- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

KENEDY, Texas — This weekend, if Corpus Christi Medical Examiner Ray Fernandez has his way, a couple dozen lawyers, medical experts and reporters will congregate at a small cemetery here to watch the exhumation of a famous Texas rancher — perhaps the initial step in opening a Pandora’s box of Texas history.

Mr. Fernandez, 44, on behalf of his mother, Ann, has sued one of Texas’ wealthiest foundations, claiming that its namesake, John G. Kenedy, was the father of Mr. Fernandez’s mother, the love child of a maid in the Kenedy household.

Mr. Kenedy, grandson of one of the co-founders of the famed King Ranch just a few miles south of here and owner of La Parra, a 400,000-acre spread that once was the second largest in the state, died in 1948.

He was buried in a private cemetery just behind the main house on his sister Sarita’s equally vast ranch, four miles east of this small town of 425, which is now a private religious retreat called Lebh Shomea. It is approximately 60 miles south of Corpus Christi.

It has already been a legal battle royale.

An Austin judge originally ruled there was enough evidence to examine the Kenedy remains for DNA, but two powerful south Texas groups, a nonprofit trust and foundation, have fought to halt the procedure.

The state’s 13th Court of Appeals granted a stay, then lifted it last month. State Probate Judge Guy Herman ordered the exhumation to begin July 10. Then last week, those administering the Kenedy estate refiled their objection. A ruling on that filing is expected sometime this week.

The unusual case could involve much more than a Strom Thurmond-type disclosure — a family never publicly recognized, some financial restructuring required — because in this case the estate of Mr. Kenedy has been instrumental in funding scores of religious trusts, hospitals, schools and mostly Catholic endeavors.

The John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust controls more than $77 million in assets while the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation controls more than $200 million.

“It’s not about money,” Mr. Fernandez said recently. “It’s about our heritage, our lineage. It’s our family.”

Those battling to stop Mr. Fernandez don’t believe that.

“How can anybody think it’s not about money?” said one Corpus Christi lawyer. “That land is worth more than a billion dollars alone. Do you think the Fernandez family would walk away from that?”

Since 2001, Mrs. Fernandez — the daughter of Mr. Kenedy’s one-time housemaid, Maria Rowland Goates, has claimed she is Mr. Kenedy’s granddaughter.

It came via a deathbed conversation between the Nueces County medical examiner and his 93-year-old grandmother in 2001. According to Mr. Fernandez, the dying woman reached up and said to him, “You look like your grandfather, John Kenedy.”

“I thought it was merely the rambling of an old, fading woman,” he said. “I originally thought maybe she was referring to JFK or his son, but it nagged at me, haunted me.”

He soon went to Waco to examine his mother’s baptism certificate. The line that should have identified her father was blank.

From that point, and from the recollections of other Kenedy relatives or confidants, he discovered that for several years, his grandmother, Mrs. Goates, had worked for John G. Kenedy Jr. — enough, he reasoned, to begin to try to match DNA “and find the truth.”

Throughout several ensuing court filings, they have tried to match DNA, to no avail. Testing of Mr. Kenedy’s hair was inconclusive, but genetic testing of saliva samples — taken from a known Kenedy descendant living in Raymondville, Texas, and an envelope believed to have been licked by Mr. Kenedy’s mother — showed some relation to Mrs. Fernandez.

Mr. Kenedy and his wife, Elena, had no recognized children. For generations it was assumed that Mr. Kenedy had been sterile, said to have been made so as a result of contracting a severe case of mumps when a teenager.

Mr. Fernandez’s mother, now beset with dementia, lives in a nursing facility in Corpus Christi. He said the lengthy legal battle has not affected his role as county medical examiner.

“I still handle about 300 autopsies a year,” he said. “Can’t say I have slowed down.”

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