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Beer brawl: The broken pieces of a millionaire marrieage

By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

Tom Pepin
Terry Pepin
TAMPA -- As part of an elementary school project on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Tom Pepin's daughter wrote:

"I have a dream. . . . That my Dad stops drinking and quits his Budweiser business and asks for forgiveness from my Mom."

Pepin doesn't think his daughter came up with that theme on her own. "She has no correlation to alcohol, its behavior and/or the business that I'm in," he testified later. "She is not of the mental latitude to have come up with that information."

He thinks his ex-wife, Terry, put her up to it. "It is Terry's dream," he said.

The disputed essay was part of a long-running divorce battle marked by allegations of alcoholism and greed, infidelity and abuse, and a heartbreaking fight over how the Pepins will divide time with their four young daughters. Pepin vs. Pepin is like many other breakups, except that Tom Pepin's job isn't tending bar or driving a beer truck.

The 49-year-old Avila resident is president, chief executive and owner of Pepin Distributing Co., a heavyweight in Tampa business with a history of local philanthropy and the exclusive right to distribute Anheuser-Busch products throughout Hillsborough and much of Pasco County.

That means Pepin gets a cut on every bottle, can and keg of Budweiser and Michelob sold, from the bars of Ybor City to the supermarkets of Dade City. Company sales in 2001 reached $120-million. Tom's income from the beer business a year earlier was $5-million, according to his tax return.

Tom Pepin filed for divorce in August 2000, and it was granted this April. Terry has been given "primary residential responsibility" for the children, although they continue to battle over how much time with them Tom is entitled to. Meanwhile, the couple's bare-knuckle fight over money and property grinds on in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. Trial is set to begin in September.

Thousands of pages in the court files spell out details of a breakup that echoes through Tampa's business and social elite. This article was drawn from those and other public documents, supplemented by the limited comments that the Pepins' representatives would provide.

Tom says prenuptial and postnuptial agreements the couple signed are valid and entitle him to all of Pepin Distributing. Terry says she was tricked and pressured into signing the pacts and wants a share of the company's value.

Each has resorted to personal attacks. Terry, 44, says Tom hit her, had an affair with a family babysitter and abused alcohol and cocaine, all of which he denies. At one point, she pressed Judge Wayne Timmerman to prohibit him from overnight and unsupervised visits with the children.

"In my opinion, my ex-wife and her attorneys are attempting to leverage a larger divorce settlement by attacking my personal reputation and Pepin Distribution Co.," Tom wrote in a letter to the St. Petersburg Times. Denouncing what he called Terry's "numerous false allegations," he wrote that he has been "doing my best to keep my children from being adversely affected by this litigation."

Tom alleges that Terry beat the girls with a wooden spoon and that after the separation began dating a man she presented to the kids as a "replacement dad." Terry denies those allegations.

She also denies that she has been criticizing him and Pepin Distributing in influential circles.

Tom says she bad-mouthed him to friends and members of Tampa's power structure, including Mayor Dick Greco, Monsignor Laurence Higgins of St. Lawrence Catholic Church and former Tampa Tribune sports columnist Tom McEwen. He also alleges Terry is bending ears about the "evil nature of the products that I distribute" and has threatened to complain about Tom to Anheuser-Busch chairman August Busch III.

That, Tom says, could trigger a reputation clause that allows the St. Louis brewer to buy out Pepin Distributing's contract at a fraction of its market value.

And that would force Tom Pepin out of the beer business, just as his daughter -- or ex-wife -- had dreamed.

* * *

The late Art Pepin, Tom's father, started the family beer business.

A native of Newport, Vt., he spent his early adulthood tending bar, working construction and selling cemetery lots, according to an homage written by close friend McEwen, Pep: The Fun, Full Life of a Man With Heart.

Art got his first break in the beer business when a friend recommended him for a Blatz distributorship in Burlington, Vt., in 1953. He proved masterful at getting bar owners to switch their taps to his product. A Schlitz distributorship followed. By 1957, he had his first Anheuser-Busch distributorship, in Manchester, N.H. Later, he traded up to Florida franchises, first in Gainesville and, in 1967, in Tampa.

Art embraced the Anheuser-Busch culture with gusto, building a swimming pool shaped like a Michelob bottle at the Temple Terrace home he shared with his wife, Polly. He enthusiastically donned a blazer covered with images of Budweiser labels at countless parties, and he cultivated his friendship with then-chairman August A. "Gussie" Busch Jr., who had a house in St. Pete Beach and spent each spring watching his St. Louis Cardinals practice at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg.

Tom Pepin commissioned McEwen's book, and in its forward he gave his dad the ultimate Pepin family compliment: "He epitomizes pride, courage, ambition, faith, love of life and an abiding dedication to country and Anheuser-Busch."

Anheuser-Busch distributorships are highly coveted. Each distributor is given exclusive rights in a geographic area to wholesale the world's top-selling beers, led by Budweiser. The brewer holds a 49 percent share of the U.S. beer market.

Traditionally, the Busch family dispensed distributorships to friends and family. The Pepins benefited from this system. When Gussie Busch decided to reward Cardinals star player Roger Maris for helping win the 1967 World Series, he gave him Art Pepin's Gainesville distributorship. Art gladly traded up for the larger Tampa region.

By the time he died in 2000, Art Pepin had become one of the city's best-known corporate citizens, eulogized by Mayor Greco at a Mass that drew more than 500 people. He left behind many achievements, including the Pepin Heart and Vascular Institute at University Community Hospital in Tampa, a restored Pepin-Rood Stadium at the University of Tampa and Pepin Academy, a high school for students with learning disabilities. Tom Pepin and Pepin Distributing have maintained that tradition, supporting community programs such as Take Stock in Children and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Art Pepin also left behind a beer distributorship producing millions a year in profits.

* * *

Tom Pepin quickly climbed the rungs of the family business. After graduating from Middlebury College, a Vermont school where he and his father played football, he signed on as a sales representative at Pepin Distributing in 1975.

By 1977, he had become an assistant sales manager. In late 1983, he was named president. His father stayed on as board chairman.

There were obstacles. In 1977, according to McEwen's book, Tom Pepin had a boating accident. He suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung, a damaged spleen and broken jaw. A priest administered last rites. Pepin survived.

The following year, Tampa police, acting on a tip, entered Art and Polly Pepin's riverfront estate with guns drawn. According to a police report filed at the time, they found cocaine, Quaaludes, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a scale and $3,292 in cash. They arrested 24-year-old Tom on several felony charges, including possession of cocaine with intent to deliver. The case was dismissed when his attorneys found a procedural flaw in the search warrant, according to court files.

In 1986, the year Art Pepin received a heart transplant, Tom, his brother and two sisters purchased Pepin Distributing from their dad for $12.5-million.

Tom's initial share was 51 percent. Years later, his brother and sisters sold their shares back to the company. Today, Tom owns 90 percent, while a trust for his daughters holds the remainder.

On a romantic cruise to the Virgin Islands in the spring of 1987, Tom proposed marriage to Terry Lea Pitzerell, a 29-year-old department store saleswoman and former Eastern Airlines flight attendant he had known since 1978. After arriving in St. Croix, the newly betrothed couple called 150 family members and friends and flew them in for the ceremony.

On the recommendation of his father and Pepin Distributing chief financial officer Bob Ammon, Tom says, he also called a Tampa lawyer and asked him to prepare a prenuptial agreement that would protect his recent purchase of Pepin Distributing shares. The document was delivered to St. Croix.

What happened next is a matter of considerable debate, according to court filings. Terry says Tom wouldn't let her have independent counsel review the draft. She also says a financial disclosure form Tom provided valued his newly acquired 51 percent share in Pepin Distributing, for which he had paid millions, at $5,100. Tom disagrees, saying Terry was well aware of his wealth and that his uncle, former Vermont judge Andrew Pepin, served as Terry's attorney for the prenuptial agreement.

Judge Pepin has his own take. He says he merely read the document to Terry in her hotel bedroom and that, ignorant of Florida divorce law and unlicensed in the state, he did not provide her any legal advice.

"I was just thrown into this," he testified in a deposition. "If they had told me when I was up in Vermont, 'We're going to want you to represent Terry,' I would have said, 'You've got rocks in your head.' "

This much is uncontested: Tom and Terry each signed the document on April 24, 1987, and were married the next day.

* * *

The marriage was eventful from the start.

In 1988, Terry consulted a physician because she was having difficulty conceiving. The following year, she and her brother James Pitzerell were arrested after a routine traffic stop in Tampa, James for drunk driving and possession of marijuana, Terry for resisting arrest without violence. According to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, they were traveling in a new Lincoln Continental titled in the name of Pepin Distributing Co. James Pitzerell served probation and community service; Terry was referred to a misdemeanor intervention program.

By late 1990, Tom says, the couple was contemplating divorce. Concerned that Terry might someday raise questions about the execution of the prenuptial agreement, and set on acquiring a 100 percent interest in Pepin Distributing, Tom had attorneys draw up a postnuptial agreement that affirmed the basic tenets of the prenup while updating it.

The outcome of Pepin vs. Pepin may depend on whether the judge agrees that the postnup is valid and enforceable. Facts about its execution are disputed. Tom says Terry consulted several attorneys before voluntarily signing the document. Terry says Tom gave her an ultimatum: Sign it or forget plans to conceive a child through in vitro fertilization, an assertion Tom denies. She signed the agreement in early 1991.

Signing the pact did little to reduce the marriage's volatility. Tom filed for divorce eight months later, then dropped the suit in April 1992. Terry bore the couple's first children, twins, in February 1993. They had a third in 1994 and a fourth in 1997.

No one has disputed that the Pepins love their children. "Both parents are clearly bonded to their children and, in response, their children are attached to them," a court-appointed psychologist testified.

The couple had a luxurious lifestyle. They enrolled the children in a pricey private school in Tampa. They hired nannies and housekeepers. Terry's spare car was a 1983 Rolls Royce. In January 2000, the family moved into a new house in the exclusive Avila development in North Tampa.

In spring 2000, however, Tom bought and moved into another Avila home a mile away. His father died that June. Tom filed for divorce in August.

His petition was simple. It said the marriage was broken and that the postnuptial agreement should govern the disposition of assets. That would mean payments totaling more than $900,000 over 13 years; child support; health insurance and other benefits, according to Tom. But Pepin Distributing would remain Tom's alone, as would their two Avila homes.

Terry countered that the postnuptial agreement was based on coercion and deceit and therefore invalid. It was also, she said, "grossly financially disproportionate" in Tom's favor. Without specifying a dollar value, she demanded an "equitable distribution" of the assets they acquired during the marriage, as well as the enhanced value of any assets Tom owned previously. She also sought alimony and their original Avila home.

"Terry bore Tom four beautiful children and made significant contributions to the parties' marriage, not only as a mother, but also as a mate who was involved in a meaningful way in Tom's life and success," her attorney, Ron Russo of Tampa, said in a statement to the Times. "Accordingly, Terry has also asked the court to provide her with economic benefits for herself and, because she is the primary residential parent, for the children, in a manner consistent with the parties' lifestyle and applicable Florida law."

Allegations flew, especially during arguments over where the children should live, and few were proven.

Tom, for example, maintains he is not an alcoholic or drug abuser and drinks beer and wine only occasionally. Terry has been unable to prove otherwise, even after hiring a private investigator to tail him last year. As the arguments raged, Tom consented to visit the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (Terry once stayed there and admits she is a recovering alcoholic.)

Motions were tossed like grenades. Tom asked that Terry be subject to psychological and vocational assessments. "She can, and should be required to, support herself," his lawyers wrote. Terry urged the judge to jail Tom for failing to fully abide by a temporary agreement that provided her up to $75,000 for a new car, $15,000 a month for household expenses and an unspecified amount for breast augmentation surgery, among other things.

Pepin Distributing has sought a restraining order to prevent Terry from disparaging Tom in front of Anheuser-Busch or other business associates.

The beer distributor's attorney, Peter Hobson, said Anheuser-Busch is aware of its Tampa wholesaler's messy divorce and has not wavered in its support.

"Pepin Distributing Co. has enjoyed a great relationship with Anheuser-Busch over the past 40 years," he said in a statement. "The relationship is still strong."

* * *

Last month, Tom Pepin and his four daughters attended a fundraising ball in Tampa for Ronald McDonald House Charities. In keeping with the 101 Dalmatians theme, they brought Buddy, the Dalmatian dog seen in Budweiser commercials.

"When we get into something, we get into it with both paws," Tom said.

Even as his war with ex-wife Terry rages on, Tom Pepin continues to keep a stiff upper lip in public. His benefactor, Anheuser-Busch, demands it. His future depends on it. Pepin Distributing will move into a new, larger warehouse next year.

"The name Pepin," Tom's father said a year before his death, "is but a synonym for Busch, Budweiser and Michelob."

-- Times researchers Caryn Baird, Mary Mellstrom and John Martin contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at or (727) 893-8751.

Beer by the barrel

From July 2000 to June 2001, Pepin Distributing Co. of Tampa sold:

  • 166.5-million pints;
  • 4.9-million quarts; and
  • 2.3-million bulk gallons of beer

-- Source: Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation

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