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The Speakes Family Battle Goes South

Larry Speakes, press secretary for President Ronald Reagan, at work in 1985. (Fred Sweets/The Washington Post)

Aleta and Larry Speakes at Nationals Park on March 30, 2008. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Larry Speakes had one of those classic Washington careers. A small-town guy with a Mississippi drawl who was promoted amid crisis into a top White House job, he served longer than any other press secretary of the past half-century, wrote a controversial memoir -- then receded into quiet corporate life.

Now 69 and suffering the effects of Alzheimer's disease, the veteran Reagan aide is at the center of a bitter family feud. His third wife is battling two of his children from an earlier marriage over who should oversee his estate and take responsibility for his care -- one side slinging allegations of abduction, the other side claiming neglect.

Yesterday, the two sides faced off in a Cleveland, Miss., courtroom, where his wife of eight years, Aleta Sindelar Speakes of Bethesda, sought to overturn the conservatorship a judge granted last year to Larry Speakes's daughter, Sondra Speakes Huerta. Not in court: Speakes, who now lives in a nearby assisted-living home -- not far from his daughter, and 1,000 miles away from his wife. His children, their lawyer Jamie Jacks told us, decided "it was not necessary for him to be present."

A newspaperman in his native Mississippi, Speakes migrated north in the late 1960s to work on Capitol Hill, and later in Richard Nixon's White House press office. He returned with Ronald Reagan as a deputy in Jim Brady's press shop. When Brady was gravely injured in the presidential assassination attempt, Speakes was launched into the top job.

Relations between the press and White House grew contentious during the Reagan era -- "You don't tell us how to stage the news, and we don't tell you how to cover it," Speakes famously snapped at reporters -- but he endured in the job for nearly six years. His tell-all book, in which he copped to making up quotes for the president, lost him a cushy Wall Street job. He ended up back in Washington in a marketing job with the U.S. Postal Service.

Along the way, he raised three children and divorced twice. In 2001, he married Sindelar, 57, a registered nurse who works as an executive secretary at the FDA. The couple established an unconventional living arrangement: Sindelar living in Bethesda while Speakes kept a condo in Arlington. In court records obtained by the Reliable Source, she later explained that it was so he could be closer to his job during the week, but said they talked regularly and spent weekends together.

Last July, Speakes's son Scott picked up his father in Arlington, drove him to Scott's Atlanta home, and then to his sister's place in Cleveland, Miss. The Speakes children would later state in court that Scott was appalled by the state of his father's solo living conditions. "It was very clear that his daddy's mental capacity was diminished," Jacks said. In August, a Mississippi judge granted the daughter conservatorship.

From here, it gets messy. Sindelar claims her husband was wrongly abducted and that she's been prevented from communicating with him. The Speakes children say they are just looking after his welfare.

Sindelar argues that her husband signed power of attorney over to her in February 2008, shortly after a doctor gave him a diagnosis of early dementia. But Huerta insists her father was in no condition to make such a decision, and that the children had not been notified of his diagnosis.

Sindelar went to court yesterday to claim that a former lawyer had misrepresented her wishes in last summer's hearings and that the courts should have appointed an independent guardian ad litem to advocate for Larry Speakes. Another point of contention: whether Mississippi courts had rightful jurisdiction over a man who had lived in Virginia most of the last 40 years. We asked Jacks. "At that point," she said, "his residence was Mississippi."

The children also claim their father had long been separated from his wife, which she denies. Among the evidence Sindelar's team presented in court yesterday: a photo of the two posing with George and Laura Bush at a White House Christmas party, two months before his diagnosis.

By The Reliable Source  |  July 17, 2009; 1:04 AM ET
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Larry Speakes was my best friend in college and we have remained close all of these years. He is being well cared for by a loving family in Mississippi where he belongs.

Posted by: edmeek1 | July 18, 2009 8:10 AM | Report abuse

What usually happens when there is a dispute within the family is the judge will bring in a third-party conservator instead of family -- and then everybody loses.

Contested conservatorships are feasts for lawyers and conservators, who bill the Ward for the litigation caused by family trying to protect their loved one.

NASGA is an organization of victims and families working to expose and end unlawful and abusive conservatorships - a growing national epidemic.

Please visit NASGA's website at & blog at

Forewarned is forearmed!

Elaine Renoire

Posted by: ElaineRenoire | July 18, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

In regard to Larry Speakes' self- described best friend from college: Why would the insights of someone who knew Larry 40 some years ago in college be dispositve of anything? Under whose wacky jurisdiction is it OK to take a vote on a marriage and kidnap a spouse?

Having said that, as one of many friends of the couple, I can attest to the fact that Aleta had taken Larry to NIH and Johns Hopkins in regard to his diagnosis and enrolled him in an innovative program in Bethesda designed to slow the progress of the disease. She has been frantic since his abduction,misses him sorely and is concerned that the totally unfamiliar and inappropriaate surroundings which have been thrust upon him will lead to escalating decompensation.

There is no way to describe what has happened to this loving couple as anything other that a criminal act, insult added to injury.


Elizabeth Garrett Upton

Posted by: poliwonk | July 19, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

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