SF Weekly April 10, 2000
By this spring, scientists will have produced a comprehensible rough draft of our genome, the 3 billion-word instruction book for human biology. This map of the entire human genetic structure will contain clues to all of our afflictions, all of our gifts, unlocking a trove of information richer and more precise than any biological data that has preceded it.

And it will be mostly nonsense.

Amongst the bits of genetic code suggesting blue eyes, left-handedness, and curiosity, scientists are detecting blatherous twine such as this: hxckgggcaggaxglopl- hxckgggc-aggaxglopl-hxckgg-gcaggaxglopl- hxckgggcag-gaxglopl-hxckg -ggcaggaxglopl-hxckgggca -ggaxglopl. Vast portions of the genome – most of it, in fact – are made up of random character repetitions with no apparent purpose or function, like empty miles between West Texas towns.

At this basic, genetic level, the worthless DNA could be taken as proof there exists no such thing as human purpose: Human beings aren't the result of unified genetic cooperation, but are instead motivated by the winners in a game of microscopic chaos. It's every bit of unconscious code against every other bit of unconscious code.

Some of the code perseveres by creating traits sustainable through the perpetuation of species, such as large brains in humans. The rest survives by merely fighting for space along our DNA.

This second type of prodigious swapping and replicating creates harmless errors, strings of parasitic DNA that compound themselves across generations, making each individual's genome more distinct every time it's passed along. This discovery in 1984 made possible the new science of DNA fingerprinting: Most biological material contains in its parasitic DNA a unique bar code, an infallible identification of the material's source.

This fact was initially used by immigration authorities a decade and a half ago to investigate family-unification claims of would-be immigrants. Two years later, a DNA mismatch proved the innocence of a falsely confessed British rapist. Later still, DNA evidence showed how former Argentine military rulers had secretly adopted as their own the children of murdered leftist parents. Now, rare is the paternity battle, rape case, or murder crime scene that doesn't include DNA analysis.

Anthony Pidgeon
Peter Barnett, a Richmond private investigator who was sent around the world in search of Larry Hillblom's DNA.
It's often said the truth can be cruel. But inside the ruthless battleground of the human genome, cruelty produces unassailable truth.

So it is fitting that life's most self-serving terrain might bring closure to one of recent history's more astounding pageants of amoral behavior.

This month, accountants will distribute $50 million apiece to a quartet of children left behind by deceased San Francisco billionaire Larry Hillblom. Such was the value of their junk DNA.

By examining genes from an octet of Pacific Asian dance-hall orphans, a team of Bay Area sleuths has solved the mystery of whether Hillblom was merely a misunderstood eccentric, or a deadbeat pedophile. They helped solve the mystery of whether attorneys for the state of California acted merely as responsible public stewards, or aggressively attempted to deny impoverished orphans their rightful inheritance.

They determined, in short, that some participants in a just-finished battle over the estate of Hillblom, founder of the globe-spanning DHL Worldwide Express air freight company, behaved so consistently and entirely without scruples that it seemed as though, perhaps, amorality was in their genes.

This puzzle's eventual solution could just as easily have remained concealed forever. Hillblom's former partners, their $20 million worth of attorneys, and the California state Attorney General's Office might have prevailed in their assertion that Hillblom's former girlfriends were liars. But thanks to genetic science and some cutting-edge sleuthing, the truth prevailed.

Charles Brenner, a genial middle-aged bachelor, lives in an airy, well-lighted duplex in a shady neighborhood in the hills next to the University of California at Berkeley. He is a passionate fan of classical music, a tendency revealed by the artwork, sheet music, and sophisticated stereo equipment scattered throughout his house. He travels frequently, and takes bicycle rides near his home on weekends when he's not on the road. Years ago, while young and living in Britain, he was a professional bridge player, and he still keeps tabs on the international game. He is a pleasant, invigorating raconteur, knowledgeable about many things, curious about the rest. In manner – and by nature of his line of work – he brings to mind L.B. Jefferies, Jimmy Stewart's armchair sleuth character in the movie Rear Window.

"As a mathematician," Brenner demurs, "I don't get out much."

As was the case with Mr. Jefferies, this is true in only the most banally literal of ways. Brenner isn't just any mathematician. He's a forensic mathematician, a term Brenner coined to describe his specialty, which uses complex computer calculations to add meaning to the variance and similarities among disparate strands of DNA. This science involves calculating the statistical likelihood that one piece of code might be similar to another. A student of numbers theory, Brenner has fashioned himself into one of the leaders in this field, designing computer programs that calculate the nature of biological relationships between individuals based on information in the genome. In one recent project he invented a scheme for proving whether a person is white or black, European or Japanese, based on snippets of his genome.

Most biological material contains in its parasitic DNA a unique bar code, an infallible identification of the material's source.
"There are lots of parts of the genome which are polymorphic – that's to say they vary from person to person," Brenner says. "If you have a variant form of polymorphic loci that you share with another person, it could be that you are related, or it could be a coincidence. If you can compare several loci, and they are the same, you can rule out coincidence. With parents, you share half of these DNA. With half-siblings, you'll share a quarter."

In other words, Brenner uses genetic samples and mathematical probabilities to establish with a reasonable degree of certainty whether two people are related, and the closeness of their family relationship.

Brenner's knowledge has been called into play to identify the remains of people killed in an airline crash. His expertise once took him to Korea, where two brothers, heirs to an estate, wished to refute the claims of two older men who had stepped forward claiming to be their secret half-brothers. As it turned out, all four men were, indeed, family.

Fascinating, indeed. But for Brenner – and for dozens of attorneys, accountants, judges, private investigators, and genetic specialists – one case looms above the rest. It is the battle over the $600 million estate of Larry Hillblom. It is a tale that combined pedophilia, tropical island madams, battling law firms, high-stakes political deal-making, extortion, lost evidence, state-sanctioned conniving against Third World orphans, and millions and millions and millions of dollars. Best of all, it involved some cutting-edge DNA analysis.

If the unlimited-babes-'n'-bucks fantasy lifestyle depicted in magazines such as Maxim were to come to life in a real human being, that person might have been Larry Hillblom. He was Midas-like in his knack for accumulating wealth, and uniquely single-minded in his quest for young, young women.

Hillblom was a lawyer, briefly clerking for San Francisco's Melvin Belli. But not long after Hillblom graduated from Berkeley's Boalt Hall, he changed direction, launching the courier company DHL in 1969 on a shoestring. He founded the company initially to deliver shipping documents by air courier to ports of call days before cargo ships arrived, so that vessels could be unloaded quickly and be on their way. The company grew into an international air courier, and Hillblom was a millionaire by the time he turned 30. By his early 50s, Hillblom had amassed a fortune worth as much as a billion dollars. By the mid-1990s, DHL was the world's largest shipping company, with $5.7 billion in revenue and 60,000 employees. While not as famous in the U.S. as Federal Express, overseas DHL is so ubiquitous that its name is synonymous with next-day-air shipping in the same manner that the word "Coke" is used to mean "soft drink."
Anthony Pidgeon
Charles Brenner was called in when a sample of Hillblom's DNA could not be located.
In 1980, with DHL's success well established, Hillblom decided to turn to his next love: having unprotected sex with post-pubescent girls. At the time, he kept these proclivities private to most of the world. But after his death and the estate battle that followed, his sexual preferences and lifestyle became widely reported.

He moved from the Bay Area to Saipan, a tropical tax haven a thousand miles off the southeast coast of Japan. Hillblom made himself into a Micronesian kingpin, launching dozens of businesses and investing in land development projects in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Vietnam. He bought European castles and hotels, a Chinese jet, an airline called Continental Micronesia. He helped bail out giant Continental Airlines and made a bundle on the deal. He ran for political office. As a committed eccentric and one of Micronesia's richest men, he became a local celebrity.

His laid-back lifestyle was more befitting a sandal-wearing beach rat than an international tycoon. He was fond of fast food. He wore jeans and a T-shirt to high-level business meetings. He owned a mansion in Saipan, and residences in Manila, Hawaii, and Half Moon Bay. His hobbies included high-end stereo equipment, boats, airplanes, fancy cars, and a continuous stream of barely blossomed girls.

Contemporary photographs depict Hillblom as a pale, small-eyed man – not the sort of person who ordinarily enjoys serial romantic conquests with the young. But Hillblom had other qualities to his credit: money, and more significantly a network of madams who would fix him up with teenage bar girls and waitresses – some as young as 13. Typically, he slept with one of them for a few weeks, treating her as an ordinary person might treat a girlfriend. He would bestow gifts on her, take her to dinner, give her money, sometimes providing cash assistance to her poor family. Then, he would dump her for the next one.

Despite his peculiarities, Hillblom is remembered as a brilliant man. As such he might have recognized that his teen-sex hobby would put him at risk for disease. But Hillblom's tropical fantasy didn't include condoms. Supposedly he said they blunted his pleasure. So he instructed madams in Micronesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam to procure only girls who swore they had been chaste.

In 1993, Hillblom's plain appearance was further marred by a nasty airplane crash on a Pacific island near his Saipan home. Doctors at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco managed to put him back together reasonably well, removing a large mole from his face during convalescence. Grateful, Hillblom promised to include the hospital in his will. The mole was put in storage at Davies Medical Center, and Hillblom returned to Saipan. His brush with death didn't seem to produce any philosophical epiphanies. He continued hitting up his madams for new girls.

By examining genes from an octet of Pacific Asian dance-hall orphans, a team of Bay Area sleuths has solved the mystery of whether Hillblom was merely a misunderstood eccentric, or a deadbeat pedophile.
And, to some of his girlfriends' eventual benefit, he kept traveling in unstable light aircraft.

On May 21, 1995, Hillblom, his pilot, and a business partner took off for Saipan in Hillblom's twin-engine seaplane from nearby Pagan Island on a short-hop business trip, but bad weather turned them back. Soon after, dispatchers lost track of the plane, and the next morning a search was launched. Search crews found parts of the plane, and a day later the sodden bodies of Hillblom's companions. After a week the search was called off. Hillblom was given up for dead. The body was never found.

After the search crews finished, crews of attorneys from both sides of the Pacific went to work. As painstaking as Hillblom had been in many areas of his life, he had written a sloppy will. He had spent years having unprotected sex with young East Asian and Pacific Islander women, yet had failed to provide – either for, or against – any children he might have sired. California would have allowed him to write his unacknowledged children out of his will. As it was, anyone who could prove to be his child would be entitled to an inheritance.

Weeks after Hillblom's death, several young women emerged from Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Islands of Micronesia claiming that Hillblom had taken up with them briefly and left them with children. In modern times such claims are routinely proven or disproven using DNA fingerprinting techniques. But Hillblom disappeared without leaving a physical trace. Without such evidence, there was no way to conduct a traditional paternity test. Some of his sample DNA was needed.

"As it was, they were going to attempt to locate some biological samples that could be used as reference material for a paternity test," says Peter Barnett, a forensic investigator in Richmond, retained by attorneys for the claimed orphaned children.

If found, a piece of Hillblom DNA would provide irrefutable proof that the children's claims were valid, or not. Without such proof, it would be the word of a group of dance-hall orphans against the state of California, and several millions of dollars' worth of San Francisco white-shoe lawyers.

That elusive bit of reference material became the subject of a massive treasure hunt. If any biological material left by Hillblom were to surface – a piece of hair in the carpet of one of his homes, sweat on a sheet, the mole preserved in wax at UC San Francisco – it would provide definitive proof or refutation of the putative heirs' claims.

On the one side of this struggle stood Hillblom's relatives, three Hillblom associates involved in the management of Hillblom's estate's charitable foundation, the University of California, and the California Attorney General's Office. He had left $300,000 each to his two brothers and the rest to a charitable trust, much of which was to go to the UC system for medical research. The trust was to be managed by his brothers and the DHL associates.

On the other side were the children, their mothers, and scrappy Micronesian lawyer David Lujan.

Anthony Pidgeon
Edward Blake, a leading DNA expert, calls the Hillblom case "the mother of all paternity cases."
So the search was on for a piece – however small – of Larry Hillblom's genetic code. Attorneys hired a top-drawer private dick to scan the globe.

Peter Barnett, the Richmond forensic investigator assigned to the trail of the phantom DNA, recalls the episode with bemusement. "They were going to try to locate some biological samples that could be used as reference material for a paternity test," says Barnett, whose warm personal touch and vast trove of forensic knowledge give him the air of an intellectual everyman. "They contacted us to go out and try to locate some of it."

First, Barnett hopped the 14-hour flight to Saipan to comb Hillblom's mansion for signs of former life. For the primary home of a man reputed to have enjoyed a casual lifestyle, the house had an unusual feel to it, Barnett recalls.

"I went over to Saipan and spent a couple of days at his house," Barnett says. "When we were at his house, we noticed there was little evidence of a male occupant of a house. There were no toilet articles, no clothes. There was nothing we could hang our hat on at this point."

In 1980, with DHL's success well established, Hillblom decided to turn to his next love: having unprotected sex with post-pubescent girls.
As it so happened, somebody – no one was saying who – had completely scoured the Hillblom mansion. More than scoured, it had been sanitized, the orphans' lawyer alleged.

So Barnett went to Half Moon Bay, where Hillblom owned property. He spent an entire day traversing narrow dirt trails seeking a small cabin Hillblom used to visit when seeking solitude.

"There was nothing," Barnett says. "At least nothing you could use."

In a pre-emptive strike, Hillblom's former associates offered Lujan a multimillion- dollar settlement. Lujan refused.

The orphans' poker hand included a disembodied mole set in wax at the Davies Medical Center. That was where Hillblom had convalesced after his 1993 air crash, and where doctors had removed his blemish. Davies Medical Center is part of the UC system, which, as a benefactor in Hillblom's will, was among the children's adversaries.

Just the same, the hospital agreed to relinquish the telltale mole. Barnett recalls traversing a phalanx of lawyers at the hospital entrance.

"I went over to the hospital and picked up a sample they presented to me as belonging to Hillblom," Barnett says. "But it turned out that it wasn't actually from Hillblom. Everyone was running around trying to figure out what happened."

The implications were obvious: The hospital claiming the mix-up had a direct material interest in the absence of Hillblom's genetic material. Nonetheless, it was never proven that the hospital had lost the mole on purpose.

Lujan, the children's attorney, meanwhile, had been spending time talking up contacts around Saipan, tracking down a rumor that one of Hillblom's old girlfriends had been enlisted to sanitize the mansion.

According to a deposition obtained by Lujan, the girlfriend "had been instructed to clean the house and put his effects into plastic bags," Barnett recalls. "Someone came by with a backhoe and buried it in the back yard. Lujan went over to Saipan and began talking to backhoe operators."

Once learning the whereabouts of the Hillblom clothing trove, Lujan had the bags dug up again. Barnett, the forensic evidence expert, was once again summoned to comb through Hillblom's property.

"Whether those clothes had been laundered to be thrown away, I don't know," Barnett says. "But they were laundered."

Other genetic information Barnett obtained from Hillblom's properties was either too inconsequential, or from too uncertain a provenance to be of any use. So the claims of the Hillblom heirs remained just that, weakly based assertions resting on circumstantial evidence.

With no known sample of his DNA, the judges, attorneys, forensic experts, and geneticists seeking to resolve the riddle of Hillblom's private past seemed to have run out of cards to play. Hillblom's mother and brother – who possessed DNA similar to Larry Hillblom – refused to proffer blood samples.

So, for all the DNA evidence available to his offsprings' lawyers, Hillblom may as well not have lived in this world.

But Hillblom did live in this world. And scientific sleuths were able to prove that he lived exactly the way Pacific island legend said he did, leaving microscopic eddies of unique junk DNA in the genetic makeup of his children.

It occurred to experts in the claimed orphans' legal team that if they could show through DNA analysis that children scattered throughout the eastern Pacific shared a large number of genetic traits, they could be shown to share the same father.

"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," says Charles Brenner, who was hired to do the mathematical calculations determining the probability that the children were related.

The strategy was first suggested by Peter Neufeld, a New York attorney retained by one of Lujan's clients, 15-year-old Junior Hillbroom (his mother misspelled the name on the birth certificate, according to press reports).

"Once you develop the frequencies for the genes they have in common, and after you do the genetic profiling, you say that this coincidence can be explained one of two ways: a coincidence; or, because they had the same daddy," Neufeld says. "What we were able to do is show that it was a million times more likely that these kids would have the same genes if they had the same father, as opposed to by coincidence."

Data obtained from the DNA comparison of the orphans was shipped to Brenner, who ran it through a computer program of his own design. The result: Four impoverished eastern Pacific children – a boy named Lory, 4, of Vietnam; Jellian Cuartero, 5, and Mercedita Feliciano, 4, of the Philippines; and Junior Larry Hillbroom, of Guam, all seemed to have had, beyond any reasonable doubt, the same father.

Their mothers had already produced troves of evidence that Hillblom had indeed consorted with them.

It occurred to experts in the claimed orphans' legal team that if they could show through DNA analysis that children scattered throughout the eastern Pacific shared a large number of genetic traits, they could be shown to share the same father.
"The circumstantial evidence was lovely; that's what got them to the lawsuit in the first place," says Neufeld. "It was the scientific evidence that finally got them a settlement. They can say that until they were blue in the face, but if you can prove that it's 100,000 times more likely that he has those genes because he's the son of Larry Hillblom, that trumps everything else."

So on April 15 lawyers for the estate of Hillblom and lawyers for his four children will meet in a Saipanese courtroom to work out the final details of how the orphans will receive $50 million each as their rightful inheritance.

"Without a doubt, as far as paternity investigations are concerned, the Hillblom case is the mother of all paternity cases. The complexity, the cleverness of the approach, and the positive outcome make it so," says Ed Blake, a Richmond forensic geneticist. "The stakes are so high, the problem is sufficiently difficult, the solution is very clever, and it all works out."

In the end, a judge ordered Hillblom's brother and mother to either submit to genetic testing, or face financial penalties. The tests confirmed what Neufeld and Brenner's cross-referencing test had already shown – four of the eight claimants were Hillblom's children.

The flotsam and jetsam of the children's genetic codes allowed the truth to be told, and four impoverished children will recover their financial birthright.

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