A Camden real estate agent stands accused of pushing her teenage daughter into the arms of a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and then, after he died in a car accident, faking his will to leave his nearly $2 million estate to the daughter.
The fraudulent will for Matthew Seth Jacobs, who was 34 when he died two years ago, left nearly all of his assets to his purported fiancée, Jordan Alexandra “Alex” Peterson, daughter of Donna Herring. The will left Jacobs’ son and only child, Jordan Jacobs, just $50,000.
The alleged scheme almost worked. It wasn’t until after the assets were distributed in December 2015 that “new evidence” was discovered that showed the will was a forgery, according to a filing in the Probate Division of Ouachita County Circuit Court by Jordan Jacobs’ attorney, Adam Reid of Little Rock.
In November, Herring was indicted by a federal grand jury in El Dorado on charges of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering. The indictment was under seal until last month.
A new filing in the case lists Peterson, now 21, and Herring’s sister and brother-in-law, Marion “Diane” Kinley and John Wayne Kinley Jr., as co-defendants, but their indictments have not been made public.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Arkansas declined to comment. A filing in Herring’s case last week, though, said Herring had been charged with the additional count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, perhaps hinting at the charge filed against the others.
The federal government has seized assets from Jacobs’ estate from Herring, including nearly $720,000 in cash, four homes, a 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe and other pieces of property. If Herring is convicted, the government asks that the property be forfeited.
Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said in an email to Arkansas Business last week that the department’s Criminal Investigation Division has an open investigation “arising out of the death” of Matt Jacobs, but it was unrelated to the one-car crash that killed him on Jan. 19, 2015. Sadler said he couldn’t comment further until a case file is submitted to a prosecuting attorney.
Herring, 50, has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court. She referred questions last week to her criminal defense attorney, Erin Cassinelli of Little Rock.
“We look forward to the opportunity to bring the truth to light and provide accurate information as it pertains to the allegations,” Cassinelli told Arkansas Business.
Reid, the attorney for Jacobs’ son, Jordan, provided this email statement to Arkansas Business: “We are doing everything we can to uncover the truth, and are hopeful for a full and timely resolution; however, with respect to the decedent and the privacy of his family, we are unable to comment at this time.”
Survivor Gets Settlement
The suspect will led to multiple civil filings in Ouachita County Circuit Court, including challenges to the probate of the will and a civil tort case filed by Matt Jacobs’ estate. Case files from Ouachita County and additional pleadings in the federal criminal case against Herring provide a glimpse into the events that led to Herring’s indictment.
An avid hunter, Matt Jacobs was working as a roustabout on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana in April 2010. His job duties included working with the crane crew and handling the maintenance of the deck, according to a video interview he gave to John Konrad, CEO of gCaptain, a maritime and offshore news website. The video is posted on Vimeo.com.
Jacobs said he was in his room around 9:30 p.m. on April 20, 2010, when he heard a loud hissing noise that sounded like a helicopter. But the sound kept getting louder. An explosion soon followed.
“The pressure in my room, ... it was just like a gust of wind come in there and sweep you off your feet,” he said. “The percussion was so intense.”
He managed to get to a lifeboat and escape. Eleven people who were on the rig died, and the damage to the oil well allowed petroleum to leak into the Gulf of Mexico for months. The event was dramatized in last year’s film “Deepwater Horizon” starring Mark Wahlberg.
Jacobs was done working on rigs.
“God gave me a chance to get off that rig and he got me off safely,” Jacobs said in the interview. “I’m going to keep my feet on dry land now.”
Jacobs eventually received a multimillion-dollar settlement for his injuries, and those payments began paying in April 2012.
Jacobs returned to Camden, where his family lived. There he wanted to use settlement money to buy a home and invest in other properties.
He turned to Century 21 Campbell & Co., a Camden real estate agency, and Donna Herring was the agent who assisted him, according to the pleadings by Reid, Jordan Jacobs’ lawyer.
Herring began her career in real estate in 2006 at the Campbell firm after completing a real estate course from the National School of Real Estate of North Little Rock.
At that time, she still went by Donna Peterson, even though she’d been divorced from James Peterson since 2000. That marriage produced daughter Alex, who was born in April 1995. In 2007, at age 40, Donna married 53-year-old Charles “Doug” Herring in Hot Springs.
The first property Herring helped Jacobs buy, in May 2012, was a 2,410-SF brick house in Ouachita County for $234,848. His house was less than a 5-minute walk from Herring’s home, proximity that proved beneficial.
A Fatal Car Accident
After Jacobs moved into the house she sold him, Herring “became closely involved in Matthew’s life,” according to Reid’s filing. For example, she arranged for her daughter, who was in high school, “to regularly visit Matthew’s house as a housekeeper.”
Herring also arranged for Jacobs to work for her husband at his business, Meeks Pest Control in Camden.
At Herring’s urging, Jacobs began dating Peterson in 2013, the year she turned 18, Reid said in the filing.
They purportedly were engaged in 2014, but never married. Alex Peterson lived in rental property owned by Matt Jacobs while she attended Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. When not in school, she lived with Jacobs, according to the civil case.
The filings don’t indicate what happened in their relationship.
On the night of Jan. 19, 2015, Jacobs was believed to be on his way to visit a girlfriend, who wasn’t Peterson, according to a lawsuit filed in August 2016 in Ouachita County Circuit Court on behalf of Jacobs’ estate by attorney Bruce Tidwell of Little Rock.
Jacobs wouldn’t make it.
At 9 p.m., driving a two-door, 2005 Chrysler Crossfire on Highway 79, Jacobs lost control, crossed the oncoming lanes of traffic and, without braking, slammed into a tree, according to a traffic report from the Arkansas State Police that was included in the probate filing. Jacobs, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, died at the scene.
Search for the Will
Immediately after his death, Jacobs’ son and brother, Lance Reed, scoured Jacobs’ house — including the gun safe — looking for a will, but found none.
Gerry Beyer, a law professor who teaches wills and trusts at the Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock, said a will should be kept in a safe place, where it would not be found by someone who would want to destroy it and substitute it with a forged will.
“So maybe you leave it with a trusted friend, a trusted family member, a trusted lawyer,” he said. “You have to protect it.”
With no will, Jacobs’ entire estate, which was valued at approximately $1.7 million, would have passed to his son. Peterson would have received nothing.
Just before midnight on Jan. 24, 2015, Herring slipped into the Century 21 office in downtown Camden and created a will for Jacobs, according to an affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Tonja Sablatura that was filed in U.S. District Court.
The will named Peterson as executor and gave her the majority of the estate. An attachment indicated that Diane and John Kinley, Herring’s sister and brother-in-law, had witnessed Jacobs signing the will on May 13, 2014.
The next morning, Herring told Reed that she had found a “large sealed envelope with the initials ‘MJ’ written on the front, located in her office,” according to court filings.
It was a copy of the will that Herring allegedly created after Jacobs’ death, and Herring had it delivered to attorney Paul Lindsey of Camden.
Lindsey didn’t return a call from Arkansas Business.
But the original still needed to be found.
So Dennis Davis of Camden, a friend who grew up in the same neighborhood as Donna Herring, was asked for a favor, according to his statement filed in the estate’s civil case in Ouachita County.
Herring said she needed “someone who the family knew and trusted” to meet her, her husband and her daughter at Jacobs’ home around lunchtime on Jan. 27, 2015, and be present while she opened the gun safe to see if a will was inside.
Davis arrived at Jacobs’ house and watched Donna Herring open the safe and pull out a sealed, white letter-sized envelope.
He then delivered it to Lindsey’s office and never thought much about it after that.
“I had no idea what was going on, nor did I care,” Davis told Arkansas Business. “It’s none of my business.”
In addition to what was being represented as the original of Jacobs’ will, the envelope contained a love letter from Jacobs to Peterson. The letter, Reid said in his filing, was used to “invoke sympathy and understanding as to why Matthew left everything to her and virtually disinherited his only child.”
The will named Peterson as the executor of the estate. But since she was 19 and state law requires an executor to be at least 21, Jacobs’ brother, Reed, became the executor.
The will left Jordan Jacobs, who was 17 at the time, $50,000 for his education.
The boy’s mother, Tina Nutt of Bearden, sought a review of the will. In June 2015, she filed a petition asking the probate judge to interpret the will and suggesting that a proper division would benefit Jordan Jacobs and Alex Peterson equally. Nutt’s petition didn’t challenge the authenticity of the will.
A settlement reached in August 2015 gave Jordan more of his father’s assets. Still, Peterson kept about 85 percent of his estate.
Beyer, the law professor, said a probate judge wouldn’t normally have reason to suspect that a filed will was a forgery. Still, he said, “It’s very difficult to get away with a forged will because there’s always the people who would receive the property if the will is set aside. So they always want to show up and prove that the will is forged.”
He said the forging of wills is a crime that dates back hundreds of years.
‘I Knew It Was Wrong’
After the assets were distributed in late December 2015, Peterson gave away or traded several pieces of Jacobs’ property, including cars and boats. In March 2016, Herring bought a 2012 Lexus using $26,600 from Jacobs’ estate, according to the criminal indictment.
Sometime after the assets were distributed, it was discovered that the will was allegedly created through the legal document drafting website Formswift.com days after Jacobs’ death, Reid said in his filing. The filing doesn’t say how the discovery was made or by whom, nor does it say who first contacted the FBI, which started investigating in April 2016.
Sablatura, the FBI special agent, said in an affidavit prepared in September that she noticed differences between the will filed in probate court and one that had been faxed on Jan. 27, 2015 — mainly inconsistencies in what was supposed to be Jacobs’ signature.
In interviews with law enforcement officers in July, Herring admitted creating the wills after Jacobs’ death, according to Sablatura’s affidavit.
The FBI agent said Herring’s brother-in-law, John Kinley, also told law enforcement officials that Herring had brought the will to him and his wife to sign as witnesses after Jacobs’ death.
“I knew it was wrong because it was illegal,” Kinley allegedly said.
His wife, Diane Kinley, “was interviewed by law enforcement and provided statements that are not believed to be truthful,” Sablatura said in the affidavit. She asked for an attorney and the interview was stopped. The Kinleys couldn’t be reached at the phone numbers that they listed on the will.
Herring’s daughter, Alex Peterson, told law enforcement officials that she knew her mother created the will after Jacobs died, according to Sablatura’s affidavit. An attorney for Peterson, Allen Roberts of Camden, didn’t return a call for comment.
There’s no indication in any files that a true will has been located, but there’s reason to believe one exists: Jacob’s life insurance policy beneficiary designation reads: “Estate of Matthew Jacobs per last will and testament — 100%,” according to Sablatura. The date of the policy wasn’t included in her affidavit.
Meanwhile, Herring’s trial had been set for Feb. 6. Her attorney, Cassinelli, asked last week for a continuance because the discovery is “voluminous and still on-going.” The new trial date is April 3 in U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey's courtroom in El Dorado.