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

But Nancy's plans will require approval from the Landmarks Board and the city Planning Department. More drama is all but assured.

Matzger is quick to point out that his client has only had control of the property for three of the 10 years it sat empty, and was ready to begin her project within nine months of acquiring the property in 1997. "Everything since that time has been devoted to solving the engineering issues related to that," he says.

As the complex disputes over the Belli Building have simmered, a flurry of tart letters has flown between Nancy's camp and the City Attorney's Office. Last month, the bickering subsided after Nancy agreed to seal the top of the building and board up its sides. Even so, Deputy City Attorney Phoebe Liberle continues to threaten to sue if there is no progress on construction by midsummer.

But, as with seemingly everything to do with the Belli Building, there's a rub: Nancy may not even own the Belli Building by midsummer.

David Bradlow, examiner of the Melvin Belli bankruptcy estate, has filed suit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court alleging that Nancy fraudulently obtained half of the property (via a deed from her stepdaughter Melia) to keep it out of the hands of Belli's creditors. And, the estate wants it back. Bradlow has argued to a federal judge that the only way to receive value from the property is to sell it. Nancy counters that the Belli estate received adequate compensation for the building. The case has not been resolved. In March, another of Nancy's attorneys, Stephen Finestone, told the court that the widow Belli couldn't participate in the suit because she was under a doctor's care for heart problems aggravated by the stress of legal proceedings.

Bankruptcy is a weird business, and even weirder when it involves the name Belli. Nancy ended up with possession of several other Belli artifacts, including his black Rolls-Royce and the barber chair that used to reside in his office. As a result, she is simultaneously trying to purchase the items from the estate, and charging the estate for their storage and preservation. And, as a creditor -- she loaned significant amounts of money to Belli -- Nancy gets a percentage of any money that comes into the estate.

It will be years before Belli's bankruptcy is completely resolved. And regardless of what happens at the city Planning Department, it will likely be years before the Belli Building is a proud place again in San Francisco. At this point, it's hard to say what has hurt the building more, the earthquake that occurred more than a decade ago, or the beating the place has taken as current and former Bellis have engaged in legal combat.

But at least Elmer, the famous skeleton, has a future to look forward to. Along with other Belli paraphernalia, he will likely be sold at an auction later this year, to rest in a peace that many Belli wives and progeny seem unlikely to achieve anytime soon.

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