Sean behind the register at Staples in Santa Monica.
Life can change in an instant. Sometimes it's the result of a chance encounter, or the reading of a letter discovered at the bottom of a jewelry box; sometimes it comes with the turning of a key, or the opening of a chest tucked deep in a closet. And sometimes it happens over office supplies.
In late November of 2008, an attorney named Brian Kramer was wandering the aisles at a Staples in Santa Monica. Preparing to open his own law office, he needed, among other things, a fax machine. The clerk who helped him, a 6'4" black man in his mid-20s, was friendly—"a gentle giant, a positive person," says Brian, himself a bearish 6'2"—and well informed about the relative merits of the equipment for sale. Brian appreciated the clerk's low-key approach: "He wasn't trying to hard-sell me. It wasn't like, 'Let's get a fax machine out the door today.'" The clerk's name was Sean Sessums Means.
Sean asked what sort of work Brian did, the better to determine the kind of machine that would suit his needs. And when Brian explained that he specialized in family law, Sean showed a keen interest; apparently he had a legal matter he wished to pursue. Brian was intrigued—particularly when he glanced at Sean's ring finger and saw nothing there. In his experience, anyone inquiring about family law and how it works is thinking about getting a divorce.
Nervously, almost on a whim, Sean asked Brian if he might be willing to hang around for 20 minutes until Sean could take his scheduled break, as he had something in his car he'd like to share with the lawyer. Brian was deeply skeptical. But the kid had been so helpful and nice; it was evening, and he had nowhere in particular he needed to be. Even so… "Why I followed him down into a subterranean parking lot to his Jetta, I'll never know," Brian says now.
Once they reached the car, Sean opened the trunk to reveal a sight that did little to allay Brian's skepticism: several Hefty bags filled with personal items, including photographs and paintings. Sean plowed through the mess and came up with a crumpled piece of paper—a copy of a trust document bearing the name of Doris Duke, the eccentric heiress to the formidable Duke dynasty, the force behind the American Tobacco Company, Duke University, and a sprawling philanthropy. Sean turned to Brian and asked tentatively, "Do you know who Doris Duke is? I think I'm related to her."
Brian deflated. A savvy lawyer 15 years in the business who's had a number of celebrity clients, he isn't the sort to be duped by a con man trying to pass himself off as the scion of a prominent family. And yet he didn't dismiss Sean outright. The situation was just weird enough to be intriguing: Why would this $9.50-an-hour Staples clerk be fixating on Doris Duke? What could be his connection to the onetime "richest girl in the world," who was famously partial to belly dancing and Indian mystics, and reportedly tended to by a staff of 200 before she died in 1993? Implausible as it might seem, was there anything to Sean Means's claim—which, if proven true, would entitle him to payments from the renowned Doris Duke Trust, thought to be valued in the tens of millions of dollars?
Brian left the door open. "I said, 'Look, Sean, here's my card. If you can get this organized, come see me.'"
Two weeks later, Sean delivered a neat stack of documents to Brian's West Los Angeles office. Included were Sean's birth certificate naming a John ("Jack") Sessums Means as his father (though not signed by him), a blank affidavit from the Doris Duke Trust addressed to the same Jack, and Jack's last will and testament naming Sean as his son. Brian knew the documents proved nothing; they could easily have been faked.
Sean had arrived with his mother, Karen Rich, who, at 47, is delicate, small-boned, a stunner. In 2002, under the guidance of another lawyer, they had made a flawed attempt to establish Sean as a Duke beneficiary; this was their second try. Brian asked Karen to tell him everything she could about Sean's father. And so, in emotional, meandering fashion, she did:
Karen was barely 18 and a teller at a Bank of America in Venice, California, when she met Jack, a drummer who played gigs with local bands. She remembers him as "charming and artistic and intelligent, with the most beautiful smile and dimples." Despite their striking differences, there were also similarities. As Karen puts it, "I'm from an old black Southern family. And Jack was from an old white Southern family." They also shared a love of music. Karen had attended the progressive Sequoyah School in Pasadena, California, which, as she sees it, catered to "crazy, rich, white kids who studied Greek mythology and rode horses every Friday."