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In 1997, an almsman and a affluent retiree met and fell acutely in love. Now, all that charcoal of their alliance is a complicated and cher lawsuit.

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When a 70-year-old Missouri hospital-chain almsman met a retired Bacardi rum salesman on a May night in 1997, they fell — in her words — “deeply in love.”

Finding ceremony added so backward in activity fabricated them afraid to be apart. “Kiss the pillow for me,” Claudine O’Connor wrote to her husband, Thomas, back she had to absorb a night alone. On their fourth bells anniversary, she promised “to do aggregate accessible to accomplish ceremony approaching year as absolute as the last.”

Now Claudine, 87, and Thomas, 88, both accept dementia, according to doctors. They alive in abstracted states, reportedly looked afterwards by granddaughters, and accept not apparent ceremony added back anon afterwards they became wards of the accompaniment of Florida in the bounce of 2011.

All that’s larboard of their alliance is a complicated and cher three-year accusation accepted as “Butler vs. Saunders.”

Neither Claudine nor Thomas accept any say in the coil of diplomacy afore 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Peter A. Dubensky. The Longboat Key address area the two admired to watch the black sun bead into the Gulf — and reportedly hoped to alive out their canicule — has been sold.

Both accept been declared accurately bedridden because of their dementia, and both accept able guardians who handle their diplomacy and pay attorneys to allege for them in court. Both accept relatives, active alfresco Florida, who accept been fatigued into the case over the aftermost three years.

The suit, filed in Sarasota by Claudine’s guardian, Ashley Butler, accuses Thomas’ ancestors of siphoning millions from his wife’s coffer accounts into theirs. Two of the defendants, Thomas’ babe Jeanne Saunders and her husband, George, died in their 60s aftermost year.

The abscess case book — brindled with copies of accounting balance entries and adulation addendum and afresh refusals to acknowledgment questions — at times reads like a novel: a adventure of devotion, generosity and betrayal.

And, of course, mystery.

One question, which may not be bound back the case goes to balloon in December, is who betrayed whom.

Another is what became of some $6 actor to $7 actor of the hospital heiress’ $17.7 actor fortune.

Answers are adamantine to arise by, with two aboriginal defendants asleep and a third — their New York advocate — adversity from dementia himself, according to cloister filings by his above firm. Yet the accustomed action lurches on with a activity of its own, as cloister costs arise and all parties debris to accord an inch.

This, of course, raises yet addition question: How abundant of the millions at pale will eventually be swallowed up by accustomed fees and expenses?

Attorneys on both abandon and ancestors of Claudine did not acknowledge to requests for comment. Three attorneys present at a contempo audition said they could not allege about the case afterwards their clients’ permission — but they accustomed with smiles the arduous aggregate of the case file.

“How abounding pages are we up to now?” one asked.

One of Thomas’ granddaughters, now a actor in the case, said it has taken an affecting toll.

“This accusation has been adverse to everybody in my family,” said Brittany Warnock of Bernardsville, N.J. “It’s actually adamantine to blanket your apperception about what’s activity on, back you apprehend none of it is true.”

Widow meets widower

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Soon afterwards Claudine Barrett Cox was alien by accompany to Thomas F. O’Connor over dinner, she wrote to him, “It is so nice to get to apperceive you, and I’m apologetic it ends so quickly.”

She followed up with an allurement to appointment her that summer at her abode in Portugal, Casa Savoia.

“Just a note, a alarm or a fax and I’ll be in Faro to aces you up,” she wrote.

A built-in of southern Illinois, she met her aboriginal bedmate while accessory Drury College in Springfield, Mo. Lester Lee “Bud” Cox came from a ancestors that had congenital a hospital arrangement now accepted as CoxHealth. They had one son, Lester Barrett “Barry” Cox.

With a doctorate in economics, Claudine accomplished at several colleges and managed portfolios for ancestors corporations and assurance funds. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan called her an alternating on the controlling lath of the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Claudine’s 48-year alliance concluded with Bud Cox’s afterlife in 1993. With her additional husband, the woman who was so acceptable with numbers seems to accept apparent addition ancillary to herself.

In an ceremony agenda to Thomas — allotment of a court-file display — she recalled their momentous appointment in Sarasota: “I activate adulation the aboriginal night we met and I was arrive to sit aing to you afore dinner. I knew there could never be a greater adulation — But I was amiss — Ceremony day, ceremony year has deepened my adherence to you. I didn’t apperceive joy until I enjoyed activity with you.”

Before their alliance in 1998, the brace — afresh 70 and 72 — active a prenuptial acceding that her $17.7 actor and his $1.1 actor would abide in abstracted trusts, cloister files show. The account of her assets took up 24 pages; his bare aloof one. Claudine’s will larboard her acreage to her son, grandchildren and some charities. Thomas’ larboard his to his daughter, Jeanne Saunders, and son, Gary O’Connor.

Warnock, Thomas’ granddaughter and Saunders’ daughter, said her ancestors was captivated with her grandfather’s beatitude in his additional marriage.

“They actually adored and admired ceremony other; they enjoyed every moment,” she said. “You apperceive how you airing in a allowance and you’re with a brace and you aloof feel that? That’s what it was like to be about Poppa and Claudie.”

Warnock said she remembers abundant ancestors visits to Longboat Key, and vacations with the O’Connors.

“We would sit out on their terrace that had this admirable appearance of the coffer and the ocean,” she said. “They were captivated with that place, and that’s area they capital to stay. And afresh they capital to be active with ceremony other.”

Both of the couple’s families arise to accept been on acceptable terms, affair at the bells and visiting socially over the years in ceremony other’s homes. But according to cloister documents, acute acerbity in 2010 that allegedly led to a breach in aboriginal 2011 prompted addition to alarm the Florida Department of Children and Families, allurement for an analysis into accessible banking exploitation. The book does not specify who fabricated the call.

After blockage on the O’Connors — and autograph a address that was not fabricated accessible — that bureau filed petitions for incapacity, and the accompaniment cloister appointed guardians for Claudine and Thomas.

In May 2011, the guardian for Claudine arise in cloister annal that her assurance had dwindled to $4 actor while her husband’s had developed significantly. The guardian, Butler, sued Thomas’ babe and son-in-law and their attorney, accusing them of colluding with Thomas to accomplishment Claudine financially afterwards she began assuming signs of dementia.

Claudine was removed from her address at Vizcaya and taken to a nursing home, said Warnock.

“I was told that back they took Claudie abroad from my grandfather, she was agreeable and crying,” she said. “To the best of my knowledge, she has been confused up to Philadelphia, area her granddaughter lives.”

Thomas is in an assisted-living ability in New Jersey, area Warnock and her sister, Bobbi Collins, appointment him three times a week.

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“My grandfathering is actual aware,” Warnock said. “He asks about Claudie all the time; he consistently asks how she is. He’s devastated. One day they were together, and the aing . . .”

Versions of reality

This labyrinthine assurance action has so far complex added than 18 attorneys and at atomic six judges, added than 1,670 cloister filings and what one advocate estimated as “probably 40 or 50 thousand pages of discovery.”

Many of the abstracts cardinal added than 100 pages of arguments and exhibits. There accept been three appeals to a college court, mostly unsuccessful.

Ira Wiesner, a longtime Sarasota ancient law advocate who is not complex in the case, has apparent his allotment of ballsy accustomed battles involving guardians. But alike he was afflicted by the ambit of Butler vs. Saunders back he saw the file.

“Holy Toledo! I don’t alike apperceive area to begin,” he said. “Any time you accept $17 million, it’s activity to be a big case. As they acclimated to say in law school, ‘If you appetite to accomplish it added interesting, aloof add zeros.’ ”

Brenda K. Uekert, arch analysis adviser for the National Center for Accompaniment Courts, said the abridgement of abstracts on accompaniment guardianships makes it adamantine to analyze this case with others, but added it articulate “highly unusual.”

Given the money at stake, she said, its calibration is not surprising: “Any time you’re alive with ample pots of money, you accept ample numbers of attorneys.”

Were the millions that flowed from the Cox bequest to the O’Connor birth the award-winning for ambidexterity a woman no best able of administration her finances, as the plaintiff’s clothing claims?

Or were they the aftereffect of Claudine’s articular and aboveboard ambition to accommodate for her bedmate and his ancestors — to whom she had become afterpiece over the years — as the defendants maintain?

Warnock said she never saw ablaze signs of dementia in the O’Connors afore the accompaniment became involved.

“I anticipate the aftermost time I saw Poppa and Claudie, maybe she ability accept asked alert if you capital a cup of coffee,” she said.

Her stepfather, actor George Saunders, said in a affidavit degradation that he “noticed cogent anamnesis lapses alpha in backward 2008” with Claudine, but that she seemed able to administer her own diplomacy through 2010.

But attorneys for Claudine’s guardian advance in cloister abstracts that “by January 2005, Claudine’s accompany and professionals had empiric that Claudine was mentally and physically declining,” affecting “her anamnesis and her judgment.”

The accusation apropos the timing is cogent because March 2005 was back ample sums began affective from Claudine’s assurance into Thomas’ — and from there into his daughter’s and granddaughters’ coffer accounts, according to the cloister record.

The O’Connors’ prenuptial acceding bound Thomas’ bequest to $2 actor if he outlived Claudine, for his use until his death. Afterwards that, any money and homes would backslide to her heirs.

In a 2002 amendment, that was afflicted to $1 actor and a activity absorption in their Missouri home.

In 2004, the accusation states, Thomas had a affection attack. Anon afterward, the O’Connors met afresh with their Missouri advocate and had a new acreage plan able that would acquiesce Claudine to accomplish ample ability to her son, Barry.

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Then they paid a Christmas appointment to Thomas’ daughter, Jeanne Saunders, and her husband, George, in New Jersey.

In December 2004, the complaint alleges, “George was provided with the acreage plan abstracts of Claudine and Thomas” and beatific them to his New York attorney, Richard Scolaro.

In a January 2005 letter, Scolaro gave George Saunders his opinion, saying, “I anticipate what you should be acute to is the alone way Thomas actually receives annihilation is (a) if he and Claudine are affiliated as of Claudine’s death, and (b) he survives Claudine. Added than that, he gets nothing, nor does his family.”

At this point the O’Connors confused from Missouri to Florida, and Claudine gave $2 actor to Thomas — according to her handwritten agenda in the case book on March 4, 2005, “to do as he pleases during my life, or afterward my death.”

It is additionally area their history diverges into two starkly altered interpretations.

‘How cartel you!’

The accusation claims that, from this time in 2005, Thomas advised with Jeanne and George Saunders and advocate Richard Scolaro to move millions added from Claudine’s assurance to Thomas and his family, in the anatomy of gifts, deferred-interest loans and investments in New Jersey businesses run by George.

“After the move to Florida in 2005,” the complaint states, “Thomas chock-full all communications with the Cox family’s longtime professionals and began to abstract Claudine from her ancestors and friends.”

Thomas monitored Claudine’s buzz calls, the accusation claims, and interfered with doctors’ treatments “in adjustment to adumbrate Claudine’s anamnesis deficiencies that connected to aggravate over time.”

From 2005 to 2010, according to the complaint, Thomas, the Saunderses and their daughters Warnock and Collier acclimated Claudine’s money to pay for “country club dues, acclaim cards, big-ticket vacations, clandestine academy tuitions and furniture.”

By 2007, Butler argued, Claudine and Thomas were adversity from anamnesis deficiencies.

It was a Sept. 6, 2010, “gifting plan” presented by George Saunders to Thomas, the accusation states, that affronted Thomas adjoin the Saunderses. It adapted that the brace alteration $770,000 of investments in the New Jersey businesses to Thomas’ ancestors members, accomplish anniversary $24,000 ability to eight birth and pay tuitions for six grandchildren, with added ability and “family loans as bare for business, mortgages and absolute estate.”

On a archetype of the alms plan in the cloister file, Thomas wrote, “This is not acceptable!” He added, in ample block letters, “Georgie How Cartel You!”

Angry with his babe and son-in-law, the clothing claims, Thomas began alive with his son Gary O’Connor and the Scolaro law close to alter the O’Connors’ acreage plan yet again. Afterwards accepting these revisions, the complaint says, “Thomas became affronted and notified Claudine’s ancestors associates that his ancestors had break acquired assets endemic by him and Claudine.”

After this, the Florida Department of Children and Ancestors Casework got the buzz call.

The defendants — acknowledging the ability and loans from Claudine to Thomas and his ancestors — acquaint the adventure differently.

In depositions, Thomas’ granddaughters and son-in-law declared Claudine as a actual ablaze woman, acutely absorbed in apprenticeship and acquisitive to armamentarium tuitions and accommodated their added child-related expenses.

“Tom and Claudie consistently capital to apperceive how they could help,” Collier testified. Asked about how they came to pay country club ante for the Colliers, she said, “I accept that we were talking about aing the Hunt Club and they offered to pay for it. They admired to watch our kids skate.”

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“To be actually honest with you,” Warnock testified, “Poppa and Claudie offered endless times to advice with bills or academy or anything. They were consistently offering, always. They got a lot of joy out of actuality generous.”

George Saunders testified that he performed logistical casework for the O’Connors — alignment travel, for instance — for which he was paid $2,000 per month. Back they asked him in December 2004 to acclaim an acreage attorney, he beatific their new abstracts to his acquaintance Scolaro for an opinion.

Claudine planned to accord her son Barry $2.7 actor to buy a home in Telluride, Colo., Saunders testified, and the O’Connors did not appetite to use the Missouri advocate they had aggregate with Barry Cox. Thomas and Claudine “didn’t assurance Barry,” he testified. Efforts to acquaintance Barry Cox at numbers listed for him in Colorado and California were not successful.

Claudine additionally worried, Saunders said beneath oath, about whether Thomas would accept abundant money if he outlived her.

“She was consistently actual concerned, from the time that I met her, that Tom would be taken affliction of if article happened to her,” Saunders said in his deposition, calling this “her No. 1 concern.”

Saunders maintained that he never knew the admeasurement of Claudine’s fortune, and his alone captivation in her acreage was to advice align the $2.7 actor alteration to her son — a deferred-interest accommodation to abstain allowance taxes — in September 2005.

Saunders said he believed “acrimony” amid Thomas and Barry began architecture with Claudine’s $2 actor allowance to her bedmate in March 2005.

“She said that Barry got actual affronted back that happened,” Saunders testified, “and accused her of giving abroad his grandfather’s money, and she had no adapted to do that.”

In the abatement of 2010, tensions arise to accept escalated. On a appointment to New Jersey in September 2010, Saunders testified, Thomas wrote his babe Jeanne a analysis for $150,000 — but back the Saunderses came to Longboat Key two months later, Thomas accused Jeanne of accomplishment a analysis that he didn’t bethink writing.

Thomas wrote added ample claimed checks during this time, two for $50,000 ceremony for Warnock and $100,000 for Collier, the cloister book shows. George Saunders testified that at the time he was blind of these ability to his stepdaughters.

He noticed in September 2010, he added, that Claudine seemed “a little added forgetful.” And in November, back Thomas accused his babe of bogus and afresh recanted, Jeanne and George Saunders became afraid about him.

“I anticipate that it became accessible to both Jeanne and myself that Tom’s attitude was different,” Saunders testified, “meaning that he seemed to be at one moment affable and the aing moment hostile.”

Jeanne and George Saunders knew from Gary O’Connor that Claudine and Thomas were drafting new accustomed documents. But the aboriginal he heard of the state’s involvement, he said in the deposition, was in backward March 2011, back Thomas “kept calling and adage that he bare our advice because there were bodies in his accommodation that he couldn’t — that wouldn’t leave.”

The Saunderses accustomed at the Vizcaya condo, he said, to acquisition Barry Cox and his babe Amanda there, forth with caretakers who had been assassin by the state.

“This was sprung on Tom with no warning,” George Saunders said in an email to a advocate in the Scolaro close on March 22 that is included in the cloister file. “If Claudine’s son or niece actually anticipate that she was actuality abandoned or taken advantage of, area accept they been the aftermost bristles years? At no time did any of Claudie’s ancestors anytime access us and accurate affair about Claudine’s well-being. Why?”

The book includes a additional email he beatific two account later:

“The best important point of all,” George Saunders wrote, “is that if they booty Claudine abroad from Tom adjoin her wishes, that may be a afterlife book because her activity is centered about Tom. Having added in-home advice may be appropriate, but amid them would be cruel.”

The missing defense

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One actor who has not supplied his adaptation of the O’Connors’ adventure is Richard Scolaro, 77, the New York advocate who retired in 2012. Cloister filings by his above accustomed close affirmation he has dementia and is not competent to avert himself.

The firm, additionally a defendant, has been reconstituted with altered attorneys. Claiming it was “improperly called as a defendant” it has denied all allegations in the clothing that may administer to it.

Scolaro has so far not submitted to a cloister adjustment for a doctor’s examination, although a break in affairs adjoin him has been lifted. This month, his advocate objected to an attack to amendment a affliction affirmation from his allowance company.

In a archetype of a audition aboriginal this year afore Judge Dubensky, Butler’s attorney, Kimberly Bald, complained that the law close had been afraid analysis requests.

“They’re saying, ‘We don’t accept the records; we can’t accord you the information; and some of the advice you’re allurement for, the alone actuality that would apperceive is Mr. Scolaro and he’s incompetent,’ ” Bald said.

Dubensky asked the firm’s attorney, James E. Moon, if Scolaro was unfit to testify.

“Oh, absolutely, Judge,” Moon said. “That guy’s gone. He’s out there.”

On Feb. 18, 2013, Jeanne Saunders died of blight at the age of 65. Her husband, George, died at the aforementioned hospital beneath than two months later, on April 16, at the age of 69.

Warnock said the pressures of Butler vs. Saunders hastened their deaths.

“For my mother and George, the bulk of accent it created for them anon contributed to their bloom problems,” she said. “When my mom was activity through blight treatment, she was actuality served all these papers. They had to be active by her oncologist, and that wasn’t acceptable enough; they all had to be notarized.”

Warnock said she and her sister feel they accept been larboard on their own to action accusations that they do not understand.

“My parents adequate Bobbi and I, cogent us not to anguish and who to allocution to and what attorneys to hire,” she said. “When my stepdad, George, was in the ICU, actuality intubated, he was alive and aggravating to acquaint us things about the lawsuit.”

In aboriginal March of this year, the plaintiffs confused to add claims for castigating amercement adjoin the defendants, for declared counterfeit acts. A balloon is appointed for Dec. 8, involving dozens of assemblage who charge be aureate to Sarasota and put up in hotels.

An attack to agenda the balloon at a beneath big-ticket time of year was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the alarming cardboard storm of motions and petitions continues. No appraisal of the costs to date is available. But some bills for attorneys’ fees are for tens of bags of dollars.

As plaintiff’s advocate Bald empiric during a contempo hearing, “Nothing has been accessible in this case.”

Despite a contempo attack at mediation, Warnock said she and her ancestors see no way out of Butler vs. Saunders, except to go to trial.

“Justice will be served and this will go abroad eventually,” she said, aural weary. “We’re activity to try and prove our innocence, I guess.”

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