This dilapidated, once elegant mansion has been the focal point of poignant legal battles since the death of the owner, Mary Ellen Bendtsen, in 2005. Agents tell me it may have the messiest title in Texas. This week, legal justice may be coming. Three men, including two Dallas antique dealers who prosecutors claim conspired to take advantage of Bendtsen’s mental state and her kindness right at her deathbed, go to trial in Dallas County.
Yesterday was day one in court for Mark McCay, age 50, who is accused of attempted theft. Prosecutors say he weaseled power of attorney from 88-year-old Bendtsen after alienating her from her family, and persuaded her to leave the Swiss Ave. house to him and his partner. Bendtsen signed her will in her hospital bed at Baylor. The defense says no, McCay and “the boys” befriended and entertained Bendtsen ten years before her death.
This must have been a tough moment: prosecutors showed jurors a video of Bendtsen signing a will in her hospital bed shortly before she died. She had just suffered a massive stroke and been diagnosed as too mentally impaired to make legal decisions.
McCay and Burgess were at the foot of her bed while their attorney, Edwin Olsen, who is also charged in the case, asked questions. Bendtsen, who looks pale and frail in her hospital gown, softly answered. She repeatedly rubs her lips and eyebrows.
In the video, Olsen asks Bendtsen if she wants her daughter, Frances Ann Giron, to have her money.
“No,” Bendtsen replies.
What about the house?
Olsen asks Bendtsen who she wants to have the house.
“I want it,” she says.
What if you die, Olsen asks. Who do you want to leave it to?
“To the boys … the boys over there,” she says, calling McCay and Burgess by their first names.
Bendtsen signs her name illegibly.
After Bendtsen died, a probate court threw out that will because of a problem with a signature — not Bendtsen’s. The court instead followed a 2002 will and the house was awarded to Bendtsen’s daughter. It has since been sold.
As someone who is experiencing a difficult probate case for one of my relatives, I know how heartbreaking this must be for Bendtsen’s family. Lee Hancock, formerly of the Dallas Morning News, wrote an excellent long-form dissection of 4949 Swiss Avenue, in 2009. The only thing that bothered me was how Lee described Mary Ellen as a “socialite” — I think she was an elegant women, a former model who loved to entertain, but not sure the term “socialite” was appropriate except for headline steam. Also, I received an email after one of my earlier posts informing me that one of the three accused men, Mark perhaps, was suffering from cancer. I was never able to confirm that.
Happily for the house, it was purchased by Cameron Kinvig last summer, who is restoring the mansion to the glory it once was when it belonged to W.W. Caruth. And it was on the Swiss Avenue Home Tour last month. Wall paintings from the ballroom (from Mattie Caruth’s debutante ball) were apparently saved and will be shown in their original (pre-restoration) condition in the ballroom. And the lovely Ms. Joanna England will be over there one of these days, bringing us a peak of the new grandeur! As always, stay tuned!