Guided by a spiritualist and her own shrewd business sense, Helen McGarvey Saul built a fortune buying and developing farmland in suburban Maryland. She added to her holdings a bingo parlor, a restaurant chain, several race horses, property in the Bahamas and even an island casino in the Irish Sea.
Though childless, the widow of B. F. Saul Jr. of the Washington real estate and mortgage banking family lavished love and money on her relatives and countless friends. Large family dinners and poker games were a Sunday night tradition at her rolling, 100-acre Glenmont estate.
But since her death in June 1975, at the age of 76, the togetherness of Henen McGarvey Saul's family has been shattered in a bitter battle over her millions.
The chief combatants in the family feud are a nephew she raised, who was named sole heir in a contested will, and her youngest brother, a 77-year-old racing tout who lives in a sparsely furnished, rent-subsidized apartment in Rockville while he fights for a share of his sister's wealth.
Two sisters, Gertrude and Rose, and another brother, William, have died during the four years the will has been tied up in the courts. Administering the estate in the meantime has eaten up a half million dollars, although its value still is estimated in the millions.
Pearl Marsh Kerwin, a faith healer and long-time confidant of the prosperous widow, said her friend and benefactor confided in her later years that she feared her relatives would fight over her fortune.
Helen McGarvey was one of 13 children born to a Pennsylvania coalmining family. After her father died in a mine disaster, thefamily moved to Washington. Three of the McGarvey children became lawyers, two became teachers. Helen went to night school to learn accounting and became a bookkeeper with a starting salary of $5 a week.
During the Depression, she worked for a real estate broker and began buying up property on her own. In time, she acquired a wallpaper store and a small chain of "Fat Boy" restaurants that she named for a boyfriend. She built apartments in the District and ramblers off Jones Mill Road in Chevy Chase.
In 1945, she married Saul, and after he died nine years later she moved into the brick manor house on her Glenmont farm that would serve as her headquarters and the family home place for the rest of her life.
It was from that house, on the farm she called Woodburn Estates, that she looked after the interests of her extended family of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, friends and their children. It was there, too that she signed the disputed will.
The house has since been sold to pay estate expenses, but the farm remains an imposing piece of property with fields of corn and a complex of buildings at the end of a private tree-lined lane. Developers have offered more than $2.5 million for the remaining property.
A deeply religious woman, Helen C1 McGarvey Saul befriended Kerwin in the 1940s, and they became frequent traveling companions. In the 1950s, the self-described psychic came to live at Woodburn Estates and built a shrine, the Church of Divine Healing.
Kerwin, who now lives in Skull Valley, Ariz., said she predicted the path of suburban development and encouraged her friends to buy several hundred acres north of Silver Spring.
"I went with Helen to where the bingo parlor now is," she said. "I said, 'I see silver coins being shoveled up out of barrels.' So she bought it." That was in 1958.
In the years after, she regularly loaned the hanger-sized hall in Laurel to a nearby Catholic congregation for mass, The Daily Double Bingo parlor was worth $1.1 million, a prospective buyer told her. She refused to sell.
Not all her ventures were so blessed. A contract to build and operate a Las Vegas-style casino on the Isle of Man off Britain's western coast turned sour when four American employes were convicted of skimming funds. She took a loss and turned it over to a London gaming club.
"I like ground best of all," she said after that fiasco in 1964, "buying and selling ground."
"Everybody called her Aunt Helen," remembers Ed Jarcy, the faith healer's son who grew up on the Glenmont farm, where he still lives. "If ever there were a saint on earth, that woman was it. She would help people she didn't even know. She was plain good people."
Raymond C. McGarvey Jr., now 42, came to live with his aunt at an early age. She reared him and paid for his prep school and college educations. When "little Ray" got married, she made the $1,900 down payment on the newlyweds' house.
"Helen made down payments on houses for several relatives and provided secretarial training in business schools for several children and grandchildren of a friend," recalled Mary M. Ferry, a niece who lived with her aunt from 1932 to 1944.
Ray's father, Raymond McGarvey Sr., one of Helen's brothers, also came to live on the place. An attorney, he had been convicted in 1935 of attempting to suborn perjury, which resulted in his being disbarred. According to court records, he became an alcoholic and never worked again, although his sister tried for years to have him restored to the bar and succeeded only after his death.
She also wrote twice-monthly checks to Joseph McGarvey, her youngest brother who worked as a government building guard until his retirement. Joseph used to drive his sister around, he said, and he often preceeded her to the track, where he would pose in broad-brimmed hat and binoculars next to her horses with names like "Fancy Bingo."
She contributed, too, to the nursing home bills of sister Gertrude, whom she visited twice a week.
By 1969, after amassing properties and businesses in Prince George's Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, Helen McGarvey Saul turned her attention to her estate and asked her corporate attorney to draft several bequest lists.
The rough drafts divided the estate more than 30 ways, with Little Ray receiving the largest share. The lists also provided for her surviving siblings and close friends.
But the lists they prepared never found their way into a will.
On July 13, 1969, Raymond Jr. later said, his aunt directed him to have a lawyer of his choice draw up a will naming him as sole beneficiary and executor. His aunt was worried about a heart condition, he said, and expected him to carry out her wishes. "She always said that I would do what was right," he said.
The will was quickly prepared and later was attested by the lawyer and Raymond Sr. Raymond Jr. has said he viewed it as an interim document to be supplanted by a more detailed expression of her wishes.
Lawyers and accountants urged her to prepare another will, but somehow she never got around to it. In 1974, she became seriously ill, "and all these family power struggles began emerging," said Margaret Davis who stables horses at her farm. "Big fat creatures came out of the walls."
Two days after they buried her at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Wheaton, the relatives gathered at the manor house. Raymond Jr. said he offered each of the 15 assembled "gifts" ranging into the tens of thousands of dollars.
There was one stipulation. "Since they were being given in fond memory of his aunt," the nephew's lawyer, John L. Sullivan Jr., later recalled, Raymond Jr. "would deem it inappropriate to give a gift to someone...who would interfere with the orderly processes of her estate."
Gertrude O'Brien, Helen's older sister confined to a nursing home, did not attend. Nor did Joseph McGarvey, little Ray's godfather and uncle.
In September, Joseph and Gertrude went to court to challenge the will, accusing their nephew of fraud. Raymond cut them off financially.
Raymond Jr. then asked the courts to declare him Helen's "equitably adopted" son. If her will were thrown out, this would make him the only legal heir.
A niece challenging the request noted that Raymond had been called "nephew" in the contested will and suggested the assertions of a mother-son relationship were "very strange." "His status has been fixed" by his aunt's death, the register of wills said. That issue was dropped.
Gertrude, meanwhile, gave power of attorney first to a lawyer, then to her brother Joseph. Both wrote checks on her account; some of the lawyer's checks bounced. A court-appointed guardian sued Joseph of $4,256 he had spent, he said, to pursue the challenge of their sister's will. Joseph, agreed, however, to make restitution.
Confident of winning the estate, Joseph McGarvey went to Wayson's Bingo in January 1977, he said, to ask the owner if he would be interested in running the competing Daily Double parlor after the case was won.
Raymond Jr., in suing his uncle for slander, said Joseph had accused him in the Wayson's meeting of "corporate misconduct and criminal activity."
"It has been a great source of anxiety to me that my reputation for honesty and integrity in the field of providing amusement to the public...has been severely jeopardized and damaged," Raymond Jr. said in the suit.
In the wake of the Wayson's incident and an anonymous bomb threat that sent Daily Double Bingo customers out into the January cold, Raymond Jr -- using Daily Double money -- hired the ice cream vendor at the bingo parlor to follow his uncle.
Joseph said the man even followed him into the men's room at Bowie Racetrack.
"We wanted him to know he was under surveillance," the nephew said; "I wanted to find out who he was talking to and what kind of damage he was trying to do."
Joseph saw it differently: "He was either trying to drive me crazy or have me cause an accident that would result in injury."
The uncle, saying he feared for his life, authorized a Forestville woma he had befriended to sign legal documents on his behalf. And he made his own will, leaving her half of whatever he owned.
"If anything happens to Joe, he has told me to fight it to the end," said the 48-year-old woman, Wanda Balbuena. "I don't like the way (Raymond Jr.) has treated his uncle."
An attempt at settlement stopped the case from going to trial in November 1977. But the settlement, which included orders restraining Raymond and Joseph from bothering each other, fell through a few months later.
Gertrude, who had joined her brother in the challenge, died last year in the nursing home charity ward at the age of 88 -- four days after accepting a separate settlement.
The following month, a Montgomery County judge ruled that Raymond McGarvey Sr. had been incompetent when he witnessed the will making his son the sole heir to his sister's fortune.
The judge threw out the will, but Maryland's highest court reversed that decision this month and sent the case, which has engaged a dozen lawyers, back to trial.
"Where there's a will, there's a lawsuit," Raymond Jr. remarked not long ago. "I used to think that was funny."
Helen's other surviving brother, William McGarvey, died three months ago at his Florida retirement home.
Now, only Joseph is left. And Wanda.
"It isn't over yet," she said last week. "That's for sure."