Feature: Wednesday, December 19, 2002
Now Playing in Granbury

An opera of pills, wills, a widow, and attempted murder.

By Dan Malone

illis Black was lucky in love. Or maybe not. What do you say about a man who walked away from the last of seven marriages with a small fortune only to be shot in the chest and left for dead?

One ex-wife said Black, now 73, was a charming manipulator who needed a woman in his life despite his seeming inability to keep one there. Yet even as this woman, who asked not to be named, denounced Black’s wanderings in one breath, she described him in the next as “being good to me and a good husband.’’

“He’s extremely charming,’’ said the former Mrs. Black. “I think he could talk most women into anything.’’

Indeed, the sisters of his last wife claim Black used “intoxicating’’ poems to charm Lu Nutt, a Granbury widow, into leaving him her sizable estate — and leaving her family nothing. They also claim that in the final days of her life, Nutt became convinced that Black was trying to kill her with a drug overdose — a claim that the courts have rejected.

Black has said that not only did he have nothing to do with his wife’s death, he didn’t even know that she had left her estate to him until after she was dead. His views on other matters, however, could not be discerned. The widower has been in hiding since being shot near a friend’s house in Ruidoso, N.M., last year. Police are still trying to find his assailant.

Black’s attorney, David Bakutis, said he continues to receive phone calls from his client but doesn’t know where he is — and doesn’t want to know, either.

“He’d rather keep it anonymous where he’s living,’’ Bakutis said. “To honor his request, I’ve asked him not to tell me [where he is]. The less he’s going to tell me, the less I’d be able to tell anybody.’’

Questions about Lu Nutt’s death and who shot Willis Black may never be answered to the satisfaction of all concerned — the descendants of a Texas pioneer family, the wealthy widow’s friends and sisters, and the sweet-talking dreamer who wrote love poems about unicorns and past lives.

The Nutt family’s presence in Granbury is hard to miss on even a casual stroll around the town square. The historic Nutt House Hotel sits on one side; the Granbury Opera House, which the Nutt family helped restore, looms across the street. Between them, the Hood County Courthouse houses the legal residue of a feud over a Nutt family fortune.

According to various histories, two blind brothers, Jacob F. and Jesse Nutt, settled along the Brazos in the late 1850s and later donated 40 riverfront acres for the site of a new town to be named after Hiram Bronson Granbury, a Confederate general. (The Nutt brothers, according to local lore, went blind early in life due to a case of pink eye.)

The two blind Nutts, with the help of a younger sighted brother, David, nevertheless opened a general store on the square and later, a hotel. In the 1880s, the railroad came to Granbury, and an opera house, improbably, was erected on the square. Eventually, however, the town floundered, and the Nutts’ descendants moved on.

Joe Lewis Nutt was David Nutt’s great-grandson. A stocky guy with a head of blond hair, Joe was born in Fort Worth, graduated from Texas A & M University, and made a living for a while traveling the southwest as a candyman for Tom’s Toasted Peanuts.

He later settled in Colorado, where he operated a lucrative business making educational films for insurance firms and other companies. Joe and Lu, both recently divorced, met during the late 1960s. Lu had grown up on her family’s farm in Arkansas and later moved to Montana, where she met, married, and divorced a local lawyer. She wound up in Colorado, living in the same apartment complex as Joe. According to Lu’s family, the couple struck up a romance after Lu nursed an ailing Joe back to health from a minor illness.

The former peanut peddler was now raking in the big bucks. For a wedding present, Lu told a friend, he gave her $100,000 — the first of many gifts he would lavish upon his wife. He indulged her love of gambling with trips to a Las Vegas casino, whose owner had befriended Joe during his days on the road.

Eventually, the Nutts moved back to Granbury and became involved in the restoration of the dilapidated opera house. Nutt’s cousin, Mary Lou Watkins, was leading the effort to put the square on the national historic registry and to make other restorations. Those efforts, coupled with the damming of the Brazos River to form Lake Granbury, birthed the tourism and retirement industries on which the town — a North Texas version of the Hill Country’s Fredericksburg — now thrives.

The Nutts relished their new roles in their adopted hometown. A newspaper account of the opera’s grand reopening in the mid-1970s reported that the couple “stood proudly on a stair landing, Lu in a peacock blue sequined evening gown and Joe in a salmon pink Edwardian dinner jacket, watching the elegantly dressed ‘finest’ of Granbury, Fort Worth, Dallas and other neighboring cities crowding in for curtain time.’’

Such posturing didn’t always sit well in small-town Texas. One longtime resident complained that Joe Nutt irritated some locals by portraying himself as the town’s savior. Another said Lu’s sharp tongue took its own toll. “She could have been the queen of Hood County,’’ said one family friend. She’d be friendly to someone one moment, the friend said, then “the next [time] you saw her they were a son-of-a-bitch.’’

A newspaper photograph of Lu in the early 1970s shows her posed on a bench by her piano, her hair piled impossibly high, with an indoor swimming pool beckoning from an adjacent room. She turned more than a few heads motoring through Granbury in the pink convertible Cadillac Joe had bought for her.

Joe’s interest in history and preservation led him to purchase an interest in Comanche Peak, the mesa that dominates the horizon outside Granbury. The Peak, as locals call it, was a sacred place for the Comanche who called the area home long before the Nutts and other whites settled the area. Joe talked about turning the mesa into a state park.

“Each generation of our family has left something worthwhile for Granbury and this community,’’ Nutt told a newspaper reporter in 1976. “I hope my wife Lu and I can do the same.’’

That dream, like others, went dry as dust, however. Early in their marriage, Lu became pregnant but lost the baby and her ability to bear others. Joe was later diagnosed with Parkinson’s, had a stroke, and, a friend said, lost the will to live after falling on and killing one of the couple’s pet miniature poodles. He died in 1988 at age 73.

Joe’s estate, valued at well over $1 million, was divided among his daughter from a previous marriage, a trust for her four children, a dozen friends and other entities, and his widow.

Lu was shocked that Joe didn’t leave everything he had to her. “He had told Lu all along that he had given his daughter all that she was going to get and Lu was going to get everything,’’ said one friend, who asked not to be named. The friend also said Joe was always trying to put a good spin on his marriage, but problems bubbled behind that happy veneer.

“On the surface, it was lovely, as far as Joe was concerned. He always made out like everything was lovely,’’ the friend continued. Lu Nutt eventually accepted the terms of the will and also received a half-million-dollar payment when the estate was forced to sell Joe’s interest in the Peak, the friend said.

Lu remained in Granbury following Joe’s death. She dined at the local Pitt Grill, played shuffleboard and darts, golfed, spent holidays with friends — and gambled. After fretting over the purchase of a new Cadillac in the mid 1990s, she won more than $50,000 on a $10 investment in a slot machine in Shreveport, according to one friend.

She also remained a familiar sight on the Granbury square, masking the toll of age and loss with colorful wigs, a facelift, and her jewelry. One accounting of her jewelry collection — from the testimony of a friend — listed “antique pearls, diamond clips, antique earrings with the diamonds, several watches, several of her big cross diamonds, [and] her big, big diamond.’’

The wealthy widow had several suitors after Joe’s death but got serious with none until she met Black. Fort Worth Weekly wanted to talk to Black but couldn’t find him. His attorney said he wasn’t feeling well enough for a telephone interview. The details of his life, however, are sketched in a 1999 deposition in the lawsuit over his wife’s estate.

Willis Lee Black was born in 1929 in Lubbock and graduated from Brownfield High School and Cisco Junior College. He has spent his life as something of a roamer — among towns, among jobs, among wives.

Some of his marriages, like his last, survived only a few years. But his relationship with one woman, to whom he was twice married and divorced, spanned two decades. He has three sons from his first marriage, which ended more than 40 years ago. So far as could be determined, all of his other ex-wives are still living.

Black’s professional resumé is as varied as his marital history. He worked for an oil company, a flooring distributor, an aircraft company, and S & H Green Stamps. Unlike Joe Nutt, however, Black failed to ever make the big bucks.

One ex-wife said she and Black “didn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of.’’ With Lu, the ex-wife said, “I think he had finally gotten somebody that he’d been looking for, who had money and who could support him, because he had nothing.’’

The marriage between Black and Nutt — his seventh, her third — lasted a little over two years. They met at a gathering at the American Legion Hall in Granbury in 1996, dated for several months, and then, Black said in the deposition, Nutt asked him to take her hand.

Black said he expressed some reservations about their compatibility but accepted the proposal after “20 or 30 minutes.’’

“I didn’t feel that I could provide what she was used to, and I told her that,’’ he explained. “The financial status of her and the financial status of me were far apart.’’

At the time, he was living off Social Security, a modest pension, and his salary as a bus driver for a rural school district. With her diamonds and gold jewelry, two Cadillacs, and investments, Nutt lived in a different income bracket — if not a different world.

Black’s reservations about the differences didn’t stop him from declaring his love for Nutt in verse, however. Copies of Black’s musings, which were found in Nutt’s home after she died, were made part of the lawsuit. In a 1996 poem he called “God’s Last and Only Unicorn,’’ Black waxed on about having known Nutt in a previous life, perhaps “in ancient Egypt ... or maybe in the cold of Europe’s mountains.’’

“I am a dreamer and sometimes dreams come true,’’ he wrote, “and that’s exactly what happened the moment I met you.’’

Black expressed earthier sentiments as well. A Christmas card depicting Santa with a woman carried the printed inscription “Let’s be naughty and save him a trip.’’ Beneath the inscription, Black wrote: “Ho! Ho! Ho! I want to come down your chimminy.’’ (sic)

Nutt’s actions in the weeks before their marriage seem slightly schizophrenic. On one hand, she hired a lawyer to draw up a prenuptial agreement for Black to sign, which he did. At the same time, she also asked the lawyer to rework her will, naming Black executor and primary beneficiary of her estate. If the couple divorced, he would get little to nothing, according to his attorney, but if they stayed married and he outlived her, what was hers would be mostly his.

Black said Nutt subsequently told him that he had been included in her will but didn’t provide details. And he said he had no idea while she was alive that she had left him virtually everything.

As news of her pending marriage to Black spread, reaction from her friends ranged from elation to shock.

“When you get our age ... and you’ve been alone for 10 years, and you found somebody you love and the person loved them back, everybody was happy for you,’’ Nutt’s friend and sometimes employee, Donna Myers, told attorneys in a deposition. In an interview, she elaborated: Lu’s love for Willis was different from her love for Joe — but real nonetheless.

“I’m not going to say it’s the kind of love you have when you’re young ... where your heart just goes bing! bing! bing!’’ she said. “It’s the sort of love you settle for when you get old ... someone you trust and feel comfortable with.’’

But Glenn Jacob, a friend of the family for 30 years, said she was “absolutely astounded’’ by the marriage.

“Lu was a self-sufficient person and had had a wonderful marriage with Joe. I can’t think of any reason why [she would marry Black]. She didn’t marry him for financial support. She certainly didn’t need him for companionship. There was nothing Lu was looking for.”

Lu seemed content in her swirl of friends. “Lu had friends running out her ears,’’ Jacob explained. “ If there was ever anyone in a desperate need for friends, it wouldn’t have been Lu.’’

Black and Nutt married in Las Vegas on June 24, 1997, and resettled in Ruidoso. They shared a life, but not a surname, as she continued to call herself “Lu Nutt.’’

A longtime smoker, Nutt started to complain of a shortness of breath in 1998. Soon after, she was diagnosed with a cancer that was spreading throughout her body.

Nutt’s three sisters — Josephine Brown, Wilma Miller King, and Jean Miller — grew alarmed following a phone conversation between Nutt and King.

“I called her that night to see how she was doing,’’ King recounted. “And I said, ‘Lu, you don’t sound very good on the phone.’ She said, ‘Would you feel good if you found out that your husband was trying to kill you by overdosing you?’ ”

When King arrived in Ruidoso a few days later, she said Nutt again made the same disturbing claim. “She told me instead of giving her her medication every four to six hours, he was waking her up and giving it to her every two hours. ... The doctor himself had told her that she was being overdosed.’’

Brown, in an interview, said Nutt made similar statements to her. “She told me herself she had enough Demerol in her to kill a cow,’’ Brown said.

Nutt’s friend Donna Myers was also at the house in Ruidoso. She had heard the same statements, but marked them off to the medications Nutt was taking. She told attorneys that Nutt had asked her husband to leave but remained on friendly terms with him.

Black returned home while King and Myers were still there, only to have his wife tell him “there was no need of him unpacking because he wasn’t staying,’’ King recalled. King also said that Nutt told Black she was going to file for divorce — a move that could have knocked him out of her estate.

When Black protested that his wife was getting bad advice, King said she overheard the following exchange:

“No, Willis, I’m not listening to the wrong people,’’ Nutt said. “I’m listening to my doctor. ... He told me you overdosed me.’’

“Well, I handed you the pills,’’ King quotes Willis as saying, “but I didn’t force them down your throat.’’

Black’s attorney does not dispute that Nutt accused her husband of over-medicating her, but agrees with Myers that such statements were nothing more than the delusions of a seriously ill woman whose body was being devoured by disease.

“What we were able to determine from the doctors and doctor’s report, she had serious cancer. She was seriously ill. It was just the medication that she was legitimately taking that made her say these things,’’ Bakutis said. There was “no evidence of overdosing, no evidence of foul play on any of the medications she was taking.

“None of the doctors would ever say that,’’ he said. “None of the records document that. None of the allegations from what we were able to determine had any merit to them.’’

Still fighting the cancer, Nutt decided to return to Granbury — the place that felt the most like home to her.

She summoned her attorney to her bedside and instructed him to again change her will. By now, her attorney said, she was “sometimes lucid and sometimes thought she was in New Mexico. ... She would come in and out of consciousness. ... Her eyes would close, then open back up.’’

Nutt told her lawyer she was separating from Black and wanted to leave the bulk of her estate to the Methodist Church, a boys’ ranch, and the Granbury Opera House. The attorney took his client’s instruction back to his office. But it was too late. Nutt lapsed into a coma and died — leaving unsigned the will that expressed her deathbed wishes. She was buried in a Granbury cemetery — next to Joe Nutt.

Disputes over estates are not uncommon. Lu Nutt hadn’t been happy with Joe Nutt’s will. And Lu Nutt’s sisters were involved in a family dispute over the estate of their parents, Arkansas farmers, when they died. But those disputes don’t hold a candle to the feud that Lu Nutt’s death spawned.

Her will left $5,000 each to her three sisters — but only if they did not contest her will — and the rest of her estate — appraised at $752,665 — to Black.

When Black began the process of settling her estate, her sisters filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the will itself. They argued that the will was invalid and that Nutt had revoked it prior to her death. They also said Nutt had repeatedly assured them over the years that her estate would pass to her family.

“She said it was made out to her family and there was no way it could be broken,’’ Josephine Brown said.

Black’s lawyer, Bakutis, succeeded in getting a probate court judge to dismiss the lawsuit in June 2000, without the case ever going to trial. The sisters fought on, challenging that dismissal before the 2nd Court of Appeals, where the accusations and suspicions got a full recounting.

An attorney for the sisters argued that Black’s “love poetry and intoxicating sonnets’’ had overpowered Nutt’s “mind and made her believe they had been lovers in a previous life,’’ that Black “controlled and hypnotized’’ Nutt, and that Black was merely trying to “manipulate his way into her will.’’

While the appeal was pending, Black returned to his life in New Mexico — and apparently got involved with another woman, a 62-year-old who lived down the street from the Ruidoso house Black had once shared with Nutt.

Just after midnight on July 7, 2001, Black and his girlfriend were getting out of their car when the driver of another vehicle pulled alongside them, leveled a handgun at Black, and pulled the trigger.

“For lack of a better term you’d call it a drive-by,’’ said Ruidoso detective Jim Biggs, who is investigating the shooting. He said police have not decided whether Black was the intended victim of the assault or just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The case remains under investigation. Black’s attorney said his client has no idea who shot him — or who would want to.

“He has no knowledge as to who shot him,’’ he said. “Nor is he making any allegations as to anyone who may have shot him.’’

Until the case is solved, Black is making himself hard to find — a decision that even the detective on the case understands. In the same circumstances, Biggs said, “You’d keep a pretty low profile, too.’’

The lawsuit filed by Nutt’s sisters, meanwhile, never regained life. The appellate court threw out their appeal, saying “less than a scintilla of evidence exists” that Black exerted undue influence over his wife. What evidence there was, the court said, amounted to nothing more than “mere suspicion of wrongdoing by Black.’’ The ruling was ultimately upheld by the Texas Supreme Court.

The dismissal, however, did nothing to change the conviction of Nutt’s sisters that her husband was somehow responsible for her death.

“I don’t think he’ll ever be happy,” Josephine Brown said. “Probably, he’s looking over his shoulder.’’

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