By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
So has the illusion of a big, prosperous, and happy family. The jurors who assembled in U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeff Kaplan's federal court in Dallas on January 9, 1996, were in for a bizarre spectacle. Before them sat well-known Dallas businessman Comer Cottrell and his wife Isabell, defendants in a lawsuit brought by Keats and Ernest Morrison, cousins of the couple and former employees of Pro-Line.
The plaintiffs, a father-and-son team representing themselves, had driven up from Mobile to air some disturbing allegations about the respected couple--and they imparted their sordid charges with relish. Keats, Comer's 33-year-old second cousin, alleged that Isabell Cottrell had "assaulted" him several times by making sexual advances when he worked as a photographer for Pro-Line in 1990--and later harassed him into having sex with her in the Cottrells' North Dallas home.
Comer Cottrell fired him out of jealousy, Morrison alleged, and then Isabell fired him from her cosmetics company, Ethnic Gold, because he refused to put out.
Ernest, Keats' 59-year-old father, sued because, he said, Comer accepted $7,000 in installment payments on an old Mercedes in 1990, then snatched the car from him when he complained about Isabell's sexual advances toward his son.
The one-day civil trial was a culmination of five years of efforts on the part of the Morrisons to get restitution for the alleged misdeeds of their rich relations. Finally, here was their day in court--and the whole truth about the Morrisons' rich kinfolk would supposedly spill out.
"I trusted that man," Ernest Morrison would complain bitterly after the trial. "I trusted him because he was my relative, and I worked hard to show that I appreciated what he was doing for my family and myself. I never thought he would do me the way he did me. Too many people in Dallas knows that nigger's lying."
The one-day trial in January turned out to be little more than a comedy of errors for the Morrisons, however, the cheapest of cheap theater.
"Isn't it a fact that you had a personal interest in me?" Keats Morrison asked Isabell Cottrell after calling her to the stand, with much drama.
"No," she said flatly.
"If I name certain parts on your body that was personal to you, how would I know that?" Morrison continued.
The Cottrells' attorney, Robert C. Gibbons, objected.
"Isn't it a fact that you on several occasions called me while we were alone and touched me about my persons?" Morrison continued.
"Didn't we register in the Hollywood Roosevelt across from the Chinese theater, and isn't it a fact that you grabbed me at that restaurant in the bar overlooking California? You would then grab me about my person...inside that restaurant, while we were sitting down at that bar?"
"Yes you did."
Gibbons objected again.
The entire day of testimony unfolded in a like manner. Keats recounted several incidents in which he alleged Isabell Cottrell came on to him, and he spoke in detail about the episode in which he claims he gave in to her pressures.
The Morrisons' testimony was rambling and confusing, as they struggled to make the jury believe a 42-year-old woman could sexually assault a 33-year-old man. The Mobile men seemed to have taken their cues from Hollywood courtroom dramas: They were annoyingly long on histrionic flourishes and woefully short on knowledge of the law. Gibbons, the Cottrells' attorney, capitalized on the Morrisons' ineptitude, objecting frequently and ridiculing their assertions, his voice oozing sarcasm.
"Is she stronger than you?" he asked Keats Morrison.
"Did she pull a gun on you?"
"She put a knife to your throat?"
"Uh, did she use karate and break some of your bones?"
"But you stayed through every one of these assaults, right?"
When the Morrisons took the stand, they could barely finish a sentence without Gibbons objecting strenuously to their babbling testimony. The Cottrells seized the offensive, claiming that Ernest was fired for sexually harassing three female employees, and that Keats was fired for going about Dallas representing himself as Pro-Line's model agent in an attempt to pick up girls. Both Keats and Ernest denied those allegations.
Then, in a countersuit, the Cottrells pressed libel and slander charges against the Morrisons. The Morrisons had told friends and family members lies about the Cottrells, the suit alleged, including a charge that Comer Cottrell was gay, which supposedly explained why Isabell had sought sexual solace from the younger Morrison. The countersuit also alleged that the Morrisons sent letters containing such lies to several national publications, including supermarket tabloid The Globe, in an effort to destroy the Cottrell name. The whole affair was, as one courtroom observer called it, "juicy"--at least as good as the most popular day-time soap opera.
The Morrisons' motivation was money, Gibbons told the jury.
"Ernest and Keats Morrison are two greedy individuals," he said, "who through the charity and generosity of the Cottrells...received this wellspring of money and loans and gifts and you name it over the years, and then, when the well dried up, they decided, 'I have been on the dole a long time; I want to keep that going.' And so they come in here today, trying to steal money from the Cottrells and the company and to try and steal their good name."