Death, Deception, and the $4 Million Cobra
The two cops who came upon the middle-aged woman in the last hours of her life, lying on the bridle path of a park in Fullerton, California, an hour after sunrise, must surely have dreadful memories of her they'd like to forget.
She lay on the path, naked, her clothes burned away, her body charred from her singed platinum hair down to her toes. She was tucked into one last fetal position. Nearby were two gallon jugs, one empty and the other half-filled with g
as. It was Sunday, October 22, 2000.
The cops thought she was dead. Then one of them noticed movement of her torso. She was breathing. He leaned down. Who did this terrible thing to you?
He could barely hear what she said: "Just . . . let me . . . die." Lying there, before the ambulance arrived, she made it known in whispers that she had done this to herself. She was angry at still being alive; to a cop's persistent questions, she twice spit out: "Shut up." She would not give her name.
She must have been in unimaginable pain, with burns over 98 percent of her body. Police would later theorize that sometime in the night, this woman, who was five feet four and weighed 168 pounds, had made her way to the park a mile or so from her home in La Habra, poured gasoline over herself, and set it ablaze in a concrete culvert under a bridge along the horse trail, but the terror of the flames had set her in motion and she was found 30 feet away. More bizarrely, she'd done the same thing to two rabbits, presumably pets, both dead nearby. The police never determined if she'd had help from someone.
At the hospital, a nurse shook her head. The burned woman repeated her desire to die. Before night fell, she got her wish.
Weeks passed. Police thought she'd been a homeless person. A big-city newspaper reporter wrote a feature story on how the coroner goes about identifying Jane Does like her, but the story was killed by an editor who thought it in poor taste to exploit a sad, deranged woman.
And then a former boyfriend, who co-owned the house she lived in, filed a missing-persons report after she failed to make a house payment. The mystery ended almost six weeks after her suicide. She was Donna O'Hara, 54, a divorced woman who had worked for 13 years at a Sears merchandise-distribution center in Santa Ana.
One tried to imagine what madness had led her to this.
Soon there was an even more perplexing question: What had happened to the Shelby Cobra race car that Donna O'Hara had locked away in storage for almost three decades, the one that had been worth maybe 10 grand when the padlock went on but was now worth $4 million, the one that she got angry about when anyone brought up the subject? Very soon, a whole bunch of people would be talking about it-in court.
When this first-built Daytona Cobra coupe, known as CSX2287, was retired from racing in 1965, Carroll Shelby sold it for $4500 to Jim Russell of Russkits, a maker of miniature slot-racing cars. That's how much interest there was then in beat-up "old" race cars.
Russell recalls, "Shelby's guys knew some shop in Tijuana that could put an interior in it, so we sent it there. I had to weld eight Smithy mufflers on it to quiet it down."
A year or so later, Russell sold it to Phil Spector, then about 26 and well on his way to becoming rock music's first star producer and megarich in the process. Achieving that, he would become a recluse.
"He lived in this big mansion in the Hollywood Hills with a curving driveway," Russell said recently. "At first, he wouldn't come out-I heard he avoided face-to-face meetings if at all possible, and my partner, who was a lawyer, went back and forth inside the house to finalize the sale. I heard Beethoven or Mozart being piped through the house. Then Spector came out. He didn't drive it, figuring if it made it under its own power, it was working. He gave me a check for $7500."
Recluse or not, Spector was looking for attention, so he had the car's racing heroics painted onto both doors of the car. The claims were clownish, childishly ridiculous: "Winner 33 grand prix" and "Land speed record 227 mph" and "427 cu in engine." He drove it around, but it was a cop magnet, and he complained about the cost of upkeep.
Near the end of the 1960s, a newly hired mansion manager named George Brand wound up with it. Brand was an ex-cop who was pushing 50 and had gone to work for Spector about 1968, the same year Brand was divorced from his wife, Dorothy. Russell remembers him as "a helluva nice guy-could do anything, some kind of house man for Spector, very practical." Precisely how Brand wound up with the car would become, 32 years later, the multimillion-dollar question. Brand is 80 now, lives in an assisted-living home, and has a mental disorder similar to early-stage Alzheimer's, but has been quoted as saying Spector sold it to him for $1000. Brand would work for the difficult Mr. Spector for 19 years. When his health failed, sources say, he retired, sought health benefits, and not getting them, successfully sued Spector.
Back in '68, Brand looked around for a place to store the Cobra. His daughter, Donna, volunteered a garage-type storage unit she rented. Donna was in her early 20s and had been married about three years to her high-school sweetheart, John O'Hara, who worked at an orange grove in Yorba Linda. The O'Haras wanted to drive it around, so they managed to get the race car registered, reportedly without her father's knowledge, in both their names. But race cars are mechanical headaches on the street, and near the end of '71, it went into storage.
The Cobra was still garaged when the O'Haras' marriage ended, childless, in 1982. John O'Hara reportedly made no claim to the Cobra when the couple divided up their assets. The car sat in storage, and Donna paid the monthly fees.
About 1988, she got the job at a Sears distribution center. Soon she was dating a forklift driver there, Robert Doty, although Donna would break it off six months later. But she did invite Doty, who eventually became her supervisor at work, to invest in buying a home in 1990 in La Habra and becoming housemates. Doty hoped it might rekindle a romance, but it was not to be: "The first time I walked into the house, she said, 'There are four rooms. Which one do you want?'" Doty moved out in 1993 and is now married.
Asked to describe Donna, Doty, now 52, said, "She was a very strong individual. She didn't need nobody. She was an independent person-the most independent person I've ever known. She was very beautiful. She went to museums. She was very intelligent. She had a way of doing things, but anybody who says she was disturbed just didn't know the lady."
A cousin, Chuck Jones, described her as "a very sensitive person, very cultured," who was involved in the arts and theater of Orange County.
In those years, Doty says she never mentioned the Cobra to him, nor spoke of her marriage of 17 years. "She was a very, very private person," he says. And then, about five years ago, a vintage-car collector tracked her down and offered $150,000 for the Cobra. Doty recalls, "I thought he was talking about a Shelby Mustang. Whatever, she said no, and she said she did not want to talk about it. I told her she could pay off the house with the money, but she said no."
Word of the "lost Cobra" spread. Car hunters began circling, only to be rebuked, rudely. There was an offer of $500,000. Donna O'Hara seemed to get angrier as the hunters closed in. She got a reputation as being weird. When Carroll Shelby came calling, she would not concede even that she had the car. She was "kooky," he said. A lawyer's investigator who came bearing an offer of $2 million was supposedly run off her front yard.
Everyone agrees Donna O'Hara's life began to fall apart by the summer of 2000. In August, she suddenly broke off with a boyfriend. Doty was a constant reminder that they'd agreed to cash out the house when Donna turned 55 in February. She would have to move out.
Then there was the job. A relative says she was about to be fired. Sears refuses to comment. After her death, a file was found among her papers in which Donna alleged all sorts of improprieties at the office; in the file was a news clipping about a person who had won millions in a whistle-blower case. A co-worker says she was simply paranoid, thought people were out to get her, and went around in a simmering rage.
She was estranged from both parents. In 1993, she'd invited her mother to move in, but Donna flew into rages over petty things and Dorothy Brand was gone in weeks. She hadn't spoken to her father since his last visit in 1995, and at that get-together she'd called the police on him without any real cause. "She was estranged from every single member of her family," a relative said. Then a plan to start a retail business with another woman failed to materialize. So now her job was unbearable, she was about to lose her house, and how could a 54-year-old shipping-and-receiving clerk start over again?
On October 17, a Tuesday, she walked off the job in the morning and went home. She phoned Kurt Goss, 50, a friend of her family since the days when, as a teenager, he cleaned up at George Brand's family billiards parlor, an alcohol-free place in the town of Orange, where Brand was a county marshal from 1956 to '68. Years later, Goss would provide living quarters for Brand at a facility where Goss had a well-drilling business, and in return, the ex-cop would keep an eye on the place.
Goss says he drove to Donna's home that morning. Later, in a court deposition, he would say he "had always been enthusiastic about the [Cobra] car and used to drive it in the early 1970s. Donna had told me several times since she purchased the car that it had been purchased with the intention that I own it. Donna told me she was in the process of executing documents needed to transfer the Cobra to me. She then gave me the keys to the storage unit where the Cobra was kept." He added that O'Hara had granted access for him on the storage contract.
That morning, Goss says, Donna told him "that in the unlikely event that anything should happen to her" she wanted him to look after her personal effects. To do so, she gave him a bunch of keys-to her home, a safety-deposit box, a garage in Placentia, and an Anaheim storage facility where the Cobra was housed.
Five days later, Donna O'Hara killed herself and her two rabbits. In testimony to her aloneness, no one noticed she was missing until Doty came up short on the house payment.
So why hadn't she erased her financial problems by selling the car? An anonymous rare-car expert offers a theory: "She knew that her father got the car in, well, a questionable way. She knew her father and Spector ended up enemies. If she tried to sell it, she might get in real trouble because she knew it wasn't hers to sell. So here she had this $4 million car hidden away, but she couldn't sell it-and that's why she didn't want collectors coming around and drawing attention to it. The best she could hope for was for Spector to die, and then she could sell it."
An interesting theory, until one discovers that Goss's lawyers have in their possession a certificate of ownership issued in July 1982 by the state of California that officially recognizes Donna O'Hara as the "registered owner" of the car. Back to square one.
After she was identified, George and Dorothy Brand, Kurt Goss, and her cousin Chuck Jones appeared on December 2 at the La Habra home. Jones says, and police corroborate, that she left "suicide notes an inch thick." George Brand, who gets around well despite his mental disadvantage, was "in great grief," Jones says.
In the garage of her home, on a pool table, Jones found "pink slips" to three vehicles-a '69 MG, a '69 Datsun, a '92 Geo Metro-but doesn't remember seeing one for the Cobra. Jones says he collected these papers and others and placed them in a box, which George Brand took when he was driven home. Supposedly, O'Hara left a short handwritten note saying she hoped Goss would find a place for the Cobra in a museum, but there were many, many notes to Doty and Goss, and authorities will not comment on their content.
The next day, Goss went to the Anaheim storage facility, with Jones joining him as the Brand family's representative. Sure enough, Donna had listed Goss as a person to be granted access to her storage. And Donna did fill out a vehicle-transfer document in which she clearly names Goss as recipient of the Cobra, albeit in a slovenly way that has invited challenge.
Goss paid $300 in back rent, then Jones used bolt cutters on the rusted combination padlock. The door swung open and there, in the gloom and dust, its nose crunched in, was CSX2287, the Cobra that had electrified the racing world in 1964 and '65. On four flat tires. A new lock was put in place, and they left. During the next two weeks, Goss could have removed the car, but he didn't.
Late in December, as the shock of her daughter's death ebbed-her only other child, a daughter, had died of a reported drug overdose decades earlier-Dorothy Brand, who had power of attorney for her former husband, began to look into the old race car. She knew it was valuable, she knew she was the next of kin since no will had been found, and her first act was to make sure the golden egg stayed put.
On December 18, she had her nephew, Chuck Jones, drive her to the Anaheim storage facility. Jones later testified: "Dorothy had completed the title form which enabled her to take control of the garage as next of kin. She also paid the January rent. After viewing the contents [with the Cobra inside], we double-bolted the garage." Now there were two locks on the storage.
Then around Christmastime Mrs. Brand, going through her daughter's things, found a most amazing letter: a written offer of more than $2 million for the Cobra! There was a phone number, and four days after Christmas, she called the man who'd made the offer, a man with a cultured English accent that she liked, a vintage-race-car broker from that fancy area called Montecito, near Santa Barbara.
Yes indeed, said the car hunter, whose name was Martin Eyears, the offer was still good. But Dorothy wanted him to know he was not dealing with Edith Bunker-she was well aware that one of the six Cobra race cars had sold at auction last summer for $4 million. So, she'd like $4 million, too. Oh, replied Eyears calmly, but that was a perfectly restored Cobra, and that could cost, oh, a fortune. Very well then, said Dorothy Brand, I'll take $3 million. And that, in so many imagined words, is how Dorothy Brand became a millionaire at the age of 78.
Eyears paid off on February 7, and Dorothy handed over the keys and a notarized bill of sale signed by the Brands, but not the "pink slip." Hearing dreadful rumors, Goss arrived 10 days later at the storage facility with a pair of attorneys in tow, only to be greeted by four oily spots where the Cobra's tires had rested for decades, and an appalling sense of loss.
Eyears moved quickly. He had trailered it to a colleague's garage, put out word that he had the "lost Cobra," and almost at the moment Kurt Goss's heart was losing altitude, Steve Volk, president of the Shelby American Collection Museum in Boulder, Colorado, offered $3,750,000 for it.
Eyears liked the sound of that but backed out two days later. The winning bidder was a Philadelphia neurosurgeon named Frederick Simeone, who is, as you might imagine, not discussing the matter publicly. He reportedly paid $4 million. It's a good bet the car is long gone from California.
Meanwhile, Dorothy Brand, in an expansive mood, was said to have given $150,000 to her favorite charity and then doled out $850,000 to relatives. Goss went to court claiming the car had been stolen out from under him and got an injunction tying up the remaining $2 million. The judge, understandably confused, ordered a hearing April 17.
On that date in the court of Judge James Gray, as the assembled lawyers began evil-eye warm-ups, a new lawyer appeared at the last moment, just like in the movies, and said this:
"Mr. Spector is the owner of the Cobra. He never gave it or sold it to anyone."
Well, that guy was just the messenger lawyer. Spector's real lawyer, it turns out, is Robert Shapiro, one of the lead smooth talkers of O.J. Simpson's "Dream Team." He was busy back in Century City, up on the 18th floor in the swell offices of a seven-name law firm.
Spector, Shapiro informed, had simply turned over the car to Brand to store for him. Spector assumed that his financial managers were taking care of the details, as they do with his mucho other investments. Shapiro finished with a pearl of insight about Spector: "This isn't a man who gets in his car every morning and checks his oil pressure and drives to work."
The judge ordered all the lawyers to get together for a settlement conference on October 5, and when that fails, a civil trial will commence on November 19.
There was one more twist in this Hollywood script. Thirty-three years after they were divorced, it was announced that Dorothy and George Brand will remarry. For the moment, they have a considerable nest egg for their old, old age.