Looking back, I suppose the trouble all started with 9/11. As a former securities litigation attorney on Wall Street, Rob had several acquaintances and former coworkers who died on that monster of a Tuesday morning, and it seemed to affect him to an unusual degree. He began seeing a therapist and started down a rocky road of antidepressant use.
My husband opened a one-man law office in our small town in 1998. After a slow and financially shaky start the first year, things really began to gel and business was booming. In addition to his legal secretary, he added a paralegal in 2001. One month prior to 9/11, just four weeks before we were to move into the home we were building, his newly hired paralegal embezzled $28,000. Anyone who has ever been under contract on a house knows that this is not an opportune time to suddenly be short $28K. The paralegal was jailed in short order and it was agreed that if she returned the funds, Rob would file lesser charges against her. While she was in county jail awaiting sentencing, it was discovered that she had been a frequent visitor to state and federal prisons throughout the years. While her crimes had mostly been white-collar, embezzlement, black mail, forgery, and grand larceny, her most recent incarceration had been for arson. She had taken offense at a former employer who had been displeased about her ‘cooking the books’ at his chain of restaurants in Atlanta, and burned down several of those buildings. I know what you’re thinking…can a lawyer not spell BACKGROUND CHECK? Apparently Rob was a sucker for her guileless cornflower blue eyes and blond pixie cut. She was a dead ringer for Ellen Degeneres (no offense, Ellen). Anywhooo, she went away for a bit of prison time, and that was the end of that, or so I thought.
Enter a new legal secretary/paralegal in 2003. My radar was on high alert around this one. Skirts were short and cleavage was deep. Rob’s male paralegal and his wife did take pains to try to warn me; I recognized that in hindsight. Among arched eyebrows and derisive descriptions of her skimpy work outfits, faint sniffs of disdain were heard from some of my husband’s clients about ‘that new girl‘. But I was a busy working mom, caring for two elderly parents and a Dad dying of cancer. Money from the law practice flowed like wine, so I did not look or listen closely enough to the veiled hints helpful folks were trying to lob into the closed window of my consciousness. Oopsie!
For the sake of simplicity, let’s call this paralegal RB. Even when RB began calling our house after 11Pm most Saturday nights, usually drunk, my attorney husband always had a plausible explanation. Aren’t all lawyers creative liars? The first time the skies parted, the angels sang, and the truth smacked me upside the head like a sodden, mildewed washcloth, was the night I was told Rob was dead. When I arrived home that evening, with Mom, son, and coworkers in tow, there was a single flower arrangement on the porch, which had been delivered at 5PM. It was from RB, and the card read simply, “I am so sorry. Please forgive me.” Odd indeed that an employee who had quit months before had managed to send flowers for a deceased boss, before even the wife was notified of his death by law enforcement. You truly can’t make this shit up, kiddos. My fiction writing pales in comparison to real life, every single time.
I was vexed for months by the fact that I was unable to find a suicide note, but finally got some answers when I contacted the North Carolina Bar five months after his death. The day prior to his suicide, the day of his mysterious ‘car accident’ and disappearance, he had received a courtesy call from the bar association, informing him that he would be served the following day with papers suspending his license to practice law in NC for one year; he would be stripped of his privilege to practice real estate law (which had been his bread and butter) for the remainder of his career. Digesting this news, he decided to stage a car accident so that the one remaining life insurance policy he still had would pay out, as it would look like an accident and not a suicide. Apparently he was not able to deal with his family and community knowing he was a criminal and a loser; as with most cowards, the easy way out was his preferred option. He had been fined and sanctioned by the NC Bar for one year prior to his death for taking client retainers and not following up with any action. He was about to be publicly disgraced and humiliated in front of a very small community.
Other things came to light in the course of the police investigation. Rob had discovered a taste for kiddie porn, probably sometime during the financial heyday of his practice. Money was flowing, and I was busy with the dental practice, so what harm was there in a little hobby, an avocation? After all, a busy man doesn’t always have time for an entire 18 holes of golf. When I cleaned out his office, I found credit card receipts for porn sites charging $400 per minute, specializing in blond pre-teen Scandinavian girls. I also discovered his briefcase stuffed with incriminating photos of all manner of interesting parlor games being played with ladies of the night and bondage. Apparently this was the same briefcase witnesses saw him struggling over with a young woman mere hours before he died. There was evidence that he had been blackmailed for at least one or two years, and that any money coming onto his practice had just as quickly gone out again, to his blackmailer. Police were convinced that either RB or the 2001 paralegal could have been responsible for the blackmail. The timing of the paralegal’s release from prison coincided perfectly. As for RB, she was enraged when Rob declined her ultimatum to divorce me and marry her. Both of the women had access to his inner office and knowledge of his leanings. Evidence came to light that Rob had told his blackmailer about losing his license and had agreed to one final payment, at which point she would turn all the incriminating photos over to him. After giving her approximately $10,000 in one final cash payment, she gave him the briefcase, but then informed him that she had mailed copies of everything to his wife, the local newspaper, and several of his clients. She had also hidden copies all over his office. Good luck hiding your sins now, big boy, she mocked. As years have passed, the only remaining question is, was RB the blackmailer, or the paralegal he had sent, once again, to prison? The answer is not important to me; surviving the financial consequences of his actions was.
My house was placed on the market immediately, as my take-home pay barely covered the mortgage. There was now no life insurance, and the bank accounts, thin as they were, were frozen by law enforcement. I lived in this limbo state for 12 months, until my house finally sold. My son and I survived by the kindness of true Southern saints. After Rob’s death, I would open a drawer and reach for something and pull out hundred-dollar bills. I would open the linen closet to remove fresh towels, and there would be cash. I would open sympathy cards and hundred-dollar bills would fall out. This happened for so long, I lost count of how much money was left behind by well-meaning folks during the 10-day period of the wake and funeral; that is the only non-other-worldly explanation I have for the fact that my son and I were able to eat and pay bills during that year. Rob’s relatives and friends loaned me money to pay the mortgage for five months, and then, in separate visits, two local ministers came to my front door. Each held envelopes containing checks and cash to pay my $1700 mortgage. “Please understand,” they each said, “this is not a loan. This is an offering of love and support from the community.” Some of the donations were in dollar bills, loose coins, some checks for as little as three dollars. I have never been so touched or humbled in my life. Feeding grieving family members after a death is elevated to a high art form in the South, but in our case it continued for three months. Every single evening, some kind lady from the neighborhood would tap on the door, laden with dinner and household supplies. Cakes, pies, homemade bread, and hard American cash were often left on our front porch bench. But, just when I thought this nightmare might be coming to a close, I discovered that Rob had left me with one final surprise.
Within a month of his passing, I began to receive bills from credit card companies. Citicorp, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, many of which I’d never done business with. Turns out, in a desperate bid for cash to pay his blackmailer and keep his office afloat, he would come home at lunch and retrieve our mail, availing himself of credit card offers made to me, due to my impeccable credit. He would forge my signature and information, and voila! he would possess a new, virgin credit card for $10 or $20K, just like that. It was like his own private monetary printing press. He used that money to pay rent on his office, order supplies, and pay his vendors. Not stopping there, he would tear off the “convenience checks” at the bottom of my two actual credit card bills and write generous checks to himself, that he would in turn give to me to cover ‘household expenses’. It was a precarious Ponzi scheme that was bound to collapse sooner rather than later. At the end of the day, I owed $88,000 for debts he accrued in my name. And after a three-year-long battle with the IRS, it was decided that I owed them over $8,000 in unpaid employee taxes for 2003, despite having no connection whatsoever to his law practice. A local lawyer waged a Herculean battle with the credit card companies, and after two years of worry and strife, got all but $2,400 of that debt dismissed. He refused to accept any payment for his services. This good man and his wife will forever be in my prayers for their efforts on my behalf.
I suppose it is not surprising that a man caught up in an affair with an employee, kiddie porn, and blackmail, watching his future about to implode, would become addicted to antidepressants and antipsychotics to smooth out the rough spots of his day. After he died, I discovered a secret kit where he hid the 15 medications he was taking when he committed suicide. They were all prescribed by different health care professionals in numerous counties, all filled by different pharmacies. Did these help push him over the edge to his foregone conclusion?
This is the first time in the ensuing nine years that I have revealed this entire story, as much as I know, anyway; I’m sure there might be more dirt hidden in the crevices, but it matters not. The important thing for me is, after years of sensing, feeling that wolf at my door, I finally threw open that door and invited the SOB in. And you know what? I threw that bastard over on his back and forced open his mouth. He wasn’t really all that scary, a scrawnier beast than I’d imagined. One with missing fangs, bad breath, and mange. I rubbed his belly and domesticated him, and in doing so, became fearless. Nothing frightens me anymore for I have now become the wolf.
Feature image courtesy of thinkgeek.com