The saga of the Warrens

Feuding relatives, a struggle of wills and one man’s dream uncertain
Friday, August 24, 2007 | 1:17 p.m. CDT; updated 10:42 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008
Ray Warren surveys the vacant property on Lynn Street where he had planned to build the Ruth Warren’s Children’s Mortuary.

The funeral for Ruth Warren was handled by H.T. May & Son Funeral Home in Boonville. The story included an incorrect funeral home.

As he checks the old mailbox outside Mount Celestial Baptist Church — a humble white building that looks more like a house than a chapel — the Rev. Ray Warren holds a large file beneath one arm, the tendons in his hand visible. He walks into the foyer and putters around the church’s modest kitchen for a minute before settling down in a chair at the end of a long, folding table.

He’s home now.

Key events in the family's history

1983: Ray Warren sues his brother Harold for breach of contract. The case went to trial the next year, and Ray eventually loses. 1987: Forrest Warren dies at age 76. Ruth Warren draws up a new will, leaving a quarter of her cash estate to Ray Warren. 1989: Ruth makes a trip to Boatmen’s Bank and Boone County National Bank to add Ray’s name to her accounts. 1990: April: Ruth officially adopts Ray Warren. Donnie was never formally adopted. May: Ruth has a severe stroke and spends about two months in the hospital. 1991: Ruth and Ray visit Fred Dannov’s office to draft a new will, but were turned down because he didn’t believe Ruth was of sound mind. February: Ruth and Ray go to Betty Wilson’s office to draft a will and living trust, which leaves all her property to Ray. 1993: August 26: Ruth Warren dies at the age of 83. 1997: September: The trial was presented in front of a Boone County jury, which deemed the 1991 will invalid. 2001: The court issues an order that overturns the trust, which was left almost cashless. 2007: June 28: Ray is released from jail, after spending two months there.

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Taking a sip of punch from a tiny plastic foam cup, Ray relaxes a little. The binder at his side holds a thick stack of papers that makes up the countless chapters from his side of a story fourteen years old. Since his adoptive mother, Ruth Warren, died in 1993, two conflicting wills and the legal battle they sparked have divided the extended Warren family. The story is so well-known among the black community in Boone County that it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t heard something about it.

“Put it this way: You know how two people tell a story in the beginning, and a hundred people line up to listen,” said Wallace Malveaux, a former city employee and friend of Ray Warren. “You’ve got a thousand black people in this town who’ve heard this story. And by the time it gets to the end, everyone’s heard it different.”

Depending on who’s telling the story, Ray Warren is either a crusader against racial bias in a legal system trying to deprive him of what is his, or a schemer who manipulated an ailing woman for financial gain.

In any case, Ray, 73, looks much more comfortable in his suit than he did in the Boone County Jail stripes he wore in court earlier this summer. On June 28, he was released after being imprisoned for about two months for contempt of court because he refused to give up his claim to land owned by Ruth’s estate.

Some of that land is along Lynn Street, adjacent to property on the southwest corner of Garth Avenue and Sexton Road where developers want to begin a housing and retail project for low-income residents.

But Ray maintains his dreams for the land have been trampled by a “racist conspiracy” in Boone County’s political and court systems.

“They took two and a half months of my life,” Ray said.

But he still won’t sign the papers.

Roots of the family tree

The fight over Ruth Warren’s estate began in the mid-1990s, but it’s rooted in a family history that reaches back to the end of the Civil War. Ruth was a Logan by birth. Her family, freed from slavery, bought 80 acres of rolling farmland in southern Boone County. It was the first property the Logans owned as free men, said Brian McBrearty, the attorney for Ruth’s estate.

By the time Ruth grew up and married Forrest Warren, she was a woman of strong faith and family loyalty. Ruth and Forrest never had children of their own, but when Forrest’s great-niece couldn’t take care of her children, the couple took in her little boy, Donnie Warren, as a foster son.

They raised him beginning around 1954, when he was 2 years old. He lived in their small house outside of Columbia until he was 40.

Donnie describes Ruth as “a strong-willed woman when she was on her feet.”

Around the time she took in Donnie, Ruth stopped working at the country schoolhouse where she’d spent several years teaching elementary-aged children. She took over the books for Forrest, Osborne and James Warren’s construction company, keeping finances organized while the brothers pushed development forward in the black community.

“She had the strongest education out of the bunch,” Ray said.

Ruth’s schooling, paired with the Warren brothers’ natural knack for business, helped propel the family to financial success.

“They were men who had one of the most important kinds of knowledge: They had common sense, and they had skills,” Ray said.

By the 1960s, Ruth had parlayed her good reputation into an active role in Columbia’s civil rights movement. Attorney Betty Wilson said Ruth was a familiar face among local civil rights advocates.

“The whole Warren family was involved with progressive issues,” Wilson said. “They were a very civic-minded family.”

Katherine Warren — Ray’s biological mother and the wife of Forrest’s cousin, Lawrence, was no exception. She worked for more than 40 years for Warren Welliver, a Missouri Supreme Court justice and former state senator, and was a founding member of Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. In 2001, Mayor Darwin Hindman proclaimed Dec. 1 “Sarah Katherine Warren Day,” in honor of her 100th birthday, which was Jan. 6, 2002. She died a few months later.

Harold Warren, Ray’s brother, followed in his mother’s leadership footsteps. He served as Columbia’s first black city councilman and runs Warren Funeral Chapel, one of the only minority-owned funeral homes in mid-Missouri.

Ray, a former president of the Douglass Park Neighborhood Association, likewise established himself as a community leader after he returned to the area in 1969. He had been living in Kansas City since 1955, after serving for two years in the military. He came back to Columbia in 1969 with a plan to eventually join his brother, Harold, as a partner at Warren Funeral Chapel.

Meanwhile, Harold ran the funeral business while Ray ran a tree service and officiated at some funerals.

“I assisted Harold in going to mortuary school,” Ray said. “We became partners because we were brothers and we had a friendship. ... He’d told me if he’d ever opened a business, he’d make me a partner.”

At least, that’s the way Ray tells it. Harold Warren declined requests for interviews for this story.

“I do not have anything to comment on that subject,” he said.

It was upon his return that Ray says he rekindled the special relationship he says he’d had with Ruth and Forrest since he was a young man.

“I was never apart from talking to them,” he said. “But when I came back to Columbia, it put me back in their presence.”

When Ray was a teenager in the late ’40s, he would occasionally stay on the Warren family farm with Ruth, Forrest and Donnie. Though he said his relationship with his biological parents was perfectly healthy, Ray always felt he had a special bond with Ruth.

“My mom always shared me with Ruth,” Ray said. “In fact, she said the same thing Ruth Warren always said: ‘That’s Ruth Warren’s boy.’”

Ray became even more involved in Ruth’s life.After Forrest suffered a devastating stroke in 1977, he and his wife, Cletie, joined with the extended family to help care for Ruth and her husband.

Even so, Ruth was still going strong. She managed the family’s money, paid the bills and continued to run the household after Forrest’s stroke, her cousin and close friend Alice Prince testified in a 1997 trial over Ruth’s estate. Prince, who has since died, lived near Ruth during Ruth’s later years.

“She was a very outgoing person,” Prince testified. “You know, she was her own woman.”

‘Awe and wonder’

In 1987, everything changed.

Ten years after his stroke, Forrest Warren died at age 76. Forrest’s obituary recognized the love and aid of many family members, and it mentioned “one foster son” in the family: Donnie.

Ray was also mentioned in the obituary: “The family would like to personally acknowledge Ray Warren who stood by Mr. Warren through the many months and years of his illness.”

Shortly after her husband died, Ruth, now 76, asked her lawyer, Fred Dannov, to draft a will.

The will earmarked Ruth’s money for a handful of loved ones. Donnie was to inherit one-fourth of the money, while Marceline Brown, Forrest’s sister, would get another fourth. Alice Prince and Laurene Britt, Ruth’s sister, would split another quarter of the inheritance. The remaining fourth was designated for Ray and his family, and Ruth chose Ray to act as personal representative for the estate.

Ruth’s 1987 will would leave the Logan family’s historic 80-acre farm to two churches: Log Providence Baptist, where Ruth was a member, and Sugar Grove Baptist, where Forrest had worshipped.

Henry Logan, Ruth’s distant cousin, said the land was to remain in the family — that when Ruth died, she’d leave it to her cousins.

In his 1997 court testimony, Logan said the plan had always been for the churches to sell the land back to his family, creating a win-win scenario that allowed Ruth to indirectly give money to the churches — the proceeds from the sale — while ensuring that the land would ultimately be returned to the Logans.

Yet the plan derailed.

After Forrest died, Ray said he and Cletie filled the gap left behind, offering Ruth company and help when she needed it. Some time around 1989, Ruth went to Boatmen’s Bank and Boone County National Bank and had Ray’s name added to her accounts.

Ray said the gesture took him by surprise.

“When she dropped that on me, it was kind of a mystery,” he said. “It left me in awe and wonder.”

That same year, Ruth and Ray approached Betty Wilson — the same Betty Wilson who knew Ruth for her civil rights activism in the ’60s — with an unusual request. Ruth was already pushing 80, and Ray was in his mid-50s, but they wanted to file a petition for adult adoption, Wilson recalled.

Ray said the adoption would help him honor Ruth’s request to keep her out of a nursing home by giving her an immediate, legal relative who could make sure she wouldn’t get stuck in the legal system.

“By being adopted, couldn’t anybody touch Ruth Warren,” Ray said. “See, when you get ill, it gets down to the line. You have to have ownership.”

Ray got “ownership” in April 1990, when the adoption was finalized and he became Ruth’s legal next of kin. Donnie had never been formally adopted.

Donnie’s sister Betty said she was skeptical about Ray’s adoption and doubted that Ray was really mystified when Ruth added his name to her bank accounts.

“I don’t think he was surprised at all,” she said. “Of course, like I’ve been saying, I don’t even know if she really adopted Ray or not. ... So who knows about those bank accounts?”

The addition of Ray’s name to the Logan family tree — and family bank accounts — happened about the same time that the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals upheld a judgment against Ray stemming from a dispute between him and his brother, Harold.

Ray’s tree service had wilted, straining his partnership in the funeral business with his brother. In 1983, Ray sued Harold for breach of contract. Harold countersued, and the case went to trial the next year.

Ray lost.

The dispute took a heavy toll on Ray and Harold’s relationship.

“I get along with him. I can’t afford not to get along with him,” Ray said. “I can’t speak for him.”

It was a bitter, prolonged family dispute that left Ray somewhat strapped for cash and suspicious of the Boone County court system, which he believes is dominated by white lawyers and judges who don’t care about black people.

“The lawyers buy and sell us,” Ray said.

Then, in May 1990, Ruth had a severe stroke. University Hospital records indicate she was admitted with disorientation, slurred speech and partial paralysis on one side of her body. She spent about two months in the hospital.

A new plan and a new will

Ray had a new dream simmering on the back burner: his own mortuary for low-income black families. He’d run the business, and his son, Ranard, would study to become a mortician.

They would eventually name the dream project “Ruth Warren’s Children’s Mortuary.”

After Ruth was released from the hospital, Ray and Cletie took over her care. Cletie would often spend all day with her, cooking, doing laundry and helping Ruth make it to church functions, Cletie testified later in court.

Fred Dannov, Ruth’s former lawyer, would later testify that sometime in early 1991, Ruth and Ray visited his office to draft a new will. Dannov refused, since he believed Ruth was not of sound mind and was incapable of drafting a new will. He said during the 1997 trial that “physically, she was feeble, and I didn’t feel that she was as forceful and as direct, mentally, as she was before.”

Ray denies that he or Ruth ever saw Dannov after the original 1987 will was drafted.

In February 1991, the pair returned to Betty Wilson’s office. She helped Ruth and Ray create two documents: a will and a revocable living trust. The trust made Ray the trustee, which allowed him to use Ruth’s assets to take care of her during her lifetime. After her death, Ray, Cletie and their children, Ranard and Ranita, would split the remaining trust assets.

Ruth died on Aug. 26, 1993. She was 83.

Ray didn’t use his brother Harold’s funeral home to handle services for Ruth, even though the Warren Funeral Chapel handles the vast majority of funerals for Columbia’s and Boone County’s black residents. He had Nilson Funeral Home take care of the funeral instead.

“And that was a surprise because all of the Warrens went to Harold Warren services,” Donnie Warren said.

According to court documents, between Ruth’s stroke and her death, Ray wrote a number of checks drawn on Ruth’s accounts to buy several pieces of land for his mortuary, mostly located along Garth Avenue and Lynn Street. He also used the trust money for “loans” to his tree service and to pay for Ranard’s mortician training.

To fund his business plan for the funeral home, Ray took out a $30,000 loan from Boone National Savings and Loan. He used the Logan farm as collateral.

“When we started this (mortuary plan), (Ruth) was not on board,” Ray said. “She came over later.”

But Ray said once Ruth was familiar with his dream, she became a driving force behind it.

“She was the main person who allowed this to happen,” he said. “That’s the reason why the building was going to be a memorial to her.”

For almost a year after her death, Ruth’s estate remained in limbo because no one produced a will, and no one stepped forward as her personal representative. Ray never mentioned the will Ruth and Dannov had prepared in 1987, which now sat in a safe-deposit box at Boone County National Bank. In 1994, Ruth’s nephew Thomas Brown persuaded Boone County Judge Patrick Horner to order the box opened and its contents produced in court.

In September of that same year, Horner removed Ray as personal representative of Ruth’s estate. He noted that, although Ray knew of Ruth’s will, he failed to take any action. Horner appointed Brown to replace Ray.

Brown produced the 1987 will, and Ray — who accused Horner of keeping him in the dark and holding meetings without his knowledge — promptly came forward with a copy of the will from 1991.

For the next three years, the parties waged a legal battle over which document was the true last will and testament of Ruth Irene Warren.

The court rulings

The question finally came before a Boone County jury during a one-day trial in September 1997. The jury ruled that Ray exercised “undue influence” over Ruth in the formation of the 1991 will and deemed it invalid. Missouri courts define undue influence as “force, coercion, or overpersuasion of another such that free will is overcome.”

David English, a professor of estates and trusts at the MU School of Law, said one of the telltale signs of undue influence is when someone who stands to gain from a will is present when it is drafted.

“I would not have had (Ray Warren) in the room,” English said.

English said the error wasn’t necessarily Ray’s. Often, personal representatives of estates don’t understand the technical aspects of drafting a will.

“Trustees or personal representatives might not have a full idea of their responsibility,” English said. “It varies depending on sophistication and experience.”

Betty Wilson wouldn’t say whether she told Ray if his presence during the drafting of the will could be a problem, citing attorney-client privileges.

But in court she said she didn’t “have any concern” about Ruth’s competence.

“She wasn’t a talkative person, but she spoke and I could understand her,” Wilson testified.

Alice Prince remembered Ruth becoming slightly confused after her stroke.

“She wasn’t as alert as she usually was,” Prince testified. “She would call me up sometimes two or three times a day and she would repeat the same thing every time she called me.”

Though the beneficiaries of the 1987 will won the case, the living trust still stood. It would take another four years for the court to issue the 2001 order that overturned the trust. By then, the estate was almost cashless.

“In all, Defendant took an enormous amount of money from (Ruth’s) accounts which he diminished to virtually nothing, transferred properties into a trust which he created through undue influence on (Ruth) at the same time he created a will which was found to be invalid in a previous Will Contest action,” Boone County Circuit Judge Larry Bryson wrote in his opinion.

Because Ray used the estate’s property as collateral on his loans — which have yet to be paid off — to support his mortuary plan, the bank put a lien on the land. Thomas Brown and the estate’s lawyer, Brian McBrearty, discovered the liens when they tried to sell the land in a last-ditch effort to get something out of the inheritance.

English said it is highly unusual for an estate dispute to last this long.

“Most cases settle,” English said.

Those that don’t settle generally take two or three years at most to wrap up, he added.

McBrearty says two obstacles remain to closing the book on the legal battle over the estate.

“First, we need to get the liens removed,” he said. “Number two is Ray.”

Legal entanglements

Ray must sign several deeds that would relinquish his claim to the property he bought with the trust assets. Only the Logan farm has been cleared; the churches sold it at a significant discount to the Logans because of the lien on the property. The rest of the land is still entangled in liens, and the estate can’t sell it because no one will insure the title on it.

However, McBrearty said he and the estate may have found a way around Ray. A precedent set in Missouri Supreme Court Rule 74.04 allows a summary judgment to be issued when a party fails to comply with a court request. McBrearty said this means the court can effectively appoint someone to execute the quitclaim deeds on the Warren family’s behalf because the family did comply within the specified time limit.

“When we figured this out, we said, ‘This is the answer to our prayers,’” McBrearty said. “If we’d have known about this before, I think we would have pursued this before.”

Ray remains under civil contempt of court because he still won’t sign the papers, even after spending two months in a county jail cell.

To this day, he maintains that he’s standing up to the courts to defend Ruth and Forrest.

“What I went through is not for Ray Warren,” Ray said. “It’s all for Ruth and Forrest.”

Some people say he’s a crusader, valiantly battling a racist court system that oppresses black citizens.

“He’s the Rosa Parks of litigation,” said Larry Coleman, Ray’s attorney.

Wallace Malveaux, who has fought his own court battles over land and has followed Ray’s case, said he thinks Bryson, McBrearty and several other white people involved with Ray’s case are biased against Ray because he’s black. Malveaux said the discrimination extends beyond Ray’s case and that the Boone County court system has a history of marginalizing black citizens.

“We’re sitting there, watching them engage in this play,” Malveaux said. “And this play is discriminatory to the core.”

But not everyone sees Ray as a hero. Court documents portray Ray as irresponsible and even deceptive.

In her findings in Ray’s lawsuit against his brother Harold, Boone County Judge Ellen Roper characterized Ray’s representations to the court as “intentionally and deliberately misleading.”

More than a decade later, Judge Bryson echoed that assessment: “He continuously was evasive in answering questions regarding to whom and for what reasons large checks were being written and for what reason large amounts of cash were being taken from (Ruth’s) accounts.”

Donnie Warren’s sister, Betty, has a simple view of what happened: “Ruth didn’t make a second will.”

“I don’t know who made it,” she said, “but it wasn’t Ruth.”

She said Ray won’t sign the deeds giving up his claim to the land because he doesn’t want to admit he was wrong. Donnie agrees.

“Ray was left with dirty hands, that’s down in black and white at the courthouse,” he said. “He influenced Ruth Warren about making another will ... when she got down, you know how with age you get influenced pretty easily.”

However, Ray said he’s no manipulator.

“If she really had a catastrophical stroke, nobody can take advantage of her,” Ray said. “Because she’s done communicating.”

Not yet at peace

Ray finishes his fruit punch and gets up from the table in the cramped church foyer, bracing his hands on his knees for support.

Though he grows old, he refuses to admit defeat. As he talks about the legal saga, his brow furrows and the crow’s feet at his eyes deepen. The signs of age grow increasingly apparent on the estate’s lands, tucked away in hidden corners of Boone County.

On Garth Avenue, just south of Business Loop 70, a vacant lot on the side of the road is a miniature wilderness in the middle of Columbia. Ray still dreams of building his mortuary there. When he bought the land, he had it cut clean to prepare for construction, but the size of the trees and the thickness of the brush now covering the ground tell the story of the years the lot has been caught in legal limbo.

Meanwhile, along East Logan Road, a dusty gravel trail south of town, hornets’ nests collect around the front door of an old white house so dirty it’s almost gray. The awnings over the windows have rusted. Mushrooms grow in a woodpile stacked in front of a shed housing an ancient lawn mower with a flat tire, a broken sink and a canoe overgrown with grass. This is the old Logan farm.

Not far away, in the shadow of Log Providence Baptist Church, Ruth rests beside her husband beneath the shade of a big tree. She’s surrounded by relatives’ graves scattered throughout the cemetery. Her name and birthday are etched in the tombstone, but no one ever chiseled the date of her death into the granite, a poignant reminder of the lack of finality that has attended her passing.

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