Bark House: Endless Dogsuit Done

After nearly 10 years of hounding, the bank that serves as executor for tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s billion-dollar estate has agreed to compensate the caretakers of her beloved dogs.

The settlement in the long-running dispute over the $100,000 Duke dog trust came in a stipulation filed earlier this month at the New York State Surrogate Court: U.S. Trust agreed to pay two of Duke’s former servants who, for the last decade, have been responsible for feeding, medicating and cleaning up after a dwindling number of incontinent, geriatric mutts.

In the stipulated settlement, lawyers from Cravath, Swaine and Moore, representing U.S. Trust, signed off on paying the caretakers $20,000 from the trust, with attorney fees of $7,500 to Ray Dowd, the Manhattan lawyer who has served as the dogs’ tireless advocate since 1994.

While the courthouse battle was still raging, two of the dogs died-Minni, a 42-pound red-haired shepherd mutt who was 10 years old in 1997, and her companion Foxy. The sole remaining animal beneficiary of the trust (barring the return of a mysteriously missing shar-pei named Rodeo, who may or may not have been kidnapped) is Robert, an aged shepherd mix.

When Duke died in 1993-deeply sedated, and under circumstances that one bedside nurse later called murder-the eccentric heiress left a will which specified that Mariano DeVelasco, the caretaker at Falcon’s Lair, her Beverly Hills pile, would take care of any dogs that survived her. Her will specifically created a $100,000 trust for the sole benefit of her dogs.

The executors of her estate, U.S. Trust, along with its Cravath lawyers, initially resisted setting up the dog trust at all, but did so in 1996. Since then, they have balked at paying vet bills unless provided with kidnapper-style photos of the dogs with that day’s L.A. Times . They also refused to pay the caretakers.

Mr. DeVelasco and Ann Bostich, the dogs’ primary caretakers, asked in 1998 for $10 a day to walk and care for the mutts, one of whom needed daily insulin shots and was incontinent. Among the documents that Mr. Dowd submitted in support of the caretakers’ daily boarding fee was a handwritten letter from them detailing the vicissitudes of caring for the four-legged trust beneficiaries: “Minnie has severe cataracts, and … there seems to be trouble for her at night, and she will relieve herself indoors …. Her urine is so caustic, it has eaten off portions of the cement patio …. We also use our vehicles to transport [her], and Minnie gets nervous and will urinate and defecate in the vehicle …. I do 2-3 loads of laundry per week.”

It seems the dogs were allergic to foxtail, a weed on the caretakers’ property; it infected their skin and caused abscesses. The caretakers had to rip out their lawn and buy new sod. They tended to the dogs’ existing sores and checked them daily for new abscesses.

“It’s a massive amount of work to take care of someone else’s pet,” said Mr. Dowd, who met his client Robert (the shepherd mix) in L.A., but who himself owns only two dying house plants. “And to have a trust go, ‘Oh, it’s all volunteer work!’ That should shock some of Manhattan’s wealthier players. They pay dog walkers and pet groomers a lot more than $10 dollars a day here! You leave a trust so your dogs are taken care of, and then U.S. Trust comes around and says, ‘Sorry, it’s all volunteer work.’ It disrespects the grooming professions and is a very snotty and arrogant way of dealing. Anybody who has put their money with U.S. Trust better think twice about whether U.S. Trust knows how to care for their animals.”

Doris Duke died childless and left assets of more than $1 billion. Lawyers have feasted off the legal battles over the estate. Katten Muchin Zavis collected nearly $13 million in fees, but was forced to pay back nearly $9 million. Mr. Dowd, who represented the servants, petitioned for a comparatively paltry $548,000. That was for work involving non-canine clients.

At one point, relations between Mr. Dowd and the trustees were so acrimonious that the lawyer accused them in court documents of being “Dangerous to the Duke Estate’s Animals.” In support of this claim, Mr. Dowd described how the trustees had “killed one of Doris Duke’s most beloved pets through outrageous neglect.”

In addition to her dogs, Duke owned two camels and kept them at her New Jersey mansion during most of the year. Every summer, however, the camels were transported to her property in Newport, R.I., in specially outfitted trailers, to escape the ravages of a parasite carried by New Jersey’s white-tailed deer. But the summer after Duke’s death, the trustees “decided that transporting the camels to safety was not necessary,” Mr. Dowd wrote. Furthermore, the trustees “let the camels mix with white-tailed deer … as a cost-saving measure.” One of the camels died.

Mr. Dowd contended in court documents that the trust might have intentionally neglected the camels so as to spare other, more valuable but inanimate assets: Duke’s Southeast Asian art collection. Apparently, the collection-which consists of Asian art and gold and silver treasures-was housed in the carriage barn next to the camels’ pen in Newport, and in the summer, Mr. Dowd wrote, the camels routinely ate “copper drainpipes off the house or [reached] into open windows grabbing silverware off the tables and eating it.”

Was a camel sacrificed to safeguard Asian treasures? Mr. Dowd can’t be sure. But he wrote at the time, “[I]t is clear that a butler and a banker are not capable of making decisions for the proper care of exotic or injured animals.”

As for the dog fight, when U.S. Trust eventually agreed to set up the $100,000 trust, it limited distribution of the proceeds. Bills for dog food and veterinary service were paid, but not the caretakers’ wages. Mr. Dowd claims that the caretakers were denied payment out of personal animosity, because they had exposed the outrageous behavior of the original executor of the Duke estate, butler Bernard Lafferty.

Lafferty died in 1996, after being removed from his post following allegations of misconduct and murder. The so-called “drunken butler” had had almost exclusive access to Duke in her last days and inherited a hefty sum from her. With the caretakers as witnesses, Lafferty was accused in court documents of influencing her last will, drugging her unnecessarily and spending millions of the Duke dollars shopping for himself on Rodeo Drive.

Lafferty also muddied the waters, as it were, confusing the issue of which dogs should benefit from the dog trust. During Duke’s final years and the following year, Lafferty collected at least 10 dogs of his own, and housed them in the garage at Falcon’s Lair or on the Duke estate in New Jersey.

One of Mr. Dowd’s primary tasks at the outset was to separate the heiress’ own mutts from the less-deserving purebred menagerie assembled by Lafferty. Excluded from the dog trust were two Akitas, two Belgian shepherds and one Hungarian wolfhound named Geisha, all of which were living at Duke’s New Jersey mansion until just before she died, when Lafferty loaded them onto Duke’s jet-a Boeing 737-and transported them across the continent to be near the heiress on her deathbed. Also living at Falcon’s Lair when Duke died were Lafferty’s three pugs, Valentino, Eva and Bella-gifts that Lafferty claimed were from Michael Jackson.

“Doris Duke, under massive sedation, never saw these dogs,” Mr. Dowd wrote in support of his motion to exclude the purebreds from the dog trust. “It is shocking that U.S. Trust is allowing Lafferty to use Estate Funds to care for and maintain dogs he acquired after Doris Duke’s death without her knowledge … while U.S. Trust’s position is that the very dogs Doris Duke loved should starve and be deprived of medical care.”

The dog trust eventually excluded all the Lafferty dogs and provided financial support for the three Duke mutts-without ever agreeing that all three belonged to Doris Duke. In a 1999 letter to Mr. Dowd, a U.S. Trust lawyer, Cravath’s Paul Siniawer, wrote: “To be a beneficiary of the Dog Trust, a dog must have been (1) owned by Doris Duke, and (2) residing at Falcon’s Lair at the time of her death. At the time of her death … Ms. Duke owned just one (1) dog-Minni (a.k.a. ‘Minnie’ or ‘Mimi’) …. Robert and Foxy, who were also residing at Falcon’s Lair when Ms. Duke died, were not owned by Ms. Duke.” The lawyer wrote that U.S. Trust had agreed to include Robert in the trust because the trust “has been advised that it is important to Minni’s well-being that her companion, Robert, be well-fed and in good health.”

Mr. Dowd argued that Foxy and Robert were in fact Doris Duke’s beloved pets, and that the “Duke pet insurance policies” could prove that.

There remains one unresolved issue: the missing shar-pei, Rodeo, a potential Duke dog-trust beneficiary, should he ever be found. Lafferty bought Rodeo for Mariano DeVelasco during happier days, when the butler and the caretaker were still on good terms, and apparently Doris Duke met and loved the pup. But after Duke’s death, when relations deteriorated, Lafferty flew Rodeo to New Jersey and-according to Mr. Dowd-penned the animal up with the Akitas, who had previously “demonstrated a willingness to kill shar-peis.” Rodeo was apparently rescued in the nick of time by a servant at the New Jersey estate-and then mysteriously disappeared.

If he were to resurface, the shar-pei would be eligible to fight for his own $100,000 trust. Anyone with knowledge of Rodeo’s whereabouts can contact Ray Dowd or U.S. Trust and collect a big bag of doggy treats.