Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?
The little boy cried. His mother's words didn't make sense, but he knew enough to be afraid. "You'll never see me again," she said in the car. Then she dropped him off at his stepmother's house and drove away.
Sam Gross was 9, his mother's only son, a boy everyone described as respectful and sweet, the perfect child. First his father--a respected man in black Dallas, a pharmacist, who'd recently been sent to prison on drug charges--and now this.
Across town, in West Dallas, Annie Lee Gross stepped into the home she'd paid off with her own money, no small accomplishment in 1970. Daughter of a blind Baptist preacher and his alcoholic wife, a poor couple who were unable to care for their children, Annie spent some of her early years in foster homes. She ran away, dropped out of school. But as an adult she pulled herself together. Always a hard worker, she'd landed the best job she ever had--an assembler at Texas Instruments--a little more than a year earlier.
But there was always the past, the busted relationships, the heartbreaks. There was the little girl who followed her everywhere, the one she'd put away. Annie would see a child in the street, a girl in pigtails or a Sunday dress, and she'd ask her friends, "Do she favor me?" She never got over her decision to put up her baby daughter for adoption in 1958, even though the authorities had assured her the girl would be better off in a stable home, something far different from Annie's upbringing.
Then there was her second husband, James Gross. Though they'd divorced years ago, Annie had never really let him go. Now he was married to another woman, and his prosperous career had dissolved into a 10-year prison sentence.
There was also the influence of a strange woman named Ella Mae Walker, owner of a famous motel in South Dallas where many black entertainers stayed in segregation days. But she had another side; she was rumored to be a high-class "lady of the night," and she dispensed voodoo remedies on the side. For years in her old age, up until her death in 2005, she prowled the ruins of her Rainbow Terrace Hotel, keeping watch at the empty property. Annie had drifted away from some of her longtime friends, becoming closer to Walker, who gave her a red, greasy potion in a bottle that was supposed to salve her inner pain.
Looking back, there were clear signs of mental illness. Annie's first husband, Bobby Calhoun, saw indications that she was emotionally off from the first day he met her. And sometime after her second marriage ended, Annie would end up at Terrell State Hospital. When she came home, she was heavily medicated. Agitated, restless. Her tongue was thick in her mouth. She wasn't her jolly self anymore.
Everything came bearing down on her on Monday, June 29, 1970. Annie took Sam to his stepmother's house, then withdrew some money from the bank and bought a gun--a .38, the neighbors would say.
In the early evening, around 5:15, she eased into a sofa in her back room. She propped the gun in her lap, aimed it at her heart.
Her sister Liza scrambled out of the bathtub in another part of the house and ran to her. Annie was still conscious; she sighed heavily and fell back into the sofa.
She was 30.
At the funeral, the little boy was too numb for tears.
Anderson Cooper is smiling, almost giddy. A billion dollars! The gray-haired CNN newscaster appears on the screen beside 45-year-old Sam Gross, who is in Dallas. The graphic beneath them reads "BILLIONAIRE-TO-BE." It is the February 16, 2006, edition of Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees .
"Sam, this is just an incredible story," Cooper says. "Your mom died in 1970 when you were 9 years old, didn't have a will. You didn't find out until you were 29 that she had stocks from her former employer, Texas Instruments. How did you finally find out about the stocks?"
"Well," Gross says in a calm, soft voice, "I went back to the old neighborhood where I was raised, and when I asked one of the ladies who was considered like a godmother to my mom, and after she recognized who I was...next thing she say, 'Did you ever get the money in trust?' I said, 'No, what money?' And that's how I found out."
"I know you're waiting for a judge to sign the final papers this week," Cooper says. "Does it seem real? I mean, you are on the verge of getting more than a billion dollars!"
"Well, I guess, um, it's the reality of it," Gross says. "I may not fully understand it till it happens. I know the long fight and the struggles that I've had to endure. It's going to make a difference in my life."
"Well, I just find it--you're the calmest about-to-be-a-billionaire I've ever heard from," Cooper says, "and it's great to hear of the things you want to do. You're basically talking about helping out other people and making sure this doesn't happen to other people. So, good luck to you. I hope you get the money, and I hope it doesn't change you, and I hope you do a lot of good with it. Thanks so much."
"And thank you, sir."
Today, Sam Gross is sitting at a conference table in his lawyer's ornate boardroom, telling his story yet again, as he has for years to anyone who would listen. He greets you with a loud, high-pitched laugh, shakes your hand firmly; clearly he's a people person, with the kind of skills that made him a success as manager of various Williams Chicken franchises, where he set company records for sales. His cell phone keeps ringing; lawyers from all over the country are swarming about him these days, bidding to represent him, when not too long ago they refused his calls or took his money and faded away. So are the reporters. About a week from now, his story will be featured on Oprah, Sam says. Channel 4, Primetime, People--everybody wants a piece of Sam. Reach Media, radio personality Tom Joyner's entertainment company, is plotting a strategy to get his story out all over black America.
Oh, and it's a long saga, one that can't be told within the confines of a three-hour interview. But Gross' hundreds of pages of court filings fill it out, as well as the accounts of friends and supporters, some of them devout evangelical Christians, who keep in touch with each other to pray Sam into his billion.
The story goes sort of like this: Annie Gross clearly planned her death, acquiring stocks and life insurance so her son and family members would be taken care of. When she died, her sisters and brothers received their share of her life insurance. But Sam didn't get his money because he was only 9, and TI told his family and a minister that he could collect his share when he turned 21. At 29, when Sam found out for the first time that he was entitled to the biggest share of his mother's assets, he contacted her last employer, but TI denied it had any of her money and stocks. Then Sam discovered that Annie's name had mysteriously been changed on Social Security earnings records to A.L. Green, and he soon discovered that A.L. Green owned a stupendous amount of assets--tens of millions of dollars' worth, which had been accruing interest, multiplying in stock splits and generating millions more in penalties and damages, bringing the estimated total value to a cool $1 billion. Sam believed TI, with the complicity of various other corporate entities that had control of the assets at one time or another, intentionally changed the name to hide this amazing fortune. And thus began a ferocious battle in Dallas County Probate Court No. 2 to reopen his mother's estate, get himself appointed as administrator and hunt down the millions he was owed as the sole heir of Annie Lee Gross. The fight boiled over to state, county and federal courts, where Sam filed lawsuits against TI, NationsBank, the state of Texas and even the probate judge, Robert Price. (Most of the lawsuits have been dismissed.) Sam also called for investigations by the U.S. attorney general, the state attorney general and the FBI.
Now, he says, his payday is just around the corner. He can almost smell the millions, and some of it, he says, will go to fund Christian missions.
His supporters say it couldn't happen to a better guy. "He's the nicest person you would ever want to run into," says Gary Shepherd, who has befriended Sam and encourages him in "just keeping his mind on the Lord."
Preston Kirk has donated hundreds of hours of public relations work to Sam's cause. "What appealed to us was he said, 'Look, here's all the paper,'" Kirk says. "We kept connecting the dots and couldn't understand" why Sam's efforts were repeatedly stymied in court. Then, he says, "We realized it was because he was black, and he had a penchant for selecting advisors who were not appropriate.
"They hid a dead person inside a living person's name...The more I worked with Sam, we were truly concerned about his safety and security. We felt we had unearthed something that stunk to high heaven. He was afraid."
There is another perspective on Sam Gross' story, however, which the Dallas Observer found while searching through more than 1,000 pages of court documents from the many lawsuits Gross has filed. First, no judge has signed or is about to sign an order making Gross a billionaire. It's just an example of the delusional thinking Gross has engaged in for years. The Observer discovered, in fact, that Gross has been in serious financial trouble throughout most of his quest to obtain his inheritance; he lost a home to foreclosure in 1999 and would file for bankruptcy twice, in 1996 and 2000. During the last two years, Gross' landlord says he's filed papers "three or four times" to evict Gross from a home in Duncanville, and late last year, court records showed that Gross owed more than $66,000 in child support to his first wife, Brenda Warren.
Gross has promised more than half of the fortune he's seeking to several people in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in cash, telling one of the biggest donors that "God would really bless" him for it, though Gross has already indicated in court filings that he doesn't intend to honor the contract he'd signed with the man.
Gross also has a penchant for making unsubstantiated allegations, accusing a probate judge, several lawyers, and state and corporate officials of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to defraud him of his mother's assets. He has offered little to back up his claims besides hunches. While Gross says he'll no longer sue individuals involved in his case--a pledge that his new lawyer, respected former probate Judge Joe Ashmore, required of him--he's done nothing so far to amend the court record.
The elaborate case that Gross has constructed over the years appears to have many holes, which he papers over with breathtaking leaps of logic. But even a forest's worth of paper filed in every courthouse in the country can't make a fortune out of nothing, and nothing is exactly what Gross' documents prove. His stake in a pile of millions--or a billion, the number varies--is based on his claim that TI transferred a portion of his mother's unclaimed term life insurance proceeds to a pension fund or "trust." Through stock splits, identity theft, corporate acquisitions and official corruption, his story goes, the fortune grew to incredible heights. And it is an incredible story in that it's no more believable than it sounds.
It is probably true that Sam Gross never got a penny of his mother's life insurance, as he claims. But it takes an enormous amount of gullibility to believe that the allegedly missing sum, $12,999.99, has somehow blossomed into a billion dollars today, or that an emotionally disturbed high-school dropout had the presence of mind--and the cash--to gradually acquire stocks before killing herself.
A couple of Sam's supporters said essentially the same thing about his tangled story: It's so preposterous, it's believable. You couldn't make this stuff up.
But there's a more likely possibility: A preposterous story is just that--preposterous.
Bobby Calhoun was sitting on a porch with a friend one day in West Dallas, a neighborhood of hard-working homeowners. It was late 1957. A girl was walking down the street. "Hey, Cuz," she said to Calhoun's friend. Calhoun couldn't help but notice the smiling, fresh-faced 18-year-old was "beautiful," with curvaceous hips and a large bust. They got to talking. Her name was Annie Lee Graves; she lived in Oak Cliff. And that night, he and his brother-in-law and sister ended up driving her home.
He doesn't remember much about her today. Even though they were married briefly, only a few of those months were spent together. But he does recall that ride home; this pretty girl was so strange. "She haul off and just start crying," Calhoun says. Then she looked him in the eyes. "Do you love me?" she asked.
"Do I love you?" Calhoun replied, incredulous. "I don't even know you. What you talkin' about?"
"But do you love me?" she said, and she kept on crying.
Calhoun's sister snapped back, "Bobby, tell that girl you love her for she can shut up."
"I love you," Bobby said. "I love you."
Well, he was young, only 19, Calhoun explains; this wasn't much of a basis for romance, but that's what it became. "Then we went from there," he says. Serious, heated stuff; one day, and she was pregnant by then, they made their way to the Dallas County courthouse and got married. The county's marriage register shows the date: April 4, 1958.
The arguing and fussing started that very night, Calhoun says. She'd come and go throughout their brief marriage, one in which he never got to know his wife very well. He learned just a few things: She "was an orphan," more or less, born in Ellis County, raised in foster homes, as were her sisters and brother. Their father, a preacher without a congregation named James Graves, was old and shuffling, their mother, the former Annie Lue Jordan, given to drink. Calhoun would reach the conclusion that Annie's mercurial temperament had deep roots, perhaps in her unstable upbringing.
Then that summer Calhoun, who worked for the city, got in a serious car accident, broke several bones and was put up in Parkland Hospital for four months.
Annie was pregnant when he went in; she wasn't when he got out, and the baby was gone. Annie would later tell the woman who was like a surrogate mother to her, Zelma Joiner, that the baby, a girl, was stillborn, but she had to confess the truth when Joiner saw a letter--possibly from adoption authorities or the girl's new family--saying she was doing fine.
Bobby Calhoun believes it was his child that she gave up for adoption without his consent. He had no interest in getting back together with Annie, though she wanted to reconcile. Calhoun moved to Houston a few years later and never saw her again.
Zelma Joiner stands in front of the house Annie bought. It's a sturdy frame home in the 1800 block of Angelina Street, a couple of blocks away from the Trinity River levee and right next door to Joiner's house. Annie bought the lot in 1966, then moved the house there from Oak Cliff. It became the repository of all her dreams.
Joiner first met Annie when the girl was 14 and sashaying through the neighborhood. Back then, Joiner had one of the busiest black beauty salons in town; she was a strong, determined woman, and people in the neighborhood looked up to her. She personified stability, prosperity. (She still does hair today, at 73.) When Annie got to know Joiner, she begged her to let her move in and cook, clean, baby-sit, whatever--anything to get away from her past. So starting at the age of 14, Joiner became Annie's informal foster mother and her closest confidante.
Joiner remembers that "Annie always wanted something in life," something beyond the life of her impoverished parents, whom Joiner describes as "slow." Annie loved them nonetheless. She dearly loved her siblings too, scattered in various foster homes. And with Joiner--whom she called Mother--she got a vision of something resembling a normal family life.
Her second marriage, however, to James Gross, wasn't a happy one. He seemed like a catch: a college graduate, a pharmacist who'd eventually own two shops. Joiner never thought much of the small, good-looking man. "He was like the quiet devil, you know," she says. In 1960, Annie became pregnant with Gross' child; they married a few months later. They named the boy, their only child, Samuel Raithel Gross. When their marriage ended in 1965, James still seemed to have some kind of hold on Annie.
Annie worked hard, oftentimes in food-service jobs; her work history, though, shows her moving around a lot, to hospitals, restaurants, shops. Clearly, she had some goals for her money, because in 1968 she moved into 1839 Angelina St., right next door to the steadying influence of Joiner.
In that house, Annie could grasp for some kind of stability. It took the form of gathering to herself like a mother hen all of her siblings. They would live under her roof at one time or another, Mary, Lillie, Liza, James and Ruby. She even brought her mother there for a while. "She said, 'This home is for me and my sisters and my brother,'" Joiner says. "'They don't have nothing either.'"
Mary Graves recalled that they "lived in the biggest house on the street." So big and spacious, in their eyes, that "we called it the Ponderosa."
Joiner and Mary Graves remember Annie as the go-getter of the bunch, prettying up the house and paying the bills for her sisters and brother. She'd help cook food for the whole neighborhood; she was an aspiring Zelma Joiner, the matriarch of their corner of West Dallas. "Ann was a beautiful, loving, jovial person, despite everything she'd been through," says Floyd Lee, Joiner's son-in-law. "She always had an encouraging word. She would give you the shirt off her back."
Those were the days of Diana Ross, the Supremes and towering black wigs. An old picture shows Zelma and Annie at a party, leaning back in their chairs and smiling, with plastic Hawaiian garlands around their necks and orbs of big, big hair.
Somewhere amidst this happy family picture Annie's mental illness seeped to the surface. Joiner sees a few contributing factors: the girl she gave up for adoption and the sinister influence of Ella Mae Walker, a well-to-do black entrepreneur and former beautician whose businesses were rumored to involve prostitution and drugs. Then there was Annie's continued dealings with James Gross. "She had multiple man problems," Lee says. "She needed someone. She would go off the deep end."
The baby girl, who had a name--Linda Gail--haunted Annie. "She was always looking at little girls to see if that was her child," Joiner says. "She was looking for her baby."
Walker's friendship with Annie is harder to track; as she grew closer to Walker, she pulled away from her old friends. At some point, with Walker's guidance, Annie turned to the occult. "I remember Ann having something in a bottle; it was oily and red," Lee says. "The voodoo lady gave it to her. I thought she was supposed to drink it."
In her final years Annie ended up in the state mental hospital in Terrell several times, Joiner says. The experience was awful: Annie would sometimes wake up with somebody straddling her, trying to rape her. The drugs they gave her might have made things worse, Joiner says. "She wasn't acting herself, but jittery," she says. "Fidgety. Her tongue slurred in her mouth." She also started neglecting her personal appearance.
"Ann got weird a year or so before her death," Lee adds. "She got withdrawn, and when she said something it was off. It didn't make sense."
For the last 16 months of her life, she assembled semiconductors at Texas Instruments; based on her Social Security earnings record, filed in probate court, it was the highest-paying job she ever held. She brought home a total of about $4,000 during that time.
About halfway through her stint at TI, James Gross was sent to prison, convicted on state and federal charges of possessing codeine, an opiate; possessing Demerol, a powerful narcotic; "defraud by check"; and receiving and concealing stolen property, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records. Sam Gross says his father was dispensing drugs without prescriptions to poor customers who couldn't afford to see the doctor; others say he was just dispensing drugs, period.
Joiner, Lee and Joiner's daughters dispute the extent to which Gross' imprisonment affected Annie. She was clearly distraught at times. She told Joiner once, "I want somebody to shoot me." To Joiner, such talk seemed part and parcel with her gradual mental decline.
"Wherever she was getting her medication from, that's when she went into another world," says Brenda Lee, one of Joiner's daughters and Floyd Lee's wife.
They all remember Annie's last day. And they all agree nothing in particular seemed amiss.
That Monday morning, a day off, Annie gave Joiner her car. "I don't need it anymore," she said. She'd already dropped off 9-year-old Sam at his stepmother's house in South Oak Cliff.
When Joiner came home from paying bills that afternoon, all of the neighbors were standing in the yard outside Annie's house.
"Annie's dead," they said in disbelief. "She shot herself."
Joiner wasn't allowed to go in the house. But Liza, Annie's sister, was there, "crying as she was talking. She was in the house with her and heard a gun go off."
There was no note, and, as they discovered, no will.
Joiner would end up dressing her for burial. She chose one of Annie's favorite wigs and a white burial shroud. There was one final, strange note: One of the employees at Spears Mortuary called her over to look at a series of "greasy blotches, these little circles of greasy water" on Annie's body. They never figured out what they were. Was it some type of voodoo?
The body had been in the ground just a few weeks when half the neighborhood witnessed a bloody family fight outside the Graves house. Mary jumped Liza, Joiner says, because Liza supposedly got a bigger share of Annie's life insurance money. (Mary Graves granted a brief interview with the Observer but wasn't asked about the fight; Liza is no longer alive. Sam Gross acknowledges that the fight took place but believes Liza and Mary got the same amount of money. The sisters later made up with each other.)
Court records show that $20,000 in life insurance payouts were approved in September 1970; if Annie's three sisters and brother each got about $5,000, as Sam Gross believes, it was probably the biggest sum of money they'd ever seen in their lives. (Annie's sister Ruby Graves apparently was out of the picture by then, living in California.)
Joiner was already keeping her distance from the Graves home. "They were acting stupid over there," she says. With Annie gone, the glue that held the household together had begun to dissolve.
One day, Floyd Lee was walking into Joiner's house when a kid ran in screaming, "Mary just cut Liza!"
"I went in the yard," Lee says, "and Liza came staggering out of the house."
She was bleeding from a deep wound in her side. Lee realized how much blood she was losing, then wrapped a towel around her, pushed her in his car and took off speeding for Parkland. A cop stopped him on the way and started asking questions. "I said, 'You can either lead me or follow me, but this lady's about to die,'" Lee says.
The cop led him to the hospital just in time. The cut had severed an artery, but Liza would make a full recovery.
Lost in the squabble over Annie's assets was little Sam. In a matter of seven months, he lost both parents--one to prison, one to the grave. Sam, perhaps blessedly so, doesn't seem to remember too much about this time. His stepmother, Leola Gross, raised him from that point on; she hauled him to church, sent him to school and tried to instill in him the value of hard work. He remembers her vacuuming at 2 or 3 in the morning and rousting him out of bed to move the furniture. But Sam laughs at the memory; Leola Gross became Mom. She also took him to the prison a couple times a year to visit his father.
Behind the scenes, and beyond Sam's awareness, she was named administrator of Annie's estate in order to preserve any remaining assets for the minor heir, Sam; an administrator is named when there is no will, and virtually all of the administrator's actions must be approved by the probate judge. Court records show, however, that there wasn't much of an estate to disburse. Leola, with the help of attorney Doug Parks, filed her "account for final settlement" of the estate in 1972, and noted only one asset: $1,900 from the sale of Annie's house. She also stated that Sam Gross was "the person entitled to receive such estate."
The sale of the house would become a point of contention then and again, much later. Leola had to evict the Graves sisters from the house, first of all, which created bitter feelings between the two families. But Leola also received what Sam considers a very poor price for the house, which was sold in 1971. A letter from a South Dallas real estate agent, Wm. White, describes the house as "badly demolished" and worth little more than the price of the lot on which it stood. Sam, in fact, was initially under the impression that the house had burned down. When he found out it was still standing and happily inhabited by a woman named Cornell Freeney, he appears to blame his stepmother for some kind of unspecified hanky-panky in probate court. Later, he absolves her of any liability and turns his ire toward her attorney, Parks, and the woman who succeeded Leola as administrator of the estate, attorney Joan Armstrong.
While the probate case crept along, Sam played football, made friends in his new neighborhood and finished school. At his first job, he showed an unusual degree of drive and passion for a boy his age when he was named manager of a Jack in the Box while still in high school. He later worked for Grandy's, then launched a career with Williams Fried Chicken, a black-owned company with 50 stores that's especially popular in southern Dallas. In the gaps, he married, fathered four kids and occasionally peddled insurance.
Hiawatha Williams, owner and founder of the chicken chain, says that Sam "did a very good job of sales," setting some company records. Sam did so well, in fact, that Williams awarded him his own franchise. Sam ran it and paid a royalty to Williams Chicken.
Sam recalls with relish how he'd whip Williams Chicken crews into shape, throwing away buckets of cooked chicken that didn't measure up to the ideal interior temperature of 140 degrees. "Friendliness, quality, cleanliness and service" was his mantra. He'd come into the store early in the morning and dismember chickens with a butcher's saw, cutting as many as 700 birds a morning. His uniform was always spotless and pressed; his outgoing, jolly personality made the visit memorable for customers. He pulled in good money too: $1,300 to $1,500 a week in the 1990s.
But eventually he'd walk away from all of it, handing back his franchise to Williams after only a year. It all began in 1989 in a conversation with Zelma Joiner.
"Did you get what was coming to you? The house and the $10,000?" Joiner asked.
"What house?" Sam said. "That house burnt."
"It's not burnt," Joiner said. And sure enough, Sam came over and saw it.
He says he hadn't received the $10,000, either--the amount Joiner says Annie told her would be set aside for Sam if something ever happened to her.
Sam would conclude he'd been cheated out of his mother's estate. And within a few years, the case would become an obsession that took over his life. Hiawatha Williams encouraged Sam to keep working, so he would have some income for his family and in case his quest didn't pan out.
"I'm just a man that believes in going to work every morning," Williams says. "I can't play the lottery and hope to win it for my family."
But Sam had better things to do than slave over a fry vat.
Mark Elphingstone was sitting on the back of his pickup truck, reading the Bible outside his small suntan-lotion factory in DeSoto. It was 1990 or 1991. A car drove up, and out popped "all these black guys in suits"--the insurance salesmen who worked next door. One sharply dressed, powerfully built man saw the Bible and walked up to Elphingstone.
"Hi, my name's Samuel Gross," he said.
The two got to talking about the Bible, and Sam suggested that they have some Bible studies together, seeing as they were neighbors. Elphingstone immediately liked the guy, and they did just that, meeting whenever they could find time. "He sounded real serious," Elphingstone says. "And to be able to quote Scriptures like that--he had them memorized. I thought he was a real good person, that he could be trusted."
A few months after they got to know each other, Sam mentioned his mother's lost estate. "He was just real subtle," Elphingstone says. "He was having trouble and wanted to know if I'd be interested in helping him financially, and if I did, God would really bless me. I was kind of hesitant...so he was real persistent. He kept coming over, and he'd have little Bible studies. And he'd show me some paperwork and talk about his mother's case, and then he would start talking about it was in the millions of dollars."
At first, Elphingstone said no. But he could empathize with Sam's predicament. When Elphingstone's father died, one of his father's friends had cheated Elphingstone out of another suntan-lotion business by promising investment money that he withdrew at the last minute just as Elphingstone was about to land a huge contract with a drugstore chain. Plus, he really took to Sam.
"He had a real good, charming personality," Elphingstone says. "He's real persuasive, in addition to the faith part of it...of course, Satan can quote Scriptures too."
Elphingstone plunged in. He drove Sam to court and the law library, let him use his office and his phone. Together they would discover and chart all the incredible twists and turns in Annie's estate: the name change; the discovery that "A.L. Green" possessed huge assets; the puzzling switch to another estate administrator, probate lawyer Joan Armstrong, when Sam was an adult by then, the sole heir and fully capable of administering the estate himself. (He was eventually appointed administrator.) They saw themselves get swatted down in court numerous times; they'd pick up the pieces, do some more research, obtain some more records and shift tactics. They burned through more than a dozen attorneys, who'd see dollar signs, enthusiastically sign on to the case then fail to get any results. They plotted the money trail, following Annie's purported assets from TI to NationsBank to Bankers Trust to...hundreds of millions of dollars, taking into account the damages Sam would be owed when all of these dirty dealings were exposed to the authorities and justice was finally done.
Elphingstone says Sam would tell him sometimes that "I was the only one who believed in him." For his part, Elphingstone advanced substantial amounts of cash. He pulls out copies of canceled checks for $2,500, then $10,000. He estimates he provided a total investment of roughly $31,000 in Sam's case. In exchange, and especially when he was hard up for cash, Sam signed away increasing chunks of his fortune to Elphingstone. A contract dated January 9, 1992, awards Elphingstone half of Sam's millions; 33 percent is crossed out and replaced with 50 percent. Another contract, from 1995, reaffirms the earlier contract in exchange for $760 that Sam desperately needed to file some court papers.
But after a while, Elphingstone noticed a pattern. Whenever Sam felt he was getting close to the fortune, he'd distance himself from Elphingstone. Then other events took a toll on their friendship, like the time in 1992 when Sam took $5,000 of Elphingstone's money earmarked for the case and used it to buy an old BMW. Elphingstone says he confronted Sam about it, and Sam agreed to sell the car. But when a buyer came down from Oklahoma with $5,000 in a paper sack, Sam said he couldn't find the title. The buyer went home without a car, and Elphingstone was furious. When Sam wrote him a worthless check to pay back the $5,000, Elphingstone filed suit with the justice of the peace. He never did get his money, he says.
One day, Elphingstone was in his factory when he heard loud thumping and banging coming from the insurance office. A body crashed against the wall, knocking off some pictures on Elphingstone's side. He ran next door to see what was going on. And there was Sam, fighting with one of his co-workers, pressing the guy's head against the wall while the man flailed harmlessly with his fists. Sam owed him money, Elphingstone says.
By that time, Sam always seemed to be broke, and Elphingstone started finding out about others who'd been promised a chunk of Annie Lee Gross' millions. Sam admits that several people have advanced him substantial sums of money, including childhood friend and caterer Damon Crow and Gary Krier, a well-to-do former homebuilder and devout Christian who is actively helping Sam with his case today. (Sam's evangelical Christian supporters would no doubt be surprised to find out that the house church where Sam attends and is in training to become a leader doesn't believe Jesus Christ is God and is an offshoot of an organization, The Way International, that's considered a cult by many evangelicals.)
Today, Elphingstone and Sam keep up a tense communication. Elphingstone says Sam has tried to get him to withdraw his contract several times, claiming it's gumming up the probate case. Elphingstone refuses; he says it's the only protection he has. That, and the boxes of documents and notes from the case that he's squirreled away in his home.
Sam has never disputed the validity of his contract with Elphingstone in court papers. But recent filings make clear he no longer intends to honor it. Giving Elphingstone half of his mother's estate would be "unconscionable," the records say, and instead he will merely be awarded a "just" settlement.
Today, Elphingstone's money is all gone. He lives in a tiny garage house behind his stepfather's home in Fort Worth; he has applied for disability because he suffers from Ménière's disease, which causes vertigo and, he says, mental confusion at times. He still has the know-how to manufacture suntan lotion, but he has no capital. For 15 years, his life has been on hold as he waits for Sam to get his fortune. He believes fully in Sam's quest; he's banked his life on it. But he no longer believes in Sam.
What about Sam Gross' claims? Do they hold water?
The Observer set about to examine the basic assertions underlying Gross' claim that he is entitled to a billion-dollar fortune. The case, of course, is extremely complicated, with activity at various times in four courts and hundreds of pages of frequently nonsensical filings from Gross, as well as a few attorneys who took his case for a season then backed off for whatever reason or were fired by Gross. (Gross acknowledges that he has gone through at least 20 attorneys.)
All of the bizarre twists and turns in the case, however--the alleged identity theft, the business supposedly started using Annie Gross' Social Security number, the shell game of assets shifted from corporate entity to corporate entity, the allegedly crooked lawyers and public officials--rest on two basic claims made by Gross. If neither of these claims can be proven or if either is false, the rest of the case, and all the sinister doings of which Gross will speak at great length, is irrelevant--all smoke, no fire.
The two claims:
1. Sam Gross was a beneficiary of Annie Gross' life insurance policy.
Annie Gross definitely had term life insurance. Sam says the policy was worth $30,000; TI, which provided the coverage to its employees through an underwriter, Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., says that according to the policy, the maximum benefit when Annie worked there was $20,000.
Neither TI nor Sam Gross nor any other family member possesses the beneficiary card for Annie's life insurance, which isn't surprising, since Annie died 36 years ago. TI says no other records exist indicating who the beneficiaries were, or if there were any. Furthermore, no one has copies of the checks written to the beneficiaries, though Sam doesn't dispute that his family members claimed their share.
In 1992, 22 years after Annie's death, Sam obtained an affidavit from the Reverend William E. Spears, Annie's undertaker, stating that it was his belief that Sam Gross was a beneficiary of his mother's life insurance along with Annie's three sisters, Lillie, Liza and Mary Graves, and her brother, James Graves. In the affidavit, filed in probate court, Spears recounts how he drove Lillie and Liza to TI's personnel office in Richardson soon after Annie's death. They spoke with a personnel officer, but he doesn't recall her name.
"At that time the personnel officer discussed with us the content of the insurance policy on the life of Annie Lee Gross," Spears writes. "Although we saw her read the policy, we did not look at the policy or make a copy of it. We did not personally view any beneficiary card. At that time the personnel officer told us that there were five beneficiaries under the policy, the beneficiaries being Lillie Graves, Liza Graves, Mary Graves, James Graves and Samuel R. Gross...to the best of my recollection, the amount each received [w]as approximately $2,000, more or less." Spears also notes that he received $2,000 for Annie's funeral, with $1,000 each deducted from the shares of Lillie and Liza.
All of this would add up to only $10,000; Sam says each of the siblings received about $5,000. But Spears' memory wasn't exactly fresh when he wrote the affidavit, and no one can go back and query him about the details today because he's dead.
In the probate file there is also a 1990 affidavit signed by Lillie, Liza, Mary and James on Sam's behalf stating that they were all beneficiaries of Annie's life insurance policy and received their share of the proceeds. They also state that Sam "is one of the Primary beneficiaries," but they offer nothing to back that up, and no other documentary evidence is presented in Sam's many court filings.
The conclusion: Sam Gross has no documentation proving he was a beneficiary of his mother's term life insurance policy in the first place.
Let's accept the Reverend Spears' recollection, 22 years after the fact, that Sam was a beneficiary, though, just for the sake of argument. Sam still must prove another central claim:
2. Sam Gross couldn't claim his portion of his mother's life insurance policy because he was a minor and because he wasn't aware it existed until 1989, and this unclaimed money--$12,999.99--was transferred to a TI pension fund or "benefit trust." From then on, it accrued interest and multiplied as TI stock grew in value.
The Reverend Spears also notes in his affidavit that the same TI personnel officer told him during a later meeting that "...the proceeds payable to Samuel R. Gross would be paid to a guardian for his benefit when the Company was shown a proof of guardianship," because Sam was only 9 years old.
TI claims in federal court records that every bit of Annie's $20,000 life insurance policy was paid out in checks written by Connecticut General directly to the beneficiaries and distributed through TI's human resources office. But under no circumstances would TI hold the money itself. "If the designated beneficiary was a minor and no request for payment due the minor had been made 'by a duly appointed guardian or committee of beneficiary,'" TI says in court pleadings, "Connecticut General could, 'at its option, make payment to any person or institution appearing to the Insurance Company to have assumed the custody of and the principal support of the beneficiary.'"
In this scenario, all roads lead to Leola Gross, Sam's stepmother and guardian while James Gross was in prison. Sam acknowledged, in fact, in his interview with the Observer that Leola took for herself the proceeds from the sale of his mother's house, even though she says in her application to become administrator of the estate that her purpose is to preserve assets for Sam, the minor heir. Sam doesn't have a problem with that. "She raised me," he says. He added, however, that his stepmother didn't get any of the life insurance money. (James and Leola Gross declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Let's theorize for a moment, however, that $12,999.99 of Annie's life insurance remained unclaimed. Sam asserts that this money somehow ended up in TI's pension and profit-sharing plans, where it was hidden under the name A.L. Green. (Never mind that Annie hadn't worked at TI long enough to be vested in either its pension or profit-sharing plans.)
Now let's look at Sam's documentation for each of these claims. The $12,999.99 figure comes from a document titled "Group Life Claims Paid." It is a Connecticut General computer printout obtained many years after Annie's death purportedly showing the amounts of life insurance proceeds paid out to various beneficiaries under TI's group life insurance plan for employees. "GROSS A" appears three times beside the amounts $2,000, $5,000.01 and $12,999.99. This is the proof Sam offers up that the undistributed life insurance amounted to $12,999.99, since he claims none of Annie's siblings received a check for this amount.
The numbers do, however, add up to precisely $20,000, the value of Annie's term life policy, according to TI.
From here Sam makes a leap of logic and asserts that the $12,999.99 was transferred by TI to its pension or profit-sharing plans, from whence it could increase in value. In federal court pleadings, TI says this is impossible. "Under no circumstances were unpaid life insurance proceeds under the Connecticut General life insurance policy in effect at the time of Annie Lee Gross's death deposited in/transferred to/invested in/or in any way placed in any TI account or any account of a TI insurance or benefit plan."
Remember, too, that the checks were written by Connecticut General to the beneficiaries. The money never passed through TI's accounts; TI's only role in the distribution of the life insurance proceeds was to hand out the checks to the people on the policyholder's beneficiary card.
Sam has no proof that TI didn't follow its usual policy. He provides no TI document indicating a transfer of funds, only papers showing the total value of TI's pension and profit-sharing plans at much later dates. At some point, he provides what he describes as a TI "plan record reflecting the receipt of such insurance proceeds," according to federal court documents, but TI says this isn't a TI record, and furthermore, Sam has never "establish(ed) the source of this microfiche or what it purports to prove. Rather, [Sam Gross] has created his own story as to the meaning of this microfiche in order to support his otherwise unsubstantiated claim." He does offer a hunch and a conspiracy theory, though--that TI, with nefarious intent, at some point changed his mother's name to A.L. Green in order to hide her millions of dollars of lost assets from Sam. He gathers this from the fact that Annie's name appears one time in Social Security earnings records as "A.L. Green."
He has no proof, however, that the name change was anything beyond what it appears to be at first glance--a clerical error that had no effect on Annie Gross' earnings totals recorded with the Social Security Administration. Sam complains in a 1996 letter to then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, "I understand that some people can drop the ball sometimes, but I don't understand how my Mother's Estate has been open for 26 years and I...have not received any of my inheritance." Sam's own court filings, however, are riddled with misspellings, grammatical errors, non sequiturs and shifting information. It doesn't seem unreasonable to believe that the Social Security Administration made a simple typographical error. But to Sam, the single mention of "A.L. Green" in the Social Security earnings record is the starting point of an elaborate conspiracy with worldwide reach and billion-dollar import.
Whatever the case, TI denies it has any money or property belonging to Annie Lee Gross, A.L. Green or any individual with that Social Security number. And it resented the fact that Sam harassed its employees, repeatedly showed up unannounced at its offices and attempted to get information "under false pretenses." It describes his tale of "changed identities, secret transfers and hidden money" as "fanciful--and utterly unsupportable."
In his court filings and in media reports, Sam Gross makes many colossal leaps of logic--far too many to chronicle here--but if these central assertions collapse, the whole case collapses. That has never swayed Sam or his closest supporters; there seems to be an endless supply of people blinded by that billion-dollar light. But a window into Sam's bizarre reasoning can be found in a one-page document from the probate file titled "Sam Gross short story of chain of event [sic]." In it, Sam is giving the concise version of his legal saga, and he alludes to some later consequences of the alleged name change from Annie Lee Gross to A.L. Green. The following excerpt is reproduced verbatim:
"...[S]o her assets continued to be used and undetected as if she were still alive under a sole-proprietorship under a employer tax identification number under a assumed name Annie Lee Green, which referred to Alfred G. Green, who I believed to be the Whistle Blower, who was paid off by the State of Texas...I believe that these particular crimes could not be accomplished without the involvement of the system working together. I believe that certain individuals created a way to defraud Annie Lee Gross Estate so they could use and continue to draw the interest of the Estate. Due to news articles I have received in which one is stating, that over 400 companies are being investigated for taken funds from employee savings and health plans. This shows that my mother's Estate could be the actual tip of the iceberg in uncovering the fraud and criminal activities that have taken place against the public that is the peace and dignity of the state."
Dallas lawyer Linda Wiland has patiently pointed out some of the finer points of probate law, speaking in measured words about Sam Gross' many accusations against her former client, probate lawyer Joan Armstrong, who died a few years ago. Then she hears that Sam has done an interview with Oprah Winfrey, presumably for an upcoming show.
"Oh, my gosh. You have got to be kidding," she says. "I hope they investigate it enough, because this is just completely bogus. It's bogus."
Doug Parks, Leola Gross' former attorney, says, "Has it occurred to anybody that Sam is crazy?"
Nothing, however, deters Sam Gross.
And out of undeniable tragedy--the mental decline and eventual suicide of Annie Lee Gross, leaving a 9-year-old boy without his mother or father--another string of misfortunes has come. Sam Gross is broke and has often filed court papers as an indigent; he's divorced from his second wife, legal assistant Dreka Posteal; he owes a lot of money to supporters; a landlord has had to file eviction papers several times; he subsists on offering credit advice and conducting financial seminars on biblical principles through a business he formed called "Concept to Wealth."
"Through Concept to Wealth," he says in promotional materials, "you will learn the proven hidden concept that has made and is making millions of dollars for hundreds of people. You will also discover how to become financially free, and spend more time with those you care most about."
And what exactly is that concept? And who has it benefited?
Certainly not Sam Gross' children. His first-born son was murdered outside a Dallas nightclub in 2003. And in an affidavit he filed in defense of a suit brought by the state of Texas and his first wife, Brenda Warren, seeking unpaid child support, Gross paints a sad picture of his children's wellbeing--and blames it all on others. "Because the Attorney General knew that my mother's estate couldn't distribute assets belonging to [Gross]...which caused [Gross] to be unable to handle responsibilities to family and friends. Their lack of fiduciary responsibility caused pain and suffering against [Gross'] children, Samuel Raithel Gross, Jr., now deceased at 22 years of age; Christopher Lee Gross, who did not finish high school and is now unemployed as of the date of this oath; Terry Ray Gross, who is in the Air Force, struggling to make a living; and Sherry Ann Gross, who has a daughter and is also struggling to make a living with her boyfriend."
Maybe Gross' new attorney, Joe Ashmore, sums it up best.
"Money," he says, "brings out the worst in people."
Dallas Observer Editorial Assistant Natalie Trevino contributed to this report.
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