Wife Claims Estate After Suicide
Mar. 01, 1998
JAMAICA BEACH, Texas (AP) _ Everything pointed to suicide when police found 68-year-old Texas millionaire Absalom T. Webber Jr. dead in his bed at a Galveston Island beach house.
The West Point graduate who'd made his fortune selling oil field pipe had six cuts on his right wrist. A double-edged razor was found on his abdomen.
Then things really got strange.
Four days after the body was found Dec. 5, Donna Peterson, 37, a frequent but unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate in East Texas, filed a petition claiming she was owed $4 million from Webber's estate as his wife, even though he wrote her out of his will five weeks before.
The will bequeathing her the millions was originally filed in Jefferson Parish, La., on Aug. 27, two days before the couple married quietly at the New Orleans home of Webber's attorney and friend of 40 years, Herbert W. Christenberry.
The marriage was his third, her first.
Forty-four days after the wedding, the millionaire filed for divorce. About two weeks later, on Oct. 28, Webber amended the will to cut her out.
``He was disgruntled, certainly,'' Christenberry, the estate's executor, said Friday. ``He said he had had enough and he didn't believe she loved him and the marriage was a sham and he wanted out.''
But according to Ms. Peterson's filing in December, she has a document Webber signed Oct. 22 that gives her the money in the event of his death, plus $1 million more for any child she has, adopted or by birth.
Oh, and by the way, she told Christenberry, I'm pregnant.
``I've suggested to her if we had DNA showing it was his child, we'd certainly want to help her, and help the child,'' Christenberry said. ``I've asked to have a doctor make information available but she hasn't responded.''
As for the document Ms. Peterson says she and Webber signed, the lawyer said it was witnessed only by her father, Richard Peterson. It was not notarized.
``All we've seen is a photocopy,'' Christenberry said. ``I told her I could not honor it without a court order, and that I had grave misgivings about it. One thing: We would have to get a handwriting expert to look at the document.''
Neither she nor her attorney returned telephone calls seeking comment.
The case began unfolding when Ms. Peterson called a neighbor Dec. 5 to check on Webber, saying she had been unable to reach him by phone. The neighbor called police, who found the body. Dr. Jessie Adame, the deputy medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, said Webber had been dead 24 to 36 hours.
On Dec. 12 _ what would have been Webber's 69th birthday _ Adame ruled he could not determine whether Webber's death was suicide, accident or homicide. What was apparent, the physician ruled, was that death was due to a heart attack but the circumstances were uncertain.
Now the battle over his estimated $10 million estate is tied up in court. Although Jamaica Beach Police Chief Bill Ennis says he considers the case closed, police still were inspecting the razor blade for fingerprints.
``Everything I saw, everything the investigators saw, pointed to (suicide),'' Ennis said last week. ``My opinion has not changed one iota.
``This deal, if there wasn't this much money involved, it wouldn't be a story,'' he added.
Webber's will calls for bequests to a number of universities and military schools. It also establishes a trust fund for his 34-year-old son, Michael Q. Webber.
A big loser if Ms. Peterson and her unborn child collect from the estate could be an alumni organization tied to the U.S. Military Academy. After the bequests are distributed, the organization is due to receive five-sixths of the remainder, according to Webber's will.
Seldon Graham, the attorney who represents the Association of West Point Graduates, the group named in the will, says he wants to question Ms. Peterson but her attorneys have refused. He also wants to examine her original version of the will.
``If she has nothing to hide, it would benefit Ms. Peterson to have a deposition as soon as possible,'' Graham said. ``Apparently they do have something to hide, and that's the purpose of a deposition to begin with _ to find out what's going on.
``There is no way Ab Webber would even think about suicide.''
Because Ms. Peterson has filed documents in Orange County and Webber's attorneys want the case in Galveston County Probate Court, about 100 miles to the west, a hearing was scheduled for Monday in Galveston to determine where the case will be heard. Christenberry also is seeking return of a number of personal items he says Ms. Peterson retains, including a Rolex watch, credit cards, Webber's 1951 West Point class ring and about $4,000 in cash.
Ms. Peterson, a former helicopter pilot and chief of protocol at Fort Hood, left active duty and entered the reserves as a captain in 1987.
While working for her family's plumbing business, she ran four times for the U.S. House seat formerly held by Democrat Charlie Wilson. She lost to Wilson in 1990, 1992 and 1994. In 1996, she lost in the GOP primary.
She ran on a platform promoting family and Christian moral values and picked up the nickname ``the battling blonde.''
In 1992, her campaign was dogged by rumors she was having an affair with her campaign treasurer, a 70-year-old millionaire.
``When I finally decide to settle down, I think it will be with someone a little closer to my own age,'' she told The Associated Press at the time.
``I'm a very honest, open, moral, churchgoing, charity-working young woman. It would be very out of character for me to suddenly have an affair with anybody, let alone with somebody who is 70 years old.''