In a drama worthy of a Hitchcock movie, the legal battle surrounding the estate of Anna Nicole Smith begins where all mysteries begin -- with the body.
Smith's estranged mother told a Florida courtroom Wednesday that she wants to take her daughter's body and exhume her grandson in the Bahamas and bring them both to Texas to be buried alongside each other.
The highly publicized trial is the first in a maze of legal twists and turns whose outcome even the best lawyers cannot predict.
"If I knew what was happening, I'd be betting on ponies at Aqueduct today," said Brian Wice, a criminal defense lawyer and legal analyst from Houston, Texas. "The fight over her estate will be as long and drawn out as it will be bloody. We've seen the first shot today. It makes the 'Soprano's' crew look like 'Mr. Rogers.'"
In the Florida proceedings, the judge is obligated to "simply dispose of the body," said Wice. "It's ghoulish ... she is a piece of property and this judge must determine who owns it. I hope when my time comes, whoever is called on takes in the notion of 'rest in peace.'"
As the medical examiner warned that Smith's body was decomposing faster than expected, Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin promised a compromise that "won't satisfy everybody" by the end of the week.
Smith died Feb. 8 at the age of 39. With her death still under investigation, her longtime companion Howard K. Stern is fighting for the former Playboy centerfold to be buried next to her 20-year-old son Daniel in the Bahamas, where he died from apparent drug-related causes last year.
Her mother, Virgie Arthur -- a former Texas police officer -- has other ideas.
Wednesday's courtroom drama splashed across even the staid New York Times, evoking caricatures with stories unto themselves. "They look like the rogues gallery from the 1800s," joked Wice of published pictures of the mom, the birth dad, the lawyer and the lover.
"Her dad looks like a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Evel Knievel," Wice said.
At the heart of this dysfunctional family's woes is a 5-month-old baby, Dannielynn Smith, who stands to inherit a fortune from her mother's death.
With a tangled web of characters, state jurisdictions, familial relationships and a baffling last will and testament, the baby will be headed for junior high school before she sees a penny, lawyers say.
The battle of Smith's body is being fought in the Florida courts because that's where she died. The outcome of that dispute decides whether the Broward County coroner will ship the body for burial to Texas or to allow Stern to bring it to the Bahamas. Because there was no express intention in Smith's will, it is up to the courts to determine her final resting place.
"The fact is, all the other litigation could drag on for years," said Jeff Baskies, a Florida probate lawyer. "The moral of the story is -- and I keep harping on this -- everyone needs to do estate planning. Those who don't cause havoc."
Smith was briefly married and gave birth to her son Daniel when she was a teenager. According to testimony by her mother, who hasn't seen her daughter since 1996, Arthur raised the boy while her daughter struggled to make ends meet as a topless dancer.
In 1994, at the age of 26, Smith married Texas oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II. Ever since his death a year later, Smith has fought his family over an estimated $500 million inheritance.