|Sentenced to 16 years in prison and granted a $7 million appellate bond, John Goodman's fortune has indefinitely postponed his future. At Friday's hearing, Goodman is seen flanked by his lawyers Roy Black, left, and Guy Fronstin, right. Photo: Lannis Waters/Palm Beach Post.|
|Act I ends; Act II begins
By Augustus Mayhew
What polo patron isn’t captivated by the chance for a win in a suspenseful overtime chukker? Convicted more than six weeks ago of causing a deadly DUI crash that left Scott Wilson to drown in a canal and having been denied various motions for a new trial, Houston-Wellington VIP and International Polo Club founder John Goodman is now in a whatever-it-takes overtime fight for a new trial to regain his freedom — a 180-turn his defense lawyer Roy Black is known to deliver. Described as the “polo king” by the Houston Chronicle and a member of “equestrian royalty” by the Albany Times-Union, Goodman was sentenced late Friday afternoon by Judge Jeffrey Colbath to 16 years in prison — the prosecution wanted 20 years; the defense asked for 11.5 years.
Thus, by mid-week, Mr. Goodman could well have checked out of Palm Beach County Jail and returned to his 85-acre Wellington compound adjacent to the private International Polo Club. While confined within his own kingdom behind secured gates for the next several years, awaiting a possible new trial, he will be permitted office visits at the club either by foot or golf cart to conduct his various sports and financial enterprises but not be allowed to engage in any social activities.
On Friday, once the defense’s juror misconduct claim was denied, apparently a prime focus for appeal, the sentencing hearing began and both the prosecution and the defense made emotional presentations. Statements from the victim Scott Wilson’s parents Bill Wilson and Lili Wilson were heartbreaking. Defense lawyer Roy Black introduced Goodman’s older brother Greg Goodman and sister Betsy Goodman Abell before the defendant himself addressed the court, expressing remorse for his inability to speak directly to Scott Wilson’s family. Black quoted from family and friends’ support letters asking for leniency, pointing out Mr. Goodman’s philanthropy, before rolling into a protracted colloquy on retribution.
For me, the defense’s paper-thin gossamer case unfolded as a web of fabrications designed more as potential appellate court reading matter than any nexus within the realm of credible probability. On the civil side, it was Mr. Goodman’s insurance company that settled the civil suit with Scott Wilson’s family for $46 million, according to newspaper reports, as part of a $50 million umbrella policy he had in place.
The overtime clock is ticking.
|Defense lawyer Roy Black, left, and Prosecutor Ellen Roberts, right, had confronted each other during the 1991 William Kennedy Smith trial. At that time, not only did Black win a Not Guilty verdict from the jury but he married juror Lisa Lea Haller, now Real Housewife of Miami star Leah Black. For Roberts, the Goodman case was her last prosecution before a planned retirement.|
|Among the letters of support, publishing magnate Peter Brant, writing on his White Birch Farm stationary, opined “I do not believe John Goodman is a bad person or a dishonest person ... I have witnessed nothing but integrity ... I would ask you, Judge Colbath, to be merciful ...”
OSI restaurant chain co-founder and Outback Polo patron Tim Gannon assured Colbath that Goodman was “... a man of his word ... I hope the court will be lenient to John Goodman because he has tried to make so many other people’s lives better and will continue to do so.”
Fellow polo enthusiast Neil Hirsch, Bridgehampton Polo Club principal and owner of The Players Club, reminded the judge that he had settled with the Wilson family for $6 million. Further, he wrote “... my staff has assured me that John had not been intoxicated upon leaving the restaurant .... If the International Polo Club closes its doors, it will impact as many as 2,500 families and may economically devastate an entire community.”
|Potamkin auto heiress, polo patron, and Goodman friend Melissa Ganzi declared her neighbor to be a “... a pillar of the community ... Mr. Goodman’s incarceration for several years would be detrimental ... Mr. Goodman’s entire life ... predicated upon his charitable efforts and his philanthropic nature. He will suffer the “pains of imprisonment which will bear a significant psychological cast ...”
She concluded by suggesting the judge “sentence Mr. Goodman in a manner in which he may continue to give back to society and not detract from it.” Houston’s Paul William Hobby, a former Assistant US Attorney and a member of one of Texas’ most prominent families, stated, “He has and will pay a terrible price for failing to tame his personal demons ... I don’t believe that reckless living will ever be part of his life again.”
|Several polo players wrote letters of support, among them Julian Hipwood, Andres Weisz, Guillermo Gracida, Julio Arellano, and Jeff Blake.
Vice-Chairman of the Cowdray Park Polo Club, home of polo’s British Open, Mr. Hipwood wrote Goodman is “... not gregarious or showy in any manner ... I am not aware of anyone who dislikes him ...” and he asked Judge Colbath to “... look with some compassion upon John.”
A friend of 20 years, Blake wrote, “John Goodman is a broken man for the pain he caused .... Our friendship is not born of socializing at taverns — I don’t drink alcohol — but our friendship is of two men from different backgrounds who could talk and laugh about life. Mr. Blake concluded by confiding with the judge that “Mr. Wilson, who spoke with me several times during the trial, said he hoped it didn’t turn out to be a double tragedy.”
|Left: In late March, John Goodman testified in his own defense (Photo, Lannis Waters/Palm Beach Post).
Right: On May 11, Goodman tells the judge he always wanted to speak with the Wilson family and “cry with them” since right after the collission. Later, during sentencing, Goodman thought it necessary to be seen on camera sometimes nodding in disagreement with what the judge was saying and whispering in lawyer Mark Shapiro's ear.
|In her letter, Heather Anne Hutchins (Colby), Mr. Goodman’s girlfriend-daughter announced herself to Judge Colbath as, “I am John Goodman’s life partner.” Then, she portrayed her father-boyfriend, at least for accounting and trust purposes, as “... the most honest and compassionate person with the utmost integrity .... There are so many people in Wellington that absolutely adore John. In memory of Scott, John bought a necklace engraved with Scott Wilson’s initials .... It would be a tremendous loss to the community and to everyone that loves John to have him incarcerated .... Please give him a chance.”
Juliet Van Alen wrote that John Goodman was “the godfather of our four-year-old son,” and asked, “If John is imprisoned, what will Palm Beach County gain? What future products of John’s ingenuity will be lost?” Her husband Lucas Post “Luke” Van Alen, an old school friend of Goodman’s, was at the two-week trial each day.
The Astor-Vanderbilt Newport Van Alens are no strangers to polo and newspaper headlines. Louise Van Alen married her brother-in-law Prince Serge Mdivani in February 1936 only one month later to be watching from the Phipps Field sidelines in Gulf Stream when her husband was thrown from his polo pony and trampled to death.
|Above, left: Goodman’s older brother Greg Goodman and his family were at the trial every day. He told the judge, “John is devastated ... the media has made him a fictitious character ... we live with this tragic accident every day ....”
While the Goodman name is under fire outside of polo and equestrian circles, and as much as I thought the defense misguided, I had to admire Greg Goodman for standing by his brother no matter what ignoble acts he committed. Greg Goodman’s wife Rebecca Goodman penned a note on her Mt. Brilliant Farm LLC stationary, describing Goodman’s development “... from a fun-loving teen to kind and compassionate man." She added, “I was with my brother-in-law the morning after the accident. He was devastated with the realization that he hit Scott Wilson’s car. He said, “Oh, my God. I am sure that he was a wonderful young man! How can this be?” Sadly, nothing can bring Scott back ... but John can do so much more given the opportunity.”
Above, center: Betsy Goodman Abell, Mr. Goodman’s sister, said her brother was “... generous ... would never leave a young man in a ditch ... John is never really going to be OK ....” Although the family matriarch Harriett S. Goodman did not speak, she was at the trial every day and at the sentencing. In a letter, she wrote about her son’s “... humble upbringing ... bounded by tradition, charity, honor, and integrity. John has a history of a lifetime of selfless dedication.” She told the judge, “My son does not lie,” and “... do not overlook John’s lifetime of philanthropy.”
Above, right: Judge Jeffrey Colbath called John Goodman’s own testimony a “a vain attempt ... a contrivance.” The judge offered these last words, at least until the appellate courts, “At the moment of truth ... he ran to hide and save himself,” before sentencing John Goodman to 16 years in a state penitentiary.
|Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.|