Money, Murder, and Adoption: The Wild Trial of the Polo King

It’s a bizarre story, even by Florida standards. After four years, two trials, an adoption, and multiple jury scandals, polo mogul John Goodman was found guilty of manslaughter.

10.28.14 10:40 PM ET

If there was one thing that polo magnate John Goodman got right on the night of Feb. 12, 2010, it could be heard in the 911 call that he placed one hour after speeding through a stop sign in his $200,000 Bentley, slamming another car into a canal, and leaving its driver to drown while he fled the scene.

“I’m in big trouble, huh?” Goodman asked the dispatcher, rhetorically, having finally knocked on a stranger’s door to ask for a telephone, which he then used first to call his girlfriend to report that he had “f***ed up” and been in an “end of the world accident.” The 911 call came second.

For Scott Wilson, 23, the end of the world came in a “vegetation and garbage-strewn canal at one o’clock in the morning, choking on filthy water and silt,” assistant state attorney Sherri Collins told jurors at a Palm Beach courthouse, where this afternoon, Goodman was found guilty of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide after four hours of deliberations.

Throughout his prosecution, which spanned four years, two trials, and multiple bizarre twists—including the arrest Monday of a man said to have texted one of Goodman’s friends and offered to fix the jury in his favor in exchange for cash—the 51-year-old billionaire founder of the International Polo Club Palm Beach had fought to prevent the end of Wilson’s world from also becoming the end of his.

“Like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar,” Collins said, Goodman concocted false versions of events in an attempt to buck responsibility for the “indifference, bad choices, bad judgment, stupid, stupid actions” that led to Wilson’s death.

He wasn’t drunk at the time of the crash, he insisted; rather, the blood test that showed him still more than twice the legal blood-alcohol driving limit three hours later was due to the liquor that he chugged at a friend’s “man cave” in the minutes after the crash, to calm himself and soothe his injuries. It had nothing to do with the $272 he had spent on 18 drinks earlier that evening at the Players Club, the watering hole of Wellington’s high-living polo set; all but three of those drinks—tequila shots, whiskey, and vodka—were for his friends, he said.

And it certainly wasn’t the case, Goodman argued, that he had blown brazenly through a stop sign at high speed when he T-boned Wilson’s car, as crash investigation experts testified at trial. It was more a case of the Bentley’s brakes having failed as he approached the intersection—a version of events that differed from that he gave during his 911 call, when he said he “just didn’t see that car coming.”

From the Players Club, he had been on his way to a Wendy’s fast-food joint to pick up a Frostie, the tycoon claimed. Jurors were not allowed to hear evidence from Stacey Shore, a woman who had smooched and danced with Goodman at the Players Club that night, that he had invited her to leave with him and go in search of cocaine. That assertion, given by Shore in a pre-trial deposition, would have been too prejudicial to present to the jury, the court ruled.

Asked by prosecutors during a pre-trial deposition about his alleged cocaine use, Goodman repeatedly pleaded the Fifth.

The 13-day trial that ended in today’s guilty verdict was his second. At the first, conducted in 2012, he was convicted and sentenced to 16 years, but the verdict was later overturned due to juror misconduct after one member of the panel was found to have answered a question untruthfully during pre-screening.

That juror, retired accountant Dennis DeMartin, 69, was convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to 120 days in custody in January this year, for having failed to disclose an ex-wife’s DUI conviction—a matter relevant to jury selection—and for having conducted his own drinking experiment with three shots of vodka prior to deliberating a verdict, in an attempt to assess the extent to which Goodman may have been impaired by alcohol. Such experiments are strictly barred.

“You’re talking about a foolish 69-year old man who screws up one thing after another, so Merry Christmas,” DeMartin protested at a hearing in May last year, when Goodman’s first attorney, Roy Black, grilled him over his deception. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath, who presided over the Goodman case, said DeMartin was “no benign Mr. Magoo,” sent him to prison, and granted a retrial. Goodman retreated to house arrest at his luxury mansion on $4 million bail.

During the first trial, Goodman also adopted his girlfriend Heather Hutchins, 44, in a peculiar legal maneuver to protect his nine-figure fortune from a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Wilson’s parents. The judge who presided over the adoption dubbed it a “legal Twilight Zone.” The Third District Court of Appeals later revoked it in March 2013, calling the move “a fraud on the court.”

But the juror problems did not end there. Earlier this month, with jury selection in the second trial underway, prospective panel member Travis von Vliet, a 23-year-old criminology student, was also led from the courtroom in handcuffs and jailed for contempt after it was revealed that he had read up on the Goodman case on the Internet.

Another juror, having made it onto the panel as an alternate, faced an inquisition from Judge Colbath after it emerged that he had used a laptop in his hotel—without permission—to look up fantasy football scores. He did not gain access to media reports on the case, the judge established, determining that no further action was required.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

But in a fourth twist Monday, it emerged that officers in Vermont had arrested a person amid an investigation into attempted jury-tampering and extortion. Few details were released, but it is known that the alert was sounded by Goodman’s friend and polo team member Kris Kampsen, who told police that he received a text offering to sway a jury member in exchange for payment.

Goodman’s potential 16 years in a prison cell will be a far cry from the 50 years of privilege he has spent before it.

He made his fortune working with his father—one of Texas’s top horse breeders—in the family air-conditioning business, while also establishing a polo ranch in Texas and a team that he named Isla Carroll, after his then-wife. It became one of the best and most respected in the country.

In 2004, he sold the family air-conditioning business for $1.43 billion and, that same year, founded the International Polo Club Palm Beach, sealing his position as a key mover and shaker on the polo scene. His club became the hub of America’s “sport of kings,” hosting the nation’s top polo tournaments, the best players, and celebrities aplenty.

As the verdict was read this afternoon, Goodman showed no emotion. He took a final mouthful of orange soda and glanced back at his girlfriend, Hutchins.

A civil lawsuit brought by Wilson’s parents, William and Lili, ultimately resulted in a $46 million payout—not from Goodman, but his insurance companies.

The couple, whose son had recently graduated from the University of Central Florida, have also fought in the years since his death over the fate of his ashes. William wanted them interred in Georgia, and offered to settle for half the remains; his ex-wife argued that the notion of splitting the ashes was “disgusting” and went against her Catholic convictions—and Florida law. After a four-year dispute, during which Wilson’s ashes remained in an urn at a Palm Beach funeral parlor, the matter was settled in a ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal in May, which ruled that ashes are not property to be shared. A court-appointed curator would decide Wilson’s resting place, it was decided.

“Today is not a day for celebration. It’s a day for remembering Scott Patrick Wilson,” prosecutor Alan Johnson said Tuesday afternoon after Goodman, who had posed with a smile for a photograph in the hospital hours after the fatal crash, was led to the cells grim-faced.

“Let us think of his family and his parents and hopefully today they have achieved some measure of closure,” Johnson added.

Earlier, in a comment to state attorneys as jurors began their deliberations, Judge Colbath looked out over the courtroom, and sighed: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”