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Money can't buy better relatives

They sat facing the news cameras, four members of the Wallace family, holding hands and shoring each other up through this bad patch, the way families do. Only in better clothes.

If you haven't heard tell of the Wallaces of Tampa, you should know their ranks include a man who helped build a family fortune selling RVs, his decades-younger knockout of a wife, his elderly mother in pearls, and a couple of eyebrow-raising marriages thrown in for gossip's sake.

And, as it turns out, one Faulkneresque tale to tell us this week.

Because apparently, even if you live in a new-money waterfront mansion so sprawling some people call it La Quinta, even if you're always first to raise your bid paddle at charity auctions and pen fat checks for good causes, even if you routinely dress like you're headed down the red carpet, you still have to deal with family — the good, the bad, and sometimes the felonious.

As the photographer at my wedding put it, there's always one uncle. Or in this case, sister.

"My nutty sister," 59-year-old Don Wallace told us, his wife close by his side. "Everybody's got one, every sister's got a nutty brother. … This was different. This was something that could devastate my family, my children."

Flanked on the other side by his mother and her husband, he sat in his downtown lawyer's office telling a story the family figured would make news once it got out anyway.

Tennessee Williams, who always liked a mad heroine, could have taken a shot at this one: Sister in South Carolina, described as jealous of not being in on the family empire, accuses successful brother in Tampa of impregnating her daughter, who is also his niece, and who is described as a mentally unstable liar. A baby girl is born. (We can stop here a second so you can connect those branches on the family tree.)

Sister, in cahoots with her husband and daughter (a.k.a. the niece), makes threats to brother. He absolutely denies it. E-mails fly between Southern states. A cool $1.2-million payoff is mentioned to keep them from going public with their story — one that DNA tests and, ultimately, police determine is untrue.

And you thought your family was a pain.

So all three relatives — Wallace's sister, brother-in-law and niece — are arrested on charges of extortion, conspiracy and making threats. In a mild Southern accent, Wallace called it "a real tragedy in our family." Sometimes his eyes held tears.

Initial comments to Web site versions of this week's story were on the snarky side, with some in-the-know readers pointing out that Wallace's wife, Erika, is actually his previous wife's niece.

Hey, I like seeing the Thurston Howell IIIs of the world, guys I assume can buy and sell an island on a whim, taken down a peg as much as the next guy — when they deserve it.

But that was real pain on the man's face, and on the faces of his family, not some special Trumped-up rich-guy pain.

A reporter asked Wallace's big-time lawyer and friend Barry Cohen what he wanted to happen to the accused. Cohen talked of punishment.

Then Don Wallace leaned forward and said quietly, "And I'm going to be telling them that mercy is a wonderful quality." It was, after all, family.

Money can't buy better relatives 06/12/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 14, 2008 11:09pm]
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