An ongoing battle to determine whether a Dumfries resident has a legitimate claim to a Florida man's estate -- estimated to be worth millions in cash and land -- now includes allegations that a Florida bank did not properly protect more than $1.25 million of the elderly man's cash.
The complaint, originally filed in Florida's Charlotte County Circuit Court on May 21, is yet another chapter of a multijurisdictional investigation into the estate of 97-year-old John V. Elrod, who died in September 1997. Three lawsuits in Virginia and two in Florida have resulted from allegations that Robert J. Davis, of Dumfries, swindled Elrod out of two large tracts of land and a hefty amount of cash in his final days.
Heirs to Elrod's estate say Davis defrauded the elderly man, taking a 160-acre tract of land in Woodbridge and arranging for his daughter, Michele Bonney, to receive a 580-acre plot in Halifax County, Va., as a gift from Elrod, a longtime Prince William and Northern Virginia resident. Although Davis has said that he and Elrod were "best friends," Elrod's relatives are skeptical that Elrod, a former lawyer and congressional speechwriter, would have simply given away land worth millions of dollars.
A court-appointed executor of Elrod's estate filed the most recent lawsuit last month in an attempt to reclaim more than $1.25 million in funds that allegedly were withdrawn from a Florida bank by Davis in the days after Elrod's death. The lawsuit claims that the bank, Barnett Bank of Englewood, Fla., was responsible for allowing Davis to become a cosigner on Elrod's accounts without proper authority.
The lawsuit originally was filed May 21 but was later withdrawn on a technicality. Mark Thompson, a Florida attorney who represents the executor of Elrod's estate, said yesterday that he plans to re-file the lawsuit within two weeks. Thompson said the estate's executor, David Johnson, is requesting that the court force the bank to pay back the $1.25 million, plus interest.
"There was some ambiguity in Mr. Elrod's instructions to the bank," Thompson said yesterday. "Rather than clarifying that, the bank just chose a course of action that ended up benefiting Mr. Davis and that clearly did not benefit the estate. We feel the bank breached the standard of care in conducting its business.
"The money that the bank paid to Mr. Davis should have been paid to the estate," Thompson said.
The latest lawsuit is the fifth active case that centers on Davis's involvement with Elrod's estate, and all of the cases have yet to come to trial. Bill Clark, Elrod's nephew, said several interested parties have given depositions over the last two months, and the FBI has been looking into the case because it spans state lines.
Thompson said that he has filed at least 10 lawsuits in conjunction with the Elrod estate, many of which focus on debtors who owed Elrod significant sums of money at the time of his death. Thompson said one of the cases involves a Florida car dealer who owed Elrod more than $900,000 and who is now claiming that Elrod, just days before his death, tore up their agreement and absolved the car dealer of his debt.
Clark, who lives in Tennessee, said he and other heirs are hoping to return much of the money and land to the family, claiming that Elrod was duped as he was lying on his deathbed. But, Clark said, the cases have been slogging through the court system over the last two years.
"We haven't gotten into court on any of it," Clark said this week. "And this is bigger than just one fraud. The whole family got ripped off."
Elrod's heirs previously had filed four lawsuits against Davis, the first of which came after Davis presented a deed to Prince William officials to establish ownership of a 160-acre piece of property in Woodbridge along Route 1. The lawsuit, in Prince William County Circuit Court, claims that either the signature on Davis's deed is a forgery or that Elrod was coerced into sign it.
Davis has claimed that Elrod gave him the land in 1984 for developing it. Heirs dispute that claim because the two men had known each other only a short time at that point. Records indicate that Elrod and Davis worked together in controlling the land, but the lawsuit claims that Elrod knew he held ownership, evidenced by his payment of real estate taxes. The land is now estimated to be worth nearly $9 million.
Elrod made Davis the sole trustee of his estate just before his death. Davis has produced an amendment to Elrod's will that removed Elrod's sister, Gladys Clark, as a trustee of his estate. Family members allege that Elrod was tricked into making the changes.
Three other cases are ongoing: in Halifax County Circuit Court, claiming that the gift of the 580-acre farm to Michele Bonney was fraudulent; in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, asserting that Davis's deed to the land in Woodbridge be nullified and that Davis be prevented from selling it; and in Charlotte County, Fla., to remove Davis as trustee of Elrod's estate.