Child Custody Dispute and Abduction Precursor to Murder of Father and His Family

DSC00275_1A Mississauga family: father, mother and adult son, were systematically eliminated in what police say may be revenge and payback arising from a high conflict custody case, resulting in this week’s arrest of 34-year-old Melissa Merritt and her common-law spouse, Christopher Fattore, age 37.

This bizarre case is the ultimate tale of “truth being stranger than fiction”, but it began so happily when Melissa Merritt and Caleb Harrison met and began living together in 2000.

Two children followed in quick succession and they married in 2003. However, domestic violence marred their union and the couple split in 2005 after Caleb was convicted of assaulting Melissa.

A month after their separation Caleb drove drunk, killing a taxi driver and injuring four teenagers. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and his mother, Bridget Harrison, took over the care of the children.

From there the battle lines were drawn… but the tragedies did not subside. In 2009 Melissa’s father-in-law, Bill Harrison, suddenly died at the home he shared with Bridget, his death attributed to a heart attack.

A month later Melissa abducted her two children, remaining at large for several months. Upon her return, she was convicted of criminal child abduction but served no jail time. Her access to the children, however, was now limited to every second week-end and specified holidays.

Almost a year after Bill Harrison’s death, one of the grandchildren found Grandma Bridget dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home. Suspicions were heightened with the second Harrison death in twelve months.

In the meantime, a fire destroyed the home Melissa shared with her common law spouse and their four children. The couple lost everything, but the custody battle still raged, and in 2013 Melissa filed a court application for joint custody.

A month later Caleb Harrison was also dead, and police began an investigation into the deaths of three family members in five years.

In January 2014 Melissa Merritt and her spouse, Chris Fattore, were charged with first degree murder in the deaths of her ex-husband, Caleb Harrison, and his mother, Bridget Harrison.

This week Melissa and Christopher were also charged with the murder of Bill Harrison and extradited from Nova Scotia to Brampton Ontario where they remain in custody.

All six of their children are now in care. It is unfathomable that one woman could destroy so many people’s lives…of course, she is innocent until proven guilty.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Mystery of Munchausen By Proxy

10950859361151CDPMany years ago I acted for a single mom who had an 8-year-old daughter. She retained me when her ex-husband filed an application seeking a change of custody from my client to him…not so unusual, right?

Wrong! This case was my first introduction to the mental illness called “Munchausen by proxy”, an insidious syndrome that experts say causes mothers, rarely fathers, to exaggerate or fake their child’s health problems, or in the worst cases, deliberately harm or cause injury to their child.

The signs and signals that Munchausen may be present include:

• A child who is often hospitalized with unusual and unexplained symptoms that seem to go away when mother is not present, or a child who is moved by her caregiver from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital.

• Symptoms that don’t match the child’s test results.

• Symptoms that worsen at home but improve while the child is under medical care.

• Drugs or chemicals in the child’s blood or urine.

• Siblings who died under strange circumstances.

• A mother who is overattentive to the child and overly willing to comply with health care workers.

• A mother who is a nurse or who works in the health care field.

Unfortunately, many friends, family, and medical experts who observe such symptoms have difficulty imagining that the child’s mother, who is overly protective, indeed, sacrificial in her care for her child, could intentionally harm her child.

Psychologists explain that the pay-off for the Munchausen mother is the fulfillment of her pathological need for attention and sympathy, something that the growth of social media exploits, with Facebook postings and mommy-blogs.

This week in White Plains, New York, jury selection began in the manslaughter trial of 29-year-old Lacey Spears, mother of 5-year-old Garnett-Paul Spears, who is accused of poisoning her son with sodium….that’s right, every day table salt.

Garnett-Paul’s sodium levels escalated, confounding his doctors at Westchester Medical Centre who tried desperately to control his brain swelling and seizures, and prevent his eventual death.

Meanwhile his mother used social media to regale her readers with details of Garnett-Paul’s tortuous medical journey, all the while preening and accepting accolades for her unstinting dedication to her sick son.

Ms. Spears was bedside at the hospital with her son, sleeping with him overnight, until he died. Prosecutors allege that she was continually depositing salt in his feeding tube.

His death is a terrible tragedy and one that experts say is rare, because Munchausen mothers don’t intend to kill their children, they simply want them to stay sick to feed their uncontrollable need for attention.

As for my client, her ex-husband was unable to prove that his daughter was a victim of Munchausen by proxy, although the circumstances were admittedly suspicious. I often wondered how that little girl fared and prayed for her for many years.

Not surprisingly, the medical literature indicates that the syndrome is difficult to investigate and prove, and often doctors are not willing to make the diagnosis for fear of being wrong. Better safe than sorry, I say.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

And Now the End is Near- 2014 Highlights

BarristerFor me, 2014 was fulfilling, both personally and professionally. On the work side, I arbitrated some interesting family law cases, handled several Hague Convention child abduction cases: one that saw the successful reunion of father and child after an abduction from Portugal to Canada, and the other an appeal from an order that a child be returned to Montana.

Personally, I found time to workout with my incredible trainer, Janice; enjoy neighbourhood cook-outs and pool parties; sing in my choir; brainstorm ideas for a book on women in leadership, and enjoy the beauty of California and B.C’s Okanagan.

Meanwhile my contribution to the blogosphere continued throughout the year, with the following highlights:

1. Shared parenting: MP Maurice Vellacott’s bill on shared parenting crashed and burned when the Liberals and most of the Conservatives voted against it in the earliest stages of second reading.

Despite it being a part of Harper’s election platform, only a few brave backbenchers supported the bill. In retrospect it is likely that the focus on a strict equality of parenting time, instead of an emphasis on shared parenting that could see one parent with less than 50% depending on the work and school schedules of parents and child(ren), led to its early demise.

2. New Prostitution Law: On December 6, 2014 the Conservative government brought into effect their new law, based on the Nordic model adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and other European countries.

After the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s previous law in 2013, which did not criminalize prostitution, but made it illegal to solicit for prostitution, operate a common bawdy house, or live off the avails of prostitution, Justice Minister McKay’s new bill was reviled in many quarters.

The new law criminalizes prostitution for the purchaser of sexual services, while women, girls, and boys who sell sex are no longer subject to legal sanctions. They are treated as exploited victims, with the goal of helping them escape the sordid life of prostitution with its inherent danger.

3. Conscious Uncoupling: Amid mockery and snide remarks, Gwyneth Paltrow introduced “conscious uncoupling” to the world of divorce, as a softer and gentler way to separate and divorce. The details of this model remain elusive but months after its debut, it has found little favour in the real world.

4. Trinity Law School: Conflict and consternation abound when Trinity Western University’s governmental approval to open a Christian law school was announced. British Columbia lawyers railed against the governors/benchers of the Law Society who voted 21 to 6 to permit Trinity law graduates to article in B.C.

The majority of B.C. lawyers who voted at a special meeting, denounced the governors’ decision to permit Trinity students to article in B.C., alleging that Trinity’s community covenant that only permits sexual relations between married, opposite sex couples amounted to sexual discrimination and a breach of human rights.

The Law Society eventually capitulated and adopted the views of Trinity’s critics. The matter is now before the Court in B.C. and in other courts across Canada where the same position prevailed.

5. Madam Justice Lori Douglas: After several years of missteps, rancour, judicial resignations, and the interference of the Federal Court, Judge Douglas finally put an end to the Canadian Judicial Council’s inquiry into the collection of nude photographs of her placed on the internet by her husband, the late Jack King, a well-regarded family law lawyer in Winnipeg, by announcing her resignation from the bench.

The entire exercise highlighted the flaws of Canada’s system of judicial discipline and Judge Douglas’ resignation was welcome relief from the embarrassing sideshow the inquiry had become.

Here’s looking to 2015 with great anticipation for a new year full of juridical intrigue, legal entanglements, and matrimonial mishaps.

Happy New Year!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

JetBlue Airlines Demonstrates the Spirit of Christmas Amid the Politics of Racism

GAL & PAL #2jpgJetBlue is a discount airline with a big heart. Headquartered in Long Island, New York, the company announced they would provide free airfare to New York City for the funerals of New York police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were ambushed and assassinated as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn.

The assailant, who committed suicide after the slaying, reportedly tweeted that his murderous actions were taken in revenge for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

JetBlue has offered free airfare to permit every police department in the United States to send two officers to the funeral. Millions of Americans have saluted the generosity of the airline, however, an abusive vocal minority, including professional protesters and anarchists, have denounced JetBlue by tweeting defamatory insults, such as the following:

@JetBlue is perfect example of white corporate America perpetuating white supremacy in police brutality #BlackLivesMatter”

@JetBlue SUPPORTS POLICE BRUTALITY!!

@JetBlue yes, they are a shitty company, would not be surprised if they are racists.

Unfortunately for the pea-brained individuals behind these tweets, and thousands of others who share their supposed outrage, the battle cry of “racism” has lost all meaning. It has been so politicized over the years that it is no longer a threatening phrase due to its misplaced use. If one opines that Michelle Obama wore an inappropriate outfit to a state dinner, cries of racism will ring out. (albeit Michelle is always perfectly outfitted).

Obama’s oval office open-door policy with race-baiter Al Sharpton is another in a long-line of White House missteps. I still shudder thinking about President Obama’s public statement that “Trayvon Martin could be my son”, a missive that did nothing to help race relations in America.

I congratulate JetBlue for their corporate generosity in facilitating a large turn out for the funerals of an Asian and a Latino police officer who were murdered, only because they wore the blue uniform. How is that racist?

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Bill Cosby Plays the Race Card

BarristerLet me put my cards on the table. I never did like Bill Cosby, didn’t think he was funny, and wondered why everyone went ga-ga over him, especially Oprah.

However, I never dreamt in a million years that he was a long-term sex offender, and yes, I believe the accounts told by every victim that has come forward.

I was shocked when Janice Dickinson described what happened to her and will willing to suspend belief, based on her history of drug and alcohol abuse. But when I read 1970’s top black model, Beverly Johnson’s article in the December 2014 Vanity Fair this week, I was overcome with anger and sorrow that this man who was lauded and honoured was an unrepentant rapist.

I didn’t know that he had settled a civil sexual assault case several years ago and had not heard that multiple women had come forward to be witnesses in the civil trial. I sure do understand why he settled the case… a trial would have been pubic, as would the evidence of the parade of thirteen female victims who were prepared to testify that they too had been drugged and assaulted by him.

Cosby has refused to make a public statement until yesterday when he said:

“Let me say this. I only expect the black media to uphold the standards of excellence in journalism and when you do that you have to go in with a neutral mind”.

Yes, Cosby is suggesting that ‘whitey” won’t give him a fair shake…a ridiculous suggestion from a man who thrived in the institutions and bastions of white America, from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to Temple University, from the Playboy Mansion to overwhelmingly white Hollywood.

Journalists, of every race and colour, report the news. The news about Cosby is that as many as 37 women have come forward with allegations that all sound the same: Cosby drugged and assaulted them.

His wife of many decades, Camille Cosby, also spoke out yesterday saying that the man who has been described in the nation’s newspapers is not the man she knows. On that count I’d say she is correct.

Bill Cosby has managed to fool everyone!

Unlike Canada, where criminal charges can be filed in historical sexual abuse cases, America has a statute of limitations which means that after a certain date, no criminal charges can be filed against Cosby.

Here’s hoping that the civil lawsuit filed against Cosby this week will start a landslide of civil actions.

For all his fame and fortune, Cosby is by all accounts, an abusive, nasty man, the details of which will become clearer as the civil suits proceed. Of course, with the millions Cosby has it would not surprise me if he threw enough money at his “problem” to make it go away, like he did in 2006.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Attorney Uses Forged Power of Attorney to “Pull the Plug” on Her Wealthy Father

Elder abuse is a world-wide phenomenon that has only recently received the attention and research dollars that it deserves. For our senior citizens who are victims of caregivers or family members, the emotional and physical damage and financial exploitation is often hidden behind closed doors.

Such is the case in an elder abuse case in Missouri that has been exposed by authorities who have charged Kansas City lawyer, Susan (Liz) Elizabeth Van Note, age 44, with first degree murder and felony forgery.

Liz Van Note’s 67-year-old father and his long-time girlfriend, who he intended to marry, were attacked by an intruder in their Ozarks vacation home. Mr. Van Note’s girlfriend, Sharon Dickson, age 59, did not survive her gunshot wounds and died at the scene.

Mr. Van Note survived and was transported to hospital, but died four days later, after his only child, Liz, gave his medical team a durable power of health care attorney, that authorized her to determine whether or not to “pull the plug”. She decided that life support should be terminated. With the death of her father and his fiance, Liz Van Note became the beneficiary of his multi-million dollar estate.

Authorities later determined that the power of attorney was a forgery.

A September 2012 criminal indictment against Ms. Van Note says that she “knowingly caused the death of William Van Note by shooting him… either acting alone or by knowingly acting together with or aiding another or others” and used a forged power of attorney to deny him potentially life-saving treatment. No charges have yet been brought against her in respect of the death of Sharon Dickson.

Two high school friends of Ms. Van Note’s have also been charged with felony forgery and second degree murder. Desre and Stacy Dory also plead not guilty.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Van Note was removed as the executrix of her father’s estate and was ordered to relinquish control of the assets in her father’s estate. She did, however, manage to post cash bail of $1 million dollars after pleading not guilty, a situation that has caused concern because Ms. Van Note filed for bankruptcy the year before her father’s death, claiming assets of $250,000 against debts of $375,000.

The obvious inference is that Ms. Van Note has already helped herself to estate assets.

Ironically, Liz Van Note practices estate law touting her “compassionate representation of clients” and expertise in end-of-life issues.

UPDATE: Liz Van Note has now been charged with the murder of Sharon Dickson. She was also jailed for contempt of court when she failed to return monies she spent from her deceased father’s estate. Charges have been dropped against high school friends, Desre and Stacy Dory, who unwittingly witnessed the forged power of attorney.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Tragedy of Hot Cars and Kids

GEO CASUALRecently there has been a spate of tragic stories about young children inadvertently left in motor vehicles who have died because of the intense heat.

Residents of sun belt areas know all too well that children and pets cannot be left in cars when sunny days lead to warm weather, however, despite this we continue to hear such stories.

This summer Justin Ross Harris of Georgia was charged with malice murder, felony murder, and child cruelty when he left his 22-month-old son in his car while he went to his workplace, forgetting to drop him off at daycare.

Authorities in Georgia believe that Mr. Harris’ actions were intentional after finding searches on his home computer for “death in hot cars”. They also learned that Harris and his partner had purchased substantial life insurance on their son. Media outlets have reported that while his infant son was sweltering in extreme heat, Harris was sending sexually explicit photos to a variety of women.

The only good news Harris has received since his arrest is that the county prosecutor will not be seeking the death penalty. Harris remains in jail. His wife has not been charged.

Meanwhile in Scottsdale, Arizona, mother Shanesha Taylor, age 35, left her two children, ages two and six months, in her automobile while she attended a 45 minute job interview. She was a single mother who had been desperately looking for work. The children were rescued before the worst happened. Ms. Taylor told the police she was unemployed and homeless. Her story was met with public sympathy and compassion, so much so that she received over $100,000 in donations.

Further investigation revealed, however, that she had a part-time job and was not homeless, nonetheless, authorities agreed to a plea bargain where she would take parenting classes and deposit all donations into a trust account for her children’s education.

Her biggest challenge was obtaining the return of her two children who had been removed from her home after the incident. She eventually recovered custody of the kids.

Across the pond, British family law lawyer, Tim Haines, stopped at a pharmacy to pick up baby formula for his two-year-old daughter, leaving her in the car for no more than ten minutes. When he returned his daughter was happily standing in the front seat, but outside the car were two police officers waiting for him.

The officers chastised Mr. Haines, and refused to allow him to drive his car home because of “bald tires”. Mr. Haines walked the lengthy distance home carrying his daughter.

Two weeks later the police showed up at his doorstep and arrested him for child endangerment. His five children were placed on the Child Protection Registry and Mr. Haines and his wife spent a year in legal proceedings. He was convicted of the charge but on appeal the conviction was reversed. He eventually had his name cleared and his children’s names removed from the registry.

Website kidsandcars.org brings home the devastation of these deaths in its collection of photos of beautiful, innocent children who have tragically died in their parent’s cars.

Never take the chance with a child’s life….

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang