After 20 Years, legal battle over home is over (RI)

WARREN — The old Oliviera house at the corner of Serpentine and Schoolhouse roads is tough to miss. Twenty years haven’t been kind.

The porch is collapsing and the yard is a dense tangle. The shed out back is a pile of sticks, and the plywood screwed over the broken windows is falling apart.

For two decades, the old white farmhouse has been at the center of a bitter will dispute that pitted an estranged son against the Town of Warren. The case went as far as the state’s highest court, but now it’s ending.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently threw out the legal challenges raised by John Oliviera, estranged son of the late Peter Oliviera, and upholds the elder Oliviera’s last wishes: that his property go to the Town of Warren Rescue Squad. The property is in the process of transferring, Warren town solicitor Anthony DeSisto said last week, and it should be wrapped up by the early part of 2012.

“It’s been going on so long, I’m glad to hear it’s coming,” said Warren Fire Chief Al Galinelli, who wasn’t even chief when the case started.

Bitter case

Serpentine Road has changed a lot since Mr. Oliviera, a farmer, lived on his acre of land just across from the reservoir. The open fields next door are now the home of a retired Boston Red Sox pitcher, and hackers spend the snow-free months hitting nine irons around the par-three golf course put in on the fields behind him.

Mr. Oliviera was born in 1905. He and his wife Fernanda lived in their 1880 home for years and raised two children: John, now of Bristol, and Beatrice, who years ago married and moved to Virginia.

It’s not known where he and his children went wrong, but in April 1985, six years before his death, Mr. Oliviera hired Warren attorney Morphis Jamiel to help him draft a will. In it, he left nothing to his children and instead put his entire estate in a trust to care for Fernanda until her death. After his wife died, he wrote, regular payments from the trust should go to the rescue squad, and, at the end of 15 years, the entire estate should be transferred to the squad.

“— Nothing to my children,” Mr. Oliviera was quoted as saying by a witness who was there when he signed the will. “This is what I want.”

Mr. Oliviera died on Aug. 15, 1991, four days before Hurricane Bob blew through Warren. In his obituary, published in the Warren Times two days after the storm, there was no mention of his children, John and Beatrice. That October, his will was entered into Probate Court in Warren.

The first challenge came a month later, when John and sister Beatrice filed an objection contesting their father’s will. They alleged that it wasn’t their father’s signature on the six-year-old document.

Fernanda died in early January 1992, just shy of five months since her husband’s passing. By April, Warren Probate Judge Timothy Avila had issued a ruling on the brother and sister’s objection. He denied it.

That was apparently it for Beatrice, whose name does not appear in subsequent court documents. But John appealed Judge Avila’s ruling, alleging that an earlier, handwritten will existed. The younger Oliviera also called into question his father’s medical condition when he signed the Jamiel will, suggesting that the medications he was taking could have affected him.

The appeal dragged on for nine years but ultimately, none of the claims stuck. In May 2001, the Warren probate judge issued a ‘decree’ denying the appeal. Though John appealed that decree to the Rhode Island Superior Court, he missed the court’s 20-day filing deadline — a fatal error.

Over the years, John Oliviera became a regular presence in the court room; he was also known to stand in front of town hall wearing a sandwich board that stated his beefs. As time passed, the case file stored in the town hall’s land evidence area grew to five inches thick.

Finally, the Rhode Island Supreme Court took up the case last September and in December ruled that Mr. Oliviera missed his chance to fight the will not by not filing his original appeal of the 2001 decision within that 20-day deadline.

“Although this case should summarily have been dismissed because it was time-barred, the end result nonetheless was correct,” the Supreme Court justices wrote.

What’s next?

Almost a year has passed since the Supreme Court decision, and “complicated” title issues that must be resolved before the estate is transferred are still being worked on, Mr. DeSisto said. However, he said, “the litigation is over.”

He predicts title for 71 Serpentine Road will transfer by early 2012.

After all this time, there’s not a lot left of the estate, not that there was much to begin with. Even in the beginning, it was so small that Old Stone Bank, Mr. Oliviera’s nominee for trustee, declined the role.

Nevertheless, Chief Galinelli said the town should be thankful for the man’s generosity. Though he didn’t know him, “we (the rescue squad) must have helped him and his wife out.”

The chief favors selling the property, with the proceeds transferred into an account to help fund the construction of a new rescue headquarters. That’s up to Warren’s voters, who have final say over property disposition at Financial Town Meeting.

Meanwhile, the house continues to deteriorate. Earlier this month, three people — a man and two women in their early 20s — were caught snooping around the place. There isn’t much left worth taking; vandals stole all the copper tubing years ago.


After 20 Years, Legal Battle Over Home Is Over
The tumble-down house on Serpentine has been decaying for 20 years, but legal limbo is ending
Ted Hayes
November 20, 2011