Ca$h for Genes

After billionaire pedophile Larry Hillblom died, illegitimate children began stepping forward to demand part of his estate. It took cutting-edge genetic sleuths to prove that they were, indeed, to the mogul born.

"There are lots of parts of the genome which are polymorphic -- that's to say they vary from person to person," Brenner says. "If you have a variant form of polymorphic loci that you share with another person, it could be that you are related, or it could be a coincidence. If you can compare several loci, and they are the same, you can rule out coincidence. With parents, you share half of these DNA. With half-siblings, you'll share a quarter."

In other words, Brenner uses genetic samples and mathematical probabilities to establish with a reasonable degree of certainty whether two people are related, and the closeness of their family relationship.

Brenner's knowledge has been called into play to identify the remains of people killed in an airline crash. His expertise once took him to Korea, where two brothers, heirs to an estate, wished to refute the claims of two older men who had stepped forward claiming to be their secret half-brothers. As it turned out, all four men were, indeed, family.

Charles Brenner was called in when a sample of Hillblom's DNA could not be located.
Anthony Pidgeon
Charles Brenner was called in when a sample of Hillblom's DNA could not be located.
Edward Blake, a leading DNA expert, calls the Hillblom case "the mother of all paternity cases."
Anthony Pidgeon
Edward Blake, a leading DNA expert, calls the Hillblom case "the mother of all paternity cases."

Fascinating, indeed. But for Brenner -- and for dozens of attorneys, accountants, judges, private investigators, and genetic specialists -- one case looms above the rest. It is the battle over the $600 million estate of Larry Hillblom. It is a tale that combined pedophilia, tropical island madams, battling law firms, high-stakes political deal-making, extortion, lost evidence, state-sanctioned conniving against Third World orphans, and millions and millions and millions of dollars. Best of all, it involved some cutting-edge DNA analysis.

If the unlimited-babes-'n'-bucks fantasy lifestyle depicted in magazines such as Maxim were to come to life in a real human being, that person might have been Larry Hillblom. He was Midas-like in his knack for accumulating wealth, and uniquely single-minded in his quest for young, young women.

Hillblom was a lawyer, briefly clerking for San Francisco's Melvin Belli. But not long after Hillblom graduated from Berkeley's Boalt Hall, he changed direction, launching the courier company DHL in 1969 on a shoestring. He founded the company initially to deliver shipping documents by air courier to ports of call days before cargo ships arrived, so that vessels could be unloaded quickly and be on their way. The company grew into an international air courier, and Hillblom was a millionaire by the time he turned 30. By his early 50s, Hillblom had amassed a fortune worth as much as a billion dollars. By the mid-1990s, DHL was the world's largest shipping company, with $5.7 billion in revenue and 60,000 employees. While not as famous in the U.S. as Federal Express, overseas DHL is so ubiquitous that its name is synonymous with next-day-air shipping in the same manner that the word "Coke" is used to mean "soft drink."

In 1980, with DHL's success well established, Hillblom decided to turn to his next love: having unprotected sex with post-pubescent girls. At the time, he kept these proclivities private to most of the world. But after his death and the estate battle that followed, his sexual preferences and lifestyle became widely reported.

He moved from the Bay Area to Saipan, a tropical tax haven a thousand miles off the southeast coast of Japan. Hillblom made himself into a Micronesian kingpin, launching dozens of businesses and investing in land development projects in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Vietnam. He bought European castles and hotels, a Chinese jet, an airline called Continental Micronesia. He helped bail out giant Continental Airlines and made a bundle on the deal. He ran for political office. As a committed eccentric and one of Micronesia's richest men, he became a local celebrity.

His laid-back lifestyle was more befitting a sandal-wearing beach rat than an international tycoon. He was fond of fast food. He wore jeans and a T-shirt to high-level business meetings. He owned a mansion in Saipan, and residences in Manila, Hawaii, and Half Moon Bay. His hobbies included high-end stereo equipment, boats, airplanes, fancy cars, and a continuous stream of barely blossomed girls.

Contemporary photographs depict Hillblom as a pale, small-eyed man -- not the sort of person who ordinarily enjoys serial romantic conquests with the young. But Hillblom had other qualities to his credit: money, and more significantly a network of madams who would fix him up with teenage bar girls and waitresses -- some as young as 13. Typically, he slept with one of them for a few weeks, treating her as an ordinary person might treat a girlfriend. He would bestow gifts on her, take her to dinner, give her money, sometimes providing cash assistance to her poor family. Then, he would dump her for the next one.

Despite his peculiarities, Hillblom is remembered as a brilliant man. As such he might have recognized that his teen-sex hobby would put him at risk for disease. But Hillblom's tropical fantasy didn't include condoms. Supposedly he said they blunted his pleasure. So he instructed madams in Micronesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam to procure only girls who swore they had been chaste.

In 1993, Hillblom's plain appearance was further marred by a nasty airplane crash on a Pacific island near his Saipan home. Doctors at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco managed to put him back together reasonably well, removing a large mole from his face during convalescence. Grateful, Hillblom promised to include the hospital in his will. The mole was put in storage at Davies Medical Center, and Hillblom returned to Saipan. His brush with death didn't seem to produce any philosophical epiphanies. He continued hitting up his madams for new girls.

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