Thursday, May 30, 2013
Court of Appeal Throws Out Will in ‘Hidden Body’ Case
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The strange case of a Berkeley man who apparently died four years before his decomposed body was found by police investigating his father’s suicide took a new legal turn yesterday when the First District Court of Appeal reversed an order admitting the son’s purported will to probate.
The document offered by father Hassan Ben-Ali’s attorney as the final will of son Taruk Ben-Ali failed two statutory tests for admission, Justice Sandra Margulies wrote. The petitioner, Oakland attorney Ivan Golde, failed to establish the genuineness of the signature of a subscribing witness, the justice said, and could not establish by clear and convincing evidence that Taruk Ben-Ali drafted the typewritten document with testamentary intent.
Hassan Ben-Ali, who was 60, shot and killed himself in December 2008 in front of police officers investigating a disturbance at an apartment complex on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley. The complex was owned by Taruk Ben-Ali, whose father had transferred title to him years earlier but continued to manage the building.
During the course of investigating the suicide, detectives got information that there was a body hidden in the apartment building. Two days after the elder Ben-Ali killed himself, the police discovered remains wrapped up and hidden behind a wall in the laundry room.
The remains were identified through dental records as those of 40-year-old Taruk Ben-Ali. Subsequent investigation suggested that the younger Ben-Ali had not been seen or heard from since the summer of 2004.
His widow, who prevailed in yesterday’s Court of Appeal ruling, said she was on a business trip when her husband disappeared. Upon returning, her father-in- law—whom she said had vigorously opposed the marriage—said his son had left town to start a new life without her.
Evidence subsequently revealed that Hassan Ben-Ali had forged his son’s signature on numerous documents related to the Ashby Ave. property following the disappearance.
The purported will was dated two weeks after the decedent and Wendy Wilburn—who has co-written a book about the case entitled “The Grave Wall”—married. It gave the decedent’s “wife,” unnamed in the document, his personal property but gave all other assets to his father.
Golde claimed that Hassan Ben-Ali met with him a month before he killed himself and told him that he had found his son dead of a drug overdose in a hotel room and hidden the body on the property for fear of losing the property. He also said that someone had assisted him in moving the body and was extorting him.
Margulies said the will was not properly witnessed, because one of the witnesses had an illegible signature and could not be identified. The presumption in favor of a properly attested will does not apply, the justice said, unless the signatures of the decedent and both witnesses can be established as genuine.
Nor, she said, could any reasonable factfinder consider the will a valid statement of testamentary intent, given the lack of evidence as to why a 34-year-old man would feel the need to write a will and the lack of any testimony regarding the circumstances as to how the will came to be drafted and on whose advice the various clauses were formulated.
The case is Estate of Ben-Ali, 13 S.O.S. 2719.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company