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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Elvis Memorabilia Stays With Collector’s Nurse

(CN) - The former president of Elvis Presley's fan club, a disabled man and personal friend of Presley's, gave his large Elvis memorabilia collection to his nurse and fellow Elvis fan, the 8th Circuit ruled, rejecting a challenge by the collector's family.

Sterling Gary Pepper, Jr., the former president of Elvis Presley's fan club, owned an extensive collection of Presley memorabilia given to him by "The King" himself. Among the keepsakes Presley gave Pepper were a gold jumpsuit, a lock of hair, a 1957 Chevy, and autographed photos of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, according to a complaint filed by Pepper's heirs.

During his life, Presley paid Pepper for maintaining the fan club and also asked his friend Carl Nichols to find a nurse to look after Pepper, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Nichols approached devoted Elvis fan and nurse Nancy Pease Whitehead, who immediately took the job - although it was unpaid - and eventually moved into Pepper's home abutting Graceland's backyard.

Pepper and Nancy were both devoted Elvis fans, made daily pilgrimages to Graceland, attended Elvis concerts, and spent their free time together.

But hard times fell when Presley died in 1977. Nancy testified that Memphis "changed within a few days" and she wanted to leave the city, but did not want to leave Pepper. And Presley's estate soon stopped paying Pepper a stipend, forcing him to move into a nursing home in 1978.

When Pepper moved, he told Nancy to "keep it," referring to his collection, and he died two years later. Nancy and her sister kept the collection for 30 years until 2009 when the Pease family put it up for auction, raising more than $250,000.

But Pepper's heirs filed suit, alleging that Nancy stole the items and removed them without Pepper's consent.

After a four-day trial, a jury ruled that Gary had given the memorabilia to Nancy as a conditional gift, made irrevocable by his death, and the Pease family was rightfully entitled to the proceeds of the auction.

Nancy testified that she never believed she owned any of the items while Pepper was alive, but believed "I owned the responsibility for the collection after he passed away."

The 8th Circuit affirmed the jury's decision Monday.

"The evidence of Gary and Nancy's relationship supports the jury's finding of a conditional gift. Gary and Nancy shared a passion for Elvis, and Gary considered Nancy to be his nurse and his friend. The jurors heard testimony about the care Nancy had provided, read notes that Gary had written to Nancy, and saw photographs of the two spending time together," Judge Roger Wollman wrote for the three-judge panel.

Nancy also testified that Pepper told her he did not want his relatives, who were not close to him during his life and were not Elvis fans, to have the collection - and did not even tell them he owed it.

"Given this evidence, a reasonable jury could find that Gary wanted the collection to be owned and maintained by a friend who shared his love of Elvis, who had taken care of him and his mother for years, who recognized the significance of the collection, and who would keep the collection unless and until he asked her to return it," the 10-page opinion concluded.

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