Two former best friends meet in court

John DeNardis was one of New London's first hipsters, back before there was anything very cool or artsy about the city.

DeNardis, who is now 60 years old and living in Croatia, once owned the El 'n' Gee nightclub and was credited with transforming it into a music powerhouse from a dim downtown bar that used to cater mostly to old drunks.

He was a co-founder of the original Hygienic Art Show and was a prominent mural painter here long before the city acquired what is now known as its arts scene.

For a while, the city even let him use part of the Capitol Theater on Bank Street as a studio.

Even during his later years in New London, DeNardis was making headlines, creating big sculptural elements in his studio here for installation in the Christmas windows of Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and FAO Schwarz in New York.

Looking him up in The Day's yellowing clip files this week, after he emailed the newspaper to say he would be in town, I found a picture of DeNardis, once a familiar face downtown.

In the photograph in the 1997 clipping, he was perched on a stepladder on Bank Street, wearing his trademark combat boots, using a screw gun to attach an orange ornament to a giant 17-foot Dr. Seuss, lollipop green Christmas tree destined for Macy's window.

DeNardis wrote the newspaper last week to report on what he thought readers might find to be an interesting story about a six-year-old lawsuit that is coming to trial, a final falling out between two men who were once best friends.

I know the whole story now, and, he's right. It is interesting, and sad.

DeNardis said it's sad, too, in that he is suing a best friend of 35 years, the best man at his wedding. He said, when I met up with him outside the Huntington Street courthouse in New London, that he's finished with the tears and was trying to enjoy stoically the experience of the trial, which he said he might as well enjoy because it's costing him a lot of money.

Jury selection began Wednesday. Testimony is supposed to begin next week.

The basis of the disagreement seems to be pretty straightforward.

I should note that my account of the dispute comes from court records and DeNardis and his lawyer, Michael A. Hardesty.

Attorney Adam Laben, who is representing Mark Spery of Waterford, DeNardis' old friend, told me that he and his client did not want to comment, saying it might influence the jury.

DeNardis, it seems, acquired a piece of property on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands many years ago.

He told me he likes to think of his original purchase, for $50,000, as "liberating" the land, making it an artist's retreat.

He eventually made it habitable, building a shack and a deck, with a water cistern for showers. He visited a lot, did his art work there and eventually bought a Jeep to get around the island.

In the summer of 1993, DeNardis says, he was having some financial problems, and was worried about losing a building he owned in New London to foreclosure and his truck to repossession. Creditors were after him.

He decided to ask Spery, a friend so close they ate breakfast together almost every day at the old Royal Diner on Broad Street in New London, to put the St. John land in his name, for safekeeping.

DeNardis said he was embarrassed to ask his parents. He says he knows now it was a mistake to put the land in his best friend's name and he probably looks stupid for having done it.

DeNardis and Spery had some disputes over the years about payment of taxes on the land, but DeNardis claims that, in the end, he paid all the taxes and reimbursed Spery for everything he spent.

He said he also offered Spery $5,000 extra for his troubles, when he began asking to have title to the land put back in his name. His old friend refused and, learning the property might be worth as much as $486,000, according to island tax authorities, asked for another $50,000 in return for the property, DeNardis said.

The property was more recently appraised for less than $150,000, he added.

DeNardis said he wants it back because he doesn't have much else in the way of assets and he wants to leave it to his three children.

"It's my nest egg," he said.

It looks now like the dispute between these old friends will have to be decided by a group of strangers in a jury, which will be charged with deciding who is telling the truth.

When I chatted with DeNardis outside the courthouse Wednesday, he started reminiscing about what a good friendship he and Spery once had.

He recalled a cold trip they once made in an open Jeep to Maine, where they worked on an old boat Spery had bought.

He said it was like they were "joined at the hip."

DeNardis said he has some ideas, but he still doesn't know what went wrong with the friendship.

"I can't understand. It's some deep-rooted thing," he said. "I love the guy."

It is an interesting story, but sad.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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