By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
About this time, board secretary Richey, according to court documents, discussed legal ways a foundation could give someone funds. According to the TEFF charter, Gene was allowed to disburse funds for research.
A few days later, Gene sold a new tractor Cook had bought for the sanctuary. Cook believes all or part of the proceeds went into the $26,000 check she made out to Robert. Gene insists the money was a grant for research Robert was going to do in Belize on endangered cats such as margays, ocelots, and jaguars. Robert was also going to make contact with the Belize zoo in the hopes of getting a companion for a margay TEFF was about to acquire from Fossil Rim Wildlife Park, Gene says.
A notation on the check says "R & D," and board minutes from meetings in August and November discuss approval for the grant. In a sworn affidavit, Richey says that the meetings never happened and that he wrote the minutes months later to help Gene, who said she needed them for her divorce proceedings. The $26,000 Gene gave Robert shows up as part of their property settlement in the divorce decree.
Robert himself calls the grant explanation "a cockamamie story. I needed money to move to Belize, to find a place, to build me something. That woman was in charge of all the banking. She had a qualified CPA on board. If she couldn't do it legally, it is not my business to advise her how to spend the money." Robert says he used part of the money to launch a river tour and fishing business. (Robert may not have been in charge of the finances, but he certainly knew how to access them. Evidence from the donors' suits against Gene uncovered a $7,000 check from the TEFF account Robert wrote to himself, which he used to a fund a fishing trip to Belize before he moved there. "At least he was honest about it when we confronted him," says Cook.).
When Cook learned Gene had sent Robert the $26,000, he says that, at the time, he felt he had a choice of suing Gene and run the risk of bringing down the foundation or just walking away. He chose the latter.
"I quit going out [to the sanctuary] on principle," says Cook. "I couldn't deal with her. There was a bit of sympathy involved. She had just split with her husband. What she did was wrong, but thinking maybe the divorce was making her act irrationally led me to a more sympathetic position than I should have taken."
Gene's angel didn't set foot at TEFF again for more than six months, and he stopped donating money.
In the year and a half since Robert left TEFF, the place fell apart or has never been better, depending on whom you ask. MCook, obviously, falls in the camp that believes TEFF deteriorated. "Nothing new has been developed there, and Gene became more tyrannical than ever," he says.
But Rocky Miller, a regional sales manager for a litigation support firm who has been volunteering at TEFF with his wife for three years, says that nothing changed for the worse in Robert's absence and that some things have actually improved. "The number of tours actually picked up, and we got several more cats." One of them, in fact, is the margay that arrived in May, on permanent loan from Fossil Rim Wildlife Park.
To the trained eye, the sanctuary was in excellent shape. "We were very comfortable with the type of facility and level of care at TEFF," says Bruce Williams, vice president for conservation at Fossil Rim. "And she [Gene] had an interest in sharing information about endangered cats in Texas."
In February, Cook started visiting TEFF again. Despite their disagreements, Gene had written him numerous letters throughout last winter, asking him to come back. "The animals miss you. And I miss you," she wrote in one missive.
Cook says Gene badgered him for money and he explained that her actions the past summer had caused him to lose confidence in her. He once again told her that she needed to form an independent board of directors who would prevent her writing checks over $500 without a cosignature. (Cook and Dorfman have stated under oath that they do not want to run TEFF or be on its board of directors.)
Cook says he also learned that Gene had not turned over her property to TEFF and admonished her at least to make provisions for the animals in the advent of her death. She claims her will always stipulated that her property would go to TEFF, and after her divorce was final in March, she changed the beneficiary of her life insurance from her husband to the foundation.
After that conversation, Gene had Robert send Cook a letter admonishing him not to abandon TEFF. Robert told Cook that the success of TEFF was not the result of just Robert's efforts and that he shouldn't be angry about the $26,000, because Robert had earned it through years of hard work.
If Cook thought TEFF had changed, the volunteers detected a change in him as well. Always rough with the animals, they say when he worked with them now, it was as if he was trying to prove something.