Padre Island's Past Re-Examined

Thursday, July 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — The Balli family has filled the courtroom day after day, taking notes on wrinkled paper, thumbing magazines and welcoming relatives that poured in from far away.

They have come to attend a battle over Padre Island history and the financial future of their storied Mexican family.

After two months of testimony, lawyers began closing arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by the Ballis, who claim they slid into poverty after a New York lawyer swindled them out of rights to subterranean oil wells on the resort island.

The case pits the descendants of Padre Nicolas Balli — who owned Padre Island in the 19th century — against 90-year-old New York lawyer Gilbert Kerlin.

Kerlin bought the island from the Balli heirs in 1938, and agreed to pay the family a share of any oil or gas discovered beneath the tropical beaches. Wells of oil were discovered — but the family never saw a cent.

``These people gave (Kerlin) their heritage,'' said Balli attorney Tom McCall. ``We gave, we had a promise and he broke that promise. We ask for it back.''

The Balli heirs are suing for more than $11 million in gas, oil and land profits, interest payments and legal fees. Closing arguments were scheduled to end Thursday.

Kerlin argues the Ballis sold the island before the Mexican-American War, and that the 1938 sale was a mistake because he was buying from the wrong people.

Standing before the jury in cowboy boots and a pressed suit, Kerlin's lawyer M. Steve Smith dismissed the lawsuit as ``a lot of flash, a lot of sparkle, a lot of noise.'' The family has tugged at the sympathies of the jury instead of standing on evidence, the Houston attorney said.

``Forget emotion, bias, prejudice, sympathy — that's not what justice is about,'' Smith said. ``What were they deprived of in this grand conspiracy? The ability to come into court and make a nuisance claim?''

Balli came to Brownsville this week from Hawaii, Phoenix and San Luis Potosi to hear final arguments.

At one point, Esteban Balli, 83, strolled into the courtroom clad in a cowboy suit and snakeskin boots, removed his Stetson hat and sank into a bench.

In a lone flash of outward amiability between the island heirs and their adversary, Kerlin crossed the floor to greet the elderly Balli. The two gray-haired men exchanged a handshake, slapped one another on the arm — and returned to their sides of the courtroom.


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