Heiress to Misfortune
02/07/1994 at 01:00 AM EST
AS SHE STOOD POUNDING ON THE door of her family's stalely Bronxville, N.Y., home at 3:30 a.m. on New Year's morning, a gut feeling told Annie Morell that something was terribly wrong. Just hours earlier, her mother, Anne Scripps Douglas, and her stepfather, Scott, had had another bitter blowup—this one at very-high volume—and Annie had immediately offered to cancel her evening plans. But her mother, the 47-year-old heiress to the Scripps newspaper fortune, wouldn't hear of it. "It's just one of his moods," she said of her second husband, a housepainler nine years her junior.
Now, locked out without her key, gelling no response to her incessant banging, Annie feared she had been too easily swayed. Neighbors, alarmed by the commotion, had called the police, and Annie now urged them to knock down the front door. Minutes later authorities were sprinting upstairs. Her stepfather was nowhere to be seen, but they soon found her mother, sprawled across the bed in Annie's room. She lay still, on her back, blood dripping from her brutally bludgeoned head. The family's new King Charles spaniel puppy snuggled on the warmth of her barely moving stomach.
It was an agonizing beginning to the New Year—and one that will haunt Annie, 21, forever. No one may ever be able to say exactly what happened that night. Anne died six days later without ever regaining consciousness. And Scott Douglas has vanished. His 1982 BMW was found just after midnight, abandoned and still idling, on the nearby Tappan Zee Bridge spanning the Hudson River. Did he jump to his death? A five-day search of the icy waters turned up nothing. But authorities—working on the assumption that he is still alive—have charged Douglas with murder. "This is a classic case of violence in the home reaching the highest level," says Westchester County district attorney Jeanine Ferris Pirro. "First he threatened his wife, then he beat her, then he killed her."
How Anne Scripps, the gentle-mannered great-great-granddaughter of James E. Scripps, founder of The Detroit News, ended up with Scott Douglas, a hot-tempered high school dropout from Rye, N.Y., is a mystery to many of those who were close to her. The eldest of three children of Capt. James E. Scripps III, a retired merchant marine skipper, and his wife, Anne, young Anne was raised in the affluent Albany suburb of Loudonville, N.Y., in a rarefied world of old-money privilege. Like many girls of her lime and social standing, she was groomed to be a wife, a mother and, above all, a lady. She attended elite all-girl Catholic schools, was formally introduced Lo society at debutante balls in New York City and Vienna, and in 1969 married Wall Street bond salesman Anthony X. Morell in a ceremony whose guests, local newspapers noted, included "many of social importance."
In 1971 Mrs. Anthony Morell moved with her husband to Bronxville, just north of New York City, and threw herself into married life. She walked her two girls, Alexandra and Annie, to school each day, gardened in the backyard, entertained and on Sundays attended church. "Anne enjoyed the simple life," says college roommate B.J. Maloney. "She was a homebody."
Her husband, however, was not. "Tony loved to party," says one longtime friend. After 19 years they divorced. Anne was left deeply hurt—and lonely. Less than a year later she met Scott Douglas at a Super Bowl party in Rye in 1989. The recent divorcee was taken with his good looks and his constant flattery. Tier friends and family were not. "He was not very bright and very inarticulate," says her daughter Alexandra, 23, an aspiring jewelry designer. "I had nothing in common with him."
Nine months later, Anne announced plans to marry Scott—much lo the dismay of her friends and family. "We tried to talk her into wailing," says one close friend. "But she was vulnerable, a bit scared after her divorce. How do you put restraints on a grown woman?"
No one could. The two were married in her home by a judge, and within a year the couple had a daughter, Victoria, now 3, upon whom both doted. Each day, Anne spent carefree hours entertaining her baby. "We'd sit in Annie's bedroom, and Mom would make up silly stories and do little songs and dances with Tory," says Alexandra. And Douglas eagerly-played Daddy. "He'd bring her these capsules that dropped into water and turned into sponge animals," says Alexandra. "She loved that."
It wasn't long, however, before Anne's daughters saw a change in their stepfather; before the wedding, they may have thought him crude, but on the surface, at least, he was kind to their mother. Now, however, he was quick to criticize: She spoiled her daughters, he snapped; she had snobby friends. "He got an attitude," says Alexandra. "He got very mean and controlling." Adds Annie: "After a while he didn't care who he argued in front of—even Tory."
Most often the source of conflict was money. Douglas, say his stepdaughters, wanted a joint bank account; Anne did not. He kept after her to buy him a new BMW; she refused. As their arguments grew more frequent, he began to spend nights in his apartment in Greenwich, Conn., which he used as an office for his painting business. He'd had the place for eight years, never letting on, neighbors say, that he was married. According to authorities, he befriended many of his female clients, leading them to believe he was single. And at night, in movie theaters or in diners, he was often seen with different women. "He used to party a lot," says his friend Tom Linsen-meyer, who manages a hardware store in Greenwich. "There was never any mention of his wife."
Back in Bronxville, Anne knew little of Scott's bachelorlike behavior—but knew more than she wanted to about his drinking. "He used to come home drunk," says Alexandra. And when he drank, she says, he became violent, throwing furniture across the room, smashing glasses against the wall, smashing Anne against the wall. Whether alcohol-induced or not, Douglas's temper was on all-too-frequent display. After one dinner party, recalls a friend of Anne's, he slammed Anne against the stone driveway wall in full view of guests. Later, at a wedding reception in Rye, he became incensed when Anne agreed to dance with her former brother-in-law. Says another friend: "Scott grabbed her arm and pulled her off the dance floor, calling her a slut."
Those in whom Anne confided repeatedly urged her to leave Douglas. Only once did she find the courage lo do so. In (he spring of 1991 she petitioned the family court in New Rochelle, N.Y., for an order of protection against her husband, stating in an affidavit that he had tried to push her out of a moving car. She packed her bags and moved with Tory into Alexandra's Bronxville apartment. But Douglas persuaded her to return home, swaying her, as usual, with promises that he would change. "He would straighten out for a little while and then go back to his old ways again," says Anne's mother, Anne Scripps, 72. Sometimes, though, he used threats. "Anne was terrified of Scott," says former sister-in-law Mary Jane Haggerty, "because he always said that if she tried to leave, he would take Tory-and disappear."
It was with that in mind that on Dec. 6 Anne petitioned the family court for another order of protection. She had discovered that Douglas had taken their personal papers—including Victoria's birth certificate and footprints—and, fearing a major blowup was looming, asked the court lo gel him out of the house. Judge Ingrid Braslow granted a temporary order prohibiting Douglas from harassing or assaulting Anne, or from taking away Victoria. But the judge did not evict him. A few weeks later, distraught and frightened, Anne appealed to the Westchester chapter of the National Coalition for Family-Justice for advice. "I told her if she didn't feel safe at home, there were shelters," says Deirdre Akerson, Westchester's executive vice-president. "She didn't seem to think it was necessary."
Just days later Anne was found, bludgeoned and dying. When her first husband, Tony Morell, heard that she had been attacked, he checked out of the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Pittsburgh, where doctors had diagnosed him with cirrhosis and given him no more than six months to live. He flew to her bedside—and broke down in tears. In an eerie twist of fate, his life was saved by his ex-wife's death; he received her liver in a transplant operation that was performed the day after Anne died.
Meanwhile, little Tory, who may or may not be an orphan, is in the care of her grief-stricken family. For the moment her big sisters are trying to ease her pain—and their own—by sharing bittersweet memories. "Every night Mom would pray with Tory and tell her about Baby Jesus and Mary and the angels," says Alexandra. "Tory thinks her mother is with the angels now." Where Tory's father is, she may never know.
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
BONNE BELL and LORNA GRISBY in Westchester County