A New York lawyer owes a Mexican-American family decades’ worth of profits on oil pumped from below Padre Island, a Cameron County jury decided today.
The all-Latino jury announced their verdict after four days of deliberations.
Jurors also found that Gilbert Kerlin, 90, committed fraud, was guilty of malice and conspired against the Balli family.
The jury must now decide how much money Kerlin should pay the Balli family. The Ballis asked for $11 million in oil royalties, interest and lawyers’ fees.
After the verdict was read, Balli family members gathered in tearful celebration.
“I’m so happy. This is going to open the doors,” said Pearl Balli. “This is not an isolated case. This happened to a lot of people.”
Kerlin was fresh out of Harvard Law School in 1938, when he bought the titles to Padre Island from the Balli heirs. All 27 of the titles traced back to Padre Nicolas Balli, a Mexican priest who owned the island in the 18th century. Kerlin won’t say how much he paid for each title.
When he bought the island, Kerlin agreed to split any oil profits with the heirs.
But Kerlin never paid; he said the Ballis had sold Padre Island in the 19th century, and claimed he had bought the island from the wrong people.
Kerlin did not appear in court today.
A gag order bans Kerlin and his lawyers from saying whether he will appeal.
‘Open Wound for Generations’
The historic court opinion lends credence to the generations-old Balli complaint: Anglo settlers unfairly stripped away land and social status from the storied, powerful border dynasty.
“We have a right to find closure,” said Rebecca Gomez Sexton, whose grandfather sold his stake in Padre Island to Kerlin more than 60 years ago. “This has been an open wound for generations.”
Armando C. Alonzo, associate professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of Tejano Legacy: Rancheros and Settlers in South Texas; said before the verdict was announced that a decision in the Ballis’ favor would be “revolutionary.”
“It says the community believes an injustice was committed and it’s time to correct it,” he said. “It serves as a model — it sets a precedent for other Hispanics in other parts of the Southwest to look seriously into the possibility of obtaining equity in the courts.”