The murder and the missing money Estate revelations are new twist in an old case

Posted: August 26, 2006

The murder of Max Kravitz should be the coldest of cold cases, fodder for local historians and aging courthouse regulars.

After all, almost a half-century has passed since that sultry July 4 afternoon when Kravitz, 48, a Philadelphia real estate dealer, was found shot and bludgeoned in the bedroom of his Lower Merion Township home.

Kravitz's wife, Ethel, who was convicted of his murder and served seven years in a state prison, died in New York in 1980 at 67, maintaining her innocence to the end.

And Morris Passon, Max's brother-in-law and the Kravitz family lawyer, who settled Max's $591,126 estate (about $3.7 million today) in 1965 but was ensnared in litigation involving nemesis Ethel until 1982, died at 90 in Broward County, Fla., in 2000.

But like Dickens' Jacob Marley, Max Kravitz's legacy has risen to trouble his descendants.

"Shocked is an understatement," said Bryan Hauck, a lawyer for builder James B. Kravitz, of Kravitz's reaction when he learned that Passon - his uncle, family lawyer and business mentor - died still holding a lot of Uncle Max's assets that should have gone to Kravitz and other heirs.

The discovery that the estate of Max Kravitz was anything but settled has triggered lawsuits in Pennsylvania and Florida and revived memories of the celebrated 1958 murder for three cousins who were - and now are again - Max Kravitz's beneficiaries.

On Aug. 10, a Montgomery County judge gave lawyers for Passon's estate until Jan. 3 to file a new accounting of the Max Kravitz estate "dating from Oct. 8, 1963 forward."

It has sent lawyers scrambling to try to unravel old, complex financial records to determine who gets an estimated $600,000 worth of stocks, bonds and other assets purportedly misappropriated by Passon over 40 years.

Because Max and Ethel Kravitz were childless - and Ethel was barred from inheriting anything by the Pennsylvania Slayers Act - Max's legacy went to James Kravitz and his sister, Barbara (both children of Max's younger brother, Harry), and their cousin Elaine Passon Schwartz (daughter of Morris and Max's sister, Esther).

James Kravitz, 64, whose Andorra Group is based in Conshohocken, declined to be interviewed. Barbara Kravitz, 60, of New York City, could not be reached for comment.

Schwartz, 67, of Boca Raton, said she was cooperating with Kravitz's suit to reopen the Max Kravitz estate.

The allegations involving her late father, Schwartz said, have not caused dissension among the cousins: "Absolutely not."

In a time before 24-hour cable news coverage, the 1958 murder of Max Kravitz grabbed the public's attention as few local crimes had before - or have since.

The city's three daily papers ran stories that consumed column after column. Some printed transcripts of trial testimony; they hired sketch artists to cover the trial and photographers to follow Ethel Kravitz's daily deputy-escorted walk along Airy Street in Norristown from the old Montgomery County Prison to the domed courthouse a block away.

Max Kravitz was a well-to-do West Philadelphia real estate dealer. But he and his wife lived unostentatiously in a postwar stone rancher on Knox Road in Wynnewood. Morris and Esther Passon lived nearby.

On July 4, 1958, Lower Merion police arrived at the Kravitz home about 2:55 p.m., 10 minutes after a neighbor said he heard glass breaking and a man's "loud voice uttering several unintelligible words."

Ethel Kravitz, calm and unbloodied, answered the door. She told police everything was fine. A short time later, Kravitz put old garden items in her car and drove to see Passon, who had a new greenhouse.

After unloading the car, Kravitz persuaded him to follow her home to pick up more garden supplies. Once there, Ethel suggested that Passon say hello to Max. The pair found his body on the blood-spattered bedroom floor.

District Attorney Bernard DiJoseph sought a first-degree murder conviction. But there were no witnesses to Kravitz's murder and virtually no evidence for a motive for Ethel Kravitz to shoot and savagely beat her husband with a woman's hand-mirror and the butt of a .32-caliber revolver.

Ethel Kravitz told police she didn't know how Max was killed.

Kravitz's relations with her in-laws rapidly soured after Passon asked her to take a lie-detector test. She said no and the Kravitz family cut her off.

Her relationship with Passon turned especially icy. Passon testified for the prosecution and later said he believed Ethel lured him to the house to have a witness with her when Max's body was discovered.

Convicted of second-degree murder, Ethel got noted defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey to handle her appeal. Bailey's appeal petition floated the theory that Passon killed Max and framed Ethel.

Passon sued Bailey for libel and slander, a lawsuit that was dismissed in 1972, though appeals continued for years.

James Kravitz, who was 16 at the time of the murder, got a check for $25,000 in the mid-1960s; his sister and their cousin Elaine also got shares of the Kravitz estate. Even though James Kravitz at the time knew he was entitled to more money, said his attorney James F. Mannion, it was not an issue he pressed.

Mannion, a veteran estate lawyer, said he does not find James Kravitz's conduct then at all unusual. Passon was his uncle, his mentor in business, and "someone he trusted," Mannion said.

After his suit was tossed, Passon retired to Florida.

The murder of Max Kravitz faded from public memory.

And then, on Oct. 15, 2000, Morris Passon died.

*

The Dec. 15, 2000, letter to James Kravitz from Marcus Levy, Passon's estate lawyer, broke the news that there might be more to the Kravitz estate. Levy did so with cryptic understatement.

"It is my understanding that Morris Passon was the Executor of the Estate of Max Kravitz," Levy began.

"However, almost 40 years have passed since the Probate of Max Kravitz's Will, when the Ford Motor Co. on July 5, 1994 issued a stock certificate for 25 shares . . . in the name of Max Kravitz, care of Morris Passon, Executor."

Levy added that there was additional stock. And a Max Kravitz bank account.

James Kravitz, with his sister's and cousin's consent, became the new administrator of the Max Kravitz estate.

An understated word has not been uttered since.

Kravitz's court filings accuse Passon of having betrayed the estate and its beneficiaries.

"The question is not whether Passon took assets from [the Kravitz] estate but how much," Mannion, Kravitz's attorney, wrote in papers filed in Montgomery County Court.

Kravitz's claim is "spurious," countered former Montgomery County judge Mason Avrigian, hired as local counsel by Levy and the Passon estate.

Kravitz's "indolence" in waiting 40 years to reopen his uncle's estate, Avrigian wrote, is "tantamount to his acquiescence to Morris Passon's handling . . . of the Max Kravitz Estate."

Lawsuits were filed in Florida - where Kravitz's claims were rejected, though he was awarded $1,250, and both sides have appealed - and in Montgomery County. Montgomery County Orphans' Court Judge Stanley R. Ott sided with Kravitz, accepting the argument that Max Kravitz's estate was never really settled - that Passon kept undisclosed assets.

Avrigian, who as a Temple University law student was assigned to monitor the 1959 Kravitz murder trial, said he jumped at the chance to represent Levy.

Avrigian may have gotten more than he bargained for. In court filings, the retired judge complained that Passon's death, "the loss of witnesses, the loss and destruction of evidence and records," and the "passage of time" made impossible an accurate autopsy of Max Kravitz's estate.

Had Avrigian reread a 1980 opinion by the state Superior Court in Passon's litigation - then nearly a decade old - against Ethel Kravitz and Bailey, he would have been forewarned.

The Kravitz case, wrote Judge John P. Hester, was nothing short of a "soap opera-like saga."

Now, just shy of 50 years on, it continues.

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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