Surprising bequest leaves lawyer, heirs an estate of confusion in Panama

Wearing a straw hat, frayed khaki pants and a shirt that most would have consigned to the rag pile, Wilson Lucom strolled into Richard Lehman's law office more than 30 years ago and took the Boca Raton tax attorney on the legal ride of his life. It began when the multimillionaire hired Lehman to go after the IRS for denying him a $2,500 home-office tax exemption. It continued, with various twists and turns, through Lucom's crusade to get President Bush and Congress to put a $1 billion bounty on the head of Osama bin Laden.

Over three decades, even after Lucom left the tony island of Palm Beach to settle into life as an expatriate in his second wife's homeland of Panama, Lehman was the go-to guy in battles the onetime socialite and conservative pundit waged for fun and profit.

Given Lucom's love of a good fight - typified by his belief that the "nuclear option" could solve many of the world's problems - it's not surprising that his death has unleashed a battle of epic proportions.

Adding to the predictability of the battle royale is the sheer size of Lucom's estate: $50 million and counting.

Still, even among lawyers who make their livings from nasty squabbles that erupt when the wealthy die, most agree this is one for the record books.

It is being fought in courts in at least three countries. It involves the heirs of once high-level Panamanian officials. It has spawned not just mere civil lawsuits but criminal charges as well.

Lehman, for instance, early on was accused by Lucom's widow and her children of murdering his longtime client, who he says also became a close friend. While those Panamanian charges were dropped, even now, Lehman can't enter the nation without fear of arrest on charges surrounding his handling of Lucom's estate.

At the root of the ugly dispute is what appears to be a noble bequest: In his will, Lucom left the bulk of his estate - a 7,000-acre oceanfront cattle ranch valued at as much as $50 million - to the poor children of Panama.

Known for funding right-wing political candidates such as former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and conservative political causes, most notably the watchdog group Accuracy in Media, Lucom never seemed to be a soft touch for long-suffering children, his friends and family members say.

Lehman insists the bequest wasn't out of character.

"He was the kind of guy who didn't like to see people taking (crap), and that's how poor people in Panama are treated," he said.

His widow, Hilda Piza Lucom, disagrees.

"He never talked to me about a foundation for poor children in Panama," the 84-year-old said in a deposition in one of the numerous lawsuits that now swirl around the estate. "He didn't like children."

Her granddaughter, Madelaine Urrutia, also said the bequest seems suspicious.

Uncle Chuck, as she called Lucom, knew of her work on the board of Asociación Pro Niñez Panameña, a organization that helps poor children in Panama. But, she said, despite her requests, he never offered a donation except for one time when he bought $50 worth of raffle tickets for an association benefit.

He was very involved in political groups, particularly those that fought communism, she said. "Children were not a cause for him."

Like his widow and other members of the powerful family that counts two Panamanian presidents on its family tree, Urrutia said she was stunned by Lucom's generous bequest.

"I was surprised," she said. "I never saw that on his mind."

What the family suspects, a suspicion it has made clear through court documents, is that Lehman cooked up the bequest as a way to get his hands on Lucom's millions.

Lawyer vs. heirs

Lehman scoffs at such talk.

He insists that the legal battle he has waged to protect Lucom's wishes to help Panamanian children has cost him nearly $700,000 from his own pocket.

"If I walk away from these kids, I'll walk around for the rest of my life worried that God will strike me dead," he said.

Still, attorneys representing Hilda Lucom say Lehman's actions belie his righteous words.