The Dills misfortune

The longest-serving legislator in the history of California neared the end of his life amid accusations of neglect. He also married his stepdaughter. Lots of money was involved.

Senator Ralph Dills spent 42 years in the Legislature, rubbing shoulders with luminaries of the 20th century, including Hubert Humphrey, Rosa Parks, Jerry Brown, O.J. Simpson, Ed Asner, Al Gore and Ronald Reagan.

Senator Ralph Dills spent 42 years in the Legislature, rubbing shoulders with luminaries of the 20th century, including Hubert Humphrey, Rosa Parks, Jerry Brown, O.J. Simpson, Ed Asner, Al Gore and Ronald Reagan.

Courtesy Of Leighton Dills

The late Democratic Senator Ralph Dills holds the record for the longest legislative career of any California lawmaker—42 years of service in the Senate and Assembly. A lifelong advocate for higher education and labor rights, and one of the few legislators to vote against the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Dills was known to be flamboyant and affable. He played saxophone with a trio during legislative get-togethers, and he entertained junior lawmakers with stories of his early career as a public-school teacher, lawyer and young legislator representing the Los Angeles area in the 1930s and ’40s.

Although he retreated from politics in the 1950s to pursue a municipal judgeship, he returned to Sacramento in 1966; Dills said he got tired of doing things “to people” and wanted to return to politics, where he could do things “for people.” At the end of his career, the depth and breadth of his experience were unmatched, but the aging senator, who continued to campaign successfully into his 80s, had become a convincing argument for term limits. Holding tightly to his political career in spite of failing health, Dills continued to serve until 1998. Doctors’ records indicate he was suffering increasing confusion and forgetfulness as early as 1997.

The 88-year-old retired senator retreated to his 50-acre estate in Rocklin in 1998, and court documents suggest he was perhaps right to hang on to public life as long as he could. His retirement was characterized by a cruel decline into dementia, and, according to sworn declarations, his stepchildren are accused of taking advantage of his condition. With litigation between family members stretching from 1999 to the present day, the senator himself, who presided over the state Senate many times, appears to have ended his life as a pawn in a strategic legal battle between his heirs. The prize, the family estate, is estimated to be worth between $5 million and $6 million.

Although estate battles and elder-abuse stories are increasingly common, this one was highly unusual. The senator, with no children of his own, married Elizabeth “Bette” Lai in 1970. Bette was a divorcee from a prominent Chinese family in Coloma and had three adult children. Ralph adopted Bette’s two adult sons, Gregory and Leighton Lai, but not Bette’s only daughter, Wendi. A year after Bette’s death in 2000, Wendi secretly married her 91-year-old stepfather, the senator, in a Reno, Nev., wedding chapel. When the marriage was discovered, Wendi told her brothers it would protect the estate from inheritance taxes. What it did was to assure her thousands of dollars a month in retirement benefits as the widow of a prominent politician with a famously lengthy career.

The wedding kicked off a volley of civil suits between Greg and Wendi. Leighton already had been disinherited, after his parents accused him of trying to seize the family assets in the mid-1990s. While Greg tried to annul the wedding and wrest financial control of the estate from Wendi, Ralph Dills suffered under alleged indifference and neglect, according to court documents. He died in a care facility in 2002, the legal husband of his stepdaughter. Wendi and Greg continue to litigate over the estate.

Alerted to a potential case of elder abuse in 2002, the Placer County district attorney launched a two-year investigation into Wendi’s alleged misuse of the senator’s money and property. On April 7, in a courtroom at the Placer County Jail, Wendi was expected at an arraignment on two felony counts: “theft by caretaker from elder adult” and “grand theft of personal property.” The first refers to Wendi’s alleged misuse of the senator’s assets while he lived; the second refers to her alleged misuse of his estate after he died.

Wendi did not appear in court to respond to the charges. The prosecutor, Rick Opich, believes she did not receive proper notification from the court in time for the arraignment. Opich expects the arraignment to be rescheduled.

For such a prominent man, the senator seemed to have few close friends or advocates at the end of his life who could explain the sequence of events that led to his marriage to Wendi.

Former Senator and current state Democratic leader Art Torres, who served beside Senator Dills in the Senate Education Committee for 12 years, said he spoke to Dills only occasionally after his retirement. In an interview, Torres concentrated on the senator’s successful career: his fierce protection of personal freedom, his historic knowledge of the California state Legislature and his early days at the feet of such luminaries as politician and author Upton Sinclair.

When asked about the last years of the senator’s life, Torres used only one word: “sad.”

The Dillses’ two adopted sons, Greg and Leighton, willingly detailed family conflicts, both in interviews and in court documents, and blamed one another and their sister for the senator’s sad final years. Wendi chose not to respond to SN&R’s questions, claiming by phone that interviews would only bring up a lot of hurt and bad memories. Wendi’s daughter, Kimberly Lewellen, further claimed that the district attorney’s case prevented her mother from answering any questions. Calls to Wendi’s attorney were not immediately returned.

Kimberly, however, defended her mother and told loving stories of the senator.

“My grandfather was in love with his work. That was his entire life,” said Kimberly, who currently is studying at McGeorge School of Law and living in her late grandparents’ house.

Kimberly answered questions while standing outside the home’s enormous multi-car garage. A petite woman with striking green eyes and pretty Eurasian features, Kimberly looked like a typical graduate student in a T-shirt and jeans. But there was nothing typical about the house behind her. It had a grand, rounded porch graced with pillars, but the entire facade seemed stripped of all character. It was plain white, without a single decorative detail—a stark plantation house surrounded by lush olive orchards and fields.

Wendi and Greg co-own the house, but Wendi resides there with the award-winning Rottweilers she breeds for competition. Wendi, now 61 years old, was married to George Lewellen, a forensic accountant in Redding, until 2001. Her divorce from George was only weeks old when she married the senator.

Greg Dills, 52, is the youngest of Bette’s children. He still lived at home when his mother met the senator, but he is now married and has three daughters. He’s worked as a procurement engineer with the state Department of General Services for 27 years, he said, and he works weekends as a disc jockey for organizations like the Kiwanis Club.

An old Dills family photo with Senator Ralph Dills in the top right corner; his wife, Bette, in the top left corner; and their children, Leighton, Greg and Wendi, gathered around Bette.

Courtesy Of Leighton Dills

Leighton, the oldest son, now at 59 years of age, said that as the Dillses grew older, Wendi was never around because she lived in Redding with her family, and Greg was never around because he was busy raising his daughters.

During the 1990s, Leighton regularly drove between Sacramento and Rocklin to take Ralph and Bette to doctors’ appointments, he said, and spent his weekends renovating the family’s properties. Leighton helped pay bills and manage accounts, and he had his parents sign over power of attorney and placed their properties in “joint tenancy” so that he could help manage their financial decisions.

His devotion apparently backfired. In the first of the family’s many legal fights, Leighton was sued by his parents in 1999. Ralph and Bette accused him of persuading them to sign over control of assets that he then used for his own benefit. Leighton blames his siblings for his parents’ mistrust and denies that he misused his parents’ assets.

Events like Wendi’s divorce, or the suit against Leighton, were detailed multiple times in court documents and interviews, but the siblings’ personal accounts of each event seem to conflict in almost every important detail—especially when the stories center on how the Dillses’ finances should be handled.

Asked what would cause siblings to engage in such a lengthy and bitter legal fight, Kimberly, standing before her grandparents’ house, was blunt: “A multimillion-dollar estate,” she said.

Members of the senator’s stepfamily have similar storytelling styles when they relate the major events of their lives. They don’t hesitate to accuse each other of wrongdoing, they effusively praise the senator as a great man, and they cry—especially when discussing the end of the senator’s life.

Leighton Dills, now a white-haired, baby-faced supervising attorney for the California Department of Social Services, sat in his office, surrounded by stacks of court documents. Ironically, in his day-to-day job, Leighton sues institutions accused of elder abuse. Telling the story of his disinheritance, Leighton focuses first on the early years of his parents’ marriage.

Leighton was in his mid-20s when he met the senator for the first time. “I didn’t like him, because he was a legislator,” said Leighton. But his feelings softened, and then reversed over time, until the senator became his “best friend.”

Francine Kammeyer, the attorney who handled the adoptions of Leighton and Greg, also is an attorney for the Department of Social Services. That’s how she met Leighton and began representing the senator. “The senator had never had kids of his own, and he felt very, very strongly about his wife’s children,” she said. “He wanted them as his legal children.”

“He was my real dad,” said Leighton. “Maybe not biologically, but … we treated each other like father and son.” According to Leighton, after his own adoption was planned, the senator asked Wendi and Greg if they, too, would like to be adopted, primarily out of a sense of fairness.

Leighton wrinkled his brow and shook his head when asked if there was any talk about money or inheritance at the time of his adoption, as if the idea were distasteful.

“Leighton is a straight shooter,” said Kammeyer.

Leighton’s siblings resisted the senator’s adoption offer originally, but when Greg learned that Leighton was going to be adopted, he opted in too. Wendi, who already was married, at first declined, but accounts vary on whether she changed her mind and why. Ultimately, her adoption was never completed.

As early as 1995, said Leighton, the senator began showing the first signs of confusion. Leighton remembers the senator’s surprise when he realized he’d forgotten to vote for legislation he’d promised to support. Leighton also noticed that the senator was strategizing ways of hiding his forgetfulness. Rather than answer journalists’ questions, he would ask journalists what they thought, or he would simply walk away, declining to comment.

The senator was also in pain. He suffered arthritis in one knee and developed what the doctors’ reports refer to as “a habituation to, if not an addiction to” painkillers.

“When it really hit the wall was in ’97 when I had to have him admitted to the hospital,” said Leighton. “Well, the reason they said he was in the hospital was because of a fall … but he was taking prescribed pain pills. The painkiller was Percocet, OK? And he was taking them at will.”

Although the senator was weaned off the medication in the hospital, it was while his health was weak that he and Bette, who also was ill, signed power of attorney over to Leighton. Over a couple years, assets and properties were placed in shared possession—presumably so that Leighton could provide for his parents. On documents, the senator’s signature is loopy, written with a shaking hand.

Top: Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Dills. Bottom: Ralph dancing with his stepdaughter, Wendi; Wendi later would become his wife.

Courtesy Of Leighton Dills

“After my mother’s health stabilized, she became almost obsessed with putting title to their property in joint tenancy with me,” Leighton claimed in one court declaration. “My mother thought she had almost died, and she was afraid that if she did, my brother and sister might get some of my parents’ property. She was adamant that they were not to get any of my parents’ assets.”

Kammeyer remembered things differently: “[Leighton] was to inherit everything and then to take care of his brother and sister.”

Although Ralph and Bette Dills apparently shared control of their finances with Leighton willingly, as Bette’s health weakened, she struck out at Ralph and Leighton. By all accounts, Bette Dills was a formidable woman. Kammeyer remembered her as “high-strung and erratic.” Kimberly referred to her as the family matriarch.

According to Leighton, Bette was also vengeful, banning her children from her house when she was mad at them and controlling the family “through purse strings.”

Leighton’s court declaration claims, “Over the years, my parents have had a disharmonious relationship. … In his own home, [Ralph Dills] did not have a bed to sleep on. He slept on a chair either in the kitchen or in the living room. … The only room dad was able to have as his own was a small bathroom off the kitchen area.” When Bette claimed Ralph was “stressing her out,” said Leighton, he took his father to his own home.

The Dillses’ suit against Leighton for fiduciary elder abuse and fraud lists an impressive set of possessions Leighton and his parents shared: property in four counties, three Lincoln Continentals and a Lincoln Town Car, political memorabilia, jewelry, a riding mower—and financial records that had disappeared from the house.

Rather than return the assets to his parents, Leighton held on, using “quit claim deeds” to block his parents from regaining control.

“At that time, I felt that was the only way I could insure in an expeditious manner that my siblings would not talk my parents out of their interest in the property,” read Leighton’s statement in his defense. After hearing from an attorney that blatantly seizing control “might not be looked at favorably by the courts,” Leighton returned his parents’ interests to them.

Although Leighton settled the case in 1999, it was, in effect, the end of his close relationship with his parents and the end of the first litigated battle between Dills family members. Leighton returned rights to properties and possessions and even was asked to change his name from Dills back to Lai. To this day, Leighton has not changed his name. Kammeyer claimed that the request was “just mean. … It was a really horrible thing they could do to him.”

Both Kimberly and Greg regularly refer to Leighton now as “out of the picture” or “out of the family” whenever they mention the suit—as if he were a pawn cornered and captured on a chessboard by a pair of bishops.

Ralph and Bette continued to decline in health after Leighton’s retreat. Doctors’ notes and court declarations confirm that by 2000, Bette was suffering adult-onset diabetes as well as heart problems. She was on a special diet that Leighton had insisted she follow, but he was no longer there to make sure she did. Bette died in 2000.

Kimberly heard that Bette died in her bed at home, but Greg—a tall, lean engineer sitting in his cube at the Department of General Services—relates a different story. Like many of Greg’s family stories, this one vilifies Wendi. Greg had claimed earlier that his sister had placed food that his mother was not allowed to eat into a refrigerator where she was bound to find it. He claimed Bette’s health subsequently worsened.

Greg also claimed he called his father in Rocklin one day and heard his sister and mother screaming in the background. Greg related how the senator explained that Bette wasn’t well at all and that “the girls are fighting.” When Greg called back later, he got Wendi, who said that she was really afraid for their mother. An ambulance was called to take Bette to the hospital.

There, Greg remembers holding his mother’s hand. “It’s OK, Mom,” he remembers telling her. “You’ve worked hard all your life. I’ll be OK.”

When Wendi arrived at the hospital, Greg said, she continued arguing with Bette, who died in the hospital. (Again, Wendi declined to discuss or comment on these or any allegations.)

Greg’s stories regarding his siblings are often accusatory and at times conflicting. To support his parents’ case against Leighton in 1999, Greg submitted a statement to the court that accused Leighton of calling their mother “incompetent” and “a bad person” who would “be gone soon.” His statement claimed that Bette attributed bruises on her wrist and back to Leighton. Greg also repeated statements from Leighton that implied that the Dillses’ oldest son was trying to seize control.

But, in a separate declaration, dated March 2003, Greg came to his brother’s defense: “It was Senator Ralph C. Dills’ and Elizabeth G. Dills’ wish that their entire estate go to Leighton Dills. My parents gave him full authority to do what he wanted. … Leighton Dills did not force them, intimidate them, or coerce them to execute these transfers.”

The senator with Leighton on his left and Ted Kennedy on his right (above); Leighton with a note from his father addressed to his “Number One Son” (middle); and Leighton with his mother, Bette (below).

Courtesy Of Leighton Dills

In the same document, he admits complicity in the suit against Leighton: “Although I didn’t like what was happening, I joined in the suit only to do what my mother wanted.”

In conversation, Greg says he maintained a very particular philosophy when dealing with requests from his mother: “If it didn’t harm my personal family or cause me harm … I would do it.”

Once Leighton settled the suit against him, and gave up any legal claim to the family assets, Wendi and Greg were left to care for the senator, but Wendi was the one who lived in the family house with him.

Kimberly sympathized with her mother. According to her, Wendi cared for the senator by herself. Although Wendi hired gardeners who occasionally saw the senator walking the property in button-down shirts and slacks, few people besides family members maintained contact. However, the senator was watched over by longtime family physicians.

A handwritten note from one of them ended up in court documents: “Wendi, you must get rid of the dogs in the house. Your father must shower in his shower—not the tub! He must be in a clean environment. Please! Before something tragic happens.”

Visitors to the house were quoted in media accounts, claiming that the house smelled strongly of mold and that there was dog feces inside the house and in the senator’s bathroom.

According to the gardeners who managed the property, the dogs were free to roam the house and the grounds. When Wendi asked the gardeners to sign a declaration on her behalf, saying that the house was kept clean—apparently to fend off accusations of elder abuse—they refused.

By mid-2001, Adult Protective Services had gotten involved. A letter to the law firm that handled the case against Leighton—McDonough Holland & Allen—asserted that the agency had received a “confidential referral alleging caregiver neglect.”

A family meeting was held before the attorneys.

An unsigned memo of understanding—dated December 5, 2001, and negotiated between the senator, Greg and Wendi, and a representative of Adult Protective Services—provided for the care of the senator: “Wendi shall keep all dogs owned by her and located at the Home Place in crates, in her separate living quarters … or in the fenced portion of the backyard. … Wendi agrees not to leave Ralph alone in the home for more than two hours at a time.”

One of the things that disturbs Leighton the most now is that the senator could have received round-the-clock care. Leighton believes there was always plenty of money for Greg, Wendi and the care of the senator.

Although Greg and Leighton now fault Wendi for failing to protect the senator’s health, Kimberly claimed that her mother followed the care plan the family negotiated. Kimberly said that even when representatives from Adult Protective Services dropped by unannounced and reviewed accounting documents, they determined that the senator was better off at home with Wendi. (Multiple calls to Placer County Health and Human Services went unanswered.)

In September 2001, with no other immediate family members present, Wendi and the senator were married at the Silver Bells Wedding Chapel in Reno, Nev. According to court documents submitted by Greg, Wendi had been impersonating Bette Dills by wearing her sun hats, clothes and perfume. Greg also claimed that Wendi mimicked her mother’s vocal tones to confuse the senator further.

The marriage was discovered, Greg said, when the senator was hospitalized in early 2002. In a moment of lucidity while looking at family photos, the senator realized that Wendi was the woman he had recently married. Greg said he and Leighton confronted his sister in a hospital corridor. Greg and Leighton both describe Wendi’s response in exactly the same terms: To them, she came across as “the cat that ate the canary.”

Kimberly claimed that although her mother had said she’d married the senator for tax reasons, her actual reasons were different. “He was always asking her. ‘I want you to marry me,’” said Kimberly. “He was always saying, ‘You’re taking care of me. I want to make sure you’re taken care of.’”

As the senator’s spouse, Wendi had a greater claim on the senator’s assets than either of her siblings did. But such a move looked deeply suspicious to outsiders. Greg, who tried to have the wedding annulled, turned over thousands of pages of documents to the Placer County district attorney, he said, and the investigators began looking into the senator’s and Wendi’s finances.

Kimberly defended Wendi’s actions on the record. She claimed that her mother didn’t have the familial relationship with the senator that the rest of the family did. She found out about the wedding over dinner. “I was definitely shocked, and I was worried for her,” said Kimberly. “I knew my uncles would ignite a fire under them that she couldn’t put out.”

The Dills house as it stands now on the family’s 50-acre estate in Rocklin.

Photo By Larry Dalton

However, Kimberly did not view the wedding as a mistake. It provided another level of protection, a line of pawns that protected Wendi and Ralph from the players on the other side of the chessboard.

According to Kimberly, her uncles wanted the senator institutionalized. Kimberly remembers her grandfather’s fear of being taken permanently from his home, and she characterized her mother as a fearless defender of his rights.

“To tell you the truth, for me personally, [the marriage] gave [Wendi] the ability to take care of my grandfather and have standing to keep him home and to fight for him against my uncles who wanted to put him in a home … it was worth it.”

The longer Kimberly talked about her grandfather, the more her voice softened and rose into a high, childish register and the more she apologized for what became a flood of tears. “He didn’t need to be in a hospital,” she said, and she shook her head. According to Kimberly, Ralph Dills was brought to the emergency room in early 2002 for blood work, but the doctors chose not to release him back into Wendi’s care.

Greg had applied for conservatorship and was granted power over the senator’s health decisions and the estate by the courts. “He took over the bank accounts. He took over the bills. He took over credit cards. He got our PO box changed,” Kimberly said. “He tried to have our water turned off, our electricity turned off.”

Greg admits to having stopped paying the bills for the estate when available cash held in the family trust ran out, but he claims he warned Wendi that she would have to start paying the bills since she lived on the property rent-free.

Wendi soon gained joint conservatorship, and Greg again had to share power with his sister.

“In the meantime,” Kimberly cried, “my uncle keeps switching my grandfather between homes and not telling us where he is.”

Again, Greg admits that he kept Wendi and Kimberly away, but he claims that it was necessary because Wendi was trying to convince the senator that Greg was seizing power. He said he did not, however, switch the senator’s living quarters to thwart his sister.

When the senator was placed in a care facility, his memory was so poor that he needed help recognizing members of his family.

“My mom would put up pictures of our home in there so he’d remember. … My uncle or someone would tear them down.” Kimberly cried openly as she spoke, a creamy combination of tears and makeup running down to her chin.

Greg claims that he, too, put up photos of the family.

Because Wendi had married the senator, she inherited the rights to his retirement accounts. The retirement funds from the senator’s 42-year political career, his decade as a judge and his teaching career were close to $11,000 a month. As his widow, Wendi receives about half of that each month. Through various private settlements, Wendi was supposed to pay about 50 percent of the lifetime benefit to Greg in a lump sum, but Greg denies having received any of the funds. The house was also split 50-50, and Greg promptly sold his share to well-known developer George Tsakopoulos, who currently is trying to negotiate with Wendi over how the property should be divided if she refuses to sell her half.

In another move against his sister, Greg also filed an elder-abuse civil suit against Wendi for abusing “her stepfather Ralph financially, emotionally and physically.” The court found the case incomplete, and the defendant’s attorneys implied in their briefs that if Greg had cared about the senator’s well-being, he wouldn’t have waited until the senator died to file abuse claims.

The elder-abuse civil suit, and Greg’s attempt to have the wedding annulled, were dropped after a recent settlement conference that offered both Greg and Leighton lump sums, though the terms haven’t yet been met.

Although Greg has stopped pursuing his elder-abuse lawsuit against Wendi, he continues to insist that Leighton or someone else should. Greg said he’d turned over what amounted to thousands of pages of documents to the Placer County district attorney, and he was furious that the agency hadn’t yet responded.

But the district attorney did respond after receiving advice from state attorneys.

A criminal case against Wendi, which will begin with a new date for arraignment, likely could bring the issues out of the civil courts and into the criminal. If convicted, Wendi could face a sentence of up to four years and eight months.

Although the family disagreements about money and the senator’s last years continue, Greg summed up a feeling shared by both Leighton and Kimberly: “My parents were good people,” said Greg. “[Ralph] didn’t deserve any of this.”