Family feud over Swissvale estate gets ugly in court

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A family feud over a Swissvale steamfitter's sizable estate has evolved from an ugly, private affair to a sordid, tabloid-worthy tale playing out in the public realm across three courts.

Filled with mud-slinging, an arrest, a deathbed marriage, allegations of document fraud and conniving relatives, the battle over Elwood Gaither's money has drawn the attention of Allegheny County's district attorney, an ethics commission and possibly a grand jury investigation.

Gaither, a blue-collar union worker, died last year at 61 from lung cancer. He went to his grave a wealthy man after numerous former employers settled a lawsuit accusing them of exposing Gaither to asbestos at job sites during his long career.

How much he was worth has not been disclosed; the settlements were confidential. But various figures in the public record put his estate at between $650,000 and $1.4 million.

Gaither also died a married man.

And that's where his family's disputes really began. Accusations have mounted that his 11th-hour wife and her relatives were angling for Gaither's assets.

By 2012, as Gaither ailed, an old sweetheart named Dinah Morris had begun caring for him.

They were hardly strangers. Court records show they had a child, Brittany Gaither, out of wedlock in 1989. Elwood Gaither paid child support over the years and was even forced to prove his paternity through a blood test.

Whether the couple had any other contact outside the court over the next two decades is unclear. But somehow, by last year Brittany Gaither's parents were back in touch.

That August, Elwood Gaither, flush from his settlements, paid $135,000 in cash for a house on Lafayette Street in Swissvale. And around September, the couple moved in together, according to court records.

Dinah Morris' sister, Darlene DeMarzo of Banksville, helped with Elwood Gaither's care. And Ms. DeMarzo was present Oct. 3, 2012, as Elwood Gaither, dying in his bed, married her sister. Three days later, Elwood Gaither was dead. And just last month, his widow died.

Were they in love?

Regina Dumas doesn't think so.

Ms. Dumas, 44, of the Hill District also claims to be Elwood Gaither's daughter, but not by Dinah Morris.

She is fighting with Brittany Gaither, 24, of Knoxville over control of the estate that belonged to the man they both called father.

In court papers Ms. Dumas and her attorney, P. William Bercik, have spun a story of intrigue that casts Brittany Gaither, her mother and aunt as villains who stooped to all sorts of nefarious behavior to take over Elwood Gaither's bank account, pension, Social Security funds, home and vehicle.

Attorney M. Lawrence Shields III, who is representing Brittany Gaither and Ms. DeMarzo, could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Dumas is not alone in her suspicions that Dinah Morris married Elwood Gaither as little more than a means to an end.

"They had no dealings with one another since Brittany was 3 years old," claimed Rosalee Reid, 83, of Lincoln-Lemington, who described herself as a surrogate mother to Elwood Gaither since he was a little boy.

Mrs. Reid said she became upset with what she believes was "lying and gold-digging" by the late Dinah Gaither.

"I'm just so upset with the way he had to leave this Earth," said Mrs. Reid. "It's unbelievable, in a way, what people will do."

Ms. Dumas sued Dinah Gaither and Ms. DeMarzo, claiming that the sisters "began taking control of Elwood Gaither's assets for their own benefit shortly after they began taking care of him."

Problems cropped up in August 2012, Ms. Dumas alleged, when Elwood Gaither's will was altered to cut Ms. Dumas out. Elwood Gaither never signed off on the change; instead, Brittany Gaither and her relatives wrote that he was too ill to sign the document, so he instructed her to make the change.

Although that will has since been withdrawn, it marked only one of several odd occurrences in the Gaither household.

In September 2012, Elwood Gaither apparently made Brittany Gaither, his-bride-to-be and Ms. DeMarzo beneficiaries on various union accounts.

The following week Swissvale police were called to Lafayette Street amid allegations that Ms. Dumas pulled a gun on Dinah Gaither and threatened her.

Ms. Dumas claimed she was licensed to carry a firearm, according to a police affidavit.

Police charged Ms. Dumas with simple assault. When the case went to a nonjury trial earlier this year, Dinah Gaither was the only one to testify.

Mr. Bercik defended Ms. Dumas and spent the entire time focused on the estate battle.

"That's a substantial estate, is it not?" Mr. Bercik asked, according to a court transcript.

"At the time I was not aware how substantial it was," Dinah Gaither replied.

"OK. But before that ... before you even got married to him, you had his life insurance changed over so that you would be a beneficiary. Is that not correct?"

"I took care of Elwood when Elwood didn't have a dime, when he had an aneurysm years ago."

All the testimony about the feud was enough for Judge Donna Jo McDaniel to find Ms. Dumas not guilty.

"I'm not going to waste this court's time anymore being a pawn in this family dispute," Judge McDaniel said.

Ms. Dumas accused the sisters of intending "to have her arrested on the false charges and have her sitting in jail while they depleted her father's estate, which is substantial," her lawsuit says.

They did so, Ms. Dumas claims, by taking advantage of Elwood Gaither's weakened, foggy state as the end neared.

On Oct. 3, 2012, with Elwood Gaither unable to move, write or even speak clearly, his imminent wife fast-tracked their wedding -- fraudulently, Ms. Dumas claims.

Dinah Gaither asked for the typical three-day waiting period between marriage application and ceremony to be waived, as is allowed under the law for "emergency or extraordinary circumstances."

Common Pleas Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia approved the motion because Elwood Gaither was in hospice care.

"It was represented to me that both parties wanted this," Judge Della Vecchia said, adding that he "vaguely" remembered the situation.

"I can't remember who came to me. All I would have to say is this person would have had to have been a credible source," the judge said. "Most likely the people in the register of wills office came up here and may have had attorneys with them. They made representation that this is what the couple would like to do."

Ms. Dumas claims that Elwood Gaither was incoherent, drugged and in no shape to agree to a wedding -- much less sign paperwork -- and that a quick marriage was needed so the bride could ensure access to his finances.

The ceremony was performed at the couple's home. Under state law, it is possible to be married without an officiant as long as the bride and groom sign the certificate along with two witnesses.

But did Elwood Gaither sign the marriage license application? And were all the witnesses who signed various documents actually present? The answers are in dispute.

Ms. Dumas claims Elwood Gaither could not properly sign the application. Her suit alleges that Dinah Gaither propped up her husband's hand with her own and used it to sign the document.

Mrs. Reid, one of several who attended the wedding, echoed that accusation in a complaint filed last month with the Allegheny County Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission.

Mrs. Reid claims that Terrance Emmett, a former clerk in the marriage license office who is now in jail awaiting trial on unrelated child pornography charges, and Patricia Capozoli, the assistant division manager in the county's Wills/Orphans' Court Division, behaved unethically in signing off on events they did not witness.

In a brief interview, Ms. Capozoli said she was a 33-year county employee with a spotless record.

"I did nothing wrong," she said, declining further comment. She cited county restrictions on speaking about pending litigation. "I have no problem with what I did."

Whether the ethics commission does remains to be seen.

The same can be said of investigators.

A recent court filing by Mr. Bercik says of Brittany Gaither: "She is under investigation by the Allegheny County district attorney's office for suspected criminal activity in connection with estate assets."

Mike Manko, a spokesman for the DA's office, declined comment.


Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg.

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