IN THE JOURNAL | BOOK REVIEWS
Tragedy in paradise
July-September 2013

Why would a multi-millionaire choose to relocate to Saipan? It wasn’t only for the tropical weather and lifestyle. As a commonwealth, the Northern Marianas enjoys a special relationship with Washington, a key feature of which established Saipan as a tax haven for American citizens. Yet Hillblom also took an interest in Pacific island politics after the post-World War II Trust Territory relationships ended, seeing that the islanders were not getting a fair deal from Uncle Sam. This relationship was symbiotic to be sure – Hillblom helping Saipan to preserve its sovereignty also helped him preserve his tax status. He earned the trust and respect of the native islanders, though, ultimately resulting in an appointment as a special judge on the commonwealth’s Supreme Court.

The second act, however, also delves into Hillblom’s sordid sexual exploits, which included fathering illegitimate children and having sex with underage women across Asia. Due to his fear of HIV/AIDS, this also included seeking out young virgins.

Throughout the first two sections of the book, there is much discussion of how Hillblom lived – he wore jeans and T-shirts, lived in a modest island home and would happily choose a friend’s sofa over a five-star hotel. The reader also learns about how he was badly injured in a private airplane crash in the early 1990s but survived. Act Two closes with his death. He “presumably died” in a second private plane crash in 1995 at the age of 52. The word “presumably” is key because, unlike the plane’s other two passengers, Hillblom’s body was never recovered. The “Elvis sightings” and conspiracy theories still abound 18 years later.

Act Three covers “the probate to end all probates.” Hillblom was never married, and the matter of his illegitimate children was not addressed in his will. Other ingredients included an estate worth at least a few hundred million dollars held in very complex and poorly documented holding structures, and a named beneficiary in the form of a foundation that was charged with channeling a vast amount of his estate into a trust for medical research (ultimately to the benefit of powerful institutions such as the California State University system). This mixture, with the added catalyst of lawyers on contingency fees, inevitably resulted in a volatile legal cocktail.

As Scurlock points out, the legal proceedings over Hillblom’s fortune total about one million pages of documents. About 100 pages of his book are dedicated to this multi-ring circus. Scurlock correctly points out that this would have been avoided if Hillblom, who by all accounts was a legal genius, had simply written a better will. A settlement was reached in late 1997, with four illegitimate children splitting the estate on a 60-40 basis with the Hillblom Foundation. Scurlock draws his book to a close with a brief follow up on what has happened to the children in the years since. This postscript, unfortunately, also does not end with “happily ever after.”

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