Las Vegas gunman was rich, victims may benefit

Accused Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock (right), is shown with his brother Eric Paddock in a 2002 family photo.
Accused Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock (right), is shown with his brother Eric Paddock in a 2002 family photo. PHOTO: HANDOUT

LAS VEGAS (NYTIMES) - Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock stands out among US mass killers because of his wealth. He became a millionaire, according to his family, through the buying and selling of real estate and through skilful high-stakes gambling.

His fortune is not big enough - perhaps US$5 million (S$6.72 million), according to some estimates - to make a significant dent in the likely payouts from lawsuits and claims against Paddock's estate. But it is enough to prompt an unusual legal strategy by lawyers for some of Paddock's victims, who want to make sure the money is not depleted by legal expenses.

The lawyers have asked a Nevada court to set up the estate so that the money can be distributed, without lawsuits, to families of the dead and those who were wounded in the attack.

One idea being discussed is folding Paddock's assets into a fund already set up for victims, which has raised about US$22 million. More than 500 people were injured and 58 others died after Paddock opened fire from an upper floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino at an outdoor country music festival in October.

The lawyers also want the court to ensure that Paddock's heirs do not benefit from the estate and that they have no role in how it is managed. No will has been discovered and relatives do not believe he prepared one.

Under Nevada law, the mother, Ms Irene Hudson, 89, is entitled to the estate. But one of Paddock's three brothers, Mr Eric Paddock, who lives in Orlando, Florida, said in an interview that the family supported the idea of disbursing the assets to victims.

So far, several hundred victims have filed more than two dozen lawsuits, and a US$45 million creditor's claim, against Stephen Paddock's estate; MGM Resorts International, which owns the Mandalay Bay; and Live Nation, the promoter of the festival.

Should plaintiffs agree not to pursue their lawsuits against the Paddock estate, a complicated and potentially contentious issue will involve establishing criteria for who is eligible for payouts from the estate and how much.

While payouts to victims of mass shootings have become standard practice, turning a dead perpetrator's estate into a fund for such a large number of victims is new territory.

"There is no precedent here," said Ms Alice Denton, a Nevada lawyer who is leading the effort to have Paddock's estate apportioned among victims to help cover expenses like medical bills.

Ms Denton, who represents five victims, added, "Most mass killers have been indigent or had modest assets or none to speak of."

That was the case, for instance, with Omar Mateen, who fatally shot 49 people and wounded dozens of others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016. A victims' fund for that shooting handed out US$32 million.

In 2011, the federal government auctioned off some of the belongings of Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, to provide some restitution to his victims and their families. He killed three people and wounded 28 others in a mail-bomb campaign that spanned 17 years before he was arrested in 1996.

Paddock's estate is being sued for assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, personal financial losses, and medical bills, among other things. Part of the difficulty for lawyers when it comes to Paddock's case is assessing exactly how much his estate is worth.

Law enforcement authorities most likely have an idea of the figure, but they have not publicly disclosed it since their investigation is still open.

Victims' lawyers estimate that it could be worth more than US$5 million. They acknowledge, though, that the figure is rough and based on news reports, and that a detailed accounting will be needed for a precise value.

Mr Eric Paddock said his older brother was a multimillionaire, but he doubts that the estate will end up being worth US$5 million. He suspects his brother may have sold his stocks, emptied his bank accounts and disposed of the money somewhere before the attack.

"He probably cashed out and threw it all in a dumpster because it was his and that was Stephen," Mr Eric Paddock said. "He just didn't care."

Mr Eric Paddock said that what would be left of his brother's assets - which includes two homes in Nevada - would perhaps total US$500,000 to US$1 million.

A little more than two weeks before the shooting, Stephen Paddock had bought his girlfriend, Ms Marilou Danley, an airplane ticket so she could visit her relatives in the Philippines.

While she was there, he wired her thousands of dollars and told her to purchase a house for her and her family. Ms Danley's lawyer did not respond to an e-mail or phone call concerning what Ms Danley might know about Paddock's estate.

Mr Eric Paddock said that he had told investigators that his brother became bothered that the gambling industry was no longer lavishing him with the same perks he had become accustomed to, and that he had complained to him about this.

Eric said that he also informed authorities that Stephen had been despondent about no longer being able to fly planes after his medical certificate expired several years ago.

Mr Aaron C. Rouse, the top FBI agent in Nevada, said that he expected the agency to release a report on the shooting before the tragedy's anniversary. So far, no motive has surfaced.

Despite the willingness of the family to help the victims, getting someone to oversee the estate has been fraught with complications.

Five days after the shooting, lawyers for the son of a California man killed in the attack filed a petition asking that the public administrator of Clark County, Nevada, Mr John J. Cahill, be appointed to oversee the assets. In his county job, Mr Cahill handles estates when there is no qualified person willing or able to do so.

A week later, Mr Cahill turned down the job, saying in court papers one reason was that his small staff would be overwhelmed.

Two days before Mr Cahill declined the post, a Nevada lawyer, Mr Jonathan W. Barlow, asked the court to be named as an administrator to help victims making claims against the estate.

Mr Barlow was acting on behalf of Paddock's mother, who was entitled to the position but opted not to take it. A day later, though, after a falling-out with Mr Eric Paddock, Mr Barlow withdrew.

Mr Cahill has since said he would be willing to oversee the estate if the court decided he was the best choice.

"There has been confusion and things remain in limbo," said Mr Craig Eiland, a Texas lawyer who has been one of the main voices pushing for the estate to basically become a victims' fund.

He and the other lawyers behind the initiative have asked the court to appoint "an independent, neutral third party" as an administrator.

Mr Eiland said that one of the primary goals was to protect the estate from the costs of defending against a multitude of wrongful death claims.

This month, the husband and three children of a California woman, Ms Keri Galvan, who was killed in the shooting, filed a creditor's claim against Stephen Paddock's estate. They are seeking a total of US$45 million.

In California, where many of the concertgoers had travelled from, at least nine additional lawsuits were filed for people injured in the shooting, those who witnessed the rampage and families of those killed.

This month, Judge Gloria Sturman of Clark County District Court told lawyers during a hearing to devise a plan for dealing with the claims so that the estate could be preserved.

The judge, who is expected to name an administrator at a hearing scheduled for Feb 15, instructed the lawyers to present the plan to her by the end of January.

Ms Denton said that she hoped the lawyers would also discuss other possibilities for the estate, like whether to fold the assets into a victims' fund that has raised about US$22 million.

Mr Jeff Dion, deputy executive director of the National Centre for Victims of Crime, which is helping to administer the fund, said that he had not had any discussions with the lawyers about Paddock's estate. Mr Dion said that adding the estate to the victims' fund could have mixed results.

"The good thing is that it is a way to distribute those funds outside of litigation so there would not be legal fees," he said. "The drawbacks and reasons that might make it incompatible is that those not eligible under our protocols would be shut out."

Those who are eligible are families of the deceased, those who were physically injured and required hospitalisation for one or more nights, and those whose physical injuries were treated in an emergency room or on an outpatient basis no later than Oct 11.

Ms Rachel Sheppard, 26, who came close to death after being shot three times by Paddock, said that money from his estate would help to ease the burden of what will be huge medical bills.

One of the bullets is still in her body. She has had four surgeries and was in intensive care for almost two weeks.

Although Ms Sheppard, who lives near Bakersfield, California, has health insurance, it does not cover many things. Her doctors have told her she cannot work for another year.

"They don't know what the future looks like for me," she said, "and whether I will need additional surgeries."