2 Claims Complicate Tussle Over New Age Guru's Estate

The New York Times/June 13, 1999

By Debra West

White Plains, NY -- Accounts of fraud, bogus spirituality and sexual exploitation had given the battle over the estate of Frederick P. Lenz III, a popular author and New Age guru who killed himself on Long Island in 1998, all the melodrama a television producer could want.

But now there's more.

Two women claiming to be Lenz's widows have turned up to contest his will, causing a scramble by the lawyers involved in the case in Surrogate's Court here.

Two sides, the National Audubon Society and the executor of the estate, had been arguing over who should get Lenz's estate of $18 million, which he amassed chiefly through his lectures on meditation and computers. His will had said he intended to leave everything to the Audubon Society or to a foundation promoting his quasi-Buddhist ideas.

Then a Texas woman, Diana Jean Reynolds, filed papers May 12 saying that she was Lenz's widow and was entitled to a third of his fortune, as New York State law provides.

As the lawyers moved to investigate Ms. Reynolds' claim that she met and married Lenz in 1980 when she was a flight attendant, a second woman told the Surrogate's Court on May 27 that she was the true widow.

That woman, Deborah Lenz, who describes herself as a cult deprogrammer who is writing a book about her stormy relationship with the tall, blond Lenz, claimed no documented marriage with him but said in court papers that they had lived as husband and wife from 1988 until his suicide and claimed a common law marriage under Colorado law. She is seeking to have his will thrown out entirely.

The will is no help in the dispute between the women: Lenz said in the first paragraph that he was not married and wanted to disinherit his family.

Lawyers for the four parties who now want a piece of Lenz's holdings -- which include several mansions, a couple of Lear jets and some luxury cars -- are to meet in court here on Wednesday to begin sorting through the claims.

"I remember Diana Reynolds as being a wonderful person," said Mark E. Laxer, an early follower of Lenz who is listed as a witness on the marriage certificate that Ms. Reynolds submitted. "I don't think she's making any of this up, but she may have been duped, like the rest of us."

Laxer, 38, a computer programmer for the United States Customs Service, wrote a book, "Take Me for a Ride: Coming of Age in a Destructive Cult" (Outer Rim Press, 1993), about his experience as a follower of Lenz.

"I certainly don't remember any major wedding, where everybody gets dressed up and has cake or anything," Laxer said. "Maybe one day they said, 'Hey, we're getting married,' as I was on my way out to school or something and then they counted me as a witness, but I don't remember it."

The marriage certificate is from San Diego County, but a clerk in the San Diego County Clerk's Office, Angie Zaragoza, said the office had no record of the marriage.

A lawyer for Ms. Reynolds, Rita Gilbert, said Ms. Reynolds never divorced Lenz but that their relationship ended in the mid-1980s after he forced her to have an abortion.

Deborah Lenz, who filed her claim May 27, the deadline for challenges to the will, said she had not planned to enter the dispute over the will until she heard about Ms. Reynolds. "I had to come forward," Ms. Lenz, 48, said in a brief telephone interview. "I cannot allow someone else to claim to be married to my husband."

To support her legal claim, Ms. Lenz submitted a letter from a friend, Leta Jo Sparkman, who wrote that she had met Ms. Lenz at a psychic fair and had had dinner with the couple several times between 1988 and 1997. "Their marriage had matured and the bond of love and devotion was very obvious to any viewer's eye," Ms. Sparkman wrote.

But in an interview with The Aspen Daily News in 1989, Ms. Lenz, who then used the name Deborah Haines, spoke about how dangerous Lenz was. "He has an insane obsession with me," she said, adding, "He'll do anything he can to stop me and shut me up."

Lenz amassed his fortune in part by charging followers monthly tuition to attend his spiritual lectures and to meditate with him. He encouraged his followers to study computer programming and then to give him a share of the proceeds from software they designed. He also wrote two novels, "Surfing the Himalayas" and "Snowboarding to Nirvana" (St. Martin's Press, 1995 and 1997). He committed suicide at the age of 48 in April 1998, taking 150 Valium tablets and walking off a dock into the bay behind his mansion in Old Field on Long Island.

His will, which was prepared four years before his death and filed in Surrogate's Court in Westchester County, where he owned property, said that all his money should go to a foundation to promote his ideas if he took "significant steps" to establish one during his life. Otherwise, the will said, all his money should go to the National Audubon Society.

Norman Marcus, specified as the executor in the will, formed a foundation shortly after Lenz's death and made himself the president, saying he was following the will's intent. In December, the Audubon Society sued, saying it was entitled to the entire estate because Lenz had never taken "significant steps" to form the foundation.

The Audubon Society's lawyers, intending to weaken any competing claims, characterized him as a charlatan and a fraud. The society's legal filings included a thick binder of negative news articles about Lenz, including those accusing him of coercing many women into having sex with him by promising to hasten their spiritual enlightenment. "There was a lot of heavy spirituality going on," Laxer said of Lenz's relations with women. "Some New Age love."

Lawyers for the Audubon Society and Marcus were engaged in settlement talks when the women's claims were filed.

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