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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

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
On the Jackson Square end of Montgomery Street, which is to say, the quieter end, sits an old wreck of a building that looks like it has been gutted by some tragic disaster. The place might fade completely into the landscape were it not for some clues to past importance around the outside. A sign on the brick reads "The Birthplace of Freemasonry in California," and identifies the building as Historical Landmark No. 408. And there's the torn gray and white striped awning, more Manhattan than Masonic, stretching out from the front door to the street. Just above it, gold letters on the side of the building read: "Law Offices of Belli, Belli & Belli."

Fliers and advertisements litter the plywood that's been erected around the building's exterior, but you can peek through windows and see that the place is a block deep, and has a courtyard inside. City historians report that what now is a single wreck of a structure was originally two buildings, dating back to the 1850s. The Langerman's Building was a tobacco warehouse before it became the Melodeon Theater during the Gold Rush; among its featured performers was a singer named Lotta Crabtree. After that, it was an auction house and a Turkish bath. The other half of the current structure was a place called the Genella Building, where one Joseph Genella operated a china and glass business. Later, the Odd Fellows made it their meeting hall.

But in 1959, famed San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli restored and joined both structures into one, and since then it's been the Belli Building, and nothing else. For three decades, the place was awash in Belli, from the crystal chandeliers and red velvet drapes inside to the pink blooms on the geraniums in the black flower boxes without. For much of the past four decades, the interior décor was a work in progress. There were apothecary jars from Belli's grandmother's drugstore and masks from Katmandu. Certificates from bar associations hung amid menus and hotel keys. Roll-top desks from the early days of Bank of America and Wells Fargo sat among a joke coat of arms that bore the words "Rex Tortious" and featured crutches and dollar signs in its corners, and a statue of a Swiss Madonna, wearing an ostrich plume from South Africa. The building was vintage Belli, and a regular stop for Greyline tour buses. (Belli's own office was behind the front window, in order that he might see and be seen.)

Upstairs, five long windows face out on Montgomery Street. Belli's small cannon was parked in one, from which the barrister would fire a round and raise the Jolly Roger flag whenever the firm won a big case. If the place looks old and tired, well, it's seen a lot of action. And it's likely to see a lot more.

Following the bankruptcy and subsequent death of Melvin Belli in 1996, and amid a plethora of lawsuits among his heirs and law partners, the Belli Building is now in the possession of Nancy Ho Belli, the sixth wife of Melvin. And it's a mess. The place hasn't been occupied since city officials declared it unsafe following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 -- the unreinforced masonry was in danger of crumbling -- and now looks a bit like a strong wind might knock it down.

In 1997, the widow Belli threw a groundbreaking ceremony -- attended by the mayor, no less -- for the launch of her renovation of the building, which was to be turned into a Belli museum. Part of the roof was torn off, but that's about all the hard-hat work that's gotten done.

Plenty of legal work has started, though. Nancy is suing the neighbors, including San Francisco Superior Court Judge Claude Perasso, for allegedly damaging a common wall during the renovation of their adjacent building, another commercial office space. A deputy city attorney who represents the Department of Building Inspection is threatening to sue Nancy, who happens to be a member of the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, for letting her landmark rot by, among other things, leaving it topless during winter storms. More distant neighbors -- particularly, a group of some political standing known as the Telegraph Hill Dwellers -- have complained loudly to the city about the state of the building. And as the building rots and the legal fees mount, the examiner for Belli's bankruptcy estate is trying to persuade a judge that Nancy obtained the property fraudulently, and therefore doesn't even legally own it.

But to understand the complex struggle over the Belli Building requires a map of sorts, one that leads from the building itself through several major law firms and almost every court of law in San Francisco, into neighborhoods in Pacific Heights, Sausalito, and Sonora, on to heirs in London, Romania, and Mexico, and assets in Switzerland and the Philippines -- and back again.

In death, Melvin Belli, the "King of Torts," created a microeconomy of the law. The marathon of courtroom combat that began with a bankruptcy six months before Belli went to his final reward has, in one way or another, employed nearly 150 lawyers in three countries. The cost of this tangled set of disputes is impossible to estimate from the public record, but easily exceeds $3 million.

And it's rising.

Melvin Belli's bankruptcy estate is still collecting money from litigation in which the famous lawyer had an interest, and is still paying money to those he owed, and to the lawyers involved. The bankruptcy estate of his son and law partner, Caesar Belli, is still collecting and paying money. And three (read: half) of Melvin Belli's wives, two of his six children, and five of his law partners have all sued each other in various combinations. The Montgomery Street property has become a living monument to the legal wreckage that followed the death of its owner.

The Belli Building was the prize possession of Melvin Belli, the headquarters of his historic law career. For decades, the building held all things Belli, making it really more of a home than just an office to the great barrister.

Mel Belli grew up in Sonora and went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, staying to acquire a law degree at Boalt Hall. In 1933, Belli passed the California State Bar exam, barely, and began practicing law in San Francisco. And that was about as pleasant as relations ever got between Belli and the Bar. Belli influenced the law as much as any attorney in modern history, but annoyed a whole lot of people in the process.

Several decades ago, Life magazine dubbed Belli the "King of Torts," largely because he invented and refined the use of "demonstrative evidence"; that is, physical things he brought into the courtroom for the jury to see, hold, and occasionally smell, to make a point. For instance, Belli once tossed an artificial leg to a startled jury, so that they might better "feel the pulse" of his injured client. And Belli had a car dismantled and rebuilt inside the courtroom long before Johnny Cochran ever considered a bloody glove. Belli was a showman. And it paid off.

Melvin Belli pushed personal injury awards to new heights in a personal crusade against the big corporations he sued, the ones he jokingly called "Holy Grail Insurance Company." Later, Belli's name was attached to lawsuits over major disasters wherever they may have happened -- a toxic gas leak in Bhopal, India, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and major airline crashes around the globe. In all, Belli won his clients more than $700 million in awards throughout his career, a significant percentage of which came back into the Belli Building.

In 1944, he sued the Coca-Cola bottling company on behalf of a waitress who'd been injured when a bottle of Coke exploded in her hand. The case went to the California Supreme Court and helped set legal precedent for product liability.

He won awards for the families of black inmates shot by white guards during a 1975 riot at Soledad State Prison in Monterey.

Belli founded what would become the politically powerful Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and authored more than 60 books, including five volumes of Modern Trials, which was long considered mandatory reading for plaintiff's lawyers. He also held "The Belli Seminars" annually to educate lawyers and students in tort law.

Nonetheless, the American Bar Association remained unamused by Melvin Belli. It attempted to punish the barrister several times for his flamboyant behavior in and out of the courtroom, and a couple of times actually succeeded. His clients included the Rolling Stones (Belli appears in the Stones' documentary Gimme Shelter securing concert space at Altamont), and the Bar initiated disciplinary proceedings against Belli for being present when his clients hot-wired a car, which is a crime. Another time, the state Bar brought charges against Belli for appearing in a newspaper advertisement for Glenfiddich scotch.

Belli had little patience for the structure and rules of the American Bar Association. He created his own organization, something called "The Belli Society"; membership was available to lawyers who'd won more than $1 million in plaintiff's awards.

In 1958, Belli sued the San Francisco Giants for falsely advertising radiant heat in its seat boxes at Candlestick Park. Belli had purchased a box, which turned out not to be heated, and wanted his money back. He showed up in court wearing a parka, won the case, and threatened to fulfill the judgment by seizing Willie Mays -- unless Giants owner Horace Stoneham paid the $1,500 price of the box. Stoneham paid. But again, the lawyer's more traditional colleagues criticized Belli's use of the court system for what they perceived as a publicity stunt.

San Francisco loves larger-than-life characters so much the city tends to create them out of anyone who possesses the slightest bit of material to work with. Melvin Belli was an exception. Belli was a bona fide, wisecracking, stunt-pulling, headline-generating, one-of-a-kind character, wrapped inside a lawyer. He both worked and played hard, with clients who included celebrities from Mae West to Lenny Bruce. And San Francisco embraced him, whether he was holding court in a crowded bar, cruising around town in his black Rolls-Royce, or entertaining the press.

The city icon had a shock of white hair and thick, black-rimmed glasses for so long that no one seems to remember him any other way. His commanding presence was just as memorable. Yet almost when no one was looking, Melvin Belli aged. It wasn't something that came quickly. Belli worked nearly every day of his life, by his own choosing. If he'd stopped working, perhaps retired a decade or so ago, the aftermath might not have turned out to be so ugly. Alas, Belli could not step away from his beloved legal practice, despite common sense that dictated it was time.

Belli's downward spiral began with two very costly breakups.

The first, in 1988, came in the form of a divorce that ended the marriage between Belli and his fifth wife, Lia, and drained Belli's personal income. The second, in 1993, ended the law partnership of Belli, Belli, Brown, Monzione, Fabbro & Zakaria. It was nearly as messy as the marriage breakup, with partners accusing one another of stealing clients and various other evil deeds. Before they were finished, the lawyers had spent nearly $2 million in legal fees. A settlement finally divided the multitude of legal cases under way at the firm, ending the war.

Belli's problems snowballed when the financial prize of a big case was held up in court. And, the firm began to have problems with angry clients who had wanted the name Melvin Belli on their court cases, but were not happy with what they got.

Finally, the great lawyer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with the intent of reorganizing his law firm and getting back on his feet. After the breakup of Belli, Belli, Brown, Monzione, Fabbro & Zakaria, Belli and his son Caesar became the Law Offices of Melvin Belli. But the firm was never formally organized as a business entity, so Belli and the Law Offices were financially one and the same, which meant that both went into bankruptcy together.

One of the firm's biggest assets -- a $200 million settlement Belli had won for victims of faulty breast implants made by Dow Corning Corp. -- was held up when Dow Corning filed bankruptcy, and therefore, so were the law firm's profits. Belli owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes, part of which stemmed from the Belli Building. The IRS had successfully sued Belli for gift taxes stemming from his transfer of the Belli Building into the names of two of his children. (Belli had contended that the transfer was a sale, completed at a date later than what the IRS found.)

By the time of the bankruptcy, the firm had more than 30 lawsuits filed against it, including one that resulted in a $3 million claim now pending in bankruptcy court. (The Belli firm had defended Joanna Moore, a Fremont teenager convicted of murdering her younger sister. The girl was later exonerated in a second trial, ordered because of negligence in the Belli firm's defense.) And, that's not to mention several former employees, including San Francisco Supervisor Alicia Becerril, who were banging on the door for their wages. A Sacramento lawyer won a $42,000 judgment against Belli for back wages and threatened to take his Rolls-Royce.

In public, the barrister played his bankruptcy as a temporary setback -- the firm was still owed income from some of its bigger legal cases -- but there was nothing temporary about it. Belli was ill with cancer of the pancreas and brain, and within months a federal judge declared the legal giant incapable of handling even his own law practice. Belli married for a sixth and final time in 1996 to longtime friend Nancy Ho, who'd once worked for him, and died 15 weeks later.

The profit from Belli's unfinished cases is nearly impossible to pin down but, despite Belli's empty pockets, could be as much as several million dollars, which was evident by the battle the cases sparked among lawyers.

When a law firm closes or files bankruptcy, its outstanding cases are taken over by other attorneys. But lawyers don't actually own clients, so they can't be bought and sold like so many heads of cattle. Instead, the outgoing firm notifies clients that another lawyer is available to take over, and clients generally take the recommendation.

Many of the big Belli law firm cases had already been split up once, when the partners of his longtime law firm separated. When the bankruptcy court parceled out Belli's share of those cases, Robert Lieff, and his firm, Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, was the big winner. The firm took 350 breast implant cases -- Lieff had represented plaintiffs in the case, along with Belli -- as well as those cases involving victims of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill, which is awaiting appeal, and victims of the crash of Korean Airlines Flight 007, which was shot down by Soviet fighters in 1993. The firm also received Belli's pending tobacco cases and a judgment against the estate of the late Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, in which Belli had sued on behalf of torture victims and won. A court in Hawaii has yet to divide the former president's assets, including a Swiss bank account, among the torture victims, the Philippine government, and Marcos' widow, Imelda. When that division is made, Lieff, Cabraser is expected to pay 50 to 90 percent of the legal fees owed back to the Belli estate.

Numerous other personal injury cases were given to attorney John Hill, a longtime Belli friend and former employee, for a similar fee-remittance arrangement.

These case-assignment arrangements were hotly contested by Caesar Belli and attorney Kevin McLean, who claimed, among other things, that they were partners in the Belli firm, and so some of the clients were theirs. Belli had maintained that Caesar and McLean were not partners, and the bankruptcy court has agreed. And David Bradlow, the bankruptcy examiner for Belli's estate, has in turn accused Caesar and McLean of interfering with the transition of clients.

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.

The younger Belli's legal troubles also grew to include his mother. Last year, Trustee Damir filed a federal lawsuit against Joy Turney Belli over properties in Los Angeles and Sausalito. Damir alleges that Caesar transferred his share of the properties, worth collectively about $800,000, to his mother in order to keep the property out of his bankruptcy. Damir wants Caesar's half returned to the bankruptcy estate. So far, Joy Belli has refused, and the suit is pending.

Meanwhile, the state Bar of California had its own issues with Caesar Belli. After his half sister Melia won her judgment against Caesar for misusing her trust funds, and another client accused him of severely mishandling his case -- an event resulting in court sanctions of more than $1,000 -- the Bar took action. Among other things, the Bar accused Caesar of moral turpitude and violating his oath as an attorney. Last August, Caesar was suspended from practicing law by the Supreme Court of California for one year, which ruled to keep the ban in place until he pays off his debt to his half sister. U.S. District Chief Judge Marilyn Patel mirrored the ban in federal court. According to the Bar, Caesar's last known address was somewhere in Mexico.

The Belli Building not only saw its owner through a myriad of legal cases, famous and not, but also through four wives. None of those marriages lasted as long, or ended as badly, as Belli's 1988 divorce from Lia Triff Belli, his fifth wife. More than a decade later, remnants of the Melvin-Lia split live on in Belli's bankruptcy and estate battle, and in Superior Court lawsuits.

When Belli married Lia, she was a 23-year-old student at the University of Maryland and he a 65-year-old lawyer who had long been famous. Lia Belli took easily to San Francisco society. She was a director of protocol for the city government and a minor player in state Democratic politics. Lia ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate, but was twice head of the California Democratic Caucus. Former President Jimmy Carter appointed her a special affairs assistant. Lia was also an A-list socialite and party hostess extraordinaire. The couple's Broadway mansion saw such guests as South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and distant parts of various royal families.

The Bellis' divorce is probably more famous than anything they did while married. The event played out in the press for months. Lia accused her husband of violence. He accused her of affairs with everyone from Tutu to the house staff. (Only a few years before, Belli had been involved in a lawsuit over fees in which he admitted having a sexual relationship with the heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, who was a client.)

The couple fought over everything, including a heavily contested custody battle for one of the dogs, an Italian Greyhound named Whelldone Rumproast IV.

It seemed that no one would say "uncle," and the fight was pricey. In the end, a judge sealed the Belli divorce file, owing to concerns about their young daughter, Melia, and the media circus that surrounded her battling parents. But Belli later said that the split had cost him $15 million. Lia was awarded support payments of nearly $20,000 a month, and got custody of the couple's mansion on Broadway, in which they remained joint owners.

The split was so acrimonious that one of the contested Belli wills includes the following statement: "I charge my executors to see that nothing, but absolutely nothing, goes to Lia Triff, and I charge them to contest ultimately any claim by this miserable, deceitful person."

Post-Belli, Lia divided her time between San Francisco and London, where she studied business at Oxford University. In 1996, she married Prince Paul, heir to the throne of Romania, taking the title "Princess Paul" (as opposed to "Princess Lia," which was perhaps too reminiscent of the Star Wars character for her taste). She now lives in Bucharest.

Nonetheless, Lia remains the largest creditor in Melvin Belli's bankruptcy estate, with a claim of more than $400,000, relating to their divorce settlement. Because of that settlement, a percentage of every dime collected by the estate goes to the princess. Of course, like everyone else who's worn the name Belli, a goodly portion of her take goes to legal fees, including nearly $300,000 stemming from their divorce.

But that's not all.

Two years ago, she became the subject of an action by her daughter, Melia, and her former butler, Allyn Olson. Melia sued her mother for cashing $90,000 in stock that belonged to Lia's trust and, Melia alleged, spending it. At the same time, Olson sued Lia for unpaid wages. Olson was the Belli family butler and stayed in the home following their divorce. Olson alleged that Lia had not paid him money he was owed for baby-sitting the Broadway mansion while it was for sale and Lia was out of the country. (The house eventually sold for $7 million.)

Alas, according to Lia's attorney, Russell Longaway, Lia has more worldly concerns on her mind than the claims of a daughter and a butler. In a letter filed in court last April, Longaway said: "Lia and her husband are presently involved in diplomatic efforts concerning the war in Kosovo. This of course has great meaning to us and them, accordingly she will complete her diplomatic duties before addressing this case further."

The letter began a hilarious exchange between Longaway and Marc Greenberg, who represents Melia and Olson. Greenberg asked the court to take notice that Kosovo is 300 miles from Bucharest, that it doesn't share a border with Romania, and that "Romania has been a republic since the end of World War II, and the royal family has no role in politics and diplomacy in the country."

Both the claims of Olson and Melia remain unresolved.

In his 1988 book, Divorcing, Melvin Belli mentions that his youngest daughter, Melia, had her own desk in the Belli Building when she was 5 years old. Belli also gave Melia an office mailbox, which he filled with papers and surprises. Belli was 66 years old when Melia was born, and he admitted to doting on her in ways that didn't apply to his older children. (Caesar, the closest in age of Belli's children to Melia, is 14 years her senior.) She lunched on Saturdays with her father and whoever of his colleagues happened to be around, and was a regular at the firm.

Lettering on the exterior of the building reads, "Belli, Belli & Belli" -- evidence that father Belli was expecting Melia to join Caesar and him in the firm. In fact, he'd clearly planned for these two children to take over the firm. Sometime before 1984, Belli transferred the building ownership to his children -- half to Caesar and half to Caesar in trust for the younger Melia. (Caesar was already a lawyer at the time.) Belli describes the situation in his book:

"Melia and Caesar are both very proud of that; they speak of the building as 'their' building, and their advice is asked about what flowers are to be planted, what painting is to be done, what furniture and computers and such are to be gotten. They understand these things are being put into 'their' building."

And then things got ugly around their building.

By the time she was about 15, Melia had her own lawyer, thanks to a Superior Court judge who had appointed an attorney to represent Melia's interests in her parents megadivorce. And even though she never became an attorney, it seems that Melia learned a lot about the power of litigation from her early years at the firm.

In 1992, she sued Caesar, her half brother, for stealing money from her trust -- in particular, for failing to pay her half of the income from the Belli Building and properties they owned together in Sonora. After an appropriate amount of legal haggling, the court found that Caesar owed Melia $116,000. According to Melia's attorney, Marc Greenberg, Caesar has made only one payment -- for $50,000 -- since. In his 1996 bankruptcy, Caesar tried to have the debt to Melia dismissed with his other obligations, but was unsuccessful. A federal judge ruled that, bankrupt or not, Caesar owed Melia the money.

But Melia didn't stop with her half brother.

In 1994, she sued her father, also for misappropriating part of her trust fund. Melvin Belli had cashed a bond that was held in trust for Melia after she turned 18, when it should have rightfully belonged to her. The bond was valued at up to $1 million, but had matured only to $330,000 by the time Belli cashed it. Melia argued that her father had used the money to prop up his financially troubled law practice. Belli contended that he'd used the money for Melia's benefit, keeping the Belli Building, which she co-owned with Caesar, from slipping into foreclosure.

In the world according to Belli, the trust, like so many other Belli family deals, was governed by an oral arrangement. The money, he said, hinged on Melia becoming a lawyer and joining her father and half brother in the family firm. Since Melia had "refused to go to law school," he argued, the money was no longer hers. And, Belli added, he was being harassed by Melia's mother, Belli's ex-wife Lia, who he believed was funding and encouraging their daughter's lawsuit.

In the end, father and daughter settled their dispute the day before trial was to begin. Part of the agreement stated that if Belli paid his daughter $250,000 by a certain date, she would return her half of the Belli Building to her father or his designee. Belli paid, and Melia signed the deed. Two months later, Belli filed bankruptcy, placing the building at the center of turmoil of indefinite duration.

Still, Melia wasn't finished with her family. And if her mother was fanning the flames in Melia's suit against her father, the wind changed.

In 1998, Melia filed another suit for alleged breach of fiduciary duty, this one against the former Lia Belli. In the suit, Melia alleged that her mother cashed in stock that was held in trust for her. And again, the stock was apparently cashed in after Melia had become a legal adult and therefore was the rightful owner. In the suit, Melia claimed that she was forced to drop out of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, because she didn't have money for tuition, while Lia kept the stock proceeds.

Lia has not answered the complaint from Bucharest. Melia, meanwhile, is back in school at the University of London. The lawsuit is pending in San Francisco Superior Court.

Two things are clear in the tangled web of the Belli estate. The Belli Building was one of Melvin Belli's prized possessions, and his widow, Nancy Ho Belli, wanted it.

Nancy first met Melvin Belli in 1981 on the steps of the courthouse in Orlando, Fla. Belli was there for a trial, and Ho, who was a law student at the time, decided she'd like to meet the great barrister.

She eventually came to San Francisco and, for a brief time, worked as a lawyer in the Belli Building. After inheriting substantial wealth from her parents in Singapore, Nancy left the law for a career in real estate investment, and in 1992 created Pacific Bay Holding Co. Inc. For a time, Nancy, a longtime member of the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, was the regular companion of San Francisco newspaper columnist Warren Hinckle. But she always remained friends with Belli. Toward the end of his life, friendship became romance, and then marital bliss. Nancy loaned Belli several thousand dollars before and after his bankruptcy, to pay employees and expenses. An increasingly ill Belli moved into Nancy's Marina District home when they married March 29, 1996. Belli died 15 weeks later, on July 9, 1996.

In the interim, Nancy took heat from Caesar and Gretchen Belli, who essentially accused the new bride of gold-digging. Nancy had taken Belli to Mexico seeking experimental cancer treatment, and threw in a "mini-facelift" while she was there, which only fueled the claims of her enemies.

Battle Belli was well under way, and the Belli Building remained at the center, even though it had not been occupied since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The trail of the building's ownership is, at best, an odd series of events.

When Melia settled with her father over the money from her trust fund, she gave Belli a deed returning her half of the building to "Melvin M. Belli or his assignee"; the deed was signed April 21, 1995. Apparently, Belli did nothing with it.

Several months later, Nancy sent over another deed to Melia's attorney, for her to sign. This deed transferred Melia's half of the property directly to "Nancy Ho." An accompanying letter stated that Nancy was Belli's designee, and these were his wishes. Melia signed the new deed on Oct. 26, 1995, and it was recorded about a week later.

A month thereafter, Belli filed bankruptcy, and Caesar followed shortly afterward.

Caesar owned the other half of the building, which made it, by this time, an asset in his bankruptcy. Caesar's bankruptcy was converted into a Chapter 7 liquidation in 1997. Home Savings and a scaffolding company, both of which had claims against the property, were about to foreclose. After a great deal of legal haggling, Nancy purchased Caesar's half of the building from his bankruptcy estate for $457,000, which included paying off some of the liens that had accumulated against the property. So, by mid-1997, Nancy owned the Belli Building in total.

The press was filled with plans for a Belli museum following the groundbreaking ceremony for the building's restoration. Nancy announced plans to renovate the place -- an estimate put the cost of the work at $3 million -- and fill it with Belli memorabilia for permanent display. For a time, there was even a Web site with a virtual tour. The restoration efforts never matched the press buildup.

Instead, Nancy has fought with neighbors. Last May, she sued International Settlement Holdings Corp. and a trust fund administered by Judge Claude Perasso, owners of property adjoining the Belli Building. In her suit, Nancy alleged that the neighbors weakened a common wall between the buildings during their own renovation work in 1993, keeping her contractors from using the common wall. Complicating things in a manner befitting a Belli lawsuit, a city building inspector issued a permit for the work Perasso and partners did in November 1992, ostensibly making it legal ... until another inspector issued a notice of violation of city building regulations in March 1999.

Last November, a compromise was reached that basically calls for Perasso's side to strengthen the common wall. In turn, Nancy's side would construct a new wall next to it, essentially separating the two buildings.

But another disagreement -- this one over engineering specifications for strengthening the wall -- has ensued. The drama continues to unfold in San Francisco Superior Court.

At the same time, the City Attorney's Office is keeping tabs on the Belli Building, which remains on the municipal radar because the building, a national landmark, has spawned a decade of city building code violations. Also, a North Beach neighborhood group known as the Telegraph Hill Dwellers has vowed to keep the heat on. There's history here: A few years back, Nancy, a member of the city's Landmarks Board, tore down a 1906 cable car gripman's cottage in Russian Hill, to clear the way for the construction of condominiums. Neighborhood activists fought a losing battle against the demolition -- the cottage did not have landmark designation and so was not protected.

And now, apparently, there is some question about whether Nancy Ho really intends to gut the Belli Building. Paul Matzger, Nancy's attorney, says the widow plans to tear the building down, except for the Montgomery Street facade, and reconstruct the place as it was when Belli was there. The first floor near the street would be a museum of Belli memorabilia, and the rest of the building would be commercial office space.

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.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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