Woman's oddball bequest leads to fight over her sanity

Wednesday, September 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SHAWNEE, Okla. (AP) -- Long before her suicide, Anne Katherine Abernathy would shout threats and profanities from her window, frighten children and keep her neighbors up at night by shining powerful spotlights.

The strangeness did not end with her death.

In a will scribbled out hours before she shot herself July 20, she left her $500,000 estate to people she had apparently never even met: Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives and the Amiraults, a Massachusetts family accused in a lurid child-molestation case that has practically fallen apart on appeal.

The Amiraults "were stunned," said their lawyer James L.

Sultan. "It certainly is a strange mix of fate."

Whether the Amiraults and the Gonzalezes will ever see the money is another question.

A group of Ms. Abernathy's relatives is challenging the will, claiming that she was not in her right mind when she wrote it. A trial is set for Oct. 30.

Her cousin Robert Abernathy, an Oklahoma City lawyer, said family members were concerned about Ms. Abernathy's mental health long before she killed herself at age 57 in the stately Victorian house she shared with her 91-year-old mother, who had died in the home of natural causes a few hours earlier.

The depth of Ms. Abernathy's despair became clear after the police turned over her will and other handwritten documents they found in the house, Abernathy said.

"We were able to fully understand just how disturbed Anne was," he said. "It's real sad. She was in a lot of pain."

Lawyers for the Amiraults and the Gonzalezes will go into court to defend the will and secure their share of the estate. But in interviews, they have refused to characterize Ms. Abernathy's state of mind.

Ms. Abernathy apparently held no job. She was thought to have inherited her wealth from her father, a Shawnee lawyer. She was an only child, never married and had no children. Her estate includes at least $100,000 in cash.

In a rambling four-page will, Ms. Abernathy praised Elian's Miami relatives because they "treated him with such love." "To give away freedom for power is hollow and tragic. ... May God, such as He is, bless and care for America -- what's left of it," she wrote.

Ms. Abernathy also referred to the case against the Amirault family as a "scam."

"They are very touched that they were named by Ms. Abernathy,"

said Oklahoma City attorney Amy Sine, who represents the Amiraults in the probate case. Sultan said Ms. Abernathy may have sympathized with them as victims of governmental abuse of power.

Gerald Amirault, his sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, and his mother, Violet Amirault, were convicted in the 1980s of molesting children at their family-run day care center. Mother and daughter served a decade in prison before they were freed on appeal. Gerald Amirault is trying to get his sentence commuted.

The Amiraults and the Gonzalezes are checking thousands of letters to see whether Ms. Abernathy had ever written to them.

Abernathy said his cousin, an avid reader, may have read about the Amirault case in The Wall Street Journal. Ms. Abernathy bequeathed her notes and photographs to Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz, who has portrayed the Amiraults as victims of child-molestation hysteria.

Ms. Abernathy also left her mixed chow dog to David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, from which she graduated.

Police were frequent visitors to the Abernathys' red brick home, where spotlights were attached to the walkway railings and windows were covered over with plywood.

Neighbors said the trouble started about two years ago when Ms.

Abernathy moved in with her mother from her previous home in Houston.

From the front porch, Ms. Abernathy used to surprise neighbors with shrieks and shine flashlights on them when they arrived home at night. She called neighbors "communist Nazi pigs," threatened to kill their children and accused them of producing nerve gas in backyard barbecue grills.

"My kids would come home and they'd get scared," said Robert LaReau, a next-door neighbor. "I almost moved because of her."

LaReau said Ms. Abernathy would scream, "The LaReaus must die!"

Houston lawyer John Wallace, named as executor of Ms.

Abernathy's estate, recalled her as highly intelligent, articulate and gracious when she was a client and acquaintance of his in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"She always seemed to be well-read and up on current events,"

Wallace said. "But she had sort of a flightiness, a daffiness. Her mind seemed to bounce around a lot, a lot of sparks going on."