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Saturday, September 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jimi Hendrix brother gets none of $80 million estate

Seattle Times staff reporter

Jimi Hendrix's stepsister — a woman he met only a handful of times — will inherit the bulk of the late rock legend's estate, under a ruling yesterday by a King County Superior Court judge.

Jimi's brother, Leon Hendrix, lost his bid to get a share of the estimated $80 million, after a seven-week court battle that left both sides feeling bruised and looking less than saintly.

As part of yesterday's court ruling, which was read by Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell in a densely packed but muted courtroom, Janie Hendrix — who was adopted into the Hendrix family when her mother married Jimi's father, Al — was removed as trustee for some of the other beneficiaries because she violated her financial responsibility to them.

In other words, there was no clear-cut victory for anyone.

"We worked very hard and we're disappointed, but we feel good that changes are being made," said Leon Hendrix's attorney Bob Curran.

Janie Hendrix cried after the ruling was read.

"I thank God that what my dad wished for is happening and we can continue to keep Jimi's legacy alive," she said.

Despite his disappointment, Leon stood outside the courthouse after the verdict hugging people warmly and smiling. He invited people to a party at his house and planned to make music with friends.

The case — which was rife with allegations of illegitimacy, drug abuse, greed and adultery — began when Leon sued stepsister Janie for a share of the $80 million estate she had inherited when Al Hendrix died two years ago. Leon, his children and other members of the Hendrix family claimed Janie had schemed to have Leon cut from the will. Janie's lawyers contended that Al did so because he grew tired of Leon's chronic requests for money.

In addition, seven of the 11 other named beneficiaries in Al's estate sued to have Janie removed from control of the trusts. They said she mismanaged the estate and siphoned off money for her personal use.

Leon and his children painted a picture of Janie as attempting to drive a wedge between them and Al, constantly raising questions about whether Al actually fathered Leon. Leon and the others said that in order to get her hands on the money, she exploited Al's legal naiveté, his tendency to sign legal documents without a careful reading and his dependence on her.

For example, they pointed out that Janie hired the lawyers who drafted the will from which she stood to gain.

"That's a clear conflict of interest," said Karen Bertram, who represented Leon's children.

Reading from his 35-page opinion, Judge Ramsdell said, "Janie Hendrix did not want Leon involved in the family business. She did not like Leon and she disapproved of his lifestyle.

"She warned Al that if Leon was involved with the family business, he would cause trouble. She also raised concerns that if Leon had an interest in the business, that interest could be lost to an outsider." The opinion is posted on the court Web site at www.metrokc.gov/kcsc/docs/hendrix.pdf.

Janie's lawyers, meanwhile, countered that Al left controlling interest in the estate to her because he believed she would run it responsibly and well. He also feared that Leon, who battled addictions, would squander the money and sell off the valuable rights, her attorney, John Wilson, said.

Ramsdell agreed that Leon had brought many of his problems on himself. "Unfortunately for Leon," he wrote, "during the time that Al was considering these concerns and arguments, Leon was embarked on a self-destructive journey to prove Janie right."

Ramsdell said Leon's previous efforts to sell his share of the rights to Jimi's music, his threats to extort money from his father and his failure to get drug and alcohol treatment were among the reasons Al might have legitimately wanted Leon cut off.

Legal experts described yesterday's verdict as legally conservative and not unexpected.

Judge Ramsdell's ruling marked the end of one of the most closely watched and well-attended civil trials in King County Superior Court in some time. Daily, the trial drew a host of colorful characters and near celebrities.

Staunchly behind Leon were his children, a European girlfriend, a millionaire playboy developer and a host of Hendrix fans, including a trio of conspiracy theorists who claim Hendrix did not die after he choked on his own vomit, but was murdered.

Behind Janie sat her new husband, former Earth, Wind and Fire bassist Sheldon Reynolds; her children, her brothers and sisters, their spouses and children and her various assistants and former lawyers.

During the bench trial, scores of witnesses took the stand. In the pictures they painted of the two primary players, Janie came across as hard-hearted, grasping and lost. Leon, who had been favored and spoiled by Al, was described as lazy.

A former attorney hired by Janie said she insisted to him that she was the rock legend's biological half-sister even though it wasn't true.

"During the time when she maintained she was the natural child and Al said she was not, I felt it was a sensitive issue and I was careful at that point," said O. Yale Lewis, who helped the Hendrix family successfully sue to regain the rights to Jimi's legacy that Al had signed away.

Some witnesses said that Janie, who had worked hard cleaning house for Al as a child and then helping him win back the family's rights to Jimi's music, believed she deserved to benefit from her labor.

She gave herself two new Mercedes, a salary and bonus of more than $700,000, a no-interest home loan, and a standing appointment at an upscale hair salon every three days.

At the same time, she refused to give money to one of Jimi's aunts for cancer treatment, refused a $600 loan to a cousin whose husband was ill and out of work, and refused to move Jimi's mother, Lucille Jeter Hendrix, out of an unmarked grave.

"Al thought he was leaving the legacy to people who were responsible, but instead they were reprehensible," said David Osgood, who represented the disgruntled beneficiaries.

Leon, an artist and musician who had not had a steady job since 1979, made a habit of asking his dad for money and trying to sell off his rights to his brother's music. He threatened once to go to the press if his father didn't buy out his rights for $3 million, documents showed.

Many people familiar with the case, including Hendrix biographer Charles Cross, questioned the wisdom of the lawsuits, which are estimated to have cost more than $4 million.

"For the money they spent on the lawsuit here, they clearly could have satisfied everybody's needs," said Cross, whose book is due out next year.

Several attorneys connected with the case said Janie and cousin Bob Hendrix, who together control the estate, were surprised by the strength of the case against them.

"They didn't think Leon had the money to fight them," said one attorney.

But a number of people close to Janie and Leon say the reasons they determined to fight it out in court are perhaps more personal than that.

"Leon believes that his brother would have wanted him to have had a share," said one family friend. "And Janie believes that all love has to be earned."

The lawsuit may be appealed.

"Unfortunately, this entire lawsuit is just one more chapter in the Jimi Hendrix story that isn't about music," said Cross. "He wanted to be remembered for his music, not family fights, family wills and issues about money."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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