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PHOTO BY RICK E. MARTIN 4/9/02 Thomas Kinkade with one of his paintings in the background. The headline explains much of the story. Kinkade, a los Gatos resident, is a national phenomena, selling millions of limited edition prints of his work. With a talent for art since he was a child, Kinkade left an impoverished home in Placerville for an art scholarship at UC Berkeley, where he experienced a religious awakening that prompted him to drop out and begin to create the bland but soothing images for which he has become rich and famous.

The other woman at the center of the battle over world-famous artist Thomas Kinkade's estate appeared in court this morning, ready to fight for what she considers her fair share of his fortune.

Amy Pinto-Walsh, a petite woman with long dark hair, has produced barely legible, handwritten notes she claims Kinkade wrote, giving her the keys to his Monte Sereno mansion and $10 million to establish a museum of his original paintings there.

In documents obtained by this newspaper, Pinto-Walsh -- who began dating Kinkade six months after he separated from his wife, Nanette -- also seeks to administer $66.3 million from Kinkade's estate. That figure appears to include tens of millions of dollars worth of Kinkade's original artwork as well as other notable paintings he collected and hung in his home.

On Tuesday, Judge Leslie Nichols heard arguments but failed to rule on whether the contested will should be decided in secret binding arbitration, as Kinkade's wife and company want, or whether it should be heard in open court as Pinto-Walsh favors.

Lawyers for the Kinkade estate argued that because Pinto-Walsh signed a confidentiality agreement in February last year, all disputes should be arbitrated by a three-judge panel in a private setting. But Douglas Dal Cielo, representing Pinto-Walsh, said that contract is void because she was never an employee, despite Kinkade's attempts to make her one.


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"The reason this is important is because of the underdog," Dal Cielo argued this morning. He accused Kinkade's estate lawyers of damaging her reputation by filing a restraining order that essentially called her a gold digger, then restricting her from clearing her name in public.

"They used the courts," Dal Cielo said, then "subjected her to confidentiality.''

Throughout the hearing, Pinto-Walsh clutched a heavy silver pendant in the form of what appeared to be a dragon. After the hearing, she declined a request for an interview and wouldn't explain the symbolism of the pendant. But Pinto-Walsh, who is of Indian descent and raised in Kuwait, held the dragon in front of her throughout the hearing, as though it had special spiritual or sentimental value.

The two handwritten letters, which allegedly leave his grand home called Ivy Gate and $10 million to Pinto-Walsh, showed none of the precision of the painter's brush strokes.

Scrawled on notepaper complete with scratch outs and later transcribed by Pinto-Walsh's lawyers, one is dated Nov. 18, 2011, and the other Dec. 11, 2011. The first says that "I, Thomas Kinkade, being of sound mind and body do hereby bequeath to Amy Pinto Walsh $10,000,000 in cash from my corporate policy and I give her the house at 16324 and 16342 Ridgecrest Avenue for her security."

The second note appears to slightly amend the first letter, specifying that along with the house, Pinto-Walsh should be given $10 million to establish the "Thomas Kinkade Museum" at the house "for the public display in perpetuity of original art."

Both are signed, but are not legible. Signatures on his marriage separation papers 18 months earlier are much more clear.

Nanette Kinkade, who was married to the artist for 30 years and has four daughters, has been fighting Pinto-Walsh every step of the way, claiming in court documents that the girlfriend was a gold-digger intent on fleecing the estate.

Pinto-Walsh, however, said in a court filing obtained Monday that though she and Kinkade had their troubles, they were in love and planned to wed in Fiji as soon as Kinkade's separation and ultimate divorce were finalized.

They had even shopped for an engagement ring, she said.

"Amy and Thomas were deeply in love," according to new documents filed by Pinto-Walsh's lawyers. "They both believed that fate brought them together to help each other through the difficult times they both encountered as well as to share their dreams of a life together."

The new revelations come two months after Pinto-Walsh found Kinkade, 54, dead in his bed in the home they shared on Ridgecrest Avenue the morning of April 6. They began dating about 18 months before his death.

He was known as the "Painter of Light" for his paintings and reproductions of candlelit-cottages and Christian-inspired pastoral images. But Kinkade's personal life over the past few years had descended into drunken bouts often witnessed along the bar circuit of downtown Los Gatos. The coroner's report said Kinkade died of a "lethal level of alcohol" after a night of heavy drinking and popping Valium.

Nanette Kinkade and the artist's Windermere Holdings want to move part of the conflict into a private arbitration hearing. Pinto-Walsh opposes that petition, instead seeking her day in open court to clear her name and restore her reputation.

A hearing on the arbitration matter is under way this morning in Santa Clara County Superior Court.

A separate hearing is set for July 2 in probate court to review the handwritten letters.

Lawyers for Nanette Kinkade assert that she, not Pinto-Walsh, is the executor of Kinkade's will and trust.

Pinto-Walsh's San Jose lawyer, Sonia Agee, said Monday that her client is not seeking to administer the entire estate, just the parts alluded to in the handwritten notes. "We're asking the court whether those instructions should be carried out," Agee said.

Tensions between the two women have been high from the start. Not only did Nanette Kinkade block her husband from hiring Pinto-Walsh as an employee last year, but when Kinkade died in April, Pinto-Walsh was banned from Kinkade's private funeral. She sought a restraining order against Pinto-Walsh shortly after Kinkade's death to prohibit her from speaking to the media.

In court papers, Pinto-Walsh also disputes the characterization of a visit from Ken and Linda Raasch, early partners of Kinkade and godparents to his four daughters, on the morning of Kinkade's death.

While Linda Raasch said in court documents that she went to the house "to express her condolences to the Kinkade family," Pinto-Walsh asserts that Raasch was on a mission to kick Pinto-Walsh out of the Monte Sereno home.

"Linda actually came to the residence to force me to pack up my belongings and move out of the residence within hours of Thomas' passing," Pinto-Walsh said in court files obtained Monday by this newspaper.

Pinto-Walsh had been given power of attorney over medical issues related to Kinkade, including disposal of his remains in the event of his death, she said in court documents, but the Raasches didn't honor that.

A call to the Raasch household was not returned Monday afternoon.

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.

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WHAT THE WRITING SAYs
I, Thomas Kinkade, being of sound mind and body do hereby bequeath to Amy Pinto Walsh $10,000,000 in cash from my corporate policy and I give her the house at 16324 and 16342 Ridgecrest Avenue for her security.
Thomas Kinkade
Nov. 18, 2011
Online: Read all the handwritten notes at www.mercurynews.com/extra.