One of Florida’s strangest bankruptcy cases is drawing to a close in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
Pamela Carvel, the litigious niece of Carvel Ice Cream’s late rags-to-riches founder, filed the case voluntarily last year amid a bitter, 17-year legal struggle for control over the assets from an estate once valued at $67 million.
She got more than she bargained for.
Carvel’s $1.6 million home on secluded Mayan Lake off A1A in Fort Lauderdale’s exclusive Harbor Beach neighborhood was seized and auctioned at the end of May to the highest bidder. Her six New York City rental apartments were also sold off against her wishes by court order.
U.S Trustee Leslie Osborne said he’s recovered about $2.9 million to pay off Carvel’s creditors, including several law firms and the Thomas and Agnes Carvel Foundation, with whom Pamela Carvel has grappled so long in court.
Carvel also is a fugitive.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge John K. Olson of Fort Lauderdale ordered U.S. Marshal to arrest her on sight nearly a year ago for civil contempt after she repeatedly ignored his orders.
Carvel does not have an attorney. In a recent email to Broward Bulldog, she accused the judge and Osborne of being in cahoots with the foundation created by her late aunt and uncle.
“There has been theft of over $700 million belonging to the Carvel family, with tax evasion through estate tax fraud, income tax fraud, charity fraud and capital gains tax fraud,” she wrote. “Justice goes to the highest briber. Crime is rampant in the courts … but this is nothing new.”
Carvel’s initial court filings indicate, and those familiar with the case contend, that Carvel’s bankruptcy filing was a ploy in her broader legal war against the foundation.
If so, she was the one trapped by the legal tactic.
Court records trace the “genesis” of the litigation to the 1988 “mirror-image wills” signed by the Carvels.
When one of them died, their assets were to be placed in a marital trust to provide income for the life of the surviving spouse. In the end, the money would go to their charitable foundation.
Pamela Carvel got a specific bequest of $20,000.
Thomas Carvel, creator of the Cookie Puss and Fudgie the Whale ice cream cakes, died in New York in 1990. His wife, Pamela, and five others were appointed co-executors of his estate and co-trustees of the trust.
In late 1994 and early 1995, without telling the other co-executors, Pamela Carvel transferred more than $2 million from her uncle’s estate into an account in London, where she was then living, in her own name and that of her aunt, records show.
Her aunt moved to London to live with Pamela. About the same time, Pamela got a judge in Palm Beach, where she also had a residence, to name her as limited guardian of her aunt’s property.
Agnes died in 1998 at age 90.
Without notice to the Thomas and Agnes Carvel Foundation, based in Yonkers, New York, Pamela Carvel quickly probated another will her aunt had signed in 1995 in London. The will purported to change her beneficiary from the foundation to a corporation “apparently controlled by Pamela Carvel,” court records show.
When the foundation found out, court records show, lawsuits started flying in New York, Florida, Delaware and the United Kingdom.
Years of litigation with more twists than a Carvel ice cream cone followed. Among the more bizarre: Pamela’s 2007 attempt to get a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale to have her uncle’s body exhumed to see if he’d been poisoned by an embezzler.
Finally, in 2010, a federal judge dismissed Pamela’s claims and barred her from filing any new lawsuits.
But matters did not end there.
In February 2011, Pamela filed her petition in Fort Lauderdale seeking the bankruptcy court’s protection as a Chapter 11 debtor. Individuals who file for Chapter 11 generally remain in control of their assets as a plan to reorganize their debt is worked out.
Carvel’s petition listed debts of $615,000. She claimed assets of $32.9 million in “potential litigation claims.” She also restated her earlier assertions that members of the foundation had stolen the money.
“There has never been a trial by jury in any proceeding since 1990 involving the theft,” she wrote.
That’s true. Says U.S. Trustee’s attorney Brett Marks of Fort Lauderdale, “There never was a time when a judge said to her, ‘You don’t have a case.’ It was you haven’t done it right. I don’t know if anybody will ever know if she’s right.”
Soon after seeking the court’s protection as she reorganized her debts, Carvel began pushing to obtain the court’s permission to issue subpoenas that would allow her to go after the foundation’s records.
Osborne and others familiar with the case said Pamela Carvel was hoping to use the bankruptcy to get around the prohibition against further litigation in the estate fight.
But Carvel quickly ran afoul of the court, and lost control of the case after refusing to insure her Harbor Beach home as bankruptcy rules required. She tried to withdraw her petition and have the case dismissed. Instead, Judge Olson converted the case to Chapter 7 liquidation and named a trustee.
“In ruling against dismissal, I recall him saying that bankruptcy is like the roach motel, you can go in, but can’t get out,” said Marks, Trustee Osborne’s Fort Lauderdale attorney.
“She’s been ignoring the proceedings ever since,” said Osborne.
Creditors filed about $2.9 million in claims. That included the foundation’s claim of $432,000 to cover a judgment it had obtained for legal fees, plus another $2.2 million in non-adjudicated claims for malicious prosecution.
Legal fees by others, including Marks, account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional claims.
Osborne believes Carvel has more assets squirreled away, but said that her former Fort Lauderdale home — sold for $1 million on May 29 — will likely be the last asset to be liquidated. Creditors will be paid 100 cents on the dollar, except for the foundation’s $2.2 million malicious prosecution claim.
“At the end of the day, they just want it over with,” Osborne said.
With a warrant out for her arrest, Pamela Carvel’s whereabouts are today unknown. Osborne said he suspects she’s probably living in New Jersey because her mother, who died last year, has real estate there.
“She got the wrong judge to play with,” Osborne said.
Broward Bulldog is a not-for-profit online only newspaper created to provide local reporting in the public interest. www.browardbulldog.org, 954-603-1351.