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Cover Story

Hunt vs. Hunt: The Fight Inside Dallas’ Wealthiest Family

The Hunt family is one of the richest and most private families in Dallas. Now, with one member suing the others, things are about to get very public and very ugly.
By Gretel C. Kovach |
illustration by Steve Brodner

Tom Hunt sits at an executive desk downtown at Hunt Petroleum Corporation, on the 49th floor of Thanksgiving Tower, studying a thick stack of paper that has his lawyer worried. The documents outline the wills he will execute, and which of the dozens of interrelated family trusts he oversees. Before his attorney can stop him, citing the lawsuit, Hunt admits that even he has trouble keeping them all straight.

Hunt is 84 years old. Wisps of white hair frame his bald head. He looks frail these days, a little smaller inside his inexpensive blue suit-just like the ones his billionaire uncle, East Texas wildcatter H.L. Hunt, once wore. But the blue eyes behind his spectacles are as sharp as his memory. When he’s not in the field checking on his firm’s oil and gas wells, the chairman of Hunt Petroleum starts work in his corner office by 8 am. He usually answers his own phone. He tried to retire in 1988, when he hit 65, but H.L.’s eldest child, Margaret Hunt Hill, convinced him to stay on.

From his glass-walled perch, Tom has a view of the many ways that H.L. and his descendents helped shape the city of Dallas. The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava, will soon rise in the distance over the Trinity River. Ray Hunt’s Reunion Tower still blinks above the Hyatt hotel, an icon of the Dallas skyline for 30 years, and his Hunt Oil Tower was just completed. Just across Woodall Rodgers Freeway sits the Crescent Hotel and, beyond that, the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, both part of Caroline Rose Hunt’s Rosewood Hotels & Resorts chain.

There are more than 100 members of the “first family” of Lyda and H.L. Hunt alone (see family tree). Ray Hunt, H.L.’s son from a later marriage, is the wealthiest individual Hunt today, according to the Forbes 400. He took over Hunt Oil and parted ways from the rest of the family after his father died in 1974, retaining no affiliation with Hunt Petroleum. The wider Hunt clan has also included airline entrepreneurs, actors, an ambassador to Austria, lawyers, accountants, racehorse breeders, artists, and a fighter jet pilot.

The man who started it all, H.L., was tall and handsome, with blue eyes like his nephew Tom’s and a genius for numbers. H.L. could memorize the order of a deck of cards after flipping through it once. He liked to gamble, whether in poker, horse racing, or oil drilling. He used winnings at the poker table to finance his first stake in the Arkansas oil rush of the 1920s. A decade later, he used his last $109 in cash and borrowed the rest to buy out Dad Joiner on the Daisy Bradford No. 3, the well that revealed the “Great Black Giant” of sweet crude hidden under the red clay of East Texas. At the time, it was the largest oil field discovery in the world.

By 1948, Life magazine said H.L. might well have been the richest man in the country, at least as wealthy as J. Paul Getty, Howard Hughes, and the Rockefellers. He lived in a white colonial mansion on White Rock Lake modeled after George Washington’s Mount Vernon, only bigger. His holdings were estimated to be worth $600 million ($5.5 billion in today’s dollars), and they grew considerably. But H.L. once said, “If you know how rich you are, you aren’t very rich.”

Tom Hunt was 16 when he started working for H.L. in the oil fields. He had been a tall boy for his age. “I was going to be the big Hunt, in terms of physical stature,” he says affably. His growth slowed early, and now, after all the years, he’s even lost a few inches. H.L. once pulled his teenage nephew off a roughneck crew and sent him to negotiate the sale of his house. Later, when Tom returned from manning B-24 bombers in the Pacific theater of World War II, he went to work full-time for the Hunt family empire, which developed interests in oil, gas, real estate, farming, and food products. H.L. dispatched Tom across the country, from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to the timberlands of Florida, where Tom worked behind the scenes, gathering intel from the workmen who knew first-hand when a hole would turn up dry or a deal might go sour.

Over the years, Tom, a childless bachelor, became the one the younger Hunts turned to when they wrecked their cars and didn’t want Mommy and Daddy to know. Generations of Hunts came to rely on “Uncle Tom” as their peacemaker, corporate investigator, and Christmas turkey carver, the one trusted above all others as the arbiter of matters relating to the family fortune. “We’re really a tight family. Tom is the glue,” says Lyda Hill, one of H.L.’s granddaughters. Tom also became the trustee or advisor of many of those trusts, whose number and complexity grew as the family, and the family’s business, expanded.

Today, Tom sits atop the private company that he built. Hunt Petroleum-owned by two trusts under his control, those belonging to Margaret and Hassie, two of H.L.’s 14 children from three overlapping families-is worth upward of $4 billion. “I guess I did pretty well,” Tom says.

But now this stack of paper sits on his desk. And now 84-year-old Tom Hunt is faced with perhaps the ugliest Hunt dispute he’s ever seen. It began, more or less, when Margaret died in June 2007 (Hassie had passed away two years earlier). But it boiled over and into the public record on November 8, 2007. That’s when Margaret’s 37-year-old grandson, Albert Hill III, sued his father, his sisters, his aunts, and Tom Hunt over the management of Margaret and Hassie’s trust funds and their primary asset, Hunt Petroleum.

In the complaint filed in state district court, Al III accused Tom of hiding Hunt Petroleum’s true value from the trusts’ beneficiaries, of conspiring with the family to cheat the tax man, and of raiding the trusts to finance other family deals. The suit calls Tom the “spider in a web of conflicting interests” of the family. Al III asked the court to stop his father and aunts from selling Hunt Petroleum and partitioning the trusts, citing H.L.’s provision that the trusts remain intact until 21 years after Margaret’s and Hassie’s deaths.

The lawsuit was prepared by high-flying Dallas attorney Bill Brewer, of Bickel & Brewer. Under the section of the suit titled “Defendants’ Shameless Campaign of Non-Disclosure, Browbeating, Threats, and Dirty Tricks,” Al III describes a summer meeting he says he had with Tom over the matter.

Tom told Al III that his naïve attitude toward tax matters could cost the family $400 to $500 million in additional taxes, penalties, and interest.

“Life is too short to play games,” Al III said. “If taxes are owed, they should be paid.”

According to the lawsuit, Tom responded by calling Al III a “whippersnapper,” and saying that his efforts could even land his father in jail.

In pleadings filed in response to the suit, the defendants, each represented by a team of their own lawyers, categorically denied the accusations. One Hunt Petroleum secretary asked Tom, tears in her eyes, how Al III could have sued him. “This is just another business deal. Finally it will be resolved,” he assured her. His blood pressure is still a smooth 105 over 65, his pulse in the 50s-to his doctor’s astonishment, given the stress. When Tom’s staff saw that the lawsuit hadn’t sent him into a funk, they ordered him two neckties, each with a large spider crawling in a web. He wore them around the office.

What caused this rift in the House of Hunt, Dallas’ wealthiest family? Was it the righteous crusade of a young man challenging the hubris of his powerful relatives, fighting to be a good steward of his ancestors’ legacy for future generations? Or was it, as some of Al III’s closest family members believe, the desperate ploy of a cash-strapped, profligate son trying to keep his wife, a former beauty queen, draped in Armani and jewels?

All we know for now is that a family accustomed to keeping its affairs private-in business and everything else-is being forced to reveal its secrets.

Albert Galatyn Hill III was the first-born great-grandchild of H.L. Hunt. The aging patriarch of the Hunt dynasty marked the start of a new generation of his family by going floor to floor at his firm’s offices, distributing fliers announcing Al III’s birth. Al III is old enough to remember H.L., who seemed like Santa Claus to him, like a character in a storybook. But Al III didn’t grow up with any sense that he had to live up to a Hunt legacy.

Al III’s parents divorced when he was 8. His father, Albert Hill Jr., is a former tennis ace who helped build the professional World Championship Tennis tour with his uncle Lamar Hunt-a founder of the AFL and the man who named the Super Bowl. Al III and his two younger sisters moved from their father’s historic mansion on Lakeside Drive in Highland Park to slightly less tony University Park with their mother, who remained single for years while she raised the children. Al Jr. traveled a lot but saw his kids every other weekend.

Al III was a Highland Park High School student in the ’80s when his great uncles Bunker and Herbert Hunt made headlines for trying to corner the world’s silver market and then claiming two of the largest personal bankruptcies in history. Al III remembers stopping at a 7-Eleven for a Slurpee and glancing at the front page of the newspaper. “Oh, there’s my great uncles again,” he thought.

When Al III told another of his great-uncles, Hassie, that he was going to Baylor University, Hassie said, “Red brick Georgian, four story, white trim.” Hassie had been diagnosed with severe schizophrenia as a young man, which ended his short reign as the heir apparent to H.L.’s business. He’d had a lobotomy, a cutting-edge treatment at the time, but it hadn’t dulled Hassie’s mind for detail.

As a college student, Al III double-majored in partying and crashing cars. “He was abusing alcohol at a good Baptist school,” his father says. “What do you expect? You can’t dance.”

Al III had already wrecked an Alfa Romeo, a motorcycle, and a Mercedes. Then one early morning, at the wheel of his girlfriend’s Toyota Supra, with a friend in the passenger seat, he had the accident that would change his life. He was only 19 years old, a sophomore. Barreling down a country road outside Waco, he came to a “T intersection. Instead of turning left or right, he drove into a white clapboard house at 65 mph. A man inside ran out the back as Al III came through the front. The windshield shattered, and wooden beams shot like spears toward Al III’s face. He was taken to the hospital and then arrested.

Al III didn’t fully comprehend what had happened until a few days later, when he went to the scene of the crash and the wrecking yard. His mother and father, despite their divorce a decade earlier, flew to Waco and surprised their son at his apartment. An addiction counselor had told them he was crying out for help. “Al, we have come to take you back to Dallas for a while,” they said. “You need a break.”

At the scene of the crash, they saw skid marks in the grass. A section of the house was smashed in, the wooden siding dangling. They were standing there, gaping, when the woman who owned the house drove up. Al III’s parents figured they would be sued. “We’ll pay for everything,” they said.

“I can fix that house,” the woman replied. “And you can replace that car. But you can’t replace your son.”

She handed them a card. On the front it said, “Jesus. Look him up. He’s in the book.” On the back was a verse from Jeremiah: “Call unto me and I will answer thee and I will show thee great and mighty things which thou knowest not.”

At the towing yard, the wrecker looked at the Supra with the hood rolled up into the front seat like a sardine tin and asked, “How many people died?” In the back seat there was a 2 by 4 split in half. Al III had been sliced on either cheek, almost as if an angel had blocked the wooden javelin as it hurtled toward his face. His mother stared at the wreck and cried.

Al III cried, too. “I don’t want to die,” he told his parents.

Al III still has the scar today. “A little reminder in the mirror every day not to look back,” he says now.

The DWI charge was reduced to reckless driving. Al III spent 30 days in rehab and returned to school. He gave up drinking and never resumed, aside from the occasional champagne toast. He dropped his old friends and hard-partying peers. “The change was shocking. He went from being totally out of it, to ‘God bless you,’” a fellow Baylor alum remembers. Al III became the president of his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, which was trying to clean up its act, as well, after being kicked off campus. After a lot of soul searching, Al III, the oil heir, switched his major to environmental science and moved to Austin. He did a faith walk and a “transpersonal psychology conference” and a lot of praying and reading the Bible. He considered a career as a minister but started an environmental water treatment business instead.

“I changed my life, my major, my faith,” he says. “I wanted to save the world.”

After the accident, he experienced something profound. Faced with his own mortality, Al III pulled his life together and became a God-fearing young man. Without that transformation, he might not have had the courage later in life to follow his convictions. Even when it was painful. Even when it meant accusing his own family of tax evasion and fraud.

Al III’s father had his awakening much later in life, at the cost of much graver bodily injury. After his divorce in 1980, Al Jr. lived fast and furious. He dated a string of starlets, including a Bond girl and Audrey Landers, from the TV series Dallas. He was married to a model for less than a year, and he financed B movies through his video production company.

After his transformation at Baylor, Al III found it difficult to relate to his father. In 1991, Al III and his sisters, together with their grandmother Margaret and their aunts Lyda and Alinda, staged a family intervention. They asked Al Jr. to enter treatment for alcoholism. He spent less than a week at Betty Ford. He did cut back a little. But to this day he says he never had a problem. As he puts it, in the ’70s he bought a cellar’s worth of fine wines, and in the ’80s he drank them. Of the time he went to Betty Ford, he says: “That year was my best ever, financially.” His son was overly concerned, he says, because after you’ve been to rehab it’s easy to think everyone who drinks has a problem.

But in 2002, while drinking, Al Jr. had an indisputable problem. On June 21, a little before 2 am, a woman called 911 from Al Jr.’s Lakeside Drive mansion. Earlier in the evening, he had taken the woman, a house guest and occasional date for the last nine years, to dinner at a strip club (it had a great chef, he says). According to public records from police and the courts, the woman told the dispatcher that she had been arguing with Al Jr., and she thought her shoulder was dislocated.

“I didn’t do anything,” a man said in the background. The woman was still talking when the line went dead.

The dispatcher called back, and Al Jr. answered. “She is making everything up, and nothing is wrong with her,” he said. (Although Al Jr. says the Dallas Morning News was aware of the incident at the time, it never reported it. The woman’s name appears in public records, but D Magazine is withholding it.)

The woman met police at Al Jr.’s door, crying. She was hunched over, holding her shoulder, which protruded grotesquely. She told police that Al Jr. had drunk “a great deal of liquor” that night. A later criminal indictment said that when the couple went to bed, Al Jr. had begun biting her genitals, and the couple fought. She was thrown from the bed. Then Al Jr. stuffed a pillow over the woman’s face, she said. She pushed him off and called 911.

“This is an extortion deal,” Al Jr. kept telling the officers in an upstairs room of his house. His speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet. One of several versions of his side of the story that night was that the woman had grabbed him while he was watching CNN and threw him off the bed. Al Jr. wanted to go downstairs to see the woman “and help you guys with this.”

“Sit down,” the officers said, again and again. Finally they grabbed him by the arms to restrain him.

“You are very rude,” Al Jr. said. “Touching me was uncalled for. I need to call my director of security.”

His house guest was taken by ambulance to the emergency room. The lieutenant on scene decided there was “no further danger of violence,” and Al Jr. was not immediately arrested. They gave him a domestic violence pamphlet on their way out.

Later in court, facing a charge of assault causing reckless injury and a maximum of one year in jail, Al Jr. said that the woman’s injuries, if any, were caused by her own negligence. He struck a plea deal, paid a $1,000 fine (in addition to a donation to a women’s shelter), and was given probation. Al Jr. was never convicted of a crime. The woman sued, but they settled out of court.

Today Al Jr. will say only: “There was an unfortunate accident. Everyone is fine, and I’ve moved on.”

But it would take more than that to scare Al Jr. sober. As with his son, Al Jr. needed a truly life-threatening wake-up call. He got it a year later, in November 2003.

He admits that he’d been drinking wine. It was late. Al Jr. says he was looking at the new holly bushes that had replaced the azaleas along his first-floor porch. He says he stumbled and fell forward, tumbling over a waist-high ledge. He fell just a few feet, but he cracked a vertebra in his neck, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. His face was buried in mulch, his arms pinned beneath him. He turned his head side to side to clear the dirt so he could breathe.

Al Jr. called for help, but no one came. He waited for hours through the night, hoping the morning joggers along Lakeside Drive would find him.

Instead, it was the housekeeper. She called Al III, who says he found one wine glass standing on the porch table. Another was shattered and spilled.

Al Jr. was rushed to the hospital. Doctors told his children he would never walk again. But he struggled through grueling physical therapy sessions and stem cell treatments in Germany to make what one doctor calls a “miraculous” recovery. His hands remain stiff, and he still needs a wheelchair. The muscles of his once powerful legs are withered. But last summer Al Jr. walked across his tennis court using only canes.

He gave up drinking after the accident, one reason he and his son grew closer than ever. “I was there for him and he was there for me,” Al III says. “I was so proud.” In 2005, Al Jr. hired his son for $10,000 a week to serve as his investment consultant and family representative. That was also the year that Al Jr. signed away most of his share of his mother’s trust fund, prematurely making Al III and his sisters heirs to Margaret Hunt Hill’s billions.

Margaret had been ailing for years. Then last summer she stopped eating, and a few weeks later, on June 14, she passed away at 91. Her family and friends gathered for the memorial service at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. Her beloved cousin Tom Hunt was there. So was her son, of course. Al Hill Jr. parked his wheelchair beside the front pew. His son, Al III, sat in the row behind him, listening to the homily and the somber strains of the organ in the packed sanctuary. There was no indication that just five months later, Al III would sue them all.

That summer, the Hunt family convened a series of meetings to discuss the disposition of Margaret’s trust. Decisions had to be made, before tax deadlines, about the future of the trust and Hunt Petroleum.

Al III’s aunt Alinda Wikert had indicated she may be open to a major change. In 2006 she had e-mailed her siblings, musing about what role independent oil companies could play in protecting the earth’s resources. “We all have heard the alarming news of the melting ice caps and rising waters and the imminent threat to the extinction of polar bears and penguins,” she wrote. “Despite the fact that we share the same gene pool and background, our personal and business philosophies and goals couldn’t be more divergent. I think it’s time for us to separate like the generation before us.”

During the summer after his grandmother’s death, Al III grew concerned about family talk of selling off Hunt Petroleum and partitioning Margaret’s trust. In late July, he flew to the Garden of the Gods, a resort in Colorado Springs that his grandfather Al Hill Sr. developed in 1951. The Hill branch of the Hunt family had summered there ever since. His grandmother Margaret even made the trip the summer before she died. But Al III flew in for the day this time and left after the family meeting.

According to a flowchart presented at the gathering, which would later become Exhibit Three for Al III’s lawsuit, if Hunt Petroleum were sold off, Margaret’s share could be divided into three new trusts for her children. Since Al Jr. had already signed over most of his claim to Margaret’s fortune to his own three children after his fall, that would mean Al III could expect to receive about $5.5 million a year in interest income on the proceeds of the sale.

But Al III didn’t want his father to “short stop” his share. If he and his sisters were now direct beneficiaries of Margaret’s trust, then he figured the trust should be divided into six parts, one for each of them.

That wasn’t possible, he was told. What do you want?

“I want a full accounting,” he said. “The trusts have become so intertwined and commingled. Typically the trust is the trust. Instead they’re living out of the company [Hunt Petroleum], getting benefits and undervaluing the assets of the company.

“Have you read the Texas trust code?” he told his sisters. “Well I have.”

That summer, after meeting with Tom Hunt, Al III figured he needed help. So he turned to Bill Brewer, the lawyer with whom he often cycled around White Rock Lake, past the old Hunt family home of Mount Vernon.

In September, Al Jr. fired his son from their personal services contract. Then, in early October, he wrote a letter to Tom Hunt, trying to revoke his letter signing over most of his interest in Margaret’s trust, though the first letter had stated it was “irrevocable.” Tom Hunt threw the matter to probate court to decide.

While Al Jr. was trying to cut his son out of Margaret’s trust, he sent him a letter saying “you have certainly ended up becoming my best friend, in addition of course, to being my son. Hopefully, at some future point you will consider taking the time to visit with the person who cares more about you than anyone else in the world. Much love, Dad.” He sent the letter again later that month, and a third time the following month. When Al III did not respond, his father complained to his son’s pastor.

Al III said his children would not pose in his father’s annual Christmas card photo. Al Jr. used an old picture instead so all his grandchildren would be together. “I didn’t have the heart,” he says. “This isn’t their fault.”

Al III says he didn’t intend to sue. But after a smattering of letters from Al III and his lawyer, his relatives had thrown the first punch in the courts. “I had no choice. I had to get my side into the record,” he says. In November he filed his lawsuit. Four days later, his father and aunts fired him from Hill Development. Not long afterward, his wife, Erin, tried to fill their son’s prescription for eczema cream, and she discovered that their health insurance had been canceled.

Now Al III is accusing Uncle Tom of conflicts of interest because of his roles as chairman of the board of Hunt Petroleum and as trustee for both of the trusts that own the company. His suit seeks to have Tom removed as trustee, demands a full accounting of all trust activities, and asks the court to stop any efforts to divide or modify the trusts. “Most importantly,” the complaint says, “Hill seeks to honor his great grandparents’ intentions by preserving and protecting the legacy which resides in those trusts.”

“To me words are important,” Al III says, “the written words. These trusts were written and they should be abided by.”

But Tom Hunt’s attorney says Al III is the one who won’t respect the trust’s provisions. H.L. and Lyda created the “Loyalty” trusts for Margaret, Hassie, and their four other children using 1,800 shares of company stock for each. They were structured as “spendthrift”trusts. The trustee holds absolute power to manage the trust’s holdings, which are sheltered from creditors, taxes, and the free-spending ways of the beneficiaries themselves.

The empire H.L. Hunt founded includes hundreds of entities. In his 1981 biography of the Hunt family, Texas Rich, Harry Hurt III writes: “A maze of interlocking and interdependent relationships, the Hunt corporate structure was confusing even to employees hired to help operate it. But it was even more confusing to outside auditors, and it carried with it numerous tax advantages, including the potential for passing the family wealth down through the generations by means of the trusts.”

George Bramblett, the Haynes & Boone attorney representing Tom Hunt, says the factual allegations in Al III’s lawsuit are severely ill-founded. What’s more, the trust explicitly forbids the beneficiaries from suing the trustee. “We think it’s ironic that the plaintiff would claim the legacy of H.L. Hunt and the legacy of his grandmother,” Bramblett says. “They intended that the assets in the trusts be managed by a trustee and an advisory board, not by beneficiaries and certainly not by persons who only claim to be beneficiaries.” (Haynes & Boone, which normally represents D Magazine, did not review this story.)

It’s not surprising that H.L. gave the trustee such power, because the original trustee of the Loyalty trusts was H.L. Hunt himself. But Texas laws have changed since the trusts were formed, in 1935. Now the trustee has a duty to disclose certain information to the beneficiaries, to diversify its holdings, and to avoid self-dealing, or conflicts of interest.

Wes Holmes, a Dallas lawyer specializing in trust and estate disputes, is quite possibly the last lawyer left in Dallas who has not worked for the Hunt family. Trust law is quite malleable, unlike tax law, he says. Even self-dealing isn’t always illegal, if the end result was fair and benefited the beneficiary, included full disclosure and didn’t line the pockets of the trustee. “But as a general proposition, you don’t get to come in and rewrite the trust,” he says.

Two Hunt Petroleum executives serving on the advisory panel of Hassie’s trust were concerned enough about the changes in Texas law that they asked the trust’s beneficiaries in January 2007 to release them from liability. Their request, according to a review of the document, cited potential conflicts relating to the need to diversify trust holdings, to avoid self-dealing, to “invest and manage the trust assets solely in the interest of the beneficiaries,” and to keep a beneficiary reasonably informed of trust activities. In other words, all of the things that Al III and his attorney, Bill Brewer, are complaining about.

But now Al Jr.’s lawyer, Mike Lynn, is fighting to get Brewer disqualified from the case on the grounds that Brewer allegedly prepared a lawsuit against his own client. Al III hired Brewer to represent him in another lawsuit over a trust fund, this one against the daughter of Benjamin Coates, a shipping and real estate magnate and longtime Hill family friend. (Al III says Coates wanted him, not his own children, to oversee his Liechtenstein trust, but a New York court threw out the case in late January. Al III plans to try again.) In his press release, headlined “Betrayal of Trust,” Lynn claims that Brewer was actually working on the Coates case for Al Jr., who showed him hundreds of pages of confidential documents. Al III says his father was only a fact witness on the Coates case and that Al III signed all the checks. Furthermore, his father had his name stricken from the retainer agreement. But as recently as mid-January, long after Brewer filed suit against Al Jr., Bickel & Brewer’s billing minions were still accidentally sending copies of payment requests on the Coates case to Al Jr.’s home.

In addition to the motion to disqualify Brewer, Lynn argues that Al Jr. was in no shape to know what he was doing when he signed away his rights to most of his mother’s trust fund. He says Al Jr. was medicated and suffering from both spinal and brain injuries.

If Al Jr.’s lawyers succeed in revoking the “irrevocable” disclaimer letter, then Al III will have no power to stop the sale of Hunt Petroleum and the partition of Margaret’s trust because he won’t be a beneficiary. Al Jr. is also trying to disinherit his son from Hassie’s will, which granted his trust to Margaret’s descendents. If Al Jr. succeeds in his efforts, his son, in the end, will get nothing.

Brewer, meanwhile, claims to have a smoking gun. In June 2007, two years after Al Jr. signed away most of his rights to his mother’s trust, when father and son were still on good terms, Al III was working at Al Jr.’s house when a delivery arrived. It looked like his father’s old disclaimer letter. It was notarized with the same date. But Brewer says Al Jr. had signed the original disclaimer, in 2005, in a shaky scrawl with green ink. This signature, delivered in 2007, was in blue. And while the terms of the income and assets signed over to Al III and his siblings remained the same, there was another difference. A reference to a “general” power of appointment had been dropped.

It might seem like a small thing, just a single word missing. But Brewer says it could mean the difference between hundreds of millions of dollars in estate or gift tax relating to Hassie’s will. If someone did rewrite the “irrevocable” disclaimer letter, then the second version is a fraud, Brewer says. “And it’s game, set, and match on the critical issue in the case,” he says. Did this man know what he was doing when he disclaimed his interest in the trust? In Brewer’s view, he knew very well what he was doing. He thought at that point his son was going to go along with the plan.

Al Jr. and his attorney refuse to answer any questions about the disclaimer letter. But other family members are quick to come to his defense-and to Tom Hunt’s.

Lyda Hill, Margaret’s eldest child, isn’t an emotional woman. On a scale of one to 10, she’s a zero, she says. But this lawsuit is too much even for her. “I am crushed for my brother. Can you imagine having your son sue you? Can you imagine?” she asks, and breaks into a sob. “Oh, lordy, my brother’s got trouble enough.” The lawsuit is total fiction she says. “The only thing true in there is the names of my brother and sister! This is going to go away. It’s a tragic father and son riff, and it’s going to go away.”

Her sister Alinda Wikert says, “Tom Hunt has worked tirelessly, fairly, and honestly for our family for over 60 years and has never shown favoritism.”

Elisa Hill Summers, Al III’s sister, adds, “I love my brother very much. I am so sad that he has put all the people who have loved him and supported him throughout his life in this situation.”

There is, of course, an explanation for Al III’s lawsuit that has very little to do with a full accounting or with honoring the legacy of H.L. Hunt. Many of Al III’s closest relatives say his actions are completely out of character. Instead, they blame the beauty queen.

Erin Nance, a gorgeous doe-eyed blonde with a megawatt smile, was Miss Georgia and finished second in the 1993 Miss USA pageant. Third place that year went to Miss Kansas, Tavia Shackles, who later married Clark Hunt, son of the late Kansas City Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt. Tavia set up Al III on a blind date in 1995 with Erin, who was working at the time in Dallas as a publicist for the Hoop It Up streetball competitions. Al III and Erin married the next year at a Baptist church in her hometown of Calhoun, Georgia, where her parents later built their mom-and-pop carpet business into a national distributor.

The Hunt family adored Erin, at least at first. When their eldest son was born, Margaret said, “Of course he has to be Al IV.” Then came baby Nance and Caroline. Margaret checked under the blankets of each, making sure they had the Hunt family gene: curled-under pinky toes (they all do, Al III says). But Erin and Al III soon became estranged from some of his closest family members and friends.

In recent years, the couple has been burning through an impressive amount of cash, according to documents provided by Al Jr., who loaned his son the money or guaranteed his line of credit. In 2004, Al III and Erin Hill’s Neiman Marcus bill topped almost $96,000. Stanley Korshak hit $87,000. His and her Mercedes bills came in at more than $128,000; the Porsche was $82,000.

In the first 10 months of 2007, the couple spent $188,821 on household staff, including a British butler that some relatives took to calling the “manny.” About $461,000 went to clothes (twice as much as the previous year), and $503,000 went to vacations. In June, when they vacationed in Italy and Cap d’Antibes, France, they spent $343,000.

“There was a continuing need for more and more funds all the time,” Al Jr. says. He tried to stanch the flow of cash but couldn’t change his son’s spending habits. “I kept buying the story, that they only had one more year on the Best Dressed list.”

The spending of Al III and his “Georgia American Princess,” as some call her, raised eyebrows, even in their wealthy clan. (Erin would not agree to be interviewed for this article.) “It’s like a dime store novel,” says one Hunt family member who declined to be named. “The beauty pageant gold digger shows up, small-town girl comes to the big city. Then they’re vacationing in France and Italy. They’ve got the planes, the houses, the ski trips. The money’s all tied up in trusts. But they’re the Duke and Duchess, spending it like it’s going to fall out of the sky.”

A longtime Hunt Hill family friend says, “He’s desperate for money because Erin has spent them into this situation, and he has to support her lifestyle. Al has a good heart. This may look like a story about a father and son fight, but the underlying force of this whole thing is Erin. What Erin wants, Erin gets.”

Al III and Erin’s spending might be mere change for a billionaire. But they are not billionaires. Before he was cut off, Al III was bringing in about $1 million a year from his father’s consulting contract and his job as a vice president at Hill Development, now a Hunt Petroleum subsidiary. But he is about $6 million in debt, his father says. (Al III says that figure is exaggerated.) Al Jr. became sufficiently alarmed that he asked the couple to agree to limit their spending to $45,000 a month. But they wouldn’t go for it.

Despite all of this, Al III said he does not have a spending problem. Yes, he bought his wife $19,000 earrings from William Noble and a $35,000 ensemble in Paris from a prévu show by Georgio Armani. He’s not ashamed of it. Erin chaired the Neiman Marcus and Crystal Charity Ball Best Dressed luncheon and fashion show last year. “I wanted to buy her something really nice to wear to the event,” he says. “She felt bad. She said, ‘”I don’t need that.'” Under Erin’s leadership, the luncheon alone raised $750,000 for charity, breaking a record. “Honey, it’s your day,” he told her. “She likes to look nice, and I want her to look nice. There’s nothing wrong with that. I love my wife.”

The Crystal Charity Ball in December was the event of the year for Dallas high society. Ross Perot Jr. went, along with million-dollar contributors Annette and Harold Simmons and Ruth Altshuler, one of Margaret Hunt Hill’s closest friends. Figure skaters performed on an ice rink, the Kilgore Rangerettes kicked their stocking-clad legs high, and ladies in couture gowns swirled through the ballroom.

The lawsuit filed in November was bound to cause tension for Crystal Charity, which included several Hunt family volunteers this year. Erin was one of 100 women invited to spend a year raising money for local children’s charities, and she also served on the charity selection committee. This year they raised more than $4.75 million.

Erin, dressed in scarlet Armani, posed for pictures at the ball with Rachael Dedman and this year’s ball chairman, Vicki Chapman. Erin called Chapman before the lawsuit came out and said she hoped they would remain friends. “I have nothing but praise for Erin Hill,” Chapman says. “She is stunning. It doesn’t matter if she had a burlap sack on. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.” Chapman says Erin is often underestimated because of her looks. “She is very, very talented and gifted when it comes to raising money. People want to be a part of what Erin is a part of.”

Rachael Dedman and Erin vacation together with their children each year and volunteer together on charity events. “As a wife, a mother, a volunteer in the community, she’s just unparalleled,” she says. “The Hunts as a family, they have done so many great things for Dallas. It’s just unfortunate that this is all happening.”

Al III also serves on several boards, including the Baylor Hospital Foundation, St. Mark’s School of Texas, the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University, and the S.M. Wright Foundation. Some of his relatives have been whispering that Al III was fired as chairman of the Thanks-Giving Square foundation. But the current chairman says that’s not true; he did an excellent job. “They think that if it becomes personal, then maybe I’ll relent,” Al III says. “But I made a decision that I wouldn’t pander, that I wouldn’t crawl back under some new deal for me. I am not going to continue this dysfunction.”

His resolve has only grown. If all he wanted was money, then he says he would have just shut up like a good boy and played along with the family plan to sell off Hunt Petroleum, split the trusts, and collect his $5.5 million every year. “I want the truth, I want the facts, I want the evidence, taken under oath, so help me God. Instead of trying to get my lawyer removed, playing these games, let’s adjudicate this. It’s castle keep, and they’ve got the castle. My father always said, ‘He who has the gold makes the rules.’ That’s their mentality in business, and this is business.”

On a November day last year, after Al III and his lawyer Bill Brewer filed their suit, Vicki Howland, Al Jr.’s ex-wife, bumped into her son in a Starbucks parking lot. Al III was walking back to his Range Rover, coffee in hand, bike on the rack, ready for a spin.

Mother and son had been close, before he married the beauty queen. They still live just blocks from each other. But Al III had hardly spoken to his mother in years. Erin and Vicki just don’t get along. Al III’s youngest daughter, a 3-year-old, asked her grandmother recently, “Excuse me, please. Who are you?”

On that day, though, Vicki was overjoyed to see her son. “I need a hug, Al,” she said. It seemed like he needed one, too.

Al III, her eldest child, was always such a kind and gentle boy, always trying to please. But she had read the lawsuit. “This is not the son that I know,” she thought. His father, Al Jr., had been her high school sweetheart; they were married for 13 years. Vicki doesn’t know anything about how the family business is run, but she knows that Margaret adored Tom Hunt. “She thought the world of Tom Hunt,” she says. The lawsuit is “the saddest, most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard of.”

But she didn’t want to scold that day. Lord knows her son was under enough pressure. “Al, I love you,” she said, as they finished their embrace and he climbed into his Range Rover. “I love you unconditionally and I am here for you.”

His head was hanging down. “I know, Mom,” he said quietly. “I know.”

“Do you remember that scripture from Jeremiah 33:3?” she asked.

“Call unto me and I will answer thee-” he said, without hesitation.

“Al, I know you know the truth,” she said. She was thinking of the truth about God, she says, that he would be there even when he felt all alone.

But Al III thought she was talking about the lawsuit. “Yes, Mother, I do know the truth,” he said. “The truth is, they are trying to steal my children’s inheritance.”

She could see that he wasn’t in it for the money. But you can be sincere-and still be wrong. “You may think you’re right, but other people have other agendas,” she said. Happily remarried, Al III’s mother, unlike the hundreds of Hunt family heirs, their spouses and lawyers, has nothing to gain from this court battle. Her son, however, could lose everything.

“Mom, I’ve been disinherited by my father,” he said, his lip quivering with emotion.

“The only reason he did that is you were threatening to sue him and the company,” his mother said.

“Mom, you know better than that!” he said. Then he rolled up his window and sped away.

His mother stood in the parking lot, watching him go.

Gretel C. Kovach is a contributing editor to D Magazine. Write to [email protected].

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