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03.07.11

The War Over Etta James' Fortune

The bedridden blues icon is too sick to speak up as her son and husband battle over her estate in court. Christine Pelisek reports on the sordid drama.

Once known for her feisty, outspoken riffs on stage, R & B icon Etta James can’t speak up about the vicious legal battle escalating between her husband and son over control of her savings.

Known for her signature catalogue of songs—“At Last,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and “Call My Name”—the 73-year-old songbird suffers from dementia, leukemia, and numerous other ailments and is now bedridden at her ranch-style home in Riverside County, California.

Gallery: Etta James

“She is not really capable of making any rational decisions at this point,” said James’ court-appointed attorney Dennis Sandoval.

In fact, her ability to make decisions is at the heart of the family saga. Her son, Donto James, claims he has power of attorney over his mother’s affairs while her husband, Artis Mills, says she was in no condition to give him that sort of power. James’ erratic behavior at the time—which ranged from dozens of performances to strange comments and cancellations—have made this "he said, he said" all that much more difficult to decipher.

The rift began last November when Mills, James’ husband of 41 years and tour manager, filed a petition to gain access to three of the singer’s bank accounts, estimated to total around $1 million. He said he needed to pay for her business affairs and mounting medical bills. Mills says he spends around $30,000 a month for private medical care, which includes two full-time nurses and a round-the-clock doctor.

The following month, James’ son Donto, a drummer in his mother’s band, filed legal papers asking the court to grant him conservatorship of his mother’s estate. He also asked that the court appoint an independent administrator to handle her finances. There has been no mention of a living will.

Donto, who is Mills’ stepson, also questioned whether his mother is getting proper care by her $20,000-a-month live-in doctor, Dr. Elaine James.

“There are a lot of allegations flying everywhere,” said Sandoval.

Discovered in 1954, James, who was born Jamesetta Hawkins, became one of the most influential singers of her time, known for her bluesy riffs and slow burning melodies. Her rise to fame was hampered by a debilitating heroin addiction, stints in rehab, and troubles with the law.

By the late 1980s, the saucy and self-possessed singer had kicked her drug habit and hired a new manager, Lupe De Leon. James’ career flourished in the 1990s under his management. She won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1994. But by the late 1990s, the 5’3" singer’s weight, which topped 400 pounds, began to prevent her from performing.

In 2001, she underwent gastric bypass surgery at a clinic run by Hollywood weight-loss surgeon Dr. Mathias Fobi, whose patients include Roseanne Barr and American Idol judge Randy Jackson.

It was at Fobi’s clinic where Etta James met Elaine James, a bariatric surgeon. According to the doctor, the singer had difficulty eating and became intermittently anorexic. James, who is no relation, regularly dropped by the singer’s house in Riverside to bring her chicken soup.

For the singer, who crooned about heartache and redemption and inspired generations of singers, her life and care is now left up to the courts to decide.

“She wouldn’t eat or drink,” said James about the singer she affectionately calls “Grandma.” Over the years, James visited the singer and even prepared a New Year’s Eve dinner for the singer and her husband.

Those years were filled with both bouts of sickness and creativity.

And by January 2008, Etta James was ready for the road again. De Leon began to plan a 20-show U.S. tour, but it got off to a rocky start because of what some call James’ erratic behavior. Just days before the tour was scheduled to begin, James signed over her power of attorney in the event she became incapacitated.

“Observing Etta’s behavior at the time, I was not sure that she would be able to make the tour,” said De Leon in recent superior court filings. Etta had apparently “moved in with her son Donto, and filed for divorce” from Mills, who was also her road manager.

De Leon complained that he didn’t get paid for his work and felt it was done as a “ploy to provoke me to quit/resign as her manager.”

“In essence, I was being fired,” he wrote in a December 23, 2010, letter to the court. “At that moment, I felt that [James] was not acting or behaving in her right or normal mind, when she filed for divorce from her husband and proceed[ed] to fire me as her manager.”

James’ music agent, Brad Goodman, also voiced his concern over the singer’s behavior in another letter released by the court. Goodman wrote: “Throughout 2008, Etta’s behavior became unexpectedly erratic and irrational in regards to her decision-making,” he wrote. “In addition, it became increasingly difficult to hold a conversation with Etta over the phone.”

During that tour, James made headlines after she told a Seattle crowd that Beyonce, who portrayed her in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, deserved to have her “ ass whupped" for singing her 1961 hit “At Last” at President Obama’s inaugural ball.

Two months later, James made an appearance on Dancing With the Stars, but she had to cancel several of her shows—including one at the Hollywood Bowl.

The roller coaster continued as James was diagnosed with MRSA and Alzheimer's disease. By early 2010, Elaine James became her full-time live-in doctor. “[Mills] begged me to take care of her because she was critically ill,” James said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “He was very worried and concerned about his wife.”

Asked about Etta James’ current condition, James said: “Can she get up and square dance? I would say no.” But, “she recognizes the most important people in her life.”

At a hearing last month, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Cahraman ordered the singer to undergo an independent medical evaluation. And just last week, he froze her accounts.

“During my mother’s working life, she set aside bank accounts for herself and gave Artis Mills the other half of her earnings,” said Donto James. “She did this because she did not trust Artis Mills and wanted to keep her half of her monies separate. Having received all the money given to him by my mother, Artis Mills now wishes to invade her accounts and dispose of this money as well.”

During the hearing, Cahraman also noted that a confidential investigator’s report about the singer that was released the same day as the hearing "does raise significant questions" about whether James is receiving proper medical treatment.

Donto James’ lawyer didn’t spare so many words. He said that report was an account of bad medical care.

“It is a very difficult situation,” said Joseph Deering, the lawyer, to The Daily Beast. “Pretty bizarre things are happening in my view and we want this sorted out for the protection of [Donto’s] mother.”

For the singer, whose soul-piercing voice about heartache and redemption inspired singers like Christina Aguilera and Bonnie Raitt, her life and care is now left up to the courts to decide.

“It is up to the court to unclog this mess,” said James’ court-appointed attorney, Dennis Sandoval. The next hearing is scheduled for April, when the saga promises to continue.

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Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.