First Cyberstalking, Then Murder, in Family Law Tragedy

DSC00507 (2)In a divorce tragedy akin to Shakespeare’s “MacBeth”, Delaware mother Christine Belford, age 39, was murdered by her father-in-law in February 2013 after years of litigation involving child abduction, allegations of mental illness, non-payment of child support, and the eventual termination of a parental relationship.

Earlier chapters of the divorce of Ms. Belford and her optometrist husband David Matusiewicz were distinguished by animosity and hatred engendered by a dispute over their children.

In 2006 a psychologist examined the parties and found each parent capable and fit. The Court acted on that information and granted joint custody to the parties with Mr. Matusiewicz to have primary residence and Ms. Belford to see the children every weekend and mid-week.

But that order did not suit the children’s father who believed his wife was a an unfit, neglectful mother.

Selling his practice, Mr. Matusiewicz abducted their three children in 2006, spiriting them off to Central America in a Winnebago, with the assistance of his mother, Lenore Matusiewicz. Eighteen months later the children were found in Nicaragua and both David and his mother were sentenced to prison, three years and eighteen months respectively.

Now that the children resided with their mother, the Matusiewciz family made Ms. Belmont’s life a living hell for seven years, with repeated calls to child protection services, abusive allegations, multiple trips to court, and the ever present overtures to psychologists willing to advocate for them.

Their email and internet campaign saw David Matusiewicz, his parents and his sister spy, torment, and stalk his ex-wife, and repeatedly and falsely accuse Ms. Belford in emails, letters, phone calls and Internet postings of sexually abusing and neglecting the couple’s daughters.

By June 2012 Christine Belford wrote a letter to her ex-husband and his family barring all further contact with the children. She wrote:

“Your past behaviors have scarred the children enough,” she wrote. “There is no need to inflict additional harm.”

She also communicated her fear to her lawyer, Timothy Hitchings, writing:

“[David Matusiewicz] may allow me to survive to suffer, I may survive long enough to watch the girls be harmed. I may even go missing. All of this could be possibilities.”

Further emails between this frightened mother and her lawyer indicated she had taken out life insurance on two of her daughters, wrote a will, and was saving money to purchase a gun.

During her last days, she prepared for another child support hearing, arriving at the courthouse with her friend, Laura Mulford, when suddenly her 68-year old father-in-law, a Navy veteran and former police officer, drew his gun and shot Christine Belford and her friend Laura. In a hail of bullets he exchanged gunfire with the police before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide. He had earlier told friends that he had a brain tumour and didn’t care whether he lived or died, although medical reports indicated the tumour was benign.

But if Thomas Matusiewicz thought his death by suicide would spare his co- conspirators he was dead wrong. In the first case in the United States, David Matusiewicz, his mother, Lenore Matusiewicz, and his sister, Amy Gonzales were charged and convicted by a jury of cyberstalking leading to death, with a possible sentence of life in prison.

While the Matusiewicz defendants denied knowledge of their father’s plans to kill Ms. Belford, the Prosecutors successfully argued that the defendants did not have to know that Tom Matusiewicz planned to kill her in order to be found guilty, but only that her death was “reasonably foreseeable” or a “natural consequence” of their actions.

They remain in custody and will be sentenced in October 2015. It is expected they will appeal their convictions.

The saddest part of this tragedy is that three lovely children no longer have a mother, a father, or paternal relatives to help them along in life, all because of hatred and misplaced obsession.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judges’ Orders Place Limitations on Defendants’ Sex Lives

DSC00447_2 (1)Another American judge has made an order regulating a litigant’s sex life. In the most recent case a court in Kansas sentenced a career criminal to a lengthy prison term for being a felon in possession of a weapon and also imposed a probation order to follow the jail sentence.

In an unusual move, U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs inserted a probation condition that Christopher Harris be barred from having unprotected sex while on probation, for the very simple reason that Mr. Harris had sired ten children with seven different women. He made the order over the protestations of Harris’ lawyer saying that Harris’ behaviour was creating severe social problems.

A week later Judge Sachs amended his order to read:

“The defendant shall use contraceptives before engaging in sexual activity that may otherwise cause pregnancy unless such use would violate his religious scruples or is expressly rejected by his sexual partner.”

However, unlike a similar order made in Wisconsin, the US Court of Appeals struck down the Sachs’ order saying the condition imposed was not related to the nature and circumstances of the offence, and did nothing to protect the public from future crimes.

In Wisconsin, Corey Curtis was sentenced to three years probation for falling behind in his child support payments. Mr. Curtis had nine children with six mothers. During the sentencing Judge Tim Boyle mused about whether he had the authority to order the sterilization of Mr. Curtis.

The alert prosecutor then advised the Judge there was precedent in Wisconsin to control Mr. Curtis’ sex life, referring to a 2001 case where a payor father was ordered not to father any further children until he had paid the arrears of child support he already owed.

This precedent setting case, State v. Oakley, was upheld by Wisconsin’s highest court and later appealed to the United States Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case, thus explicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the trial court order.

The Justices of the Wisconsin Court held that the “no-procreation” condition of probation was not unconstitutional. It was also preferable to the eight-year prison sentence that otherwise would have been ordered.

Different states, different judges, different results. That’s what makes the law so challenging.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Mr. No-Pay: You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

DSC01152_2 (2)_2Family law lawyers now have access to information that can transform a case from an up-hill battle to a slam-dunk, and it’s all thanks to the internet.

Case in point: I have a client whose ex-husband, a venture capitalist, stopped paying his child support about one year ago. Exhibiting the patience of a saint, my client bided her time, hopeful her ex would reinstate his payments and make up the arrears. Didn’t happen.

She then contacted my office and the legal process began. Her ex was obliged to provide the usual financial documents including income tax returns and corporate financial statements. His tax returns showed nominal income and gosh, darn, he said that all of his businesses were insolvent so he hadn’t bothered to have his accountant prepare financial statements.

With a little help from the internet, we learned he was selling his home with an asking price of just over $900,000.00. After the usual land title searches, we found out he had already purchased a new home in another community. He said he was downsizing. He paid about $850,000.00 for his new home. It was a lovely estate property, larger than his last home, in a less expensive rural area.

Next stop was his Linkedin page and from there we simply googled his name and the names of his corporations. Here’s what we found.

Earlier that year, he made an offer of $25 million to purchase a golf course/housing development project that was very close to his new home and in financial trouble. Press releases abounded announcing the pending acquisition and his superior business acumen.

Several years earlier he had been a finalist for an entrepreneur of the year award. He was on the Board of his local Chamber of Commerce and associated with at least two consulting firms touting his business expertise. His allegations of insolvency were not born out. His only business debt was related to a wine store he operated. He was paying $1000.00 per month to pay down the $40,000.00 debt, $1000.00 more than he was paying for his two kids!

With this information and his feeble explanations, he no longer looked as broke as he said he was. My client got her happy ending when a judge ordered Mr. No-Pay to pay up asap!

It’s not always this easy, but his “high profile” doomed any chance of a judge buying what he was selling. And don’t get me started on the gems you can find on Facebook!

You can run, but you can’t hide from the internet!

Wife Seeks Support 30 Years After Separation

GAL & PAL #2jpgImagine that you married when you were 20-years-old, had a child with your spouse and separated three years later. During the marriage you lived a peripatetic “new age hippy” lifestyle surviving on welfare benefits, with not a penny to your name.

Would you be surprised when your ex-wife, thirty years later brought a claim against you for financial compensation?

In a rags to riches tale, British entrepreneur and founder of wind farm company Ecotricity, Dale Vince, has battled his former spouse for several years to defeat her claim against him. She is asking for almost 2 million pounds.

Mr. Vince created a wind turbine from recycled materials, a venture that brought him millions of pounds and an Order of the British Empire.

Living in the lap of luxury with his second wife and their child, life was good. But not so good for his ex Kathleen Wyatt. When the marriage ended she took responsibility for their son, her daughter from a previous marriage, and went on to have two more children with her second husband, a marriage that also ended in divorce. Husband #2 also failed to provide financial support.

Ms. Wyatt approached Mr. Vince privately to see if he might be persuaded to assist her financially. He would not, and so she left the matter alone, claiming she was intimidated by his anger in response to her requests.

Her first foray into court in 2011 was successful, the lower court ruling that since the matter of support had never been settled or litigated, and given there was no statutory time limit to seek support, her claim could proceed.

Happily for Dale Vince, the English Court of Appeal disagreed with the lower court. Lord Justice Jackson said the court “should not allow people to be harassed by claims for financial relief which were issued many years after the divorce and had no real prospect of success.” The Court also noted that Mr. Vince was “the most improbable candidate for affluence.”

Alas for Mr. Vince, this week five members of Britain’s highest court, the House of Lords, overturned the appeal court’s ruling. Lord Wilson, for a unanimous court, ruled that the court must consider “the contribution of each party to the welfare of the family, including by looking after the home or caring for the family”.

Mr. Vince characterized his ex’s win as her “cashing in an old lottery ticket” however, the decision made by the Law Lords only allows her to pursue her claim. It does not guarantee her any amount of money and it is notable that the Court cautioned that it was unlikely she would receive anything close to millions of pounds.

The decision has received much media attention with Ms. Wyatt’s supporters suggesting that Mr. Vince went on his merry way unencumbered to achieve fame and fortune, while Ms. Wyatt cared for his son with no financial assistance from him.

Those who support wind-farm tycoon Mr. Vince decry the ruling saying that because Ms. Wyatt remarried and had two additional children, she should look to their father for support. They also criticize a media report that Mr. Vince has so far paid half a million pounds in legal fees, including his payment of Ms. Wyatt’s legal expenses. They protest that if she wishes to bring a claim against him, she should pay for it!

The next chapter of this litigation will be carefully watched and no doubt, appealed at every level.

As for former spouses in British Columbia, it is always dangerous to leave family matters “undone” and yes, there have been several cases where spouses have brought claims long after separation and been successful.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge’s Child Support Ruling Goes Viral

_DSC4179 - Version 2Life isn’t always fair, but Carnell Alexander expected that a judge in Michigan would right the wrong. As he described it:

“How can you start a case with a lie? The mom lied. The process server lied. Now I have to pay for it.”

In 1987 a young woman gave birth to a child. In order to get welfare funds from the government she was obliged to fill out a form indicating who the father of her child was. She named Carnell Alexander as her child’s father.

She then filed a court action alleging he was the father and sought child support.

A process server was hired to personally deliver the court documents to him, as was required by law.

A court hearing took place but Carnell Alexander wasn’t there. He was in jail serving time for a juvenile offence.

Later in the early 90’s Carnell was checked in a routine traffic stop and advised there was a warrant for his arrest. The police officer told him he was a “deadbeat dad”.

You can imagine his surprise…he had never received notice of the paternity hearing as he was behind bars at the time, and he swore he had no children.

He began searching for the woman who had named him as father so he could prove he was not, through DNA testing, but his efforts failed until 2013 when a paternity test was administered.

With his grade 8 education and no assets or income, he could not afford a lawyer, but each occasion he went to court he repeated the refrain that he was not the child’s father.

But the government wanted him to pay arrears of child support of $30,000, so he showed up in court on his own expecting that justice would prevail. Boy, was he wrong!

Judge Kathleen McCarthy said she was “outraged that Mr. Alexander for two and a half decades failed to take this matter seriously.”

She said that Mr. Alexander should have filed documents protesting paternity years ago and because he did not, he must pay the support.

Yes, even though he had no notice, was not the father, and the child’s biological father was in his life, he must pay.

Feeling helpless, Mr. Alexander went to Michigan radio station WXYZ who broadcast his story.

And yes, Judge McCarthy was outraged about that too saying:

“I am outraged at the media for the willful misrepresentations of the facts of this case. Casting this court in a negative light.”

Due to the media exposure Carnell Alexander now has a pro bono lawyer, Cherika Harris, who has vowed to continue the fight for him.

As for Judge McCarthy, it is not the radio station that has cast a negative light on her court. She did that all on her own.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

A Clever Way to Collect Child Support

GEO#1Getting an order for child support is the first step and thankfully, for many children, also the last. Unfortunately, there are too many cases where a child support order is not worth the paper it’s written on because the paying parent refuses to pay despite the existence of a court order.

How do they get away with it? They move away and hide, they work under the table, they feign illness and swear they are unable to work, they retire prematurely, they commence custody proceedings in an attempt to have primary residence of their children, thus avoiding the payment of child support, and on and on.

Collecting child support from a scoundrel parent can be a futile exercise, one where time, emotion, and most of all, money is thrown away trying to obtain “blood from a stone”.

However, Beth Ann Holderman from Pennsylvania found a novel way to pursue the father of her child who had not paid one cent and owed $42,803 in child support arrears. She hired bounty hunter Scott Bernstein to lure Joshua Garlathy to leave his home in Maui and return to Pennsylvania so she could get him before a judge.

What trap did Bernstein set? He convinced Garlathy that he was up for a role in a movie starring Jennifer Aniston, that was filming in Pennsylvania. A plane ticket was sent to him and when he arrived at the airport, Mr. Bernstein had a film crew on hand who videotaped his arrival and arrest for a reality TV show about parents who refuse to pay child support.

Mr. Garlathy defended himself calling the Pennsylvania court system unfair and insisting that he survived on disability payments and food stamps as he suffered from arthritis, psoriasis and depression. He said he had $80 in his bank account and his only assets were a guitar and a saxophone. He refused to admit that he was working as a musician in Maui, asserting that he only played at open mike nights and received no income.

Suggesting that perhaps Mr. Garlathy lacked talent, Judge Kelly Banach found Mr. Garlathy in contempt of court for his failure to pay support and sentenced him to six months in county prison with a work release so that he could earn money in prison to pay the support owed. The judge also ordered Garlathy’s release from prison once he had paid of a minimum of $10,000. Criminal charges are pending against him as well.

For Mr. Garlathy to have fallen for this ploy he must have a tremendous ego. Imagine starring in a film with one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Update on Teen Who Sued Parents For Child Support

GEO#1Thankfully some common sense has been injected into the situation between New Jersey teen, Rachel Canning, and her parents, Sean and Elizabeth Canning. Rachel is the 18 year-old who didn’t like her parents’ house rules, moved in with a girlfriend, and ended up in a courtroom suing her parents, courtesy of her girlfriend’s father, a local Lincoln Park politician and….wait for it…..lawyer!

Rachel obtained a court order on March 5, 2014 that denied her the child support she was seeking, but set up a court process for the matter to proceed to trial with a pretrial hearing on April 22, 2014. It was reported that her benefactor, lawyer John Inglesino, has already spent $13,000 on legal fees on her behalf.

Judge Peter Bogaard’s order also included the suggestions that the parties be encouraged to explore the option of family counselling…no kidding?

Rachel’s lawsuit turned her into an international media pariah, savaged in the court of public opinion, a situation that greatly distressed her parents, who changed counsel after the original hearing.

It cannot be a coincidence that the Canning’s new lawyer, Angelo Sarno, announced yesterday that Rachel had returned home, much to her family’s joy. Mr. Sarno said “(This case) should never have been brought to the court’s attention. It should never have been brought to the public”.

However, after Rachel returned home, her lawyer, Tanya Helfand, ran into court seeking emergency orders to seal the court file and have a guardian appointed for Rachel, telling the court that Rachel was “pressured” to return home by her parents and was waiving her complaint with no promise of financial consideration.

Judge Bogaard denied Ms. Helfand’s application.

So what you have now appears to be a classic legal conundrum. On one side, a lawyer who supports his clients to leave the legal arena before the damage is so devastating there is no possibility of reconciliation between Rachel, her parents and her two younger sisters; matched with a lawyer who apparently wants to continue and even escalate the litigation.

I still don’t understand lawyers who ignore the future ramifications of court actions involving families…one of the reasons why family law matters need to be steered away from court and into mediation or arbitration, if no compromise can be reached.

Not surprisingly, lawyer Inglesino has also been the subject of derision for interfering with Rachel and her parents in a highly personal matter.

It looks like there is only one lawyer in this piece who is wearing a “white hat”…

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang