The day after retired Marine Col. Earl E. Holmes died at his Rappahannock County farm, one of his Navy doctors opened a file cabinet at Bethesda Naval Hospital and drew out a sealed envelope.
Inside, Dr. Peter E. Nielsen later said, he expected to find Holmes' "death arrangements." While a patient at Bethesda, Holmes had told him, the doctor said, "to hold onto the envelope , to not let it out of my possession, to not let anyone know about it and to make sure I would not lose it."
The arrangements, indeed, turned out to be extraordinary. In 10 typed lines, signed by the colonel and witnessed by two Bethesda staff members, Holmes had left his entire estate, $1.8 million, to Lt. Cmdr. Nielsen. "I was stunned," said Nielsen.
Holmes' family and friends were flabbergasted. "It still makes me sick," says John Tischler, a close friend of the colonel's for a decade. Holmes' sister Ruth, elderly and near death, immediately ordered her lawyers to fight her brother's bequest in court.
And they did. After two years of litigation ending in a 12 1/2-day trial in July in this tiny town 80 miles west of the District of Columbia, a jury deliberated for two hours and sided with Nielsen. Lawyers for the losing side, who at mid-trial rejected the offer of a 50-50 settlement, have asked for a new trial here in Rappahannock County Circuit Court. Failing that, they said they plan to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.
"I don't expect ever to see anything like it again," said Peter Luke, one of Nielsen's lawyers, as he sat in his office above the local bank, a half-block from his trial adversary, David Konick. Both young attorneys acknowledged the bitterly fought trial damaged, if not destroyed, their friendship.
Nielsen, now in private practice in upstate New York, has declined to comment on the verdict.
At issue was not only the fortune amassed by Holmes, the son of a District police captain, but the reputation of the 36-year-old Nielsen. He was accused by lawyers for the now-deceased Ruth Holmes of improperly influencing the dying colonel to sign the will, or, alternatively, of altering the document itself by using an office copying machine -- charges he strongly denied.
Military investigators, acting on orders from the chief of naval operations, investigated the Holmes case, looking for violations of ethical rules governing doctor-patient relationships in the service. Nielsen was cleared.
A bachelor who invested well and once owned lucrative downtown D.C. real estate, Holmes left behind a treasure trove: a $30,000 checking account at the Riggs National Bank, a $26,700 checking account here, $208,800 in certificates of deposit, stocks, bonds, a house in Northwest Washington, 186 undeveloped acres in Rappahannock and the centerpiece, Mary Mellon Orchard Farm in Flint Hill, Va., his 269-acre home.
"It was a beautiful place," says Holmes' friend Tischler. "Five fireplaces, Oriental art objects of every type, wall hangings of solid gold thread, teak furniture, vases, crystal from as far back as crystal was made in China, burial bowls from before the time of Christ."
Tischler, whose wife, Helen, would inherit half the orchard property from Holmes' sister Ruth were the Nielsen will overturned, testified that Holmes routinely kept $10,000 to $15,000 in cash stuffed under his pillow.
"He was a character," testified Lt. Georgia Liston Daley, the Navy nurse who witnessed the disputed will. "He stood out in my mind, even though he was one patient three years ago, and I can't say that about too many people."
Characterized by hospital personnel in trial testimony as amiable, strong-willed and decisive, Holmes--described by Daley as "chubby; short, wispy brown hair; nice cheeks--was a medically troubled man. He first checked into Bethesda in 1973, suffering from blackouts.
"He totaled two cars at that time. And I think he drove a third one into the pond," Tischler testified. " . . . It was not uncommon for him to reach in his pocket for a handkerchief or something and scatter hundred-dollar bills on the ground."
A Major Issue
Holmes' state of mind -- and whether cerebral arteriosclerosis related to his liver disease left him less than coherent -- would become a major issue in the trial.
According to Nielsen, an intern at Bethesda in 1973, Holmes then suffered from a mild heart disorder and a neurogenic bladder, meaning he urinated "uncontrollably and unpredictably," in Nielsen's words.
The two men, Nielsen said, became friends and the young Navy doctor continued to treat Holmes as an outpatient after Holmes' discharge from the hospital. Nielsen began to visit Holmes at Mary Mellon Orchard Farm. In the ensuing years, Nielsen said he saw Holmes, both professionally and socially, perhaps a half-dozen times a year.
"We were definitely friends," Nielsen testified.
In June 1979, Holmes was readmitted to Bethesda. By now "The Colonel" was too bloated to button his trousers. A liver biopsy showed cirrhosis. Only medication and a low-salt diet brought his weight under control.
Holmes, an avid hunter whose constant companion was his dog, Duke, returned to Flint Hill, but was back at Bethesda on Oct. 9, 1979, unable to regulate his bloating and weight. According to Nielsen, who was uninvolved in Holmes' in-hospital treatment but who said he visited "The Colonel" daily, tests showed Holmes suffered from a hereditary liver ailment. Holmes' father had died from the same disease.
And there was an added development: suspected cancer of the liver.
On the evening of Oct. 26, Nielsen testified, he broke the news to Holmes that the liver problem was very serious and that "The Colonel" had from two weeks to a year to live.
"He was quite sound of mind," said Nielsen. " . . . He said he wanted to think the matter over a little bit; that, if this were the case, he was going to have to attend to legal arrangements and we planned to meet the next day and discuss it some more."
What happened when the two men talked again on Oct. 27 is hotly disputed.
According to Nielsen, Holmes asked him to fetch two staff members to witness his "signing of a document." Nielsen stepped into the hallway and asked Lt. Daley, the nurse, to come to Holmes' room. Daley brought a civilian nursing aide, Edward A. Stephenson, with her. With Nielsen looking on from the doorway, Holmes signed and dated a single sheet of paper. Daley and Stephenson followed suit. Then, with Daley and Stephenson gone, Nielsen said, Holmes folded the document, sealed it in an envelope and handed it over with orders to open it after his death.
Daley said later she read the document before signing. "It didn't strike me as anything unusual," she testified. Stephenson said he assumed it was a will because Holmes earlier had mentioned one and had said Nielsen "was a good man . . . that he was going to do something good for him."
The document he signed as a witness, however, Stephenson said, was "a little bit bigger" than the will in evidence in the trial.
A documents expert testified that the paper had been run through a copying machine before typing and had been cut to nearly square dimensions in a paper cutter. And the text and signature lines were not aligned, he said, suggesting that the paper had been removed at some point from the typewriter.
Where Holmes, who could barely walk during much of his final hospital stay, got access to a typewriter became the trial's burning question.
The defense provided a possible answer.
Lt. Cmdr. Jerry Thomas, a radiation biophysics specialist, testified that during hot weather -- perhaps coinciding with Holmes' first hospitalization in June 1979, when he was better able to walk -- Holmes had visited his office and asked to use a typewriter. Thomas obliged him with an IBM Selectric and sheets of leftover copying paper trimmed in a paper cutter.
Thomas was an "atomic bomb" in the case, says Luke.
Three days after the purported will-signing, Nielsen informed Holmes that tests had confirmed he had liver cancer. "He was very, very depressed, very down," Nielsen recalled in court. Determined to return to his Virginia farm to die, Holmes left Bethesda on Nov. 6 and 10 days later he was dead.
His sister died 73 days later, on Jan. 28, 1980, triggering the court battle as provided in her will.
No Record of Visits
Under cross-examination, Nielsen acknowledged that he and his wife had never socialized with Holmes; that he had never spent the night at Holmes' farm; that he had never spent the weekend there. Although he agreed with lawyer Lawrence A. Elgin that Holmes was a careful, "almost compulsive" note-taker and diarist, the doctor conceded that numerous visits he said he made to Flint Hill went unrecorded in "The Colonel's" diary.
"I can only think . . . that he deemed it unnecessary to put it in," Nielsen said.
Friends and neighbors testified Holmes had spoken often of taking care of some of them in his will and said "The Colonel's" behavior had become erratic in recent years. A Navy corpsman added she had once found Holmes in his room at Bethesda talking about his father "like he was there or something."
The corpsman, Melanie Brennan, said she had recorded in her nursing notes that Holmes had been "delirious once or twice," but, in another of the case's twists and turns, later discovered a week's worth of the notes covering Holmes' last hospitalization missing.
Betty Paleologos of Rockville, a close friend of Holmes' sister until her death, and executor of Ruth Holmes' will, testified she and Ruth Holmes had visited "The Colonel" in his hospital room on Oct. 29, two days after the Nielsen will-signing. Paleologos said Holmes told his sister he had made her sole beneficiary of his estate.
"Earl, I don't want your money. I just want you to live," Paleologos quoted Ruth Holmes as saying. "I don't care -- it's all yours," she said "The Colonel" replied.
At the end, both sides agreed, Holmes worsened dramatically. Private nurses reported he was hallucinating at his Flint Hill farmhouse. Shortly before his death, John Tischler testified, Holmes "started talking as though he was a military man. He was in command or in charge of a municipality or something . . . . It sounded like this was in Germany."
Holmes ordered Tischler, his wife and two friends to line up and count off, Tischler said. "He was very, very far removed from reality."
Two days later, Holmes slipped into a coma. Nielsen was notified and immediately made the 80-mile drive to Rappahannock.
"When you arrived at the farm, what did you find?" asked one of Nielsen's lawyers in court.
"The Colonel had died in between the time I was called and the time I got there," Nielsen said.
"Who pronounced his death?"
"I did," said the doctor.
In the end the seven-member jury, which included a retired colonel, a former Navy nurse whose husband is a retired admiral, and a former District of Columbia press spokesman, deliberated for about two hours before returning its verdict.
The jury's first vote was 6 to 1 in favor of Nielsen, said one juror who asked to remain unidentified. "There was some discussion, not a lot. It was not so much believing Nielsen as it was disbelieving the other side."