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Cash Landing

Phil Hedrick got millions of dollars after the 1993 Life Flight helicopter accident. But the money couldn't satisfy his wife's needs.

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Phil Hedrick was a talker, and it was with charmed verbosity that the 38-year-old bachelor found a way to lasso his future wife, Gaela, a three-time divorcée with four children and a history of bad marriages.

"I didn't want anything to do with him," Gaela remembers. "But I thought he was nice and he talked a good talk. He talked about how he had been single and how he'd really like to have a family and kids."

From the word go in January 1988, Phil pursued Gaela by using everything from chivalry to Shakespeare. He was working as a respiratory therapist at St. Luke's Hospital near the Plaza. Gaela's grandmother, dying of cancer, was one of Phil's patients. Gaela had been impressed by the way Phil paid attention to his duties -- she also was in the medical profession. After breaking off her third marriage in South Dakota, she had moved back to Missouri seeking a job as a neuro-diagnostic technician, specializing in neurological disorders, surgical monitoring, and sleep disorders. Gaela and Phil immediately had something in common, something with which to start a pleasant conversation. Phil took full advantage.

"We were talking about different equipment and stuff and I told Phil I was looking for a job. He told me where to look on the bulletin board," Gaela says. "I went to the coffee shop to smoke and get something to drink and I told him I'd come back after he finished doing what he was doing."

Phil couldn't wait. He stopped by the coffee shop.

"He hit on me like crazy," Gaela recalls. "I was 29, young, and thin, and I knew his whole life story before I finished that hot chocolate. I thought he was just blowing smoke. He said I could use him for a job reference, and I said, 'I'm not going to use him as a reference because I don't know if anybody likes him. Why should I put him down as a reference?' But I got the job."

Gaela was hired as a technician in the sleep disorders lab at St. Luke's, but on the first day she was scheduled to work, her grandmother died. Phil consoled her.

"I always said my grandma fixed me up with him," Gaela says. "Phil knew I worked late and he was a night owl. He started calling and reading Shakespeare to me." At first, Gaela thought Phil was weird. He was nice, but she wasn't interested in a relationship. "I still wore my wedding ring because I didn't want anyone coming on to me."

Phil waited five months before telling one of Gaela's co-workers he wanted to take Gaela on a date. Gaela thought it was another one of Phil's follies, but he eventually asked her to attend an awards banquet for the St. Luke's Life Flight air ambulance service -- Phil was a paramedic in the helicopter rescue unit. Gaela, who says she considered Phil a "very lonely person who wanted to be a part of a family," accepted his invitation.

On May 27, 1988, Gaela and Phil had a marathon first date. The Life Flight awards ceremony and dinner, which honored St. Luke's and St. Joseph Health Center for their helicopter units' clean safety record, got the couple's night off to a slow start. "I slept through half of it," she remembers.

But after the banquet, Gaela perked up. She and Phil went to the old Medlin's Colonial Inn in Raytown and listened to Irish music. They drove to the Plaza and sat near a fountain. Phil started getting romantic -- he picked flowers for her. Then they drove to a scenic lookout near Kansas City's downtown airport and talked some more. Phil didn't take her home until 5 a.m.

"We spent all of our time together after that," she says.

Philip Dean Hedrick proposed to Gaela Anne Primeaux less than a month after they started dating in 1988. Wearing his best dark blue suit, with a white shirt and brown shoes, Phil escorted Gaela to the bridge in Loose Park. He brought along a stuffed animal -- Gaela recalls it being a turkey -- and announced the critter was serving as a witness.

"Let's do this in order," Phil said.

Keeping a straight face, Phil asked Gaela to go steady with him. He gave her his 1968 Wellington (Kansas) High School class ring. She accepted it.

Phil went to a knee and asked her to marry him. She said yes.Gaela had been Mrs. Philip Dean Hedrick for four and a half years when she received an urgent call on the fifth anniversary of their first date -- May 27, 1993. It was Dave Wofford, one of Phil's fellow Life Flight paramedics. He wanted to know whether Gaela had heard about Phil.

Gaela was confused. She thought Phil had gotten into an argument at work and been fired, because he recently had been complaining about the Life Flight job. "Dave, what are you talking about?"

"There has been an accident. And Phil was on it."

"Is he okay?"

Wofford wasn't sure, but he had fears he was keeping to himself.

"Just come to the hospital right now."

After hanging up, Gaela called her mother and one of her sisters in Hollister, Missouri, near Branson. Gaela's family had lived in the Ozarks for several years, and her dream was to move back there someday to be close to her people. In the minutes after hearing from Wofford, Gaela's emotions started taking over. On the phone with her mother and sister, Gaela began screaming "Oh, my God!" as she tried to explain what little she knew about Phil's situation.

During the five-hour drive to Kansas City, her relatives heard radio reports about a helicopter accident: In the early morning, an air ambulance had crashed near Cameron, Missouri. Details were sketchy, but four people -- a pilot, an accident victim, and two crew members -- had been involved.

"We listened to the radio all the way up," says Gaela's sister, Gena Hedgpeth. "They were saying they were all dead."

Phil Hedrick loved being in the air. On one of his first dates with Gaela, he had taken her out in a small plane. His enthusiasm as a member of the Life Flight crew was well-known at St. Luke's -- his experience and sage presence made him "Grandpa" to his co-workers. The helicopter pad was located on the roof of St. Luke's Heart Institute, and crew members had to punch the "PH" elevator button to get there. The letters stood for "penthouse," but the crew referred to them as "Phil's Helicopters." Phil was fond of the inside joke.

"Phil had an extraordinary sense of humor and dedication to his patients," Wofford recalls. "He was a very nice man. Kind of a gruff exterior, but on the inside, a marshmallow center."

The day of the crash, Wofford was supposed to be Phil's relief man. "I was waiting for Phil to come back. He never did."

But Phil did come back. Only this time he was the trauma patient.

Shortly after 4 a.m. on May 27, 1993, a Life Flight helicopter was dispatched from St. Luke's Hospital to pick up 20-year-old Sherry Letz of Bethany, Missouri, the passenger in a one-car accident earlier in the morning. The Life Flight crew -- pilot James Barnett Jr., flight nurse Sheila Roth, and Hedrick -- had left Harrison County Hospital with Letz in their care at 6:07. Just 19 minutes after takeoff, the engine popped and the helicopter fell a thousand feet to the ground in a cornfield south of a wooded section near Cameron.

When the helicopter missed a 6:37 check-in, dispatchers sent a second helicopter from St. Joseph Medical Center to search. About half an hour after the crash, two men driving along a road saw the wreckage. One of the men, a farmer, approached the helicopter and saw Roth, who was conscious and hanging out of a window. She was strapped in her seat belt. Roth asked the farmer to cut her down from the belt, and he laid her on the ground. Phil Hedrick was conscious but said he didn't want to be moved.

"How long have you been here?" the farmer asked.

"About an hour," Phil said.

Law enforcement officials found the crash at 7:40 a.m., but uncertainty about the helicopter's whereabouts delayed the arrival of paramedics. Letz and Barnett, the 40-year-old pilot, were pronounced dead at the scene and later were determined to have succumbed to massive chest injuries (though it was unclear whether Letz's fatal injuries had been caused by the second accident). Roth and Phil Hedrick were flown to Kansas City area hospitals. Phil was diverted to Liberty Hospital instead of St. Luke's because, Wofford says, Phil wasn't expected to live.

As soon as she went to Liberty, Gaela called a secretary at St. Luke's. She received little information. "I thought he was going to have a broken leg, get well, and milk it for all it's worth," she remembers.

But Phil was not in the emergency room at Liberty. Gaela was directed to see a chaplain.

"They don't call you into the chaplain unless he's dead," she says. "It was 45 minutes before they told me he was alive."

That's when Gaela calculated her husband's chances of survival.

"Life Flight is supposed to treat people in that 'golden hour,' the first hour after something happens. Phil wasn't treated in that hour," Gaela says. "Phil was alert and directing his own care at the scene, but it took too long for (paramedics) to get there. In the emergency room, they coded him for 23 minutes without life signs. He was dead for 23 minutes."

The scene at Liberty Hospital was a circus. Gaela, who had started her medical training as a combat nurse in the Army, puked in a bathroom as a crowd rushed to her side. She wanted to go into hiding as cameras, reporters, hospital officials, and authorities swarmed around her. Gaela would later be recognized by strangers in a local mall as the woman whose husband was in the Life Flight crash.

Phil had suffered severe head and internal injuries: a spinal fracture; collapsed lungs; damage to his intestines, spleen, and kidneys; broken clavicles; a cracked hip socket. He almost bled to death, but he underwent surgery and was listed in critical condition for several weeks. He spent two months in intensive care at Liberty.

"There were a lot of people who cared about Phil," Gaela says, "but I was in shock. I remember one lady said Phil was going to be brain-dead and a vegetable."

News of the accident was widespread, conveying the horror of the wreckage. At a press conference, members of the Life Flight medical staff answered questions about possible causes of the accident. They were certain it wasn't pilot error; Barnett had an impeccable record. The ambulance service had a good reputation, and the 11-year-old, French-made helicopter, registered to Rocky Mountain Helicopters Inc. in Provo, Utah, had a perfect mechanical history. Life Flight pilots, however, had been warned to "listen for a grinding noise and take her down" to avoid any problems with that particular make of helicopter.

"It was a pretty intense situation," says Wofford. Having to listen for unusual noises, he says, "was pretty outrageous."

Since 1978, Life Flight had flown 1.25 million miles and made more than 13,000 flights without a serious accident. A spokesman for St. Joseph Health Center said the sudden loss of Life Flight crew members was a "double whammy" for the operation.

It hit Gaela Hedrick doubly hard as well. She was working as a head-injury rehabilitation nurse at an Independence facility called Rebound, and she prided herself on being better qualified than anyone to ensure Phil's recovery. She vowed to stand by Phil's hospital bed until he recovered.

"They wanted to take him from intensive care to a nursing home," says Gaela, a defiant one by nature. "I wanted to start his therapy day one after the accident. The way I was going to deal with it was by doing as much of his care as I could, except injecting I.V. fluids. I never left the hospital. I exercised him, I bathed him, I brushed his teeth, and they (hospital personnel) worked with me. It was like family treating family." Gaela cried in the beginning but vowed not to let Phil die.

"I used to say to him, 'Don't you dare leave me. You promised never to leave me.' I was scared to death because I knew what this stuff meant. I thought if I prayed enough for him and cried enough tears and worked with him every night and every day, he would be well. I believed that. I loved Phil. He was my world. There has not been a day, not a night, that I haven't dreamed about him."

In the shadows of the night
I see your face,
And I reach out to you.
I call your name
but the voice that answers back
is not yours.
Yet, somewhere in the distance
it sounds the same.

I look into the eyes that stare
back at me from your photograph,
And in your face I search
for that same glimmer,
but the shine is somehow vacant,
somehow faded.

I've traced the familiar shape
of your body with my fingertips,
I close my eyes
and only for a moment this thing fades,
and our life comes rushing back at me.

The hands that so gently loved me
are now twisted.
The words that once intrigued me,
are silenced forever.

In the whisper of a moment
you were taken from me,
and left me fighting for our lives
with my tears.

    To Phil from Gaela
    May 27, 1994

Gaela Hedrick kept a detailed journal -- medical history intertwined with poems and letters to her husband -- throughout his recovery and therapy. She penned a special poem to him on the one-year anniversary of the crash that left Phil with brain damage, partial paralysis, and total disability. For the better part of a year after the accident, Phil was in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, including St. Luke's, Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas, and a transitional living facility in Carbondale, Illinois. Gaela made frequent extended trips to see Phil at the various facilities, but at home, the financial burdens were multiplied.

"In the early days, it was just survival," Gaela says. "We had some money coming in from social security, workmen's comp, and long-term disability once a month, and my family helped with the bills. But it was a fight just to find a way to get him up the stairs. It was a fight to get him a wheelchair. It was a fight to get him approved for treatment at Baylor."

Phil had been making relatively good progress regaining his mental capacity in the first year or so of rehabilitation, Gaela says. He was able to call Gaela from Carbondale and talk about how he needed more therapy and to go to the gym. But in the latter part of 1994, Phil suffered a stroke.

"He regressed back all the way to where he had been after the accident," Gaela says. "He would wake up 50 times a night and was uncontrollable and unmanageable. That's when we hired 24-hour help. That's when I think I lost the hope he would be himself again."

According to sources and medical records, the injuries Phil Hedrick suffered might have been most apparent in the way he communicated. His gift of gab had been short-circuited by the extensive head trauma and he had trouble controlling the rate and volume at which he spoke; sometimes, his voice dropped off softly. With therapy, however, his condition gradually improved and Phil became more confident in holding conversations and expressing his feelings.

But Phil's impaired reasoning and memory capabilities never allowed him to regain autonomy in making choices for himself. Overseeing matters of Phil's estate required a system of checks and balances; his financial decisions needed to controlled by someone the courts approved.

The former bachelor, independent before he met Gaela, now relied on others to get him through each day of his life. His physical disabilities kept him in a wheelchair during social outings and activities outside his home. Phil remained interested in things he did before the accident -- boating, music, church -- but he needed close and constant supervision to participate. One of Phil's biggest complaints, records show, was that he felt ignored when he was left alone.

Although she was despondent, Gaela continued what she considered a comprehensive in-home rehabilitation program after the accident. She says that was her duty as Phil's wife. She wanted him to be "normal" again.

Phil Hedrick always had endeared himself to Gaela's family, and that's one of the reasons Gaela says she was attracted to him. When Gaela's father was killed driving a tractor-trailer in Macon, Missouri, in 1989, Phil volunteered to identify the body. In 1990 at a wedding rehearsal for Gaela's sister Gena, Phil stood in her place, wrapped a sheet around his waist, walked down the aisle, and pretended to be the next Mrs. Len Hedgpeth. And when Gaela's other sister, Glenda Wells, was trying to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization, Phil made sure she received the proper medication and advice. Gaela's sisters equated Phil to the older brother they never had.

Phil did his best to be a father figure to Gaela's four children -- two sons, David and Robert, from her first marriage (she had been only 15), and two daughters, Courtney and Whitney, from her second. The family moved to Blue Springs, and Gaela and Phil were married in their home on January 29, 1989, Gaela's 30th birthday. "It would help Phil to remember our anniversary, because he would be in double trouble if he would forget," Gaela says.

Getting close to Gaela's children was not easy for Phil, however. Gaela's past three marriages had suffered through alcohol, drug, child, and spousal abuse. Phil, despite his single-guy rough edges, was a godsend for Gaela.

"Whitney was about 4 at the time and Phil was, like, the only father she knew," Gaela says. Gaela wanted what Phil offered: stability and a family. "There were a lot of adjustments because Phil had been a bachelor for 38 years, but Phil and I loved each other and I gave a lot to him. It's not like we didn't have any problems. We did, but Phil was very proud of his family. And when the first grandchild came along, he was always pulling out pictures of him and the grandkids."

There had been talk of Phil and Gaela's having children, but "Phil felt that if we got the four raised we'd be doing good....I remember one of the first things I thought was that if he was going to die, why can't I have his children right now?"

Two years after the Life Flight crash, the legal system began meting out the fates of the accident victims in terms of high dollars and cents. Evidence showed that French helicopter maker Turbomeca S.A. and its U.S. subsidiary, Turbomeca Engine Corp., had failed to fix a part that for years had been known to cause engine failures. Since 1985, more than a dozen crashes or engine failures, including fatalities in Bolivia and Portugal, had been attributed to a defective part that caused the engine to shut down. The courts said stiff settlements and penalties were the only way a fraudulent company would be compelled to fix the problem.

Life Flight nurse Roth, who had been paralyzed from the waist down, settled out of court. But the families of the dead -- the pilot and the patient -- went to trial. The family of Sherry Letz, whose mother in Des Moines had filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking $144 million, was awarded $70 million by a Jackson County jury.

And in July of 1995, a jury ordered Turbomeca to pay $350 million to the Atchison, Kansas, family of the pilot, James Barnett Jr. The award to Barnett's widow, two children, and parents was the largest collectible verdict in Missouri and perhaps in the United States. A series of appeals and judges' decisions lowered the combined awards in the Roth and Barnett cases to $72 million.

Randy James, an attorney with Risjord & James of Olathe, pushed Turbomeca to settle the Hedricks' multimillion-dollar claim after jurors had been selected for a trial in Jackson County Circuit Court. Gaela says money wasn't compensation enough.

"At the hearing, I was sitting across a table from the people from Turbomeca and I told them I would make (a settlement) offer right there and give every dime of it to anybody who could cure my husband," Gaela says. "And I told them all I wanted was an apology. It wasn't about the money."

But on May 8, 1995, Gaela and Phil settled out of court. Turbomeca paid $25 million to the estate of Philip Dean Hedrick.

Gaela says she was ecstatic to be able to put closure on the lawsuit. But her days in court were far from over. Gaela had been approved as Phil's legal guardian and conservator shortly after the accident, and she says she became a marked woman. Friends and strangers seemed to take an acute interest in her financial affairs.

"The lawyers were throwing around numbers to me that didn't seem real," Gaela says. "I thought Phil and I would have our lives back and lawyers would not be in our business anymore. I didn't know this was the beginning. Rather than make our lives easier, it was going to make our lives harder. Every time you wrote a check or spent some of that money, it felt like blood money because all these people would be out there with their hands out, just grabbing. You don't understand -- we didn't win the lottery."

Gaela says she and Phil received 85 phone calls at home the day after the settlement was announced on the news.

"I heard from a girl I hadn't seen since fourth grade. I heard from people that said they had loaned Phil $400 back in 1975 with interest. Or somebody's family needed this and this. Everybody wanted a piece of it."

Throughout the settlement process, a public debate had raised questions about legal reform to limit wrongful-death awards and whether such large payoffs merely served to grease the pockets of ravenous lawyers and further jam court dockets.

The day the Hedricks reached a settlement, James, their attorney, told The Star: "We held out and held out, and they (the defendants) finally got there."

In actuality, James and the attorneys representing Phil Hedrick earned one of the largest pieces of the settlement. The $25 million was dispersed this way: $10.1 million for attorney fees and costs; $8.9 million into Phil Hedrick's structured annuities; $3 million deposited into a restricted account for Phil; $2 million into Gaela's structured annuities; $624,000 for medical payments and check charges; $173,000 deposited into the checking account of Phil's estate; and nearly $86,000 into Gaela's checking account. Phil's payments from the structured annuities brought home about $43,000 per month.

Gaela was overwhelmed once the checks started arriving. "When we got the settlement, nobody told me what the laws were. Nobody told me how to handle it. Nobody prepared me for what was going to happen."

Though she had wished for material things in life -- a bigger house, better clothes, new cars -- the reality was that she was now in a financial position to improve her family's standard of living and take care of Phil without worrying about the cost, although she had trouble figuring out what to do with "so much extra money."

One of the first things Gaela did was take Phil, her children, one of her children's spouses, and a hired caregiver on a trip to Jamaica for two weeks. "We needed time to get away," she says. "We needed time to regroup."

Gaela started splurging and loaning money. As sole conservator of Phil's estate, she didn't need his approval for any of her expenditures. His input legally was limited to deciding which county he wanted to live in.

"I still cleaned my own house," Gaela says. "I still wore tennis shoes I bought from Wal-Mart. But I had some nice stuff I bought with my money from annuities. I had never had a matching pair of bras and underwear. Yeah, they were expensive, but five years later, I am still wearing the same bras and underwear. We got some stuff initially we never had in our lives, but we are still using it and still have it. We haven't spent another dime of it."

Some of Phil's family members disagreed. His brother and sister-in-law, Jerry and Dorothy Hedrick, criticized her spending habits and the medical care she was giving Phil.

Gaela says they had ulterior motives. "Dorothy wanted money from day one," Gaela says. "We got a call from Dorothy wanting some money for her son to start some pyramid-scheme business. She said she needed a loan of $7,500 and asked my mom to write a check. It was terrible, absolutely terrible. Dorothy threw a fit in the attorney's office and said she and Jerry deserved part of the money." Gaela says she was naive. "I tried to treat them like my own family. I trust my own family with everything and I thought Phil's family was that way too. I thought people were honest."

But Jerry and Dorothy were adamant in their suspicions, especially about another man -- Brian Hacker, a construction worker -- in Gaela's life.

Gaela Hedrick had met Brian Hacker through a mutual friend 10 years earlier, but they didn't see each other again until after Phil's accident. Hacker, aware of the Life Flight crash, found out that Gaela was looking for a general contractor to make the couple's Blue Springs home more handicapped-accessible. About a month before the case was settled, Gaela hired Hacker. Over time, the two grew closer as they traded sad stories about their current situations -- Hacker had just ended a 17-year marriage.

"I got the whole nine yards on what happened to Phil," Hacker says. "My heart went out to her and what her entire family went through. You picture someone who is normal and happy and it changes. The father figure and husband went down. For two years, Gaela was scrounging around, keeping her husband alive, the kids clothed and fed. When that settlement finally came, it was long overdue and couldn't make up for the loss of Phil. But it certainly helped her do everything."

During the time he worked on the Hedrick home, Hacker says, he saw how much energy Gaela needed to care for her husband. Sometimes he lent a hand.

"Phil was a big guy -- 6-foot-3, 200 pounds," Hacker says. "He was like a gigantic baby. He wet his diapers and I helped with that from time to time. I saw what went on with Phil. He got treated like a king. He had people pampering his ass. He had a full schedule and if he wanted a steak at 3 a.m., he got it. It was horribly sad and really a mess."

On November 11, 1995, Gaela Hedrick paid $327,000 cash for new digs in the Ozark Mountains. The secluded, 4,500-square-foot house on a 1.2-acre site in the Branson area had a bluff view of Bull Shoals Lake, a two-bedroom guest house, and a ceramic-tile lap pool.

Gaela's sister Gena says buying the home and coming back to Branson were sound decisions for Gaela. "How many people do you know who have that many millions of dollars that live in a $100,000 home?"

Gaela talked to Hacker about doing some remodeling work on the new place. She also asked him to tag along with her on a furniture-shopping trip to Chicago.

"I thought she was kidding," Hacker says. "But we had become good friends and I said, 'What the heck.' She said we were going to fly first-class and stay at the Ritz. It would be a nice getaway. I didn't have a whole lot of stuff on the platter. We did the furniture-shopping thing and hit it off."

And they had sex.

Gaela's relationship with Hacker intensified in 1996. Phil's family -- and her own -- thought Gaela was making a big mistake.

Gaela's mother, Martha Sorrells (who also served as her bookkeeper), and Gena say they felt uncomfortable with Hacker's "discreet" presence in Gaela's life. ("Phil never saw me walk up to Gaela's bedroom," Hacker says.) Gaela's folks were devout Southern Baptists and they bristled at her newfound partner.

"Even with our religious beliefs," Gena says, "I would pray that she would be strong enough not to give into it. But I didn't live and walk in her shoes. I can't say if I would have done anything different, and nobody else can, either. She was lonely and hurting."

Hacker went on family outings with Gaela and Phil -- during one trip to a Blue Angels air show in Wisconsin, Gaela and Hacker pitched a tent together while Phil slept in the back of a nearby motor home. After a while, Gaela says, she and Phil had a candid discussion about Hacker. She says Phil was agreeable to the arrangement.

"I was 34 when, for all intents and purposes, I lost my husband," Gaela says. "I received a settlement in court for the loss of consortium, for a sexual relationship. What if someone walked up to you and said they'd give you $2 million for the rest of your life and you will never have any type of sexual relationship again? You will give up all the intimacy -- emotional and physical -- and give up any companionship for the rest of your life. Would you take that $2 million?"

Phil's side of the family says Gaela took the $2 million and more.

The case of Hedrick v. Hedrick entered the court system in 1996, beginning a convoluted four-year legal battle for custody of Phil. In August, Jerry Hedrick filed an action in Taney County to have Gaela removed as Phil's guardian and conservator. He accused her of physically abusing Phil, bleeding money out of his settlement accounts, and allowing Hacker to move into the couple's home in the Ozark Mountains while Phil would lay unattended in a room to himself. Jerry and his wife characterized Gaela as incompetent and maliciously engaged in a fiduciary cage match to serve as Phil's guardian and conservator.

Dorothy Hedrick, who made most of the allegations, offered a few compelling claims about Gaela's relationships with men besides Hacker.

One of those was an associate circuit court judge in Taney County named Peter H. Rea.

Two years ago, Rea was convicted on sexual misconduct charges stemming from allegations that he had fondled two women while he was serving as a judge in Taney County. Rea pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors and resigned from his post the day after voters re-elected him. He was barred for life from practicing law in Missouri. And earlier this year, Rea was the subject of a criminal investigation into allegations that he had filed a false lawsuit and false affidavits and committed perjury in an attempt to get money from a woman and her deceased husband. Rea claims he is innocent of wrongdoing in every charge ever brought against him. "It's all bullshit," he says.

On June 24, 1996, after a court approved Gaela's request to move the jurisdiction of Phil's estate from Jackson County, Judge Rea granted her access to Phil's restricted funds. Within days, Gaela withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars from accounts and diverted $2.2 million to one of Rea's business partners in a high-risk, high-yield consumer paper scheme involving the acquisition of credit card accounts. Both Rea and Gaela deny charges that they brokered the deal involving Branson's John Miller, with whom Rea had been associated for years. But Miller helped Gaela establish a fund they called the "Gaela Hedrick Revocable Insurance Trust." Gaela then "loaned" the funds to a firm known as Churchill-Steele Ltd. -- of which Miller was the CEO.

Two months later, Gaela went to Europe with Hacker and her son Robert. They met Miller on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel. Gaela later explained that she and Miller had been there to discuss investment matters and that Judge Rea was not involved. But evidence presented in the Hedrick probate case showed that Gaela wrote a $5,000 check to Miller from the Philip D. Hedrick Estate account in Kansas City's Commerce Bank and that Gaela had made personal phone calls to Judge Rea at about the same time.

Sources say the activities of Gaela, Rea, and Miller sparked an ongoing federal investigation into illicit offshore investment deals. Miller, who now lives in New Orleans and suffers from Parkinson's disease, denies any wrongdoing. "I just wish I was capable of giving her more help," he says. "I think she is fine people. I think she is someone that got caught in a skizzle."

"I was looking for ways to invest the money and protect the money," Gaela says. "I wanted to maximize the potential of the money."

Rea has been tight-lipped about his relationship with Gaela. In April of 1998, while at a Branson hotel to give testimony in the Hedrick probate matter, Rea and his wife, Darlene Weaver-Rea, refused to take an oath -- citing the Fifth Amendment -- or answer questions about Rea's relationship with Gaela. But last month, the deposed judge -- who also is a minister -- thumped the Bible in a rambling Sunday conversation with Pitch Weekly.

"I think I did what she asked me to," Rea says of Gaela. "She created a trust and poured money into the trust, and ultimately it was for his ultimate care. I didn't take anybody's money and didn't do anything wrong. I'm a Christian and God loves me. If he wants me to go through this, it must be good. If you learn humility, it's good. Anyone can complain about the president getting a blow job in the White House ... but Christians must not complain. They mustn't complain and they mustn't do it. If we do, we continue to stay in this position. God loves me and loves everyone on the face of this earth. We are sinners, we have sinned, and all of us have fallen short of the mark. It's simply not permitted for me to criticize anybody."

Rea says a conspiracy and a "cabal" of Missouri judges and lawyers sought to discredit and remove him from office. He sympathized with Gaela while he served on the bench because, he says, he had no reason to believe she was misappropriating funds designated for Phil's health and future well-being.

"When Phil got hurt, he became a 5- or 9-year-old for the rest of his life," Rea says. "She worked three years for him without a dime. She got screwed and that's what motivated the judge" -- he's talking about himself -- "to give her the trust agreement. You can go to the courts for the purpose of establishing the truth, but when there are allegations and more allegations, the people making the money are lawyers. I wanted to help Gaela Hedrick. Gaela is a victim of the judicial system."

Jerry and Dorothy Hedrick, a licensed nurse, were relentless in their efforts to wrest Phil away from Gaela and show that they were more fit to take care of him. Their actions led to the court's appointment of Frances Rove, Jackson County's public administrator, as a limited guardian and conservator of Phil's estate.

The public administrator serves as guardian for hundreds of adult wards -- mostly mentally disabled or elderly persons -- under county supervision. Facing emotional pressure, Gaela says, she resigned her duties as guardian and conservator in December 1996. (Phil's handlers later alleged that Gaela was worried about the embarrassment of being forcibly removed from those duties.)

Just 17 months after the accident settlement was reached, Jerry and Dorothy Hedrick became Phil's closest caregivers.

Phil was moved back to Blue Springs, and Gaela stayed in the Ozarks and continued her relationship with Hacker, but she was getting swept deeper into legal trouble. And she had suicidal urges.

"I came back from court one day and I thought about going to the Taney County Bridge and jumping off," she says. "There was a lot of guilt, and I do have a strong religious background. Adultery is not a part of that. I asked God to forgive me, but Brian had seen me through all those times and the problems with my children. He helped me when I cried over the loss of my husband and sat there when I told him I loved my husband. They tried to make it look like this tawdry thing, like we were screwing all over the place and flaunting ourselves. It's not the kind of people we are."

In the volumes of court documents that have grown out of Phil's accident, Gaela repeatedly tried to defend herself by alleging that Jerry and Dorothy were unsuitable caregivers and interested only in grabbing what money they could from the settlement. She claimed they had coached Phil to turn against her. The winner of Hedrick v. Hedrick, it appeared, was going to be whichever side dug up the most salacious dirt on the other.

Gaela charged that Jerry and Dorothy had abused their privileges by coaxing Phil to sign off on $5,000 wedding gifts for each of their three children, taking expensive vacations with Phil (including an Alaskan cruise), and drawing a $65 an hour salary for taking care of Phil. In each of these cases, the expenditures were court-approved.

"I don't care what (Gaela) has said about me," Dorothy tells Pitch Weekly. "My only concern is about Philip. She has not seen the man in the last four years, so I don't know what credibility she has in any of his story. I have nothing at all to do with money -- nothing. Never will."

But, Gaela wonders, "how can they get $65 an hour and they are part of Phil's family? It doesn't make sense."

In one statement, Gena Hedgpeth testified that in the summer of 1996, while Phil was in the care of Jerry and Dorothy at Phil's Blue Springs house, she discovered Phil living in squalor: soiled clothes left in a pile on the back porch, a reek of urine and feces, pillowcases that were stained yellow where Phil's head had been lying, overflowing trash infested with gnats, and fast-food wrappers strewn all over. "What I found absolutely appalled me," Gena wrote. "It infuriated me that Phil would have to stay in such filth."

Other court documents show that Gaela disapproved of the part-time caregivers Dorothy had hired. Gaela's lawyers wrote a letter to the public administrator's office suggesting that Ronald Bomar, who had a rap sheet for domestic abuse and violence and alcohol-related arrests, should not have been allowed to watch Phil. Gaela says she previously had fired Bomar for work habits that endangered Phil's life. And a statement by Tamara Rogers, who worked as one of Phil's personal care attendants, seemed to support Gaela's claim that Jerry and Dorothy Hedrick were preoccupied with Phil's millions.

Rogers said she witnessed an emotional conversation between Phil and Dorothy at the Blue Springs home in June of 1996: "I'm not sure what led up to the conversation about the will, but I do remember Dorothy telling Phil that she could not believe how little he had left to Jerry and that she found it hard to believe that he (Phil) wanted to leave more money to Gaela's kids than to Jerry and their children. While Dorothy was talking about the will, she got very close to Phil and was pointing her finger at his face."

Dorothy finally calmed down and changed her approach with Phil. He seemed upset. She wanted to know if Phil was happy living in Branson. Rogers said Phil's response was no.

"Why not?" Dorothy asked.

"Phil's response," Rogers recalled, "was that he never got to talk to Gaela anymore and that the girls (Courtney and Whitney) were always getting into his stuff and wearing his clothes."

Dorothy, according to Rogers' testimony, then asked Phil what he would do about the situation with Gaela if he "wasn't in the shape he was in, if there had not been an accident."

Phil, Rogers said, answered he would probably get a divorce.

"Do you want Jerry to check into it and see what could be done?" Dorothy reportedly said.

"Yes," Phil responded.

A doctor who evaluated Phil's mental state in 1998 made note of what he observed about the tenor of Dorothy Hedrick's relationship with Phil: "(Dorothy) presents herself as extremely aggressive when directing activities for Philip and providing her subjective history of Mr. Hedrick and his marital difficulties."Gaela Hedrick says her husband didn't want a divorce, even after she told him about her affair with Brian Hacker.

"I talked to Phil and I said, 'I am ready for this part of my life,'" Gaela says. "I said, 'I love you and if you can't live with that, I will agree to a divorce if that's what you want.' Phil said no. Under no circumstances did he want a divorce. That was agreed between the two of us."

But on November 27, 1996, Gaela Hedrick filed a petition for divorce from Phil Hedrick in Taney County; it was later withdrawn. (Gaela says she was upset after her daughter, Whitney, overdosed on Tylenol. "She thought if she died, Phil would come back to Branson," Gaela says. "I said, 'I don't care. Nothing is worth losing my child for.' I said I would like to have a divorce and turn over guardianship. Then after I had time and wasn't so panicked, I realized that was a decision I shouldn't have made.") Three weeks after Gaela's initial divorce filing, however, she resigned as Phil's guardian in Taney County probate court, and Frances Rove, the public administrator, filed a petition for divorce in Jackson County on behalf of Phil Hedrick. Rove alleged Gaela was guilty of spousal abuse and that Phil was "in fear for his life." Gaela was suspected of "torturing" Phil with an electrical device (which Gaela says was an anti-pain unit prescribed by Phil's physicians). And one of Phil's hired caregivers reportedly accused Gaela of teasing Phil about her new underwear collection on a trip to Las Vegas.

"I supposedly told Phil, 'This is what a $300 pair of panties looks like. Too bad you will never see me in them,'" Gaela says. "I am 40 years old and 40 pounds overweight. I do not go around teasing crippled men and their caretakers."

Gaela says the public administrator made trumped-up charges to build a case against her. She thought the office couldn't be trusted -- she knew of the stories about elderly and disabled people victimized by Jackson County employees during the early '90s. One had been sentenced to six years in prison for stealing valuable dolls from an elderly woman's collection.

"The public administrator was talking to Jerry and Dorothy before they talked to me," Gaela says. "A lot of money has gone into the public administrator's office because of this."

Rove, who resigned in late 1999 for health reasons, was replaced by Rebbecca Lake Wood, a Kansas City lawyer with an extensive background representing the mentally disabled. Wood continued Rove's aggressive legal actions against Gaela, which had included a restraining order preventing Gaela and her side of the family from contacting Phil in any manner.

"Our office has been involved with this woman for four years," Wood says. "We know what she is capable of."

In January of 1999, as divorce and probate proceedings moved along in Missouri, Gaela Hedrick threw another twist into Hedrick v. Hedrick -- she moved to southern California with Hacker and her daughter Whitney. A month and half later, having established residency there, she filed for bankruptcy.

"It's like David fighting Goliath," Gaela says. "I could never compete."Gaela's bankruptcy filing was opposed by Wood, who claimed that Gaela was "fleeing" her financial responsibilities to creditors in Missouri, avoiding pending litigation, and delaying her divorce. Wood described her as an unreliable witness.

This summer, Wood offered Phil Hedrick's wife a divorce settlement. The complicated deal was contingent on the courts' resolution of her bankruptcy and probate matters and, most significantly, stipulated that Gaela accept responsibility for the return of $3.3 million to Phil's estate. She also had to relinquish deeds to the couple's homes (Gaela's 18-year-old daughter, Courtney, who recently had her first child, would be allowed to live in the guest house in Branson until October 31) and titles to two vans, two boats, two Jet Skis, and an all-terrain vehicle (totaling about $46,000 in present value). Gaela would be allowed to keep the furniture and household goods she had moved to California's San Fernando Valley. And, based on California bankruptcy exemptions, Gaela would keep 75 percent of her original annuity payments from the settlement, about $6,800 a month, and a 1999 Ford Mustang (which cost about $20,000).

Gaela accepted the bargain, although court documents show she preferred a legal separation. Seven years after the Life Flight crash, her marriage to Phil was reaching its litigious conclusion.

At 10:40 a.m. on Tuesday, September 5, 2000, Phil and Gaela Hedrick were done. At that precise moment, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Nixon unceremoniously announced their divorce final. It was the last difficult step of Hedrick v. Hedrick. "I am glad this one is over," Nixon said.Phil Hedrick is not permitted to speak for himself. Rebbecca Lake Wood, the Jackson County public administrator and court-appointed conservator of his estate, denied Pitch Weekly's request to interview Hedrick for this story. Wood says she worries he might have a physical and emotional relapse from discussing details of his life and the woman he married.

Wood also says she has legitimate suspicions Gaela might decide to appeal the divorce settlement, which becomes legally binding 30 days after the ruling (which is October 5, the publication date of this issue of Pitch Weekly).

"She is not going to upset my apple cart and walk back into circuit court," Wood says. "I think she has the capacity to do that based on her history in litigation. When I have a final judgment on all three fronts -- divorce is the last legal action pending -- our team will be able to talk."

About eight months ago, Dave Wofford, the former Life Flight crew member, had dinner with Phil, Jerry, and Dorothy Hedrick at the Outback Steakhouse in Lee's Summit. He says Phil is "doing remarkably well" these days.

"He still is physically handicapped, but mentally he seemed to be in a little better shape than before the last time," Wofford says. "Every time he seems to be doing a little better. There was a time when he was very depressed. I didn't see much of that this time."

Phil's depression, according to records and medical evaluations, was a constant threat to his recovery from the accident. After Dorothy and Jerry Hedrick became Phil's guardians, they wrote a meticulous set of "policies" for workers hired to assist him. They listed 30 of Phil's favorite pastimes that they had determined to be harmless: watching animals on the Discovery Channel; telling jokes; giving gifts; going to movies, parades, the mountains, and beaches. Lodged between reading Bev Doolittle art books and wearing designer clothes is this one: venting anger at Gaela.

Gaela is earning about $16 an hour working as a part-time labor and delivery-room nurse in California. She has no plans to make Hacker her fifth husband.

"Phil only knows what he has been told," Gaela says. "If I had the old Phil here, I could talk to him and tell him what really happened. I think he would agree with everything I did."

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