By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A Cork businessman may apply to an American court to have the body of a woman who died 16 years ago exhumed so DNA tests can been carried out to settle his family’s claim to a $160 million fortune.
Dermot O’Regan, 59, of Crookstown plans to apply to the courts in Savannah, Ga., in September to have the distribution of the huge portfolio of shares and property left by Mary Ellen Sheehan declared invalid.
She died at age 79 in 1983 without leaving a will. She was a widow and her two sons and two daughters had predeceased her.
O’Regan, who said he was fighting the claim for justice and for his son and three daughters, brought his case to the High Court in Ireland and was appointed administrator of the estate on June 21.
He says the dead woman was his first cousin once removed, but a Georgia court has already granted the fortune to relatives of another Ellen O’Regan.
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O’Regan, who runs a sand and gravel business in Ovens, Co. Cork, came across his connection with the Georgia woman after a fruitless search for the American side of his family.
He had known his grandfather’s sister had immigrated to Boston and in 1983 he set out to make contact with any American relatives.
"I had been trying to trace people with my father," he said. "We knew my grandfather had gone to Boston, but after checking through phone books and ringing around, we ran into a dead end."
Four years later, an American lawyer advertised in Irish newspapers for relatives of an Ellen O’Regan who had left Cork. Dermot O’Regan sent in his research and certificates.
He subsequently learned that the administrator of the estate had apparently found another Ellen O’Regan, born in 1864, and awarded the fortune to her relatives.
"When I was before the judge in Georgia, I asked him for a copy of her passport to bring back to Ireland," Dermot O’Regan said. "Her passport was torn and they gave me a copy of her passport application. It had never been produced to the court.
"Using that, we came up with all the newly discovered evidence and the Ellen Regan matched our relative. That’s the way it wound up."
Dermot O’Regan said that before he ever went out to America he had been offered a half share of one house in Savannah worth about $90,000.
"I shot that down," he said. "When we went out there we looked into all the assets and property and it was huge. It had never been disclosed to the court."
He said they had filmed and photographed houses and lands that he says were part of the estate, but he believed many had since been sold.
"I am now fighting to have the court decision and the distribution of her assets reversed," he said. "Now that I have been appointed administrator by the High Court here, I am going back armed with that and my new evidence to reopen the case and prove they made the wrong decision. I have a genealogist who has researched it all for me.
"If necessary, we will seek to have the remains exhumed and a DNA test done to prove the claim beyond doubt. I think my lawyers are now looking at damages more than anything else."