Battle Belli

The international soap opera that surrounds the crumbling San Francisco landmark that was center stage for the incomparable "King of Torts," Melvin Belli

And so began the aftermath of the fall of Belli.

Melvin Caesar Belli, the senior barrister's fifth child, born of his union with Joy Turney, the third Mrs. Melvin Belli, probably spent as much time in the Belli Building as anyone other than his father. The younger Belli's career was tied to his famous father from the beginning all the way into bankruptcy. In fact, Caesar's professional and financial affairs are still part and parcel of the legal entanglement that Melvin Belli left behind, starting with the Belli Building.

Caesar was born in 1957, about the time when Belli hit his stride as one of the world's most flamboyant attorneys. And there was little question that Caesar would follow his father into the law.

Before he ever stepped foot inside a law school classroom, Caesar had been inside courtrooms all over the world. At age 6, he watched his father defend Jack Ruby, the man who shot the man who shot John F. Kennedy. (Belli and attorney Joe Tonahill lost the initial case. Belli was able to get Ruby's conviction and death sentence overturned, but Ruby died before a new trial began.) Reputed mobster Mickey Cohen, a longtime Belli client, baby-sat young Caesar. Errol Flynn was a regular houseguest. For a while, San Francisco's most famous criminal-at-large, the Zodiac killer, called the Belli home looking for Melvin. Caesar trailed his father outside the courtroom as well. In 1966, father and son Belli appeared together in an episode of Star Trek.

Joy and Melvin divorced, and Joy moved with Caesar to Los Angeles. Nonetheless, he continued to spend a great amount of time in the Belli Building, and eventually became the second name in the law firm of Belli, Belli, Brown, Monzione, Fabbro & Zakaria.

Caesar married Gretchen, a Belli secretary, and the couple had two children together.

Not surprisingly, when the law firm broke up in 1993, Caesar Belli stayed to practice with his father. So did attorney Kevin McLean. But there were problems. By this time, the senior Belli was 86 years old, and still insisted on practicing the law, regardless of whether he was capable of doing so. The firm was hit with malpractice suits.

Caesar alleged that his father was incompetent, and Caesar and McLean tried to take over the practice, estranging the father and son. In March 1996, Caesar Belli followed his father into Chapter 11 bankruptcy to reorganize his debts, claiming that he couldn't handle the firm's liabilities without his father.

But there was more to his financial problems. Caesar owed the San Francisco law firm Howard, Rice, Memerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin more than $500,000 in legal fees. His half sister Melia had won a $116,000 judgment against Caesar for taking money out of her trust fund. Caesar and Gretchen were divorcing. Eventually, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court decided that Caesar's financial situation was beyond hope, converted his case into a Chapter 7 liquidation, and began the process of selling off Caesar's estate to pay the bills.

After the bankruptcies, McLean and Caesar formed the law firm of Belli & McLean, which is still in business.

But things seemed to go from bad to worse for Caesar after his father died in July 1996.

In a much-publicized fight, Caesar demanded his father's body be autopsied, implying that a little foul play with morphine might have been at work. In turn, Nancy, Belli's widow, accused Caesar of hastening her 88-year-old husband to an early grave with the stress of their fights over the law firm. (San Francisco Medical Examiner Boyd Stephens found that Belli had, in fact, died of cardiac complications.)

After Mayor Willie Brown and the late former Mayor Joseph Alioto stepped in to mediate, Nancy reluctantly agreed to let Caesar attend the funeral. He was not, however, allowed to sit with the family.

The battle was just heating up.

Another family feud broke out over "Elmer," the famous skeleton that Belli used in arguing medical malpractice cases, and that Caesar and Gretchen took from Belli's office after his death. Gretchen has claimed that Belli promised her the skeleton, reportedly the remains of a man who died in the 1940s. Eventually, a court awarded temporary custody of Elmer to the trustee of Belli's bankruptcy estate, but not before Elmer attended Gretchen's 1996 Halloween party.

And then there was the battle of wills. Nancy and Caesar had produced competing wills for Melvin Belli. In Caesar's version, signed in 1993, Belli names Caesar and McLean executors and leaves half of his estate to his children, grandchildren, and dogs, and the other half to charities. Nancy's version, signed shortly before Belli died in 1996, leaves everything to her, as executrix. (She has said that Belli assumed she would take care of the dogs.)

As it turned out, the fight was of more emotional than legal value. The question of wills has never been resolved, because Melvin Belli's estate is under the control of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and will remain there until all the money owed the estate is collected and its bills paid.

Meanwhile, it's fair to say that the Belli family has helped further full employment of the Bar. Caesar and Gretchen alone have each been through at least four lawyers fighting Nancy, the Belli estate, and one another. The couple's divorce proceedings stretched from Marin County, where they lived, into federal bankruptcy court in San Francisco, where Gretchen and Robert Damir, trustee for Caesar's bankruptcy, fought over income from Caesar's law practice.

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