company, against the recommendation of its investigator, settled with Berthelot, Dolenz then filed suit against the antique dealer. He lost that suit.

Nancy also became suspicious of Lois Williams. With Dolenz’s approval, Williams had sold an antique dining table from Dmitri’s home. Dmitri received about $600-far less than he insisted the table was worth. (Williams says the table was badly damaged and worth only about $100, but that the generous buyer felt sorry for Vail.) Dolenz had also suggested to the bank that Williams receive $7,000 from the trust to paint and redecorate Vail’s house, though she was not an interior designer.

The Vails1 misgivings mounted when they realized that Dolenz had returned only one of the 15 or more paintings he had collected. When Hamilton asked him why he hadn’t given Vail the paintings, Dolenz said it had to do with “climate control”; he told others it was because Vail’s home was a “fire hazard. Dolenz was storing them at his own house on Swiss Avenue. Nancy, alarmed, checked Vail’s file of copyrights: all the copyrights to the paintings Dolenz had were missing.

The final straw came when Dmitri heard from one of the NCNB trust officers. The bank had no intention of settling. Not only that, the trust income Vail did have coming in would be used to pay the trust’s legal fees. Because of Dolenz’s tactics, NCNB had filed a counterclaim against Vail, alleging that his lawyer’s claims were “frivolous and fraudulent.”

From the top of the world-newly married, convinced he was going to be rich again-Vail plunged into despair. He became terrified of Dolenz. “He could sense he was being maneuvered and he didn’t know what to do about it,” says Nancy. For several weeks in March 1990. he refused to let Nancy answer the phone or the door. He began drinking wine heavily, for “courage,” he told her. On his 87th birthday in March, when Dolenz, Berthelot and Williams appeared at his door with flowers, Vail refused to let them in,

Meanwhile, a flurry of letters passed between the Vails and Dolenz. In a letter dated March 12, Dolenz mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that all of Dmitri’s paintings were encumbered by promissory notes signed by Dmitri. “They cannot be sold or removed or disposed of unless the title can be cleared,” Dolenz wrote. “Selling or disposing of any of the paintings may subject you to liability, both civil and criminal.” Those notes, he said, were assigned to Bren-da Lievrouw. In a later letter, Dolenz added: “and I understand she is making demand that those be paid.”

Dmitri didn’t know what he was talking about. What notes? Who was Brenda Lievrouw? More letters were exchanged. In a March 19 letter, Dolenz couldn’t resist a jab at Nancy, saying that Dmitri was happy with his lawyer until after his marriage, “after which time he took to drinking Cha-blis excessively and alienating friends who were working unselfishly to help him, such as Lois Williams and Caroline Berthelot.” Other friends, however, say that Dolenz and Berthelot were the ones bringing him wine. In legal pleadings from then on, Dolenz painted Nancy as a Scarlet Woman, reiterating the charges about the excessive drinking. He says now that Dmitri had complained within weeks of the wedding that he wanted an annulment because he had caught Nancy in bed with someone else. Dolenz says the old man didn’t proceed with the annulment because Nancy kept him “drunk and under wraps and away from the phone.”

Then, on April 12, Dolenz, Lievrouw and the movers abruptly appeared at Dmitri’s door. Dolenz claimed that everything in the house, except for Dmitri’s clothes, was “mortgaged” and he was there to pick up the collateral. The Vails staved him off for the moment, but less than two hours after Dolenz left, they discovered a demand letter in the mailbox. Dated almost a month earlier and signed “Brenda Dolenz Lievrouw,” the letter demanded payment of $95,000, plus 15 percent interest, based on four promissory notes allegedly signed by Dmitri.

“I understood from Bernard Dolenz that you had a painting or so (sic] that was going to be sold for $300,000, which would more than clear the notes and return your interest in the paintings,” Lievrouw wrote. “I am not interested in your paintings, but I am interested in receiving the monies due pursuant to the notes.” From her signature, the Vails realized for the first time that Lievrouw was Dolenz’s daughter.

The next day, more documents filled their mailbox. One was a copy of a motion Dolenz had filed to withdraw from Vail’s NCNB lawsuit. Though the Vails had pleaded in a letter with Dolenz not to withdraw, Dolenz told the judge that Vail was uncooperative and had fired him.

The other was a copy of a lawsuit filed in J.P. court, Brenda Lievrouw vs. Dmitri Vail. Because the judge had not yet approved Dolenz’s withdrawal, he was still Dmitri’s attorney. Dolenz was suing his own client. Though Barbee had not been close to Nancy in years-in fact, the couple had fought an acrimonious divorce battle in the early ’60s-Barbee decided to help the Vails find another lawyer to continue the NCNB lawsuit, and to fight Dolenz.

Barbee and an attorney friend named Harry Haigler visited Dolenz on April 16. “At first, I was totally impressed,” says Barbee. “He seemed like a brilliant guy,”

Dolenz was very gracious and willing to answer their questions. Dolenz told them the NCNB suit was a “lawyer’s dream”-an old, debilitated plaintiff obviously being defrauded by a big, rich company.

But Dolenz said he was tired of fooling with the old man. He was dropping the bank suit, and Dmitri should get another lawyer quickly. The clock was ticking. NCNB and the FDIC had filed voluminous requests for summary judgment. Vail only had a few weeks to file an answer.

“What about these notes?” Barbee asked. Dolenz explained that those were for his legal fees and expenses. “I’ve been working for Vail almost full time for six months,” Dolenz told him. He claimed that in order to get two of the paintings, those of actor Chill Wills and Carol Burnett, he had had to pay off an old debt for Vail-thus the promissory note for almost $20,000.

Barbee was completely won over by Dolenz, but Haigler, who had practiced law for years, was suspicious. A lawyer paying a debt that large for a client? That seemed strange, not to mention the fact that Dolenz was abandoning his client in the 11th hour and representing his own daughter against that client to collect debts for him. Haigler was sympathetic, but because his office was in Tyler, he declined to represent Vail.

Another lawyer agreed to help Vail in the Lievrouw suit. He filed a motion to have Dolenz disqualified, saying il was a conflict of interest for Dolenz to represent his daughter against his former client. During the hearing, presided over by Judge Robert Cole, Dolenz danced around that issue.

It was clear, Dolenz told the judge, that Dmitri didn’t know what he was doing when he married Nancy. “Don’t tell me he’s incompetent,” Cole told Dolenz. It turned out Cole was the judge who married Dmitri and Nancy-and. Cole says, he wouldn’t have married diem if he had thought Dmitri was mentally deficient. Cole threw the case out of court for lack of jurisdiction. Undeterred, Dolenz simply filed the same suit in state district court.

Barbee, who was acting as Vail’s “business manager” without pay, went from lawyer to lawyer, seeing eight or nine in all. None of them would touch either the NCNB suit or the Lievrouw suit, now in state district court. When NCNB’s motion for summary judgment went unanswered, a judge ruled in the bank’s favor.

Lawyers who later represented Vail say they don’t know if Dolenz’s suit had any merit. He had accused NCNB’s ’”fat cat” trust officers of “self-dealing ” of letting the house collapse around Vail’s head, of hiding from Vail the fact that he was a co-trustee.

But it’s clear from a 1985 letter that Vail signed “co-trustee,” that he knew-at least at one time-he was a trustee and the bank wasn’t keeping him in the dark. And it appears that over the years, the trust officers made numerous concessions to Vail. For example, they cut their fees by 45 percent. And they had advanced money to Vail; at one point, he had received a total of $10,000 more than the trust actually provided.

The problem with the trust, according to documents filed in court, was that the bulk of the estate was the house, worth $1.6 million; only $800,000 was income-producing, and taxes, insurance and other expenses came out of the proceeds, before Vail and John McDonough, Vail’s son-in-law, received their share. Dolenz says that those expenses should not have come out of Vail’s share. Cass Weiland, attorney for NCNB, says that the trust officers had to abide by the conditions of the trust-not rely on sentiments such as “Dorothy would have wanted it that way.”

Whether valid or not, the suit against NCNB was a monumental task, and Dolenz already had more than 15 of Dmitri’s most valuable paintings, as well as the notes totaling $95,000. It wasn’t worth continuing with a case that Vail almost surely would lose.

That’s when Dolenz assigned the promissory notes to his daughter. Brenda Dolenz Lievrouw. She maintained later that the exchange was a legitimate business deal, that she paid her father about $950 a month in exchange for the notes. “I was having financial problems and she had the money to assist me,” says Dolenz. Though Barbee had his own business and his own family, he was angry at Dolenz’s tactics. In the summer of 1990, with the help of law books, Barbee filed several answers in the Lievrouw case himself, gaining some valuable time. Finally, he found Tamera Boudreau. a young lawyer who was willing to help the Vails on a contingency basis.

On their first visit to her office, Dmitri was lucid, but he ranted and raved about Dolenz, calling him a “demon from hell.” At the next meeting, the Vails were to sign a contingency agreement. At the mention of Dolenz’s name, Dmitri burst into tears.

When Boudreau began to look into the papers Dmitri had signed, she discovered some peculiarities. For example, a document dated Aug. 29, 1989, setting up the Dmitri Vail Trust, included all his assets and named Bernard Dolenz as trustee and co-beneficiary. It was witnessed by Caroline Berthelot and notarized by Brenda Lievrouw-though it’s illegal under Texas law to notarize a document relative to any transaction in which the notary might have a financial interest.

Boudreau also learned that Vail had signed a contingency agreement with Dolenz on Aug. 26, 1989, giving Dolenz 40 percent of any settlement with NCNB before trial and 45 percent of any recovery after a trial. How, then, could Dolenz claim that the four promissory notes were for legal fees?

Dolenz answered that question with another document dated Aug. 29, in which Dmitri agreed to pay Dolenz $5,000 per painting, plus $200 an hour, for recovering scattered artworks. He was also to be reimbursed for expenses. Among those expenses was the payment of $10,000 (o Commercial State Bank in Palmer, to obtain the portraits of Chill Wills and Carol Burnett, which were being held as security for a 1986 loan of $11,000 on which Dmitri had defaulted. According to an affidavit filed by Vail, the bank officials told Teasel they would accept $2,000 for each painting. But, according to a letter from Ted Smith, an officer of the bank, Dolenz bought the old note-which had been written off by the bank-for $10,000. He kept the two portraits as security. For that service, on Sept. 12, Dolenz had Dmitri sign the first promissory note, payable on demand, for $19,372.70, plus 15 percent interest, secured by those two paintings, and several others he had recovered from LoMonaco.

Only a few days later, September 20, Vail signed a second note for $1,000, secured by a painting of Johnny Carson, in return for a loan of that amount from Dolenz. On Oct. 17, Dolenz had Vail sign a third promissory note, secured by all the paintings at the Armstrong house, for $23,002,23. This supposedly included $3,000 for the establishment of the Dmitri Vail Trust, which involved having Dmitri sign a standard two-page form, as well as time spent in “conferences” with Caroline Berthelot and Lois Williams regarding Vail’s situation.

On Nov. 15, Vail signed the fourth and final note, secured not only by the paintings, but all his personal effects; this note totaled $52,500. apparently based on legal fees as well as small purchases Dolenz says he made for Vail. By now, Vail owed Dolenz $95,874.93-all for collecting some 15 works of art. which Dolenz kept at his house. Almost half of those paintings had been stored at Jean LoMonoco’s house in Nashville. Dolenz now says that he actually collected about 60 paintings altogether. Of those, he says, he delivered about 40 to Dmitri’s house, charging nothing for that service. There is no reference in Vail’s legal papers to such a large delivery.

Confronted with these notes, Dmitri maintained that he’d been tricked. “He told me he signed anything Dolenz put in front of him,” Boudreau says, “He had complete trust in the man.” During this period, Dolenz was sending out letters attempting not only to find Vail’s paintings, but to sell them. There were at least five or six letters from Dolenz to people such as Carson and Betty White, offering to sell them their portraits for between $60,000 and $200,000. Significantly, though he had Vail’s power of attorney, Dolenz had Vail sign each letter opposite his signature.

It is clear from doctors’ reports that Vail’s deteriorating eyesight made it almost impossible for him to read small print. Boudreau began to wonder: Was Dmitri legally competent to conduct business when he met Dolenz? Not only could he not see clearly, Dmitri seemed at times to float in and out of sanity. In late 1990, Boudreau filed a countersuit against Dolenz.

But Boudreau admits that she was intimidated by Dolenz and frustrated by his legal tactics. At one point Dolenz told the court Boudreau had been served with legal papers that required an answer within 30 days. Boudreau says she never received them. She says that after he “threatened her physically.” she turned for help to Al Ellis, past president of the Dallas Bar Association, who agreed to become lead attorney pro bono. The Vails had finally found a real white knight. But for Dmitri, it was too late.



MOVING SLOWLY ONE DAY IN JANUARY, Nancy Vail helped an assistant to Al Ellis list the few items that remained in the Armstrong Parkway house: old frames, beat-up furniture, kitchen goods. Nancy had to be out of the house by Jan. 31; she and Barbee had scheduled an estate sale to get rid of everything except Vail’s paintings.

Sue Hamilton had handled an earlier sale in the fall of 1991, raising $9,000 for the Vails, despite the fact that Bernard Dolenz had stationed himself across the street and videotaped people leaving with purchases, yelling that what they were doing was illegal, that Vail’s possessions were “mortgaged.”

But this sale would be different. Not much of value was left. And shortly before Christmas, the 88-year-old painter had contracted pneumonia and died.

For two years, Dmitri had been obsessed with Dolenz. “This played on his mind all the time,” says Nancy. “Not a day or moment passed that he didn’t think about Dolenz.” For Nancy, the end began in early 1991 when Dmitri started throwing food at her and a friend at a restaurant. In the summer of 1991, Judge John Marshall ruled that Vail was mentally incompetent, based on psychiatric examinations requested by Boudreau and Ellis. Psychiatrists at Southwest Medical School concluded that he suffered from dementia, as well as grandiosity of thinking. In all probability, concluded Dr. Jay Crowder, the artist had suffered from progressively worsening mental illness for several years, possibly since 1985, when he incurred a head injury after wrecking his car. After diagnosing a subdural hematoma, doctors had operated on Vail’s brain, but some of the damage to his eyes and brain was irreversible.

Dolenz says that while Vail might have been mentally incompetent by the spring of 1991, the examination of Dmitri is suspect. He points to a “psychosocial assessment” prepared at Zale Lipshy University Hospital. The report says: “According to Mr. Vail, he was referred to the hospital in an effort to bolster his case and to, as he puts it, ’get the doctors on my team.’” (The report also says that Vail went on to accuse Dolenz of stealing his paintings, becoming increasingly angry. “We’re going to put him away,” he told the social worker.)

But before his death, Dmitri Vail got some measure of satisfaction against the lawyer who had hounded him. On Dec. 2, 1991, Judge Marshall, in response to Ellis’ request for sanctions, signed an order giving Dolenz the “death penalty”-striking all of Dolenz’s pleadings and ruling that Vail’s allegations that Doienz had committed fraud and misconduct were held to be true by the court. That meant that any award Lievrouw might win from Vail probably would be money that Vail had recovered from her father.

Though Dolenz fought the ruling, the Texas Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s determination. He immediately requested a rehearing, and if that is denied, Dolenz says, he will appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “It’s the principle of the thing,” says Doienz.

After several requests, Dolenz agreed to an interview at his Swiss Avenue home to show me “the other half of the pancake.” His living quarters are upstairs. Downstairs, where he offices, looks more like a warehouse than an office. Porcelain figurines, some still in bubble wrap, sit on tables and on the floor. A large wooden conference table rests on its side against a wall. Files cover a huge marble table.

Dolenz points out several times during our talk that litigation prevents him from telling everything he would like about the case, but he brings out documents that he says show the “scam” and “flim-flam”1 perpetrated by the NCNB trust officers handling the Dorothy Vail trust. He says they wrote letters to co-trustee John McDonough but didn’t carbon them to Dmitri; that they bought stock in a bank for which McDonough served on the board; that they tried to hide that it was their responsibility to repair the house; and that the money shouldn’t have come from the trust’s income. “He had a fire hazard,” says Dolenz. “After I sued them they spent $20,000 in repairs.”

When asked why he wouldn’t allow Vail to revoke Dolenz’s power of attorney, Dolenz says that was part of their agreement. “I didn’t want people taking advantage of the old man.”

Then he points to “hanky panky” by Al Ellis: an affidavit signed by Barbara Scholl that says Ellis misled her, saying her father’s paintings were worth very little. (Ellis says he has never spoken to Scholl.) Dolenz claims that Scholl has filed a grievance with the state bar against Vail’s two attorneys. Then there’s the matter of Vail’s “false affidavit,” which Dolenz says shows “all the lies and misrepresentations” by Barbee and Nancy. Vail, when he was without a lawyer, was found in contempt of court and fined $500 for filing an affidavit that wasn’t properly notarized.

Dolenz dismisses the report by Crowder on Dmitri’s mental health. “Probably when Dr. Crowder saw him in March 1991, he needed to be detoxed,” Dolenz says. “When he ran into Nancy, they gave him the Chablis like it was going out of style.” He charges that Ellis didn’t show Crowder letters Vail wrote in the fall of 1989 or a videotape that Dolenz made of Vail on Aug. 29 of that year, showing an apparently sound, sane Vail demonstrating his style on the trampoline. The psychiatrist who reviewed that and other evidence on Dolenz’s behalf concluded that Vail was competent during that period through March 1990. When D Magazine showed Crowder the videotape, he said his diagnosis was unchanged.

Dolenz says that he’s not in the lawsuit for the money. “Hey, I’m not going to make a damn thing off this,” he says, adding that the whole thing would never have happened if Vail’s portrait of JFK had sold, as Dolenz says was planned, to the city of Dallas. “It would have cleared my legal fees,” Dolenz says. But the sale fell through; then Vail married Nancy and fired him. “That was not Dmitri doing the talking; it was Nancy,” Dolenz says. “This whole thing mushroomed out of proportion. But I’m going to keep my commitment to Dmitri.”

Throughout the interview, Dolenz is cordial, even friendly. But he sprinkles veiled threats throughout the conversation. As he escorts John Wall, Brenda Lievrouw’s current attorney to the door, Dolenz tells him, loudly enough for me to hear, “By the way, I did get an $8 million defamation award from that lady in Louisiana.” He also mentions winning $2 million in a defamation suit against the For! Worth Star-Telegram. “I’ve warned them to be careful,” Dolenz tells Wall. “I could end up owning D Magazine.” (Dolenz did indeed sue both the Star-Telegram and Shreveport resident Virginia Brinkmann, Caroline Berthelot’s mother-in-law, for defamation. But Philip Bishop, the Star-Telegram’s lawyer for 15 years, says no court has ever awarded Dolenz a judgment against the paper. With regard to the other suit, Dolenz did win an $8 million judgment against Brinkmann, an elderly widow who acted without an attorney.) Before I leave, he’s more direct: “I hope you’re not coming in to burn Bernie baby,” Dolenz says. “I’ll go after people with a cleaver if they say things that are not correct.”

So, cleaver in hand, Dolenz goes on. After Vail’s will was filed in probate court, Dolenz presented the trust document signed by Dmitri. If the court ruled it valid, Dolenz, as trustee and co-beneficiary, would potentially get all assets mentioned in the trust, barring any challenge by others. Accompanied by his daughter and Lois Williams, Dolenz dragged out his old allegations against Nancy and told the court that if the trust was deemed invalid because Vail was non compos mentis, then his marriage to Nancy also should be void.

At the request of Nancy’s attorney, Dolenz filed the hand-written codicil, which divided the estate among Nancy, Lois Williams and Dmitri’s daughter. But the judge struck Dolenz’s pleadings, saying he had no standing in the matter of Vail’s estate.

The Lievrouw trial also is expected to be heard this spring; Ellis has retained Don Lehew, a certified document examiner, who has written a report saying that three of the documents Dolenz claims were signed by Vail are actually forgeries. Meanwhile, Nancy Vail and Wallace Barbee have put the more than 50 paintings from Dmitri’s house in storage, waiting for the judge to decide their rightful owners.

One sad irony has emerged. Though Dmitri couldn’t sell his paintings while he was alive, their value escalated sharply after his death. Dallas art appraiser Luc de Brocqueville, at Al Ellis’ request, estimated the 15 paintings are now worth about $2 million. But that assumes someone wants them.

Nancy has no regrets. Despite Dolenz’s accusations, she says she knew all along that Vail had no money, that Dolenz’s promises were pie in the sky. If nothing else, she gave her artistic idol pleasure during the last years of his life. “He loved sex, you know,” Nancy says, her eyes twinkling. The MS is slowing her down, but she plans to write a book about Dmitri and his method of painting-a last gift to the man she loved.

And though he’s dead, Dmitri Vail may yet give one last gift to the world. Last fall, a grievance committee of the Texas Bar Association heard a complaint filed by the Vails against Dolenz. Documents available at the board meetings of the State Bar Association indicate that the group’s general counsel is preparing to file a disciplinary lawsuit against Dolenz.

But even if Dolenz is disbarred, the courts cannot prohibit him from filing lawsuits. He can simply walk out of the courtroom, stroll over to the district clerk’s office, pay a filing fee and sue whoever he wants. Dmitri Vail is dead. The man who haunted him lives on.

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