A Lawyer's Work: Dying Woman Signs Over Mansion

Family of woman who left mansion behind: 'Friends' at bedside were crooks.

November 2, 2009, 10:23 AM

Nov. 4, 2009 — -- It's a problem as old as old age, and one that touches almost all of us: How do you take care of your parent or grandparent and keep them safe?

Near the end of her 88 years, Mary Ellen Bendtsen, a fading celebrity whose landmark mansion had been a jewel of Dallas real estate, put her trust in two younger friends she called "the boys."

The men, Mark McCay and Justin Burgess, brought a fourth party to the relationship: their lawyer.

Attorney Edwin Olsen took Bendtsen on as a client. At the end of her life, he helped her grant power of attorney to McCay and Burgess and sign a will making them beneficiaries.

Her family says "the boys'" relationship with Bendtsen was all designed to get her share of the almost $1 million home. The men, meanwhile, say that they were simply honoring their dying friend's wishes.

Read Part 1 of "Mary Ellen's Mansion" HERE.

After Bendtsen's death, a grand jury would weigh in on the case, indicting Olsen, McCay and Burgess for attempted theft.

Central to the court case may be videos the trio made of an aged, ailing Bendtsen signing legal documents under Olsen's supervision.

Olsen insisted there was no conflict of interest. "My representation of Mr. McCay and Mr. Burgess was unrelated to Mary Ellen's representation," he told ABC, explaining that he represented McCay and Burgess in unrelated litigation matters.

But Olsen had few other clients. In a 2008 deposition, he admitted he had been fired from a series of law firms, and that he supported himself with help from his mother -- along with odd jobs at Barnes & Noble, the Container Store and Goody Goody Liquor.

'I Want That House, I Want That House'

In the lead-up to her last days, "the boys" took Bendtsen out of a rehab facility where she had been sent after a fall and moved her back into her big white elephant of a house on Dallas' tony Swiss Ave.

Then disaster struck.

In February 2005, Bendtsen suffered a massive stroke. She was taken to the emergency room, with McCay and Burgess right behind. Bendtsen's daughter, Frances Ann Giron, believes they were after the mansion.

Bendtsen had complained years earlier that McCay and Burgess were pressuring her to hand over her share of the house, according to Bendtsen's friend Jeff Martin. (Bendtsen owned the majority of the home; relatives owned the rest.) Martin said McCay made that clear to him in a phone call. "[McCay] repeated it over and over and over: 'I want that house, I want that house,'" said Martin.

The hitch, said Martin, was that Bendtsen had no intention of giving it to them. She had told Martin that she was leaving the home to her daughter, he said.

But now, Mark, Justin, and attorney Edwin Olsen are gathered around Mary Ellen in the emergency room. With them they have a new will -- and a video camera.

"Do you want Frances Ann to have any of your money?" Olsen asks in the video.

"No," Bendtsen replies.

"Do you want Frances Ann to have your house at Swiss Avenue?"

"No. I want it for myself."

To the very end, Bendtsen tried to hold on to her mansion. After more questioning, she says in the video that in the event she dies, she wants the house to go to "the boys." The camera then pans to McCay and Burgess, who are waiting at the foot of the bed. To Jeff Martin, they look like "two cats with someone running a can opener."

According to Olsen, the will signing was taped to "maximize transparency" and show that everything was "above board." In a later deposition, McCay denied having any idea he would get anything under the will.

Giron didn't know about the will, or even that her mother was in the hospital, until she got a call from a county worker. When Giron reached the hospital, her mother was already in a coma. Eight days after the will signing, on March 2, 2005, Bendtsen died.

Looking at the video of the will signing today, Giron calls it "predatory, vulture behavior."

ABC News tried to ask McCay and Burgess about Bendtsen's will. Burgess refused to talk to us, while McCay agreed to an interview, then changed his mind.

Edwin Olsen did sit down for an interview, and insisted there's nothing wrong with what appears in the video.

A Legal Storm

"I'm duty-bound to, as our President Obama said, help the poor, the weak, the less fortunate," said Olsen. "And that is what I did there."

But the state bar of Texas disagreed. After Bendtsen's death, Olsen was accused of professional misconduct in his dealings with her and forced to surrender his lawyer's license. He has appealed the ruling.

The case was just one of a series of legal actions launched after Bendtsen's death. A grand jury indicted Olsen, McCay and Burgess for the attempted theft of the house at Swiss Ave., alleging the trio knew the elderly woman was not competent when she signed the new will. The trial is set to begin in April 2010.

Giron, in turn, has sued McCay, Burgess and Olsen for the wrongful death of her mother. She alleges their actions hastened Bendtsen's death. In court filings they deny they were in any way responsible for Bendtsen's death.

Reporter Lee Hancock published a series of front page articles about Bendtsen called "The Battle for 4949 Swiss" in the Dallas Morning News. McCay, Burgess and Olsen have sued the reporter, the newspaper and Giron, among others.

But what about the house itself? In yet another lawsuit, a judge threw out the will naming McCay and Burgess as heirs, saying it had not been executed properly. The house now belongs to the people Bendtsen originally wanted to have it, her family. It's on the market for $849,000.

Giron told ABC she would not have wanted to keep the house. "It needs kids there," she said. "It needs fun, needs dogs and cats, and it needs somebody to love it.

"And hopefully Mom [will] see it, and she'll be pleased."

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