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The Larry Hillblom Inheritance

One of the more fascinating and involved kinship cases on which I have consulted deals with claimants to the vast estate of a business tycoon named Larry Hillblom who died (Revenge of the third world virgins) in a plane crash at sea in 1995.

Hillblom lives and dies

Hillblom was the "H" in DHL, the world's largest courier delivery service, and was the founder of the company. Eventually he bought out his partners, so that he became all three letters. He died leaving an estate of $600,000,000.

An adventurer, he was terribly injured in a plane crash (one of two crashes before the one that killed him), and as a result spent a year in the hospital in San Francisco. He assured the staff of his gratitude for their care, and promised to leave the hospital $100,000,000 in his will. However, the actual amount that he wrote into the will was only $3,000,000.

Moreover, he failed to make any provision, either pro or con, for any children he may have had. Under California law he could have written his children out of the will, but since he didn't, anyone who could prove to be his child would be entitled to an inheritance.

He was well known to have a sexual attraction towards Asian girls, and, fearful of disease, he leaned towards virgins. He was reputed to have acquired relationships with a number of 14-year-old or so girls in various countries by paying money to intermediaries.

Some of these girls became mothers, and some of the mothers and children eventually banded together to sue the estate for an inheritance. This is where, eventually, I came in.

Obtaining evidence of heirs

My friend and colleague Dr. Brad Popovitch, a geneticist with a variety of background experience, was selected by the Saipan court to help the judge sort out the inheritance claims. The story of what happened in his search reads like adventure fiction – dead of night sabotage by agents of DHL working to frustrate the judge's pursuit of truth, refusal by a high-ranking official of the California Department of Justice to obey the court order of a California Appeals Court judge, a brilliant attorney handing Hillblom's mistress/widow $1,000,000 for goodwill and a few weeks later obtaining a 5000% return on his money. I will write out the story someday when I have more time. ( AP wire story)

Popovitch realized that some tricky and unusual kinship calculations might be necessary. Thanks to his recommendation (of which I was unaware until much later), I received calls from three different sources asking for my collaboration with the DNA analysis. One of those calls was from Genelex, a company with which I had had, for a year or more even prior to the Hillblom situation, a relationship as a consultant to compute unusual kinship cases. Genelex had obtained the assignment to do some of the DNA testing involved with potential children of Hillblom.

Evaluating the evidence

Due partly to recalcitrance on the part of the San Francisco hospital – perhaps they were hopeful to parlay their $3,000,000 bequest up to the originally promised figure of $100,000,000 – no DNA from Hillblom or any known relatives was available. Therefore we were in the unusual – unprecedented in fact – position of trying to decide, using DNA, whether children are related to a man about whom, DNA-wise, nothing is known. We therefore had to employ an indirect strategy.

Indirect strategy

We recently presented a poster explaining the approach and giving the results. Briefly, the concept was to establish that several children, from different mothers and widely disparate geographically, are related. Combining this genetic result with even modest anecdotal evidence connecting Hillblom to the various mothers would constitute a strong case that he was the father of all.

Presumably the above was Popovitch's plan, for only he was in possession of all the facts. He blinded the samples before passing them along to the laboratory. As it happens he knew that part of the anecdotal evidence was very strong – Hillblom was known to have visited, given presents to, and otherwise tacitly acknowledged his relationship with one of the children – but this information was of course withheld from the laboratory and from me.

How it worked

Preliminary examination of the DNA patterns showed us immediately that, of the 4 mother-child pairs that we started with, three of the children plausibly had the same father but the fourth was out of luck. Our final conclusion was the same as this preliminary analysis, except that for a final report I wanted to have, as far as possible, a logical, quantitative, and air-tight argument.

Handling multiple hypotheses

Eventually I found a way to arrange the argument in an order that seems simple and convincing. I began with pair-wise comparisons: Are children 1 and 2 related? 1 and 3? and so on. In each case anything is possible – the likelihood ratios ranged from several thousands favoring half-sibship (among any pair of 1, 3, and 4) to several hundreds disfavoring half-sibship (between 2 and any other).

The next step was to consider 3-way comparisons, such as "How strongly does the evidence suggest that 1, 3, and 4 all are related, compared to the possibility that 1 and 3 are half-siblings unrelated to 4?"

At this stage child 2 was positively eliminated as being related to any two of the others, while the appearance of relationship among the other three children rises to a likelihood ratio of millions.

The result

Finally, therefore, I felt I was able to say that I had considered all the possibilities, and the initially plausible one – children 1, 3, and 4 related; child 2 left out in the cold – is the only reasonable one.

Subsequently another child turned up who is also a legitimate heir of the Hillblom estate.

Epilogue

The story in the newspapers (and on the web) is that each of the children received $90,000,000 – 60% of the estate altogether. However, the case is still being disputed. Not, however, with the possibility of reducing these awards, but of increasing them. When the Saipan judge learned of the criminal malfeasance on the part of the rival heirs (which may well result in jail for at least one wealthy lawyer), he threatened to give the children everything. And that is the last we have heard.


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