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The Vault: How a Kentucky woman left a nearly $300,000 estate to actor Charles Bronson

Audrey Knauer, a private chemist, gained international attention in 1999 after she left her estate to the Hollywood actor which caused lots of family drama.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Audrey Knauer lived in a one bedroom apartment in the Highlands and always paid her rent early for 20 years.

She was private and often wore black and loved to fence.

Knauer was a former chemist, a PhD and stashed away every dime she made.

She was also a huge fan of actor Charles Bronson – so much when that she died at the age of 56, Bronson found out he was in her will.

“His reaction was that she probably had 25 cents to her name if she was lucky,” Bronson’s agent Larry Martindale said.

In 1996, Knauer wrote out her final will on an emergency phone list from the telephone book a year before her death.

It said, “Under no circumstances is my mother Helen to inherit anything from me – blood, body parts, financial assets. I bequeath to Charles Bronson (the talented character actor) and what he doesn’t want can pass through to the Louisville Free Public Library.”

The value of her estate with interest was $291,975. Bronson accepted $160,000 of the will. Still, the Louisville Free Public Library made a plea to Bronson to pass the entire estate to them.

The library said at the time it was enough for them to buy 20,000 books and they could stock a branch library completely with brand new materials.

Why was the library in Knauer’s will?

She had been a regular there and their records showed she would regularly check out Bronson’s movies and books about him.

Her sister Nancy and her family would dispute the will because they felt Knauer was mentally unstable.

“This is a few, really kind of like hysterical lines scratched on top of a phone list. I don’t know what mental state she was in when she wrote that,” Nancy said.

The scribbled phone list version was legal though Kentucky law allows for holographic wills or handwritten wills.

Nancy felt her sister's unhealthy fascination with Bronson proved her impaired mental state.

“She saw the Death Wish [films] where he is avenging his family. saw the Deathwish where he is avenging his family. She became obsessed with Charles Bronson. She has never met the man. I look at him and I think please, you know, how can you not? I don't understand. You didn't know her. You didn't love her. I did,” Nancy said.

An expert said even if Knauer left her money to Bronson or Arnold Schwarzenegger, it would not necessarily make her incompetent.

It would have been difficult to evaluate Knauer’s mental condition anyway, as she never saw a doctor or psychiatrist in her 20 years in Louisville.

What further complicated the matters, was the discovery of three new wills in April of 1999. They were all written by Knauer and left everything to the Hollywood actor.

Those wills were called “very lucid” and “extremely well written.”

In those she described her admiration for Bronson and in one place describes her conviction that he was her father in a previous lifetime and believed in reincarnation.

In the end, Nancy settled with Bronson for an undisclosed amount.

Bronson was willing to donate $10,000 to the Louisville Free Public Library as long as the benefactor remained anonymous.

It was a deal breaker, not when you're the public library.

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