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Police reviewing death of Tomisue Hilbert's mother

May 25, 2010

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department is investigating new information that could disprove the original finding of accidental death in the drowning of local businessman Stephen Hilbert’s mother-in-law.

Germaine “Suzy” Tomlinson, mother of Hilbert’s wife, Tomisue Hilbert, died on Sept. 28, 2008, at the age of 74. Stephen Hilbert initially feared foul play, but IMPD ruled the death an accidental bathtub drowning.

An IMPD detective, however, now is reviewing potential evidence that has come to light in a civil lawsuit filed after Tomlinson’s death, IMPD spokesman Paul Thompson said.  

The legal dispute arose over who can claim a $15 million life insurance policy issued on behalf of Tomlinson by Houston-based American General Life Insurance Co.

Tomisue Hilbert is working with a team of attorneys to determine whether her deceased mother’s estate can claim the benefit. The civil lawsuit is set for a jury trial in October.

Tomisue Hilbert said in an e-mail to IBJ that her family is cooperating with police in its renewed investigation.

“I am speaking for my entire family when I state we are very pleased that the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has reopened its investigation into the circumstances of our mother’s tragic and sudden death,” she said.

Thompson at IMPD said the case technically hasn’t been reopened because detectives never closed it.

“We hate to classify a case as closed,” he said. “They’re always happy to review any new information.”

In the legal quarrel, American General is attempting to invalidate the policy it issued in January 2006 insuring the life of Tomlinson. The insurance company argues the policy was part of a stranger-originated life insurance, or STOLI, scheme.

A STOLI scheme involves outside investors who effectively wager on when an insured person will die. In a typical transaction, an investor entices someone, usually a senior citizen, to take out a multimillion-dollar life insurance policy. Investors purchase the policy and pay the premiums, making themselves the beneficiaries. In return, the insured person receives an upfront cut of the eventual death payout.

Under the arrangement, the sooner the insured person dies, the better the return for investors.

The initial defendants in the Tomlinson case were J.B. Carlson, owner of the locally based Carlson Media Group; Nevada insurance broker Geoffrey A. Vanderpal; and Delaware-based Wilmington Trust Co.

Carlson said Tomlinson served as vice chairwoman and a director of his company, which paid annual premiums of $387,274.85 on the policy. As trustee, Carlson said he’s entitled to the $15 million.

In court documents, Carlson has alleged Tomlinson began attending Carlson Media Group board meetings in November 2002, making the $15 million policy “Key Man” insurance.

The Wall Street Journal on April 12 published a story in its front page about the legal dispute and reported that Carlson was the last person to see Tomlinson alive.

An IBJ reporter working on a story originally alerted Hilbert and the Indiana Department of Insurance about American General’s lawsuit in January 2009. Hilbert wasn’t previously aware of the suit.

“When we learned there was a $15 million insurance policy, we had even greater concerns about the unusual circumstances surrounding our mother’s death,” Tomisue Hilbert said in her e-mail. “The information we have learned in the last few months shows there were strong financial incentives for those involved.”

Tomisue Hilbert previously has described Tomlinson as a healthy, active and vibrant woman with a busy and fulfilling life. Hilbert said she and her husband found her mother fully clothed, face down in a bathtub, with broken glass nearby, making the circumstances of her “sudden” death even more unusual.
 
The Marion County Coroner’s Office listed Tomlinson’s cause of death as asphyxia by drowning with acute ethanol intoxication as a contributing cause.

Tomisue Hilbert last summer became an intervenor defendant in the insurance tussle, arguing that American General should not invalidate the $15 million policy. Instead, Tomisue Hilbert argues its proceeds should go to Tomlinson’s five adult children.
 

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