September 12, 2002
$5 Million Tug of War
Israel and recluse's relatives battle in court over fortune willed by immigrant.
The question in Orange County Superior Court is: Did the Israeli government con Simon Lechtuz, an apparently penniless recluse, out of $5 million by reneging on a deal to bury him in the Jewish State, or are relatives of the lifelong bachelor trying to divvy up the unexpected fortune of a man they reportedly ignored while he was alive?
There is agreement on some basic points. Lechtuz was born in 1912 in Warsaw, Poland, emigrated to Palestine in 1924 and served in the British army during World War II.
Lechtuz came to California in 1950, settled in San Pedro and made a living bartering and trading leftover flour sacks and steel drums. About 15 years ago, he moved to the Leisure World retirement community in Laguna Hills, where to his neighbors he appeared destitute, disheveled and eccentric, frequently rummaging through trash containers.
In court papers, Leisure World resident Jonel Konstantin said of Lechtuz: "I felt sorry for him. People avoided him because of his dirty appearance, his difficult foreign accent, his lack of personal hygiene and his odd, even weird, behavior. He looked like he didn't have a dime, and he would wear the same clothes day after day."
On Oct. 9, 2000, Lechtuz was found slumped over a garbage can in front of a supermarket. He died three weeks later at the age of 88. Orange County officials, unable to locate any next of kin, arranged to have him buried in a local, secular cemetery.
Nobody suspected that Lechtuz had invested the profits from his secondhand bartering and peddling in real estate and municipal bonds, amassing a fortune of $5 million. Nobody, that is, but the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, which Lechtuz contacted in 1994 to discuss a bequest.
In his will's final version, he would leave roughly $1 million each to the Israeli army, navy and air force, as well as to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Hadassah Medical Organization. In return, Lechtuz asked that after his death, his body be flown to Israel for a military, or at least Jewish, burial.
For the next four years, negotiations continued between Lechtuz and lawyers Susan Greenberg and Marc Stern, representing the Israeli government, according to court documents filed by relatives contesting the bequest to Israel.
According to a will drafted in 1997, Lechtuz stated, "It is my wish that I [be] buried in a military cemetery in the State of Israel. If, however, only active members of the military can be buried in such a cemetery (as I have been advised is the current policy), then I wish to be buried (or 'must be buried' according to another version) in accordance with Jewish law in a cemetery in Haifa, Israel."
Lechtuz's numerous nieces and nephews in Haifa and Los Angeles were unaware of his death until informed by lawyers for the Israeli government while adjudicating the will. When the relatives learned that he had been buried in Orange County, they raised $15,000 to have his body exhumed and re-buried in a Haifa cemetery, according to their attorney, Dan Maccabee.
In the current lawsuit, Maccabee says that Israel spent $5,000 to process Lechtuz's will and trust, but then reneged on its promise to bury the recluse in Haifa. He also maintains that six months after signing the will benefiting Israel, Lechtuz contacted his own lawyer and drew up a different will leaving his estate to his nieces and nephews. However, before the will reached Lechtuz for his signature, he collapsed and subsequently died, Maccabee said.
Attorney Michael Greene, now representing the Israeli government, said that his client accepted the bequest without strings, and never formally promised to bury Lechtuz in Haifa. He also countered a charge by Yoseffa Teitel of Woodland Hills, a niece of Lechtuz, that the Israeli government hounded Lechtuz to sign the will, while his mental and physical condition was deteriorating.
On the contrary, "Mr. Lechtuz was a strongly independent guy," Greene said. "He knew what he wanted" and purposely cut his relations out of his will. Greene also protested that the dispute should properly be settled in court, rather than in the press.
The case is being heard by Superior Court Judge James P. Gray in Santa Ana and is expected to last three weeks.