May 3, 2007
Deep in the recesses of a Colorado Springs bank rests the largest pearl in the world. But maybe not for long. The “Pearl of Allah” is part of the largest wrongful-death judgment awarded by a Colorado jury.
The Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld the outcome, which means a probate court can continue settling the estate to which it belongs. The El Paso County case was a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Michael Bonicelli, Gwendolyn Garris and Donna Fuller — whose mother was killed by a hitman hired by their father, the deceased Joseph Bonicelli. They sued Joe Bonicelli’s estate, which was given to his second wife’s daughter, and includes partial ownership of the famed “Pearl of Allah.” The 14-pound pearl, worth about $59.75 million, is thought to be the largest in the world. In 2005, a jury awarded the adult children $32.4 million for the 1975 death of their mother, Eloise, who was shot by a suspected intruder in her West Arvada Street home. “It’s very good news for the Bonicelli children,” said their attorney Richard Tegtmeier. “This opinion will open the door to the family being able to finally recover fruits of those proceeds their father got from their mother.” The children haven’t seen a dime of the award, he said. “The remaining assets are still tied up in estate probate court,” Tegtmeier said. “The probate court has been waiting for this Court of Appeals ruling.” Tegtmeier said the pearl is in a Colorado Springs bank and that he’s going to file a motion to have the pearl examined and reappraised. The jury found that Joe Bonicelli, who died in 1998, Tom Phillips and barber Delfino Ortega were liable for Eloise’s death. Phillips admitted hiring Ortega to arrange his wife’s killing in 1974, then putting Joe Bonicelli in contact with Ortega to arrange Eloise’s slaying about 19 months later. Ortega, who is serving a life sentence in Ann Phillips’ death, received $10,000 each from Bonicelli and Phillips. Tom Phillips received immunity for his confession in 2000. Joe Bonicelli always denied involvement in his wife’s death. Bonicelli’s second wife’s daughter is Nicolina Angeli Bonicelli. In the appeal, Nicolina Bonicelli’s attorney, Erika Kaiser, argued the award was too high, and should have been capped by a 1973 law that was in place when Eloise died. She also argued the children waited too long to bring the wrongful death lawsuit. The Court of Appeals disagreed, saying the jury’s award was proper. It also ruled the children didn’t know the full nature of their mother’s death until Phillips confessed, thus they couldn’t have brought a lawsuit earlier. “I am disappointed in the ruling. I feel that the system has let me and the citizens down,” Nicolina Bonicelli said in a statement. “It is a fact that Mike Bonicelli was informed by the lead detective in his mother’s homicide as early as 1975-76 who the suspects were and who was involved in his mother’s death. It’s my opinion that for financial benefit to himself he chose not to pursue the issue of wrongful death against his father at that time. And it would be again for financial reasons that he chose to pursue that cause of action in 2000 and to date.” She declined to comment on whether they would ask the Colorado Supreme Court to look at Thursday’s ruling. The $32.4 million is the largest wrongful death judgment in Colorado since the Jury Verdict Reporter of Colorado began tracking awards in civil cases in 1983. The children have said they want to establish a foundation in Eloise’s name to benefit abused children, Tegtmeier said. Bonicelli and Phillips, who were friends and successful businessmen in the 1970s, invested in the Pearl of Allah, which is more than 2,500 years old. They both owned Colorado Springs bars in the 1970s. When their wives turned up dead, police considered them suspects but couldn’t prove they were involved. Phillips denied involvement in the deaths until May 2000, when police confronted him with new evidence and an immunity offer. He admitted paying Ortega to kill his wife so he could collect a $200,000 life insurance policy. He then introduced Ortega to Joe Bonicelli, who wanted Eloise dead to prevent her from filing for divorce and getting half of the Bonicellis’ family business, Phillips testified. The estate representative can ask the Colorado Supreme Court to look at the Court of Appeals’ ruling. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0110 or firstname.lastname@example.org