Rosa Parks Estate Looted by Attorneys and Judge, Lawyer Alleges

The civil rights icon left behind more than 8,000 pieces of memorabilia.

ByABC News
May 18, 2012, 10:41 AM

May 18, 2012 — -- A Michigan attorney is alleging that a judge and two lawyers have executed a plan to "raid and bankrupt" the estate of civil rights icon Rosa Parks by draining it of more than half-a-million dollars and holding hostage a treasure trove of memorabilia.

Steven Cohen claimed in court papers filed this week that Wayne County Probate Judge Freddie G. Burton, Jr. and attorneys John Chase, Jr. and Melvin Jefferson, Jr. conspired to drain the estate of more than $500,000 through unnecessary legal fees that have left it "deeply in the red."

At the center of the dispute are more than 8,000 pieces of civil rights memorabilia belonging to Parks including personal letters, photos, papers, books, awards and clothing. The collection is valued at up to $10 million and has been sitting for months in auction limbo in a warehouse belonging to Guernsey's Auctioneers and Brokers of New York.

The collection is supposed to be sold as one lot to a museum or institute that can display all of the items together.

Cohen represents the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, which is "dedicated to the motivation of youth to reach their highest potential in an environment of peace," according to the filing.

Parks became an icon of the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, an act that earned her the title "Mother of the modern Civil Rights movement."

Before Parks died in 2005, she left almost all of her estate to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute and nominated institute co-founder and longtime friend Elaine Steele to be the trustee along with former judge Adam Shakoor.

Cohen wrote that Judge Burton replaced Steele and Shakoor with "long-time probate cronies" Chase and Jefferson after Parks died.

"This was the beginning of a broad conspiracy among Judge Burton, Chase and Jefferson (the 'Conspirators') to deplete the estate of its assets and unjustly and unlawfully direct these and other assets to the possession, control and ownership of Chase and Jefferson," Cohen wrote in the filing.

Cohen said that Chase and Jefferson charged the estate $595,000 in fees using "double, triple and quadruple billing practices to falsely inflate the administrative and attorney fees."

"It was nothing more than a concerted plan to raid and bankrupt the estate of a revered civil rights icon for improper and selfish financial interests," he wrote.

Alan May, the attorney for Chase and Jefferson, vehemently denies all of the claims.

"The statement that my clients Chase and Jefferson took $500,000 is nothing but a bald-faced lie," May told

In a separate filing, Cohen asked that Burton be removed from the case for allegedly conspiring with Chase and Jefferson.

"In a pattern that would repeat itself numerous times, Judge Burton granted the fees in full without hearing evidence or conducting a trial in gross violation of the Institute and Steele's constitutional rights," Cohen wrote. "Judge Burton makes up the rules as he goes along, without reference to laws or the wishes of the deceased person, to suit his interests and those of his cronies."

May said he and his clients will "absolutely" be fighting back against the Cohen's claims.

"Over the past five years, neither I nor my clients have ever spoken with Judge Burton privately so there cannot be any conspiracy. Those rulings were thorough and proper," May said. "These are scurrilous allegations that are just not true. And attacking the bench? I've never seen that before."