Miami — Initially, the brutal killing of Ben Novack Jr., heir to the founder of Miami Beach’s famed Fontainebleau Hotel, looked like the sordid story of a wealthy couple’s sexually charged marriage gone very wrong. A year later, the alleged murder of Novack Jr.’s mother was thrown into the mix. Then, in late February, the bizarrely tangled case escalated into a full-scale family feud involving the respective extended families of both husband and wife.
At issue: whether former stripper Narcisa Novack orchestrated her own widowhood and, if so, whether the Novack family fortune of some $6 to $10 million can be kept from benefiting her and her daughter and grandsons by way of a previous relationship.
“We are trying to have Narcy Novack declared ineligible to collect on her husband’s estate, the theory being that you can’t collect if you’re responsible for the death,” said attorney Mark Hanson, who filed a Petition to Determine Heirs in a Florida probate court on behalf of Novack Jr.’s aunt and three Novack cousins.
Should Narcy Novack, who faces trial in April for her husband’s murder, be found guilty, the disposition of the Novack estate could depend on a court’s interpretation of Florida’s so-called slayer rule, which says a killer “forfeits all benefits…. with respect to the decedent’s estate.”
In Florida, it has never been decided whether the family of a person found guilty of murder can benefit, Hanson said. But even if Narcy Novack is acquitted, Hanson told the Forward, he will pursue a civil route to deny benefits. Civil cases utilize a lesser standard of evidence than criminal cases to determine guilt. Hanson cited the O.J. Simpson case, in which Simpson was acquitted in the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend Ronald Goldman, but a civil trial jury found him liable for the wrongful death of Goldman and awarded the Goldman family $33 million.
It was Harvey Morse, a Florida-based private investigator and international genealogist, who first got Hanson involved in the Novack case. Morse, who did not know the Novack family but learned about Ben Jr.’s murder through the media, recalled discussing the case with friends over lunch and saying to himself, “I’m gonna go find the relatives.”
Morse soon found four family blood relatives who might legitimately be heirs to both Novack’s estate and that of his mother, Bernice Novack: Maxine Fiel, who is Bernice Novack’s sister, and Novack Jr.’s first cousins —Andrea Danenza Wynn, Joseph Danenza and Gerald P. Brezner. Wynn is married to Las Vegas hotel and casino magnate Steve Wynn.
“I got hold of Maxine and I started to feel bad, being Jewish myself, and knowing what she’s gone through,” Morse said. He will also get paid a percentage in the event that any of these heirs inherit money from the estate.
At issue, Morse says, is the possibility that Narcy Novack’s daughter or grandsons could inherit Novack’s estate and use the money to benefit Narcy Novack. “She sits in jail,” he explained during a phone conversation, spinning out a possible scenario. “They get the money. She calls and asks for a loan to hire a defense attorney.”
Among the key assets of the estate is Novack Jr.’s famed collection of Batman memorabilia, valued at some $2 million.
The whole squalid business began on July 12, 2009, when Novack Jr.’s body was discovered, bound and bludgeoned, his eyes slit by a knife, in Room 453 of the Hilton Westchester in Rye Brook, N.Y. Four days short of the one-year anniversary of Novack’s death, Preet Bharara, United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the indictments of Narcy Novack, then 53; her brother, Cristobal Veliz, and two other men on charges of interstate domestic violence and stalking. “As described in the indictment,” Bharara said, “the plot that led to the brutal death of Ben Novack was a family affair.”
George Venizelos of the FBI’s New York field office said: “The killing of Ben Novack was not a spur of the moment crime of passion. It was the end game of considerable planning.”
The charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The day after Novack Jr.’s body was found, investigators questioned Narcy Novack extensively. They got an earful, including accounts of sex games between the two, a sometimes volatile marriage, and her late husband’s obsession with Batman, and with pornography involving amputees. They considered the possibility of sex games that turned brutal having caused his death, but ultimately they concluded that Narcy Novack had conspired to set up the slaying. Three months earlier, Bernice Novack had been killed in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a death initially attributed to a series of accidental falls. But last year a federal indictment charged Narcy Novack with arranging that murder, as well.
Ben Novack Jr. reportedly met his wife when she was an exotic dancer performing under the stage name Sylvia in a now-defunct strip club in Hialeah, Fla. He had grown up in and around the glamour of his father’s world-renowned hotel. The creative crown of American architect Morris Lapidus’s career, the Fountainbleau is, even today, a palatial icon of Miami Beach high life. It has been the site for everything from films starring Frank Sinatra (“A Hole in the Head,” 1959), Jerry Lewis (“The Bellboy,” 1960) and Al Pacino (“Scarface,” 1983) to the real-life headquarters of the Black Tuna Gang, a notorious marijuana-smuggling ring busted by the FBI in the late 1970s. In Woody Allen’s 1971 movie “Bananas,” when an ousted Latin Ameri can dictator flees his country aboard a plane, he calls the Fontainebleau en route to reserve a room.
But for the Novack family, the dream ended when Ben Novack Sr. lost the Fontainebleau to bankruptcy in 1977. His son established and operated Convention Concepts Unlimited, a multimillion-dollar venture that organized and oversaw business conventions. The Novacks’ 2009 trip to New York from their home in Fort Lauderdale was, in fact, a business trip: an Amway convention.
Narcy Novack told detectives that her husband had been awake when she left their room, shortly after 7 a.m., but upon returning, less than an hour later, she tripped over his body.
Videotape obtained by Miami’s CBS affiliate and carried on its Web site shows Narcy Novack answering investigators’ questions. “I walk in and I trip on something, and I realize he’s on the floor,” she tells them on the tape. She also talks about the couple’s sex lives: “He likes rough stuff,” she says. But Novack Jr.’s spouse steadfastly denies culpability, telling her questioners, “I have nothing to do with my husband’s death.” Investigators theorized that she conspired with her husband’s killers, allowing them entrance into the room.
Multiple calls seeking comment from Narcy Novack’s attorney, Howard E. Tanner, went unreturned.
Novack Jr.’s 35-page will leaves the majority of his estate, with the possibility of more in offshore accounts, to his wife and a smaller amount to her daughter, May Abad, and two teenage grandsons; it also leaves “all tangible properties” — household effects, jewelry, furniture, automobiles and collections — to his wife or, had she died first, to his mother. Novack Jr.’s tangible assets reportedly include an original Batmobile.
A sizable portion of Novack Jr.’s holdings has been sold or auctioned off, with the money held in trust, according to Hanson.
In a final bit of irony, Novack Jr.’s will also leaves explicit burial instructions, directing that the “casketed remains” of Narcy Novack and Novack Jr. be interred “side by side” at the family mausoleum at Mount Lebanon Cemetery, in the Glendale section of Queens.
Contact Mary Jane Fine at firstname.lastname@example.org