Cobb County millionaire Harvey Strother had three weeks to live when his mistress wheeled him into his lawyer’s office to change his will one last time.
Strother, 77 and fading fast, was drinking a gallon or more of wine a day, according to court testimony. The tortured alcoholic barely resembled the vibrant salesman who racked up a fortune with car dealerships in Cobb and south Georgia.
Anne Melican, his mistress of seven years, accompanied the wheelchair-bound Strother into the Naples, Fla., law office on Dec. 16, 2003. With an unsteady hand, Strother changed his will so Melican would be left with a South Florida property, plus a slip at a yacht club where they’d docked his boat, the Lady Anne. He also directed his estate to pay off the balance on a Cape Cod, Mass., condo he built for her.
It was the second time in six months Strother had amended his will and the third time in six years. All told, the changes left about $6 million of Strother’s $37 million estate to Melican and her son, including $7,900 a month for Melican for the rest of her life and a $1.3 million Marco Island, Fla., condo.
Were these amendments the wishes of a sound mind and the product of Strother’s desire to take care of Melican after his death? Or did Melican take advantage of an addled alcoholic, unduly influencing Strother to ensure she’d get millions?
Marietta lawyer Sidney Parker, the executor of Strother’s estate, and one of Strother’s grandchildren say it’s the latter, and a Cobb Probate Court judge has ruled that a jury should decide whether the amendments are valid.
The Melicans have appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which is expected to issue an opinion in the coming weeks.
In 1988, Strother signed a will leaving half his estate to his widow, Betty, and the rest to his three children and grandchildren.
"We believe she took advantage of Harvey at a time he was very vulnerable, weak and struggling," said former Gov. Roy Barnes, who represents the executor. "With Anne Melican, it was always one way: What do I get? What does my son get? It was everything to her benefit."
In a telephone interview, Melican strongly disagreed with that characterization.
"Harvey was a brilliant businessman who controlled his business and every other part of his life — he was such an awesome man," she said. "I don’t think a little gal like me would have that kind of influence over him."
As for the Strother family, she said, "I don’t know why they’re trying to annihilate me. I was very good to Harvey and he to me. I feel rather victimized."
In court filings, the Melicans’ lawyers say the strong-willed, independent Strother knew exactly what he was doing. He was leaving only a fraction of his estate to a woman he’d enjoyed a relationship with for several years, the attorneys say.
"For any member of the Strother family to claim after Harvey’s death that Anne controlled Harvey during life, is simply not worthy of belief as no one, including his immediate family, could control Harvey," the lawyers said in one court filing.
The lawyers note that Strother added a clause to the amendment he signed shortly before his death: Any heir who contested the changes would be disinherited.
The Melicans’ attorneys contend the amendments to Strother’s will were consistent with the way he treated Melican and lavished her with gifts. In Las Vegas, he paid $160,000 for a 14.5-carat diamond ring. There was a mink coat, $50,000 in plastic surgeries, a Jaguar, the condos and vacations worldwide. He also gave her an allowance ranging from $2,000 to $7,900 a month.
The Melicans declined the family’s offer of a settlement, which included a $750,000 cash payment, titles to three cars plus Florida properties and a vow by the executor of Strother’s estate to stop investigating her and her son.
‘The demons won’
Strother lived large. He enjoyed golf, loved to travel, gobbled up real estate and handed out a steady stream of Georgia Bulldogs, Braves and Falcons tickets to family and friends.
But his life played out like a Gothic Southern novel.
"Harvey was such a salesman," said Barnes, who knew Strother. "But all his life he battled demons. In the end, the demons won."
Strother graduated from the University of Georgia and Emory University law school, but he practiced law less than a week.
Instead, he took a job as a service manager at the old Central Chevrolet in downtown Atlanta in the early 1950s. There he found his calling as a salesman. About eight years later, he bought his own dealership —Strother Ford in Marietta, just off the square.
His business flourished. He eventually owned at least five dealerships, including one in Valdosta.
In the mid-1970s, according to testimony, he began a longtime affair with a woman who worked for him. Her death sent Strother on a downward spiral into depression and alcoholism, court documents say.
Soon after the woman’s death, Strother met Melican in 1996 at the Tropical Club in Marco Island, Fla., where he owned a vacation home. Strother, then 70, was immediately attracted to the psychological counselor in her late 40s. He put his arm around her, tried to kiss her. She found him charming, but overwhelming, Melican testified in a January 2006 deposition.
Melican’s son came to her rescue, feigning fatigue. Melican called it an early night — but not before leaving Strother her card.
He called the next day. They met for a long breakfast at the Hilton Hotel. Halfway through the meal, Strother suddenly broke down. His "wife" had just died, he sobbed.
"I thought, what a tenderhearted man, intelligent and charming," Melican testified. "So that was the beginning of the relationship."
Strother was not a widower; he still lived in Marietta with Betty, his wife since 1947. The "wife" he mourned was the employee with whom he’d had the affair and who recently died.
A year later, when Strother finally admitted to Melican he was married, it was too late to call things off, Melican testified. "I was completely captivated by Harvey, and I think he by me," she said.
By 1999, Betty Strother suspected her husband was having another affair. A private investigator confirmed it, Betty Strother testified in a deposition. She went to court and obtained a legal separation. Harvey Strother moved out of their home, bought a house in Kennesaw and continued to provide for his wife.
Endless glasses of wine
Strother had been drinking heavily when he met Melican. He’d pour his first drink around 8 a.m. and drink a few hours and fall asleep, Melican testified. Then he’d wake up and start again.
Melican once persuaded Strother to stop drinking for several months, calling it "the closest thing to a miracle." But when they celebrated the purchase of their boat, Strother had a glass of wine.
"That was it," Melican testified. "He never — he never — stopped having a glass of wine."
In August 2000, while on vacation with Melican in Cape Cod, Strother passed out in a chair. The next morning, he couldn’t speak. He was taken to a local hospital. Later he returned to Georgia and was admitted to Kennestone Hospital, according to testimony and court records.
After his release, Strother’s family got him around-the-clock care, arranging for two caregivers to stay with him in Kennesaw.
The caregivers, Bonnie Gordon and Amie Spears Lockett, have testified Strother continued to drink. He usually got his way, they said.
But toward the end of Strother’s life, his relationship with Melican became strained, Gordon testified. They argued on the phone, Melican wouldn’t come to visit and Strother would get so irate when he saw Melican’s monthly credit card charges, he would change the numbers on the cards, the caregivers said. But Melican would call him from Florida and he would relent, they said.
When Strother visited Melican in Florida, he would leave his caregivers behind. When Strother returned, at the airport he looked like a "homeless person" or a "pauper," the caregivers testified. He’d return without any of his possessions — "no suitcase, no wallet, no nothing," Lockett said.
Both caregivers also said that when Strother visited Melican in Florida, he’d return with bruises.
All the while, Strother kept drinking. No one could get him to stop.
S.J. Rosenbloom, Strother’s primary physician, said in a sworn statement that if Strother quit drinking cold turkey at this time, the shock to his system could have killed him.
But Douglas Salyers, a lawyer for Melican, disputed accounts that Strother had diminished capacity when he amended his wills. "Harvey Strother was not the incapacitated alcoholic portrayed in court filings by representatives of his estate," Salyers said in a statement.
One of those portrayals was made in a sworn statement by Walter Young, a veterinarian who befriended Strother during his trips to South Florida.
In December 2003, just days after Strother was wheeled into the law office to change his will, Young paid him a visit at his Marco Island condo. Melican and her brother were there, Young said in a statement he signed a year ago.
Strother sat in the dining room. He was incoherent, visibly drunk and wearing a diaper. On the table was a box of wine with a spigot, which Strother used to fill his 16-ounce plastic cup, Young said. At one point, Young said, Strother relieved himself in a urinal placed beneath him on the floor.
Young said he strongly urged Melican to get medical help. The next day, Strother told him, Young said, he would see a doctor when he returned on his next visit.
About two weeks before Strother died, Melican sent him back home to Kennesaw and went on vacation in Vail, Colo. She never saw him again.