April 02, 1984 12:00 PM

When Eleanor Ritchey died in 1968, she did just what mildly eccentric heiresses are supposed to do: She left her entire $4.3 million fortune to her 161 pet pooches. Her will made news for a while, then passed into the netherworld of cultural folklore. Sixteen years later, however, Ritchey’s extraordinary bequest is still a binding force in the lives of at least two of her beneficiaries: Warren Williams, caretaker to the dogs, and Musketeer, the last surviving mutt. When Musketeer dies, Williams, 62, will be out of a job. “He can go any day,” says Williams. “And when he goes, I’m done.”

Musketeer, who is more than 15 years old, already wobbles when he walks and falls over when he sneezes. The only time he perks up is when there is a camera nearby. “Dog loves to have his picture taken,” says Williams, who spoon-feeds Musketeer his vitamins and whatever cooked hamburger the dog deigns to eat.

Musketeer’s demise will signal the end to a peculiar story. Ritchey, an heir to the Quaker State oil fortune, never married and spent much of her adult life taking care of her mother. After her mother died, Ritchey “got her pleasure helping dogs,” recalls her former handyman, Mark Strong. Most were strays she picked up in her Cadillac and brought home to her Fort Lauderdale estate. “Let’s just say Eleanor wasn’t quite like the people you and I see every day,” offers Ivan Frederick-son, the veterinarian she hired to treat her pack and who still visits Musketeer once a week. “Leaving her fortune to the dogs was logical, in a way,” says Lowell Mott, the banker in charge of the Ritchey trust. “They were all she had left.”

Ritchey’s money may have gone to the dogs, but there have been other beneficiaries, with Williams somewhere near the bottom. Early on, relatives challenged the will and received $2 million. Ritchey’s bank received $450,000 in executor’s fees, and a lawyer for the estate received $450,000 for battling the relatives’ claims. As Ritchey wanted, the School of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University will receive the estate, now grown to $16 million, when the last dog dies.

Williams, a housepainter before he was hired as the dog’s caretaker, originally saw to their well-being on a 180-acre ranch Ritchey had purchased north of Fort Lauderdale. In 1981, when only eight dogs remained, the trustees sold that property and set up the caretaker and his charges on an acre of land Williams owned in Jupiter, Fla. Williams and his wife Rita, 59, live in a frame house on the front of the property, while Musketeer resides out back in a $26,000, eight-stall kennel equipped with an electronic bug zapper.

When Musketeer is gone, Williams will lose his $17,000 yearly salary and, he says, will probably have to sell his house. He regards his fate as a little unfair. “There was a lot of money attached to those dogs,” he says. “But I’ve been the one actually doing what she wanted in her will, taking care of them.” Williams says he’ll miss the dogs—and the job. “I guess I always thought this would last longer than it has,” he says. “Now, well, it’s sort of sad.”

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