Lawyers Cite Increased Fear of Violence Against Them : Law: Attorneys say threats, assaults, even killings are on the rise. Divorces, custody cases are seen as most risky.


For attorney Eric St. John, the nightmare began shortly after he agreed to represent a woman in a divorce and custody case. By his telling, the enraged husband of his client repeatedly threatened his life, harassed his family, and virtually ruined his law practice during a two-year campaign of intimidation and terror.

Even though the husband is now in prison, the Long Beach lawyer's ordeal is not over. His tormentor has continued to threaten him by mail. The cellmate of the man whom St. John calls a "monster"--and who will get out in four years--wrote the attorney's daughter a letter saying he admired the photographs of her that adorned their cell.

"When he gets out, I have no doubt that he will be coming back looking for me," said St. John, 43. "And I have no idea what I will do--if I'll retire or move or what."

The harrowing episode is just one of many in which attorneys have been threatened, assaulted or even killed because of their legal work, particularly if they handle divorce or custody cases.

Although statistics are scarce, many attorneys say they feel increasingly at risk and cite as evidence an upswing of threats against them in recent years. The recent mass shooting at a San Francisco law firm simply underscored an already growing anxiety among many lawyers.

"It's just happening all the time, all over the country," said North Carolina attorney Lee Rosen, who practices family law. "It's pretty frightening if you are an attorney."

Mindful of the risks, Rosen's Raleigh law office installed a combination lock on its main entrance after the distraught husband of a client in a divorce case showed up with a gun. Now a receptionist peers out a window to examine visitors before opening the door.

Family law is particularly dangerous because even normally sane and sober people become, in Rosen's words, "temporarily insane" when confronted with the loss of a spouse or children or substantial income. Anger toward a spouse is often vented on the lawyer.

"I would rather represent an ax murderer than a divorce case any day," said Peter Keane, chief attorney in the San Francisco public defender's office.

Nearly half of attorneys polled recently by the Alameda County Bar Assn. said they had received threats arising from their legal work. Ten percent said action had been taken "in furtherance" of the threats.

Federal statistics also suggest a recent rise in threats and assaults against federal judges and prosecutors, with the incidents reaching a high of 496 in 1990. Outside the United States, attorneys and judges are frequent targets of violence because of their legal work.

Lawyers attribute the apparently rising risks to a variety of reasons: increased violence in society, an extreme antipathy toward lawyers, even frustration arising out of bad economic times.

"There were about 19 different shootings in courthouses around the country last year, and most of those were in family law," said Cleveland attorney Marshall Wolf, who heads the American Bar Assn.'s family law section.

For St. John, the terror began when a small, quiet woman came into his Long Beach office four years ago and asked for his help in obtaining a divorce. Shortly afterward, the woman and her young son were kidnaped by her husband and their trailer home was firebombed.

After the woman and child escaped, St. John arranged to have her hide in a safe house for battered women. The enraged man then turned on St. John.

The attorney said the estranged husband called his law office and his Orange County home as many as 200 times a day, threatening to kill him. A San Diego undercover police officer informed St. John that the man had tried to take out a contract on his life.

St. John discovered that the husband was suspected of firebombing the offices and cars of attorneys who had represented the husband in a previous divorce in Ohio. Three attorneys had removed themselves from that case.

Someone broke into St. John's law office, stole phone records and then telephoned the people listed on the records, accusing them of holding the wife and son. The attorney's secretary, a mother of four children, became so fearful that she took out a life insurance policy.

The harassment included an advertisement placed in a newspaper listing St. John's house for sale at an unrealistically low price--causing buyers to besiege his telephone with calls. His homeowner's insurance also was canceled on instructions from an unknown caller.

More ominously, St. John said, the husband came to his home on at least four occasions. When St. John discovered a leak under his car, he found that the brake lines had been cut. His neighbor's Mercedes-Benz also was smashed, apparently under the mistaken assumption that it belonged to St. John.

"He (the estranged husband) called me up, and said, 'How do you like your brown Mercedes?' " St. John said. "Everything he did he called and told me about it."

Sometimes St. John's tormentor just parked near his house, watching it. The attorney's frightened wife wanted St. John to change his line of work. Their now-adult daughter was followed in a shopping mall by a man who took pictures of her.

St. John obtained restraining orders, but he said the police did not enforce them adequately. Investigations by several law enforcement agencies failed to produce convictions for the harassment.

Finally, St. John got a permit to carry a concealed weapon and hired an armed bodyguard for his home. His pursuer was eventually sent to prison after he discovered his wife's safe house and attacked it.

Citing a rise in such violence against attorneys, the president of the State Bar of California recently called for consideration of special penalties for violence against lawyers.

Not surprisingly, St. John would favor such a move.

"But I just wish police would enforce the laws we have when attorneys become victims," he said, expressing frustration that the restraining orders were not enforced and that his tormentor managed for so long to elude prosecution.

In San Jose, police are still investigating the shooting last September of attorney Robert A. Vatuone and his wife. They were watching television at home when a gunman appeared at their window and shot and wounded them.

The lawyer said the attack stemmed from a bitter divorce case he was handling: Both he and his client had received similar threats prior to the shooting. Trying to put the nightmare behind him, Vatuone asked his client to hire a different attorney and removed himself from her case.

But he still cannot rest at ease. Someone telephoned his law firm several days ago and warned that the contract on his life would be completed. The shaken attorney fled town.

"It's pretty awful," said Ronald Meckler, a partner in the firm.

Although shootings are relatively rare, it is not hard to find attorneys who have been punched or shoved. Some lawyers keep loaded guns in their offices; others carry Mace. Many register their cars to their law offices to prevent anyone from learning where they live. In the Alameda County survey, 7% of the attorneys responding said they had armed themselves because of a case.

In most cases, however, the threats prove empty. San Francisco attorney Karen D. Kadushin remembers coming home from an elegant Saturday night dinner a few years ago and pressing the button on her answering machine to listen to her messages.

"You will die, b----," said a male voice she recognized as the husband of a woman she was representing in a divorce case.

The threat, which was not followed with violence, was one of a handful that she and colleagues in her office have received over the past several years.

"It's always about two people who are separating their lives in one fashion or another," said Kadushin, a certified family law specialist for 10 years. "It's more common among men, and their level of threats are more specific and weapons are more often involved."

Attorneys and judges say criminal defendants tend to be more realistic about the consequences of attacking an attorney or court official and therefore pose less risk than otherwise law-abiding citizens caught up in the emotion of a family dispute.

"In criminal law you see the worst people at their very best, and in family law you see the best people at their very worst," said Milwaukee attorney James J. Podell, who has asked for police protection twice because of threats stemming from divorce cases.

The wrath that such cases provoke is illustrated by an Alameda County organization of disgruntled family law litigants who picket the courthouse and are trying to recall a family law judge.

The group was started by San Leandro resident James Begier, infuriated that the Oakland judge "jacked up" his child-support payments and gave his ex-wife custody of their daughter.

"Attorneys are the big problem," said Begier, a Bay Area car dealer, because they "soak the families dry. . . . We can understand why some of these people (in family law court) go off the deep edge."

Aware of such sentiments, court administrators around the country are starting to install metal detectors in family law courtrooms, even in counties where the criminal courthouses have none. But family law judges still complain that they do not have armed bailiffs.

Next to family law attorneys, lawyers who practice criminal law tend to be the most concerned about safety. Security was beefed up in some Alameda County criminal law courtrooms after a prosecutor was assaulted in a death penalty case last year.

Senior Dist. Atty. Kenneth Burr was leaving the courtroom in September when a convicted murderer who had just received a death sentence lunged at him.

Burr spied the man out of the corner of his eye and ducked, suffering a cut on his forehead as the convict tumbled over him.

"I got 15 stitches, and he got death," Burr said. "I can live with that."

Prisoners are now shackled before the penalty is returned in a death case, and at least five bailiffs are supposed to be present. Only two were in court when Burr was attacked.

"I had been arguing for two days for the jury to take this man's life, so I guess it was reasonable to expect him to be upset," the prosecutor said.

Even civil litigation, particularly when it involves huge sums of money, can be potentially threatening.

During litigation over rights to federally irrigated land in California, the San Francisco office of an attorney for a client seeking to break up large corporate farms was firebombed.

The attorney, Arthur Brunwasser, believes the fire that destroyed his office 13 years ago was triggered by his involvement in the water case, although the identity of the bomber was never discovered.

"I was the only one among eight or 10 lawyers in our suite who was even remotely connected with anything controversial," Brunwasser said.

In the wake of the San Francisco law firm shootings, several law firms and the State Bar of California have received threats. Harvey Saferstein, the Bar president who called for measures to deal with violence against attorneys, had to hire a security guard for his Los Angeles office.

"You only have to wait another day or so," said Milwaukee family law attorney Podell, "and there will be another incident somewhere."

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