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Tuesday, October 10, 2000

A Test of Wills

Special to the Star-Bulletin
Kahala widow Carmen Corrine Herbert with her
handyman, Hanno Soth, in a photo included as a
court exhibit in the legal battle over her will.

Ten years after the death of a rich widow,
her will has finally been settled in a case that
went to the Supreme Court. But mystery still
surrounds the young handyman who stayed
with her the night she died.

By Ian Y. Lind

THE death of 84-year-old Carmen Corrine Herbert in her Diamond Head home in 1990 unfolded into a decade-long legal battle over the terms of her final will, which unexpectedly left most of Herbert's $2 million estate to a 26-year-old handyman, Hanno Soth.

The will was challenged by Herbert's church, which previously had been named to receive the inheritance, and the case became one of the very few of its kind to be contested all the way to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

At stake was control over the bulk of her estate, which by the end of 1999 consisted of a three-bedroom Diamond Head home just steps from the beach, an eighth-floor Waikiki apartment, and about $1 million in investments.

Opposing attorneys each charged that the case was fueled by greed, but court records also show allegations of fraud, hints of a romance between Herbert and Soth, and suspicions of foul play, perhaps even murder.

Special to the Star-Bulletin
Carmen Corrine Herbert, above, in a candid moment.

Carmen Herbert died sometime overnight July 3, 1990, in her home of 40 years at the bottom of Kaalawai Place, a short street that runs down the steep slope from Diamond Head Road to the ocean.

Herbert was an avid golfer and a popular figure for years at the Waialae Country Club, where she was elected to five terms as president of the club's Women's Division between 1950 and 1970. Her husband, Daniel, a former Sears executive in Hawaii, died years earlier, and she had no other surviving relatives.

Herbert's death, although sudden, was not wholly unexpected, given her age and history of medical problems, including dangerously high blood pressure.

But a petition for probate filed in court just 24 hours after her death disclosed for the first time that Herbert had signed a new will in late 1989.

This will had been written by Soth, and left most of the $2 million estate to him. Soth, a student and surfer from Ontario, Canada, had worked as a gardener and handyman for Herbert and several of her neighbors, and had known Herbert for less than three years.

Kind handyman, or schemer?

Soth displaced the Christian Science church, which had been named in a will prepared just a year earlier, in September 1988. Herbert, who became a Christian Scientist in 1942, faithfully attended church services and studied daily lessons throughout her life, court records show.

Friends and neighbors found themselves talking, disagreeing and taking sides, leading one of Soth's attorneys, Arthur B. Reinwald, to refer to the quiet street as "the Peyton Place of Honolulu."

One group of longtime friends refused to believe Herbert would have turned against her church.

"I was shocked," Floye Adams, Carmen's friend of 25 years, testified in the 1992 trial contesting the will that named Soth as beneficiary.

"Carmen loved her faith. She loved Christian Science, and no way would she leave the church out of her will."

Adams and other friends believed that Soth, who showered Herbert with attention during the final two years of her life, schemed to insinuate himself into her affairs, and then took advantage of her failing memory and diminished capacity to cut off the church and put himself into her will, trial records show.

Others, however, defended the new will -- and Soth's large inheritance -- as an expression of Herbert's desire to help the young man who had been kind to her, driving her to appointments, helping with household chores and, eventually, taking over her financial affairs.

"She considered him a friend," testified Dorothy Theaker, who had known Herbert since the 1940s.

Although faced with conflicting testimony on several points, a jury threw out Soth's claim in April 1992. The jury's decision was upheld by the Intermediate Court of Appeals in March 1997 and by the Hawaii Supreme Court in an opinion issued in March 1999.

Settlement of the estate was again delayed when Soth launched his own objections, this time in concert with the Shriners Hospital for Children, which had been named in an even earlier will Herbert signed in 1973.

But an agreement reached in June cleared the way for final distribution of Herbert's estate, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year, according to attorney Elliot Loden, who prepared the 1988 will for Herbert and is coordinating the process.

Under terms of the settlement, the Shriners Hospital received 25 percent of the amount remaining after payment of specific bequests to several of Herbert's personal friends, with the remainder -- valued at more than $1 million -- to go to Honolulu's First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Reinwald said Soth has not lived in Hawaii for years, and is "not reachable" for comment.

Reinwald added, "I thought we presented a good case, but the jury didn't."

"I think everyone's happy it's over," Loden said. "The church is going to get its money. The bottom line? We won."

Key factors in case

Several key factors made this an unusually perplexing case, court records show.

Bullet Unseemly haste: Herbert's will was filed for probate just 24 hours after her death and even before the death certificate was signed, a pace termed "unseemly haste" by attorney Carroll Taylor, who represented the church.

Honolulu attorney David Larsen, who was slated to be a witness in the case but was not called to testify, agreed. "I've been doing this stuff in Hawaii for 25 years, and this is the first case I'm aware of that was filed as precipitously as that," Larsen told the Star-Bulletin recently. "Normally there is a much more measured and leisurely response to filing a petition for probate."

Herbert died on the 4th of July holiday, and her personal physician signed a death certificate on July 6, based on a telephone conversation with Soth and without seeing the body. Herbert's body was cremated within days without an autopsy.

Reinwald, Soth's attorney, said speed was part of his standard practice, but Taylor argued it was evidence of Soth's long-standing plan to grab control of Herbert's assets for himself.

Bullet Diminished capacity: Although testimony was not unanimous, the jury agreed that Carmen Herbert's deteriorating memory, noted by doctors, left her without the legal ability to approve the will favoring Soth.

Several people testified that Herbert had become lost driving between familiar locations, such as church and home.

Others, including an attorney living next door, said her memory appeared unreliable, and she had become increasingly forgetful.

Once described as a meticulous housekeeper, Herbert had allowed her home to fall into disrepair, testimony showed. Friends who entered the house in late 1988 reported the roof leaking, water on the floors, the stove broken, newspapers and mail piled in stacks, no hot water and other problems.

Bullet Undue influence: Several people described seeing Soth and Herbert holding hands in a way that did not appear parental or maternal.

Waialae Country Club manager Allan Lum testified that he observed the couple sitting on a couch holding hands in an affectionate, even "lovey-dovey" manner.

And Dorothy Theaker testified: "I think she (Carmen) would have given him the T-shirt off her back. She said that he was the only one that she trusted."

Betty Pettus, Herbert's friend of 40 years, described her behavior around Soth.

"She was like a high-school girl with her first crush," Pettus told the jury. "She was just pleased to do whatever Hanno suggested."

According to testimony, Soth waited until Herbert's housekeeper went on a two-week vacation on Dec. 15, 1989. On the next business day, he had Herbert sign and notarize a power of attorney giving him control over her affairs.

Soth then drafted and printed the new will giving himself most of her estate, and on Dec. 20 drove Herbert to her bank to have the document notarized.

Although Herbert signed and notarized the will, she did not sign or initial the separate pages, and Taylor pointed to unusual spacing in the final typed document as evidence that "something funny" was going on.

"It looks as if it was changed after the document was finished," Taylor said recently.

"Once they (the jury) start disbelieving the guy, they disbelieve everything," Taylor said.

Bullet Means, opportunity and motive: During the trial, Taylor argued that facts in the case supported a "reasonable inference" that Herbert could have been murdered.

"Soth had the means (a 26-year-old man could easily overpower a sleeping 84-year-old woman), the opportunity (he spent the night of July 3, 1990, in her house alone with her, the only time he had done that), and the motive (he had already accepted an offer to attend Whittier College of Law starting in the fall of 1990 and he stood to inherit $1.5 million plus)," Taylor said, according to trial records.

'He's very shrewd'

Michael McGuigan, representing Soth, dismissed the allegations as "fanciful imagination" intended to prejudice the jury, and noted that a subsequent police investigation did not classify the case as a homicide. "There was no evidence of any foul play in this case," McGuigan argued.

Soth is living in Uluwatu, an area of Bali popular with foreign surfers, according to several acquaintances.

Thomas Henderson, who gave Soth a rent-free room for a year and a half, and briefly served as an officer of a company formed by Soth in 1995, says Soth moved to Bali about three years ago to pursue a real-estate deal.

"He (Soth) posed as a major developer," Henderson said. "He tied up twenty acres of beachfront property with no money at all, and was trying to get investors."

"He had about $60 in gold jewelry, and traded that for rights to the property," Henderson said.

"It's not really flim-flam. He just tries to tie things up with minimal investment. He's what I would call very shrewd."

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