MIAMI – A legal fight is brewing in Florida between the estate of "Untouchables" Prohibition agent Eliot Ness and an Ohio company over some long-undiscovered stock that apparently belonged to Ness and may be worth more than $1 million.
Ness, the famed Prohibition agent who led the "Untouchables" in their crusade against Chicago gangster Al Capone and his mob accomplices, later was the top executive at bank services company Diebold Inc.
A 50-share Diebold stock certificate, along with Ness' old federal badges and credentials, languished for years in a box in the South Florida apartment of Winnie Higgins Knorr, Ness' longtime personal secretary. When Knorr died several years ago in Fort Lauderdale, her belongings — including the Diebold stock — passed on to an acquaintance, Debra Hole.
Attorney John F. Bradley said it could now be worth more than $1.1 million because of stock splits and dividends over the years that could swell the number of shares to some 29,500. Bradley represents the Ness estate, with at least three surviving heirs, in a federal lawsuit seeking to force Diebold to pay up.
"I'm kind of picturing him as America's first superhero. Sadly, he died with not that much," Bradley said of Ness. "It's just a simple debt as far as I'm concerned."
North Canton, Ohio-based Diebold declined to comment, but in court filings the company has tried to get the lawsuit dismissed. Diebold, which started out making bank safes and vaults 150 years ago, now provides multiple financial services including ATM machines and drive-through teller equipment. Also named in the lawsuit is Wells Fargo bank, which handles Diebold's stock transfers.
In court documents, Diebold and Wells Fargo insist there is no record available of any stock ownership by Ness.
"The certificate is no longer valid," their filing states.
Ness was Diebold's chief executive officer from 1944 to 1951, after his crime-fighting successes in Chicago and a later stint as Cleveland's safety director. His 1929-31 service as a Prohibition agent in Chicago was the subject of a popular book and later a television show with Robert Stack as Ness, followed by the 1987 film with Kevin Costner in the agent's role and Robert De Niro as Capone.
The name "Untouchables" comes from his unit's reputation for refusing to take bribes from Capone, according to media accounts of the time. Although Ness' efforts eventually led to some 5,000 bootlegging charges against Capone, the infamous gangster was actually convicted of tax evasion. The liquor violations were eventually dropped.
Ness, who also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Cleveland, died of a heart attack in Pennsylvania in 1957 at age 54. He left little in his estate to his third wife, Elisabeth, according to Bradley. No mention was ever made of the Diebold stock certificate and the company never reached out, he said.
"The estate had no knowledge of its ownership of the stock until recently," Bradley said.
The stock certificate took a winding road to Florida. Knorr, the former Ness secretary, came south in 1974 to work as admissions director at the brand-new Nova Southeastern University Law School. Hole, who was involved in founding the school, became her close friend.
But according to Bradley, not until Knorr retired from the law school did she reveal her connection to Ness or mention the stock certificate.
"My reaction was, wow," Bradley said. "I thought it was fantastic."
The Ness estate, closed for decades in Pennsylvania, has now been reopened to pursue the stock claim, which led to the lawsuit in Miami.
Ness had an adopted son who died years ago. The remaining heirs are cousins of Ness' third wife and live in California, where she died in 1977. Three of those cousins are pursuing payment for the stock.
Ness made little money as a government employee, and neither Ness nor his family ever profited from the book that created his popular Capone-fighting legend, according to a Ness history compiled by the Cleveland Police Museum. The book, written by sportswriter Oscar Fraley, was based on a 21-page memoir that Ness typed himself.
But Ness signed away the rights in 1955 to Fraley, thinking the book wouldn't be much of a success, according the museum's account.
"I knew it would be a success and if he didn't like it he could sign off on it, and he did," Fraley told the museum in a 1998 interview.
So for the Ness heirs, the long-hidden Diebold stock certificate is the only thing of value remaining from him, other than the badges and memorabilia. If the claim is not settled, U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez has ordered mediation for later this year. If that's unsuccessful, the case is set for a February 2016 trial in Miami federal court.
"This isn't easy or quick," Bradley said. "This thing has been closed for a long time."
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