Blood, Secrets and Money

updated 01/10/2005 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/2005 01:00AM

As she lay dying, 93-year-old Mary Rowland called for her grandson, Dr. Ray Fernandez, to come closer to her bed. Looking into his eyes, she said in a faraway voice, "You look just like your grandfather—John Kenedy." The words mystified Fernandez, whose maternal grandfather, as far as he knew, was a ranch worker named Desiderio Peña. He figured the comment was a symptom of an old woman's illness and confusion; John Kennedy Jr., after all, had not long ago died in a plane crash. "It didn't make much sense to me," says Fernandez, 45, the medical examiner for Nueces County in south Texas. He was inclined to forget the whole thing.

But now, after many shakes of a family's tree, a court has ordered the exhumation of a man dead 56 years, and Fernandez finds himself fighting to prove if he and his elderly mother are heirs to one of the most storied fortunes in Texas history: the Kenedy ranch empire, whose holdings are estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion. "Almost every piece of land in that part of the country could be affected by this case," says Texas historian and author Hugh Aynesworth. "It's just amazing."

At issue is whether Fernandez's mother, Ann, was the out-of-wedlock child of Mary Rowland and Johnny Kenedy, the hard-drinking playboy scion of the powerful family. But for officials of the Kenedy estates' beneficiaries, who have fended off dozens of challenges over the years from people eager' to claim a share of the fortune, this latest skirmish is really a matter of greed. "It's all about the money," says Jorge Rangel, a lawyer for a family foundation. "It makes no legal sense and no common sense to exhume a body in conjunction with a will that was legally executed and resolved many years ago."

The saga begins in the mid-19th century, when Mifflin Kenedy began amassing the family fortune by running steamboats up the Rio Grande. "They made a ton of money and had a monopoly," says Don Graham, who has written a history of the era. Kenedy and his partner Richard King went on to become the state's first great cattle barons, with Kenedy buying up 400,000 acres of land south of Corpus Christi. Kenedy left his entire fortune to his son John G. Kenedy Sr., who in turn had two children: Sarita, who died childless in 1961, and Johnny Kenedy, a ne'er-do-well womanizer and boozer who married but never had children with his wife. In a book historian Aynesworth wrote on the family, he tells of the time Johnny read a story on Mormonism and—confusing polygamy with promiscuity—promptly set off for Salt Lake City in search of female companionship. "Johnny was the original playboy," says Aynesworth.

Growing up in Corpus Christi, Fernandez had no idea that his grandmother Mary, who was part Hispanic, had worked as a teenage maid at La Parra, the Kenedys' 1,000-acre ranch. While employed there in 1925, she quietly went off and gave birth to Ann, eventually Fernandez's mother, who is now 79 and who Fernandez says never gave any indication of suspecting that Johnny was her father. Two years after giving birth, Mary married Desiderio Peña, who raised Ann as his own.

In the months after his grandmother made her deathbed remark, Fernandez thought nothing more of it. Then, while routinely gathering up family documents, he received his mother's baptismal certificate from a church in Waco, and found that the father's name was left blank. "That was the fuel for the fire," he says. "It was a blank I wanted to fill in." He and his wife, Marie, started to do a little digging. He found the 1948 obituary for Kenedy, who had died at age 62. The resemblance between Kenedy and Fernandez—the same wide face—was intriguing. "We always joked about how tall and light-complexioned Ray is," says Marie, who has a 12-year-old son with Fernandez. "It was a joke, but then we saw that picture."

Of course mere resemblance proves nothing. But in 2001 Ray located two relatives of his grandmother's who gave sworn depositions stating that they knew that Johnny Kenedy had gotten Mary pregnant and that the liaison had been covered up by both families to avoid scandal. A year later Fernandez was able to track down a 90-year-old grand-nephew of Mifflin Kenedy's who provided a DNA sample. A test of the sample showed that Ann Fernandez was likely a Kenedy relative, but it was not conclusive. "Every time we get another piece of the puzzle it makes us want to get another piece," says Fernandez.

For the most part the overseers of the Kenedy estate offered Fernandez little help when he approached them for cooperation with his initial research. But in 2002 he filed a court request to have Johnny's body exhumed so that a definitive test could be performed. Lawyers for the estates reacted with furious indignation. Among other things, claims the Kenedy camp, Johnny was sterile as a result of a childhood case of the mumps, making it impossible for him to have fathered a child. "Dr. Fernandez has produced a very interesting western romance novel," says Rev. Francis Kelly Nemeck, the director of the monastery that is now located on the Kenedy family estate, "and he's passing that off as fact or history." But in June an Austin judge disagreed, ordering that Johnny's body, which is buried on the family land, be dug up. (The Kenedy family appealed, with the Texas Supreme Court scheduled to review the case in January.)

Fernandez insists that he is not just after money, and he says he has not even explored how much his mother might be in line for. While he acknowledges that he could use some of the fortune to pay for the care of his mom, who suffers from dementia, he is more interested in having a say in how the funds are distributed. He would like to see more aid, for instance, go to the poor in local Hispanic communities instead of just the Kenedys' primary beneficiaries, the local Catholic charities. "It comes down to having a voice," says Fernandez. "We are like ghosts." Above all, he maintains that what he wants is rightful recognition of his family's place in the Kenedy family tree. "Our concern is our heritage," says his wife, Marie. "Our son has a right to know his lineage."

Not surprisingly, the dispute has touched a nerve in the Mexican-American community in south Texas, where the case has taken on a racial cast. "This case shows what the rich were doing with their servants," says Victor Lara Ortegon, 80, a former newscaster in Corpus Christi who is a leader in the Hispanic community. "There are powerful forces against Fernandez, but we are praying for him."

Even if it is established that Johnny Kenedy is his grandfather, Fernandez faces an uphill battle if he wishes to stake a claim on behalf of his mother. One sticking point might be if Johnny knew that he had a daughter and chose to ignore her in his will. Further, the statute of limitations for filing a claim against Johnny's estate may well have run out, one loophole being if it can be shown that Ann Fernandez had no reason until now to believe that Johnny was her father. "If she chose not to assert her claim, that could be fatal," says Prof. Mark Ascher of the University of Texas Law School. But the resistance he has met has only fortified Fernandez's desire to stay on the trail. "The more I see them try to put it off," he says, "the more it makes me certain that I am right."

Bill Hewitt. Kevin Brass in Corpus Christi

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