Anna Nicole Smith: Disorder in the court
Battle for Playboy Playmate's body wages between Howard K. Stern, Virgie Arthur
What should have been an open and shut case was anything but. For days, media from everywhere camped outside the Broward County courthouse and the Broward County medical examiner's office, which became ground zero for any information about Anna Nicole Smith.
CLICK HERE for Part 2 of "Death of a Bombshell"
Smith died on Feb. 9, 2007, at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, and by Feb. 14, a court battle began in Broward County. The question? When Anna Nicole Smith's body would leave South Florida and who would decide where her final resting place would be.
Also, the Playboy Playmate's cause of death is still under investigation, there is no formal announcement of a cause of death and the body is still at the morgue.
Judge Larry Seidlin presiding
The judge appointed to preside over the case is Larry Seidlin, who goes from virtual obscurity as a Broward County family court and probate judge to being the topic of everything from national entertainment news shows to parodies on "Saturday Night Live" to a recurring punching bag for Court TV's Nancy Grace.
"I am happy that the judge took a polite pill overnight," Grace says on her show. "I was plenty steamed at him last night over the way he talked about Anna Nicole Smith and her body. Totally inappropriate."
Local 10 News reporter Jeff Weinsier caught up with Seidlin to talk to him about the memorable second day in the case, in which he was presiding, and ask him about the comments on Smith's body being in a cold storage.
"We're trying to show the community that we're running a dignified court system, and I think it's coming across," Seidlin said.
Weinsier asked: "Any regrets about those comments, maybe too harsh?"
"It's live action," Seidlin said. "We hope it's running smoothly. … Well, it's live and I'm hoping it all works out well."
He may not have wanted to comment then, but 12 years later, here's what he tells me.
"The interesting item that was taking place here, the lawyers were very distracted," Seidlin recalls. "There was a family case going on at the same time in California and in Fort Lauderdale in this courthouse. Who was the father of this little girl, Dannielynn? So the lawyers weren't completely absorbed in my hearing. They were distracted. I saw that. I saw what was going on. I announced pretty early on that this body belongs to me, which might have been too serious of a tone. It hit the front page New York Post. 'Former New York taxi driver owns the body of Anna Nicole Smith.' I announced to the lawyers that I'm going to handle the paternity suit, who is the father of Dannielynn, and the matter that was directly in front of me, where to bury Anna Nicole's body. The third was there -- foul play in the death of Anna Nicole."
Seidlin talks about being picked to preside over the case.
"I would say it was the perfect storm," he says. "It was my good fortune or bad luck to receive that case. I sometimes think that Anna's shadow or ghost picked me. I'm always a little bit out of the box. I'm not a cookie-cutter judge."
Palm Beach Gardens attorney Krista Barth, who represented Howard K. Stern in the proceedings, explains how she became one of the lawyers who was front and center in the battle to bury Smith.
"I was friends professionally with Ron Rale, who was representing Anna Nicole Smith in the California paternity suit," Barth says. "Debra Opri was on the other side representing Larry Birkhead, and Ron and I knew each other professionally. And, when Anna passed away, I sent him a note saying I was very sorry to hear. I knew that Anna wasn't just a client, but a friend, and if you need anything, which I thought was that I had access to clients that might be able to fly her out of here or something like that. I didn't think I'd be trying a case on national television."
Barth says the proceedings should have been cut and dry.
"There were pleadings filed initially that should have allowed her to just be released," Barth says. "There was a will and Howard (K. Stern) was appointed executor in that will."
The document, from 2001, released in court, names Smith's lawyer and boyfriend, Howard K. Stern, as her executor. It makes no mention of Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur. It left everything to Smith's son, Daniel, who died in September at the age of 20.
READ: Anna Nicole Smith's will
Virgie Arthur's lawyer makes a statement in court asking why Howard K. Stern is not present. He's in the Bahamas with Dannielynn and forbidden to leave. Seidlin orders Stern to appear in court.
The other interested party that's already present in Judge Seidlin's courtroom? Larry Birkhead, who says he is the father of Smith's baby, despite Stern's public announcement on "Larry King Live" that he is the father, and despite the fact that his name is on the birth certificate written in the Bahamas where Dannielynn was born.
Larry Birkhead remembers arriving in Florida to head to the court proceedings.
"I came there and it was a madhouse at the courthouse," he says. "There were things roped off and barricades. It almost looked like when you go to a concert or a crazy event. It was chaotic. Inside, where you thought it would be more peaceful and to the point, it was even crazier because of all the antics that were going on in the courtroom. Everybody had their positions and everyone wanted a little something different."
Hear more of Birkhead's interview on the podcast.
It was just as crazy of a scene when Stern, ordered by Seidlin to appear, arrived from the Bahamas. In court, he testified that Smith expressed her wishes that she wanted to be buried in the Bahamas and that she had bought multiple burial plots there.
"She wanted to go down with Daniel right then," Stern testifies. "She said if Daniel has to be buried, I want to be buried with him."
Stern tells the court that "Anna was his best friend, lover and the mother of his daughter."
There was plenty of disorder in the court. Barth called out Larry Birkhead's lawyer Debra Opri.
"Ms. Opri did just make a statement to my client that he actually killed Ms. Smith," Opri says.
Seidlin tries to calm the waters.
"This is a lot of stress," Seidlin says. "I'm on this case for a few days and I feel the stress of it."
Seidlin tells me the day we meet for our interview about what was happening that day.
"Debra Opri, the attorney for Birkhead, states, 'Stern's the murderer. Stern's the murderer.' I didn't want to get into that kind of ugly statement when I'm trying to decide where to bury Anna Nicole and who the father is."
When it was Arthur's turn on the stand, she testified through tears that her daughter said she wanted to be buried in Texas. When Barth cross-examined her, Arthur said that her daughter stated that wish when she was "25 or 26." Smith died at the age of 39.
"She did mention that she wanted to be buried where the celebrities were … by Marilyn Monroe," Arthur also said.
She tells Seidlin she wished to exhume her grandson, Daniel, from the Bahamas and bring his body to Texas to be buried along with his mother.
She was put on the defensive when she was asked if she had been paid by tabloids for any stories since her daughter's death.
Richard Milstein, the attorney appointed by Seidlin as guardian ad litem for Smith's 5-month-old daughter, alleged that someone had tipped off the media about an afternoon viewing of Smith's body at the medical examiner's office. It was also disclosed that she was driven to the visit by a reporter for an entertainment news website, perhaps in exchange for money. She denied she had received any money.
"The only person who has benefitted from my daughter is that man right there," she says, pointing to Stern.
'The person with the white hat'
Milstein said he's had many interesting appointments in his career, but the Anna Nicole case? He tells me there were a lot of what he calls "oddities" in this one.
"I was the person with the white hat," Milstein says. "I didn't have some of the same arguments anyone else had. I stood on behalf of Dannielynn. I took a very middle-of-the-road approach. I wasn't going to get involved in some of the arguments that were being made. This was the most media-driven case I have ever been involved in. The front of the old courthouse in Broward County was sealed off to accommodate all of the press. I was unable to get in and out of the courthouse easily. I was followed into the men's room one day by a female reporter. My life was turned upside down."
Hear more of Milstein's interview on the podcast.
After days of melodrama, in-fighting, tons of testimony, and even one lawyer fainting in Seidlin's courtroom, it's Feb. 22, 2007. It's finally decision day, a full two weeks after Anna Nicole Smith died.
"I want her buried with her son in the Bahamas," Seidlin announces, tearing up. "I want them to be together."
Seidlin added: "Who is entitled to custody of the remains of Anna Nicole Smith? There can be only one proper and equitable answer to that question: Dannielynn, only child, heir and next of kin."
And with that, he handed over the reins to Milstein.
Newspapers and television jumped on the crying judge. Headlines hit the papers, calling the judge, "Cryin' Seidlin," among other nicknames.
"At the end, I have them holding hands outside the courthouse," Seidlin tells me. "All three of them, Larry, Howard and Virgie."
But it wouldn't last long. Virgie Arthur files a petition that suspends the lower-court ruling that would have allowed the burial.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach grants an emergency petition to stop Milstein from taking the body to Bahamas.
Arthur's attorney, John O'Quinn, speaking on CNN, accused Seidlin of "starting out with the wrong decision already in his mind. I think he had already decided how he was going to do it before he heard the evidence. He should have just sent us all home and done it."
"If I had the power to this day, Danny should have been exhumed," Seidlin tells me today. "He should have been removed from the Bahamas, either into Texas, which would have been the more natural choice, or L.A. Then my decision would have been easy. I would have buried Anna where Danny is. I never had that choice. My only choice was the boy is in the Bahamas. I put the mother right there. Sad, sickening and sad."
Also still hanging in the balance? Court filings to insist on a DNA test for baby Dannielynn, and there's still no official word from Dr. Joshua Perper on what really killed Smith.
Coming up next on The Florida Files, Smith's body finally gets to its resting place and The Florida Files goes to the Bahamas for some notable landmarks that are tied to the death of a bombshell.
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