The three sons weren’t legally adopted. Their adoptive “father” was really a woman. One potential female heir is insane.
They are all part of an unusual and poignant legal drama playing out in Spokane County Superior Court as a judge prepares to answer this question:
Who will inherit the $300,000 estate of a former stripper known as the “Irish Venus” who lived on Spokane’s South Hill with Billy Tipton, the jazz musician who spent a lifetime masquerading as a man?
Kathleen “Kitty” Tipton Oakes, born Stella Marie Banks, was a flamboyant redhead who lived as bandleader Tipton’s wife in Spokane from 1962 until they separated in 1980. Oakes remarried in 1984 and later divorced. Tipton died in 1989 - when his sexual identity as a woman was publicly revealed for the first time.
Oakes was 73 when she died last year after her mind and body faltered and she was involuntarily committed to Eastern State Hospital.
Her life, as related to the late biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook in the 1998 book “Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton,” was mercurial, marked by deep pain and occasional happiness.
Born to a 15-year-old mother in Middletown, Ohio, Oakes never knew her father. She was raped and impregnated as a teenager. She was 28, twice-divorced and stripping in nightclubs in Seattle and Spokane when she met the 47-year old Tipton and “married” him - taking on a new, middle-class role as an adoptive parent and Boy Scout den mother on tree-lined Manito Boulevard.
Now, the final chapter of Oakes’ life is revealed in court documents: Anger and fear as she grew ill in her 70s and the state appointed a guardian to protect her and oversee her finances.
The three adult sons she and Tipton adopted as infants and raised in Spokane - plus a mystery woman who may be a biological child ¡V have potential claims on her estate. If their claims don’t hold up, a scattered clan of 30 paternal uncles and cousins from the Banks clan in the Midwest and South may share in the proceeds.
No will has been found.
At a May 2 hearing, Superior Court Judge Michael P. Price set a Dec. 8 bench trial to determine who gets Oakes’ estate, largely the proceeds from the 2006 sale of her South Hill home.
Attorney Lynn St. Louis, who represents court-appointed estate representative Thea Skomo, said the search for Oakes’ heirs is in an “investigative period” and will eventually be resolved by the court.
“Nothing will be determined for a while. We are doing our part to keep this on track,” St. Louis said.
Sons snubbed in Tipton’s will
When The Spokesman-Review broke Tipton’s story nearly two decades ago, it made national headlines, was grist for tabloids and divided the family with dueling Hollywood signing bonuses for a movie that was never produced.
After Tipton died in January 1989, a coroner revealed his sexual identity to Spokesman-Review columnist Doug Clark. Oakes quickly moved to cremate Tipton’s remains and initially tried to prevent the newspaper from publishing Tipton’s secret, threatening to sue.
When Clark’s story went national, Oakes told the Star tabloid that she never had sex with Tipton, never slept in the same room with him or saw him naked.
Two of her adopted sons - John Thomas Tipton, also known as Jonathan Clark, and Scott Tipton, also known as Scott Miller - disputed her story. They called her claim that she never had sex with Tipton because of her own poor health a “fake” and assigned the rights to their story to a film company. They said Oakes kicked them out of the house and broke up the family when they were teenagers.
Oakes and her youngest adopted son, William, called “Little Billy” as a child, were aligned against the two older boys in the race for the rights to Tipton’s story. Family squabbles grew so intense that Tipton’s ashes had to be split two ways between the dueling relatives.
Tipton left a will that made Oakes the executor of his $150,000 estate - most of which went to creditors.
William, born in 1969, was awarded Tipton’s show business memorabilia and the diamond ring he wore while playing the piano. John, the oldest, and Scott, the middle child, were barely acknowledged, with $1 each.
William had cared for his adoptive father during his final illness in 1988 and early 1989, according to Middlebrook, a Stanford University English professor and award-winning biographer who died of cancer in December.
Now, Oakes’ estate is under a microscope. The three adopted sons have all hired lawyers.
On April 11, an affidavit of prejudice was filed against Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor by Mark Roecks, the attorney for John Clark (John Tipton), the first boy the Tiptons adopted in 1963. Clark declined comment through his lawyer.
In a 1989 interview, he told columnist Clark he was “stunned” by the revelation that his adoptive father was a woman. “We loved our Dad, but we would have liked some honesty,” he said.
A mysterious fourth person who may be an heir to Oakes’ estate, Pamela Marie Lyons, was “located through a birth certificate found in Kitty S. Oakes’ possession,” according to a court declaration from Skomo, the personal representative of Oakes’ estate.
Lyons could not be found by a Spokane investigative firm hired to search for heirs, but a woman with the same birth date named Pamela Marie Lewis has been located in Spokane, the court records say.
Skomo is Lewis’ personal guardian in a separate Spokane County guardianship matter. She referred a reporter to St. Louis, who said Skomo’s guardianship of Lewis was simply a coincidence in the “small world” of Spokane legal affairs. St. Louis said she notified the court of Skomo’s dual guardianships.
A Spokane County guardianship file on Pamela Marie Lewis reviewed by the newspaper says she was born June 19, 1945.
If the 62-year-old is really Oakes’ daughter, that would mean Oakes was only 11 when she was born. But in her book on Tipton, Middlebrook said Oakes was 15 when she was raped and made pregnant. It’s “speculative but possible” that Lewis is Oakes’ child, St. Louis said.
Skomo was appointed Lewis’ guardian on May 5, 2004. Lewis was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia (“talks to a third person,” court documents say) and lives in an assisted care home in Spokane. Her assets are less than $1,000.
One of Oakes’ adopted sons is objecting to the court effort to determine whether Lewis is an heir.
Scott Miller, the middle son, has filed papers accusing Skomo of a conflict of interest because of her guardianship of Lewis and objecting to the research into Lewis because it is “wasting estate funds.” Miller did not respond to a request for comment.
At the May 2 hearing, St. Louis told Price that she has also identified paternal uncles and cousins of Oakes that would stand to inherit if the adopted sons - or the potential daughter - fail to establish their rights to the estate.
Colbert attorney Jim Woodard has been appointed a temporary guardian ad litem to determine whether Lewis is really Oakes’ daughter.
The probate is a “real mess,” Woodard told Price at the hearing. For example, two marriage certificates for Tipton and Oakes have been found for the same day in two different states ¡V Idaho and Oregon.
In her book, Middlebrook noted that the document commemorating the couple’s 1962 St. Patrick’s Day marriage in Coeur d’Alene - where resort owner Bob Templin bought the champagne ¡V was signed by a bogus justice of the peace. But it was “quite possibly” legal in Idaho because of the frontier spirit in the Idaho code, which said “people were married if they said they were,” Middlebrook wrote.
“The code, in 1962 at any rate, did not even specify that the couple must be one man and one woman,” she added.
¡¥Among her cats, her memories’
Oakes did not take kindly to the state assuming control over her affairs as her health declined, court records show.
The Department of Social and Health Services’ Financial Recovery Office has filed a $74,200 creditor’s claim under Medicaid rules against her estate for her end-of-life care.
Oakes’ life was described as “unusual and different” in a 2004 report by Lin D. O’Dell, a Spokane elder-law attorney who served temporarily as Oakes’ guardian ad litem.
That year, Oakes’ estranged husband Robert A. Oakes had left the ailing 70-year-old on her own after taking at least half their money. Oakes told O’Dell she wasn’t close to any of her adopted sons.
Oakes’ son William “Billy” Tipton moved into her home with his wife and child, but Kitty “believed Billy was taking money from her and stealing her possessions,” O’Dell said in her report. Adult Protective Services forced the relatives to leave.
A Vulnerable Protection Order was put in place after DSHS substantiated findings of neglect, mental abuse and financial exploitation by the adopted son and his spouse, O’Dell’s report says. William Tipton did not respond to a request for comment made through his Spokane lawyer.When the subject of a guardian was broached, Oakes was adamantly opposed but later acknowledged she liked Skomo, a registered nurse, and also admitted her “head is not right,” O’Dell’s report says.
Dr. James A. Roubos, the psychologist who evaluated Oakes for state guardianship, said she was confused and her bills were not being paid. Oakes told Roubos she’d been married five times and had been “hurt very badly in relationships and struggled with trust, particularly with men.”
She also told Roubos she’d spent 10 years in “show business” as a singer and dancer but “offered very few details even with follow-up questions,” Roubos noted. Her long relationship with Tipton is not mentioned in Roubos’ report.
Roubos recommended that Oakes have a guardian so she could “remain in her home among her cats and her memories.” Skomo was appointed guardian Dec. 1, 2004, but Oakes’ problems continued.
In a May 2006 affidavit, Skomo said Oakes “resists any move from her home and refuses to even leave the property.” She wouldn’t go to the doctor or give Skomo any access to her bills and other paperwork, which piled high inside the house.
Oakes continued to live in her home until May 11, 2006, when she was admitted to Sacred Heart Medical Center for surgery for stomach and liver cancer. She was transferred to a nursing home in Fairfield and never returned home.
On August 30, 2006, the court authorized the sale of her home at 2403 S. Manito Blvd.
The house on a corner lot in the upscale neighborhood initially was appraised for $232,000, but there was a bidding war and it sold in September 2006 for $350,550. Net proceeds to Oakes were $321,377, the records show; most of the money was placed in three “court blocked accounts” in local banks, with a smaller amount made available to Skomo for her guardianship fees.
Oakes was involuntarily committed to Sacred Heart’s psychiatric ward on Nov. 12, 2006, and was transferred to Eastern State Hospital after Thanksgiving.
It was the second time that Oakes had been taken into custody against her will.
In her Tipton biography, Middlebrook wrote that Oakes was bitter about her treatment as a teenager at the hands of the justice system.
After Oakes was raped at 15, she was declared “incorrigible” when she became pregnant and was sent to a juvenile detention facility.
Oakes had approached Middlebrook in 1991 when the author was in Spokane to give a talk about her biography of the poet Anne Sexton. Oakes asked Middlebrook, who grew up in Spokane, to write the story of Tipton’s life.
Oakes gave the biographer all her photos and memorabilia from her years with Tipton, including Tipton’s love letters to her and an envelope Tipton had saved for decades containing a cascade of Oakes’ long red hair from her years as the “Irish Venus.”
Oakes died April 6, 2007, at Eastern State Hospital, a few days after her 73rd birthday. She weighed 70 pounds when she died and was “confused and agitated,” Skomo said in her final report.
“She was childlike, crying for her mother at the end,” Skomo wrote.
Housecleaners found the ashes of her mother, Carrie Collins, in a labeled box in Oakes’ home. Collins had moved from San Francisco to Spokane in 1967 and spent a few years in the Manito Boulevard neighborhood helping Oakes and Tipton with the three boys.
“Carrie had been a very young mother, only 15 years old when Kitty was born, and neglectful. In middle age she began attempting to compensate,” Middlebrook wrote.
Skomo petitioned the court to allow her to bury Collins’ ashes next to Oakes in Holy Cross Cemetery. “I believe Kitty would have wanted her mother buried with her,” Skomo said in her 2007 declaration.
Price granted that request at last month’s hearing.