Probate court mess continues (CT)


Sam Manzo, the Southington caretaker on the old Smoron farm, is still without his inheritance and still living in probate hell.

I stopped by to talk with Manzo on Tuesday because it’s been two years since I first heard about the elaborate scheme that sought to disinherit Manzo and take the broken down old Smoron farm from him.

The place remains a wreck — a ramshackle collection of old machines, broken equipment, wandering cows and other debris – just off the Queen Street exit off busy I-84. With the massive old dairy barn and crumbling farmhouse, the farm is a beautiful, anachronistic mess. Amid the neighboring big box stores, it is a living link to what once was.

Josephine Smoron and her siblings lived here, Polish farmers with an independent streak, for decades. In her old age, Smoron brought Manzo in to help on the farm, where the herd of cows lived like friendly pets. The cows are still there and so is Manzo, with his billowing Z.Z. Top-style beard and dreams of creating a living farm museum – right beside a B.J.’s warehouse store.

Smoron died in 2010 left the farm to Manzo in her will. A probate judge and Smoron’s court-appointed conservator didn’t see it that way. A deal that would have quietly passed the farm to local churches and then to a prominent Southington developer almost went through, until Manzo cried foul.

The whole mess is now before Superior Court in Hartford, where a judge is attempting to sort out what one lawyer told me was “a circular firing squad” of competing interests. At the front is the local developer, Carl Verderame, who still wants the property. His lawyer declined to comment.

If you’ve got a heart, a love for the past – or a belief that legal contracts and private property rights matter – Sam is your hero. How he looks, or if his property is a mess, is irrelevant.

An eccentric old woman gave her farm to her eccentric caretaker in return for his years of work. We ought to respect at least that.

“I’m going to keep the farm going, once things get settled,” Manzo told me as we walked around and Josephine’s cows approached for a nuzzle. He talked about making it a nonprofit operation, with more animals and other demonstration projects.

The whole saga is a case-study for the state Supreme Court, which is now considering another case that raises questions about whether our probate courts, and particularly conservators appointed by the court, need more supervision and oversight. You’d be hard pressed to find a more outrageous story of conservator abuse, unless you look at the numerous other cases that have surfaced in my columns in recent years.

Smoron’s conservator, John Nugent, was appointed by Probate Judge Bryan Meccariello to represent her interests as her health deteriorated. Instead, Nugent signed a contract diverting the land to a developer, though it was never endorsed in probate court. Meccariello, meanwhile, did approve a change in Smoron’s will, without informing Manzo, who was the rightful heir to the 80-acre parcel. Meccariello withdrew from his re-election race after the scandal broke. Nugent still faces disciplinary proceedings.

In a cruel turn of fate, the farm’s assets remain in two trusts created by Nugent and approved by Meccariello. On paper, at least, Manzo has nothing.

“There are serious discussions about how to resolve the case,” said Eliot Gersten, one of Manzo’s lawyers, told me before declining to talk further. Unless an agreement can be reached, a Superior Court trial will go forward in March to determine whether the probate court had authority to change Josephine Smoron’s will.

Manzo, dragged through Connecticut’s byzantine probate maze, still believes that the old farm might live on.

“We are going to have a nice big garden. I’m going to set up a farm stand,” he told me Tuesday morning as we stood in manure in the warm sunshine. “I want to get the whole place cleaned up.”

“This spot here, you can’t encroach upon it. That’s my outlook.”


Probate Court Mess Continues
Rick Green
January 31, 2012
Hartford Courant,0,2131447.column