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Like all air disasters, the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 off the California coast last year caused unimaginable suffering for the friends and families of the 88 passengers and crew members who died. But families of four of the men killed in the Jan. 31, 2000, crash of the flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco claim that a cruel scam caused them an extra measure of anguish. Attempting to cash in on some resulting multimillion-dollar wrongful-death lawsuits, a group of claimants in Guatemala insisted that the men — including one who was gay — had all secretly fathered children in that country. The families say the lawyers representing the phony heirs knew, or could easily have discovered, that their clients’ claims were fraudulent. And they are attempting to hold the lawyers accountable. The U.S. lawyers, for their part, are doing their best to back away from their Central American clients, now that it appears the claims are worthless. “It’s a tar baby,” says James Bostwick, a San Francisco lawyer who is trying to be relieved as local counsel to the Guatemalans. “We are quite sorry that anybody asked us to get involved.” On the day Flight 261 went down, David Belmont Alan Clemetson, a handsome, accomplished Seattle area physician, was flying home from a vacation in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, with his wife, Carolyn, and his four children, including two from a previous marriage. Clemetson and all his heirs died that day, so his elderly parents were shocked the following summer when Seattle lawyer Mark Vohr sent a letter claiming that 10 years earlier, their son had fathered a daughter, Irma Noemi Clemetson Galindo, who was living in Guatemala. Vohr, a lawyer at Seattle’s Aiken, St. Louis & Siljeg, was acting as local counsel for Irma and a woman claiming to be her guardian, an arrangement set up by Edgar Miller, a Coral Gables, Fla., lawyer. Also representing Irma Galindo was a second Coral Gables lawyer, Robert Parks, a successful personal injury lawyer with experience in air-crash cases and other complex tort litigation. After just a few weeks, though, Vohr suddenly withdrew from the Clemetson case and another of Miller’s cases. According to court papers filed by Harold Fardal of Seattle’s Keller Rohrback, Miller called his firm in August, asking to speak to a probate lawyer. Miller was referred to Fardal. Miller told Fardal that he had not been satisfied with Vohr’s work and was looking for a competent probate lawyer to represent the claims of Irma Galindo and another child. In an interview, Vohr says he was not fired but withdrew voluntarily because of a “serious, substantial disagreement” with Miller over the representation. Vohr obliquely referred to the Washington state ethics rule governing frivolous claims but declined to go into the nature of the disagreement with Miller, citing client confidentiality. Then, in September, Fardal was negotiating with Pamela McClaran, a lawyer at Seattle’s Karr Tuttle Campbell who represents Clemetson’s estate, to set up the DNA test that would settle the matter of Irma Galindo’s claim. Fardal forwarded to her an e-mail he had received from Edgar Miller: “We agree with McLaren [sic] that the scheduling for the children in Guatemala may be made at this time, and we shall make arrangements for their attendance when we are advised of the appointment date.” One word caught McClaran’s eye. She immediately fired back a question: “Hal — what ‘children’!!!????” Although she pressed him again in an e-mail later that day, the following day, Fardal ducked. “I have obtained confirmation of what I believed to be the case — we are talking about one alleged child of David Clemetson, Irma Galindo,” he wrote. “There is no allegation that there are multiple surviving children of his.” When she spoke with Fardal a few days later, McClaran says, she asked him whether he represented any Guatemalan children other than Irma. Finally, Fardal disclosed that he and the Florida lawyers, Parks and Miller, represented a second Guatemalan child allegedly fathered by a passenger on Flight 261. McClaran immediately put negotiations over the DNA tests on hold. She soon learned that the other passenger was Terrence Ryan, a Seattle photocopy shop owner whose estate was in the same Seattle probate court as Clemetson’s. Like the Clemetson family, all of the Ryans were killed in the crash of Flight 261. A bona fide child of either man stood to gain millions from wrongful-death actions against Alaska Airlines, Boeing Co. and others involved in the construction, maintenance and operation of the doomed flight. CALIFORNIA CONNECTION Further investigation turned up two San Francisco victims of the crash who were also alleged to have fathered secret heirs. Juan Marquez, a gay San Francisco book dealer, and firefighter Renato Bermudez. Both were alleged to have had wives and two children. All four sets of claimants — seeking to inherit the Clemetson, Ryan, Marquez and Bermudez estates — were represented by Miller and Parks. All four claimed to be the sole heirs to men killed on Flight 261 who left no wives or children behind. (Fardal, the Seattle lawyer, is involved only in the Clemetson and Ryan cases.) On Sept. 22, James Bostwick, the San Francisco local counsel for the claimed heirs, filed four nearly identical wrongful-death complaints, listing his firm and Parks’ Florida firm as counsel of record. All of the cases are in San Francisco before U.S. District Judge Charles A. Legge, who is handling pretrial discovery in all the federal wrongful-death lawsuits. In Re Air Crash Off Point Mugu, Calif., MDL 1343 (N.D. Cal.). By the time Bostwick filed the cases, another set of lawyers was trying to drop a similar claim by the alleged Marquez heirs. In February, just 18 days after the crash, lawyers from the air-crash litigation firm Speiser Krause filed a complaint in Los Angeles federal court on behalf of Reina Isabel Marquez Morales and her two children. Leigh Ballen, one of the Speiser Krause lawyers involved in the case, said that he became suspicious when Alaska Airlines called to tell him it was transferring Marquez’s frequent-flier miles to Dale Rettinger, Marquez’s partner of 20 years. When it became clear that Marquez had been involved in a long-standing relationship with a man, Ballen said he began asking his clients to send documents backing up their claims. The proof never came and Speiser Krause withdrew the case in October. In addition, it turned out that little Irma Galindo, who claimed Dr. Clemetson as her father, had a second wrongful-death claim filed by a different lawyer, Federico C. Sayre of Newport Beach, Calif. Sayre did not return calls seeking comment. LOCAL LAWYERING “You don’t usually start out thinking your clients are giving you false information,” says Bostwick. “You know it doesn’t even enter your mind.” Still, ethics experts say that local counsel have a duty, independent from that of the originating lawyer, to make reasonable inquiry into the basis of their clients’ claims. And courts have been holding them to it. “They’ve really ratcheted up the obligations of local counsel in recent years,” says John Steele, the ethics partner at Palo Alto, Calif.’s Fenwick & West and a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall). Judges who might have a harder time disciplining an out-of-state lawyer rely on the ethics and judgment of local lawyers, he says. “That’s the counsel who’s got the most skin in the game — the most reputational capital at risk.” To be sure, air-disaster lawyers and probate lawyers have seen some unusual cases. When DHL Worldwide Express founder Larry Hillblom died in a small-plane crash in 1995, for example, several women scattered across the Pacific claimed to have given birth to his children. Four heirs were actually able to prove it and share in Hillblom’s $600 million estate. But the family members and the lawyers for the estates say there were just too many red flags in the Guatemalan cases. And when the families began looking into the claims, the claims quickly fell apart. David Clemetson was in Kenya, treating AIDS patients at the time Irma would most likely have been conceived. Receipts and office records showed he was in Seattle on two occasions when he was claimed to have been in Guatemala — the day of Irma’s birth and, later, when arranging for Irma and her mother to emigrate to the United States. Terrence Ryan was alleged to have been a supporter of the Mexican Zapatista rebel movement who fathered a child with a guerrilla who was later killed fighting Mexican government troops. His brother Jim told the press that Terrence, a fan of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, would be more likely to shoot at the Zapatistas than to support them. And in January, a guardian ad litem and an investigator appointed by the court commissioner overseeing the Clemetson and Ryan estates traveled to Guatemala to interview the girls and their claimed guardians. The stories were wildly inconsistent. Finally, on Jan. 9, a lab worker in Guatemala scraped cell samples from the inside of the two girls’ cheeks, to determine whether the DNA matched Clemetson’s and Ryan’s. It did not. Between them, the Clemetsons and the Ryans say they spent about $200,000 in investigative costs and legal fees, which they hope Miller, Parks and Fardal will be required to pay. In a hearing at the end of this month, they will be seeking reimbursement under a local rule, similar to federal Rule 11, that provides sanctions for filing frivolous claims. And Rettinger is considering a suit against the lawyers for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Rettinger, although the executor and beneficiary of Marquez’s will, is shut out of the liability lawsuit by wrongful-death laws that specify family members who may sue but make no provision for partners not legally married. The FBI in Miami has forwarded the matter to the local U.S. Attorney’s office to determine whether U.S. laws were violated, according to a bureau spokeswoman. And, in San Francisco, Judge Legge has said he will consider whether the wrongful-death cases should be dismissed. Edgar Miller’s law partner, David A. Russell, said that Miller declined comment, citing ongoing litigation. But in perfunctory court papers filed in opposition to the motion for Rule 11 sanctions, he claims that an investigator working for him interviewed both children in Guatemala “a number” of times. Novelo also obtained birth certificates that appeared to be genuine, along with sworn statements from the grandmothers and another alleged witness, according to the papers. Fardal and Bostwick, the local counsel in Seattle and San Francisco, have expressed their sympathy for the families, arguing they were also victims of their clients’ fraud. Both have defended their conduct, saying the cases were backed up by documents that appeared to be genuine, by the investigation conducted on Miller’s behalf and by the assurances of the Florida lawyers. Robert Parks did not return calls seeking comment.

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