Sheila White, 46, doesn’t work, has never earned more than $10 an hour and has been married six times. So when her 81-year-old boyfriend, former Metro Council member Vic Varallo, gave her half interest in his Hermitage home and several other pieces of property, valued at more than $500,000, his family and friends balked, calling her a gold digger and questioning Varallo’s state of mind.
“She just took over everything he’s got,” says Maxie Hatcher, a retired truck driver who has been friends with Varallo for over 30 years. “If I felt like he was himself, I wouldn’t worry about it, but I don’t think that he is.”
Now Varallo is involved in two messy and intertwined lawsuits that have pitted him against family and friends who have known him for decades. One petition seeks to remove a conservator that a judge appointed last year while the other claims that White exercised “undue influence” over Varallo when he added her name to his real estate holdings.
“I love Vic Varallo. I take care of Vic Varallo,” says White, who adds that she had no part in convincing Varallo to give her interest in his holdings. “I don’t plan to leave this man. And all this stuff that was said about me being married all these times, he knew about it.”
That doesn’t matter, according to people close to Varallo. They claim that she’s exploiting an aging man, manipulating him into giving her expensive gifts and ownership rights while isolating him from his friends and family.
“We’ll go up to him and say, 'Vic, we love you,’ and he’ll say, 'I’m not supposed to be talking to you,’ ” says his sister Teresa Freeman. “We’re a very close family. It’s like a bad dream.”
A former World War II fighter pilot, who in a varied and colorful life also was a teacher, coach and water-skiing champion, Varallo was arguably Metro’s most popular council member during his two terms in office from 1991 to 1999. He never married but rarely lacked female companionship and had all sorts of friendsblack and white, young and old, people in power and those on the margins. A classic, ribbon-cutting politician who seemed to grace every political function, Varallo was also a tireless advocate for the elderly while serving in the council.
“He knew everybody,” says former council member Phil Ponder, who adds that he can no longer get in touch with Varallo. “Either he coached them in school or dated them. He was always so warmly welcomed by everybody.”
In 1999, a mutual friend introduced White and Varallo, triggering a bizarre, on-again, off-again romance with dramatic, soap opera-like plotlines. At the time she met Varallo, White was coming off an abusive relationship with her fourth husband, former Metro police officer Jeff Livers. A police investigation uncovered evidence that he beat her, and he resigned shortly before he was scheduled to take a polygraph test. In April 2000, she moved in with Varallo at his Hermitage condominium. “He provided me with a place that I call my safe haven because I was married to a Metro police officer who tried to kill me,” she later testified in deposition.
The relationship, she said, was largely but not entirelyplatonic. She had her own bedroom and bathroom. Shortly after, she moved out and married her fifth husband, Michael Singleton. They soon divorced, got married and divorced again, this time just months later. In between her brief marriages to Singleton, she lived with Varallo. By Christmas, the then-separated White was back living with her 81-year-old boyfriend at their new home in Cottonwood in Sumner County.
Interestingly, Varallo and White had jointly bought the property in late spring 2002, shortly after she married Singleton for the second time.
Now Varallo and White are engaged. In addition to transferring interest in his real estate to her, Varallo has also bought White diamond earrings, a diamond tennis bracelet and a Greek bracelet, and helped her pay for a Jeep Cherokee, according to her deposition.
On October 2002, Davidson County Probate Judge Frank Clement appointed attorney George Cate as conservator for Varallo after his sister filed a petition saying that the former council member was no longer able to handle his own finances. A court-ordered medical evaluation determined that Varallo has chronic memory problems. A month later, Cate, a former Metro vice mayor and longtime friend of Varallo’s, sued White, claiming that she manipulated Varallo into executing quitclaim deeds that gave her co-ownership of several properties, including his condominium in Hermitage. All the while he was adding her name to his property holdings, she was married to Michael Singleton for the second time. Cate’s lawsuit asked the court to order White to transfer her interest in properties back to Varallo.
That case is on hold until a judge rules on Varallo’s own petition seeking to terminate the conservatorship and handle his own business. In that petition, Varallo’s lawyers include a medical statement saying that, while Varallo shows some signs of early dementia, he is “not incompetent to manage his own affairs.”
In her answer to Cate’s lawsuit, White retorts that Varallo acted “under his own free will.” Varallo, she counters, was fully competent at the time he added her name to his property interests. In a deposition, she conceded that she didn’t buy the interest in Varallo’s properties, that he gave them to her out of love and affection. “He chose to do this under his own volition, and he has a right to convey his property to anyone, especially to someone whom he intends to marry,” her attorney Paul Housch says.
He couldn’t have intended to wed her at the time he signed over property interest, Cate counters. “At the time those transfers were made, it would have been impossible for Vic to marry her because she was married to another man,” he says.
Friends and relatives of the former Metro Council member insist that White has Varallo under some sort of spell. “Nothing is more important to Vic than his family,” says Mike Lovelace, whom Varallo taught to water-ski. “For her to cause a rift, there is really something.”
Lovelace, who has known Varallo for more than 25 years, says that he doubts that White and his friend are romantically attached. He had spent some time with the couple before he lost touch. “I’ve seen Vic with probably 40 girls over the years. Sheila acted like she was with him, but it was more like he was her uncle or father. She was affectionate toward himshe didn’t ignore him and she wasn’t meanbut it wasn’t like it was when he was with some of his other girlfriends.”
White theorizes that some of Varallo’s friends and relatives are jealous of her, though she doesn’t explain why. She concedes that she doesn’t work, and says that she’s able to live off a settlement from a motorcycle accident a few years earlier. “I’m not a big spender,” she says. As far as the claim that she’s isolating him, she says, “It’s his choice who to talk to.”
Former Metro Council member Earl Campbell, who was a student at East High School when Varallo was a teacher, still keeps up with Varallo, unlike many of Varallo’s other friends. “He told me it’s his money, he can give it to whomever he wants to,” Campbell says. “He’s a friend of mine, and I hate for all this to happen. It’s a tough one to call.”
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