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Old family keeps trying for a slice of old Manhattan

Tuesday, September 07, 1999

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The descendants of a Welsh pirate claim they have the rightful title to billions of dollars worth of Lower Manhattan, including some of the most pricey earth on Earth: land under the World Trade Center, part of Wall Street and acres of New York City steel and concrete.

They also believe a stone-silent conspiracy is still denying them this family spread three centuries after it was bequeathed to them by their 18th century ancestor.

But before they can finally stake their claim to Manhattan, the Edwards family has to fight the battle of Blair County.

About $1.46 million was pooled from family members around the country to finance the treasure hunt. Accusers say the kin who led the fight siphoned off money for personal loan collateral, a jaunt to Disney World, rodeo jackets, cowboy boots, a Canadian fishing trip and a small mountain of undocumented expenses.

This week, the fight over the assets of the Hollidaysburg, Blair County-based Pennsylvania Association of Edwards Heirs comes up in federal court in Pittsburgh before Chief Judge Donald E. Ziegler.

But accuser Cleoma Foore said she is pessimistic that much will come of it, because a Georgia savings and loan and a defendant who declared bankruptcy have been freed from the suit. And only two defendants remain -- an Altoona man and a State College-area woman who both say they're blameless.

Edwards Heirs attorney John Smarto of Greensburg said that even if he wins, the two remaining defendants won't be good for much more than small change.

In 1983, the association was formed to fund the search for the fortune by soliciting $450 apiece from 3,260 would-be heirs across Pennsylvania and 37 other states.

By 1988, the quest for the fortune had gone nowhere, the association headquarters in Hollidaysburg was padlocked, and the only trace of the $1.46 million was a bank account gone 35 cents to the bad.

So Foore, a retiree from rural Bedford County, was off, following the money, a quest that brought her the presidency of the now-moribund association and a years long slog through a paper trail. She estimates it also has cost her $200,000 of her own money.

It rattled her faith in basic honesty, but it didn't loosen her embrace of the Edwards Heirs lore.

"I'll always be a believer," Foore said at her home in Six Mile Run.

For believers, the story -- although riddled with variations, depending on who's doing the telling -- goes like this:

Robert Edwards was a Welsh-born buccaneer given 77 acres of largely unsettled Manhattan by Queen Anne of England for his service disrupting Spanish sea lanes. Edwards, who died in 1762, gave the property over in a 99-year lease to brothers John and George Cruger, with the understanding it would revert back to his heirs after that.

But it didn't.

Maybe the Crugers were wardens of Trinity Church, an Episcopal Church -- today, one of New York City's biggest land owners. Maybe everything was tangled in a muddle of colonial Manhattan land giveaways. But, according to family lore, the whole tract wound up in Trinity's hands.

Trinity indeed got a large slice of the land that seems to be described in the Edwards family account. But the church got the last of the ground in 1705, all of it directly from Queen Anne, according to a church pamphlet published in 1955, another time Trinity was bedeviled by Edwards claims.

Here, the family tale casts the Edwards clan as David versus Trinity's shadowy Goliath.

Church officials never owned up, according to the story, and all the profits from years of holding blocks of America's most valuable real estate is socked away in a well-hidden trust fund, maybe at Chase Manhattan Bank -- something Chase says is fantasy.

The pursuit is a passion for some Edwardses.

"I'm 67, and when I was 10, my grandfather used to say to my mother, 'You're a poor little rich girl,' " said Dolores Shupe, Edwards Heirs secretary, now retired and living on 64 acres outside West Newton. "To me, this isn't just a story because all these people all over the United States know the same facts.

"Prayerfully, I hope we can settle this. ... That's our land. Now, I wouldn't want to live up there, but it'd be nice to have a bit of the money."

Trinity's answer to all this, in a word, is balderdash. There are clusters of Edwards Heirs members across Western Pennsylvania, northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee. It's become a topic of occasional television and radio shows in Wales and England. And Trinity officials have heard from so many of them so often, they send out a form response to letter writers asking where the money is.

"On four occasions in the past, legal claims on Trinity land holdings have been advanced by persons purporting to represent the Edwards heirs," Trinity spokesman Tim Metz said. "Each one of these cases has been dismissed, dashing falsely raised hopes of the many people who pursued them."

A half-century ago, New York state Rep. Wilson Van Duzer sponsored legislation suggesting Trinity was holding land it didn't properly own and recommending a hard look to see if real estate that should be producing tax revenue was being protected. The bill died in committee.

The believers' Holy Grail would be a deed between Robert Edwards and the Crugers, said Philip Berrill, a British author and broadcaster, now sleuthing the Edwards story for a project he hopes will yield a television documentary and a book -- and maybe royalties for the Edwards Heirs treasury.

When he did a segment on the Edwards Heirs five years ago for a prime-time BBC television program called "Good Fortune," Berrill logged 1,800 calls from Britons offering threads of the story.

"Many of these people have passionately believed, through the Depression, through the war, that this money would come to them from America," Berrill said. "It's more a passion based on emotion than based on fact."

One problem woven into the fortune quest, though, is that "it's a charter for would-be fraudsters," Berrill said. Fourteen years ago, in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Better Business Bureau sent out warnings to alert pockets of Edwardses in eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia of what it called a "missing heir scheme." The group said promoters were convicted of fraud when they solicited cash in return for fortune-hunting Edwardses' quests in the 1930s and 1950s.

This time, the problems came from inside the family.

The lawsuit to be argued in federal court this week charges:

Association cash was spent on such vaguely described items as "services rendered" and "advance expenses." Officers ran up about $95,000 in American Express bills without documentation.

David Paul Rightenour of Altoona and Douglas Wayne Edwards of Canton, Ga., used Edwards Heirs certificates of deposit for collateral on personal loans on which they defaulted. Edwards was responsible for having $311,000 in association cash wired to the North Georgia Savings and Loan Association, collateralized at least eight loans with Edwards Heirs money and used that money to repay the loans.

The Edwards Heirs claimed Rightenour used $36,909 the association paid him for his expenses to buy a Mercedes-Benz in 1985, then traded it for a Chevrolet Blazer he first titled to the association, then to himself and his wife. The association filed a criminal complaint in Blair County, got the Blazer back, and Rightenour was placed in the county's accelerated rehabilitative disposition program, leaving him with no criminal record.

Officers financed failed businesses with association money and covered their tracks on all their misdeeds by lying and destroying records.

Smarto was counting on showing that North Georgia S&L was a willing accomplice to all this and wanted to sue its successor, Wachovia Bank of Georgia, to cover a large share of the damages. But another federal court ruling shielded banks from liability in allegations that they were accomplices in racketeering cases.

By the time the list of defendants was winnowed down, Douglas Wayne Edwards was bankrupt and only Rightenour and former association secretary Bonnie Black Parsons of State College remained.

Both maintain their innocence.

"I don't know why we're here," said Parsons' lawyer, Alan R. Krier of Altoona. "[Wachovia] was the target. Everybody else was surplus."

"They spent most of the money on legitimate expenses," said Rightenour's lawyer, David Mason of Philipsburg, Centre County. "I don't think they'll get a judgment against my client, and if they do, it won't be $1.5 million."

Foore acknowledges that barring a higher court decision that destroys Wachovia's shield, the best she might hope for is a moral victory. In the end, most of the association's 3,260 members are paying scant attention to the court case anyway, she said.

But Shupe -- retired, widowed and crippled by arthritis -- reckons the money will be here in her lifetime.

"It'd probably be at least $1 million apiece," she said. "And I've made a promise to the Lord that if we get it, I'll give 10 percent to the church."

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