- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

DALLAS Former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith squares off against two former stepsons this week in a will dispute said to be worth more than $1.5 billion.

The former topless dancer and movie bit player known in this case as Vickie Lynn Marshall claims that Houston oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, whom she married when he was nearly 89 and she was 26, promised her half his fortune at that time.

Apparently he never got around to putting his promise on paper, because when he died in 1995 at 90, the only will found was one in which he left virtually his entire estate to E. Pierce Marshall of Dallas. Another surviving son, H. Howard Marshall III of Los Angeles, was left nothing.

Jury selection begins tomorrow in Houston in the case, the biggest probate battle since lawyers fought over Howard Hughes' vast estate a generation ago.

The Texas case is somewhat unique in that it follows a California trial in which Mrs. Marshall filed for bankruptcy, Pierce Marshall was sanctioned by a judge for refusing to supply evidence or give a deposition, and the judge hinted strongly that he believed Mrs. Marshall might be entitled to as much as half the estate. A final ruling in that case is pending.

"If California and Texas rulings end up in conflict, I think there's a very significant jurisdictional issue," said Don Jackson, a Dallas lawyer for Pierce Marshall.

Under Texas law, the blond ex-model would be entitled to half the property accumulated during the marriage, which lasted 14 months until the elderly billionaire died. Lawyers representing the Dallas son claim that $8 million worth of gifts she received during the marriage more than cover that.

They claim further that the elder Mr. Marshall put almost all his assets in trusts before his death, and had little left to disperse.

Mrs. Marshall testified in the California case that Mr. Marshall talked with her many times about taking care of her after his death.

"He promised me half of everything because he loved me and he wanted to make me happy," she said. "He bought me just about anything I wanted. He loved to surprise me."

The California brother says he believes at least a portion of Mrs. Marshall's story. "I don't think she's guilty of all the nefarious things that people are saying," he testified.

His allegiance with his former stepmother against the Dallas brother, Pierce, adds more flavor to a scenario already rife with lurid accusations of conspiracy and financial and sexual cheating.

Judge Mike Wood has agreed to allow one television camera inside the courtroom but said he might order it turned off during some of the more bizarre testimony.

In 1960, long before the grizzled oil man met the former Playboy model at a Houston topless bar, he divorced his first wife the mother of Pierce and J. Howard III and married his secretary. When his second wife died in 1991, gifts to a mistress he had been supporting prompted legal battles.

The irony that now pits brother against brother stems from a disagreement father and son (the two Howards) had in the early 1980s during a battle for control of Koch Industries. Large holdings in Koch continue to be the bulk of the Marshall fortune, insiders claim.

J. Howard Marshall III reportedly told his father he planned to back a dissident group that was trying to take over Koch. His shares, mostly given him by his father, were said to be enough to swing the election. The elder Mr. Marshall threatened to disinherit his son unless he sold back his Koch stock for $8 million.

Attorneys for the California son claim he sold back the Koch stock and the father withdrew the disinheritance threat. However, Pierce Marshall's lawyers claim their client feels "obligated" to bow to his father's wishes, pointing out that such instructions were reiterated in almost every probate filing since 1982.

The brothers, both in their 60s and very wealthy, have refused to be interviewed.

The trial is expected to last more than two months.

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