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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The story of a contested will and fatal fall on St. Paul’s Linwood Avenue

Stephen Rocheford mostly recalls James “J.P.” Collins with regret, disillusionment, and rage. Then a contested will and fatal fall followed.

He recalls their last lunch together at the St. Paul University Club on Summit Avenue and their unsettling conversation before he severed his decades-long friendship with the charming, big-hearted theater enthusiast who would collect a dozen CDs of the same opera to find the best performance.

Rocheford, a magazine publisher, and former U.S. Army intelligence officer asked Collins, whom he had sponsored for more than 30 years through Alcoholics Anonymous, whether he was drinking or taking drugs. He heard no response. Collins had previously characterized Rocheford’s roommate as intimidating and prone to screaming and slamming doors to get his way. Rocheford asked Collins whether he had signed over his house to his roommate, whom Collins had described as prone to shouting and banging doors to get his way. Once again, he got no response.

The two guys never again talked. Within four months, Collins was admitted to the hospital and never recovered. Within six months he passed away.

Collins maintained an open-door policy at the enormous Crocus Hill duplex in St. Paul that had been in his family for a century during his last years, before his deadly fall down a flight of stairs on his 81st birthday. Collins, a former state computer systems specialist and one of the first openly homosexual foster parents in Minnesota, permitted recovering addicts to rent rooms from him during their period of transition. Then, with Rocheford’s assistance, he would host up to 93 Thanksgiving guests at his house.

Eugene Francis Kelly, who had met Collins’ adult son in a hospital treatment program, befriended his father and then moved into the Linwood Avenue duplex with Collins, who was 25 years his senior and in deteriorating health, in the autumn of 2015.

According to records filed in Ramsey County District Court, Kelly, a trained attorney who does not have a current license to practice law in Minnesota, started identifying himself as Collins’ attorney despite lacking an active license. And shortly afterward, Kelly demanded that Collins’s neighbors, including his youngest son, vacate the duplex.

The probate petitions filed by Collins’ two adult children, Murphy Collins Cannon and Allen Collins, in September 2019 marked the beginning of a nearly two-year legal battle against Kelly, Kelly’s claims to their father’s estate, and what they described as Kelly’s overwhelming influence on their father.

A House Guest

This court dispute, which included Rocheford, the longstanding president and publisher of Lavender Magazine, the state’s longest-running gay and lesbian journal, was just recently settled, mostly in the family’s favor. In June 2021, an evidentiary hearing conducted in Ramsey County District Court lasted over three weeks.

It has now spilled over into a second investigation against Kelly, which was initiated by an attorney for Collins’ sons and is being conducted by the state board that investigates complaints against attorneys and recommends to the Minnesota Supreme Court whether they should be disciplined, suspended, or disbarred entirely from practicing law.

Kelly did not respond to a reporter’s calls or emails for comment.

According to Collins’ family, Kelly identified himself as “esquire” in emails and concluded them with a standard legal disclaimer that the material included was “protected and private” as if they were official attorney-client papers. Last year, the sons of Collins testified at trial that Kelly routinely threatened them and others with legal action to get his way.

Collins’ health difficulties worsened in 2016. Collins said on Facebook in April of that year from his bed at St. Joseph’s Hospital in downtown St. Paul, “I’m eating supper while listening to opera.” At the time, his other social media postings portrayed him with Murphy Collins Cannon or his school-aged grandchildren.

According to court documents filed by Collins’s family, after Collins had triple bypass surgery in 2016 at the age of 77, Kelly started bringing him to appointments and serving as his attendant. According to the court pleadings, Collins started regularly writing $2,400 checks to Kelly. Kelly has no other known source of money.

A qualified financial analyst would subsequently establish that Collins’ expenditures increased significantly over the summer of 2016. Numerous credit cards and credit lines with a zero balances were quickly maxed up with debt.

Rocheford testified at trial that Collins confided in him in September 2016 that he feared Kelly and that Kelly had forced him into granting her power of attorney. Rocheford and Collins enjoyed lunch at Dixie’s on Grand in St. Paul. Collins started to weep amid the restaurant, Rocheford recounted, according to Collins’s friend Rocheford.

Upon contacting Ramsey County Adult Protection, Rocheford was informed by the agency that Collins would have to file a complaint on his own, he said. “They inquired, ‘Does he own a car?'” Yes? Then he may simply leave his home, hop in his vehicle, and drive away.’… They said that they will take no action.”

Later, Rocheford got a letter from a county social worker stating, in two phrases, that the county would not begin a case. Amy Mason, the attorney representing Collins’ adult sons, produced the letter dated October 11, 2016, during trial, but Adult Protection said they had no record of it.

Mason spoke with an associate attorney from the Ramsey County attorney’s office in a futile attempt to have Kelly investigated. They never manufactured it.

A representative for the county said on October 28, 2022, that according to state law, copies of adult protection complaints that are not investigated or proven to be fraudulent are not required to be kept after three years.

Mason remarked that Kelly had a criminal past. Kelly pled guilty in March 2015 in Ramsey County District Court to negligent operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and second-degree driving while intoxicated, both gross misdemeanors.

Kelly was found guilty of breaking probation in Williamson County, Tennessee, in April 2013, after convictions in 2012 for driving under the influence and resisting arrest. In August of 2002, the Franklin Police Department in Tennessee arrested him on accusations of harassment and trespassing.

Mason said that owing to the duration of the trial, this information about Kelly’s criminal past was not presented during the probate trial.

Isolation Builds

Rocheford, who persuaded Collins in 2016 to file a police case against Kelly, subsequently joined Collins for their annual Thanksgiving dinner, which consisted of Collins opening his home to homeless individuals. He remembered that Kelly refused to come downstairs and remained in his room.

Rocheford expressed confusion as to why Kelly avoided him. Later, he concluded that he understood the reason: he was just as suspicious as his buddy was trusting. He said, “Kelly’s pretense would not have worked on me.”

According to court petitions filed by Collins’ sons, Rocheford was unable to reach Collins by phone for months following, despite numerous attempts.

In late 2016 and early 2017, Kelly demanded that Allen Collins and his ex-partner Sheila Shelton renounce their ownership in an Iowa property Collins had helped his son and ex-wife purchase back from bankruptcy. Collins had assisted Collins’s son and ex-wife in acquiring the farm. According to court documents, Kelly intervened in the ownership dispute, at one time threatening to have Shelton evicted from the farm property and prosecuted for criminal fraud.

According to the petition for probate, in September 2017 Collins and Kelly contacted Murphy Collins Cannon, who had lived rent-free with his family for the past ten years in the neighboring unit of the Linwood Avenue duplex. The court petition indicates that Kelly insisted that the Cannons start paying rent. Additionally, he demanded between $75,000 and $100,000 in outstanding rent. Instead, the Cannons relocated the next month.

According to the family’s legal pleadings, after Collins sold his Xcel Energy shares in February 2018, the sum of $127,000 was placed into Kelly’s bank account. By April of that year, Kelly had persuaded Collins to sign a legal document that granted him Collins’ entire collection of silver, crystal, and china.

The two men met with a lawyer specializing in estate planning to prepare a will that excluded Collins’ sons but left money to his grandkids. A court eventually determined that Kelly was present for six of the seven hours of meetings and had phone discussions with the estate counsel alone on occasion. Collins signed a death deed giving Kelly his house in March 2018, but his sons subsequently questioned if the signature was faked or made under duress in court documents.

When either son contacted his father, Kelly answered the phone, according to the testimony of both boys. When Cannon dined alone with his father, Kelly reportedly requested that Collins film the whole discussion on his iPhone. Shelton filed a vulnerable adult complaint with Ramsey County in July 2018, but the county did not initiate an investigation.

Collins, who sought counseling for depression, started telling others that Kelly, who was 25 years younger than him, had pushed him into a romantic connection and that the two were experiencing “the greatest and worst days” of their relationship, according to court documents. A contractor testified at trial that, among other expensive house modifications, he was contracted to install flooring that cost three times as much as usual supplies from Home Depot.

Collins informed friends at the time that Kelly had contributed $60,000 of his own money to the project, but Collins’ children questioned whether or not this was accurate.

In 2018, a collections firm located in Golden Valley sought more than $10,000 from Kelly for outstanding credit card debt, but he failed to answer the court summons. In November of that year, Ramsey County courts rendered a complete judgment against him.

According to the court’s findings, the two men spent $238,000 in 2018, although their family income was just $70,000. Kelly testified at trial that Collins was always aware of incoming and outgoing funds, but the court was not persuaded. “The Court finds that this testimony lacks credibility,” stated Judge Sara Growing of the Ramsey County District Court in her December 2018 order.

The Fatal Fall

Others said that Kelly would not let Collins talk to anybody without his presence and that he timed Collins when he served dinner while criticizing him for being too sluggish.

In February of the following year, Rocheford and Collins reunited for lunch at the University Club in St. Paul, which would be their last encounter. His Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor of more than three decades, Rocheford, inquired as to whether he was drinking or taking drugs. He heard no response. The probate petition submitted by Collins’ sons states, “Rocheford also questioned him whether he had transferred the residence.” Again, J.P. did not respond to the inquiry.

He recognized their connection had become sexual.

Four months later, on his 81st birthday, Collins fell down his staircase and was taken to Regions Hospital without the knowledge of Rocheford or his family. More than two months passed before his kids learned of his hospitalization, by which time just days left. He died on Aug. 11, 2019.

Mason, the attorney representing Collins’ boys, met with a St. Paul Police Department fraud detective and an assistant county attorney but was unsuccessful in persuading them to launch a criminal case against Kelly. A police department spokesperson was unable to identify a relevant police report.

On October 28, office spokesperson Dennis Gerhardstein said, “The Ramsey County Attorney’s office is not an investigative agency.” “We assess instances given to us by law enforcement for charge consideration, but in this instance, no case was ever offered for evaluation.”

Legal Trust is Challenged

In September of that year, Collins’ sons filed petitions with the Ramsey County District Court to nullify the real estate deed and other estate papers involving Kelly, asserting “undue influence” on their father and claiming to be the true heirs. In October of the same year, the two sons filed separate court petitions to invalidate their father’s legal trust for identical grounds. They claimed damages and compensation totaling $353,000 from Kelly.

In December, after a three-week evidentiary hearing in June, Judge Growing ruled that Collins’ death deed, will, and revocable trust were all formed under Kelly’s undue influence and that his sons were his heirs.

She capped Kelly’s obligation to Collins’ estate at around $74,000. The amount was about similar to the monies left after the sale of Xcel Energy shares, the periodic $2,400 cheques that Collins had written to him, and the expenses incurred following his passing.

She ruled that each son’s legal bills would be covered by Collins’ estate. The other charges made by the sons, including forgery, willful misrepresentation, and exploitation of a vulnerable adult, were rejected with prejudice, which means they cannot be retried.

Growing granted the property in Iowa to Collins’ estate and designated Rocheford as its agent. In January, Rocheford removed Kelly from the property on Linwood Avenue, only to discover that Kelly had already fled. Kelly’s lawyers resigned as his legal counsel at the same time. The Minneapolis-based business that represented Kelly did not respond to a reporter’s phone.

Rocheford helped Collins’ sons in decluttering and listing the duplex for sale. In August, the home was repainted and sold. Rocheford said that a significant portion of the remainder of the inheritance had gone to creditors or had been squandered down.

Officials with the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility announced last month that they had initiated an investigation into whether Kelly’s actions warrant disciplinary action against his presently dormant law license. The agency can propose suspensions, disbarment, and other license sanctions to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but its recommendations have not yet been made public.

Call the Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center at 1-844-880-1574 if you feel an elderly person has been subjected to any sort of undue influence or abuse. The Minnesota Department of Human Services has authorized this organization to send information to the relevant investigation authorities.

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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