September 22, 2000 06:21am
Ex-Playmate Battles Her Stepson
by: C. Bryson Hull
(HOUSTON, TX) -- Anna Nicole Smith, the former stripper and Playboy Playmate who married an aging oil tycoon, went to court Friday to fight for a piece of her late millionaire husband's fortune.
Smith was 26 when she married 89-year-old oilman J. Howard Marshall II in 1994. When Marshall died 14 months later, he left not only a youthful bride but an estate fight involving her and his two sons.
At the center of the family feud sits a disputed fortune, estimated at anywhere from $48 million to $1.6 billion. After more than a year of delays, jury selection began Friday.
The case pits Smith, known in court papers by her married name of Vickie Lynn Marshall, and J. Howard Marshall III, the disinherited eldest son, against E. Pierce Marshall. Pierce is the sole heir to the fortune.
But Smith insists her husband verbally promised her part of the fortune, and Howard III claims his father made a similar promise.
Pierce points to seven trusts and six wills prepared by his father, a Yale-trained lawyer who had been married twice. None name Smith or Howard III as beneficiaries.
The money is spread out in legal trusts, foundations and business entities controlled by Pierce. All are defendants in the suit, and accordingly, some 20 lawyers represent the various parties.
At issue is not only who gets a piece of the money, but just how much there is.
Smith and Howard III claim a value of $1.6 billion. Pierce, who stands to benefit from a lower valuation because of an ongoing estate tax fight with the Internal Revenue Service (news - web sites), puts it at about $48 million.
According to Smith, her sweetheart promised her half his fortune in exchange for her hand in marriage.
``He wanted to make me happy,'' she told a Los Angeles judge last year. ``My wish was his command.''
Anna Nicole, born Vickie Lynn in Mexia, Texas, has appeared in Guess! jeans ads as well as the pages of Playboy, and in films such as ``Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.'' But after her husband's death, she filed for bankruptcy in 1996.
Marshall's older son, who owns a Los Angeles electronics company, allegedly was disinherited over a family business dispute.
The trial is expected to last 10 weeks - an apparently daunting length to some of the 150 potential jurors. Grumblings were heard in the audience when the length was mentioned, and many potential jurors cited reasons they were unable to serve.
Jury questioning was to resume Tuesday.
``I'm glad it's going to be over with soon,'' Smith said to a crowd of reporters and photographers as she passed through a courthouse metal detector.