1. Archive

Settlement divides fortune of an unlikely millionaire

Around his deteriorating home in a fashionable neighborhood, neighbors knew Henry Chapman only as an elderly hermit. On rare sightings, the sad old man wore tattered clothes, wreaked of urine and cheap cigars and shunned conversation.

In fact, Chapman was an eccentric and fanatically frugal millionaire. He lived isolated among cobwebs and filth while pouring over the stock tables and monitoring his growing riches. His death, in June 2000, exposed the remarkable truth about the intensely private man.

Henry Chapman, 84, was worth more than $6-million, and the vast majority of that money was willed to his tax preparer, Larry Welke, who helped him write a new will as Chapman's health seriously deteriorated.

Chapman's relatives cried foul, and for more than a year the dispute has slogged through Probate Court with accusations of fraud and exploitation. Now Welke and Chapman's out-of-state relatives have reached a settlement that ensures that, in the end, most everybody will wind up with a piece of the hermit of 20th Avenue NE.

"I'm glad it's over and done. They got their million. I got mine," Welke, 66, said Thursday.

Under the settlement, which still must be approved by a judge, cousin Frank Chapman of California agrees to withdraw his challenge of the will in exchange for $1.375-million. He also has an option to buy Chapman's home "as is" for $200,000, which he said he may let his attorney buy.

With the estate now valued at about $5.5-million, and state and federal taxes eating more than half of that, Welke will still receive more than $1-million. Another $150,000 goes to other Chapman relatives, while his 20th Avenue NE neighbors, James and Pat Craven, receive $5,000 and his lawn man, Anthony Glenn of St. Petersburg, gets $500.

"I'm not sure justice is served," said Frank Chapman, 88. "I'm convinced Henry's wishes were not carried out and that he would have wanted his estate _ which is inherited family money _ to go to the family. I realize that Chapman family money is going into the hands of someone who doesn't have a right to it, but I just wanted to resolve it one way or another."

The Times chronicled the story of Henry Chapman and his will in February. Among nine beneficiaries of the will, everybody but Welke expressed serious doubts about its legitimacy, including several who stood to lose money if the will were thrown out.

Fueling suspicions was Welke's criminal record. In 1989 he pleaded no contest to exploitation of the elderly and paid more than $61,000 in restitution after he and another woman gained control over an 89-year-old woman's assets. Welke says he did nothing wrong and merely tried to help the woman.

Then there was the way Welke executed the 1998 will, which replaced a 1954 will that left Chapman's estate entirely to relatives.

Chapman insisted he wanted no lawyers involved, Welke said. So after typing Chapman's new will, Welke took him to a grimy St. Petersburg auto repair shop, Fred's Garage, to have it notarized by owner Fred Long. Long is a buddy of Welke's with his own criminal record. In 1994 Long pleaded no contest to falsely notarizing a document and grand theft, and he pleaded no contest in 1993 to dealing in stolen jewelry and stereo equipment.

State officials said had they known of those legal troubles, Long would have lost his notary license.

Never married, Chapman lived with his parents until their deaths. He lived alone since 1984, sliding into isolation with virtually no friends and rare visits from family members. Welke says he was Chapman's only real friend and the only person watching out for him.

But just two weeks after his new will was complete, paramedics responding to a 911 call discovered an emaciated Chapman lying on the floor of his filthy home. He weighed 102 pounds, and paramedics reported finding only a box of cornflakes in the house. Chapman moved into a nursing home after that.

Welke said more food must have been there, because he had brought some to him recently.

"I didn't do the will on my own; I did what Henry wanted," Welke said, accusing Chapman's relatives and their lawyers of being driven by greed. "They just felt squeezed out, like they squeezed Henry out of their lives."

Glenn, who came to admire and frequently visit Chapman in a nursing home, is sure the will is bogus because he said Chapman never trusted Welke. The lawn man said he will invest his $500 in stocks, which Chapman would have liked.

"But I know that Mr. Chapman did not leave me $500, in the same way I know that I know he did not leave Mr. Welke money," Glenn said.