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Heir Unapparent

The Kenedy family ruled over its immense South Texas ranch from a fortress-like house south of Baffin Bay. A museum devoted to the family's history, top right, was built in tiny Sarita, the Kenedy County seat. Sarita Kenedy East, bottom left, was the last direct Kenedy descendant, unless her brother, John G. Kenedy Jr., center, left behind a grandson, Dr. Ray Fernandez.
Far left: Kenedy Ranch Museum of South Texas; far

The year was 1925, and wealthy white men ruled the South.

In South Carolina, a handsome young schoolteacher, the son of prominent white citizens, sired a daughter by his family's 16-year-old black maid.

The teacher, of course, was Strom Thurmond, who rose politically to become one of the South's most avid segregationists and later moderated his racist views during his long years in the U.S. Senate.

And although Thurmond never publicly acknowledged his mixed-race daughter, he provided her with financial support and friendship over the long decades of denial. It was not until after Thurmond's death last year at 100 that Essie Mae Washington, after always insisting he was only a family friend, finally claimed her distinguished white father.

"I was born in Aiken, South Carolina, on October 12, 1925. My mother's name was Carrie Butler. My father's name was James Strom Thurmond," said Washington in going public.


The year was 1925, and wealthy white men ruled South Texas.

And, as this parallel story claims, on an incomprehensibly large and remote South Texas cattle spread, the rambunctious, hard-drinking scion of a pioneer Anglo ranch family sired a daughter by a teenage Hispanic maid.

The long-secret father, according to this account, was the grandson of ranch founder Mifflin Kenedy and heir to a family fortune that has since grown to an estimated $500 million to $1 billion.

And it was not until decades passed that the would-be heir stepped forward. It came with a startling assertion of clandestine parentage made in a lawsuit filed in 2001 in tiny Sarita (population 414), 40 miles south of Corpus Christi.

"Ann M. Fernandez is the biological daughter and sole living heir of John G. Kenedy Jr.," reads the suit, since transferred from the Kenedy County seat to Austin.

The symmetry of the Thurmond and Kenedy stories is easily seen--illicit sexual affairs across the cultural taboos of class and color, followed by nearly eight decades of uneasy silence.

But they are stories with divergent endings.

"I think the differences are startling--the denial of parentage here and the resistance to allowing us to prove our genealogy," says Austin lawyer Mark Schwartz, who represents the Fernandez family.

John G. Kenedy Jr. was believed to be sterile, and when he died in Mexico in 1948 in hazy circumstances, he left everything to his childless wife, Elena.

There was no mention in his will of the child bornAnita Matilde, who surfaced five decades later as Ann Fernandez with the claim of being his daughter. There are clues, however, that even back then the Kenedys may have known of Fernandez's inconvenient existence.

"Elena's will is real interesting. She wrote that if there were illegitimate children, they don't receive a penny, which is not a typical thing you find in wills," says Dr. Ray Fernandez, the Nueces County medical examiner and Fernandez's youngest son.

When Elena Kenedy died in 1984 without children, the acknowledged Kenedy bloodline had already expired. The 400,000-acre La Parra Ranch, a spread larger than Rhode Island, fell into the hands of lawyers and trust administrators. Since then, the enormous Kenedy wealth, much of it derived from oil and gas royalties, has been controlled by two large nonprofits that annually donate $15 million or so, primarily to Catholic churches and charities.

The appearance decades later of Kenedy heirs threatens to turn the established order in this insular corner of the state upside down. And very soon the Fernandez family members may learn, for better or worse, if they are an offshoot of the famous Kenedy bloodline.

Preliminary genetic testing on Kenedy relatives, alive and long dead, already has convinced a probate judge in Austin to act. Late last month, he ordered the exhumation of John G. Kenedy Jr.'s body for further DNA testing.

"The court does find that there is a paternity allegation supported by evidence submitted by both sides which constitutes a necessity or compelling reason for exhumation," wrote Judge Guy Herman on January 29, ordering that the exhumation occur by the last day of February.

In his order, the judge said the exhumation is needed to determine if Ann Fernandez, now 78 and mentally incompetent, can establish the necessary legal standing as a Kenedy descendant to make a claim against the estates.

But lawyers for the two huge nonprofits--the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust and the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation--quickly filed appeals to try to block the exhumation.

"In plain English, this is an attempt to overturn over 50 years of cases heard by the courts and of titles that have been established. It would have a devastating effect on the beneficiaries of the trusts," says Buster Adami, an Alice lawyer who represents the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust.  

Further, said Adami, even if John G. Kenedy Jr. did father Ann Fernandez, she knew of her parentage decades ago and forfeited any right to make a claim because of statutes of limitations.

The fact that some see a distinct facial resemblance between Ray Fernandez and John G. Kenedy Jr., Fernandez's purported grandfather, is irrelevant, Adami says.

"I don't even get to the descendant issue. I can't tell you if he [Ray Fernandez] is the grandson or not. It's moot. Basically our position has always been that even if he is, there's no way he can make a claim that will hold up in court," Adami says.

But according to Fernandez, 44, the family learned of the possible link to the Kenedys only a few years ago, well within the permissible legal window for an heir to file a claim.

And, he said, the exhumation and genetic testing now must go forward to settle things once and for all.

"If he's not my grandfather, then I guess we'll have some finality to this, but right now, there's a high probability he is," Fernandez says. "No matter what the outcome, I'll still continue to do what I'm doing. I'm just trying to sort out some accurate history for my mom. We're not out to destroy those charities and foundations. This is a family matter."

Early last week, however, the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi issued a stay of the February 28 exhumation after lawyers for the two nonprofits challenged Herman's jurisdiction in the case.


In the annals of South Texas ranch history, two pioneering giants tower above all others: Captain Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy. In the late 1800s, the one-time steamship partners created adjacent ranch empires that together still cover well over a million acres.

King is the best-known South Texas rancher. His in-laws and descendants are still involved in the fabled, internationally known ranch that has its own brand name for goods from authentic Western wear to customized pickup trucks.

Kenedy, the son of Pennsylvania Quakers, came to Texas during the Mexican War of the 1840s and quickly found his niche providing boats to the U.S. Army for patrols on the Rio Grande. Afterward, he and King formed a shipping partnership and later began to acquire grasslands on the Mustang Plains to the north. During the Civil War, the partners reaped huge profits shipping embargoed Confederate cotton.

By 1882, after some buying and selling of land, Kenedy acquired a 400,000-acre spread south of King's even larger ranch and named it La Parra, for the wild grapevines that grew there.

Each huge, self-contained cattle operation was supported by large numbers of Mexican-American vaqueros and their families, who lived on the ranch and were dependent on the Anglo patrons. To this day, ranch workers are either known as "Kineños" or "Kenedaños," depending on which ranch they are attached to by generations of tradition.

Kenedy chose a high spot of ground south of Baffin Bay for his ranch headquarters. Decades later, one of his sons built a huge Spanish fortress-style "great house" there, complete with a mounted Gatling gun to ward off attackers.

Kenedy and his wife, Petra Vela de Vidal, had six children, but the bloodline proved unreliable. By the beginning of the next century, only two grandchildren remained on the ranch: John G. Kenedy Jr. and his sister Sarita Kenedy. Both were thought to be incapable of having children.

It was in this rural feudal context that beginning in 1925 John G. Kenedy Jr. and maid Maria Rowland Saenz allegedly conceived at least one child, a baby known as Anita.

A year or two later, Rowland, a beautiful fair-skinned woman, married Disidro Peña. She would later marry Tom Goates. The alleged affair with Kenedy was kept a secret almost to the very end of her life.

According to her grandson Ray Fernandez, the first clue of a clandestine lineage came with a chance remark uttered by an ailing Rowland, 93, just four years ago.

"It was Mother's Day 2000, and I was in town visiting my mom, and we went over to visit my grandmother at a nursing home center. She died two months later," Fernandez recalls. "She made this comment in Spanish. She said, 'You look like your grandfather John Kenedy Jr.' She also said the name 'Johnny.' I thought she was talking about the president or his son.

"It didn't make sense. We kind of laughed about it. Then we talked about her, if she was feeling OK, how she was sleeping," he says.

But the baffling remark lingered and later returned when Fernandez began trying to retrace his family roots, only to encounter questions and enigmas.  

A baptism certificate for his mother, issued by a church in Waco, named Rowland as the mother, but where Fernandez had expected to find the name Disidro Peña as father, the space was blank.

"I said, 'Why doesn't it say Peña? Why did she tell me Kenedy? Why did she say that name?' That's when I said there might be something more I need to look into," he says.

Other things didn't add up, such as Ann Fernandez's birth date.

The baptism certificate revealed she was born in 1925, a year earlier than she had always claimed.

Eventually Ray Fernandez, who was working as a medical examiner in South Florida at the time, learned of the prominent Kenedy family with deep roots just south of Corpus Christi. When he received a mailed copy of John G. Kenedy's 1948 obituary, complete with a photo, he first began to sense the presence of a missing ancestor.

The picture showed a hatted, jowly man with a small nose. It bore a startling resemblance to Fernandez, according to his wife.

"Seeing that for the first time was a weird feeling. You see someone who has a serious potential of being your family, and all your life you've been raised to believe it's a different person," he says.

The next step was to seek genetic confirmation, but Fernandez quickly learned there were no known Kenedy descendants. So he began tracking down relatives and other sources of genetic material.

"I found out he had a cousin named Max Dreyer, who runs a small museum in Raymondville. I contacted him, and he said it's not possible. The family had no kids," Fernandez says.

Dreyer, 93, was a second cousin to John G. Kenedy Jr. but had never met him because, Dreyer says, "the families didn't get along." Initially, he was reluctant to cooperate, but Fernandez got Dreyer's full attention after DNA tests showed a likely family link between him and Ann Fernandez.

"He [Fernandez] put in a lot of time down here trying to get me to sign this exhumation request. I finally signed it. When we ran the DNA tests, it turns out I'm related to his mother," says Dreyer, who is amused by the whole adventure. "I'd like to know now, for sure, if John G. Kenedy Jr. is the father of Fernandez's mother. Let's exhume him and get it over with. Either he is or he isn't."

Fernandez says that the positive DNA results from Dreyer convinced him to press on. It also sent him for a look at Kenedy's grave in a small family plot on the La Parra Ranch.

For the past 30 years, the Oblate Fathers have used the old ranch headquarters as a religious retreat named Lebh Shomea house of prayer, dedicated to silence and solitude.

"I went over and visited the grave. It's on the ranch, next door to a small chapel. It's considered a religious area by the monk, and he said it was ghoulish to exhume the body," Fernandez says.

Fernandez says another genetic link was established through testing of saliva residue on an envelope that contained the 1930 will of John G. Kenedy Jr.'s mother, Marie Stella Kenedy.

"It's a handwritten will in a paper envelope. The part that was licked had a woman's DNA on it. It was degraded, but the DNA expert said it was related to my mom's," Fernandez says.

Lawyers for the defendants, however, dispute these conclusions.

"The DNA tests did not eliminate Ann Fernandez as an heir, nor did they strengthen her claim," says Adami, who also says it is highly implausible that an illicit birth could have been kept a secret.

"Sarita is a very, very small community. Everyone knows everyone. Based on everyone I've ever talked to, it seems to me if not impossible, certainly very unlikely that John G. Kenedy Jr. had an illegitimate child without it being known. It's a very hard place to keep a secret," he says.


After John G. Kenedy Jr. died in Saltillo, Mexico, in 1948 of uncertain causes, he was remembered in the obituary that ran in a Corpus Christi paper as a South Texas rancher and graduate of Texas A&M. Also noted was his status as a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, an honor conferred upon Catholic laymen by the pope for outstanding devotion and service.

"Of a retiring disposition, Kenedy led a quiet life and was best known, perhaps, for his support of the Catholic Church," noted the obit writer.  

That depiction of piety jars with both written accounts and old memories of Kenedy.

In a book about the family, If You Love Me, You Will Do My Will by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, Kenedy is cast as a hard-drinking, oversexed rowdy who once, while an undergraduate, ventured north to the land of the Mormons after hearing alluring accounts of polygamy.

"Mistaking a religious-based practice for promiscuity, he and a pal took a train out to Salt Lake City to sample this imagined lotus land of unfettered carnality. His father had to dispatch the Pinkertons to retrieve the young man," Michaud and Aynesworth wrote.

Another account featured the youthful Kenedy on a shooting rampage in Washington, D.C., where he and his drunken buddies allegedly used their hunting rifles to potshot the Capitol Hill streetlamps.

The book also described drunken wrestling matches and hunting trips.

Similar recollections of "Mr. Johnny" can still be found among the oldsters in Sarita, where the present drifts slowly and the past hangs heavy.

Old black-and-white photos of the founding families decorate the county courthouse, and reverential tales of the pioneer past are found at the starkly white Kenedy Ranch Museum, which anchors the square.

Inside the museum, a historical display includes a picture of Sarita Kenedy East, looking saintly in black lace, beneath a caption, "The Last of the Kenedys."

Her brother John has only a cameo appearance in a mural.

"I wish you could have known him so you would know what kind of person he was. He had a big heart, and he had the money, too," says José Salazar, 86, who, like his father, spent a lifetime as a vaquero on the Kenedy ranch.

"Mr. Johnny loved to drink hard liquor right out of the bottle. "He'd come and tell the cook, 'Kill a calf, make some menudo,' and then he'd go to Matamoros and not come back," says Salazar, who still puts in a few hours on horseback each day at the ranch.

Tobin Armstrong, 80, whose 50,000-acre ranch abuts La Parra on the south, knew Kenedy intimately and as a fellow Anglo rancher. He recalled him with affection while also decrying the lawsuit.

"I knew him from childhood. He was a dear, dear friend. I called him Uncle Johnny," Armstrong says. "He was a wonderful guy, great athlete, tremendously attractive. He could play any musical instrument you put in his hands. We traded horses with him, and he came regularly to visit."

Armstrong dismissed the Fernandez suit as "without value."

"I think it's a tragic, unfortunate development. To take someone, after all these years, and drag them out of the ground and smear them in all the newspapers is just disgusting," he says.

But former Kenedy County Sheriff Rafael Cuellar, 66, whose father and grandfather both worked for the Kenedys, says the matter must be resolved, despite local reservations.

"I can understand why a lot of people are against exhuming the body. Like my mother, they don't believe in autopsies or exhumations," he says. "But wouldn't it be something if they exhume the body and the DNA matches? Wow! DNA is a wonderful thing. It would be like when you go to court. Beyond a doubt. Even the unbelieving would have to believe."

In the lawsuit filed by Ann Fernandez, Kenedy is cast as a hard-drinking womanizer, the son of a privileged South Texas aristocracy who used his family power to take advantage of a young Hispanic maid.

"In the 1920s, John Jr. had just about everything a man could want. But he wanted more. He wanted Maria. John Jr. slept with Maria. Maria became pregnant," reads the lawsuit.

"When Maria's pregnancy began to show, the Kenedy family sent her to Waco to have the child. According to baptism records, Maria gave birth to Anita at an unwed mother's home in Waco in 1925," according to the suit.

After that, the suit claims, Maria was not permitted to return to work at the family mansion at La Parra. Instead, she was sent to work at a Kenedy house in Corpus Christi that John Kenedy Jr. regularly visited.

The baby Anita, the suit claims, was raised by "a Mexican woman in Kingsville."

The suit makes other allegations that bear a sinister flavor.

"Shortly after returning to work as a maid for John Jr. in Corpus Christi, Maria became pregnant again. This time she would give birth to a son, Raul. However, Raul's life would be cut short. He died from poison in 1931 at the age of 2. Ann, who was poisoned at the same time, was hospitalized, but survived," reads the suit.

Questioned about this disturbing allegation, Schwartz, the Fernandezes' lawyer, said it would be elaborated upon at trial.  

The suit also claims that Tom Goates, who was Maria's second husband, became aware of Ann's parentage and attempted to confront the Kenedys but was intimidated into silence.


For Richard Leshin, a Kingsville lawyer who represents the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Foundation, the Fernandez lawsuit is just another in a seemingly never-ending series of legal raids on the Kenedy estate.

The litigants have ranged from disaffected Kenedy in-laws to descendants of the holders of the original Spanish land grants. Several decades of courtroom warfare were triggered by contested wills left behind by Sarita, who died of cancer in 1961.

Ultimately all claims, including those by Brother Leo, a Svengali-like Trappist monk who had befriended Sarita and induced her to spend vast sums on Catholic charities in South America, were defeated.

"I would say there has not been a day since her death that the foundation has not been in litigation. The foundation has remained intact, but tens of millions of dollars have been spent on legal fees that could have been available to charities," Leshin says.

And, Leshin predicts, this suit likewise will fail.

"I think even if she's declared the daughter, there are other issues that would prevent her from receiving the assets of the foundation. It's been too long," Leshin says.

Among them are the fact that John G. Kenedy Jr.'s will was ruled final in 1949 and that more than a half-century has passed without anyone making a claim against the estate.

He nevertheless painted a doomsday scenario should the Fernandez lawsuit wrest control of assets from the trusts.

"It would shut down a lot of Catholic churches in South Texas and have a very detrimental effect on other Catholic churches around Texas, plus other charities," he says.

But Schwartz, the Austin lawyer who represents the Fernandez family, says this lawsuit is not about raiding estates or destroying charities.

"This case is about how we treat children born out of marriage. We think a father has some responsibility for those children and, in this case, for the descendants of those children," he says.

"We simply want to participate, hold board seats [on the nonprofit organizations], be part of the decision process. I think there's enough money to accommodate the Fernandezes without disturbing the works of the trust and the foundation," he says.

One of the many ironies of this improbable South Texas saga is found in the haunting account in If You Love Me, You Will Do My Will of the final lonely years of the last known Kenedy, Sarita Kenedy East.

According to the book, after her brother's death, she despaired as a childless widow of there being no Kenedy heirs to carry on and preserve the beloved La Parra Ranch.

"I think if Sarita had known she had a niece, she would have made provisions for her. She cared for everyone. Certainly she would have cared for her own flesh and blood," Schwartz says. "From all accounts of Sarita Kenedy, she would have provided for Maria and her child. Someone who cared about her own bloodline would have made sure they were part of her will, but we have no reason to believe she knew she had any heirs."


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