Monday, December 03, 2007

Court is asked to declare Fossett legally dead

Adventurer's plane disappeared Sept. 3 in Nevada desert

By Michael Higgins, Tribune staff reporter; Tribune staff reporter Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report

November 27, 2007

The wife of Chicago adventurer Steve Fossett went to court Monday to have him found legally dead, saying she believes he died when his plane disappeared over the Nevada desert in September.

Peggy Fossett asked a Cook County probate judge to begin the process of distributing his assets according to his will.

"[Steve] Fossett's wealth is vast, surpassing eight figures in liquid assets, various entities and real estate," the court petition said.

Fossett was reported missing Sept. 3 after he failed to return for a lunch appointment from what was supposed to be a pleasure trip while a guest at the ranch of Barron Hilton, the hotel magnate. Fossett had only one bottle of water with him.

Officials and volunteers searched for weeks for Fossett and the white, blue and orange Bellanca Citabria Super Decathalon plane he was flying. Searchers used rescue aircraft, satellite and radar images and even scouring the craggy, remote terrain of western Nevada on foot. The search recovered wreckage from eight other air crashes, including one from the 1960s, but it turned up no sign of Fossett or the plane.

"As anyone can imagine, this is a difficult day for our family," Fossett's wife, who lived in the Gold Coast neighborhood with her husband, said Monday in a written statement. "We will continue to grieve and heal, but after nearly three months we feel now that we must accept that Steve did not survive."

Peggy Fossett said she and others contributed more than $1.2 million in private funds to the search effort, which was scaled back in mid-September and suspended in early October.

"Although an ongoing recovery mission continues, all involved have accepted the inevitable conclusion that Mr. Fossett did not survive," Mary Downie, one of Peggy Fossett's lawyers, said.

Under the law, the petition can be filed at any time after someone is suspected of dying.

It could take two to three years to distribute Fossett's assets. Peggy Fossett's lawyers are expected to appear before Probate Judge Jeffrey Malak in a few months.

Steve Fossett, a commodities trader who had made millions of dollars in Chicago, was known as a record-setting adventurer whose conquests included scaling the world's tallest mountains, swimming the English Channel and completing five nonstop flights around the earth as a solo balloonist, sailor and pilot.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the plane flown by Fossett was destroyed in a fatal crash, according to Monday's court petition.

"Even if Fossett had survived a crash uninjured, which statistics show to be very unlikely, without water Fossett could not live more than a few days," Mark Marshall, a Fossett friend, said in a sworn statement.

In her affidavit, Peggy Fossett said her husband was in good spirits and had no debt or financial difficulties.

"None of Steve's wealth was transferred out or withdrawn in any manner that would suggest a planned disappearance," her statement said. "Steve has not accessed any of his assets since his disappearance. Steve had no debt and no life insurance."

According to the petition, Fossett was in the late stages of building a vehicle that he hoped could set a land speed record.

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From the petition

'None of [Steve Fossett's] wealth was transferred out or withdrawn in any manner that would suggest a planned disappearance ... Steve has not accessed any of his assets since his disappearance. Steve had no debt and no life insurance.'

-- Peggy Fossett's court affidavit seeking to have her husband declared legally dead