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Where there is no will, there's need to be wary

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 25, 2002


Our story begins last May 27 with the passing of one Morris J. Desbonnet, 78, after a debilitating illness. He lived in his own modest condominium in the Gateway area of Pinellas County.

Desbonnet (pronounced "des-bon-AY") left behind his home, cash in the bank, and no known immediate family. An early estimate valued the estate at $90,000 in cash and property, although the true sum is probably less.

He never signed any of the wills prepared by his lawyer that would have left his possessions to a longtime companion. Sadly, this companion took his own life just days later.

Three weeks afterward, in mid June, a Yellow Cab driver named Floyd Lamore, 52, and his girlfriend, Roberta Wheeler, 44, a former legal assistant, appeared at the Clerk of Circuit Court's office with a will.

They reported that Desbonnet had signed it just days before his death. The will left a substantial portion of the estate to Floyd Lamore, who through another acquaintance had befriended Desbonnet in his final months.

Unfortunately for Floyd and Roberta, they were arrested on July 3 by detectives of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office on the charge of uttering a forged instrument. Roberta's own parents told investigators they had found drafts of the will, as written by Roberta on their home computer, in their wastebasket.

At the time of the arrest, Floyd and Roberta were going through a falling-out. So Roberta signed a statement declaring that the will was invalid. But they later reconciled and she has since recanted.

It is fair to say that Floyd is not going gently through the legal system.

He fired the court-appointed lawyer who advised him to plead out and now acts as his own attorney. Floyd refused a plea-bargain offer of probation, even though, in theory, he faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

He has papered the court with motions, being sure to use phrases such as stare decisis. Floyd's initial argument for dismissal was this: The will had not been declared invalid in probate court. How could he and Roberta be said to have filed a false instrument?

But in February, the probate judge, David Seth Walker, declared the will to be invalid because it was improperly witnessed. Floyd was not discouraged. He filed a new motion: Since there now is no will, how can he and Roberta be guilty of falsifying it?

For some weeks now, Floyd has been peppering me with e-mails and documents.

I told him, Floyd, do not be disappointed, but what if I am not, shall we say, entirely convinced of your innocence? Floyd said, that's okay, that's not the point, you can still expose the workings of the courthouse.

So I met Floyd and Roberta for coffee at a restaurant in Pinellas Park. He was a perfectly normal looking guy, actually a little younger in appearance than 52, with chestnut hair and wearing a print shirt and a pair of shorts.

Floyd is outraged. He says he is not getting proper notices of the proceedings. He says he was not invited to the deposition of state witnesses, and has had trouble being allowed to take depositions of his own. "I'm trying to do this professionally," he complained.

Floyd and Roberta's basic defense is the claim that Roberta's family and an ex-boyfriend are behind these charges to get rid of Floyd. "They figure if they can get him in jail, problem solved," Roberta said. Naturally, this is contrary to the family's account of events.

Floyd's motions will be heard in April and his trial date is June 4. Roberta's case is being handled separately by the public defender.

I asked Floyd if he will waive a jury trial. "Oh, no," he said. "I'm going to do a very good legal presentation." The state will have to go to the trouble of proving that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which, after all, is the way our system is supposed to work.

As for the estate of Morris J. Desbonnet, Floyd is entirely out of the picture now that the will is invalid. A lawyer is representing the interests of four first cousins, a first cousin once removed and a first cousin twice removed, all of whom may be the valid heirs as the next available kin, under Florida law.

I tell Floyd as we say goodbye that he is crazy, unless he is innocent.

"Maybe both," Floyd grins.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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