The Italian Caper

The Story of How Two Montecito Lawyers Turned Gumshoe Investigators to Settle the Estate of the Mysterious Alice Keck Park

Miserable sleet and snow pelted the misty streets of Milan, Italy as two young Santa Barbara attorneys trudged the neighborhoods searching for evidence of a marriage and signs of the elusive Bruno Valentino Silvio Leonarduzzi. Michael Cooney and Brian Rapp had taken the case when attorneys for the estate of Alice Keck Park became suspicious about the validity of her will. Evidence was mounting that Alice, the troubled daughter of the late William Myron Keck of Superior Oil and widow of Montecitan David E. Park, had remarried. If so, the will that left the bulk of her $20-million estate (roughly $64 million in today’s dollars) to four Santa Barbara charities was possibly void.

Months earlier, Michael Cooney, one of the attorneys for the estate at Price, Postel & Parma, discovered postcards expressing great affection for Alice from a mystery man, Bruno Leonarduzzi. The postcards had been sent via Alice's accountant, Reginald Faletti, whom she had instructed to never forward anything from Bruno.

Prominent members of the Santa Barbara community admitted they had been introduced to Bruno as Alice’s husband, but they had disregarded the claim, believing it was Alice’s nod at convention to explain their relationship. Besides, Alice had returned from Italy in 1974 in high dudgeon, telling her acquaintances, “It’s over. I never want to hear his name again.”

The question remained, was this just a love affair gone sour or was it something more? Then came the discovery of an account containing $50,000 in the name of Bruno Leonarduzzi at a Santa Barbara bank. Alice’s records indicated the account was a gift to Bruno that was tax exempt because he was her husband. “So this was an official statement by her that was more than just a wink and a nod that they were married,” recalls Cooney, who now lives in Montecito. “At this point I felt that I had to reintroduce the issue to the charities and the executor.”

A meeting was organized that included Brian Rapp, representing Cottage Hospital, and Bob Andrews, representing the Museum of Art. The other two charities involved were the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens and the Santa Barbara Humane Society. The city was also involved because her will included a bequest for maintenance of the park, which she had donated two years earlier.

At the meeting Rapp said, “My recollection is that marriage after the will makes the will void.”

“What does that mean?” asked the charities.

“You get nothing,” Rapp said.

There was dead silence in the room. The group decided that a fact-finding trip to Milan was essential.

Mystery in Milan

Arriving in Milan in February 1978, Cooney and Rapp contacted Alice Keck Park’s Italian attorney. Yes, yes, Alice had asked him to find Bruno, but he had been assured by her U.S. attorneys that she wasn’t serious. Bruno’s whereabouts amounted to an expressive shrug.

The hunt was on. They visited the main registry in Milan and found the Leonarduzzi family records. Next to Bruno’s name was “nessuno,” indicating he was not married. Marriage records, however, were not necessarily at the main registry, they were at the neighborhood churches. Cooney and Rapp scoured the rain-washed contradas to search parish records. Dozens of novenas later, the duo realized the futility of this approach.

Faletti’s records had revealed a post office box address: PO Box 356, Milano Centrale. They sent letters requesting that Bruno contact the Italian attorney. Rapp went to the County Clerk’s office with several documents that verified who he was and asked the clerk to place large official seals on them. Clever, for when the Italian post office shut its doors on his American documents, he flourished the official seal and was welcomed into the secret confines of the postal department. Rapp discovered that the letter they had sent to Bruno had been picked up, but the stakeout was a complete bust.

Their two-week stay was up without much to show for it. On their last day, the amateur detectives were bidding “arrivederci” to the Italian attorney when the phone rang. He gestured wildly at the departing lawyers. It was Bruno!! People were out to kill him, Bruno told the lawyer, and these men were they.

“No, no,” said the Italian attorney, “they are here with information about Alice.” He then gave Bruno the bad news, Alice was dead.

“A long, loud wail came over the phone line,” Rapp recalls. Bruno disconnected, and the Hardy Boys returned to Santa Barbara.

Il Patto de Oro

Back in Santa Barbara, the search for evidence of a marriage continued. Among the postcards in Faletti’s files was one of a church. On it Bruno refers to the fourth anniversary of their Golden Pact. Cooney subsequently visited this church but there was no record of a marriage. Part of the problem was that Bruno was a Catholic and Alice an agnostic. Marriage in a church seemed unlikely.

Continuing his search, Cooney struck gold when he found that Alice and Bruno had spent quite a bit of time in Colorado. All that is required to create a marriage in Colorado is to live openly as husband and wife. Cooney discovered a small hotel where Alice and Bruno stayed for six months as Mr. and Mrs. Leonarduzzi. The marriage was legal, and, since one couldn’t simply “unregister” to effect a divorce, it was time to return to Milan; this time with a summons to appear for a petition of heirship.

Fellini Assassins

In Milan, Bruno’s brother had been located and helped set up a meeting with Bruno and the Italian lawyer. Still fearful of potential assassins, however, Bruno cancelled. The attorneys, meanwhile, had learned that Bruno was working as a counselor and physical education teacher at a school in Milan. According to Italian law, a summons to appear could be delivered to one’s employer. Learning that Bruno hadn’t been at work for several days, and, ready to go back to the United States, Cooney agreed to deliver the summons to the principal of the school.

Rain obscured the windshield as Cooney and the Italian attorney’s car halted at the stop sign across from the school. Shoulders hunched against the downpour, a short, stout man with a huge head crossed in front of them. It was Bruno! Cooney scrabbled in his briefcase for the summons.

“No, no,” said the Italian lawyer, putting out a restraining hand, “you’ll give him a heart attack. Wait. We’ll do it as planned.”

In the third floor administative office, the principal phoned Bruno, who was working in the basement gym, and asked him to come up. Bruno refused claiming there were certain people he did not want to see. Exasperated, the principal said he would come down instead.

Four flights down, the principal burst through a set of double swinging doors, followed closely by the Italian attorney in his intimidating great coat. As Cooney entered the room a blood curdling “Nooooooo!” erupted from Bruno and he threw up his hands, scattering his supplies throughout the gym. Bruno turned and ran for the side exit.

“He’s just crazy,” said the Italian attorney. “Let him go.”

“No way,” said Cooney and raced after him wanting to personally serve the summons so there would be no potential legal problems.

Outside, Bruno had fallen on the slippery, wet grass and lay screaming in fear. “He had a look of stunned, sheer fright,” Cooney said.

Cooney tried to reassure him in broken Italian, naming people he would know and friends who had said to say hello. Not the least reassured, Bruno scrambled to his feet and began to run again but not before Cooney had placed the summons in his pocket. Bruno threw it back like he’d been scorched and hurried away.

Bruno and Alice

With the legal procedures in place, it was time to contemplate the character of this strange, paranoid little Italian who didn’t quite fit the modus operandi of the gigilo and gold digger that everyone assumed him to be. Born in 1920, Bruno Valentino Silvio Leonarduzzi was educated in psychology, philosophy and classical studies and trained as a counselor and physical education teacher. He spoke four languages.

He suffered a head wound early in World War II at the battle of El Alamein which left him a war hero but irreversibly damaged. Bruno retained his academic abilities but had little sense of the practicalities of life. Cooney says he was very honor conscious. He worked at a technical school for a stipend, basically as an unsalaried employee because he refused to pledge an oath to the State. He said he’d already given his oath of loyalty to the King when he was inducted into the army and hadn’t, therefore, another to give.

“My impression was that he was genuinely concerned about the plight of others,” says Rapp. Bruno worked with people who were handicapped in some way. In the case of Alice, that meant helping her stop drinking a bottle of bourbon a day and finding a reason to live.

Alice Keck Park was the much-troubled, unhappy daughter of William Myron Keck, who founded Superior Oil Company in California and established the W.M. Keck Foundation in 1954. A child of privilege, she and her family spent many summers in Montecito and at their ranch in Santa Ynez. Alice’s potentially idyllic life was marred by the death of two siblings at a young age. When she was 18, she lost her mother to a tragic but puzzling car crash. Alice was the last person to see her alive. She was responsibile for a fire that permanently scarred one of her sisters, and she struggled with alcholism from her teenage years on. Chubby and self-conscious, she was the ugly duckling among her siblings and earned a reputation for strange behavior. She was convinced her brothers were trying to kill her because she voted against their plans for Superior Oil.

In 1953, life seemed to get better when Alice eloped with the grandson of Dr. Charles C. Park, an early supporter of Cottage Hospital. They moved into a family home in Montecito. In 1956, however, David Edgar Park committed suicide, and Alice’s brief fling with sobriety was over.

In 1962, Alice entered a sanitarium at Lake Como near Milan for treatment for alcoholism. Her counselor and Italian teacher at the institution was one Bruno Valentino Silvio Leonarduzzi.

“I’m convinced, and others are more skeptical, that a real relationship developed; a relationship in which she relied on him,” says Rapp.

It was not to last. When Alice and Bruno returned to Italy in 1974, Alice became suspicious that Bruno had a wife. He would disappear for hours from their hotel. One day Alice followed him in a taxi. He entered a house and was greeted by a woman. Believing the worst, Alice rang the doorbell and when Bruno answered, she slapped him across the face, checked out of her hotel and left him forever.

When Alice returned to the States she lived in relative obscurity in Tucson, Arizona, where she died of acute alcoholism in 1977. A sad end to a sad life. To quote the bard, “Never was a story of more woe…”

The Deposition

After the summons had been served, a prestigious Italian law firm was engaged to represent Bruno’s interests. Cooney and Rapp returned to Milan along with Bob Andrews where a deal was cut whereby Bruno received $2 million and his attorneys, $1 million.

Bruno’s personal interest in the settlement was, however, not in the least monetary. First, he insisted that the proceedings be conducted on Santa Barbara time, which he had been living on since the news of Alice’s death. Secondly, each of the charities was to place a brass plaque honoring “Alice B. Leonarduzzi” for the bequests. Thirdly, wanting to symbolically get back at Alice’s brothers for their treatment of her, he wanted Superior Oil to give each of the charities a quart of oil every year.

Though the charities had to give Bruno a portion of the estate, the delay in settlement had so inflated the value of it (mostly Superior Oil stock) that everyone benefited substantially. By the time the estate was settled in November of 1979, it was worth $40 million (about $112 million today). Cooney and Rapp, besides fulfilling gumshoe fantasies, benefited by establishing long-lasting friendships with the Italians. As for Bruno, well, at last check he had not touched the money. And 29 years later, the same $50,000 lies in his Santa Barbara bank account.

(Michael Cooney, Brian Rapp and “Alice’s Garden” by Anna Marie Castleberg)