It was 1986, and Tarrant County Judge Mike Moncrief wanted a keepsake--something by which he could remember his just-deceased grandfather, the legendary Texas wildcatter W.A. "Monty" Moncrief.
W.A. "Tex" Moncrief Jr., Mike's uncle and the executor of Monty's estate, allowed Mike and his brother to go through some of the old man's jewelry and watches.
But, Mike recalls bitterly, they got that chance only after their cousins--Tex's children--had picked over Monty's belongings. By then, most of their grandfather's cherished possessions were gone. "They took everything," says Moncrief, of his cousins. "By the time I got there, I didn't see any of the things that I had seen him wear, the things that [you] wanted, that would have reminded [you] of him."
When Mike complained to his uncle, he recalls, Tex simply told him, "I'm the executor, and I will do what I choose."
Three generations of such relations have turned a simmering, private family conflict into an angry, public civil war. The Moncriefs of Fort Worth--one of Texas' mythic oil families--today stand revealed as a clan bitterly divided.
This past March, Mike Moncrief, now a Texas state senator, filed a blunt suit in state court in Fort Worth against his uncle Tex and two of his cousins. In the suit, Moncrief and his brother--whose father died in 1970--accuse their kin of trying to rob them of their rightful share of inherited oil and gas properties.
Tex and his sons fired back, filing a counterclaim accusing the senator and his brother of "maliciously telling persons in the Fort Worth community that Tex Moncrief had allegedly 'stolen,' or 'embezzled' property from them."
At stake is a fortune. Its present size is unknown, but after Monty's death, Forbes magazine put a price tag of $200 million on the patriarch's estate.
Tex--who, unlike Mike's father Richard, worked closely with Monty Moncrief in the family oil business--claims the old wildcatter intended to share half his oil and gas properties with him.
Mike claims Monty and his wife instead intended to divide the assets equally among their seven grandchildren.
The conflict also has raised fresh questions about what prompted a dramatic September 1994 raid by 64 federal agents on the Moncrief Building in downtown Fort Worth, where Tex and his sons run their business. In the raid, carried out seven months before the family conflict erupted in the Texas courts, armed IRS agents seized 300 boxes of documents, more than a dozen file cabinets, and an entire computer system. The agents are reportedly probing allegations that Tex and his sons committed tax fraud.
Mike Moncrief denies any responsibility for the raid--"no one was more surprised than me"--but cites it as reason to question the ability of his uncle, now 75, to continue overseeing the family's shared oil properties.
The senator knows that a messy family court battle will prove embarrassing in a town where oil families such as the Basses have always worked to keep their internal conflicts private. "We have done everything we possibly could to avoid having to file this lawsuit, to keep this dirty laundry from being aired publicly," he says. "No one likes to do that. I will say, politically, I probably should have run from it."
Yet Moncrief, 51, feels strongly about getting his side across. He devoted two hours at the height of the legislative session to an interview in Austin with the Observer. He has hired a Fort Worth public relations firm to handle queries about the litigation.
Tex Moncrief did not return calls for this story. One member of his large legal team, Washington lawyer Robert Bennett (who represents President Clinton in the Whitewater case), says he has advised Moncrief not to talk to the press. But Tex did grant an interview to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which had published an editorial condemning the IRS for its high-profile raid.
"What's behind this is simple greed," Tex told the newspaper about his nephew's suit, in a lengthy story published earlier this month. "If it wasn't for my mother and father and me doing [our] part to keep things up, [Mike] wouldn't own anything now. Not one damn thing."
Money obviously ranks high on the list of reasons for the fight.
Mike Moncrief, who admits he was willing to let his uncle manage the family business for years--and even serve as financial guardian for the senator's incapacitated younger sister--has been drawing almost $1 million annually from the inherited assets, according to Jerry Goodwin, an accountant in his Fort Worth business office. Mike believes he should be getting more. If Mike prevails in court, the Senator's income could double, and his one-seventh share of the estate (based on the $200 million Forbes estimate) would be $28 million, rather than $14 million.
But it is also clear that for Mike Moncrief, this conflict isn't just about money--it's personal.
The senator has for decades endured a caste system that always put him, his father, and his siblings at the bottom. "He was always treated as if he didn't belong in the Moncrief clothes," says a business associate once close to the family, who asked not to be named. "It was so apparent that side of the family was treated differently that the rest of us stopped noticing it."
"Once my grandfather died," says Mike, "Tex tried to assume the mantle. I was comfortable with that for a while. As time passed, things began to unfold. The patriarch position of his became one of sheer power or control. His way was 'my way or the highway.'
"I did what I felt I had to do to protect myself and my family," says the senator. "If I had to do it all over again, I would do exactly the same thing."
In the early 1930s, four young wildcatters--W.A. "Monty" Moncrief, H.L. Hunt, Sid Richardson, and Clint Murchison--struck gushers in the East Texas oil fields. The fortunes founded on that oil brought each of their families fame and influence for generations. It also transformed the four men into international symbols of the Big Rich Texan.
A descendant of Scottish immigrants, Moncrief, a strapping six-footer, personified the rags-to-riches Texas oil myth. Born in 1895 in Sulphur Springs, Monty Moncrief lost his mother three years after his birth. A short time later, his family moved to Checotah, Oklahoma, where his father and stepmother eked out a living as small-town merchants. Monty, working at odd jobs, studied for two years at the University of Oklahoma. But he left college to teach English before earning a degree.
At 22, he wed Elizabeth Bright, then 20. Ten days after the ceremony, he left for Europe to serve in the cavalry in World War I. When he returned, persuaded by army buddies that the petroleum business held promise, he joined the accounting department of Marland Oil. In the mid-1920s, Moncrief left Marland to go out on his own--at first, with little success. He drilled 29 dry holes before he hit the big gusher in East Texas.
Before striking it rich, while Monty was still with Marland, he and Elizabeth had two sons. The eldest was William Alvin "Tex" Moncrief Jr.; the second, born two years later, was Richard Barto Moncrief--Mike's father.
From the beginning, there was an odd and unsettling difference in how the Moncriefs viewed their sons. In True Legacy, an authorized biography of Monty written by John David Scott and published in 1982, Elizabeth was quoted enthusing about the arrival of Tex: "I decided to go back to my family in Little Rock...for delivery of my first baby, W.A. Moncrief Jr., who weighed in at a whopping 13-1/2 pounds at birth. My second son, Richard Barto, was delivered in a hospital in Wichita," she added simply.
In the book, Monty and Elizabeth discussed in loving detail all the major events of handsome Tex's youth: his college career, his first marriage, his difficult days as a young adult, his children's trials and triumphs. Three pages, for example, are devoted to one letter that Tex's son Charlie wrote to his grandmother.
But the authorized volume devotes a mere six paragraphs to the couple's second son, Richard Barto, a plump, bespectacled man who suffered numerous allergies and other maladies. In fact, the lives of Richard and his entire family occupy less than two pages. After describing Richard's death in 1970, at age 48, from kidney failure and other medical woes, the authorized biographer makes a startlingly dismissive transition: "But life must go on."
Meanwhile, Tex and his father always had been almost inseparable. According to a Texas Monthly account, Tex, then 10, was present when his dad hit pay dirt in East Texas. And, as he watched his dad toss his hat in celebration, Tex vowed to be an oilman forever.
Tex wavered at least once in his resolve. While attending the University of Texas, he flirted with the idea of becoming a golf pro. But Monty, during a trip to Austin, persuaded Tex to finish his degree in petroleum engineering.
For more than 50 years, Monty and his firstborn shared an office in downtown Fort Worth. Tex became wealthy in his own right. (Forbes now estimates his personal fortune at $330 million.)When Tex's sons became adults in the 1970s, three went to work in the business beside their grandfather.
"There was a pecking order. It was pretty well-known, pretty obvious," says Mike Moncrief. "My grandfather was obviously top rung. Then it was Tex, then Dickie [Tex's second son], Charlie [the third son], and then Tom [the fourth]." (Tex's first son, William Alvin Moncrief III, does not work with his relatives in the oil business.)
By contrast, Mike's family was hardly even in the picture. Born Mike Trapp, Mike was the son of Mary Daily Wiley Trapp and was adopted into the Moncrief family when his mother married Richard Barto Moncrief. Richard and Mary later had two more children, Richard B. Moncrief, Jr., now 48, and Lee Wiley Moncrief, now 41 and incapacitated since a 1988 auto accident.
Mike says that he still does not know why his grandparents favored his uncle over his father. "I'm not sure I ever understood the entire story. What I understood was that initially my father did not want to be involved in the oil business but found himself in a position where he had to be. But that was not something he shared with me."
Mike blames Tex, whom he describes as intensely controlling, for driving a bigger wedge between his father and grandfather. "Tex has always been possessive of my grandparents. It's like he says: 'that's my mom and my dad, and I can love them but no one else can.'"
In his interview with the Star Telegram, Tex suggested that the work habits of his younger brother's family made them less a part of the fold. "Dick didn't like to start working until 5 pm," Tex told the paper. "He already was a wealthy man and that was good enough for him." A friend of Tex's makes the point more bluntly: "Dick didn't work like the rest of them."
Clearly sensitive to suggestions that his father was a layabout, Mike Moncrief concedes Richard started his days "late." But the senator--known as an advocate for abused women, the mentally ill, and other disenfranchised groups--contends that neither he nor his father ever worked any less hard than their kin; they just did different work.
Mike, for example, began a political career in 1970, at age 26. After one term in the Texas House, he was elected three times as Tarrant County judge, serving from 1975 to 1987. He has represented West Fort Worth in the state Senate since 1991. "I've probably put in a lot more long hours than they have or ever even thought of," Mike says of his uncle and cousins. "Now it might not be on a rig somewhere or in the middle of a blinding snowstorm in Wyoming. But it might be on the floor of the senate, trying to deal with issues like family violence. Or it might be sitting until three o'clock or four o'clock in the morning, listening to public testimony about patients being locked up for insurance money."
Moncrief also believes that Richard Barto Moncrief set a more humanitarian example than Tex. "My father had a big, big, heart. He really cared about people. He loved people. He loved to enjoy himself. He loved to play, whether it was dealing slot cars, model trains, go-carts, or boats. Not being around Tex, I don't know if he did like to play. I think he was certainly more work-driven."
The senator believes the split widened in 1958, when Monty and Tex moved into a new office building.
From their offices five blocks away, Mike Moncrief, his dad, and brother Richard Jr. went about their separate lives. Although they shared financially in some of the elder Moncrief's oil ventures, says Mike, Monty and Tex always dictated the terms. The patriarch and his eldest son would tell their relatives when to write a check to cover drilling costs, then mail them payment for their interest.
Mike and Goodwin, his accountant, say Monty and Tex rarely gave Richard's side of the family a detailed accounting of their oil properties. Nonetheless, Mike acknowledges, they never opted out of the family deals and never demanded a full accounting; they trusted the family patriarch. After all, Monty hit more than his share of gushers.
The divide within the family was as distinct at home as it was at work.
At Monty's and Elizabeth's mansion, an enormous Tudor affair near the River Crest Country Club in West Fort Worth, holidays were awkward. "When my grandparents were both alive, occasionally everyone would end up [at the house] or most of us would end up there at the same time," recalls Mike Moncrief. "When that happened, things got kind of tense. We just found that it was better to see whose car was parked there before we stopped."
The family owned vacation homes in Palm Springs, Calif., and Gunnison, Colo. But Mike remembers visiting his grandfather's California home only once, after Monty's death. Mike's side of the family got access to the Colorado house only if Tex and his family didn't want it. Once Mike had to cancel plans to vacation there at the last minute because his cousins decided they wanted to use the house after all.
Notwithstanding Tex's griping about his brother's work habits, the senior Moncriefs were far from all business.
Monty loved to play with high-profile friends. He brought Hollywood into the oil business, letting buddies Bob Hope and Bing Crosby buy into some deals. His authorized biography tells of the celebrity golf games he played and of his correspondence with the powerful, including Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
Elizabeth "Liz" Moncrief was an avid shopper and racetrack bettor. In Monty's authorized biography, she tells of stuffing $11,000 cash into her pockets after a successful day at the track. On another occasion, she says, she returned home from a European trip with 44 suitcases loaded with new trinkets. A family friend named Clifford Mooers even composed a poem memorializing her acquisitive exploits. It reads, in part:
Call on the U.S. Treasury
Draw draft on old Fort Knox
Elizabeth's loose in Paris
Spending Monty's rocks....
Of course she sometimes journeys
Back to de la hotel
To cash a sheaf of Travellers Cheques
And wish old Monty well.
For he is busy wiring
Or calling Tex and Dick by phone
To sell the best production
Cut expenses to the bone.
She set an all-time record
She travelled Europe o'er
And saw not one artistic sight
But did not miss a store.
"I wasn't out to set any records in shopping, but maybe I had and I sure wasn't going to be ashamed of it," Liz explained.
Late in life, the elder Moncriefs began dispensing money in other ways, giving more than $8.5 million to Fort Worth and Dallas area hospitals and schools--enough so that Monty's obituary in the Dallas Times Herald bore the headline: "Philanthropist Moncrief Dies at 90." The paper identified him as an oilman only in the story's text.
The family patriarch also clearly tried to pass on some perspective about the value of money. "The only thing my dad ever cautioned me about is not to get greedy," Tex told his father's biographer. "His theory is that there is always room enough in an oil field for everyone to make some money and after one has all the money he needs, why worry about getting more?"
Mike recalls how his grandfather's death in 1986 underlined the division within the Moncrief clan.
"My side of the family was not treated anywhere near as an equal in the sharing of the mementos of my grandparents. It's ugly and it's painful," says Mike of the memory.
In his will, Monty had given the vast majority of his oil and gas properties to his widow. Before her death in 1992, Liz gave her seven grandchildren a gift of $20 million, then sold all her oil and gas properties to them for the same $20 million.
With that 1988 transaction, Mike and his brother believed they each had bought one-seventh of their grandparents' assets--an inheritance for each grandchild now worth (using the Forbes estimate of $200 million) perhaps $28 million.
After the death of his father, Tex continued to manage the oil and gas properties that presumably belonged to his four children (Richard W. "Dickie" Moncrief, now 52; Charles B. "Charlie" Moncrief, now 45; W.A. "Bill" Moncrief III; Tom Oil Moncrief; and three nephews (Mike, Richard Jr., and Lee). Tex explained to the Star-Telegram that he needed no inheritance because the oil and gas properties he had acquired on his own already made him very wealthy.
For several years after Monty's death, Mike and his family did not challenge Tex's management of the family assets, which were still held in the name of his grandparents' estates. Just as Monty had done, Tex sent over monthly bills and checks, which Mike presumed reflected their fair share of the inherited holdings. Just as he had done with Monty, Mike and his brother did what they were asked. The two branches of the family communicated through their respective accountants--Bill Jarvis on Tex's side and Jerry Goodwin on Mike's--who met twice a week for lunch.
About four years ago, Tex's office sent over some documents for Mike and his brother to sign, including paperwork on family oil property in Louisiana. Goodwin remembers that he and Mike did not read the document carefully. Months later, he says, they were surprised to receive a notice from Tex's staff stating that the share of the property that Mike and his siblings owned had been reduced. Previously, Goodwin says, Mike's side of the family had owned half the property; the new document reported that all seven grandchildren shared in it equally--reducing the combined share of Mike and his siblings to 43 percent.
"Mike and [his brother] had me go over and talk to Tex about it," Goodwin recalls. "'Remember that thing you signed?'" the accountant says Tex told him. "'That took care of it.'" Because they hadn't scrutinized the documents, "we kind of accepted it," Goodwin says. Tex "hoodwinked us and we didn't holler about it."
But Mike vowed it wouldn't happen again. The senator's opportunity to make that point to his uncle came in July 1994, when Tex's office sent over another seemingly innocuous note--this one handwritten. It asked Mike and his brother to sign a stipulation for filing in a federal lawsuit involving family property in Wyoming.
"Somewhere in the depositions it came out that the grandchildren now owned [their grandfather's] interest and Tex owned his interest," the note to Goodwin read. "The court said not all the parties are before the court and this stipulation is to get around making all parties plaintiffs in the suit. Call me if you need more info."
The attached stipulation stated that Tex owned 50 percent of the property. Mike and his brother refused to sign.
Instead, they hired high-profile Tulsa plaintiff's lawyer Gary Richardson and his partner, Gerald Hilsher, to challenge Tex's claim that he owned 50 percent of the property.
Tex would later claim in court that he owned not only half of the Wyoming property but also half of all other properties in Monty's name. His reasoning: He and Monty had an unwritten agreement to share equally in wells they developed during their decades of working together.
Tex's claim was sweeping. If accepted, it would mean that he owned half of everything the seven grandchildren thought belonged to them. It would halve their individual shares in the family assets--from 14 to 7 percent.
Mike Moncrief and his brother contend that their grandfather had no intention of splitting his assets with Tex. Had he wanted to do so, they say, the old man knew enough to put the properties rightfully in Tex's name. And Monty Moncrief never made such transfers. "Actions speak louder than words," says Mike. "Clearly my grandfather's action, or lack thereof--there was no transfer of these titles to my uncle--says something. I don't think from all we have seen that my grandfather had wanted to treat any of his seven grandchildren any differently."
Even as the implications of the Wyoming fight between Tex and Mike were emerging, the IRS, on September 1, 1994, raided the three-story Moncrief Building where Tex and his sons conducted business.
"Raids like this should simply not happen to America's citizens," the Star-Telegram declared in an editorial. Tex's youngest son, Tom Oil Moncrief, was in the office when the agents came. "They told me I could wait downstairs in the lunchroom," he told the local daily, "and they said when I left, I couldn't come back. They really treated us like criminals."
Eight days after the IRS raid, attorneys Richardson and Hilsher dispatched a letter to Tex Moncrief's lawyers demanding a detailed accounting of the grandfather's estate, for which Tex and his sons served as executors. That letter launched a series of meetings and correspondence among the troops of lawyers representing the Moncrief family members. "From September to March, we tried to get in to look at the books," says Goodwin.
Making little progress, Mike Moncrief and his brother, on March 7, 1995, filed suit in Fort Worth state court. Their wide-ranging claims allege fraud and embezzlement in Tex's handling of the family assets. They even alleged that Tex had "unduly influenced" his 91-year-old mother to change her will in favor of Tex's family. But the central issue of the litigation was the dispute over whether Tex truly owned 50 percent of the late patriarch's assets.
On March 24, 1994, Tex filed his counterclaim, alleging that his nephews' suit was "designed to purposefully cause extreme emotional distress.
"These actions have caused extreme and significant harm to this 75-year-old, highly regarded man," the counterclaim added.
The two sides were to have stood face-to-face in court on March 30; Tex showed up, but Mike, citing legislative business, let his lawyers represent him.
State District Judge Bob McGrath settled one matter quickly: the senator's side of the family would get to see more of the documents that Tex had been reluctant to cough up. But he also ordered the senator's attorneys to revise or withdraw their inflammatory allegations of Tex unduly influencing his mother to change her will.
The judge ordered a 90-day cooling-off period to allow the warring Moncriefs to review the records and try to settle the differences.
Tex's lawyers tried unsuccessfully to unseal the federal search warrant that justified the IRS raid on their offices. In court papers, they blamed the raid on allegations by a "disgruntled" and "revenge-seeking" former employee.
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The cooling-off period is to conclude at the end of this month, but Mike Moncrief's lawyers may well seek an extension to finish reviewing the voluminous records in Tex's offices.
Mike Moncrief doesn't expect a quick resolution. He says he cannot imagine trusting his uncle or cousins again; he says he no longer even speaks with them. Moncrief says he would be willing to share ownership of oil properties with his relatives, but he will rely on third-party management companies to account for their respective interests.
The senator also says that he has learned a lot about trusting others in private business. He admits to a mistake or two. He recalls one occasion on which he invested in a bad real estate deal with "the wrong kind of people" and sought his grandfather's help. "You got yourself into this," Mike remembers his grandfather telling him. "You get yourself out of this."
Now, through litigation, Mike Moncrief is trying to do just that. Only this time he is alleging that the wrong kind of people with whom he is involved are his own kin.