Most people who drink Leroy Hill coffee likely know little of a battle that’s been brewing between his first wife, his children and their stepmother since the self-made millionaire died in 2009.
At the heart of the legal dispute, lawyers said, is a missing inheritance agreement, said to have been penned by Leroy Hill when he was trying to divorce his first wife without busting up a successful coffee business and selling off a thriving ranch they owned in southwest Mobile County.
On Oct. 21, a jury will be asked to decide if the late coffee magnate and his second wife destroyed evidence that would prove he cut a deal with his first wife, Bonnie Hill, by promising to leave the company and ranch to his children in exchange for a quick and quiet divorce. Hill’s second wife, Deborah Hill, probated a will after his death that left the lion’s share of his fortunes, said to be worth at least $25 million, to her.
Deborah Hill, who now serves as president of the Mobile-based Leroy Hill Coffee Company, said during a deposition that no such inheritance agreement exists and has fought to maintain control of the business, ranch and sprawling estate off Grand Bay/Wilmer Road that includes a home estimated to be larger than 13,000 square feet. Attempts to reach Deborah Hill for this story were unsuccessful.
The legal fight over who should control Leroy Hill Coffee Company and one of Alabama’s largest ranches has been waged in and out of courtrooms for more than four years, reaching the Alabama Supreme Court before returning to Mobile to be determined as a civil matter. Attorney Vince Kilborn, who represents Hill’s first wife and her family, says he is looking forward to the trial.
“A jury will decide who is telling the truth here ….” he said in a prepared statement. “… The jury’s going to get a behind-the-scenes peek at all of the scheming and conniving.”
The latest legal bout pitting Leroy Hill’s adult children against their stepmother was decided on Aug. 1, attorneys said. That’s when a Mobile judge denied Deborah Hill’s efforts to quash a trial over whether she or her deceased husband, Leroy Hill, destroyed a side agreement to leave the majority of his estate to his children. While another motion was filed by Deborah Hill’s attorneys to remove her personally from the lawsuit in early September, no hearing had been set to determine that matter as of press time.
David McDonald, who, along with Kilborn represents Leroy Hill’s children and first wife, said whether or not the judge removes Deborah Hill as an individual from the litigation, a jury trial is still set for next month to determine if the inheritance agreement was destroyed and who has legal claim to the property in question. McDonald pointed to case law that shows a legal agreement can be established based on witnesses who testify to seeing a document, even if the document is lost or destroyed.
Building a coffee empire
Bonnie Todd met Leroy Hill in 1952, the summer before her junior year in high school. She was 16 and worked as a cashier in a restaurant in Savannah, Ga. where Leroy delivered coffee. Two years later, after her high school graduation, they were married. Two years after that, the couple moved to Mobile to open a branch office for Leroy’s employer, a coffee business named the Belford Company.
In those days Leroy Hill earned $40 a week. A few years later, Leroy formed L. Roy Hill Company, which operated as a Belford distributor. Leroy and Bonnie operated the company out of their home. Bonnie handled the bookkeeping and secretarial duties until the business got off the ground, according to accounts she provided during a deposition.
In 1961, Hill’s brother-in-law bought into the company and it was renamed Hill & Brooks Coffee Co. Brooks later sold his share back to Hill in 1993, when he was battling cancer. That sale later resulted in a lawsuit against Leroy Hill by his sister. The case was dismissed in 1996.
In 1969, Leroy used the couple’s savings to buy Belford’s remaining interest in the Mobile market. By 1983, Leroy Hill took out a full-page ad in the Mobile Press Register proclaiming Hill & Brooks as one of the fastest growing companies in the Southeast. The advertisement crediting Hill & Brooks’ success to its employees singled out his children, Roy Wayne, Debra, Todd and Brian, and his son-in-law, Paul Stewart, who all worked at the coffee company or the family ranch.
Nine months later, Leroy and Bonnie Hill divorced, after nearly three decades together. Despite the length of their union, Leroy Hill negotiated a divorce agreement in 1984 with Bonnie that gave her a $1,500 monthly stipend, according to court documents. At the time, the coffee business and cattle ranch were worth upwards of $20 million, McDonald said. Bonnie Hill’s attorney for the divorce, who didn’t know about the separate inheritance agreement, urged her to seek more than the monthly stipend, court records show. During a deposition, Bonnie said she trusted her ex-husband and had no reason to believe he wouldn’t honor their deal.
Claude Boone, an attorney who represents Deborah Hill, said after the divorce Leroy Hill continued to be generous to his first wife, making sure Bonnie Hill got a new car every few years along with at least one home and other cash allotments. Bonnie Hill also continued to work for the coffee company following the divorce and also received free coffee and tea for her personal use while Leroy Hill was alive.
The inheritance agreement, said Hill’s children and first wife in depositions, was created before the divorce. Sitting in the kitchen of their home, Bonnie said Leroy hand-wrote and signed the agreement.
Later, when Bonnie noticed that the agreement didn’t expressly provide for a copy of his will for her, she gave the agreement to her son-in-law, Paul Stewart, who brought it to Leroy Hill at his office. There, according to depositions, Leroy Hill had his daughter, Debra Hill Stewart — who was then the business manager for the coffee company — type it up. Then, he placed it in a fireproof file cabinet at the company for safekeeping.
Secret affair discovered after Hills divorced
Debra Stewart has testified that she typed up the inheritance agreement in the office of her father’s then-secretary, Deborah Preslar. When she returned to his office, she was surprised to find the secretary with her father. Leroy Hill read the typed agreement out loud, signed it and asked Debra Stewart to sign as a witness so she would know “that I’m going to take care of your mama,” according to court records.
Debra said she remembered being uncomfortable when her father read the agreement in front of his secretary. He told her he would keep the typed agreement in a fireproof cabinet in his office. For a fleeting moment, Debra Stewart said in a deposition, she considered making a copy of the document. “And I said I can’t do that to my Daddy because he would die if he thought I didn’t trust him. And he was real big on that,” she said.
What Debra Stewart and her family didn’t know at the time, her lawyers said, was that Leroy had been having an affair with his secretary, who was also married. Shortly after Leroy Hill’s divorce was finalized he married Deborah Preslar. When news of the eight-year premarital affair eventually surfaced, Leroy Hill met with his sons and son-in-law to reiterate his intent to honor the inheritance agreement, his children and others have said in depositions. Deborah Hill was at that meeting, according to accounts documented by McDonald, and acknowledged the agreement.
Despite a stint in prison for mail fraud in the 1990s over a deal to buy state-owned land, Leroy Hill’s businesses continued to prosper. He built what many would call a mansion near Grand Bay where he was known to entertain governors and other state leaders. At its high point, the coffee company employed more than 130 and boasted 80 delivery routes across the Southeast, according to former employees. Sales were estimated to be about $20 million annually. Deborah Hill said in a 2012 deposition that the business is smaller now, employing perhaps 55 workers with 30 or so routes on the books.
Hill’s children and his first wife said they had no idea Leroy Hill wouldn’t honor the inheritance agreement until Deborah Hill probated a will that Hill had secretly executed leaving virtually his entire estate to his second wife. In that will, Hill’s three sons received $250,000 each.
His daughter was left out. Some speculate that might be because her husband, who worked at the Hill family business before starting his own coffee company, successfully sued Leroy Hill for slander. Stewart was initially awarded more than $2 million, but an agreement was reached on appeal for an undisclosed sum, McDonald said.
Hill’s children, who continued to work for the company long after he divorced their mother, have testified to meetings with Leroy and Deborah Hill where both promised the children that while Hill would leave millions in assets to his second wife — such as a home on Dauphin Island — he would still honor the agreement he’d made with Bonnie Hill. After his death at age 76, when the children asked Deborah Hill to give them the written agreement stored at the company she now controls, she told them she didn’t know what they were talking about, lawyers for Bonnie Hill and her children said.
“Cheap and ruthless”
Boone, an attorney representing Deborah Hill, pointed out that “nobody has the written agreement. The claim is made now some 20 years after the divorce. Because of the agreement, the kids now want the coffee company and the farm.”
Boone said he’s hopeful his client will win.
“How do you get a divorce and then tell the judge ‘Yeah, but we had a secret agreement? They deceived the court,” Boone said. “It’s an interesting argument. They want everything Mrs. Hill was given: the company, the ranch, damages against her. They want a judgment against Debbie Hill. They claim she has been unjustly enriched.”
McDonald said his clients are seeking a judgment against their stepmother because, among other things, she doubled her salary at the coffee company after their father’s death, and now makes about $250,000 a year. It is their contention that despite being paid more, the business has suffered as evidenced by fewer employees and fewer routes.
“I’m looking forward to our day in court,” Bonnie Hill said through her attorney. “I left everything with Roy when he said he wanted to divorce me because I believed him when he assured me he would grow it for the benefit of our children and grandchildren. I feel so stupid for letting Roy keep the agreement in the company file cabinet, but that’s just how much I trusted him, even after he said he no longer loved me. I never complained … because I knew I was doing something great for my family.”
Kilborn predicts that the Hill trial will be unlike anything Mobile has ever seen: “John Grisham couldn’t come up with a book like this. We’re going to cover some pretty shocking topics, but at its core this is a … story of how much Bonnie Hill loved her children and how willing she was to walk away from a life that most of us could only dream of, just to ensure that her children and grandchildren have a better life.”
Boone said there are at least two sides to every story.
“They are going to try and paint him as being cheap and ruthless,” he said of Leroy Hill, insisting exactly the opposite is true. “Mr. Hill, for all the years he was alive after he divorced Bonnie, he bought her cars and was very generous. He did what he wanted to do. He was strong willed in the way he ran his business and tended to his affairs.”