$18M Battle of Wills

The guru & the bird people

New York Daily News/April 11, 1999
By David Noonan

A year after his death, self-styled guru Frederick Lenz, who used to list his past lives on his resume, has been reincarnated as the central figure in one of the more contentious New Age legal battles of the year.

The struggle over Lenz' $18 million estate pits the National Audubon Society against Norman Marcus, Lenz's former accountant and executor.

Lenz' supporters are outraged by the Audubon Society's hardball tactics. Said one friend, who asked not to be identified: "I think anyone considering putting the Audubon Society in their will should realize that they're this pack of litigious wolves who will do anything, trash anyone, to get the money."

The Audubon Society declined to discuss the case. Its lawyer did not return calls seeking comment.

Lenz, who made his fortune as an author, lecturer and cult leader named Zen Master Rama, drowned himself last April in the waters off his Long Island estate. Police said Lenz, 48 at the time, ingested large amounts of Valium on the day of his death.

The legal fight for Lenz' fortune, which is being waged in Westchester County Surrogate Court, centers on two critical words in his will.

In that document, which he signed in October 1994, Lenz directed that his entire estate go to a charity set up by him to continue his spiritual teachings.

The Proviso

The catch was, if he hadn't created the charity by the time of his death or taken "significant steps" toward doing so, the money was to go to the National Audubon Society.

In June, two months after Lenz died, Marcus created the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism, with himself as president.

In December, noting "the phrase significant steps is imprecise and subject to varying interpretations," Audubon Society lawyer Susan Bloom filed papers charging that the Lenz Foundation was bogus and asking the court to award Lenz' estate to the bird people. In January, Marcus and his attorney, David Warren, fired back with a motion listing six "significant steps" Lenz had taken toward creating the foundation before his death and asking the court to give the money to the foundation.

Marcus also stated that he, Lenz and others spent years "conceptualizing, planning and designing" the foundation.

Among other things, Marcus contended that Lenz had made a "firm commitment to establish such a foundation," undertaken a search for a name and explored the tax issues involved.

Last month, Bloom and the Audubon Society dropped their bomb -- a massive court document that not only challenged Marcus' "significant steps" but also discredited Lenz as a spiritual leader.

In an affidavit, Bloom declared that no mission statement for the foundation had been drafted during Lenz' lifetime, and that Warren had admitted this to her.

In another document, Audubon alleged that "Lenz' interest in teaching American Buddhism was waning" in his later years; that his Buddhist activities "may have been a fraud," and that he was "widely reported to be a cult leader."

Citing scores of articles from newspapers and magazines, the Audubon Society portrayed its would-be benefactor as a charlatan or worse.

Legacy of Rage

Included was a copy of the guru's obituary from The Washington Post, which said that "Dr. Lenz' recruiting methods left behind a string of embittered, brokenhearted parents, including some who blamed him for their children's disappearances or suicides."

An NBC "Dateline" transcript in the package quoted a former Lenz follower: "He took away my identity. Everything I was was replaced by a new identity."

Even as they questioned Lenz' spiritual beliefs, the Audubon Society took pains to establish his "long-standing and abiding interest in the environment and his fascination with birds."

Audubon President John Flicker filed an affidavit detailing Lenz' membership history dating to 1975, a history highlighted by a $1,000 donation he made in 1997.

The society also included the sworn deposition of Mark Laxer, a former Lenz follower. "Based on my seven-year association with Lenz," Laxer said in the document, "I know that he was extremely devoted to birds, considered them spiritual beings and regarded them as powerful symbols."

Laxer recalled Lenz' purchase of 14 macaws in 1979 an described an experience in 1984, in which he said he helped Lenz through a bad LSD trip "by inventing a story about an imaginary bird."

Marcus, for his part, said he was unaware of any participation by Lenz in Audubon Society activities: "During the period I worked with [Lenz] from 1993 until his death, to my knowledge he had no experience with birds or bird study, either as a hobbyist or otherwise."

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