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Crime Family legal battle jeopardizes future of Canton's Napoli's restaurant

16:56  21 january  2020
16:56  21 january  2020 Source:   tribunecontentagency.com

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CANTON Napoli's Italian Eatery helped bind the family of owner Philip DeChellis -- until he died.

a man and a woman posing for a picture: Ann Hefner and Michael DeChellis in a 2017 Repository file photo taken at Napoli’s Italian Eatery.© The Repository/The Repository, Canton, Ohio/TNS Ann Hefner and Michael DeChellis in a 2017 Repository file photo taken at Napoli’s Italian Eatery.

More than three years later, the longtime downtown restaurant is embroiled in a saucy family legal feud over his estate. Disputes among some of his four children and his longtime off and on romantic interest could force the sale of the business, unless those differences get resolved soon.

a sign in front of a building: Napoli's Italian Eatery, a staple of downtown Canton, may have to be sold to settle the owner’s estate.© CantonRep.com / Julie Vennitti/The Repository, Canton, Ohio/TNS Napoli's Italian Eatery, a staple of downtown Canton, may have to be sold to settle the owner’s estate.

Two attorneys involved in the situation say it can serve as a cautionary tale of how not to plan for your own death.

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"Clients who are business owners need to very carefully anticipate .... that some of the (heirs or beneficiaries) may not like each other," said David Dingwell.

"A lot of what's going on could have been resolved with better estate planning," said Jacqueline Mahland.

A slew of court records in Stark County Probate Court and the 5th District Court of Appeals, filed from 2016 until now, reveal Philip Dechellis':

• "Wife," Patty, and their son, Danny, who lived with them, took $750,000 in cash that was supposed to be divided among all four kids. Philip and Patty were never legally married.

• Daughter, Ann Heffner "concealed, embezzled, or conveyed away" $388,000, most of it from restaurant cash sales that should have been part of the estate.

• Sons, Marc and Michael DeChellis, were not implicated in any asset concealment. Michael continues to run day-to-day operations at Napoli's; Marc lives out of state.

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• The business has been operating under the authority of attorney Dingwell, who is serving as a proxy "owner," of sorts. He was first appointed as an estate investigator, then administrator of the estate after Heffner was removed.

An Italian immigrant, Philip DeChellis had operated Napoli's on Cleveland Avenue NW until moving it to its current 221 Market Ave. N location in 1998.

The business was his baby, his life and livelihood.

He died at age 68 on July 21, 2016.

Eleven days later, the process of administering Philip's estate began. That's where his property, personal belongings and money would be divvied out to his heirs or beneficiaries, according to wishes he spelled out in his last will and testament.

Philip had definitive, though complex, plans: His daughter, Ann, was to serve as executrix; Patty would get his house on Lancaster Gate SE in North Canton -- ongoing maintenance and utility bills were to be paid by the Napoli's business; a house on Kingsway Street in Alliance and the Napoli's property were to go to all four children; a house on 16th Street NW in Canton to Ann, who was to allow Michael to live there the rest of his life; the rest of the estate was to be divided among the four children; he also left directions to allow Michael to run Napoli's and share profits with the other three siblings.

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The plan quickly turned sour.

According to court filings:

Philip DeChellis almost exclusively used cash, in both his personal and business dealings. He paid employees in cash. He carried a briefcase with $20,000 at any given time.

His holdings reportedly included $750,000 that two of his children and others said he kept inside a safe in the basement of his North Canton home. When his daughter, Ann, began to inventory and log the assets in his estate, she found all her father's briefcases, lock boxes and the safe empty.

In February 2017, Ann filed a complaint in Probate Court, accusing Patty DeChellis and her Ann's half-brother, Danny DeChellis, who lived in the house, of stealing the $750,000.

The money, she said, should have been included in the estate, which at one point was believed to be worth $1.5 million.

As that complaint wound through court, Patty and Danny, in turn, accused Ann of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in Napoli's cash receipts since her father's death. They filed a complaint of their own against Ann in late spring 2018, claiming the missing money was estate assets.

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Visiting probate judge Thomas A. Swift -- appointed when Stark County Probate Judge Dixie Park recused herself early on -- ruled embezzlement by Patty, Danny and Ann.

Patty and Danny would have to pay back the $750,000, plus a penalty and interest. Ann would have to pay back the $388,000, plus a penalty and interest. The judge also removed Ann from her estate administrator duties in the fall of 2018.

Enter Dingwell, the appointed administrator.

In October, with no resolution in sight, he filed an action that would enable him to move forward in closing the estate of Philip DeChellis. He noted that none of the missing estate money has been paid back -- and he said it likely won't be.

In his request to Judge Swift, Dingwell asked for permission to list for sale the house in North Canton, the Napoli's property in Canton and the business itself. Proceeds would provide money to pay mounting attorney fees, as well as a portion owed to beneficiaries..

Swift hasn't yet approved the sale request.

But he has scheduled a hearing for today, which likely will include discussion of a possible settlement agreement by all involved, according to their attorneys.

"The parties have reached a global settlement ... , " said attorney Craig Conley, who represents Patty and Danny DeChellis. "And it would keep the business open and running."

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Conley and other attorneys involved in the settlement declined to reveal proposed terms.

If the deal falls apart or the judge rejects it?

"Then, we could be at this for two more years," Conley added.

Conley previously went to the 5th District Court of Appeals in an effort to overturn Swift's embezzlement finding against Patty and Danny. But the appeals court sided with Swift, and noted that Patty and Danny's decision to invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to testify served as a "sword" against them.

Conley said that he contacted the Stark County Prosecutor's office to advise them of both embezzlement judgments. No criminal charges have been filed against any party.

Attorney Jacqueline Mahland, who has represented Ann, Michael and Marc, in some of the proceedings, said she's hopeful Philip's estate will be resolved soon.

Other attorneys have also represented various family members in pieces of the three-plus years legal battle.

Reach Tim at 330-580-8333 or tim.botos@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @tbotosREP

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