‘You never know their real intentions’

Desert Companion
When Japanese socialite Reiko Kawasaki died suddenly in Las Vegas in 2010, it set off a series of surprising revelations and court battles pitting her son against her “husband” — and offered an invaluable lesson about life, death and trust

 

In Japanese writing it’s — each letter or each phrase has a word, a meaning to it. Reiko Kawasaki means — reiko is “beautiful,” “most beautiful” actually, kawa is “river,” saki is “wine.” So in my mother’s case, (her name) is Most Beautiful River of Wine. … When my mother would sign her name in English she made a point in always signing it with Reiko with a capital R, Kawa with a capital K and Saki with a capital S. In this case the S is small and there is no division between Kawa and saki. — John Kawasaki explaining to a deputy district attorney, in court, why he believes a will signature attributed to his mother is a forgery

 

Following a late-afternoon errand on Tuesday, April 20, 2010, Kenichi Takai, known to his friends as Ken, returned to the Henderson home he shared with his boss, Reiko Kawasaki, and a few other people. Takai headed upstairs to the master suite to check in with Kawasaki as he usually did, but she didn’t answer his knock. He waited about a quarter-hour and tried again. Still nothing. He wasn’t sure what to do. Although Kawasaki loved her 30-year assistant like a son, she was a stickler about privacy and would be furious if he walked in on her uninvited. After another 15 minutes, Takai tried again. Still no answer. He decided the risk of ignoring an emergency outweighed that of incurring his boss’s wrath. He opened the door to a sight he’ll forever wish he could unsee: At the back of the room, Kawasaki lay dead in the bathtub.

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“I could have saved her if I had gone in earlier,” he says, his voice thick with regret. “She had been there 45 minutes or so.”

The coroner would later find that the 70-year-old Kawasaki had a pituitary neoplasm that caused her to have a seizure, slip underwater and drown. Her quiet, solitary death was ironic — although tiny in stature, she was a larger-than-life figure who spent her life basking in the company of others — and unexpected, considering her general good health. But it was not murder. The coroner ruled it an accident, and an independent forensic analyst asked by Desert Companion to review the case concurred.

Still, it’s natural to suspect foul play, as many close to Kawasaki have, because of what happened next. With her body barely cold, one of her roommates and business associates, Gregory Dodkin, began passing himself off as her husband. Within a matter of days, he’d disposed of her body and held a memorial service. By Sunday, April 25, he was in Huntington Beach, California, telling her son and apparent heir, John Kawasaki, that not only were he (Dodkin) and Reiko married, but also, she left a will bequeathing her entire estate to him.

John’s reaction? “That’s impossible. When my mother died, she was still married to my father, who is alive and well in Thailand.”

A bitter five-year legal battle between the two men ensued, encompassing half a dozen separate cases in multiple courts. By the time the dust settled, the basest of human impulses — greed, jealousy, revenge — had taken over. Bloodlines were questioned, burial ashes stolen, riches hidden in a secret vault. A grand jury indicted three people for conspiracy, forgery and false claim to an inheritance. At press time, they were awaiting a September 28 trial.

Worst of all, the rightful beneficiaries of Reiko Kawasaki’s considerable estate have lost an enormous amount of time and money, not to mention their peace of mind.

It may be true that no one held Reiko’s head under the water or gave her drugs to induce a seizure, but her death was still a crime, figuratively speaking, because she went without making her afterlife intentions crystal clear. Probate attorneys describe the case as the most contentious and drawn out they’ve seen in their field. But between the lines of this complicated story is a simpler message about how to live, love and die in a world where not everyone can be trusted.

The Will

As Greg Dodkin tells it, he met Reiko Kawasaki on an airplane bound for Paris in the spring of 1998. The two hit it off so well that they talked through the entire flight and kept in touch after they got back to the U.S. Within months, he left his home in South Carolina and moved in with her in Los Angeles. On August 23 of that year, he says, they got married in a suite of the Hotel Bel Air in Beverly Hills. In 2000, the couple moved to Las Vegas, where they lived with Ken Takai, Reiko’s nephew and a young Japanese woman Reiko sponsored. In August 2007, after years of prodding by his wife, Dodkin says, he and she sat down with two employees of Jonas Productions, the music company he runs locally, and filled out and signed their respective wills.

This is all according to documents filed in the probate case for Reiko Kawasaki’s estate; Dodkin declined to be interviewed for this story. The timeline of his account jibes with Takai’s and John Kawasaki’s recollections of meeting Dodkin for the first time and of Reiko’s movements. However, their memory of Dodkin’s relationship with Reiko is dramatically different.

“No, no, no,” Takai says, when asked if he thought Dodkin and Reiko were married. “I was very surprised when Greg said that.” He adds that neither his boss nor his roommate, who slept in his own, separate room, ever said they were married.

Singer-songwriter Karon Blackwell, who was close to Reiko, says that during their 10-year friendship Reiko talked about John and his family often, but she never indicated she was married to anyone other than her Japanese husband, who lived in Bangkok. “All she ever said to me about Greg was that she was in business with him, that she put up the money, and she owned 51 percent and he owned 49 percent. He brought in the sound and lights for shows. That’s what they did.”

John agrees. “Dodkin and my mother always presented themselves as business partners,” he says. “In all honesty, I could tell it was a companionship thing, but I never in my wildest dreams thought it was romantic or intimate.”

It wasn’t unusual for Reiko to have a male, non-Japanese member of her entourage. A couple men who hung around a lot in the ’70s and ’80s stick out in John’s memory, one more like a father figure, the other openly gay — and there were others, though none appeared to be romantically involved with his mom. Reiko was an art and antiques dealer who owned two shops in Los Angeles, and she cultivated an impressive cadre of acquaintances. Party photos show her mugging with the likes of Phyllis Diller and Peter Graves. John remembers former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley stopping by their house in Beverly Hills from time to time, just to say hello.

“My mother was always comfortable with a group of people,” John says. “It was something I never thought twice about. It was always like that in my household.”

Though asked by the police and John’s attorneys, Dodkin could not produce a marriage certificate proving he and Reiko were officially wed. At various times in the court cases, Dodkin claimed Reiko failed to file the certificate and that John stole it. Responding to Desert Companion’s inquiry, the Los Angeles County registrar said it had no record of a Greg Dodkin marrying a Reiko Kawasaki in 1998.

As evidence of their nuptials, Dodkin produced two photos and what he claimed was a wedding announcement. In the pictures, Reiko wears a poofy white dress and Dodkin a dark suit. In one, she leans close to him with a hand on his knee; in the other, he kneels before her, holding her hand. They look happy and relaxed — like newlyweds.

“It was sort of one of those magic love at first sight (sic),” Dodkin said during the June 2011 trial to determine the validity of the will he presented as Reiko’s. “That’s all I can tell you. We were vastly different, different backgrounds, different educations, but I was fascinated by her, and for whatever her reasons, she was fascinated by me. … I just proposed to her over dinner in Los Angeles, and she didn’t hesitate.”

Dodkin also says Reiko told him she’d divorced her Japanese husband years earlier. Whether his story’s true or not, he stuck to it from the moment Reiko died. Takai says he heard Dodkin tell the ambulance drivers that he was Reiko’s husband and make the decisions a spouse would in those circumstances. Henderson police detective Robert McKay, now retired, has a similar recollection. He was called to the scene as a matter of course; the police investigate any unattended death to make sure no crime’s been committed.

“Gregory Dodkin was at the house, and he claimed to be Mrs. Kawasaki’s husband,” McKay says today. “We found out later that wasn’t true at all. I’d never had somebody try that, where you go out to a house and whoever’s living there says they’re married to the deceased when they’re not. … It would be crazy if we showed up at a person’s death and started asking people for their marriage certificates or whatever. We just wouldn’t do that.”

Once McKay had determined the death wasn’t suspicious, the ambulance took Reiko’s body to the Clark County coroner-medical examiner, where Dodkin again identified himself as her husband. (The coroner’s office didn’t respond to Desert Companion’s request for its relevant protocols.) From there, it was easy for Dodkin to take control of the situation. He filled out the paperwork to have Reiko’s body cremated at Hites Funeral Home, the facility that was on call with the coroner the week she died. He began calling Reiko’s friends, identifying himself as her husband, and telling them of her passing. That Friday, he held a memorial service in Las Vegas. All the while, John grieved in Los Angeles, waiting for his wife to return from a business trip so he could give her the news in person.

“We knew Ken was there, and he was communicating what was going on, as was Dodkin,” John says. “There were a few other people there who were helping and supporting us, too.” He adds that he understood his mother’s body would be at the morgue until the autopsy report was done, so there was no rush to go to Las Vegas right away. Instead, he chose to stay home and console his own family.

By the time John found out his mother’s body had been cremated — contrary to her wishes, he says — that was the least of his worries. Dodkin’s behavior had begun to alarm Takai, who was getting so leery of Reiko’s so-called husband that he hid a portable safe full of her valuable jewelry in his room until he could deliver it to John. Then, on the Sunday following her death, Dodkin made the trip to Huntington Beach to deliver the news to John and his wife about the supposed marriage and will.

At this point, all the pieces for a probate battle are in place except one: something worth fighting over. No one can say for sure how much Reiko Kawasaki’s estate was worth. On one hand, you have the inventory that Dodkin submitted to court in the probate case estimating around $223,000 in personal property. On the other, you have John’s trial testimony ballparking the value of a single Tiffany lamp at between $300,000 and $1 million — and she owned several such lamps, along with antiques, firearms, jewelry, paintings, a grand piano, a Mercedes … the list goes on and on. John believes it could all have amounted to between $5 million and $7 million.

Trouble is, a lot of stuff went missing between the time Reiko died and August 2011, when John was finally made co-administrator of her estate. He gives the specific example of an Hermès Birkin bag: “Around February of 2010, when we were visiting, my mom brought out this bag and showed it to my wife, and said she wanted to make sure my wife got it one day and that it would go to our daughter. It wasn’t important at the time, just casual bantering. Then, two months later, my mom passed away and the bag disappeared. There’s a financial value to it, I realized later, but that’s not the way I was looking at it then.” (These bags, used, frequently sell for five figures.)

John says it was like this with many items he’d seen since childhood and remembers being in her last house, but he can’t find them now and has no proof that she didn’t get rid of them before she died. All he has is his suspicions that Dodkin disposed of them somehow (later events suggest he was right; we’ll come back to this). The more time lapsed, and the more complicated the court case became, the more difficult it was to keep tabs on everything.

“The reason Dodkin was able to drag this on for so long was that he had this document called a will,” says probate attorney Kirk Kaplan, who was not involved in the Kawasaki case. “When that happens it’s got to be litigated — the court’s got to determine whether it’s valid or not.”

Dodkin filed a petition to have his will accepted on June 7, 2010. John, of course, contested it. Following a year of investigations, depositions and negotiations on both sides, the case went to trial, where John’s attorney and a forensic document expert convinced a judge that the signature on the will was not Reiko’s. In July 2011, the will was officially thrown out. But the fight was far from over.

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Reiko and John Kawasaki in the mountains of Southern California

Reiko and John Kawasaki in the mountains of Southern California

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Mother and son at her home before a party.

Mother and son at her home before a party.

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Reiko with her only grandchild, John’s daughter

Reiko with her only grandchild, John’s daughter

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Reiko and Gregory Dodkin in a photo he presented as evidence they were married.

Reiko and Gregory Dodkin in a photo he presented as evidence they were married.

The Birth Certificate

John was born in Tokyo, Japan, to Kiyonobu and Reiko Kawasaki on April 4, 1970. When he was around 2 years old, he says, his parents moved to Southern California, but after a year or so, his dad returned to Japan. Kiyonobu had a business there that needed his attention, while Reiko’s own business was beginning to flourish in the states. Kiyo, as he’s known, and Reiko never divorced, and every couple years he visited his family in the U.S. or sent for his son to see him overseas.

John blames his father’s absence, in part, for a difficult adolescence. After attending boarding school in Massachusetts during elementary and middle school, John returned home to L.A. and went to Beverly Hills High. This was the ’80s, he says, and his experience at the school was like something straight out of the novel (and movie) Less Than Zero, written by his classmate Brett Easton Ellis. John’s pot-smoking led his mother to put him in rehab more than once.

“All of us kids were left to our own devices,” he says. “We had the financial means and no parental supervision.”

In retrospect, and being a parent now himself, John understands his mother’s actions. He also realizes he was going along with what most of his peers did: using substances to nurse the wounds of a broken family. But whenever he would criticize his father, he says, Reiko would rush to her husband’s defense.

Besides the Kawasakis’ living arrangement being unconventional, their marriage’s only official evidence came in a form that Americans struggle to wrap their heads around — an issue that would become critical during the probate case for Reiko’s estate. Rather than fancy certificates with formal signatures and raised seals, the Japanese use a single document called a koseki, or family register, to track all births, deaths, marriages, divorces and other life events that affect a person’s identity and lineage. John has the koseki showing him to be the son of Kiyo and Reiko and them to have remained married until her death, and it’s certified by the Japanese Embassy as an official government document. But this didn’t stop Dodkin’s attorneys from attacking it as self-reported and arbitrary, akin to our census. They used this argument as grounds to demand further proof that Reiko was John’s mother, another problem to keep the case tied up in court.

“Nevada intestacy statutes say that if someone dies without a will, and there’s a child and a spouse, they will share the assets 50-50,” probate attorney Kaplan says. “If (Dodkin) was trying to prove John wasn’t the child, it would be so he could inherit everything.”

Kaplan and Jill Hanlon, another attorney that Desert Companion asked to give an independent evaluation of the Kawasaki case, both found it to be extraordinarily litigious. Dodkin’s attorney, Cary Payne, is known in the probate law community as effective and tenacious, and he seems to have pulled out all the stops to prove his client was Reiko’s heir. At various times, he accused the first judge (who left the bench after she was named to a federal seat), the second judge and John’s attorney, Justin Jones, of improprieties and tried to have them removed. At hearings, he would counter each of Jones’ claims with several of his own. If a judge ruled against him on something — for instance, Dodkin’s being married to Reiko — he’d come at it from another angle: Dodkin and Reiko may not have been officially married, but he was still the putative spouse, meaning he entered a bond in good faith and lived with her for 12 years.

John describes Payne’s strategy as an attempt to drown him in a sea of paper. Take the maternity issue, for instance: “It turned into a whole Obama birther thing,” John says. “First, he argued my father was not my father; then, OK, he was my father, but I wasn’t the biological son; then, OK, I was the biological son, but he had me with another woman. It just went on and on.”

Payne, who didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, demanded in court that John be forced to take a DNA test. The irony, John says, is that before being represented by Payne, Dodkin had another attorney, Bob Morris, who had agreed just before the will-contest trial in June 2011 on a settlement: John would take a DNA test and, if it proved he was Reiko’s son, Dodkin would drop the litigation. But before it could be filed with the court, Morris withdrew and Dodkin hired Payne.

“It came to a point where I was no longer comfortable representing him,” Morris says. He couldn’t elaborate, because of attorney-client privilege, but he’s aware that Dodkin later accused him of incompetence. “As an attorney, you have to have thick skin,” Morris says. “I think I represented Greg to the best of my ability.”

Despite Payne’s subsequent ferocity, Jones prevailed in the end. During late 2012 and early 2013, the second judge decided several issues in John’s favor. She ordered Dodkin to hand over certain missing items from the estate — most notably, Reiko’s cremains — then held him in contempt for not doing so, then fined him, then ordered him to pay John’s attorney’s fees and costs. Payne was granted a final motion: to put the case on hold pending his client’s criminal trial.

The Vault

Before his mother died, John says, he’d always found Dodkin to be a friendly, if insignificant, presence in her home. But during the month that followed her death, Dodkin and John’s relationship deteriorated. At first, Dodkin was cooperative, allowing John to come to the house where Reiko had lived and start loading up her belongings to take back to California. John says Dodkin joked that he shouldn’t worry too much about the will, because Dodkin was old and had no heirs; John would end up with all Reiko’s stuff eventually anyway. Dodkin even appeared to go along with John’s effort to get the line on his mother’s death certificate that read “Spouse: Gregory Dodkin” corrected to “Spouse: Kiyonobu Kawasaki” — until one afternoon in late May.

As John and Takai loaded boxes of Reiko’s stuff into John’s SUV, Greg called to tell John that he’d talked to the funeral home director, and if John wanted the death certificate changed, he’d have to get his deadbeat dad to fly here from Thailand and do it himself. (Kiyo did eventually get the official certificate amended.) Before long, the two were shouting and threatening each other: You’re not her husband! … Oh yeah? Well, you’re not her son! The confrontation ended with Dodkin ordering Ken out of the house and barring both him and John from coming back.

That’s when the respective sides lawyered up. Dodkin had himself appointed administrator of Reiko’s estate; John filed a temporary restraining order preventing Dodkin from doing anything with Reiko’s property; Dodkin fired back by lodging the will.

It was around this time that Dodkin contacted Detective McKay at the Henderson Police Department to report a robbery, claiming that Ken — and by association John — had taken some things from the house without permission. To get to the bottom of it, McKay called John, whom he already knew from his death investigation. McKay and his partner interviewed John at length and got his side of the story about Reiko.

“I believed him,” McKay says. “Talking to his dad, her husband, and seeing the evidence — it’s all about that. He was the one showing all the proof. … Then a couple weeks later, we started to get the runaround by Dodkin, and it started to come together. Within a couple months, I wrote up the case and sent it to the DA, and they said, ‘You’re right; he’s in violation of the law,’ and they went and arrested him.”

That was October, 2010, Dodkin’s first criminal charge, stemming from his having written himself a $9,500 check signed by Reiko on an account belonging to Kiyo. The state claimed Dodkin stole the check, but in his deposition for the probate case, Dodkin says he and Reiko had exchanged $10,000 each, so they would have money to take care of costs incurred in the event of each other’s deaths. Her commitment came in the form of a blank check (the one from Kiyo’s account), while his, he says, was from cash that he kept in the house. That’s because he has no bank accounts other than one for a defunct Internet marketing business called Swift Media, but saved some $600,000 in cash working as the Temptations’ production and tour manager for 20 years. (Shelly Berger, personal manager for the Temptations, confirmed that Dodkin worked for them for a “good chunk of time,” but it was a while ago and he couldn’t remember how long.)

The case was, essentially, passed from Justice up to District Court, where a judge dismissed it in December 2011, finding that the state failed to account for the possibility that Reiko — not Dodkin — had stolen the checks to begin with.

All this time, the pleadings war was continuing in the probate case, as well as in civil and family-court cases Payne filed against John, Kiyo and Takai. After living with John for a few months in Huntington Beach at the end of 2010, Takai returned to Japan to pursue his dream of getting a graduate degree in Chinese history. John was ordered to return his mother’s possessions to Dodkin, who changed residences in violation of the restraining order that barred him from moving estate assets. Then, John was made co-administrator and Dodkin was ordered to return everything to him. Reiko’s property was getting more and more scattered.

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any more complicated, in April 2012, John got a call from Metro. There’d been a burglary at 24/7 Private Vaults on Sunset Road. Three armed men had forced an employee to enter the storage area that was supposed to be accessible only by retinal scan and had pried open several of the vaults. One vault there contained items belonging to Reiko Kawasaki, John says — a couple Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot oil paintings, for instance; some Fabergé collectibles; John’s childhood passports showing Reiko as his mother; and Reiko’s cremains. John was dumbstruck. There, in plain sight of the police, were things that he’d believed all along Dodkin was hiding.

“Metro found that a bunch of the stuff Dodkin had reported stolen was there,” McKay says. “But that was hard to prove because the guy who owned the place was shady, and they don’t ask for ID.”

In other words, 24/7 Private Vaults’ policy of complete anonymity to its clients meant John would have an uphill (and potentially unwinnable) battle demonstrating that Dodkin had opened the account and placed the items there. All Dodkin had to do was claim that the account belonged to John, not himself, and the judge had another he-said-he-said on her hands.

“With respect to the 24/7 Vault items,” read minutes from the second trial in the probate case on December 18, 2012, “Court stated there was no way of knowing who placed the items there or if any items were missing because of the business model of Private Vaults and as such, the court was not able to find Mr. Dodkin in contempt regarding vault items.”

For all practical purposes, the probate case ended in April 2013 — but just as that door closed, another was opening. A few months earlier, a grand jury had indicted Greg Dodkin, John Foley and Steve Russo on felony charges of theft, forgery, perjury and false representation of entitlement to interest or share in the estate of a deceased person. Foley and Russo were the two guys who Dodkin said had witnessed him and Reiko signing their wills. As of this writing, the three were scheduled to go to trial in Las Vegas on September 28 following multiple continuances asked for, and received, by Dodkin’s attorney based on his client’s illness, the specific nature of which is off the record.

In John’s darkest moments, he says, as he lies awake at night turning the mess of his mother’s estate over and over in his mind, he hopes Dodkin is suffering a slow death. Most of the time, though, he’s just trying to make sense of it all: “I think I’m still processing it. I have a lot of anger toward my mother, which is a mixed emotion, because I still love her. But I’ll tell you this, I’ll never do anything like this to my daughter. This has helped me grow into a better person and parent.”

For the last couple years, John has thrown himself fully into fatherhood, essentially becoming a stay-at-home dad. He and his wife have tried to be as open as possible with their daughter about everything that’s happened. And, of course, they completed their wills and gave them to five people to hold onto. 

The Legacy

For nearly 15 years, John ran a computer graphics business, Binary Designs, which did trailers for Hollywood films. His wife is an executive producer for a media company. They don’t need his mother’s money, he says; they just wish that their daughter’s memories of her grandmother had remained untarnished. Among the things that John says went missing from his mom’s house was a box containing hundreds of his childhood photos, his high school yearbooks, a record collection from the ’80s. He suspects Dodkin destroyed them out of spite.

“You go through life trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and be a good person,” he says. “If Dodkin had won this, he would have removed a generation from my bloodline. That was one of the main reasons I fought. … Playing devil’s advocate, I guess I did the same thing to him.”

As insulted as John felt by Dodkin’s claim that he wasn’t Reiko’s son, Dodkin may have felt equally slighted by John’s claim that he wasn’t Reiko’s husband. The resulting animosity brought out the worst in each of them at times. John says Dodkin made a trip to Thailand after the court found John and Kiyo to be Reiko’s legal heirs: “He gave one of my dad’s workers a note that said, ‘Congratulations, you just won the lottery. You just have to go to the U.S. and take it away from your son.’”

The conflict didn’t just mar Reiko’s legacy psychologically; it also marred it physically. For instance, John says, he never got the provenance documents for one of his mother’s Tiffany lamps, despite the judge ordering Dodkin to turn it over. John has the lamp, sure, but without its papers, auctioning it at a reputable house would be challenging at best. He speculates that the same would apply to anything Dodkin kept unlawfully. He’d have a hard time selling it outside the black market, where its value would be diminished.

In hindsight, Ken Takai says, he wishes that John had come to Las Vegas right after Reiko’s death and that the two of them had confronted Greg about what was going on. Ideally, of course, that wouldn’t have even been necessary, because Reiko would have left a will with a disinterested party.

“She should have had her wishes detailed with an attorney for safe-keeping,” probate attorney Jill Hanlon says. Personal property often creates problems when settling people’s estates, Hanlon adds, because it’s so hard to keep track of. People should try to keep running lists of their valuables and if — as in Reiko’s case — they are high-dollar, have them appraised and insured. But most important is open communication with family.

“It’s a tough conversation,” Takai says, “but you should look at reality. Who knows? You might die tomorrow, so to prevent anything bad happening you have to be prepared. … And also, be careful of anyone who is close to a parent. … They may seem very friendly, very kind, but you never know their real intentions.”

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