23 April 2023
The moment passed so quickly in District Judge Gloria Sturman’s hushed courtroom Thursday morning that it would have been easy to miss.
From where I sat, the scene was solemn and emotional. It was a moment that Las Vegas moved, ever so slightly, toward healing in the long, difficult aftermath of a night of historic infamy.
It is impossible to fully capture the gravity of the horrific event on the night of Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas that resulted in the violent deaths of 61 people and injured more than 850. Millions of words have been written about the largest mass shooting in the nation’s history. All fail.
On Thursday, we were reminded that what remains is the rule of law that’s essential to a civilized society, even in those times when it seems so terribly uncivilized. And so, after more than five years of legal tumult, attorney Alice Denton stood with her colleagues from the Denton Cho law firm to present the official settlement and final account of the estate of Stephen Paddock.
The exchange between the attorney and judge felt somber and was respectful of the moment and its meaning.
In a case that has already generated an $800 million settlement from MGM Resorts International, the $1.2 million that Denton and her team secured from Paddock’s remaining personal assets might appear almost quaint, even inconsequential. It’s anything but that.
Call it symbolic, but we live by symbols.
Judge Sturman acknowledged that the case had been “an incredibly burdensome matter to the firm,” and was generous in her praise of the attorneys foregoing nearly $200,000 in fees.
Denton began by taking a moment to honor her colleague Larry Bertsch, who died this week. Bertsch served as special administrator on the case and was among the most experienced probate and bankruptcy administrators in the system. After the hearing Denton recalled, “He is a character in Las Vegas, well-respected. And it is with great sorrow that he passed away this week after working so hard to make this estate come to fruition.”
The probate issues were complicated by more than mass murder. First, Paddock’s mother, Dolores Irene Hudson, had to relinquish her legal standing in the matter. In addition to Paddock’s two residences and undeveloped real property, attorneys worked to persuade estate creditors to remove their claims so that the families of the survivors might receive some benefit, however symbolic, from the estate.
They also succeeded in getting Slide Fire Solutions, manufacturer of the stock attachment that enabled the killer to fire his military-style weapons more rapidly on a crowd of innocent concertgoers, to loosen its grip as a creditor. For a company to do less would have been tone deaf beyond comprehension.
“We worked very, very hard to convince them that that was not the correct thing, to have a creditor’s claim against the estate,” Denton said.
Then there was the moral and legal question of what to do with the weapons, 49 in all, including those used to commit mass murder and the ones recovered from the killer’s residences after the fact. Legally, they were estate assets valued at $63,000.
How do you follow the law and still send an ethical message that honors the victims?
An anonymous donor would provide the answer. With a contribution to the estate ledger of $63,000, the attorneys could move forward in cooperation with the FBI to destroy the murder weapons and, under the language of a signed covenant, to keep the rest out of public circulation.
“This has been a long six years for us,” Denton told reporters after Judge Sturman approved the accounting and check distribution plan. “This has been ups and downs. We have been fighting big companies such as Slide Fire. We have been engaging in litigation for six long years. This has been very emotional because we have felt that our duty is to the victims and the Las Vegas community to recover from this. Our goal was to make sure that all of the guns were destroyed and were not put into circulation back in the Las Vegas area or anywhere. And we’ve achieved that today.”
In an interview earlier in the week, she recalled “grueling” efforts to ensure the best and most respectful outcome for the victims’ families. It was clear that she felt the weight of history and legacy.
“I am relieved,” Denton admitted Thursday. “This has taken a lot of time and energy from everyone in our office.” She credited her partner Jerien Cho, her son Patrick Denton and daughter Marianne Denton, who together “were all able to get this done, and we feel so relieved that we have accomplished our goal.”
(Disclosure: Smith is related to Alice Denton through marriage.)
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.
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