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02.02.10

The Murder Mystery Rocking Miami

The death of the heir to the Fontainebleau Hotel fortune has sparked a twisted blame game as the victim’s wife and stepdaughter accuse each other of his murder. Plus, VIEW OUR GALLERY of the Fontainebleau through the years.

The death of the heir of the Fontainebleau Hotel fortune has sparked a twisted blame game as the victim’s wife and stepdaughter accuse each other of his murder. Plus, VIEW OUR GALLERY of The Fontainebleau through the years.

Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this article, five sentences were copied from a Miami Herald report without attribution. The Daily Beast has removed the sentences and regrets the error. Two additional such sentences have also been removed, and an inaccurate description of Ronald Novack has been corrected. 

Ben Novack built Miami Beach’s iconic Fontainebleau Hotel in 1954.  It was a magnet for the rich and famous, including so many mobsters that the FBI assigned undercover agents to conduct surveillance at the grand ballroom to keep a tally of which northern kingpins were in town.  As I discussed in my book, Miami Babylon, Novack himself was long rumored to have mob connections, which he always denied.

But Monday, the Novack legacy took a strange turn when a Fort Lauderdale Probate Judge awarded Narcy Novack, the widow of Novack’s murdered son, Ben Jr., control of his $10 million estate.  What made the probate ruling odd was that other relatives wanted Narcy Novack—a suspect in the murder—removed as the estate's executor under the state's slayer statute. That law prohibits a killer from inheriting any part of a victim's estate.  The relatives dropped their lawsuit at the last moment, unable to marshal the evidence that Narcy was the killer. But the lawyers for the other Novacks asked for a dismissal without prejudice—which allows them to file another challenge at a later date.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of the Fontainebleau through the Years

Some background: This past July, Narcy found her husband’s bloody corpse at the Rye Town Hilton hotel in Westchester County, New York. He was on the floor beside his bed and had been bludgeoned.  His mouth was covered with duct tape, his hands taped behind his back, and his legs were tied together together below the knees. Missing was Novack’s gold bracelet, with “BEN” in diamonds. Novack had been directing a business conference he had organized. According to his Web site, his company, Convention Concepts Unlimited, took in $50 million annually. Narcy told the police she found her husband's body when she returned from breakfast. The Westchester police believe the murder was a professional hit, although they are not sure  who ordered it, much less carried it out. 

While the family fought over burial expenses, Novack’s corpse was preserved on ice at the Westchester County medical examiner’s office for 52 days before he was finally buried in the family’s mausoleum in Queens, New York.  Armed guards kept the fighting family members separated.

The Westchester police say Narcy is a “person of interest.”  She hasn’t been charged, nor has anyone else. But the Novack family is a 10-plus on the dysfunction meter. Narcy Novack's daughter from a previous marriage, May Abad, charges that her mom arranged the murder to collect her husband's fortune, and that her mom knew Ben was having an affair.

A Feb. 2 Miami Herald article detailed the often volatile relationship between the Novacks.

Narcy has turned the tables in the current probate fight and accused her own daughter of murdering Ben Jr., a charge Abad vehemently denies. A few days after Novack’s body had been found, Narcy and her daughter had a violent fight at Narcy’s Fort Lauderdale home.  Narcy called the police, accused Abad of assaulting a niece who was at the home, and had the police remove her forcibly from the property.  Abad told the police her mother had struck her with a crowbar.

Novack's Batman collection, the largest in private hands, was started by Ben Sr. when he owned the Fontainebleau.  It was estimated by Christies in 2000 as potentially worth $15 million.  But after Ben Jr.’s death, much of the Batman memorabilia turned up missing from several warehouses in Broward County. Sources close to the case told The Daily Beast that the locks on the warehouses where the materials were stored had been hacked off.

The Novack family is a 10-plus on the dysfunction meter.

If yesterday’s probate ruling stands, Narcy will likely also gain control of the estate of her late husband's 87-year-old mother, Bernice Novack, who was found dead three months before her son. Part of her estate was inherited by Ben Jr. and part by an adopted son of Ben Sr., Ronald Novack, a homeless man who dramatically showed up eight years after his mother’s death and claimed his inheritance just before a court was about to declare him legally dead. 

Bernice Novack's April 2009 death—in which her body was found face down and her skull was fractured—was ruled accidental by Fort Lauderdale police and the Broward County medical examiner.  The coroner’s ruling was despite some blood police found smeared on her car and on the walls in the house.  But second thoughts on the closed case came when Rye Brook detectives received an anonymous letter, after Ben Jr.’s murder, claiming that both Bernice and her son were killed by Narcy and an unnamed accomplice. Although initially skeptical, Rye Brook police have said that during the course of their investigation they determined that details in the letter were accurate.

"What we found interesting in the letter is there were names in it at the time we were not aware of, and as we did our own investigation, we found that information to be true,” a Rye Brook police spokesman told reporters.

The letter, written in Spanish, is dated July 20, 2009, a week after Ben Jr.’s brutal murder and three months after his mother's death. It names those involved, says how the murders were committed, and describes the events leading up to the alleged dual homicides.  Based on that letter, the Fort Lauderdale police have opened an investigation into Bernice’s death and whether foul play was involved.

Narcy Novack’s attorney, Howard Tanner, says the allegations about his client are  based on unfounded rumor and innuendo and that she had nothing to do with her husband’s death and had nothing to gain from the murder. Attempts to reach May Abad, or her attorney, for comment were unsuccessful.

As for Ben Novack Sr.’s great achievement—the Fontainebleau—it’s hanging on by a thread, close to bankruptcy after a billion-dollar renovation failed to revive its fortunes.  It doesn’t seem like anything is going right for the Novacks—not even their Miami Beach legacy.

Update: On Thursday, February 4, Broward Probate Judge Charles M. Green reversed his decision of just three days earlier granting control of Ben Novack Jr.’s estate to his wife, Narcy, citing a federal criminal grand jury investigation, of which she is evidently a target.

Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, on topics ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.