Divorce Fraud Leads to 17 years in Prison

GEO#1California businessman Steven Zinnel, age 50, thought he could get away with cheating his wife, his two teenage children, and the bankruptcy court, but he was wrong….boy was he wrong!

Zinnel and his wife, of Gold River, separated in 1999. By 2001 their uncoupling got even more ugly when he told his wife she would get nothing, no assets or support because he was filing for bankruptcy.

Zinnel systematically funnelled millions of dollars into the names of other persons and true to his word, filed for voluntary bankruptcy in 2005. He also laundered money through shell corporations in order to conceal his true income.

Shockingly, he did all this with the assistance of lawyer, Derian Eidson, age 50, who used her trust account, her personal account and a corporation she owned to return the funds to Zinnel after his discharge from bankruptcy.

But he didn’t stop there…Zinnel went on to initiate an FBI investigation of his ex-wife, displaying a hatred that knew no bounds and that eventually led to his own demise.

In the course of the investigation, authorities uncovered Mr. Zinnel’s bankruptcy and divorce fraud. Before U.S. District Court Judge Troy Nunley he was sentenced to 17 years and eight months in prison, fined $500,000, and ordered to disgorge the sum of $2.8 million to the state.

Judge Nunley in bankruptcy court and the 3rd District Court of Appeal in respect of his divorce matter condemned Zinnel for his narcissistic arrogance, and found that while he was articulate and charismatic he used those traits for his own selfish purposes.

Yorba Linda lawyer Ms. Eidson, was disbarred and sentenced to 10 years and one month in prison for money laundering. She was also fined $200,000. Her undoing began when she commenced an intimate relationship with Zinnel and became a victim of her own greed.

As for Mr. Zinnel, his phone call to his son when first imprisoned shows that he still doesn’t get it…he told his son that he was “railroaded” and blamed his ex- wife!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Happy Ending for Local Child Abduction Case

DSC00275_1Not all abduction cases end in the disappointment of “no return” or even death, like little Amber Lucius. Early last month I became involved in a child abduction case that spanned the globe from Portugal to Vancouver to Corner Brook Newfoundland.

The parents of a nine-year-old girl named Lauren moved from their long-time home of Vancouver to Portugal three years ago. They settled in and Lauren’s mom who was a Canadian citizen applied for and was granted Portuguese citizenship as did Lauren, who was born in Canada. Their new life began, Lauren was registered in school and by all accounts, her parents enjoyed their new home, particularly Lauren’s father who was a dual citizen and had family and business interests in Portugal.

Unfortunately, the marriage began to falter but the parties remained together in the family home. Lauren’s father became concerned that his wife would leave Portugal with Lauren. He was so concerned that he obtained a “travel ban” which is a non-judicial warning to immigration that a child cannot be removed from the country without a court order or the consent of both parents. Lauren’s mom knew that her spouse would never agree, so she planned a clandestine middle-of-the-night departure, circumventing Portuguese authorities by driving to Seville Spain and catching a plane to Newfoundland where the parties had a summer cottage and where her family resided.

Lauren’s mom knew that her midnight dash was contrary to the law, having received advice from several lawyers and other officials, but she ignored them all. Lauren’s father immediately left Portugal and arrived in Vancouver, ready to do whatever was required to bring his daughter back to Portugal for the start of school on September 11. In the meantime, Lauren’s mother had already obtained an ex parte order from a Newfoundland court giving her interim custody of Lauren. My quarrel with ex parte orders is well-know to regular readers of Lawdiva. They are a blatant breach of due process and ought not to be granted unless there is clear evidence of impending danger to the leaving parent or the child.

We rapidly prepared an application pursuant to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, an intricate process that entails the compilation of many relevant documents. Of course, all of the documents required translation as they were in Portugese. Back in Portugal a criminal action was commenced since child abduction is a criminal offence. The next step was to locate a lawyer in Newfoundland who was able, on short notice, to get into court there to argue for the return of Lauren. An experienced QC jumped on board to secure Lauren’s return.

An interesting part of this case was that Lauren’s father and mother shared a computer which gave Lauren’s father access to all his wife’s emails, many of which were extremely damaging to her case. After obtaining advice from a lawyer specializing in privacy law, the decision was made to include the emails in the Hague application. Lauren’s return was paramount and any evidence that assisted had to be utilized.

A Newfoundland judge presided over a four-day hearing last week that focused exclusively on the question of which court had jurisdiction to deal with custody of Lauren: Portugal or Newfoundland? The law is very clear that the court where the child “habitually resides” has sole jurisdiction to make custody decisions. Naturally, Lauren’s mother attempted to argue that Newfoundland was Lauren’s habitual residence, a position that was doomed to fail, given the extensive evidence of Lauren’s life in Portugal.

Thankfully, the Newfoundland court found that Portugal was the jurisdiction to determine Lauren’s custody and an order was made that her father return with her to Portugal immediately, just in time for the first day of school.

If Lauren’s mother is determined to bring Lauren to Canada, she must now convince a Portuguese judge that her position is in Lauren’s best interests. The battle is won, but the war is not over.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Alberta Child Who Was Abducted Found Dead

10950859361151CDPIn a heart wrenching story out of Alberta today, we learned that nine-year-old Amber Lucius was abducted by her mother, and later found dead in a truck parked on a country road in Millet, a farming community outside of Calgary with a population of 2,000. Her mother was with her when she was discovered. How could this have happened and what can be done to prevent the violence that rears its ugly head in high-conflict custody battles between warring parents?

Amber’s parents, Laura Coward and Duane Lucius, were married in 2004 and separated three years later in 2007. In the beginning of their post-separation parenting, the parties shared joint custody and Amber lived primarily with her mother. I should clarify that joint custody does not mean equal parenting time, it means equal decision-making, a concept that is illusory where one parent refuses to collaborate with the other.

Ms. Coward was one of those mothers who made her former husband’s life a living nightmare by refusing to facilitate his parenting time with Amber, a situation that led to ten court orders intended to address Ms. Coward’s refusal to accommodate Mr. Lucius’ parenting time. It took ten court orders before the Court finally transferred custody of Amber from her mother to Mr. Lucius in June of 2013. Ms. Coward was given specified visitation time with her daughter.

In April of 2014 Ms. Coward again breached a court order and refused to return Amber to her father’s home. The RCMP intervened at that time and it appears that Ms. Coward’s parenting time was restricted until a judge made an order last week permitting Ms. Coward to have four consecutive days with Amber over the Labour Day long weekend. But Ms. Coward had planned something far more sinister than spending four lazy summer days with her daughter.

She picked up Amber on Thursday and was to return her on Sunday, however, on Sunday night there was no sign of Amber or her mother. Regrettably, there was no Amber alert for Amber Lucius either. What police have learned since finding Amber’s body and arresting Ms. Coward for child abduction is that she had given notice on her rental premises and a new family had already moved into her former home. Where she was going has not yet been determined and neither has Amber’s cause of death. No charges have yet been brought for the girl’s death pending an autopsy next week.

The community of Millet is understandably shocked by Amber’s death, the second tragedy in Millet in the last few years. In 2010 Allyson McConnell drowned her two sons, ages 2 1/2 and 10 months in a bathtub in her home and attempted to commit suicide. She was convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to six years, and spent 15 months in a psychiatric hospital until her deportation back to her home country of Australia. Shortly after returning to Australia she took her own life. Allyson McConnell was also engaged in a custody battle with her estranged husband.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Airplane Carrying Abducted Child Ordered to Return to the US

GEO CASUALLinda Liu no doubt thought she had made good on her clandestine departure from Washington DC after she successfully boarded an American Airlines jet last evening bound for Beijing with her 4-year-old son and her mother.

That is, until the Federal Bureau of Investigation was alerted and the airline was ordered to return to its home base despite completing five hours of its flight to China.

After Ms. Liu (also known as Wenjing Liu,) a Chinese citizen, and  her husband, William Ruifrok, an American citizen,  separated in 2013 they entered into a custody agreement that provided for joint custody and also stipulated that neither parent would remove their young son from the United States “without express written and notarized consent of the other party, provided in advance of the trip.”.

When the flight landed at Dulles Airport, an official  welcoming party escorted Ms. Liu off the plane and took her into police custody on a criminal complaint of unlawfully attempting to remove a child from the United States with intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights. Ms. Liu’s mother was not detained and the young boy, who has dual citizenship, was returned to his very grateful father.

Once a child is kidnapped, particularly to a jurisdiction that is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, the process to recover the abducted child is fraught with difficulty and crippling expense. China, of course, is not a signatory and so one can appreciate Mr. Ruifrok’s immense relief at the FBI’s intervention.

Summer is frequently the time when parents who wish to  take their child and run seem to do so. In previous summers I have handled up to three abduction cases, while this summer I worked on the return of a child who was abducted from her Canadian father who lives  in Portugal to  the home of the abducting mother’s  family who  reside in Eastern Canada. That case is still before the Court and hopefully justice will be served and the child will be returned to Portugal. Under the Hague Convention the protocol is for the Court where the child habitually resides to decide whether the child is permitted to move to a new permanent residence, a decision based on the best interests of the child.

The only  question that remains is how Mr. Ruifrok managed to convince the  FBI to order the return of the aircraft. Lucky man!

New York Author Successfully Resists Divorce Subpoena

DSC00447_2 (1)The divorce of American oil billionaire Harold Hamm and former lawyer Sue Ann Hamm has attracted lots of attention and gallons of ink, as media outlets around North America write and revel in every detail. An interesting aspect of the Hamm case is Ms. Hamm’s attempt to subpoena documents from New York author Gregory Zukerman, who penned the best-seller “The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters”, a book that focused on Harold Hamm, among others.

Ms. Hamm wanted Mr. Zuckerman to produce all audio and visual recordings, notes, emails, records, material, well valuations and all other documents in his possession relating to Harold Hamm or his company, Continental Resource Inc. in her quest to prove that the increase in value of Mr. Hamm’s massive holdings during their 22-year marriage was largely related to his skill, energy, and business acumen. Why would she want to prove that? Simply because if she can show the Court that her husband was responsible for his company’s huge growth, she will be entitled to one-half of the increased value.

Of course, it is in Mr. Hamm’s best interests to modestly suggest that market forces alone were responsible for the significant increase in the value of Continental Resources, and that is exactly the approach his lawyers are taking in their efforts to preserve their client’s assets for him, to the exclusion of his wife.

Unfortunately for Ms. Hamm, New York’s journalist “shield law”, enacted in 1970, prevented her from obtaining the documents she requested. New York Supreme Court Justice Donna Mills ruled that Ms. Hamm had not shown she had exhausted other avenues to obtain the material and absent this kind of evidence she could not breach the shield law. She also noted that Ms. Hamm wanted these documents to use them against her husband, either to impeach him in court or show that his position lacked credibility.

The Court accepted Mr. Zuckerman’s argument that the release of this information would turn him into a professional witness, rather than a journalist, a step that would impede his writing career and hs credibility with his journalistic sources.

For now, Ms. Hamm will need to explore alternative routes to obtain the documents, if she is to succeed in her claim to share in a large portion of her husband’s $20 billion dollar estate. I have no doubt that her clever legal team will prevail in this divorce battle.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Nasty Judge’s Sexism Leads to New Trial

BarristerThere is no place for mean-spirited judges in Canadian courts, but regretfully a few slip through the vigorous screening process and become tyrants in an institution where they preside as untouchables.

Mr. Justice Jean-Guy Boilard, of the Quebec Superior Court, is a case in point. A former crown prosecutor, he was appointed to the Quebec court in 1977, beginning a career steeped in controversy. Boilard retired in 2012 but not before leaving a legacy of arrogant, pompous, and derisive in-court commentary attacking the lawyers who had the misfortune of drawing him as their judge. His behavior was so loathsome that Crown Attorneys in Quebec circulated a petition urging their colleagues to sign on, in an attempt to avoid Boilard’s courtroom.

In 2001 Judge Boilard was conducting a trial involving seventeen members of the Hell’s Angels when, in the words of the Canadian Judicial Council, he was “insulting and unjustifiably derogatory…displaying a flagrant lack of respect” for defence counsel, Gilles Dore. Boilard chastised Mr. Dore saying “an insolent lawyer is rarely of use to his client” and also criticized Dore’s “bombastic rhetoric and hyperbole” and dismissed his “ridiculous” argument.

After the hearing, Gilles Dore delivered a scathing letter to Judge Boilard calling him “a coward…pendantic…aggressive…petty…arrogant…unjust…that he was of dubious legal acumen” and made “shameful, ugly, vulgar and mean personal attacks on the unsuspecting”.

Boilard removed himself from the motorcycle gang trial while Mr. Dore was left to respond to a complaint to the Barreau du Quebec, who ultimately found his letter was “likely to offend and was rude and insulting”. Dore was suspended from practice for 21 days, a ruling that was upheld by three other courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada in 2012.

In an inquiry to determine if Justice Boilard’s unilateral departure from the criminal trial was worthy of his removal from the bench, the Canadian Judicial Council ruled it was improper but not so serious that public confidence in the judicial system was undermined. This finding was made in the face of evidence that Judge Boilard’s withdrawal took place four months into the trial and was recommenced at great expense by a new judge.

However, the final blow to Judge Boilard’s reputation was the finding of the Quebec Superior Court this month that his abrasive, insulting behavior directed at criminal defence lawyer Elise Pinsonnault so profoundly compromised the 2011 jury trial of Sebastian Hebert, who was convicted of first-degree murder, that a new trial was ordered. Judge Boilard’s insulting comments included the following exchanges with Ms. Pinsonnault:

Boilard: “It would probably be a good thing if Ms. Pinsonnault listened to us.”

Pinsonnault: “I am sorry your Honour…I can do two things at the same time.”

Boilard: “That’s what women are doing all the time. It does not mean that it is always done well.”

And later:

Boilard: “What is it you want to introduce?”

Pinsonnault: “Some photos!”

Boilard: I’m not asking you to be hysterical. I’m simply asking you to answer me.”

As well:

Boilard: “Listen here, there is a limit to amateurism, isn’t there?”

Boilard: “I am not in the habit of responding to lawyers’ questions. Nor am I in the habit of polishing their education in criminal law.”

Despite the emotional rollercoaster for the victim’s family and the expense and inconvenience, a new trial was required said Chief Justice Hesler:

“Such animosity, such contempt on the part of the presiding judge, so flagrant and repeated to the appellant’s lawyer, leads me to believe that the fairness of the trial was in all probability compromised.”

It is staggering to think that Mr. Justice Boilard spent 35 years on the bench mired in anger and hostility and not one person stopped him.

Divorce Can Be Deadly

10950859361151CDPIn 1967 psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of over 5,000 patients in their research to determine whether stress causes illness. A positive correlation was found resulting in the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, also called the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. The Scale identifies life events and ranks them based on the the level of anxiety they instill. The death of a spouse rates highest at 100 units, with divorce right behind.

Holmes and Rahe later adapted their testing to children, finding that the death of a parent ranked highest, followed closely by parental divorce. It shouldn’t surprise us then that divorce is a catalyst for stress, anxiety, acting out and in rare cases, murder.

That brings me to the case of Michael Petersen in Nebraska who experienced an ugly divorce that stretched from 2002 to 2005. All of the triggers for hostility and resentment were present including a custody fight, a never-ending battle over financial issues, multiple appeals, and finally, disgruntlement with his lawyer. Petersen’s rage, however, was out of proportion to the issues he faced, anger that caused him to retaliate against his lawyer and his ex-wife….He killed them both.

Earlier this year Petersen plead no contest to the murder of his ex Nancy Petersen, who he shot outside of her home on November 13, 2013. He was sentenced to life in prison. Petersen’s blatantly insensitive criminal lawyer, Jeff Pickens, was quoted in the local newspaper:

“This man had worked hard for 40 years. Much of his hard work over 40 years was gone. He’d had enough of being screwed over by people.”

He’s got to be kidding! Mr. Pickens described a situation where Nancy Petersen was awarded one-half of the parties’ $600,000 estate. So how did this “screw” Mr. Petersen?

As far as the murder of his own lawyer, after killing his ex he drove to his lawyer, Todd Elsbernd’s law office, saw him outside and shot him in the back with a high-velocity rifle. Petersen had accused Mr. Elsbernd, age 52, of legal malpractice and there was an ongoing dispute over unpaid legal fees. Before killing him, Petersen filed a lawsuit against him that was thrown out.

After being sentenced to a second life term for murder, Mr. Pickens offered that between Petersen’s divorce payout and his loss of $150,000 after falling prey to a Nigerian scam, ( a second news report called it a dating website scam) he was penniless. And that’s an excuse for murder?

Michael Petersen was defiant until the end. He told the judge that the justice system was not fair, as he launched into a speech about pre-marital versus marital assets and insisted that his deceased attorney was professionally negligent. He said nothing about his cowardly slaughter of two innocent human beings. There will be a special place in Hell for Petersen.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang .