The Battle Of Belcourt

The Plumber Becomes Beloved Son

The opulent mansions of Newport, R.I., are full of stories: Movie stars, political luminaries and society mainstays have all lived here.

But perhaps no house in Newport has a more amazing story than Belcourt Castle, the site of what just may be the strangest family feud in America. Correspondent Susan Spencer reports on the saga of the Tinneys and their adopted plumber.

Belcourt Castle has 60 rooms. But that's not enough space for the three people who live there.

The trouble began in 1974, when the Tinneys, who owned the house, hired an unlicensed plumber named Kevin Koellisch, to do some repairs. Soon he began doing all sorts of odd jobs. Eventually he moved in as the resident handyman.

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At the time, it seemed like a perfect arrangement. "He was the right person at the right time and the right place," said Harle Tinney, who lives in the house with her husband Donald.

Even in the beginning, not everyone trusted the plumber. According to Mark Malkovich, an old family friend, Donald's father Harold hated Koellisch from the beginning.

But Harold Tinney died in 1989. After that, Koellisch grew even closer to the family, especially to Harold's widow Ruth, who was in her 80s at the time and five decades Koellisch's senior.

Koellisch said that he and Ruth Tinney shared a "love of Belcourt." He insisted that their connection was innocent, a "wonderful mother and son relationship."

But others are not sure. "He crossed the line," Malkovich said. "Because it wasn't like a son. It was more like a lover....We hoped there was nothing going on sexually, but who knew?"

Finally, in 1990, Ruth Tinney legally adopted her plumber, who was then 37. She did this despite the misgivings of her son and his wife. She added Kevin's name to the castle deed, making him an equal partner in Belcourt.

Kevin Koellisch became Kevin Tinney. "The bottom line is this is about a family joining together," he said. "And unlike being born into a family, I was being adopted."

Koellisch's own biological family was not so sure about his motivation. His sister Marilyn says that sh, her six siblings and their mother were all angry at him. They saw his decision as a crass betrayal. Koellisch, though, said that his wasn't a happy family.

"I'm a Tinney now, and I'm a Tinney for the rest of my life," he said. Ruth "just treated me like the son I always wished I could be treated like."

Malkovich said that Ruth Tinney came to regret her decision. He said that before she died, she told him that she had made a mistake by adopting Kevin.

After two strokes, Ruth Tinney died in 1995, leaving behind the castle and millions of dollars worth of antiques.

The situation began to turn ugly soon after Ruth Tinney died. Even as they mourned, the remaining Tinneys couldn't get along well enough to agree on what the tombstone should say. So there is no headstone at her grave.

"He's never been family in my heart," Harle Tinney said of her adopted brother-in-law. "And his plumbing work wasn't that good either."

From that point, though they continued to live under one roof, the two sides essentially stopped speaking, communicating instead through lawyers and faxes. No communication was too small for this method: One car blocking another in the driveway, or household chores, were dealt with via faxes and attorneys.

Then in 1997 Kevin Tinney accused his sister-in-law of embezzling money meant for the castle.

An accountant was brought in to investigate. He found that Harle Tinney had done nothing wrong. But the investigation also revealed that Kevin Tinney had. According to Keith Kyle, Donald and Harle Tinney's lawyer, Kevin took $180,000 meant for the castle. He claimed he had used the money on paint, to paint the castle.

Then the suits started. In a move that amazed some observers, Kevin Tinney asked a judge to order the castle sold and to give him a third of the profits.

Donald Tinney and his wife counter-sued. Their lawyer argued that Kevin Tinney had conned Ruth - at the time vulnerable, grieving and newly widowed - into adopting him.

"The only thing that was wrong is maybe I loved Mom a little more than Donny and Harle," Kevin Tinney said.

After a five-day trial, the judge decided in Donald and Harle Tinney's favor. "His own mother said he'd sell his own name for a buck, and that's all Kevin deserves,'" the judge said in his decision.

Donald and Harle Tinney got the castle; Kevin Tinney was given 30 days to move out.

Kevin Tinney appealed, and another judge agreed to let him stay on at the castle while that appeal is being decided. But he was restricted to certain sections. To get to his attic apartment, he had to use a side door, and he was not allowed to speak to his brother and sister-in-law.

And Kevin Tinney said he will take his appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

The feud at Belcourt Castle continues. Donald and Harle Tinney said they have spent more than $100,000 in legal fees.

"It's heartbreaking," said Kevin Tinne. "Because you have a brother that you love, and all of the sudden he's saying, 'You're not my brother.'"

"I will never, ever, in any way forgive him," said that brother, Donald. "No matter what. If God asked me, I wouldn't do it."

Said Harle Tinney: "I still believe this might be a nightmare from which I'm going to be awakened. And it never happened."

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Web story by David Kohn;