HAYS — “I changed my mind.”
Hays millionaire Earl O. Field, 98, died less than a month after those words were typed on his letterhead stationery in January 2013. The codicil dramatically changed his will.
It also lit the fuse of a legal firestorm that rages more than two years later in Ellis County District Court.
The codicil dropped the nonprofit Fort Hays State University Foundation as the primary beneficiary. Instead, it gave the largest portion of the estate to Wanda Oborny, part-time bookkeeper and caretaker for the widower Field.
“Wanda has done so much for me since Nonie died and I want to do something for her. I feel if it weren’t for her I would not be here. I want her to have one-half of my estaste (sic). I want her to be taken care of and she is like my daughter,” the codicil stated.
The FHSU Foundation considers it fake.
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Field was born in Damar in 1914. When he was 5 years old, his father bought a bank in Offerle, and Field grew up in southwest Kansas. He graduated from Fort Hays in 1937 with degrees in economics and business.
The following year, he married Winona “Nonie” Brecheisen, who also went to Fort Hays.
Field owned a land abstract and title business in Hays before the outbreak of World War II. He entered the military, flew missions and earned a Purple Heart. Back in Hays after the war, his Field Abstract and Title Co. grew. He owned farmland and/or mineral rights in various counties in western Kansas, including Edwards, Ford, Russell and Haskell counties. His business portfolio included extensive investments in municipal bonds, stocks and mutual funds. The overall estate was estimated at $20,649,061, according to court records.
The Fields attended Fort Hays State University athletic events, and he was president of the FHSU Alumni Association. The couple donated to the university, and it honored them with awards. As contributors, they were inducted into FHSU’s Tiger Sports Hall of Fame.
At the office, Earl and Nonie each had a desk. Outside work, they played golf and owned a condominium overlooking a green on the Smoky Hill Country Club golf course. In winters, they traveled to a second home in Sun City, Arizona, until they grew older and sold the place.
Nonie Field died in October 2009. Field continued to go to the office, still able to drive. In late January 2013, he went to the doctor, was admitted to the Hays Medical Center, and from there went to Via Christi Village in Hays. He had cancer and died Feb. 19, 2013.
The Fields had no children.
• • •
In February 2010, Field met with his attorney Joseph Jeter and FHSU Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Tim Chapman. Field had Chapman review a copy of the proposed will. Then-FHSU President Edward Hammond also was aware of the sizable future commitment to the foundation, court documents show.
FHSU Foundation officials “included the estimated commitment as part of The Cornerstone Campaign and otherwise made internal projections on the basis of that expectancy,” FHSU Foundation’s legal team asserted.
Ten days before Field died, he “summoned” Hammond “to visit him in the nursing home,” the foundation’s attorneys said in court records. Hammond was assured nothing had changed in the estate plan and Field’s longtime attorney Jeter “’had the will.’”
Field’s funeral took place Feb. 23, 2013. Chapman and Jeter spoke briefly. Jeter “communicated words to the effect” that the estate plan was in place, the FHSU Foundation legal team said.
The unexpected unfolded.
• • •
Wanda Oborny began working part time as a bookkeeper for Field in early 2008, before Nonie Field died. By all accounts, she became much more than office help.
“She was his trusted caretaker and employee. ... Mr. and Mrs. Field trusted Wanda to have the keys to their home, office and vehicle,” wrote Oborny’s attorney, Donald Hoffman, Hays, in a case document.
Oborny said in her deposition that she checked in on the ailing Field during his last weekend at home before he entered the hospital. After Field moved to Via Christi Village, Oborny “was out there with him day and night,” Jeter said in his deposition. Jeter held power of attorney for health care purposes for Field.
On the evening of the day Field died, Oborny said, she went to the office, pulled open a drawer in Field’s office and found a letter dated Jan. 23, 2013, that changed his beneficiaries. It left half the estate to her, a quarter to Jeter and a quarter to the FHSU Foundation.
Court records show a transcribed voicemail message Oborny left Jeter:
“Hey, Joe, this is Wanda. I stopped at the post office and came into the office and opened up the mail and got everything I needed and you really need to come up here. There’s something that’s left for both of us and you really need to see it — uhhh — just call me when you have a minute and I’ll either meet you up here — uhhh — it looks pretty important, so I’ll talk to you later. Thanks. Bye.”
On Feb. 20, Jeter called Oborny and went to Field’s office. Jeter Law Firm occupies space on the second floor of the office building on Main Street. Field’s office was on the fourth floor.
Jeter looked at the letter and told Oborny it wasn’t a valid codicil because it lacked the signatures of witnesses.
Jeter indicated he couldn’t represent her, but she could consult an attorney. She contacted attorney Donald Hoffman, Hays. He concurred with Jeter. It wasn’t valid without witnesses.
• • •
On Feb. 25, Steve Little, who worked at the Lewis car dealership in Hays, called Jeter.
Field had come to the dealership in January and had asked Little and his wife, Kathy, to witness his signing of a document, Jeter was told. In their depositions, the Littles said Field signed the paper in front of them and they signed it as witnesses. It was dated Jan. 22, 2013.
The Littles were friends of Oborny. Steve Little graduated in 1969 from Hays High School. Kathy (Staab) Little and Wanda (Rohr) Oborny graduated two years later at Hays High.
The codicil they signed as witnesses gave half the estate to Oborny, a quarter to Jeter and a quarter to the FHSU Foundation — the same split described in the Jan. 23 letter that lacked witness signatures.
Field swore them to secrecy, according to Steve Little’s deposition. Field wanted it to be a surprise for Oborny.
Oborny said the first time she learned of the Jan. 22 codicil witnessed by the Littles was the evening of Feb. 25, when the Littles came to her house, according to her deposition.
“They came in and told me that they had something to tell me,” Oborny said.
“Kathy said that Steve had contacted Joe (Jeter), had told Joe, I guess, that he had witnessed a will, and that they both witnessed it in front of Earl, and that there was one. It was a signed will,” Oborny said.
Oborny discovered the witnessed codicil in an envelope in Field’s office, she said in a deposition.
Beyond the split of the estate, the codicil witnessed by the Littles and addressed “Dear Joe” to Jeter, instructed:
“I also want wanda (sic) to have my home. I don’t care what she wants to do with it. If she wants to sell it or live in it. Its (sic) hers and also everything inside with the exception of a clock that I promised to Bernard (Carl B. Bercheisen). I would also want her to have my car. She was with me when I bought it, she puts gas in it for me and she washes it. I would like to have it if she wants it.
“Joe, there are some rings in a drawer and she can have those also. I told her I want her to have them.
“Joe, we have been friends for a long time and I appreciate everything you have done for me. Please see that my wishes are granted. I know I can count on you.”
“Just see that this is taken care of,” the codicil said. “I appreciated all you have done for me. I would be dead by now if Wanda would not have been there for me,” it said.
The Field codicil predicted the fallout from changes to the will.
“You have done so much for me and I know you have your work cut out for you. You and Wanda have your work cut out for you. I feel sorry for you,” it said.
• • •
Neither Oborny nor Jeter was a beneficiary in Field’s 2010 will. Now they stood to realize millions because of the codicil. Conversely, omitted from the codicil were the three nephews and the farmers on Field’s land. Field’s brother-in-law would receive only a clock. FHSU Foundation would collect millions still, but its share was “drastically” reduced, as its legal team described.
“Earl and Nonie certainly did not contemplate leaving the majority of the marital couple’s lifetime wealth to a lawyer and to a caretaker,” the FHSU Foundation’s Wichita-based legal team of John Terry Moore and Coy Martin contended.
It was an “inexplicable and cataclysmic sea-change for a 98-year-old gentleman less than a month before he died and who had never publicly betrayed his earlier commitments to FHSU Foundation” or the others hurt by the codicil, Martin wrote.
Field “never lost his distaste for estate taxes,” Martin also wrote, yet the codicil left the estate open to a sizable tax liability because most of the money was no longer earmarked for the FHSU Foundation, a nonprofit charitable entity.
On March 13, 2013, Oborny petitioned the court for probate of the will and codicil. The sworn affidavits of the Littles, as witnesses, were filed, too.
The Bercheisens, the Burgharts, and FHSU Foundation, all represented by different attorneys, jumped into the fight over the estate. Oborny had an attorney. The Littles had an attorney. And Joseph and William Jeter, brothers, attorneys and co-executors of the will, also hired an attorney.
Judge William “Buck” Lyle Jr., senior judge from Reno County assigned to the case, appointed First National Bank of Hutchinson as special administrator of the Field estate. The administrator’s counsel is Dan Forker Jr. of Hutchinson.
• • •ww
The FHSU Foundation team questioned the health and mental capacity of Field.
However, Dr. Randy Cook is listed as an expert witness for Oborny. Cook was Field’s primary treating physician for nearly 20 years, up to and including the date of Field’s death, the court case shows. He is prepared to testify he “saw no evidence of confusion, incompetence or dementia pertaining to Earl Field,” according to the case file.
The FHSU Foundation team issued a string of subpoenas to banks and financial institutions, to Field’s accountant, to the Jeters, to cell phone service providers, to Steve Little’s employer. In particular, they sought information about Oborny and her husband, Paul, who owns and operates a lawn service business based at their home, and about the Littles.
Before the end of August 2015, the Earl O. Field estate case had ballooned to more than 1,760 pages. The depositions are not available to the public, but some portions are contained in the court file. They point to what attorneys likely will raise in the Hays trial scheduled to begin Feb. 29, 2016.
• • •
Oborny said in a deposition she had tried to make a copy of the witnessed codicil and the machine in Field’s office would not copy.
“Are you certain that you tried to make a copy?” Oborny was asked.
“I believe I did.”
“How many times did you try to make this copy?”
Where were the three failed pages?
“I shredded them,” she said.
They should be identical, right?
“Should be,” she said.
FHSU Foundation’s legal team obtained court authorization for Wichita private investigator Emery Goad to piece together — literally — evidence retrieved from a paper shredder in Field’s office. The reconstruction took place at First National Bank of Hutchinson.
Three versions of the typed codicil are exhibits in the case: The initial Jan. 23 codicil that lacked witnesses; the Jan. 22 version that contained the Littles’ signatures; and a reconstituted shredded version similar to the Jan. 22 one but containing Field’s signature but not the Littles’ signatures.
The Littles testified in depositions they watched Field sign it then added their signatures — all in succession.
“And you’re sure that nobody could have pulled a switcheroo on you?” FHSU Foundation attorney Martin asked Kathy Little. Could Field have signed the codicil, and then could someone have pulled that page before the Littles signed it? That could explain how a document existed showing Field’s signature but not the Littles’.
The Littles said no.
The FHSU Foundation enlisted a forensic document examiner, who held the opinion it wasn’t Field’s signature on the witnessed codicil. He further pointed out differences between Field’s writing style and punctuation on other letters and on the codicil. For example, at the end of a letter, Field’s writings revealed he went to the middle of the page to start signing his name. Field’s signature on the witnessed codicil was flush left.
That spurred Oborny’s attorney to reach out to a forensic document examiner. He is expected to testify that the witnessed codicil likely was an original document. Also, he likely would testify “there is significant evidence to suggest” Field did author the signature on the codicil, according to the court case.
The FHSU Foundation contacted a third forensic document examiner, James Blanco, of Blanco and Associates, California. He was asked to look at the records and the opinions of the other two examiners. Blanco also reviewed Kathy and Steve Little’s depositions.
Contrary to what the Littles said, wrote Blanco, they “could not have witnessed the signing” of the codicil because the shredded copy did not have their signatures.
“Consequently, the Affidavits by Steve Little and by Kathy Little filed March 13, 2013, are demonstrably false,” Blanco wrote.
Field did not type or sign the witnessed codicil filed in Ellis County District Court, in Blanco’s opinion.
• • •
When the FHSU Foundation team followed the money, it found Oborny kept paying herself after Field died.
“Because I was still working,” she said in a deposition.
“Why did you give yourself a bonus by depositing a $500 Commerce check after Earl died?”
“I don’t know,” she answered.
Field had given Oborny extra financial aid through the years. On New Year’s Eve 2012, Field told Oborny to write out a check to herself for $25,000, to pay off the debt on the Oborny’s GMC Acadia, and have some money left over.
“That was my bonus,” she said in a deposition.
“Another good day for the Oborny family, wasn’t it?” FHSU Foundation attorney Martin asked Oborny. “More money falling down that river from Earl to you, right?” he asked.
“That’s what he wanted to do,” she said.
Martin asked how she reported it, as well as other gifts from Field, on her income taxes.
“Did you show any of these other transfers that were made by him, by example, when he paid off your house or when he paid off Paul’s shop or when he paid off the Altima; did you show any of those as income on the 941 tax return?” Martin asked.
“I don’t believe I did,” she answered.
As Field’s attorney, Jeter knew Field had given some gifts to Oborny and put her name on some accounts.
“One of those accounts had $400,000 in it when he died. That doesn’t surprise you that he would leave that to Wanda Oborny?” Jeter was asked in a deposition.
“I don’t know that it does, honestly. He relied on her tremendously. She did everything for him. I don’t know,” Jeter answered.
This year, First National Bank of Hutchinson as the estate administrator sued Commerce Bank, Emprise Bank and Oborny.
It said Oborny was only an authorized signature on Field accounts at the banks, not a joint tenant. But she wrote checks on the Commerce account after Field’s death and withdrew $100,000 from the Emprise account for deposit in a Vanguard account that had Field and Oborny as joint tenants, the suit claimed.
Oborny’s defense noted one check written on the Commerce account, for $20,719, was to the funeral home for Field’s funeral expenses.
• • •
Attorneys in the case have hurled written and verbal jabs.
“Quit coaching the witness,” FHSU Foundation attorney Martin said to Oborny’s attorney, Hoffman, during her deposition.
“I’m not a vegetable over here”
“You need to quit --”
“Just ask the question,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman disliked the treatment of his client, with 18 hours of deposition over three days, he pointed out.
Early on, Hoffman suggested a Russell attorney and a Hays certified public accountant for the job of special administrator. Either one was fine with attorneys representing the Jeters and the Burgharts. However, Hoffman wrote, he received a fax from the FHSU Foundation counsel “suggesting that we had contrived to pick our favorite lawyer or accountant who might me (sic) pressed to do our bidding.”
Field’s typewriter will figure in the trial because of scrutiny of the typed codicil. Tim Givan, of First National Bank of Hutchinson, retrieved the typewriter from Hoffman’s office. FHSU Foundation’s legal team, trying to track the movement of the typewriter before Oborny delivered it to Hoffman’s office, expressed irritation when Hoffman couldn’t cite the specific time he took possession of it.
FHSU Foundation’s attorneys criticized the Jeter brothers.
“The promises, commitments and assurances that Earl expressed to FHSU Foundation imposed contractual and/or equitable obligations on Earl to keep his word,” the FHSU Foundation legal team claimed. Joseph Jeter was “bound by contractual and/or fiduciary duties to protect and accomplish Earl’s stated promises and commitments to FHSU Foundation,” the team said.
The FHSU Foundation attorneys said the Jeters and their firm also served as general counsel of the foundation. The Jeters responded they have never been general counsel for FHSU Foundation.
Joseph Jeter said in his deposition he wants “the facts to play out and for justice to be done.”
• • •
The News reached out to some attorneys, including those representing the FHSU Foundation, Oborny, and the Littles, and either spoke to or left messages for FHSU Foundation’s Chapman, Oborny and Jeter. They either did not respond or declined to speak about pending litigation.
Since the start of the estate fight, Field’s brother-in-law, Carl B. Brecheisen, died. The grandfather clock designated for him was kept out of the sale of Field’s goods. The Brecheisens have “temporary possession” of it pending the outcome of the trial.
Steve Little shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself in a homicide-suicide Aug. 20 at Webster Reservoir. The family’s oldest son declined to comment. The coroner’s reports stated the Littles had been contacted by the FBI about a grand jury hearing.
Hammond retired as FHSU president in 2014. John Terry Moore and Coy Martin still represent the FHSU Foundation, but Martin practices with a different law firm in Wichita.
An energy company moved into Field’s fourth-floor office with plans to expand into the space next door, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran’s office. Moran will move to another location in the building.
The Field condominium was sold. Wanda and Paul Oborny remain in their home just outside Hays.