Nichelle Nichols, the iconic actress who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on “Star Trek: The Original Series,” has been at the center of a complicated legal battle over control of her personal life and estate for several years.
In 2013 the actress was diagnosed with dementia. Her manager and friend Gilbert Bell, who lived in the guest house on her property, took on the role of caretaker as well. Nichols’ only son, Kyle Johnson, lived in New Mexico and was not available to take on such a hands-on role, though he visited when he could. So, Bell arranged for Nichols’ medical care and helped her with day-to-day tasks, such as cooking meals, in addition to managing her career and finances.
According to a Los Angeles Times feature in August 2021, Johnson filed for conservatorship in 2018 after finding out that Bell had been given power of attorney over Nichols. Johnson believed that Bell was taking advantage of his mother’s vulnerable state. He alleged that Bell was stealing from Nichols, forcing her to work when she wasn’t well so he could get commissions from her appearances, and trying to gain control of her lucrative estate.
Bell denied all the allegations and claimed that Nichols was opposed to the conservatorship. He formally objected to Johnson becoming Nichols’ conservator when the case was in the court system. However, the conservatorship was granted in September of 2018, as reported by Our Weekly Los Angeles. That ruling gave Johnson control over Nichols’ personal life, medical care, career and money.
In 2019, Bell released a video to the local CBS station in which Nichols could be heard saying that she “didn’t give permission to have conservatorship over me.” Right after that statement, she said that she was unaware that her son was trying to gain control over her life and finances.
The release of this video exacerbated the already ongoing legal battle between Bell and Johnson on behalf of his mother’s estate. Bell filed a suit against Johnson in August 2020 alleging harassment and assault. Johnson countersued, accusing Bell of committing elder abuse by defrauding his mother. Bell also sued Nichols’ estate, claiming that he was owed back fees for services he provided Nichols as her manager. The legal proceedings are still ongoing.
In an exclusive interview with Heavy in September 2021, Bell spoke frankly about the situation.
Bell’s Friendship With Nichols
Bell said that he met Nichols around 2008 or 2009, about 10 years before her son took over as the conservator of her person and her estate. A mutual friend in the television industry introduced them. He knew that Bell wanted Nichols to work on a project of his called “Noah’s Room.” So, they had lunch at what Bell said was Nichols’ favorite restaurant, P.F. Chang’s.
Bell said that they hit it off and exchanged numbers so they could work on the project. Bell went on to say that they grew close, and she asked him to be her manager about six months after they met. Their official business relationship made them basically inseparable, he stated.
Bell revealed that he was over her house so often that Nichols offered to let him live in the guest house on her property. He accepted and they basically became roommates. Bell claimed that he was in the main house all the time, making meals for Nichols and working to revitalize her career. Bell said she also spent a lot of time in the guest house, where he lived.
In the interview, he insisted that though they were great friends and close business partners, he and Nichols were never romantically involved.
When Nichols got pancreatitis in 2013 and had to be admitted to the hospital, Bell was by her side the whole time, he said. According to him, however, Johnson was not.
Bell Says Johnson & Nichols Were Never Close
Bell claimed that Nichols and Johnson had an odd relationship.
“It was always one of the strangest, strangest mother-son relationships I had ever, ever witnessed,” Bell said. “That was not what I would call a close relationship by any stretch of the imagination.”
He maintained that Johnson was hardly ever around and that he rarely even called on holidays or his mother’s birthday. In fact, Bell claimed that the only time he ever heard Nichols talk about her son was when he was around or when Bell brought him up.
“The most distanced, strange relationship I’ve ever seen between a mother and son,” Bell remarked. “It was not a close relationship.”
Bell also stated that Nichols didn’t seem interested in forging a closer bond with her son. Just as he didn’t reach out to her, she rarely reached out to him, he said. According to Bell, she was also quite clear that she didn’t want Johnson involved in her personal life or in charge of her estate. He told Heavy:
I was power of attorney for her, which she had insisted on. She wrote a will saying that he would be taken care of, but that he would have nothing whatsoever to do with her personal life, her business, her career. She even had two handwritten notes … and it’s pretty clear that she did not want him in any sort of business relationship with her career … She assigned me early on to be her power of attorney, HIPPA, and medical decisions because she knew she didn’t want Kyle making those decisions for her. So, there’s a history, before I was on board, that causes this woman not to want Kyle in charge.
One of the handwritten notes Bell mentioned was published in The National Enquirer. In it, Nichols stated that she was changing her will so that Johnson would not get the house. Nichols wrote that he would be given 10 percent of the total profits generated from her estate in twice-monthly checks.
The video that Bell released to the media seemed to show Nichols confirming in her own words that she didn’t want Johnson in control of her life or finances. However, Johnson stated in his court filings that Bell intentionally upset Nichols so he could film the video. Johnson claimed the entire thing was an attempt to make him look bad.
Bell Says His Relationship With Johnson Is Tumultuous
Bell said that he first met Johnson “two or three years” after he became Nichols’ manager. He claimed that their relationship was tense from the very beginning.
Bell stated that after that first meeting, Nichols asked him to drive Johnson to the bus station because it was closer to Bell’s Studio City apartment than her Woodland Hills estate. Bell agreed. He said as soon as they left Nichols’ house, Johnson started talking about wanting to sell the property. He told Heavy:
From the moment we left her house, before we even got to the first stop sign, he was telling me about how she shouldn’t be in the house. She should be in a one-bedroom condo. The house was a ‘white elephant.’ There was no reason she should be in it. And I looked at him and I said, ‘Kyle, she loves that house. She built it from the ground up, she landscaped it. She’s in love with that house. When she comes back from conventions she sings to the house!’
Bell claimed that Johnson wouldn’t let it go. He talked about it for the entire “45-minute drive from her house to the Greyhound bus station.”
Bell said that the next time he saw Johnson was a few days after Nichols went into the hospital for pancreatitis in 2013, more than a year later.
“He showed up on the second or third day she was in the hospital. Came in as though he was the honcho boss, and stayed for maybe an hour, went back to her house, took all of her credit cards, her ID, her Wells Fargo account information, and withdrew $20,000 to $25,000 from her checking account,” Bell said. “For the next eight weeks, he never visited her a single time. When she was transferred to the rehab home, again, on the second or third or fourth day that she was in the rehab day he showed up, pretended to be the big shot, and talked to all the staff there, disappeared, and was not heard from again after that.”
Their next encounter was when Bell signed Nichols out of the rehab center she was sent to in order to recover from pancreatitis. Bell claimed that Nichols hated the rehab center and told him that if he didn’t take her home he’d “never see [her] again.”
Bell insisted that he’d only signed her out because of her desperate statement. However, Johnson didn’t believe that. He called the police on Bell.
“Kyle called the LAPD on me. They came by, checked out the situation, and said she was fine,” Bell recalled.
Bell said that he hired a crew of physical therapists and in-home nurses to ensure that Nichols was safe and comfortable at home. He said a social worker even came by to approve everything, which they did.
Bell added that during this time, Johnson didn’t show up at all.
“No sign of Kyle again for a year. Two years? Sometimes three years at a time.”
Bell and Johnson next interacted when Nichols had a stroke in 2015, Bell said. He claimed that Johnson showed up for a few days, grabbed some things from Nichols’ garage and left. According to Bell, he didn’t even stay for the big interview his mother was doing that week.
Bell recounted, “We went out and said ‘Kyle, your mother is doing this interview. She looks incredible. Don’t you want to see her?’ And he turned and snapped at both of us and said, ‘Been there, done that, don’t give a f***.’”
According to the LA Times feature, people close to the conservatorship situation have stated that Johnson is “prone to explosive outbursts of anger” like this.
After Johnson petitioned for conservatorship over Nichols, he and Bell didn’t see each other except in court. Bell claimed that Johnson blocked him from seeing Nichols. He said that he didn’t see her again until almost two years later.
In 2019, Bell secured a temporary restraining order against Johnson after Bell claimed Johnson made “verbal death threats” toward him, CBS 46 reported. That lawsuit was a result of the events that were partially shown in the video Bell released to the media.
Bell Tells the Story Behind the Infamous Video
Bell said that the infamous video of Nichols screaming at Johnson was filmed in April of 2019. He told Heavy:
She came to my house one night on April 23, 2019. I had not seen her for almost two years, but I was still living in the cottage. She came over and was asking why [I hadn’t seen her], and she couldn’t understand why. And I explained to her that Kyle had gotten a conservatorship and she said, ‘I don’t want that. I am my own person. I don’t want him in charge of anything.’ And then he came in and started screaming, yelling, pulling on her. She screamed back at him.
Bell said that Johnson and Nichols continued to scream at each other as Johnson tried to drag her out of the house.
He was pulling on her, and she was 86 at that time and pretty frail. I could see it was hurting her. She walked with a metal cane because of the [stroke] and she had the cane on her lap. And he grabbed the cane and looked at me and said, ‘Shut the f*** up or I’m going to kill you.’ And he raised the cane. Well, a metal cane can do a lot of damage. So, I immediately stepped back. He kept on pulling on her. He finally tugged her and she went out the door.
Bell continued, saying that the steps leading up to his cottage were sharp slabs of slate and that Johnson was pulling his mother down these steps.
I said, ‘Kyle, she’s going to fall if you keep doing that. Those steps are dangerous.’ And that’s when he yelled back at me, ‘You’re going to die in jail.’
Bell claimed that as Johnson and Nichols walked away, he heard Johnson berating Nichols, telling her that she’d “f***** up.”
This incident led to Bell’s personal injury lawsuit against Johnson. This led to Johnson’s countersuit, which accused Bell of fraud and elder abuse.
Bell Claims Johnson’s Motives Aren’t Good
Throughout the interview with Heavy, Bell reiterated his belief that Johnson’s motive for getting the conservatorship was not to care for Nichols. Bell believes that the sole purpose of the conservatorship was to enable Johnson to sell his mother’s home and keep the money.
“She had made it clear to everybody who came to see the house, ‘I want to live here until I pass away. I want to pass away in my home,'” Bell explained.
However, Johnson did, in fact, sell his mother’s house in August 2021, according to Newsweek. Bell claimed that Johnson “sold the house out from under her”:
She’s out of her home. She’ll never be able to return there. And I have wanted to ask him, ‘Why don’t you just let her live in her home, where she wants to be, until she passes away? Then you can sell it?’ Even though the will doesn’t give him permission to do that. Why would the courts give him permission to sell it when her will is quite clear what she wanted?
Bell revealed that he was still living on the property when it was sold in August. He said that he worked with the new buyers to reach an agreement so he could afford to move.
The battle between Johnson, Bell and others close to Nichols is still ongoing. As the LA Times reported and Bell confirmed, Nichols is currently living in New Mexico with her son.
Heavy has reached out to Johnson and Nichols through their attorney and has not received a response.
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