Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Leona Helmsley: 'The Queen of Mean'

The United States of America v. Helmsley, Part I

On June 26, 1989, the long-awaited trial of Leona Helmsley was set to commence at New York 's federal courthouse. The hearings began with much media fanfare. A very large number of journalists and television crews crowded outside the courthouse hoping to catch a photograph or video footage of Leona entering the courthouse. After all, "the Queen" was on trial and any news concerning the hearing was sure to grab headlines.

Judge John M. Walker
Judge John M. Walker

Federal District Judge John M. Walker Jr. presided over the trial. He knew it would be a long and involved hearing that would have far reaching consequences for those involved. However, taking things in stride, he attended to the first problem at hand, jury selection.

Initially, five men and seven women were selected as the jury. However, during the subsequent months, two of the jurors would be let go due to personal matters and replaced by two new ones. Throughout the remainder of the trial, six men and six women of various ethnicities made up the jury overhearing the case against Leona.

Leona had a team of lawyers representing her interests. Gerald A. Feffer, an expert in tax-fraud litigation led the team. Frank Turco, an ex-employee of Leona's of more than twenty years, was also present. He, along with Joseph Licarci, had been charged for playing a part in the scam allegedly orchestrated by Harry and Leona. Defense attorney William Brodsky was selected to represent him during the trial. Licarci, the ex-chief financial officer of Helmsley Enterprises enlisted attorney Joseph R. Benfante to represent his interests.

New York 's assistant United States Attorney James DeVita was chosen to lead the prosecuting team. He was also to lead the opening arguments in the first weeks of the trial. Early in the hearing DeVita outlined what he believed to be the facts of the case. He told jurors that he had evidence proving that the Helmsleys accumulated approximately $ 4 million dollars of personal expenses, which they illegally deducted as business expenses in order to avoid paying more than $1 million in taxes to the government. Most of the fraudulent practices were attributed to the building of Dunnellen Hall between 1983 and 1985.

Over the course of six weeks, DeVita presented to the court a plethora of evidence including documents, files, bills, invoices, memos, checks and notes that would support his argument. Moreover, he called forty-four witnesses to the stand who testified against Leona, Turco and Licarci. A majority of the witnesses included contractors who worked on the Helmsley estate, hotel staff, those who had previous business connections with the Helmsleys, colleagues and ex-employees who worked for the various subsidiaries owned by Harry. What emerged from the testimony was grim for the defendants.

 

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