Melvin Powers; cleared in ’64 Mossler slaying

Melvin Powers looked at Candace Mossler after they were acquitted in her husband’s killing. Melvin Powers looked at Candace Mossler after they were acquitted in her husband’s killing. (United Press International/File 1966)
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / October 23, 2010

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NEW YORK — Candy and Mel. She, the stylishly coifed Houston socialite with the little-girl voice. He, her nephew, half her age and movie-star handsome. In the mid-1960s, Candace Mossler and Melvin Lane Powers may have been the nation’s most notorious couple.

In March 1966, in what many consider one of the most spectacular homicide trials ever, the two were acquitted in the stabbing and clubbing death of Mossler’s husband, Jacques, in Key Biscayne, Fla., two years earlier. The prosecution said the couple were lovers hoping to get Jacques Mossler’s $33 million fortune.

Candace Mossler was said to have plotted the killing, with Mr. Powers doing the dirty work.

Mr. Powers was found dead at his home in Houston on Oct. 8, his niece Debra Powers Myers said. He was 68. The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences said the cause of death remained undetermined.

The Mossler-Powers trial was so lurid that the judge allowed no spectator under 21. The star performer was the legendary lawyer Percy Foreman, who persuaded a jury to overlook clear motive, bloodstains, palm prints, fingerprints, and love letters.

Foreman did it by poking holes in circumstantial evidence and impugning witnesses. He theorized that Jacques Mossler was killed by a jealous male lover.

The courtroom carnival ended with Mr. Powers and Candace Mossler kissing on the lips and driving off in a gold Cadillac.

The two drifted apart after living together for a year or two in the Mossler mansion, outside Houston.

Candace Mossler, in 1971, married Barnett Garrison when she was 51 and he was 32. He suffered brain damage the next year in a mysterious fall from the mansion’s balcony. They later divorced.

Candace Mossler died at 55 of an overdose of medication in 1976. Mr. Powers attended her funeral accompanied by “an attractive blonde,’’ many newspapers said. By then, he had become a flamboyant real estate developer in Houston, favoring ostrich- and alligator-skin cowboy boots, owning an immense yacht, and bobbing between riches and bankruptcy.

Melvin Powers, who never married, was born in 1942 in Birmingham, Ala. After high school, he sold magazine subscriptions, was in the Navy, and moved to Pontiac, Mich., where he served 90 days in jail for swindling. He was still on probation when he moved to Houston in 1961.

His mother, Candace Mossler’s sister, urged him to look up her sister, who she thought might help straighten him out. Candace Mossler invited the strapping young man to live with her, her husband, and their four adopted children. Jacques Mossler, who owned banks and loan companies, gave him a job.

Evidence, including photographs and love letters, indicated that a romance between Mr. Powers and his aunt had begun by the spring of 1962. Jacques Mossler discovered the affair, evicted Mr. Powers in October 1963, and moved to his condominium in Key Biscayne, one of his six residences. He left his wife in the Houston mansion and gave her $5,000 a week for its upkeep. He was said to have considered suing Mr. Powers for breaking up his home but decided against it, fearing publicity.

Divorce was unappealing, because a 1948 prenuptial agreement required Jacques Mossler to give his wife half of his fortune if he divorced her. She would get only $200,000 if she divorced him. Of course, if he died while still married, she would get everything — which is what happened.

Tensions mounted. Employees of Mr. Powers at the mobile home business his aunt had helped him buy testified that he had mentioned killing Jacques Mossler.

Jacques Mossler wrote in his own diary, “If Mel and Candace don’t kill me first, I’ll have to kill them.’’

Jacques Mossler was killed on June 30, 1964, stabbed 39 times and bludgeoned on the head. His wife found his body wrapped in an orange blanket when she returned from a hospital where prosecutors said she had gone to establish an alibi.

It was unclear why she had gone to Florida a month before the killing. Mr. Powers was arrested in Houston three days after the killing.

After the not guilty verdict, the police never sought other suspects.

Mr. Powers got his start in the real estate business by scraping together $2,000 to buy a run-down Houston building and selling it less than a year later for $110,000. By 1979 he was worth $200 million.

His triumph was Arena Place, a complex with two office towers and a theater. Completed in 1981, it was an early high-rise development outside central Houston.

His most famous maneuver occurred in the mid-1980s, when he fended off creditors trying to seize one of the towers. Atop the building was his 20,000-square-foot penthouse with a 360-degree view of Houston, a rooftop swimming pool, and a helipad.

Mr. Powers had the tower declared a homestead under a Texas law meant to protect farmers. “Home free,’’ said a pointed headline in Forbes magazine.

Mr. Powers also drew attention in the early 1980s by adding 23 feet to his 142-foot yacht, said to be one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere. He cut it in half and put in a new midsection with a whirlpool, viewing ports, and a mirrored ceiling.

But the oil boom that had lifted Mr. Powers was already turning into a bust. He was forced into bankruptcy in 1983.

He climbed back. In recent years, he focused on housing, particularly mobile homes and town houses. Other ventures included financial services, a tile company, oil, and cement.

In his later years, Mr. Powers slipped into semiobscurity, neither celebrity defendant nor swashbuckling tycoon. In 1995, when he applied to build a trailer park in Katy, Texas, the City Council rejected it as unsuitable, even though mobile home parks surrounded the proposed site.

When Mr. Powers tried to turn on his celebrated charm, a councilman slapped him down.

“I’m not Don, I’m Councilman Rao,’’ he said. “And I don’t know who you are.’’