Slumlord millionaire: A love story?
THIS IS A STORY about race and sex, the two most combustible elements of Southern life. It’s a story about old, musty worldviews and modern, unconventional relationships in the early 21st century in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Is it a story about love? A story about greed? That would depend on who’s telling it.
It’s primarily a story about family, but also one about storing up treasure and what happens when people get old and start to lose their wits, about what people need at the end of their lives and who gets what after they’re gone.
James Lester Goodwin died at the age of 81 at the Oakdale Heights Assisted Living Center in Greensboro in 2003. To all his acquaintances, he was simply known as Bill.
The following description of Bill Goodwin is not exactly charitable, but consider that it comes from a legal document filed on his behalf:
“Bill left school in the eighth grade partially because of the Great Depression. The Great Depression had a lasting effect on Bill, so much so that he always scavenged and foraged through the trash and garbage of others, never throwing anything away. If he could help it, Bill never paid for anything. When he did, it was always negotiated or ‘horse-traded.’ Bill’s livelihood was as a plumber, accumulating many of his properties through his plumbing work. Over several decades, Bill amassed dozens and dozens of rental houses. He did the absolute minimum to maintain them, and would collect rent in cash doing business out of his hip pocket. To describe Bill as frugal would be a euphemistic understatement. Bill was more aptly described as a ‘tight-wad,’ a ‘skinflint’ and a ‘slumlord.’ Bill was also steeped in the culture of the South at the turn of the Twentieth Century, believing in white supremacy and segregation. Bill was a bigot.”
At the time of his death, Bill’s estate was estimated by his daughter, Kelly Goodwin Clark, to be worth between $2.5 million and $6 million. Many of Bill’s renters were black.
It would seem to be a supreme irony that a man widely regarded as a racist slumlord would end up at the end of his life marrying an African-American woman half his age, someone who gave him affection, cared for him and managed his properties.
The description of Wesley Foust-Graham in those legal filings crafted by lawyers for Kelly acting on her father’s behalf are no more kind than they way Bill himself is described, and they exhibit the same literary flair:
“Between 2000 and 2001, Wesley Foust-Graham eked out a living as a licensed realtor, operating her own real estate and sales management company, Foust-Graham Realty Inc. She was in her early forties, and worked hard at looking much younger. She constantly dressed up, wearing tight-fitting clothes on a lean figure that was kept that way through working out at aerobics. Foust-Graham rode around southeast Greensboro looking for sales opportunities.”
Sally recalls how Bill first became acquainted with Wesley:
“He was in his right mind when he did this. She give him a card. And he later, after she left, he said, ‘She’s not a bad looking nigger woman.’ She came over to talk to Bill and she was helping him with his real estate.”
The manner in which Sally came to live with Bill seems typical of his unorthodox business relationships and the way he developed friendships with those with whom he worked.
Sallytold me Bill came to see her one day at Bojangles, where she worked.His wife, Norma, had mentioned Sally’s name to Bill before she died.Sally eventually moved in with Bill and helped him with his business.In March 2002, she left him because of his verbal abuse. Sally calledWesley and asked her to come take care of Bill.
Fivedays after Bill’s death in October 2003, Wesley would visit Sally andrecord their conversation for posterity, with Sally’s knowledge andconsent.
“I calledKelly several times and I talked to her about how her daddy was acting,cussing me and raising hell,” Sally says on the tape. “I said, ‘Kelly,you need to come down here.’ She says, ‘I ain’t coming down there toget cussed at and yelled at all the time.’” Bill had told her that hewas afraid to be alone and, according to Sally, told her he was afraidhe might fall or get kicked by one of his mules.
“I prayed over this before I left, you know,” Sally tells Wesley on the tape.
“Hallelujah,”Wesley says. “And that’s why I called you.” “I love the Lord.” Wesleysays it was Bill’s idea to get married in a diary that she began afterhe went into the hospital. Wesley says Bill suggested that they go tothe courthouse together to get married while they were downtown filingpaperwork to remove Bill’s late wife’s name from some investmentdividend checks.
Everyoneagrees that Bill called John Waldrop, who performed general carpentryand maintenance on his houses, and Shirley Swaney, John’s girlfriend,asking them to come bail him out of jail. It was a joke, of course.When they arrived outside the courthouse, Wesley and Bill pulled up inBill’s black pickup truck. All agree that while the four were waitingfor a magistrate to conduct the ceremony Bill stated that Wesley waswhite, and that Shirley and Wesley had to correct him.
Wesleywrites that when the magistrate “told Bill to repeat the vows afterhim, Bill looked at the magistrate. The magistrate told him to look atme. Bill did shortly but soon turned back to the magistrate. We wenton. When the magistrate finished, he paused for Bill to say, ‘I do,’and had to tell Bill to say, ‘I do.’… The magistrate said, ‘You maykiss the bride.’ Bill kissed me and did a little dance when we werefinished. Shirley, John and I asked what that was, and he saidsomething about that’s what you do.”
Inan affidavit filed two months later, Swaney states, “I think Bill wascoerced into marrying Wesley. Bill told me that Wesley wanted to havesex with him, but that God had spoken to her and told her that [she]could not have any kind of sex relationship with Bill unless they weremarried.”
The matter of race was raised during a trial in Guilford County District Court in early 2004.
Ina subsequent motion to have a jury verdict set aside filed by Kelly,who was allowed to substitute herself as plaintiff on her father’sbehalf, the defense’s tactics were described this way:
“Inan attempt to inflame the jury, the defendant dealt the ‘race card’ bydirectly contending that the plaintiff made an issue out of thelegality of racial marriage” — that’s the language in the filing. “Ifdefense counsel wasn’t asking about whether Goodwin was completely outof it or insane, or totally incompetent, he was asking about the raceof the defendant and using the ‘N’ word to prejudice black jurors.
Further,defendant’s counsel in summation improperly attempted to sway theemotions of the black jurors when he brought up the T-shirt made byCounty Commissioner Billy Yow, graphically describing the Southernwhite male with the Rebel Flag behind him, urinating on the letters‘NAACP.’” We like to think of marriage as being about something moresublime and transcendent than sex, but sex turns out to be central tothe legal question about whether a marriage is valid.
Wesleyattempted to exclude any evidence of her “previous acts of sexualintercourse with persons to whom she was not married” in a motion filedbefore the trial.
Amotion filed on Kelly’s behalf retorts, “Defendant’s motives are atissue in this case since Plaintiff contends that Defendant used undueinfluence to take advantage of Plaintiff’s vulnerable mental state. Oneof the Defendant’s major contentions is that God was directing heractions at all times pertinent to this action. The evidence of herunchaste behavior in the time period directly prior to her relationshipwith Mr. Goodwin, coupled with evidence that she was not involved inand rarely attended church, makes the existence of her claim that herlife decisions were based totally on God’s direction less probable thanit would be without the evidence.”
It’seasy to lose sight of what was at stake in the case, amidst thehigh-flown legal language, but buried deep in the plaintiff’s motion toset aside the jury decision is a key point: “By enticing Goodwin into amarital contract against his free will while under her control, and bythe transfer of the property by deeds to entireties property, Wesleysignificantly reduced Goodwin’s intended inheritance to Kelly GoodwinClark, the heir specifically identified in his will, especially asrelated to the home in which she was raised.”
We like to think ofmarriage as being about something more sublime and transcendent thansex, but sex turns out to be central to the legal question aboutwhether a marriage is valid.
Bill’s will, which was finalized in December 2000, left $100 to each of’ eight of his surviving children, with the remainder of his estate going to Kelly.
AfterBill’s death, Wesley filed a claim for a share of the estate, assertingthat as the surviving spouse she was entitled to $1 million.
Thecourt asked the jury to answer four questions in determining whetherBill and Wesley’s marriage should be annulled: Did James Lester Goodwinlack sufficient mental capacity and understanding on April 12, 2002 tomarry Wesley Foust-Graham? Did Wesley Foust-Graham marry James LesterGoodwin without his consent? Was James Lester Goodwin permanently andincurably impotent at the time of his marriage to Wesley Foust-Graham?And did the plaintiff enter into a contract of marriage with thedefendant as a result of undue influence?
The jury answered “no” to the first three questions, and “yes” to the fourth.
Onthe basis of the jury’s finding that Wesley exerted undue influenceover Bill in procuring the marriage, Judge A. Robinson Hassell orderedit annulled. The decision was upheld in 2005 by a three-judge panel ofthe NC Court of Appeals.
Judge J. Douglas McCullough cites Wake Forest University law professor Suzanne Reynolds’ widely respected treatise, 3 Lee’s North Carolina Family Law, inconcluding that “it is generally accepted that in North Carolina amarriage procured under duress is voidable because one of the partiessuffered from want of will.” McCullough goes on to state that “ourSupreme Court has characterized duress as ‘the extreme of undueinfluence,’” but acknowledges that “neither the Supreme Court, nor thisCourt, has addressed whether undue influence is a ground for annulment.”
Reynolds,who made an unsuccessful run for the state’s Supreme Court last year,says the NC Court of Appeals’ decision to uphold Judge Robinson’sdecision “expands the grounds for annulment.”
Untilthis case, Reynolds tells me, a court would have either had to findthat one of the parties to the marriage was incapacitated and didn’tunderstand the consequence and results of the ceremony, or that themarriage had been obtained through duress, meaning there had been somekind of threat to overcome the free will of one of the parties.
Shedescribes “undue influence” as “uncharted territory for annulment,” andtold me: “I don’t know how many states do recognize undue influence asgrounds for annulment, but I suspect it’s very few.”
Wesleytold me she typed up an appeal to the Court of Appeals decision herselfat a time when she was dependent on a welfare-to-work program forincome, and hand-delivered it to the NC Supreme Court. The SupremeCourt declined to review the lower court decision.
TheCourt of Appeals opinion sets out seven factors that are relevant towhether undue influence was in play in a marriage, and determined thatthere was evidence to support the jury’s decision in all seven factors.Here’s what the opinion says:
“Goodwinwas elderly at the time of the marriage, and there was testimonytending to establish that he was suffering from dementia and/orAlzheimer’s disease. It is not disputed that he was subject to constantassociation and supervision by Foust-Graham and that he had littleassociation with his family or friends in the months immediatelypreceding the marriage. The marriage left Goodwin’s previously existingestate plan in doubt and placed Foust-Graham in the position to takeaction that would substantially reduce theamount that Goodwin’s daughter would inherit. Further there wasevidence that Foust-Graham procured the marriage, including Goodwin’sapparent confusion as to why he was at the magistrate’s office, thefact that Foust-Graham had driven Goodwin to the magistrate’s office,and the fact that the marriage was undertaken suddenly.”
Thecase recently lurched onto a new legal front when Wesley filed a newlawsuit against her lawyer, Norman B. Smith; against one of Kelly’slawyers, A. Frank Johns; and against Kelly herself. Wesley variouslyclaims that Smith impeded justice by denying her the right to testifyon her own behalf, denying her witnesses the right to testify andwithholding evidence from the court; that Johns “corrupted justice bythe intentional torts of fraud and defamation,” entered false evidenceinto court records and was responsible for Wesley being libeled in the News & Record; andthat Kelly committed “the tort of strict liability in commencing thelawsuit” that resulted in the annulment of her marriage.
RobertWells, Johns’ co-counsel in the earlier cases, says he will be filing aresponse this week, and is asking the courts to dismiss the complaint.Reynolds told me she doesn’t expect the case to go very far.
Wellstold me that Kelly would prefer to not relive the legal ordeal and wasnot interested in commenting for this story. Smith and Johns alsodeclined to comment.
‘I don’t know how many states do recognize undue influence as grounds for annulment, but I suspect it’s very few.’
In the course ofresearching this story, I visited 211 E. Vandalia Road, the one-storybrick ranch house where Wesley lived with Bill. A hand-lettered sign onthe front door displays a phone number for Spud, who is Kelly’shusband, and directs callers to ask for an employee named Juan. Ireached Juan and he gave me Kelly’s direct phone number. An outgoingmessage gives the name of a rental business in both English and Spanish. Sally Cross tells me that Kelly owns about 40 rental houses that she inherited from her father.
Thevarious accounts entered into the legal record paint a picture ofturbulent marriage between Bill Goodwin and Wesley Foust-Graham in thefive weeks between the ceremony and when Bill went into the hospital.Bill went with his daughter to initiate a divorce from Wesley; he toldWesley he loved her and wanted her to be his wife; he called her awhore, prompting her to take her things and leave in the middle of thenight; he apologized. In a word, his behavior seems erratic.
“Idon’t believe Wesley tricked Bill into marrying her,” Sally Cross toldme, also adding that she doesn’t think Bill ever overcame hisprejudice. “I don’t know how to explain it, but Bill got to where hismind wasn’t so good. He told me that the Viagra that the doctor givehim, he got headaches from it, and it made him dizzy and stuff. I don’tknow how he overcome the color situation. I really don’t know, to tellyou the truth, unless his condition got worse and he didn’t comprehendthat Wesley was black.”
Bill and Wesley’s first separation took place May 6, 2002, the day Kelly took him to see a lawyer to file for divorce.
Thenext day, Wesley left a message on Bill’s answering machine saying hewas welcome to call her back, but she was scared and confused about himtelling her he didn’t want anything to do with her.
Therecording made by Wesley also includes the conversation she had withBill when he returned her call. He sounds conciliatory and remorsefulabout their breakup.
Here’s Bill talking about the divorce filing: “I did not set this up. I did not have a thing in theworld to do with it. I’ve got one year before the divorce is final,they say. Like I told the lawyer, I’d be a damned fool as much as Ithink of you…. I’m so sick of them I could die. That’s all in the worldthey want me to do is for me to be shut of you. And honey, I love youas much now as I’ve been loving you.”
Wesley asks Bill why he signed the paper initiating the divorce. Bill’s response is that he was confused.
Billsays, “I’m going to tell you the honest-to-God truth. I told youbefore. When I went to a lawyer I wanted you to go with me. Honey, I’ma little bit old. I don’t know if you know it or not. I’m too old foryou, I reckon. But nevertheless, I loved you, and I no more knew whatwent on in that office than you do.”
IfBill was confused when he initiated the divorce, it seems reasonable toask whether he was in his right mind when he married Wesley.
Inthis conversation, there seems to be no question but that he wanted tobe Wesley’s husband and that he fully understood the consequences oftheir marriage:
“And I told Kelly today: I said, ‘That’s my wife.
Y’allcan cuss her, kick her and everything else you want to.’ But I said,‘One of these days I’m going to get pissed off and I’m going to showyou who’s boss around this place.’ I said, ‘She is as much entitled tothis house, by God, as I am. She’s my wife and I’m going to keep her asmy wife if I can get her to keep the name Goodwin. I’ll never denyshe’s my wife.’” Bill also acknowledges that he’s at least aware thatothers have noted Wesley’s blackness:
“Kellysaid, ‘I don’t see how in the world you love her; she’s black.’ I said,‘I don’t give a damn if she’s purple; she’s mine — if she’ll have me.’”For her part, Wesley says she’s not going to be jerked around:
“You’vetaken my whole life. I’ve spent the last two months of my life strictlywith you. I’ve given up all my business, and here I come yesterdayafter working all day, and I get told to get out. I have no source ofincome. I have nothing to depend on. You’re my only dependency. I amnot a yo-yo. I can’t go through this.”
AfterBill tells Wesley that everything he did the day before was a mistake,she prods him: “Well, you need to call that attorney’s office and tellthem that. That’s your free will. I ain’t telling you what to do.That’s your free will.”
Thenext day, Bill and Wesley visited the law offices of Anthony McLaughlinand transferred two of Bill’s companies into joint ownership.
McLaughlin and two employees of his law firm later described the transaction in an affidavit. It reads:
“Atthe appointment it was obvious that there was a significant agedifference between Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin, as well as the fact that Mr.Goodwin was white, and Mrs. Goodwin African American. As a resultdiligent inquiry was made as to Mr. Goodwin’s understanding of what hewas doing. Following Mr. Goodwin’s arrival, there was no doubt amongAnthony, Paige or Robin Rollinger, another employee who notarized thedeeds, that Mr. Goodwin knew exactly what he was doing, and had everyintention of transferring the property out of the corporations and intothe joint names of he and his wife. No indication of any undueinfluence, overreaching, or lack of understanding or capacity wasevident at all. Jokes regarding the age disparity were made and notonly appreciated, but joined by Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin. When the Goodwinsleft the office everyone commented on the fact that they appeared to bevery much in love and very happy with each other.”
‘That’s my wife. Y’all can cuss her, kick her andeverything else you want to.’ But I said, ‘One of these days I’m goingto get pissed off and I’m going to show you who’s boss around thisplace.’ I said, ‘She is as much entitled to this house, by God, as Iam. She’s my wife and I’m going to keep her as my wife if I can get herto keep the name Goodwin. I’ll never deny she’s my wife.’
I asked Anthony McLaughlin about the affidavit, and he confirmed thathe had swore it out with members of his staff, but said he wouldn’tknow whether the statement had been doctored because the event tookplace so long ago.
“Ibelieved Ms. Graham to be completely truthful at the time,” he told me.“She was a believable young woman. The whole situation was believableto me, and I didn’t think anything untoward was going on.”
Withina month of the aborted divorce, Bill was in the hospital. Oneafternoon, he took two Viagra pills and was soon complaining of athrobbing headache. He took a nap, and when he woke up he was confusedand disoriented to the point where he held a conversation with Sally,and then hung up the phone and asked Wesley who he had been speaking to.
Affidavitsby two certified nursing assistants provide an extremely disturbingpicture of Wesley’s behavior towards Bill during his stay at thenursing home where he would live out the rest of his days.
JenniferLeigh Bates says she checked on Bill in his room after Wesley left andfound him lying in the bed completely naked with the bed soaked insweat. Another time, she reported that she had words with Wesley afterBill said that Wesley wanted to keep playing with his genitals and hewanted her to leave.
Anothercertified nursing assistant, Vonee Boatwright, says Wesley’s repeatedencouragement to Bill to drink some water prompted her to pay closeattention to them one day in the cafeteria:
“Isaw Mr. Goodwin spit a pill out of his mouth on to the table. Wesleypicked the pill up from the table, and she looked at me, and I lookedat her, and then she walked past me with the pill in her hand to thesink. Wesley then put her hand with the pill in the sink and washed thepill down the sink. Wesley then washed her hands and came back to thetable.”
The Bates affidavit states that the incident “has created serious concern for Mr. Goodwin’s immediate safety and protection.”
Wesleytold me recently that this was the first she had heard about theaffidavits, and she dismissed them by saying, “The devil is a liar.”
Theseallegations dovetail with assertions by the plaintiff’s side thatWesley tried to have sex with Bill in the nursing home so that shecould become pregnant and prevent the marriage from being annulled.
That’snonsense, Wesley says. “I was on birth control. My medical records canbe subpoenaed. I wasn’t try to get pregnant; I was trying to move myprofessional life forward. We had already consummated our marriage backat our house. I didn’t know anything about the law saying if you had achild your marriage couldn’t be annulled. I got into bed with Bill, andtried to cuddle, he didn’t understand that he was in a hospital. Wecuddled in the bed.”
Bill lived another year. His death certificate lists aspiration pneumonia as the immediate cause of death.
Wesley,who is 47 now, lives in an apartment with a daughter who was bornaround the time the 2004 trial was taking place. After Bill’s death,Wesley told me she became involved with a man who she had been plannedto marry, but he became abusive when some details of the trial cameout. Wesley says she has been so devastated by the legal battle overBill’s estate that she has been unable to work as a realtor.
I asked her how she was supporting herself and her daughter, and she replied, “I am not at all.”
Theodds appear to be against the courts granting Wesley relief, and thefinal line of her complaint indicates that she is hedging her bets witha higher authority:
“I,pro se, Ms. Wesley Foust-Graham Goodwin thank you Honorable SuperiorJudge in Jesus name, Lord and Savior of all believers, God is real.Wesley Foust-Graham Goodwin, Child of God Almighty.”