Fourteen-pound pearl at center of wrongful death lawsuit in contract killing |

Fourteen-pound pearl at center of wrongful death lawsuit in contract killing

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) ” A 14-pound pearl believed to be the largest in the world is at the center of a wrongful death lawsuit over the contract killing of a woman in 1975.

A son and two daughters of the slain woman, Eloise Bonicelli, are seeking their father’s assets which includes a share of the pearl.

Joe Bonicelli died in July 1998, two years before the man eventually convicted of arranging his wife’s slaying was arrested. Bonicelli left his estate to his second wife and their youngest daughter.

The origin of the pearl, which looks like a brain and is roughly the size and shape of a football, is in dispute.

Colorado gemologist Michael Steenrod testified at a hearing Thursday that the pearl was created by Tao philosopher Lao Tzu more than 2,500 years ago. Tzu is said to have created the pearl by carving a small amulet with representations of the “Three Friends” ” Confucius, Buddha, and himself.

“His thought was that it would symbolize peace and unity of all mankind,” he said.

The pearl was inserted into a clam and transplanted into bigger and bigger clams through generations, Steenrod said. It’s said to have been lost at sea during a shipwreck and rediscovered by a Muslim diver in 1934 off the Philippines. The diver named it the Pearl of Allah, he said, and it now sits in a Denver bank vault.

But some know it as the Pearl of Lao-tze, which is believed to have come from a giant clam species known as the Tridacna gigas found in the South Pacific Ocean.

In 1996, Steenrod appraised the pearl at $59.75 million based on its size and history. A lawyer representing Bonicelli’s estate produced records showing that the pearl sold for $200,000 in 1980.

“This is not a conventional pearl,” Steenrod said. “It’s gigantic compared to any other pearl in the world. And it’s one of a kind.”

Plaintiffs Michael Bonicelli, Gwendolyn Garris and Donna Fuller could get a piece of the pearl and other assets from Bonicelli’s and Tom Phillips’ estate if they prove the men liable for the death of their mother. They claim Phillips put their father in touch with a Colorado Springs barber who arranged contract killings.

The plaintiffs said Phillips and Bonicelli each paid Delfino Ortega $10,000 to have their wives killed. Phillips can’t face criminal charges in the deaths because of a deal with prosecutors in which he agreed to testify against Ortega.

Phillips also testified that he helped Joe Bonicelli arrange for Ortega to kill Bonicelli’s wife to prevent her from filing for divorce and getting part of the family business. She was fatally shot by an intruder in her house on Nov. 23, 1975.

Phillips invested in the pearl in the early 1980s and later told Bonicelli about it. Bonicelli invested about $750,000 in shares of the pearl around 1984, Phillips said.

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