How Lies, Dead Animals, and a $583 Million Lawsuit Tore the Griffin Family Apart

John L. Griffin turned the dirty work of collecting animal carcasses into a highly respected, multi-million-dollar enterprise—only to have sibling greed, betrayal, and an ill-fated scheme lead to a $583 million lawsuit that left his once-proud family in tatters.

Illustration by Sam Island

John Lawrence Griffin was born into the rendering world. He grew up in Reading during the 1920s, riding along with his father and uncles on pickups for the Elmwood Rendering Company. After dropping out of St. Xavier High School during his junior year, he began working for the company full-time. A few years later, he married Rosellen Van Nest, less than two months after proposing to her on the same day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and together the couple built what would come to be known as Griffin Industries, one of the largest rendering companies in the country. The business, which recycled animal carcasses, started with John driving an old furniture truck around town and shoveling dead animals into the back. It ended with a 2010 merger that ultimately left John and Rosellen’s children at each other’s throats in a lawsuit over the family fortune. That lawsuit resulted in four sisters being awarded more than $580 million in April, one of the largest judgments in Kentucky’s history.

John and Rosellen raised 12 children—seven boys, five girls—and an Irish Setter named Big Red in a four-room house in tiny Greenwood, Kentucky, in Pendleton County. It was a bucolic upbringing, living on land filled with plum, cherry, apple, and peach trees. Dad managed the rendering business and disciplined the kids when necessary, like the time he made Dennis and John M. (everyone called him Griffy) smoke an entire cigar they had stolen. Mom, who was valedictorian at Lockland High School, kept books for the company, tended a one-acre garden, and cared for the family.

“I knew we were happy. We had food on the table,” the youngest daughter, Cyndi, said in 2015 court testimony. “I didn’t realize I was wealthy.”

By the time Cyndi was in grade school, though, she began to notice hints of success. Like after baseball games, when her father would stop at the Spare Time Grill in Alexandria and buy everyone cheeseburgers. Or when he would drop a $100 bill in the collection basket at St. Francis Xavier Church in Falmouth on Sundays. “I thought to myself, Wow, that’s a lot of money. I had never seen that before,” Cyndi would later recall in court.

In the forward to A Tradition in Rendering, a company history that chronicles the Griffin family legacy, author and eldest sibling Dennis Griffin describes the mixing of business and family as “both a blessing and a curse.” The blessing was apparent in the early years. It took a while for the curse to appear, but when it did, it tore the family apart.

On a warm Labor Day weekend in 1983, John L. Griffin was taking a break from a rendering convention on Georgia’s Lake Lanier when he suffered a seismic stroke. It would alter the trajectory of his family and company forever.

By that point, the 61-year-old patriarch had been in the business for 40 years, during which he’d earned a reputation as both a family man and “a hardworking son of a bitch,” as one competitor put it. Eight years earlier, he had undergone open-heart surgery—a procedure still in its nascent stage—in Houston, Texas. After John returned home, his renowned surgeon Denton A. Cooley, who performed the operation, recommended that he rest for at least six months before returning to work full-time. He was back in the office two weeks later. “Dad thought he was an iron man,” his son Dennis would later write.

This time, there would not be a full recovery. It took more than an hour to bring him to shore; he was then rushed to a hospital in nearby Gainesville. The right side of his body was paralyzed and he lost vision in his right eye. “Gainesville didn’t give Dad much of a chance,” said Robert Griffin, according to court testimony. After a brief stay, he was flown back to Cincinnati and treated at the Mayfield Neurological Institute before entering a rehab facility. It was more than a month before he could recognize anyone’s face, Cyndi recalled in court, and when he eventually attempted to speak, he could only muster one word: shit.

As John’s condition slowly improved, his wife Rosellen’s body began to fail. She was suffering from rapidly progressing Parkinson’s disease, just as her father had. The Griffin daughters, primarily Linda and Cyndi, helped care for their parents every day, but were eventually forced to call in help for round-the-clock care. Dennis, who was named president of Griffin Industries in 1979, took on the leadership role in the family.

“[Dennis] mentioned that there was going to be a $5 million tax. And to me, that was huge,” Cyndi would later testify. “He said it could bankrupt the company.”

“Denny definitely became the patriarch. He slipped right into it,” said his sister Betsy in court testimony. “We all trusted him. He had the knowledge, the experience. We all looked up to Denny.” (Through their lawyers, the Griffin siblings declined multiple requests for interviews. All quotations attributed to them are from court documents.) Nearly two years to the day after John’s debilitating stroke, Rosellen died, setting off a curious chain of events.

Three months after their mother’s death, on November 29, 1985, Dennis called a family meeting at the Drawbridge Inn in Ft. Mitchell, where he warned his 10 living brothers and sisters—Griffy, Linda, James, Judy, Janet, Robert, Betsy, Cyndi, Martin, and Thomas (Ronald, the third-oldest, died in 1968)—along with Leonard Meranus, the family attorney, that the family business was in imminent danger of collapse. The issue, as Dennis explained it, had to do with the details of John and Rosellen’s wills; the way their stock in the family business was to be bequeathed to their offspring assumed that John would die first. Dennis claimed that because their mother had passed away before their father, the family estate was in a shambles and the company was in jeopardy.

“[Dennis] mentioned that there was going to be a $5 million tax. And to me, that was huge,” Cyndi would later testify. “He said it could bankrupt the company.”

Linda, like the rest of the family, was “flabbergasted” by this revelation. “I got up and I asked, ‘How could that be?’” she said. “[Dennis] told me Shut up, sit down. You don’t know what you’re talking about… I was so intimidated.”

“We had to do something,” said Judy. “The brothers were going to come up with a plan.”

The Griffin sisters had worked at the company when they were younger, but by 1985, the operation was handled mainly by Dennis and Griffy. The girls left the meeting hoping their older brothers could find a solution. It was an arrangement that fit the Griffin family dynamic: the brothers made all of the business decisions, and the sisters listened to their brothers.

A week or two later, according to court documents, Dennis called another family meeting, this time at his house. He had come up with a master plan to save the company. It was a complicated blueprint, but the gist of what he explained to his siblings was this: their father, John, would sell the Griffin Industries stock his wife Rosellen left him to Dennis, Griffy, Robert, and James. John would also sell off a small portion of his stock to his grandchildren’s trusts, just enough to bring his ownership below 50 percent. Then those four brothers would buy their father’s remaining stock (at a discount, of course, since it was now a minority stake), making the Griffin brothers majority owners. This maneuver, he explained, would save the company from financial ruin.

There was no vote on the matter, according to Judy’s testimony, but Dennis impressed upon his siblings the gravity of the situation. He brought in a financial planner who explained how another local company fell apart under similar circumstances, which frightened Linda, Cyndi, and Judy. The sisters described Dennis in the meeting as “frantic” and “agitated” as family members asked questions, which was not completely out of character for him. (A former lawyer of Dennis’s later admitted that his “bedside manner was lacking a little.”) But according to Dennis, this plan was the family’s only option.

“He kind of smacked his fist and he says, If you don’t go along with it, we’re going to buy you out right here, right now,” Judy testified. “And that’s pretty much how the meeting ended.”

The only problem: Dennis’s plan to save the company was, in fact, an elaborate ploy to seize control of it.

According to a recent ruling by Judge William O. Bertelsman in the United States District Court in Covington—which followed a series of lawsuits filed by Betsy, Linda, Judy, and Cyndi beginning in 2011—Dennis and Griffy conspired to exaggerate the tale of the company’s demise in order to compel their sisters to agree to a plan that gave Dennis, Griffy, Robert, and James Griffin control of 87.6 percent of Griffin Industries.

The impetus for this ruse was Rosellen Griffin’s will, which stipulated that her stock in the company be equally distributed among her 11 living children in the event of her death. For Dennis and Griffy, that posed a problem: If the stock were distributed per the will’s instructions, then younger siblings who weren’t involved with the company at that time would have gained a controlling number of shares, opening the possibility for Dennis and Griffy to lose power. So the two brothers hatched a plan.

On September 4, 1985, two weeks after their mother’s death, Dennis and Griffy became co-executors of their mother’s will after convincing the court that their father was physically unable to carry out the responsibility due to his stroke. Over the next three months, they also obtained their father’s power of attorney and were appointed trustees in charge of his assets. Once they had that, all they needed to do was convince their siblings that the company was in peril—and that they had a solution.

The defense maintains that the transfer of power is what their father wanted; Dennis and Griffy were simply acting on John’s orders. They, as well other Griffin Industries employees and family members—including their sister Janet, who did not join the suit against them—claim it was common knowledge that John and Rosellen Griffin’s sons would receive stock in the company and the daughters would receive cash.

And that did happen. According to court documents, each of the five Griffin daughters pocketed $261,474.87 from their mother’s estate as a result of the moves choreographed by Dennis and Griffy. However, over the ensuing 25 years, the six living brothers received nearly $200 million total from their mother’s stock. (Joe Callow, a Cincinnati-based attorney who has represented Dennis and Griffy since 2011, has argued that that figure is significantly inflated.) The imbalance is glaring: In essence, Dennis and Griffy offered a few Wonka bars to their sisters while keeping the rest of the chocolate factory for themselves.

To understand how Griffin Industries grew into the eighth-largest privately held company in Kentucky, it helps to understand the economics of their business. Animal rendering is not a sexy line of work. If this story were adapted into a Hollywood film, Steven Spielberg would have to replace it with a more glamorous industry. John L. Griffin would be an oil baron or steel titan, perhaps, or modernized to a Silicon Valley mogul instead. Remember how the movie The Big Short used bombshell actress Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to make mortgage-backed securities sound compelling? Well, there aren’t enough bubble baths or Margot Robbies in the world to do that for rendering. Despite the best efforts of the National Renderers Association (also known as the other NRA) to pump out inviting, eco-conscious propaganda (i.e., “We’re the original recyclers!”), the fact remains that the industry is built on pulverizing and cooking dead animal carcasses (mostly livestock, but dogs and cats killed in shelters have also ended up in rendering facilities). Renderers extract usable resources from the raw material, namely fat and protein, which they sell to other companies to be used in a variety of different products, including soaps, feed for livestock, and dog food. It’s beneficial to society in that, among other things, it prevents methane from being released into the ozone layer. But that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

Nevertheless, what makes it unappealing to the masses also makes it potentially lucrative. “The barriers for entry are so high, you don’t have nearly the amount of competition you do in other industries,” says J.J. Smith, co-owner of Valley Proteins in Winchester, Virginia, one of the largest privately owned rendering companies in the country. “It’s very difficult to site these plants, [because] people don’t want them in their backyards.” This difficulty is partly due to ever-increasing environmental regulations, but largely because rendering companies tend to stink something fierce. Just try to imagine (or maybe don’t) the gag-inducing stench caused by thousands of pounds of discarded animal entrails being cooked in a factory. A woman in Georgia once told the Athens Banner-Herald that a plant near her home smelled like “burning, rotten flesh.”

The Griffin men clearly understood that rendering plants weren’t easy to come by, and their progressive business outlook led to steady growth. The company expanded its operation outside of Northern Kentucky in 1966 with the purchase of the Columbus Reduction Company in Columbus, Indiana, for $75,000. Over time, Griffin Industries began snatching up smaller rendering companies across the country; by 1993, it operated 33 facilities across 14 states, from Cincinnati to San Antonio. The company also moved beyond basic animal rendering to offer services like hide tanning, biodiesel production, and rendering bakery waste. “They were really tough competition,” says Gus Wintzer, co-owner of G.A. Wintzer & Son Co., a smaller, family-owned rendering operation in Wapakoneta, Ohio. “That’s a good way to gauge people. Tough as hell, but good.”

The expansion did not lead to a huge profit immediately. In 1991, Griffin Industries’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (also known as EBITDA, a financial measurement used to estimate a company’s profitability), were just over $21 million, according to court documents. A decade later, the company’s EBITDA increased by only $5 million. But soon after, commodity prices began to skyrocket, causing the earnings of companies reliant on those markets to rise as well. In 2008, before the economic collapse, the company reported a record EBITDA of $171,736,000. “This is hitting not only a home run out of the park, but you hit the grand slam,” Robert Griffin, who became company president in 2006, stated at one point in court. Had the company been sold then, it likely would have netted its stakeholders more than $1 billion.

Two years later, with their EBITDA hovering at roughly $100 million, the company decided to merge with Darling International, a longtime competitor that had actually tried to buy the company back in 1947, and had since emerged as a publicly traded behemoth. The price tag: $840 million.

According to Griffy’s deposition later in court, the deal earned Dennis, Griffy, and Robert between $180 and $200 million each. (Their brother James died in 1988.) But, again, it was a blessing and a curse: They suddenly had a lot more money to lose, too.

Shareholder meetings were an annual tradition for the Griffins. Each year, the sisters and their husbands would join the brothers at the company headquarters in Cold Spring on the Friday before Christmas. The week prior, a memo would be sent to employees to remind them that the office was expected to be immaculate upon the family’s arrival. “We, as the employees, felt like the sisters were rock stars because they were that important to the brothers,” Teri Pagan, a former secretary at Griffin Industries, said during the trial.

During the 1989 shareholder meeting, according to Betsy’s testimony, Dennis mentioned that he was going to pass company stock on to his kids. “That set off like a firework in my head,” said Betsy. “I had known that dad never wanted that stock into the third generation. He had told me repeatedly that if that stock got to the third generation, that would be the beginning to an end.” Why their father felt this way is unclear—he passed away in 1995—though it was certainly a sentiment he communicated to his children.

Betsy’s sisters didn’t seem to share her worries, so she took matters into her own hands and obtained a copy of her mother’s will, which only caused her more consternation. On January 20, 1990, she typed a two-page letter to Dennis and Griffy. “For so long, I failed to take an interest in mom’s will for some reason. Call it ignorance, stupidity, naivety. Who cares?” she wrote. “I do not believe things have been done the way her will and trust read…you may not agree, you may find it to be greedy and self-seeking. But let’s face it. All of us have more financially than we will ever need in this lifetime. What we are all concerned with is the future well-being and security of our children.”

In the letter, Betsy claimed that she had a right to one-eleventh of her mother’s stock and threatened legal action against Dennis and Griffy. They called her bluff, only to be met months later with a lawsuit.

In 1991, around the time of the next shareholder meeting, Linda invited Betsy over to her house for a slice of apple pie and tried to convince her little sister to drop the claim. “I said, ‘Betsy, it’s going to tear the family apart,’ ” said Linda. “ ‘There’s got to be another way we can work this out.’ ”

“The only thing Griffy said that whole meeting was, We came in together; we’re going out together,” his sister Cyndi testified. “I thought that sounded like the mafia.”

Dennis’s approach was less diplomatic. At a family gathering soon after, “he just pretty much berated Betsy on where she got off and thought she could do this and this was going to tear the family apart,” Cyndi testified. “He just was on a tirade of Why you think you got the nerve to sue your brothers.”

Betsy was silent—“He almost had me ready to walk out of there believing I had done the wrong,” she said, according to court testimony—and the other sisters sided with Dennis and Griffy, ostracizing her despite the fact that, if Betsy won, her suit would have meant a financial windfall for each of the five sisters. (Betsy apparently maintained some kind of relationship with her older brothers. At their father’s funeral in 1995, Dennis and Griffy were the only siblings to speak with her.)

In 1993, the case was settled. Despite the fact that only Betsy had sued, each of the sisters received $10,000; in addition, Betsy received 1,390 shares of Griffin Industries stock, plus nearly 200 for each of her two children. Up until that point, she and her sisters had maintained equal shares as a result of childhood gifts from their parents, which amounted to about 1.1 percent of the company’s shares in a given year. Betsy’s new stock bumped her ownership percentage up to about 2.3 percent—which may not sound like much, but for a privately held, multi-million dollar company, the difference added up.

Dennis and Griffy claim that the sisters all understood the transaction, and at the very least, should have been aware of the new stock disparity based on company documents issued each year; their lawyers pointed out an article in the Cincinnati Business Courier from November 1993, which stated that Betsy was to receive “nearly 1,400 shares of company stock,” as proof that the settlement terms were not a secret. Cyndi, Linda, and Judy, however, claim that they thought Betsy merely received $10,000 from the suit, just like they had. When they asked Dennis what Betsy received, he told them “very damn little.” As far as they knew, that was the truth.

The document that launched a thousand court filings came in a manila envelope. It was the sort of mail that was important enough to keep, but not important enough to read. Cyndi’s daughter dropped it off with a hodgepodge of tax documents on Halloween in 2010. Most of it was boring, you-forgot-to-sign-here papers, but as Cyndi’s husband, Terry Roeder, rummaged through, he noticed a document he had never seen before. It was a shareholder list, slipped in by accident, indicating the amount of Griffin Industries stock owned by each family member and illuminating the disparity between brothers and sisters. He immediately showed Cyndi. “I was sickened to see what the shareholders list showed,” Cyndi testified. “Absolutely sickened.” She cried for the next two days, staring at the document, asking how it could have happened. “Nothing made sense.”

Then she started putting the pieces together. Cyndi figured that Betsy’s stock was a result of the suit settled in 1993, but she still couldn’t understand how her brothers had so much more stock (Dennis, Griffy, and Robert owned approximately 90 percent of Griffin Industries shares at that point), or why her nieces and nephews had any stock at all. As far as she understood, stock could not pass down to the third generation. And more important, she believed her father hadn’t wanted that to happen. A few days later, Cyndi met with Judy and Linda, and together they called their brother Robert, seeking some sort of explanation. He and Griffy drove over immediately.

“The only thing Griffy said that whole meeting was, We came in together; we’re going out together,” Cyndi said. “I thought that sounded like the mafia.”

“Both of them said they didn’t have anything to do with this,” Linda testified. “Both of them kept saying Denny did bad shit.” (The defense, representing Griffy and the estate of Dennis—who passed away in April 2015—denied this implication.)

The confusion for Cyndi, Judy, and Linda began to swirl just as Griffin Industries was attempting to complete its merger with Darling International. Tensions reached a boiling point when it was discovered that a Griffin Industries property in Cold Spring was technically owned by the five Griffin sisters. Griffy chalked it up to a clerical mistake, arguing the building was owned by the company. Judy said she didn’t want her and her sisters “getting screwed again,” and the ownership was important because Griffin Industries risked a $30 million penalty if the building wasn’t conveyed to Darling. This lit the powder keg for a meeting on December 6, 2010, that Cyndi referred to in her deposition as D-Day. “D-Day is [when] all hell broke loose,” she said.

Griffy scolded his sisters for destroying the family business. Robert offered them $200,000 each—$1 million total—if they would just sign the necessary papers. Janet, the only one to side with Dennis and Griffy, called out her other sisters. “[Janet] popped up and said to me, ‘You’re greedy,’ and she said to Judy, ‘You’re greedy,’ and she said to Linda, ‘You’re greedy,’” Cyndi recalled.

To which Cyndi said she responded: “Who in the hell do you think you are to come in here and tell me I’m greedy?”

Janet’s argument was that, despite the apparent disparity in stock, it’s not like the sisters were left with nothing over the years. In addition to the more than $250,000 received from their mother’s estate, each daughter received slightly less than $1.5 million from their father’s estate after his death. Cyndi, Judy, Linda, and Janet each still owned about 1.1 percent of the company’s shares as well. According to Kent Wicker, the lawyer representing Cyndi, Judy, and Linda, when a company is sold, its shareholders typically receive a payout proportional to their ownership stake. By that standard, when Griffin Industries sold to Darling International for $840 million in 2010, the sisters should have received about $9 million each. (Wicker would not comment on that specific figure.) That doesn’t even take into account the annual distributions paid out to Griffin shareholders each year, which the sisters had also received.

So yes, the sisters did make plenty of money from their small stake in the family business over the years. But Cyndi, Judy, and Linda now believed they had been deliberately defrauded by Dennis and Griffy, stretching all the way back to the plan hatched at the Drawbridge Inn in 1985, and including the payout from their father’s estate and trust following his death in 1995, as well as profits from two smaller, related Griffin Industries ventures. (Betsy had settled her suit on the stock disparity years ago, but she was part of the claims for those two less-expensive infractions.)

Betsy filed her lawsuit in the United States District Court in Covington on April 27, 2011, asserting six total claims, including breach of fiduciary duty, civil conspiracy, and gross negligence, against Dennis and Griffy, with Robert being named in two of them. Linda, Judy, and Cyndi were slower to pull the trigger, taking time to assess the ramifications of litigating against their kin. “It was extremely difficult,” says Christy Trout, a Louisville-based attorney who, along with Wicker, represents the three sisters. (Betsy is represented by Janet Jakubowicz, another Louisville-based attorney.) The three sisters waited nearly two years to bring a lawsuit, but on March 8, 2013, they filed in the same court as Betsy, levying nine claims against the same parties plus Martom Properties, a company operated by Griffin Industries, including a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (or RICO) Act and fraud claim against Dennis, Griffy, and Robert.

Eventually, the RICO claim was dropped, as were all the claims made against Robert. But in Judge Bertelsman’s findings of fact delivered on March 21, 2016, he ruled in favor of the sisters and concluded that Dennis and Griffy did in fact break their fiduciary duty as trustees of the estate and trust of John L. Griffin, and that the sisters were entitled to receive proper compensation. The brothers were supposed to look out for the best interests of their sisters; instead, they looked out for themselves.

A month later, Bertelsman ordered a judgment of $583,648,135. Kent Wicker described it as “one of the highest ever issued in Kentucky. This is not something you see every day.”

In the end, Judge Bertelsman ruled that the estates of John and Rosellen Griffin were administered incorrectly. As a result, the sisters were entitled to the appropriate shares according the their parents’ respective wills. For this, the judge relied on a financial report by a Louisville-based accountant named John Chilton that was submitted by the plaintiffs. The report found that Dennis, Griffy, Robert, and James received approximately $772 million total from their father’s shares they sold to themselves. In addition, Chilton’s report showed the brothers received just under $200 million from their mother’s estate and the subsequent Darling stock associated with it. The two smaller claims Betsy sued over—which involved stock John L. Griffin owned in a company called Craig Protein and profits from properties leased and sold through Martom—were worth about $31 million. Once you account for interest and divide it evenly, Betsy was awarded $12,315,322 (her settlement in the 1993 suit accounted for stock ownership), plus any additional interest accrued after the judgment. Cyndi, Linda, and Judy were each awarded $190,444,271, plus any additional interest. Whether or not they actually see any of that money is still to be determined.

In addition to arguing that the figures calculated by Chilton, whom Joe Callow sarcastically referred to as “the human calculator” in court, are incorrect, the defense claims Dennis’s estate and Griffy don’t have anywhere near that kind of money. For now, the parties have entered into an agreement that will pay a total of $7,930,000 and transfer ownership of 11 different properties (including Griffy’s home in Villa Hills) and 24 cars (including 10 Camaros, two Porsches, two Corvettes, and a Hummer) to the plaintiffs if the defendants lose their appeal. Those assets only put a tiny dent into what Dennis’s estate and Griffy owe, though. Asked if they expect to actually recover all of that money, Kent Wicker responded, “We expect to recover every penny of the judgment.”

The case concluded its five-year period in the United States District Court in July; the defense officially appealed Judge Bertelsman’s ruling in early August. It could take another 6 to 18 months before that case is heard, and if the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rules in favor of the defense, the case could be remanded to a different court and tried all over again.

In the years following the lawsuits, the relationship between the siblings completely disintegrated. On birthdays, Dennis used to send a dozen mixed roses to his sisters and sign the note, “Love, Your Brothers.” At one point in the midst of the trial, he wound up telling them in the courtroom, “I’m going to get you sisters.” When he died in 2015 at the age of 72, Betsy, Cyndi, Linda, and Judy did not attend his funeral.

In the 1993 book on the family’s legacy, Dennis wrote, “Maybe siblings remain children in some ways throughout their lives.” That seems like one point no one could argue.

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