To hear Donnie McLaurin Jr. tell it, the story is almost magical.
He says Gail Harrison, childless and unmarried, befriended him while he was growing up in Brewerytown. She took him in while his dad was in prison. She was like his stepmother. He called her “Mom.”
True, he missed her funeral, but he felt close enough to rummage through her house uninvited after she died in 2011. There, he says, he found something amazing.
“I ended up coming across this paperwork and the will,” he said.
Dated when McLaurin was just 14, the will named him her heir, putting him in line to inherit her newly valuable home in a quickly gentrifying North Philadelphia neighborhood.
Neighbors and friends of Harrison have another word for McLaurin’s story. They say it’s fiction.
They scoff at the idea that Harrison, a recluse struggling with mental illness, had any relationship with Donnie McLaurin. They say they called the police when, after Harrison’s death, they saw McLaurin crawl through a window and take bag after bag of belongings out of her house. His father, Donnie McLaurin Sr., was there too, in their telling. And they say the father yelled to his son at one point: “You find the money yet?”
As for the will, McLaurin Jr. filed it with the city four years after Harrison’s death. Harrison’s signature appears forged, according to a handwriting expert. So does the signature of the will’s notary. The notary’s stamp appears fake as well. It bears a date when the notary wasn’t in business.
Philadelphia Register of Wills Ronald Donatucci’s office in 2017 accepted McLaurin’s claim as Harrison’s heir. Upon review, Donatucci now says, the will appears to be a counterfeit.
Harrison died alone at age 59 of heat stress during a heat wave. Her obituary, written by her family, makes no mention of McLaurin Jr., citing only her brother, his wife, and their son, Devin. Neighbors said Harrison was close to Devin and talked of leaving her house to him.