- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2000

BROWNSVILLE, Texas More than six decades after a New York lawyer bought Padre Island from a Mexican-American family, a jury ruled yesterday that he had cheated the family's descendants out of lucrative oil and gas royalties.

On Monday, the jury will decide how much the millionaire lawyer, Gilbert Kerlin, now 90, must pay the more than 500 Balli heirs who filed the lawsuit.

The jury calculated the lost royalties at $1.2 million. The remaining penalties for fraud, malice and conspiracy could be millions more. The Balli heirs are seeking $11 million.

Ranchers, lawyers and historians say the outcome of this case could spur more such lawsuits throughout the Mexican-American border area.

"This is going to open the doors," Pearl Balli said. "This is not an isolated case. This happened to a lot of people."

Nicolas Balli, a wealthy priest, was deeded the skinny island on Texas' east coast by King Charles of Spain in the 18th century. At his death, the property, then little more than a deserted expanse of sand and seaweed, was passed on to a nephew, Juan Jose Balli.

In 1938, Mr. Kerlin, then fresh out of Harvard Law School, came to Brownsville to buy the island. He rounded up several heirs of Juan Jose Balli and paid them to sign over 61,000 acres and the rights to minerals, oil and gas under their land.

The Balli descendants had fallen upon hard times. Almost all of their vast Rio Grande ranch lands had been lost or repossessed and they were struggling to feed their families.

Documents indicate that Mr. Kerlin paid Balli family members small sums some testified their grandparents or great-grandparents got no more than $25 or $75 but Mr. Kerlin promised them a percentage of whatever oil and mineral royalties accrued.

They never received a penny in royalties, according to evidence presented during the civil trial.

Mr. Kerlin didn't move to Padre Island or try to develop it. He simply made a lot of money out of underground and undersea royalties. His deal included the water between Padre and the Texas coast.

Over the years, he sold the land, which has since been turned into resort hotels and condominiums.

Padre Island is 130 miles long and about 3 miles wide. The Padre Island National Seashore, opened in 1968, is 67.5 miles long.

Mr. Kerlin's lawyers argued that the Balli family had already sold the island to Mexican investors generations before they made the deal with him. But Mexican documents indicated the sale to Mexican investors was canceled.

The tip-off about where the all Hispanic jury was headed came Monday when the foreman sent out a note to Judge Patrick McDowell asking for a calculator. Within hours, another request came from the deliberative body, this time asking for a specific type of calculator a large desk-type one.

Jurors, in a stinging rebuke, ruled that Mr. Kerlin committed fraud, conspired against the Balli family and acted maliciously. They must now decide how much Mr. Kerlin owes the plaintiffs.

"I had a feeling this was coming, that we were going to finally get justice," said Rebecca Gomez Sexton of McAllen, as she and other plaintiffs in the case celebrated yesterday.

"This isn't about money," said Mrs. Gomez, "It's about pride, and what is right."

"Mark this date down," said a grinning Jose Garcia, "because today is when the doors open and justice walks in."

This fall a similar case will be heard in Sarita, a town with more cattle than people. Balli descendants claim property was stolen from them that became part of a huge Texas ranch just north of the famed King Ranch and fairly close to Corpus Christi.

Judge McDowell, a senior visiting judge from Dallas, who is fast becoming an expert on south Texas land holdings, will be the judge in the Sarita case also.

Some of the plaintiffs in the Brownsville case will be in the same role in Sarita; some will not participate.

The Balli decision is "revolutionary," said Armando C. Alonzo, associate professor of history at Texas A&M; University and author of "Tejano Legacy: Rancheros and Settlers in South Texas."

"It serves as a model. It sets a precedent for other Hispanics in other parts of the Southwest to look seriously into the possibility of obtaining equity in the courts," Mr. Alonzo told the Associated Press.

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