Millionaire’s will spurs legal clash philanthropist’s daughter, others fight lawyer

Apr - 04

Millionaire’s will spurs legal clash philanthropist’s daughter, others fight lawyer

Rex Bowman. Richmond Times – Dispatch. Richmond, Va.: Apr 4, 1999.
Copyright Richmond Newspapers, Incorporated Apr 4, 1999

When it came to spending money, Reid Jones Jr. was as cautious as a diamond cutter.
A one-time traveling salesman with a silver tongue and an iron will, Jones amassed a fortune.

Yet the wheezing millionaire, tethered to an oxygen machine by 100 feet of hose during the last months of his life, hoarded rubber bands and paper clips and scanned envelope corners for unmarked stamps, say those who knew him well. He lived in a small house of wood and cinder block. He amused himself by casting cracked corn on the floor to feed his pet guinea hen. He rinsed and reused plastic bags.

The 80-year-old’s skinflint personality had an opposite pole, however, one that transformed him from mere miser to beloved benefactor: Though he would haggle an hour to save a buck on a bale of hay, Jones gave away his money with a passion. The 4-H camp at Smith Mountain Lake, the Salvation Army, local kids who needed help paying for summer camp – all were beneficiaries of Jones’ generosity. His old heart pumped to a philanthropic beat.

“He was a very generous giver,” said John Rocovich, a Roanoke lawyer who is president of the Roanoke Rescue Mission, which has been pledged $750,000 of Jones’ money.

So important was the disbursement of his wealth that, before his death in 1996, Jones set up the Joco Foundation. Its mission: to find needy causes and send them big checks.

Since then, however, things have gone haywire.

The foundation and Jones’ mental competence now are at the center of a complex legal struggle.

The Virginia State Bar has accused Jones’ attorney, Dianne E. Wilcox, of Moneta, of mismanaging the Joco Foundation.

Jones’ daughter, meanwhile, is contesting her father’s final wishes. She alleges that Wilcox improperly seized control of the foundation and seduced her father into essentially disinheriting his grandchildren. The two grandchildren had been promised nearly $200,000 apiece, but each received only $100.

And a court-appointed Roanoke attorney recently filed suit demanding that Wilcox return more than $1 million to the Jones estate. The attorney also has used court documents to raise questions about the millionaire’s death.

Despite Jones’ intentions, his money has caused as much controversy as comfort.

“In all honesty, I would give my right arm and my left arm to have him back for five minutes,” said Debbie Catron, who helped manage Jones’ 700-acre farm. “If I could have him back for five minutes, he could straighten this whole mess out in two minutes, then he and I could sit and visit for three.”

Reid Jones was born in St. Louis on Jan. 18, 1916. His father lost all his money in the stock market when Jones was a boy. So at the age of 19, Jones set out for New York to make his own way in the world, according to his only daughter.

He talked himself into a job as a traveling salesman for a subsidiary of Union Carbide, followed his boss’s advice to give up chewing gum for cigarettes and soon took on the task of working territory in Virginia.

In 1948, he settled on Jefferson Street in Roanoke and married Margaret Garris, a 31-year-old secretary in her father’s firm. Jones eventually started his own company, Jones Safety Supplies, and in 1955 the couple adopted a baby girl, whom they named Margaret. Jones and his wife eventually divorced but not before raising their daughter to womanhood.

Today, Margaret Irvin, 44, recalls her relationship with her adoptive father as a long series of heated arguments and reconciliations.

“He hated every boyfriend I ever had,” she said.

And: “He was the kind of man who, if I was five minutes late, would ground me for five weeks.”

And: “I threw a butter knife at him once.”

Still, she said, they loved each other and mended their relationship after each fight. He sent her to Roanoke’s private North Cross School, made sure she traveled around the world and paid for her college education.

She earned a psychology degree at Mary Baldwin College and, at her father’s insistence, earned a master’s degree in business administration from Virginia Tech. He also helped her win appointments to the boards of directors of various community organizations.

“He was grooming me to take over for him,” she said.

But Irvin never got the chance. In his final will, recorded in 1996, Jones appointed Wilcox as executor of his estate. He also made Wilcox the perpetual president of the Joco Foundation, a job that pays nearly $100,000 a year, and trustee of the Joco Farms Trust Fund, the legal entity that controls his Bedford farm.

Altogether, the will gave Wilcox almost total control of an estate worth between $5.5 million and $7.4 million. The precise value has been disputed in court.

The will left Irvin slightly more than $200,000 – actually a debt her father owed her for some stock, according to Irvin – and $100 each for Irvin’s children, Martin and Dana, then 9 and 4.

Irvin, who said an earlier will had left her $600,000 and a salaried job as administrator of the foundation, didn’t discover her disinheritance until the first days of 1997, a week after her father’s death.

She learned of the new will after sitting down for wine and dinner with Wilcox at Mac and Maggie’s restaurant in Roanoke.

“She said, ‘I guess we need to talk about the will,'” Irvin recalled. “I said, ‘It’s no big deal, I already know what’s in the will.’ She said, ‘Oh, no, you don’t.'”

Weeks later, Irvin would file her first suit against Wilcox.

By the time Jones met Wilcox, around 1981, he was financially secure. His years of working the phones nonstop and keeping a close eye on his stocks had paid off.

He asked Wilcox to help handle his finances.

A recent graduate of the College of William and Mary’s law school who also held a master’s degree in taxation, Wilcox had landed a job at a prominent Roanoke law firm. Savvy and articulate, she eventually made partner in the firm. And from her downtown office, she managed Jones’ tax filings.

One of her first chores was to help him sell Jones Safety Supplies to the W.W. Grainger Co., a transaction that catapulted Jones into the ranks of multimillionaires.

According to Bedford court records, Wilcox also helped Jones write and rewrite numerous wills and make countless changes, or codicils.

“He liked to change his will all the time. He liked to add codicils all the time. I can’t tell you how many wills I’ve done for him,” Wilcox testified in Bedford Circuit Court on March 2, 1998.

The testimony came in a suit Irvin filed on behalf of her two children.

On May 29, 1996, Jones executed what would be his final will and testament. His eyesight was failing, so he made a tape recording of his wishes.

The next day, Irvin drove him to a Roanoke hospital for eye surgery. The same day, Wilcox’s husband, Howard, died in a car crash after leaving the restaurant he owned, The Landing at Smith Mountain Lake.

According to Wilcox’s testimony, Jones heard the news of the deadly crash while he was at the hospital and began crying. Wilcox testified that Jones later told her that Irvin “slapped him and said, ‘You son of a bitch, you’ve never cried for me; how can you cry for Howard Wilcox?'”

After the funeral, Jones and his daughter had another terrible argument, and Irvin said she wanted to annul the adoption, Wilcox testified, recounting Jones’ version of events.

Within weeks of the fight, Jones had executed several codicils amending his will, dropping his $600,000 bequest to Irvin, reducing her children’s inheritance from $199,000 to $100 apiece and removing Irvin from her position as co-executor. The final document named Wilcox sole executor of Jones’ estate and president of the foundation.

“We had a very special relationship,” Wilcox testified.

Indeed, Jones was so fond of Wilcox that he sold her his large, custom-built cedar home on his Moneta farm for $219,000 so she could be closer to him, Wilcox testified during the March 1998 hearing. He moved into a small house nearby, a short walk down the hill.

And, according to Wilcox, after failing to talk her into unloading her husband’s money-losing restaurant, Jones sank $50,000 into the venture to become her partner.

On Dec. 26, 1996, Jones tore up the note on the house, Wilcox testified, relieving her of about $210,000 of debt. She said her son witnessed the gift.

Two days later, in a Roanoke hospital bed, Jones made a final change to his will, transferring $300,000 to the trust that Wilcox controlled.

Within hours, Jones was dead. In court records, Wilcox said he died in her arms. The sequence of events, the transfer of more than $500,000 to Wilcox followed so closely by Jones’ death, would later catch the eye of Robert Bersch, a Roanoke lawyer.

Irvin settled her lawsuit against Wilcox in early 1997, agreeing to accept $750,000 to stop contesting the will.

But later that year, Wilcox’s secretary came to Irvin with documents that she said suggested Wilcox was siphoning money from the estate. Irvin paid her $500 for her trouble. The secretary brought more documents, and Irvin paid her several thousand dollars more, Irvin testified during the March 1998 hearing.

On Jan. 9, 1998, using the documents handed over by Wilcox’s secretary, Irvin again filed suit against Wilcox, this time on behalf of her two children.

The suit, filed by Roanoke attorney Jonathan Rogers, alleged that Jones was mentally incapacitated by emphysema, diabetes and other illnesses and did not know what he was doing when he turned over control of his estate to Wilcox. The suit also alleged that Wilcox did everything she could to turn Jones against his daughter and used sexual favors and undue influence to control Jones.

The suit further stated that Wilcox was unable to change Jones’ will in 1996 because she was disabled mentally after her husband’s death and was under the care of a licensed counselor.

The Virginia State Bar also jumped into the legal fray, urging that Wilcox be removed from control of the foundation and trust because she had used Jones’ money to write checks to herself, to pay off her credit cards and to pay her boyfriend, William Killinger, who she would later marry, for construction work on Jones’ farm.

The bar also questioned whether Jones really tore up the $210,000 note. And it questioned whether that was a legal transaction even if Jones had done so, given that Wilcox was supposed to be looking out for the interests of Jones’ estate and not herself.

In the series of March 1998 court hearings, Wilcox denied any wrongdoing. She said, however, that she had made a big mistake.

Forgetting that the ever-frugal Jones had limited her commission for handling his estate to 2 percent, Wilcox said she had erroneously paid herself money thinking she had a 5 percent commission coming. Of the $400,000 in estate money she had spent in the months after Jones’ death, she agreed to repay $175,000.

Her explanation did not stop there. She said she wrote a series of checks to herself, to Killinger and to his company, K&W Building Contractor Inc., in which she also is listed as an officer, in part because she wanted someone to think she was doing something wrong.

Someone had broken into her house three times, Wilcox told the court, gone through her files and rearranged items in her medicine cabinet. People were listening closely to her conversations in restaurants, she testified, and she twice had seen someone rummaging through her mail.

The checks to herself were to pay her commission, and all the checks to Killinger and K&W were legitimate payments for work on the estate – a new gate for the cemetery, for instance, and the purchase of cattle for the farm – but she had left the checks out in the open in her house in an effort to determine who was snooping around, she testified.

She said she suspected someone was taking information to Irvin, and she was using the checks as bait to catch the person.

Wilcox testified she went so far as to write a bogus check to herself for $500,000, thinking that whoever was spying on her would think he or she had hit the jackpot.

In three days of testimony, Wilcox said she had done nothing improper but had done her best to carry out Jones’ wishes to keep the farm and foundation running.

Meanwhile, Catron, who helps manage the farm, gave testimony indicating that Jones indeed wanted his daughter to have nothing to do with his estate or foundation. Catron testified she was present in the hospital when Irvin slapped her father, and she said the two were definitely estranged.

Rogers, Irvin’s attorney, and Edward Davis, attorney for the state bar, argued to remove Wilcox from her positions. Wilcox had written the fake $500,000 check as part of a sting operation only after discovering that others were aware of her improper payments, they told Circuit Judge William Sweeney.

Furthermore, she had paid Killinger tens of thousands of dollars even before he began any construction work, and Killinger was not licensed to do any work costing more than $7,500, they asserted.

Rogers produced no evidence to indicate Wilcox had used sexual favors to persuade Jones to cut his daughter out of his will.

Ultimately, Sweeney said he found gross carelessness and neglect by Wilcox, and he said her overpayments to herself for commissions “bordered on bizarre behavior.” He removed her as executor of the estate but kept her in charge of the foundation and trust.

The matter did not end there.

Sweeney appointed Bersch as a receiver to take over the estate, and Bersch promptly hired a forensic accountant, Kenneth King Jr., to scour Wilcox’s books.

In February, Bersch filed suit against Wilcox, asking a Bedford court to force her to return roughly $1.09 million to the estate.

Bersch asserts that Wilcox took advantage of a dying man to enrich herself. His accusations against Wilcox are far more detailed than those made by the state bar.

In a 42-page legal complaint, Bersch argues that Wilcox should return $212,000 for the note that Jones allegedly tore up, which she never has produced; $39,622 for the gift tax the estate had to pay for the torn-up note; $330,341 in commissions and payments to Wilcox’s credit cards and to Killinger; $20,000 paid to Killinger on July 24, 1997; $101,653 paid to K&W; $188,802 in money the Jones estate sank into the failing restaurant; $12,500 for a truck the farm trust sold to Killinger; and $163,096 for farm expenditures not related to the estate.

Bersch also argues that Wilcox should be kept from benefiting further from Jones’ estate until she produces evidence that Jones “expired in a natural manner.”

Citing medical records obtained from Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital, Bersch’s suit states that a nurse treated Jones at 6 p.m. Dec. 28, 1996, in his hospital room. Between 6 and 6:30 p.m., according to the suit, Wilcox was in Jones’ room.

Earlier, Wilcox had Jones sign a final codicil to his will transferring $300,000 to the farm trust under her control. At 6:30 p.m., a respiratory therapist found Jones to be without vital signs. He was pronounced dead at 6:50 p.m.

In her statement, Wilcox said she tried to help him, but Jones died in her arms. But, according to Bersch, the medical records do not square with Wilcox’s account of Jones’ final hour.

The records make no mention that “Reid Jones was in her arms, or that she was present when he was pronounced dead,” Bersch’s suit states.

In a brief telephone interview last week, Wilcox responded this way to Bersch’s insinuation that she might have played a role in Jones’ death: “The allegation is a total lie.” She then referred all questions to her attorney, Kendall Clay, of Radford.

“Outrageous,” Clay said of the allegation. “It’s not supported by any facts, and the cause of his death is not an issue and is not relevant.”

No court date has been set to hear Bersch’s suit.

In the meantime, Wilcox has moved to push Catron off the farm.

Catron says Jones signed papers giving her and her husband 10 percent of the farmhouse every year they live there, so that after the 10th year they will own the house. But the papers don’t require Wilcox to let them live there, and at her request a Bedford judge has ordered them off.

The Catrons have appealed the ruling and so far remain on the property.

The state bar also has refused to halt its pursuit of Wilcox. The bar, which has the authority to reprimand Wilcox or suspend or revoke her law license, has opened an investigation into her management of the Jones estate, according to several people who said they were interviewed by the bar’s investigator. The bar refuses to confirm or deny investigations.

Catron told The Times-Dispatch that she told the investigator she lied when she testified she saw Irvin slap her father.

Wilcox, she said, put her up to it. “She said, ‘You’ve got to play on our team.’ She said, ‘Do you remember that time that Margie {Irvin} slapped Reid {Jones}? Trust me, think about this and you’ll remember.’ Several times after that, she conveyed to me that I need to remember.”

Catron said she knows she could be tried for perjury.

“This whole situation has been based on so many lies that the truth has got to come out.”

Clay, though, said the truth will show that all the accusations against Wilcox are false: She was only doing her job: managing the estate of an elderly man estranged from his daughter beyond reconciliation.

“I’m confident, once everybody sees what I’ve seen regarding this case, that she will be exonerated,” he said. “I’m absolutely confident.”

Key figures

Reid Jones Jr., a Bedford County millionaire and philanthropist. Jones’ death in late 1996 touched off a series of lawsuits over his will and estate.

Dianne E. Wilcox, of Moneta, Jones’ former attorney. Wilcox was removed from her position as executor of Jones’ estate but maintains control of the Joco Foundation and the Joco Farms Trust.

Margaret Irvin, of Roanoke, Jones’ adopted daughter. Irvin accepted $750,000 and agreed to stop contesting her father’s will but is now challenging the will on behalf of her two children.

Martin and Dana Irvin, both of Roanoke, Margaret Irvin’s children. The two were promised $199,000 each in Jones’ previous wills, but the final will, executed in 1996, gave them only $100 apiece.

Debbie Catron, of Moneta. Catron and her husband, Buck, have helped manage Jones’ 700-acre farm since 1995. She testified on Wilcox’s behalf in 1998, but now says she lied under oath.

William Sweeney, circuit judge in Bedford County. Sweeney heard the lawsuits filed by the Virginia State Bar to strip Wilcox of control of the Joco Foundation and Farms Trust and the suit filed by Irvin to remove Wilcox as estate executor. Sweeney removed Wilcox as executor but kept her at the head of the foundation and trust.

Jonathan Rogers, Roanoke attorney. Rogers represents Irvin in her lawsuit, on behalf of her children, to contest her father’s final will.

Kendall Clay, Radford attorney. Clay represents Wilcox in the lawsuit filed against her by Robert Bersch.

Robert Bersch, Roanoke attorney appointed by Sweeney to administer Jones’ estate after Wilcox’s removal. Bersch has filed suit against Wilcox, seeking to force her to return $1.09 million to the Jones estate.


  • 1990: Reid Jones Jr. executes a will leaving $600,000 to his only daughter, Margaret Irvin, and $199,000 to his grandson, Martin Irvin.
  • 1993: Jones executes a new will to include $199,000 for his granddaughter, Dana Irvin.
  • May 29, 1996: Jones executes another new will, reducing his daughter’s inheritance to $210,000 and reducing his grandchildrens’ inheritance to $100 apiece.
  • June 11, 1996: Jones amends his will to remove his daughter as co- executor of his estate and trustee of the Joco Farms Trust. The amendment leaves attorney Dianne E. Wilcox as sole executor and trustee of all trusts.
  • Dec. 28, 1996: Jones makes a final change to his will, transferring $300,000 to Joco Farms Trust. He dies within hours.
  • January 1997: Irvin first learns of her father’s 1996 will and files suit to contest it. She settles the suit for $750,000.
  • January 1998: Irvin files suit on behalf of her children against Wilcox, seeking to overturn Jones’ will and remove Wilcox as executor of Jones’ estate.
  • February 1998: The Virginia State Bar files suit, seeking to remove Wilcox as head of Joco Foundation and as trustee of Joco Farms Trust.
  • May 1998: Bedford Circuit Judge William Sweeney removes Wilcox as executor of Jones’ estate but lets her stay as head of the foundation and trust. Sweeney appoints Robert Bersch, of Roanoke, to administer the estate.
  • February 1999: Bersch files suit against Wilcox, seeking the return of $1.09 million to Jones’ estate