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West Palm Beach


In 1983, Sullivan sold Crown Beverages for $5 million. The working-class kid from Boston had hit the big time. Now free of the distributorship, James Sullivan was eager to get out of Macon, and he purchased a beachfront mansion for $2 million. Built in the 1920s by Swiss architect Maurice Fatio, the home was considered "historic" and sat, overlooking the ocean, like a beacon of wealth.

Lita never even saw the house before they moved. She later said, "I did not intend ever to make Palm Beach my home as I was not accepted in the social community there. I stated to my husband on many occasions that I did not want to live in Palm Beach. When my husband purchased the Palm Beach home, he did so over my objections and I told him I would never make it my permanent residence."

During the move from Macon to West Palm Beach, Sullivan met truck driver Tony Harwood, an event that would later change the course of both their lives. At first, they were just two guys shooting the breeze while movers packed the truck. A lady's man who wore tight jeans, cowboy boots, and a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled in his T-shirt sleeve, Harwood had been around the block. He'd done time in a North Carolina prison, first for burglary, later for escape. Something about him got Sullivan talking.

"He told me he had a problem with an ex-wife and she was going to take him through the hoop," Harwood later told the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). "He said he really needed somebody to take care of her. Get her out of the way. I said, 'I'll take care of her for you for $25,000.' He kind of looked at me and said, 'You have somebody that can do it?' And I just winked at him." Sullivan later mailed Harwood a certified check for $14,000 to Harwood's home, a double-wide trailer, in Finger, North Carolina. Sullivan told him the rest would come later. Harwood waited.

In West Palm, Sullivan, then forty-two, focused intently on climbing the fickle and complex social ladder. Although his red brick and coquina mansion's address at 920 South Ocean Boulevard gave Sullivan clout, he realized acceptance in the Palm Beach social sphere would require cunning. He played tennis, took flying lessons, hobnobbed over cocktails, and hosted extravagant parties. He won a coveted appointment on the city's Landmark Preservation Commission and thought he'd secured a first-class ticket to the jet set, but what he didn't realize is that the Palm Beach elite mistrusted a man with new money, especially, it seemed, one with a black wife. Sullivan frequently went out alone or, ever more frequently, with other women.

Lita began finding clues of Sullivan's ongoing affairs. When she'd confront him, he'd respond by cutting off her finances. They had vicious fights, so bad sometimes that the police were called to break it up. Sullivan became increasingly cheap with Lita, telling her to keep the air-conditioning turned off, giving her a pittance for groceries or gas.

Lita grew depressed and reclusive. She saw a psychologist to figure out ways to save her marriage, but by then it seemed hopeless. In 1984, she convinced Sullivan to buy a second home in Atlanta, so Lita could go back when she wanted to. They bought a four-bedroom townhouse on Slaton Drive in Buckhead in the mid- $400s.

On August 12, 1985, as their ten-year anniversary approached, Lita gathered her gumption. While Sullivan was out, she rented a U-Haul trailer, hitched it to the back of her 1973 Mercedes 450 SL, and packed it full of her belongings. The Sullivans' maid would later testify that Lita packed "canned goods, paper products, household items, antiques, plus more than twenty cartons of crystal, porcelain and sterling silver."

A few days later, she filed for divorce.



Macon | The Best American Crime Writing 2005 | Atlanta