Three years ago, when multimillionaire Larry Hillblom's body was lost at sea, traces of his DNA disappeared on dry land, too.
DNA would have helped four children who claimed to be his illegitimate heirs prove their case and win a share of his fortune. But when experts working for the children combed Hillblom's house on Saipan for items that might yield his genetic material, they found nothing -- no clothes, no shoes, no toothbrushes, not so much as a stray hair.
Ultimately, genetic tests on the four youngsters born to four women were able to prove that they had the same father, whoever he might be, and the children reached a settlement with Hillblom's estate that gave them up to $90 million each. The rest of the $500 million to $700 million left by Hillblom -- the "H" in the air courier DHL -- went to charity.
Then, in June, came a stunning discovery: Hillblom's belongings -- everything from shoes to hairbrushes -- were found stashed in trash bags buried in his back yard. And the house, it turns out, may have been sanitized.
The buried items have yet to be tested for DNA. But the possibility of a DNA match could give the children leverage to extract a new and better settlement from the estate.
Even before the back yard discovery, settlement negotiations had been reopened amid allegations that former DHL executive Joe Waechter and other former controllers of Hillblom's estate had withheld financial information. "They set out intentionally to deprive four kids who were their so-called best friend's children," said David Lujan, lawyer for 14-year-old Junior Larry Hillbroom. (His mother misspelled the name on the birth certificate).
Waechter's lawyer, William Fitzgerald, denied his client engaged in any plot to destroy DNA. He suggested the allegations were aimed at trying to get a better settlement.
The case began in May 1995 when Hillblom's World War II-vintage seaplane crashed near the island of Saipan, his Far East home of 10 years. His body was never recovered, but he was legally declared dead.
He left most of his fortune to a charitable trust that would benefit the University of California. But for some reason, Hillblom, a lawyer by training, did not include the standard clause disinheriting illegitimate heirs.
That opened the door to women who said they had borne children by Hillblom, an American with a penchant for bedding young virgins in the islands of the Western Pacific.
For a while, the children seemed likely to lose.
Hillblom's mother refused to provide a sample of her blood for testing.
There was one other known source of DNA -- a scrap of tissue taken from Hillblom's face during reconstructive surgery at UC-San Francisco after a near-fatal 1993 plane crash. But then UC, which stood to gain if the heirs' claims could be disproved, said it had mixed up Hillblom's sample with someone else's. Finally, UC produced a sample it said was Hillblom's. But because its source is now suspect, "none of us wants to touch it," Lujan said.
In the quest for DNA, Lujan brought expert Brad Popovich to Saipan in 1995, four months after Hillblom's death. Popovich's mission proved fruitless.
Three weeks before his visit, Popovich hired a pilot to check out the wreckage from Hillblom's 1993 plane crash on the island of Tinian and got a report of "blood everywhere."
But when Popovich himself got to the plane, "to our amazement there wasn't a speck of blood anywhere," he said. "The dashboard had been removed from the plane, the seat had been removed from the plane. Obviously, it had been gone through."
Hillblom's house in Saipan proved barren ground, too. "No shirts, no shoes, no pants, no socks, no underwear, toothbrushes, shave cream, anything," Popovich said. He examined the bathrooms and peered into the pipes, finding not so much as a stray hair.
The missing items remained a mystery until this June.
That's when Josephine Nocasa, Hillblom's longtime girlfriend, testified that Waechter had told her to clean the house and get rid of Hillblom's belongings. Nocasa said she used bleach to wash down the shower walls and vacuumed thoroughly, even cleaning the filter from the clothes dryer, according to Lujan.
Nocasa told Lujan of all the items buried in the yard. In June, as police, lawyers and the new estate administrator, Russell Snow, watched, a backhoe scooped a deep trench near Hillblom's tennis courts, revealing several trash bags. "There were anxious moments when the digging first started," Snow recalled. "But we did feel that whatever the outcome of the exhumation, the estate would be headed down yet another of the twisted roads which has plagued this unique and infamous probate."
Popovich is cataloguing the items to see if they could yield DNA.
"Just because these are rich people and powerful people with fancy titles and ivory towers, they're not to be held accountable?" Lujan asked. "My heart just won't let them get away with it."