Suspicious minds vie in suit over Elvis items

Dispute in Del. court focuses on collection once owned by doctor

March 25, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

PHILADELPHIA -- Who owns the black bag that Dr. Nick used to treat Elvis?

Or the bottles of prescription pills dated the day before Presley died? Or the glass nasal douche used to irrigate the King's nostrils before he took the stage?

Tomorrow, a Wilmington, Del., judge will begin hearing a dispute over a multimillion-dollar collection of Elvis memorabilia once owned by one of rock 'n' roll's most infamous physicians, Dr. George C. Nichopoulos.

"It's a big, damned mess, man, just the craziest thing you've ever seen," says Bobby Freeman, a lounge-singer/music historian and a defendant in the case. "What's going on in that court in Delaware is absolutely disgusting."

The "Dr. Nick" collection, in three tractor-trailers padlocked inside a Nevada airport hangar, includes a stuffed dog, a desk carved by Elvis' Uncle Vester, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, the laryngeal scope used to examine Presley's throat, and the official red strobe light issued to Dr. Nick in case he needed to race to Graceland for an emergency.

"It's amazing," Freeman says. "It's about the roots of rock 'n' roll. It's about America, man."

It's now or never

A lawyer for the millionaire Californian suing Freeman does not disagree.

"There are items of genuine interest to Elvis fans, such as a copy of the book The Prophet with Elvis' handwritten annotations," says lawyer David L. Finger of Wilmington. He represents Richard Long, a Napa, Calif., executive who joined Freeman last year in buying Nichopoulos' collection.

Freeman and Long are not talking anymore.

Long alleges in his lawsuit that he put up $1.2 million to make the deal happen but that Freeman will not give him access to the collection for management and insurance purposes.

Freeman says Long failed to put up $3 million more that he had pledged to the project, fumbled a big chance to do a show at the Stardust in Las Vegas, and secretly intends to sell the collection overseas.

The issue for the Delaware Chancery Court, among the nation's most respected business courts, is whether the rift between Freeman and Long is so severe that their Delaware limited liability company should be dissolved.

If that happens, the next step would be to determine who gets to keep the collection.

The stakes are high, Freeman insists. "It's about you, your children and America," the entertainer says.

The best man suited to protect these treasures, Freeman says, is Freeman.

"See, I built this collection," he said by phone from Las Vegas, explaining that he entered a 50-50 partnership with Nichopoulos to show it to casinos in 2000.

"It tells the story of an intimate relationship between Dr. Nick and his patient," Freeman says, describing the truck interiors. "Everything is beautiful: There's carpeting everywhere - burgundy, 2 inches high, the best you can buy - and every frame is carved gold. You got your crown molding. ... There's the nasal douche, the laryngeal scope, and drug bottles with the name `Elvis Presley,'" he says. "You might think that's tacky. Man, even I think it's morbid. But what right do I have to pull it out of there?"

Freeman plans to charge $20 a ticket. As a bonus, he says, he'll put on a concert at the end. "I rock the piano with my feet. I play that thing any way I can, man," he says.

The stage is bare

For now, the show is dark. Until the legal dispute is resolved, the trucks are parked in a secure, undisclosed location - the hangar in Nevada.

"It's a shame," Freeman says.

A spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis did not return a call for comment.

Freeman, 59, and Long, 63, are expected to fly to Philadelphia today to prepare for tomorrow's hearing. The judge, Vice Chancellor Leo Strine, is scrutinizing the April 2006 deal the men made in Memphis, a transaction that includes the purchase of the collection from Dr. Nick.

At the time, Long and Freeman had known each other for two years, having met at an auto show in Reno. Long, a multimillionaire, is chief executive officer of Regulus, a California document management company that performs remittance work for banks and corporations.

Freeman picks up the story: "I was rocking a piano, a big one with flames that come out. Dick saw me and loved it and said, `I want you to do my birthday party.' I said, `I don't do birthday parties.' Well, man, he kept calling me, two straight weeks. I called back and gave him an outrageous price. He said, `I'll take it.'"

Long declined to be interviewed, but in his lawsuit he says Freeman kept in touch and ultimately persuaded him to finance the purchase of the collection.

Long, Freeman and Freeman's girlfriend, Betty Franklin, formed a Delaware company, and met in Memphis to seal the deal with Nichopoulos.

Now in his 80s, Nichopoulos works as a benefits adviser for FedEx in Memphis. He lost his medical license in 1995 for bad conduct, including writing too many prescriptions for Jerry Lee Lewis. But Freeman and others say Nichopoulos gets a bad rap.

"Elvis would have been dead years before if it hadn't been for Dr. Nick feeding him placebos," says James F. Neal, the famed Nashville lawyer who successfully defended him in 1981 against criminal charges that he negligently prescribed drugs to Presley.

Nichopoulos didn't return a call for comment.

Freeman says he fears what will happen at tomorrow's hearing, which is bound to bring more publicity. At the end of a long interview last week, he said: "I expect you to you to write the same thing as other writers and slaughter me."

He paused, then laughed.

"But you know what? That's OK. Just spell my name right, and this thing will get bigger."

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