Fran Norton may have been better prepared for her cancer-stricken husband’s death than the chaos that has ensued.
Joe Norton, patriarch of the Elephant Trunk travel accessories company and her spouse of 65 years, died March 17, 2017.
In the interim, Fran has watched the 110-year-old family business go belly up, calls from creditors linger and a fight involving his estate and a former company president grow legal legs.
“It’s the biggest mess you’ve ever seen,” said Fran Norton, 88. “I didn’t even get time to mourn him. I was just thrown into the fire. All of a sudden, it’s just me against the world.”
In October, Elephant Trunk closed its last remaining stores in Utica Square and at 8922 S. Memorial Drive.
Carving an initial niche by making steamer trunks, it was founded in 1907 by owner Frank Goodman. Norton’ s father, Joe Norton Sr., took a job with the Elephant Trunk in 1931 before opening up his own store, Norton Luggage Co., in the 1940s.
Norton Jr. joined his father’s business — one of the first stores in the new Utica Square — in 1954 after serving two years in the Air Force and returning to Tulsa with a business degree from the University of Oklahoma. Norton Luggage purchased the Elephant Trunk — and took on the name — in 1958 and a couple years later, the son took over for the father, who went into semi-retirement.
At its zenith, Elephant Trunk had seven stores in Tulsa, three in Oklahoma City, one in Joplin, Missouri, and seven in Minneapolis. The 9/11 attacks, which would affect the airline industry and business travel, the recession of the late 2000s and online tax-free luggage put a dent in the firm’s business in subsequent years.
But something else would ultimately change the face of the company: Joe Jr.’s health. He was first diagnosed with cancer in 2003 (squamous cell carcinoma on his carotid artery), Fran Norton said, and he would have another bout with the disease before his death, which set off a maelstrom of legal activity to determine the scope of his assets and how they would be administered.
The sorting out of Joe Norton Jr.’s estate in court began with a probate filing in May. Four months later, Shane Lewis, a man intertwined in Joe’s life and property, petitioned the district court, claiming the beneficiary of his trust — Fran — had violated its terms.
Lewis, who like Joe Norton Jr. was a pilot and parked his plane in Norton’s hangar at Jones Riverside Airport, testified at an October trust hearing in district court that he first met Norton in 1992 and went to work for him a couple years later.
He told the court that they were friends and business partners who took many trips together, describing their relationship as “very close, much like a father-son.”
“His experience at that point was washing airplanes at the airport,” Stephen Capron, an attorney who represents Fran Norton, said in an interview. “He wasn’t involved in retail. Somehow, he convinced Joe to put him in charge of this retail outfit.”
Lewis ultimately ran the Elephant Trunk, handling bank accounts and day-to-day operations of the business, according to testimony.
“I mean, everything that was done, I had a hand in it,” Lewis, who would later become company president, testified last fall.
Cancer struck Joe Norton again in late 2016, Fran said. More chemotherapy treatments followed, but his health faltered. Near the end of his life, he was a shell of his former self, his wife said.
“He had no brain,” she said. “He was just a zombie.”
Following Joe’s death at age 87, Fran Norton checked on the family business and was shocked at its condition.
“Joe had hired him (Lewis) to run the stores because he was too sick to run them, and he thought he was doing a good job,” she said. “Then when Joe died and I came into the stores, it didn’t take me a day to figure out we’re cash-poor.
“We’re having a hard time making the rent and the payroll. None of the merchandise is paid for. He’s on the phone ordering like crazy and the phone is ringing off the wall from vendors wanting to get paid. I thought, ‘Something’s wrong here because we never owed anybody anything.’”
Lewis’ court action asked the court to enforce the terms of Joe Norton’s trust and, in particular, the restriction limiting Fran Norton’s transfers of trust property according to her needs.
The petition alleged that Fran Norton had, among other things, engaged buyers for a vintage airplane and hangar and had moved trust property, including four certificates of deposit worth about $400,000, to her own personal account.
Fran Norton was removed as a trustee in lieu of a court-appointed trustee in November. And in January, while allowing that some of her actions may have been “well-intended,” the court granted an injunction against Norton, explaining that she didn’t comply with state statutes when converting trust property to personal property.
The basis for Lewis’ legal intervention is the trust itself.
Originally created in 2001, the Joe Norton trust was amended in 2017 to include a “bypass” provision, preserving for Lewis a hangar at Jones Riverside Airport, a de Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunk airplane, a warehouse at 6035 S. 116th East Ave., all shares of Norton Luggage Co. and all units of Elephant Trunk LLC, as well as the remaining trust estate, court records show.
“We are a contingent beneficiary in the case,” said Taylor Burke, an attorney representing Lewis. “Not only is he a contingent beneficiary, but he also is the remainderman. He is the person that would receive the full value of the trust once the other beneficiaries receive their property.”
Amending the trust
The Joe Norton trust was amended Feb. 13, 2017, about a month before his death. Capron contends that Norton “was not in his right mind in his last moments” and that “the treatment and the cancer caused him to have substantial mental deficits.”
Lewis’ attorney disagrees, saying no one has raised any argument such as lack of capacity or undue influence.
“In those intervening years, Shane just took on more and more of their business,” Burke said. “As Joe was about to pass, he just decided to make sure Shane was taken care of.
“Part of it was, Utica Square and retail in general wasn’t doing very well, and I don’t think Shane’s income was what it should have been. I think he was trying to reward Shane for what he’d done.”
Fran Norton has testified that Lewis “shouldn’t have anything,” a stance she reiterated in a recent interview.
“There’s no reason why he should have that because Joe paid him for everything he did,” she said.
Another issue to be resolved is in the probate case and Norton’s claim for an elective or forced share, amounting to half of the Joe Norton estate. A financial document for Joe and Fran Norton dated July 2015 placed the value of their assets at about $6.56 million and the value of the business at $1.150 million, documents indicate.
“My client’s argument is that it is the entire marital estate,” Burke said. “So you don’t just have to look at Mr. Norton’s estate. You have to look at Mrs. Norton’s estate.”
Allegations of fraud
Lewis resigned from the company in August. The court appointed a guardian ad-litem for Fran Norton in March, and it has restrained the sale of any Elephant Trunk assets. An injunction against Norton and her removal as trustee are on appeal.
Fran Norton estimates she owes creditors about $50,000.
“They’ve blocked me where I can’t sell anything, I can’t move anything,” Fran Norton said. “I have people who want to buy hangars that I’d love to get rid of. They won’t let me do anything.”
Capron earlier this April filed a civil suit alleging a slew of claims against Lewis, including fraud. The attorney alleges, among other things, that Lewis and his wife, Amanda, used company access to take $47,430 in funds from a company Scottrade account to pay off a $52,939.50 note on a 1950 DHC-1 Chipmunk.
The lawsuit also claims that without Fran Norton’s permission, the defendants used a surveillance camera to monitor her at home to ensure she was not coming to the office.
Burke said the suit lacks merit and has denied the claims against his client.
“The case in its entirety presents as a rather tragic end for Joe,” Capron said. “Joe was by all accounts of any person I’ve ever spoken with a very good and decent man, the kind of person who would have never let any of his debts go into default.
“His biggest problem was that he was too trusting. He did his best to take care of his family, but in his final illness, something tragic happened. He was taken advantage of by someone who was brought into his inner circle and given a great deal of trust.”