Cary Spivak, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
|Terrill Thomas poses with his 20-year-old son, also named Terrill, at his son’s high school graduation in 2014. (Photo: Family photo)|
Though Terrill Thomas died virtually penniless in 2016 after being deprived of water by jail guards, his estate is now worth millions of dollars and is at the center of an intense legal fight over how the cash will be divided.
"When you're talking about a $6.75 million, people come out looking for a slice of it," said Sara Eberhardy, a Milwaukee attorney specializing in probate matters.
Last year, nearly three years after Thomas' death in Milwaukee County Jail, his estate received a $6.75 million cash infusion from Milwaukee County and Armor Correctional Health Services — the company that had provided health services to the jail. Armor and the county paid to settle a civil rights suit brought by the estate.
So far, seven people have come forward as children of Thomas. Thomas is listed on the birth certificates of five of those children, each of whom has a different mother.
The name of one claimed child did not emerge until November when the child's mother said in an affidavit that the child was the result of a brief affair she had with Thomas in 2013. No father is listed on that child's birth certificate.
"In my 29 years of practice I never had somebody show up this late in the game on proof of heirship," said Robert Rondini, the court-appointed special administrator in the probate case. "Especially in a case with as high a media profile as this one."
Howard Erlanger, a University of Wisconsin law professor, said that while an 11th-hour claim may raise eyebrows it could be legitimate.
"It's not implausible as a fraud but it’s also not implausible as a genuine story," Erlanger said.
Thomas died late April 23 or early April 24, 2016, a week after being put in an isolation unit with his water supply cut off. He was placed in isolation because guards saw Thomas acting agitated and stuffing his shirt and pieces of mattress into his toilet so he could flood the cell.
Thomas, 38, had lost 34 pounds after being deprived of water for seven days. He was found dead in his cell. Three then-jail officials have been convicted of criminal charges growing out of Thomas' death. Armor, which no longer works for the county, is facing one felony and seven misdemeanor counts.
Thomas, who had a history of mental illness, was in jail on charges that he shot a Milwaukee man on North 36th Street on April 14, 2016, and a few hours later went to the Potawatomi Casino an opened firenear the high rollers area.
More than $3.2 million from the civil rights suit settlement has already been paid out. Court records show that:
- The two law firms that brought the lawsuit collected more than $2.2 million. In addition, the firms, Budge & Heipt of Seattle and First, Albrecht & Blondis, Milwaukee, split $23,684 to cover the costs of litigation.
- Chaz Holifield, who was shot by Thomas, was paid $1 million last August. Holifield was shot after Thomas accused another man of stealing his Mercedes Benz. Thomas "was delusional," said Michael Chernin, Holifield's attorney, who is currently representing Holifield on an unrelated drug charge.
- Rondini, who as special administrator, has been paid $59,725, according to a January filing with the court.
That leaves about $3.4 million that Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Marshall Murray will split up among Thomas' heirs.
The size of inheritance received by each person will likely depend on how many people are ruled to be heirs. If there are five heirs — and each is awarded the same amount —the payout would be about $680,000 per person. That figure would drop by about $115,000 if there were six heirs. The per heir inheritance falls to about $485,000 if there are seven.
Other costs incurred by the estate, such as additional attorney fees, could also affect the amount of money each heir receives.
In addition to the five children whose birth certificates name Thomas as their father, a sixth man, Curtis Piggee, 26, has claimed Thomas was his father.
But Piggee, who is serving a one-year prison sentence for physical abuse of a child, did not meet the deadlines for DNA testing to show whether he had a blood link to Thomas.
"Every single one (of the Thomas children) accepted him as brother," said Walter Stern, Piggee's former lawyer. "It's kind of tragic."
Murray shot down an attempt to give Piggee another chance to prove a link at a hearing in November after attorney David Bordow told the court he had been contacted by the Piggee family to represent him in the case.
"Tell Mr. Piggee I wish him well but that he is barred from filing a claim or asking the court to find he is an heir to this estate," Murray told Bordow at the November hearing.