The story of Robert Cockburn and Victor Umpierre

Robert and Victor were introduced to each other on a blind date while they both were vacationing on the island of St.Thomas. Victor was a well-established lawyer who lived in Puerto Rico. Robert was a restaurateur working in Canada. After the vacation Robert returned to Canada and Victor to Puerto Rico.

Thus the relationship was born. Those were the days, both men were young, gay and successful. They would meet in New York and Amsterdam. They traveled together to the islands of St. Maarten and St. Croix or Aruba. Robert would hop on a plane and fly to New York where Victor would meet him at the airport with a bunch of roses and a chilled bottle of champagne. What was safe sex?

In 1983 Victor asked Robert to move to San Juan and make Puerto Rico his permanent home. Robert agreed and wedding bells tolled (figuratively).

They had a great relationship. Victor was very ambitious and had several businesses other than his law practice; construction, industrial waste management and a coffee operation which Robert took over and developed. Victor had a passion for collecting art, the collection he had when he died would be valued at around one million. Robert kept house, organized the social calendar, loved to shop and helped Victor in the office. Two English Springer Spaniels and a Siamese cat completed the family in a three thousand square foot apartment (plus a condo in New York and Amsterdam.)

Victor came from an old and financially secure Puerto Rican family. Homosexuality was not an accepted lifestyle. This caused Victor a great deal of pain as he always wanted to be accepted. Victor's family tolerated their son's relationship and on the surface seemed to accept it. They turned a blind eye to what was going on as so many parents of gays do.

During the time that Robert was living in Puerto Rico he never received a salary for what he did. There was no need -- Victor and he were in a loving relationship. If Robert needed money it was there. He never made an income, or became a permanent resident.

Victor was HiV+. His previous lover had died of "The Gay Cancer". Victor subsequently developed AIDS. The last couple of years before his death Robert began taking on more responsibilities. Victor was failing and he was not accepting what was happening to him. There had to be a cure. Victor continued trying to work until the day of his death. Robert waited on him hand and foot. Robert would complete Victors workload and let Victor take the credit. It wasn't an issue for Robert, his main concern was taking care of his lover.

The last six months of Victor's life were hell for both him and Robert. The family were a constant nuisance. Robert cooked, cleaned, clothed and fed Victor. He changed Victor's diapers. He also kept the law office open and the coffee business afloat. He dealt with the doctors, the nurses, the clients, the friends, the associates and the relatives. In the meantime, Victor's mother and sister made a daily trip to the hair salon so they would look presentable in case Victor died. Victor's father had their house repainted for the wake. On one occasion Victor's mother and sister where in Victor's bedroom and Victor started to scream that they were spending his money when he wasn't even dead yet. Another thing the family did, was to decide that Victor's estate belonged to them.

As Victor's health deteriorated, the tension mounted. The Umpierre's were preparing to grab all of Victor's assets. Yes, there was a will. It was witnessed by five professionals, two of whom were Victor's doctors. The Umpierre's were against it from the very start. On the day Victor signed the will they made such a scene in front of the lawyers and witnesses claiming Victor was incompetent that they had to be forcibly ejected from the apartment. The will was very fair; it gave half his estate to his father, (thereby satisfying Puerto Rican Law) and the other half was given to Robert to use for as long as he was alive, the only way he could liquidate the assets was to pay for medical expenses. After Robert died, his portion was to go to Victor's sister, Vicky. However, they got greedy. They hatched a plan. But Victor didn't trust his family. In order to protect Robert he put a clause in the will which stated that any legal intervention by his family and their portion of the estate was to go to the local AIDS organization Fundacion SIDA.

Victor died... His family intervened. In order to start the coffee business, Victor's father loaned the company 25,000 dollars. With very high interest rates this was no favor, but the company was in need of funds for development and Victor accepted. There was a freeze on loan payments in order to expand the business. Once the company was able to start making payments Victor Sr. decided that it would be fair to drop interest payments (which had been in the neighborhood of 90,000 dollars!) and just concentrate on the principal. Most of the loan was paid back with interest over several years. All the receipts and canceled cheques were in the office filing system.

About two months after Victor's death Vicky obtained a court order from a judge and started seizing Robert & Victor's possessions. She claimed that Robert was somehow responsible for the money the company borrowed. They also locked Robert out of the offices, which contained all of his personal files. This was followed by a series of embargoes done at Robert's home, which seemed to be extremely questionable considering the family already had possession of all real estate, stocks etc. This amounted to more than the amount claiming to be owed. During the first embargo, which purpose was to take all the art work plus the antiques, Vicky physically attacked Robert in order to take a photo album he was holding, the Marshall and her boyfriend Carlos had to pull her off his back.

After this fiasco Robert hired a lawyer. They went to court, the judge (Janet Ramos) told the family they had to return everything to the executors so the estate could be administered, they agreed until outside the courtroom, then they told Robert "F*ck you! You're getting nothing." Then the Umpierre's obtained another court order from a different judge to take anything else they left behind the first time. The only thing they left were the pets and a bed, they even took the air conditioning unit and Robert's ceramic piggy bank. This was done with Robert's lawyer present. Even though this second embargo was unfair, and probably violated Robert's civil rights, Robert respected the law and assumed that in the end "justice" would prevail. He stood by helplessly as all his possessions were carted away. The embargoes seemed to be organized by Dr. Carlos Sotomayor (a man whom Victor disliked intensely.) Vicky was Carlos' mistress.

Five years have passed since Victor died. Robert's lawyer is getting excited. His long (and as yet unpaid) struggle is paying off. Finally, there is a judge who is ruling in favor of Robert.

In December of '95 the judge ruled:

a. that the court appointed estate administrator must take possession of all the chattels of the estate (art works, furniture, etc.) and place them under his own custody, with no right of access to the Umpierres, until the estate is fully administered and divided, and

b. that Robert has a right to possession of half of the assets of the estate and, if he returned to Puerto Rico, the judge would issue an order to put half of all chattels in his possession.

In January of '96 the same judge ruled that Robert owes nothing to Victor Umpierre senior since Vicky acquired the assets of the coffee company. If the old man wants his money he has to sue his daughter, not Robert. In doing so the judge in fact disposed of their case against Robert.

This means that Robert has won the case. Right? Well, yes it does... kind of. In March of '96 Robert was ordered to go to Puerto Rico for a deposition. He did so at his own expense. He had to sell his car to raise funds for the airfare. Robert's lawyer pointed out to the judge that the deposition was a waste of time because the judge already ruled Robert has won. The judge took this under consideration.

The deposition was hell for Robert. The Umpierres' lawyer asked for the whereabouts of certain things. In particular, a Kodak instant camera (which by now would be 10 years old), the cutlery (they took with the rest of the kitchen stuff), the winter clothing (which was stored in the offices which Robert was locked out of). He asked about who shared Robert's bed on the night of Victor's death. He implied that Robert slept with a woman in the bed that Victor died in. Excuse me! Don't you know what h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l means? He asked about the animals, implying they were a valuable asset that Robert "took" from the estate. The fact being that after Robert and the animals were turned out of their home, Vicky refused to take responsibility for them. Since Robert couldn't take care of them on the streets he placed them in good homes. It wasn't an easy decision, but he had no choice. Why bring up these painful memories? What purpose does it serve? What is its relevance to the case? He also wanted to know how long Robert expected to live and if he could prove his HiV status. Again, what has this got to do with the case? The Umpierres' lawyer asked these and other irrelevant, morbid and depersonalizing questions.

Is "justice" being served? I think not. This was obviously another stalling tactic by the Umpierres'. They believe if they drag the case out long enough Robert will die, and finito case over. They seem to have forgotten that because of their challenge of the will, Fundacion SIDA stands to gain a sizable portion of the estate.

Fundacion SIDA is the local AIDS foundation. They are getting involved in this case for it affects many others besides Robert. It affects all Puerto Rican PWA's and gays who are faced with hostile "in-laws". What happened is clearly a violation of Robert's civil rights. The will was clear: if this had been a heterosexual couple the courts surely would not have put a wife and children into the street. What's the problem? Why hasn't the court appointed administrator done his job? Why has this taken over five years to resolve? Why do the Umpirre's have everything in their possession while Robert has nothing?

There was a clause in the will stating the if Victor's family challenge the will, their portion would then be transferred away from them and instead go to the Fundacion SIDA. By being greedy and not accepting half, they have lost everything. But there is a long way to go before any of the rightful heirs gets their lawful share. All the Antiques, the Artwork (Hernadez Cruz, John Stewart, Wilfredo Lam) are still in the homes of the Umpierre's. Remember the DEC '95 ruling in which the estate administrator was supposed to take everything into his possession? He hasn't done so.

The problem seems to be that the case is being bandied about like a hot potato, and is now in the hands of a fourth presiding judge. Each judge who has been assigned to the case has sat on it, presumably because all have been unwilling to tackle the very sensitive issues of law and sociology involved. Each judge would have preferred to see the case settled out of court, and apparently thought that by sitting on it they would somehow force a settlement on both parties. They have until now (despite Robert's lawyer's frequent and highly insistent writings to the court) assumed that the Umpierres' are normal, decent people who given a chance will come to a fair settlement. WRONG! However to be fair to the Umpierres' they did offer to settle last summer... Two thousand dollars... That's pretty cheap for a five year lawsuit.

As a note of interest: When Vicky took over the assets of the coffee company she acquired a 'key man' policy on Robert's life for $100,000. That means the insurance company believes that Robert is indispensable, that he is the key man, and the company can't survive without him. When Robert dies, the insurance company will shell out 100 grand to Vicky. I wonder if she mentioned to the insurance company that Robert is HiV positive? Maybe she's going to tell them after she collects.

Robert is now at the point where he is considered to have full blown AIDS. His CD 4 count is consistently below 200. He has been hospitalized several times for AIDS related conditions and he would like to see this case end before he dies.

Can anyone offer advice? Help is needed in many ways. Any suggestions as how to proceed would be greatly appreciated. So far, Robert has been a perfect gentleman. He has let the justice system proceed at its own pace. Both Robert and his lawyer have kept within the law. But time is running out. It is now time to stand up and be loud. We need to push an apathetic court system to resolve this issue. We need action, and we need it NOW.

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