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Would-be heirs keep alive pursuit of 'meritless' oil riches

Sunday, March 05, 2000

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published March 7, 2000) The first oil well that was commercially productive in the United States was in Titusville, Crawford County. A story about the Spindletop well in Beaumont, Texas, was incorrect.

For years, thousands of people have chased a dream that they were heirs to a vast, secret fortune that gushed from the ground at the famed Spindletop oil well in Texas and purportedly is tucked away in the coffers of Mellon Bank.

Even a ruling five years ago by a Common Pleas judge that there was no evidence of any such fortune has failed to extinguish their dream.

And many of the dreamers continue to pour their own modest fortunes, in increments of $20 and $25 and $30 at a time, into efforts to claim the elusive billions that are said to exist.

A Pittsburgh lawyer who spent years on the case has some advice for anyone who is asked to send money to protect a claim: Forget it.

People who believe that they are relatives of the late William and James Meadors -- or Medders or Meadows or Meeders, depending on whose spelling and whose documents you trust -- continue to visit a Web site, attend meetings, plunk down cash and otherwise persist in their 15-year quest for money, even though judges in Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania have found no credible evidence that the trust ever existed.

Richard A. Ferris, a Pittsburgh lawyer, spent several years representing an Ohio man and a Kentucky man who believed that they were heirs to the fortune.

James Clark of Cincinnati and his cousin Dan Profitt of Elsmere, Ky., say their great-uncle, James Meadors, was an oil driller who was deeded a one-eighth interest in mineral rights to 10 acres near Beaumont, Texas, the site of Spindletop, in 1911.

Spindletop was the first major oil strike in the United States.

Ferris has concluded that the case was, "a wild goose chase."

"We had no concrete evidence, despite various papers that turned up from time to time," he said. "I suspect that, over the years, many people have fabricated a lot of information."

"I had people show up at my office in Pittsburgh asking for loans against their share," he said. "I said, what share?"

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently fielded an inquiry from an Alabama woman. She said she sent $25 to a Kentucky woman who said she was pursuing the claim.

"I think I got hoodooed," she said.

The would-be heirs believe that they are descendants of James Meadors, who died Dec. 11, 1939, in Pittsburgh, and William Meadors, a carpenter who built oil derricks and also died in Pittsburgh in 1939. But neither man married nor had children.

The case was last in court in Pittsburgh in August 1995, when Meadors' relatives asserted in a court petition that Mellon Bank officials held the money and refused to distribute it.

In December 1995, Common Pleas Judge Robert A. Kelly ruled that Mary Meadows Allen of Nancy, Ky., had failed to show the existence of any such fortune in the hands of Mellon, and he dismissed the case.

Mellon Bank officials thought the story was dead.

"We haven't received any inquiries since the judge dismissed the case in 1995," Ron Gruendl, a spokesman for Mellon Bank, said last week.

A Pittsburgh lawyer who was briefly involved in the case called the trust "the legal equivalent of the Loch Ness monster" and a "UFO -- unidentified financial object."

Before Kelly held a hearing, the federal government weighed in with its opinion. In February 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice sent out a mass mailing, informing people that claims of the trust's existence were meritless. The mailing was in response to 2,400 letters from people who said the Justice Department had the money and was refusing to distribute it.

"We just wanted to get the story out to the consumers who were raising questions," said Ken Maddox, a Justice Department spokesman.

Eugene Thirolf, director of the Office of Consumer Litigation in the Justice Department, said the mailing helped.

"I think we have received, on occasion, an inquiry, but not anything like it was," he said.

None of this has stopped such people as Sarah Chapman of Daniels, W.Va., from sending $25 to a woman in Kentucky in an attempt to preserve her inheritance rights.

Chapman's name and phone number are one of many listed on a Web site where Meadors' relatives chat. The Web site displays a motto: "We will not go quietly into the night. We will not be banished without a fight."

Chapman also attended a meeting last summer in Owensboro, Ky., where Ann Helmon of Bowling Green, Ky., who has claimed to represent nearly 30,000 heirs, gave aspiring members of the extended Meadors family an update on the case. Those who attended paid $25 toward the cost of renting a large meeting room at a hotel.

After 15 years, Chapman still believes in the cause.

"I think they're making a lot of progress. They have a lawyer who's working on it. His name is Mike and they won't tell us his last name. When you've got 20,000 people, you can't give out his phone number and name."

Helmon declined to be interviewed, saying she did not believe the media would give her "a fair shake."

Helmon drew scrutiny from federal authorities five years ago, and there are indications that an investigation was begun. A grand jury subpoena was served on Mellon Bank by the U.S. attorney's office in Bowling Green at the time.

Helmon's name was familiar to Hancy Jones, first assistant in the U.S. attorney's office in Bowling Green.

"We had a file opened several years ago and were looking into these complaints. I thought the activity there had ceased," Jones said last week, declining to elaborate.

Corey Bellamy, a spokesman for the Kentucky attorney general's office, said the office was not investigating.

Although Ferris withdrew from the case several years ago, he still receives telephone calls related to the Meadors estate.

"I just got a call from an attorney from Huntsville, Ala., asking if her clients should pitch in 20 bucks to someone traveling around the country saying I'll protect your interest in this."

Belief in the trust, Ferris said, lives on at meetings in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

"It's a fantasy. Who wants to be a millionaire? Someone knocks on your door and says you're an heir. You'd be entitled to this billion dollar estate. Why don't you give me 50 bucks and I'll protect your interest?" Ferris said.

Ferris is skeptical of people leading the fight.

"Ann Helmon charges $20 at the door to get an update. I don't think she has any claim at all. I think she's making money off these $20 and $30 bills," he said.

The case will grind on, Ferris predicted, because "It's better to believe it than not believe it. Why ruin your dream?"

The numbers of people claiming to be heirs also defies logic, he said.

"I've had phone calls from all over the country. How many Meadors can there be out there?"

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