Judge Colleen Sterne | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

A bitter, convoluted battle over the $25 million estate and 3,800-acre ranch of Joe Carrari — the outspoken, pioneering wine grape cultivator from Los Alamos who died in November 2018 — came to a shuddering conclusion this week when Judge Colleen Sterne ruled that Angelina Dettamanti, named as Carrari’s sole heir in his last amended will, had so flagrantly abused the discovery process over the last 23 months that she forfeited the right to have her case tried. 

Technically, Judge Sterne imposed “terminating sanctions,” meaning Dettamanti’s voluminous legal filings are to be stricken from the record and that the litigants on the other side — led by Linda Kopcrak, one of the three surviving Carrari children named as heirs in their father’s prior wills — would prevail by default. Since Kopcrak is charging Dettamanti exerted “undue influence” on her elderly father — isolating and alienating him from family, friends, and longtime medical and legal advisors — this ruling effectively expunges Dettamanti’s claim as sole heir to a vast landholding outside Los Alamos in the Santa Ynez Valley and an estate valued several years ago at $25 million.

Such sanctions are both extreme and extremely rare. In so ruling, Judge Sterne stated, “Dettamanti has gone to tremendous lengths first to avoid the taking of her deposition at all and subsequently to avoid providing any meaningful testimony during any deposition session.… She has fundamentally refused to cooperate with discovery in this action, in a deliberate effort to deprive Kopcrak of the discovery needed to go to trial. She has been provided opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to avoid terminating sanctions, only to engage in further obstruction and delay tactics.”

In a 25-page, single-spaced ruling that spared few details, Sterne said she had been ready to lower the boom on Dettamanti in July. “The games stop here,” Sterne then opined. “Given Dettamanti’s steadfast, persistent, and highly calculated efforts at delay, obstruction, and obfuscation, it has become clear no lesser sanction would produce compliance with discovery rules.”

Sterne relented, however, only after it was agreed that retired Judge Frank Ochoa would be appointed as a deposition referee. But after Dettamanti notified Ochoa that she had already filed a federal civil rights complaint against Judge Tim Staffel for his prior rulings in the battle of Carrari wills, Ochoa likewise opted out. That Dettamanti had threatened legal action against Ochoa, Sterne ruled, was “absolutely inescapable.”

The saga of Joe Carrari and his family is positively Faulknerian in complexity and dysfunction. The son of an Italian immigrant by way of Argentina, Carrari first began cultivating grapes, he would tell reporters, at age 5. He was by all accounts a bigger-than-life character and exceptionally gifted when it came to grafting and growing grapes. Mostly he grew for other growers, but in the 1980s, when the grape market tanked, he combined four types of wines to create a vintage he dubbed “Dago Red,” which he sold for $1.99 a bottle. From the proceeds, he claimed to have netted a million bucks in profit. He shrugged off complaints about the name being insensitive, noting that the term “Dago” was less pejorative than the epithet “WOP,” which meant, he added, “without papers.”

In the late ’90s, the Carrari clan — Joe; his wife, Phyllis; and two of his four children — moved to Los Alamos, where Joe had purchased about 3,800 acres of ranch land. In 2015, Joe’s wife died. Family tensions boiled over. One son, Ron, would post a sign outside his mother’s funeral adorned with four drawn bullet holes, indicating that his sister Christine was next. When Sheriff’s deputies responded, Ron declined to answer their questions, and a stand-off ensued. When deputies learned he was armed, Highway 101 was temporarily shut down. 

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A year later, Angelina Dettamanti met Joe, then 84, and, according to court papers filed by Joe’s daughter Linda, quickly took over all material aspects of her father’s life. He was frail, confused, and entering the early stages of dementia, Linda claimed. But her complaints to Adult Protective Services went for naught. 

To the extent Joe had dementia, however, it was far from obvious. And he liked having Dettamanti, about 50 years his junior, around. She was whip-smart and knew how to get things done. In February 2017, Joe’s mentally handicapped eldest son, George, was brought back home after living in Paso Robles for 20 years. By the end of the year, Carrari had rewritten his will, making Dettamanti sole heir to his estate and George’s. 

On Christmas Day 2017, George Carrari died at home of heart attack. When his siblings heard the news, they stormed into their father’s ranch, accusing him and Dettamanti of effectively killing George. Amid the mayhem, Joe Carrari fell down. Dettamanti would claim she and Joe were physically assaulted. Sheriff’s deputies were called to the scene. A video of the event was posted on YouTube. No arrests were made. Joe Carrari would die November 25, 2018. On December 6, Linda Kopcrak filed legal papers to have Dettamanti removed as trustee of her family’s estates. 

The rest, as they say, has been history. Dettamanti waged a fierce counterattack, accusing Staffel and other court personnel of conflict of interest, double dealing, and cronyism. She accused Kopcrak’s attorney, Mack Staton, of seeking to use the deposition process to intimidate and harass her. She argued Kopcrak had no standing to sue and that her line of questioning constituted harassment. While Dettamanti never said she would not be deposed per se, she cited various medical ailments and scheduling conflicts as to why she could not be deposed at specific times. 

Along the way, she went through multiple attorneys. One, Marc Angelucci, was murdered last year. Dettamanti blew off a couple deposition dates after that, saying the FBI had seized all of Angelucci’s legal papers, including hers. Judge Ochoa, it should be noted, complained of no-shows for at least two deposition dates. 

Dettamanti was not in court Monday when Sterne issued her ruling; her most recent attorney, Jordan Hankey, was. Hankey insisted that his client had never willfully resisted deposition and that for terminal sanctions to be imposed, willfulness was a necessary component. (Judge Sterne, in her ruling, contended Dettamanti’s conduct had been decidedly willful.) Likewise, he noted, the law required only that Dettamanti make herself available for seven hours of deposition. She had agreed to another 14, he added. The law did not specify, he stated, how she or anyone else had to respond to questions posed during depositions. 

A trial of sorts will take place this coming January, at which time Kopcrak and her attorney will make their case that Dettamanti exerted undue influence to “pillage” the estate of a fragile elderly man with dementia. If Dettamanti were to show up, she would not have standing to speak.

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