Curse of the Dead

The body of Anna Nicole Smith lies beneath ten feet of Bahamian dirt. But eight months after her death, her ghost still stalks South Florida, thanks to a case filed last April in Fort Lauderdale's U.S. District Court. Though it caused barely a ripple in the otherwise-vigilant tabloid press, Stern v. O'Quinn has blockbuster potential.

"This case is going to open up a whole bunch of doors that were closed before," says Rob Klein, an attorney in the matter. "It will be a very public exposition of what facts are out there."

The stakes are bigger than they were last February, when Broward Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin sobbed his way through the fight over custody of Anna Nicole's remains. This time, the case might lead to a murder trial.

That's because Howard K. Stern, Anna Nicole's former boyfriend, is suing Houston-based attorney John O'Quinn over remarks in which O'Quinn implied that Stern killed Anna Nicole and her son Daniel. By doing so, Stern gives O'Quinn, one of the nation's most cunning lawyers, the right to subpoena documents and question witnesses under oath on that very question. Should that inquiry turn up evidence that Stern did kill Anna Nicole, then it could provide the basis for a criminal indictment. After all, there is no statute of limitations on murder.

Nothing would be more delightful to America's tabloid press. An accusation of murder would place the Anna Nicole Smith case in the pantheon of great celebrity scandals — O.J. Simpson territory, even.

At the very least, this case will convene that familiar, unsavory cast of characters who last spring were so eager to sling hearsay in TV appearances, tell-all books, and gossip rags. Only now they'll be forced to either swear to their claims under oath or admit that they sexed up their stories to feed a hungry tabloid press corps.

The prospect may be dreadful for South Florida residents still suffering from Anna Nicole overload, but for the ghost herself, this, finally, has the makings of a satisfying climax.

To followers of the Anna Nicole case, John O'Quinn may be best-known as the lawyer whose blood-sugar level caused him to collapse, causing an off-camera thump during a February 22 hearing. It prompted Judge Seidlin to intone, "Stay with me, Texas. I want to be with you a long time from now."

Within national legal circles, however, O'Quinn is better-known as the lawyer with a flair for scoring colossal payouts from corporations on behalf of injured customers. His targets include tobacco companies (a $17.3 billion settlement), Halliburton ($70 million), and a diet pill manufacturer (roughly $1 billion).

O'Quinn entered the Anna Nicole custody case to represent Virgie Arthur, the former Houston police officer who is Anna Nicole's estranged mother.

Stern's attorney is Lin Wood of Atlanta, whose celebrity-client list includes former congressman Gary Condit, the Colorado woman who accused Kobe Bryant of rape, and the parents of JonBenet Ramsey.

So the lawsuit against O'Quinn represents a clash between two legal titans, a fact the two lawyers seem to appreciate. In an August 16 deposition at O'Quinn's Houston office, Wood asked O'Quinn about his reasons for taking the case when it was offered to him by Arthur's son, an FBI agent.

"If an FBI agent asks you to do a favor," O'Quinn said in his Texas drawl, "I don't know about your part of the country, but you try to do him a favor."

Wood responded by recalling one of his own famous clients, falsely accused Olympic bomber Richard Jewell, a case that, Wood said, made Atlanta folk such as him "a little leery of FBI agents." Touché.

But Wood of all people could understand how a case like Arthur's might be attractive to O'Quinn — not for the fees he could charge Arthur but for the publicity it could generate.

O'Quinn signed on pro bono, and his firm bankrolled the Arthur contingent's February trip to South Florida from Houston, including flights to Fort Lauderdale on O'Quinn's private jet, a lengthy stay at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66, and a legal team that included a brass-knuckled private detective who could dig up dirt on Stern and make threats to opposing attorneys.

Pressed by Wood to give an estimate of how much his firm had spent on Arthur's case, O'Quinn named the figure $400,000. Since the case led to his being named in a defamation suit, the final cost is likely to be closer to $1 million. For a man of his means and love for legal pageantry, that's probably a bargain.

In his August deposition, O'Quinn spoke with awe about the media crush on SE Sixth Street in Fort Lauderdale, a daily gauntlet for him and his client, Arthur. "Once you got within 50 feet of the front door of the courthouse... it was literally crazy," Quinn says. "Sometimes, she and I would lock arms and I'd just say 'Follow me' and I would somehow make a path for us."

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Thomas Francis