THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo
To put it politely, Martin Fewlas was frugal.
Friends and relatives said that Mr. Fewlas was a shrewd investor and collector who had an eye for a good bargain.
But, he also was a penny pincher who would squabble about splitting the bill for dinner, they said.
"He was very tight. He would argue over a nickel," said Richard Wilder, a former business partner whose late sister was married to Mr. Fewlas for nearly 20 years.
So it wasn't a surprise to Mr. Wilder that his former brother-in-law had acquired more than $2.2 million in assets before he died on Aug. 28, 2010, at age 74.
What did shock Mr. Wilder and others was that the retired city worker had left his entire life savings and personal fortune to a woman who lived in the upper apartment of his duplex on Broadway in South Toledo.
“She was nothing more than a renter. She was just a tenant,” he said.
The last will and testament that left his entire estate to Margaret McKnight and the series of money transactions and legal maneuvers that followed did draw the attention of agents with the FBI and IRS.
Ms. McKnight, Kurt Mallory, and Toledo lawyer Susan Pioch are the focus of a federal investigation into an alleged fraud on the Fewlas estate, according an affidavit in U.S District Court in Toledo.
Investigators allege that they conspired after Mr. Fewlas’ death to draw up a fake will that appointed Ms. McKnight as executrix and made her the sole beneficiary, and after gaining control through the phony will, they systemically drained the nearly $2 million that the Toledo man kept in bank accounts and certificates of deposits.
Agents said in the affidavit that the case is being investigated for possible charges of identity theft, forgery, aggravated theft, mail fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud, illegal withdrawals of money from banks, and conspiracy. So far no one has been charged.
Federal prosecutors began foreclosure action in April to take control of the duplex that Mr. Fewlas owned and two houses and a used-car business in Toledo that investigators say were bought with money from the estate.
At the request of Ms. McKnight’s attorney, the lawsuit in federal court has been stayed pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
Five days after Mr. Fewlas died, Ms. Pioch filed a two-page document in Lucas County Probate Court that put Ms. McKnight in charge of the estate and made her the sole heir to Mr. Fewlas’ money and belongings.
The wealth that he accumulated included deposits in 22 accounts with 13 banks and financial institutions, the home he shared with his late wife, his mother's house, motorcycles, antique furniture and clocks, a pickup truck, and other personal belongings.
Gary Mallory and his son, Kurt Mallory, put their signatures as witnesses on the document that was dated June 16, 2010, more than two months before Mr. Fewlas’ death, according to Probate Court records.
However, agents said in the affidavit that the forensic analysis of the signature at the IRS crime laboratory in Chicago concluded the signature on the will was fake and the person who signed it attempted to simulate a genuine one.
Over the 15 month period after the will was filed, Ms. McKnight transferred $1,915,000 in cash from the estate into her own personal bank accounts, and funneled $284,0110 to Ms. Pioch, federal agents say.
Kurt Mallory, who lived with Ms. McKnight in the upper unit of Mr. Fewlas’ duplex, received $841,766 over a 14-month period from Jan. 1, 2011, to Feb. 27, 2012, from Ms. McKnight. He spent $38,000 of the funds to buy a house on Air Line Avenue that is owned by his son and daughter-in-law, court records show.
According to court filings, the investigation began after Mr. Mallory’s father, Gary Mallory, told authorities that he forged Mr. Fewlas’ signature on a document that his son, Ms. McKnight, and Ms. Pioch gave him to sign.
Gary Mallory told investigators his son later refused to give him money to buy a house in Arizona and he went to Ms. Pioch with a demand that he tell Kurt Mallory to give him $50,000 for his role.
She allegedly refused Mr. Mallory’s request and told the elder Mr. Mallory that what he was doing was “blackmail and I will not be part of it,” before throwing him out of her office, according to the forfeiture of property lawsuit filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Ms. Pioch said in a menacing complaint she made with Toledo police that Gary Mallory demanded money from the Fewlas estate and “threatened to go downtown if he didn’t get the money” during the June 22, 2011, confrontation.
The report, which was filed two days later and entered into the Probate Court file, said Mr. Mallory was “shaking and angry” and she felt threatened by his words and actions.
The affidavit submitted by IRS agents to search and seize property said Ms. McKnight made five payments from the estate holdings to Ms. Pioch; $20,000 in November, 2010, and $264,110 in 2011, but that she only reported gross profits of $101,160 for her law practice on her 2011 income tax returns.
Gary Mallory also told investigators that his son broke into Mr. Fewlas’ home after he died and took various items, including military and collectible guns, antique furniture, lamps, and $36,000 from a safe, the forfeiture complaint said.
Kurt Mallory could not be reached for comment. Toledo attorney Reginald Jackson, Jr., who was appointed to represent Gary Mallory, would not comment.
Charles Boss, an attorney retained by Ms. McKnight to represent her in the criminal investigation and the federal forfeiture case, said Mr. Fewlas wanted his client to have his estate after he died because she was his caregiver for many years.
Mr. Boss described Gary Mallory as an unreliable source who lied to FBI about forging Mr. Fewlas’ signature on the will.
“There is no merit to those allegations,” he said. “This is not how it happened. Certainly, Ms. McKnight doesn’t know of anything that was improperly done.”
Ms. Pioch’s attorney, Richard Kerger, also challenged the validity of Gary Mallory’s statements to federal investigators. He said it is illogical to believe that Ms. McKnight and Kurt Mallory would collaborate in a crime with Gary Mallory.
“Go ahead and assume that Kurt, Margaret, and Susan were going to cooperate in this fake will. Why do you need him?” Mr. Kerger said. “When you conspire, you want to involve as few people as possible because everyone who comes in will want a piece.”
Also, Mr. Kerger said Gary Mallory and his son had a “troubled relationship at best” and the two men would have been unlikely conspirators in trying to pull off a fake will.
As far as the government’s allegations about payments to his client by Ms. McKnight, Mr. Kerger said the money was compensation for legal affairs she handled unrelated to the estate in Probate Court, and included her representation of Kurt Mallory in criminal and civil matters.
Mr. Kerger said Ms. Pioch was not present when the will was signed. He said she had taken the prepared document to Mr. Fewlas at his home, but left and gave instructions because there were no witnesses available at the time. Ms. Pioch received the will with Mr. Fewlas' signature from Ms. McKnight after he died, Mr. Kerger said.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Mr. Fewlas grew up in South Toledo near the Toledo Zoo. He went to Newbury Elementary School, attended Libbey High School, and transferred to Macomber Vocational High School in his junior year, but dropped out to work in construction.
After joining the local Operating Engineers union, he operated heavy construction equipment on road, bridge, water, sewer, and other projects from 1953 to 1959, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
His two years of active duty in the military included action for more than a year in South Korea's combat zone. He returned to Toledo in 1962 and did an additional four years in the Army Reserves while working in the city of Toledo’s street department as a heavy equipment operator.
Most of his 28 years with the city was spent in demolishing houses and buildings, including eight years in the federally funded urban renewal program. He retired as a foreman in 1990.
Nora Myers, a neighbor whose brothers went to high school with Mr. Fewlas, said he never missed a day of work.
“He didn’t take any time off from his job and work,” she said. “He worked all the time.”
Mr. Fewlas’ wife, Donna, was a diabetic who died in 1990 at age 52. The couple had no children because of the dangers a pregnancy might have had on her health, Ms. Myers said.
“She was a full-blown diabetic and Marty was borderline diabetic. They decided not to have any children,” she said.
When Mr. Fewlas wasn’t at his job with the city, he and his brother-in-law, Mr. Wilder, partnered during the 1970s and 1980s in an auction and estate sales business.
The Fewlases, who were married in 1961, owned several antique stores through the years on Broadway, and Wells-Winter Antique Shop, across from Danny Thomas Park.
A story published on April 6, 1972, in The Blade, reported about the couple’s attempts to sell two caskets, a candelabrum, wooden cross, and flower stand, which were items they had bought from a local fraternity lodge for a flea market sale.
The inventory list of Mr. Fewlas’ belongings that Ms. Pioch submitted to Probate Court included five motorcycles, ranging from a 1952 Harley Davidson Panhead to a 2001 Harley Davidson Road King.
The attorney also listed an assortment of antique bedroom, living room, and dining furniture sets, clocks, tables, collectible glassware, lamps, roll top desk, pictures, photos, power and welding tools, and his 2005 Ford pickup truck in the appraisal of the personal property, estimating its value at nearly $78,000.
On three separate occasions, Ms. Pioch asked Probate Court Judge Jack Puffenberger to extend deadlines for the inventory filings, and cited the large amount of assets as the reason for the delay.
“This is a complicated estate. Executor and lawyer have gone through 14 boxes of paper, requiring tracing assets. ... Two houses and garages had to be cleaned out prior to appraisal,” she wrote in a Jan. 31, 2011, motion asking for an extension.
According Dr. Cynthia Beisser, Lucas County deputy coroner, Mr. Fewlas died at the University of Toledo Medical Center, formerly the Medical College of Ohio Hospital, after first falling outside his home on Aug. 5, 2010, and again in the hospital’s rehabilitation unit on Aug. 12. His death on Aug. 28 was ruled accidental.
Mr. Wilder, who lives on Broadway near the Fewlas home, said Mr. Fewlas took a spill three to six months earlier at his house that put him in the hospital for several days, but he bounced back to his normal self.
“Marty was still able to take care of himself,” he said. “He was still driving and was healthy right up until that last fall. He didn’t need taking care of.”
Ms. Myers, 67, said: “He looked good for his age. He was healthy.”
Mr. Fewlas’ body was taken from the county morgue to Blanchard-Strabler Funeral Home, where Ms. McKnight paid for the cremation. There was no visitation or services. A simple, one sentence obituary notice was published in The Blade.
It was from the obituary that Janet McLaughlin learned her former brother-in-law had died. Her late husband, James McLaughlin, was Mr. Fewlas’ half brother.
Mrs. McLaughlin, of South Toledo, said Mr. Fewlas did have a will and provided her husband with a copy of it in 1993. She said her husband was to inherit the estate, and if he was dead, it was suppose to go to their son, James McLaughlin, who died in 2004. It was Mr. Fewlas’ wishes that her grandson, Jimmy McLaughlin, 25, would then receive the estate, she said.
After her husband died in 1998, Mrs. McLaughlin gave the will to her son, and through time it got lost, she said. “We had a copy of the will in our safe for a long time and Marty had a copy,” she said.
Contact Mark Reiter at: email@example.com or 419-724-6199.