San Antonio Poseur
Driving them may have been his passion, but it was a lust for Ferraris that drove Spillman, 55, to a career of crime—and prison. According to prosecutors, Spillman, a retired probate-court supervisor who never earned more than $33,000 a year, audaciously looted the estates of 122 deceased residents of San Antonio's Bexar County, pocketing $4.9 million in cash and acquiring hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of antiques over 15 years. With his plunder he bought a $450,000 mansion and filled his new garage with Ferraris—he paid $300,000 in cash for one of them, a 1991 F-40, and had six in all. On June 4 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. "It was an original crime," says Bexar County First Assistant District Attorney Michael Bernard. "I have never heard of anyone else who has been caught for this."
Spillman used his knowledge of the byzantine procedures of probate court—where wills and estates are settled when no next of kin can be immediately found—to gain access to the holdings of the recently deceased. In some cases, prosecutors say, he doctored wills and named himself executor; in others he sold or rented homes, collecting the proceeds. In 1997 Spillman siphoned $150,000 from the estate of Julia Willman while neglecting to notify her heirs of her death. "We were denied the right to prepare or even attend her funeral," says Willman's niece Flo Kolodzieg, 74, who plans to have her aunt disinterred and reburied in a family plot. In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE before he was imprisoned, Spillman said that he felt remorse but pointed out that he used some of the stolen money to help bury others who were indigent. "Some of these people had been dead in their homes for weeks," he says. "Rats ate them. I gave them a proper burial."
Raised in San Antonio by a retail executive and a housewife, Spillman became entranced by Ferraris after seeing Tom Selleck's zippy red ride in Magnum P.I. "Mel would say, 'One day I'm going to own one of these,' " remembers his sister Debra, 52. Before he could afford to buy one, Spillman liked to visit a Ferrari showroom. Says his niece Dixie Dalton, 28: "We used to go down at night and look at the cars through the glass."
Spillman's first job at the Bexar County Courthouse was as a recording clerk in the probate office. By 1980 he was a supervisor and later became a probate consultant. In 1984 he bought his first Ferrari for $27,000. "It got so much attention, I was embarrassed to take it out," he says. "You realize just how special it is when people see it."
Two years later, police say, he began administering estates without authorization. Over the years he added more Ferraris, most of which he kept in the immense garage of his new 3,600-sq.-ft. mansion. Coworkers took Spillman at his word when he said he had inherited money from his father, who died in 1986. "He would always loan people money," says former colleague Terry Koenig, 51. "He was perceived as kind-hearted."
Twice married and divorced, Spillman kept up his scam even after retiring in 1999 by answering calls from medical examiners and processing estates as a freelancer. "He ran his own private, illegal probate court," says Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed. "He was the clerk, judge and administrator." Then in June 2001 the probate court received a funeral-home bill that Spillman had neglected to pay. After finding no paperwork on the case, the court notified the D.A.'s office. A monthlong sting operation snared Spillman in a bank with forged documents and fake ID. "He started off thinking there weren't going to be any victims," says his attorney Alan Brown, adding, "The system is flawed and set up for what he did."
The D.A.'s office has already sold off his cars for $500,000 and plans to reimburse as many relatives as it can. Some, like Edward Karr, have no chance of making up what they have lost. Never notified by Spillman of his brother-in-law Ed Melchior's death, Karr had no idea that Spillman swiped $1.1 million from Melchior's estate, much of which had been earmarked for charity. Nor did he realize that his brother-in-law, a faithful Catholic, had been cremated and not buried. "That," says Karr, "is not our way."
Spillman avoided trial by pleading guilty to forgery, impersonating a public servant and tampering with government records. "I was stupid and did some greedy things," he tearfully admitted at his June 4 sentencing. Still, he feels his conduct was not entirely deplorable. "This thing snowballed," he says. "But deep down I thought I was doing more good than bad."
Bob Stewart in San Antonio
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