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Canada $120-million diamond deal caps Canada's richest divorce

JOHN PARTRIDGE in Toronto WENDY STUECK in Vancouver

-*** "There may come a time when a lass needs a lawyer, "But diamonds are a girl's best friend. . ." -- Jule Styne, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes -*** First Marlene Fipke got the lawyer -- and then she got the diamonds.

In what is believed to be the fattest Canadian divorce settlement to be made public, the Kelowna, B.C., woman is to receive the controlling interest -- worth more than $120-million -- in Dia Met Minerals Ltd.

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It comes from her estranged husband Charles (Chuck) Fipke, the brilliant but eccentric discoverer of Canada's first diamond mine, and puts an end to a marriage that began just after Christmas of 1966 and a bitter divorce battle that dates back five years.

Mr. Fipke, 53, is giving up about 6.5 million shares, almost his entire holding in Dia Met, a Kelowna company that owns part of the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories. However, he gets to keep a 10-per-cent stake he owns directly in the joint-venture company that operates the mine, and observers figure this stake is likely worth anywhere from about $200-million to $350-million.

As well, at least for now, Mr. Fipke will remain Dia Met's chairman, an official of the company said, although other sources indicated that they don't expect him to retain that position for long.

The deal was reached some time after 11 p.m. Tuesday, said Robert Anderson, one of Ms. Fipke's lawyers.

The case had gone to trial Monday in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, but was adjourned when the two sides told the judge that settlement talks "were looking like they could be fruitful," Mr. Anderson said yesterday when reached at his Vancouver office. Neither Mr. Fipke nor Ms. Fipke, whose divorce has not yet been finalized, could be reached. However, Mr. Anderson said his client is glad the battle is finished.

"Mrs. Fipke is very relieved that the settlement is over -- it was a long, five-year fight," he said. "She thinks it's equitable and hopes Mr. Fipke believes the same."

Mr. Fipke's Vancouver lawyer, Rose-Mary Basham, said her client feels much the same. "He is happy with the way things turned out."

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Neither Ms. Basham nor Mr. Anderson would discuss other aspects of the settlement, citing confidentiality.

However, in a 1998 ruling on a procedural motion, B.C. Supreme Court Master Neil Bolton said the Fipkes' "numerous other assets" included a family business and geological laboratory, two residences and an apartment in Kelowna, along with more real estate elsewhere. "There are chattels: boats, expensive cars and various rich people's toys, I suppose they might be called, owned and used in the Kelowna area."

Marlene Pyett, now 52, and Chuck Fipke were high-school sweethearts in Kelowna. In Fire Into Ice: Charles Fipke & the Great Diamond Hunt, author Vernon Frolick describes Marlene as a loyal partner, who endured tough conditions when she travelled with her husband, and long absences when he travelled alone.

The marriage had a rocky start. Mr. Frolick writes that an initial wedding ceremony was cancelled after Mr. Fipke failed to show up, and that the pair eventually married after their first son was born. They subsequently produced four more children, who range in age from late teens to early 30s.

But the young couple rallied to work and travel together, with Ms. Fipke playing an integral role in her husband's exploration activities, even setting up a laboratory in the kitchen of their Kelowna home to weigh and test mineral samples brought back from Mr. Fipke's travels.

"They were not only marriage partners, they were business partners," said Neil Fipke, Chuck's younger brother and a forester who works around Nelson, B.C. "She was involved in the lab, and helping organize crews. She kept things together."

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Ms. Fipke certainly made a good impression on other people at Dia Met that endures to this day. "We're very pleased to have her as our largest shareholder," Gregory Prosalendis, a vice-president of the company, said yesterday. "We have a close relationship with her."

Indeed, another source close to the company welcomed her arrival and her estranged husband's departure, saying he thinks it will be very "liberating" for the company.

Mr. Fipke is a man who has lived hard.

In his book, Mr. Frolick writes about Mr. Fipke's frequent drinking and partying.

Sources who know the couple say that their marital problems grew worse after Dia Met made its first real mineral discoveries and became a stock-market success.

Neil Fipke was not willing to discuss personal details, noting that he doesn't keep in close contact with the couple.

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"It's very sad that [the marriage]ended up that way . . . but [the settlement]is probably a relief," he said. "Because it's gone on for such a long time, it's probably a stressful arrangement for both of them. Now that it's over, no matter what the results are, at least they can carry on."

His brother, he said, "focused the large majority of the time into work."

WEDDING BELL BLUES

Who got married: Earl Joudrie, future chairman of Gulf Canada Resources Ltd. and other high-profile Canadian boards, to Dorothy. When they married: Aug. 15, 1957 When they divorced: 1995, after Ms. Joudrie shoots Mr. Joudrie six times in her garage. At her trial, he admits to having struck her early on in their marriage. Settlement highlights: Each of them gets $1.9-million. Ms. Joudrie also gets $2,000 a year for four years after the divorce. -*** -*** Who got married: New York developer Donald Trump to model, actress and former Czechoslovak Olympic ski-team alternate Ivana. When they married: 1977 When they divorced: 1990, on grounds of "cruel and inhuman" treatment. Settlement highlights: Ms. Trump receives about $25-million (U.S.), including $10-million in cash and a $12-million house in Connecticut. Mr. Trump's next ex-wife Marla Maples gets only $2-million out of him in a 1999 divorce. -*** -*** Who got married: Matthew Barrett, then chief executive officer of the Bank of Montreal, to Anne-Marie Sten, a former model who once posed in a fur bikini for a Toronto tabloid and is the ex-girlfriend of billionaire arms-dealer Adnan Khashoggi. When they married: Aug. 23, 1997. When they divorced: Split in 1999. No divorce proceedings reported yet. Settlement highlights: Undisclosed.

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