Drug Use Weakened Allegations of Abuse : Shooting: Eileen Zelig’s claims that her ex-husband was dangerous were easier to dismiss because of her history of pill popping.
With their three kids and suburban Chatsworth home, Eileen and Harry Zelig seemed to one friend as typifying the all-American, professional middle-class family.
But when their marriage unraveled and a bitter divorce ensued, that picture of normalcy evaporated, at least to those privy to the couple’s voluminous divorce files.
Those court records reveal that beneath the cloak of domesticity, Eileen Zelig was a housewife who frequented pharmacies throughout the San Fernando Valley to quench her need for the powerful narcotic painkiller Vicodin, an addiction she claimed to have overcome.
She in turn swore under oath that her husband, a physician, supplied her with huge quantities of the drug he obtained from mail-order pharmaceutical companies. She also alleged he abused Vicodin himself while also taking anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs to curb his rage and suicidal tendencies. He denied it.
In almost 800 pages of numbing charges and countercharges, the warring spouses accused each other of physical and emotional abuse, behaviors often associated with taking mind-altering substances, be they perfectly chilled martinis or benign-looking pills.
The role of drugs aside, the couple seemed “so entwined emotionally with allegations going back and forth . . . it was clear they would be at odds forever,” said Leonard Levine, one of Harry Zelig’s attorneys.
“Forever” arrived Sept. 1, when the doctor allegedly gunned down his ex-wife at a place that had become their personal battleground--the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse Downtown. The couple’s 6-year-old daughter was an eyewitness.
Now the three children the Zeligs fought over so furiously are without either parent. Eileen is dead and Harry is in the County Jail, charged with her murder.
Although it is unclear what role drugs played in the tragic ending of the Zeligs’ love-hate match, one theme recurs in the court record: Because Eileen was the accused pill-popper and Harry the respected doctor, it was apparently all too easy to dismiss her incessant complaints that he was dangerous.
In court papers, Harry Zelig said Vicodin was his wife’s “drug of choice,” a precipitating factor in the couple’s divorce after 11 years of marriage.
The strong, codeine-based painkiller is a favorite potion of middle-class drug users, substance abuse experts say. Its allure comes from its potency: Vicodin is the most powerful painkiller available without a special, closely monitored prescription written in triplicate as required by law.
“Vicodin is abused a lot,” said Robert Popovian, a doctor of pharmacy and a researcher at USC. “It’s a problem.”
Eileen Zelig said she started using the drug the way experts say most people do--innocently. It was prescribed to her as a painkiller in 1988 for a broken rib, Zelig wrote in a sworn statement.
“People take them for good cause,” said Dr. David Murphy, who heads the Exodus Recovery Center, a drug treatment program at Daniel Freeman-Marina Hospital. “Some people have difficulty stopping.”
Murphy was an expert witness for Harry Zelig at the couple’s custody hearing in mid-1994. He testified that paranoid feelings were a common side effect of prescription painkiller abuse, testimony used to imply that Eileen Zelig’s fears were the product of an over-medicated mind.
Indeed, none of the attorneys who had ongoing contact with Harry Zelig suspected that he was capable of violence, despite a criminal charge--never proven in court--that he slapped Eileen once on the night they separated.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think he would shoot her or do anything to her physically,” said Levine, Harry Zelig’s attorney in the misdemeanor battery case.
Eileen’s friends and the couple’s neighbors believed otherwise, describing Harry as moody, withdrawn and volatile. They also described incidents in which, despite a restraining order, he circled the quiet cul-de-sac where his ex-wife lived, stalking her. She installed floodlights, got a dog and worried.
But for all the signs that Zelig was a potential threat, drugs undermined Eileen Zelig’s credibility again and again.
On the witness stand during the custody hearing, Eileen Zelig was confronted with prescription records showing she had obtained as many as 1,000 pills a month. The cache included the tranquilizer Valium and diet pills, along with Vicodin.
Eileen insisted the prescriptions, obtained in her name, were for Harry Zelig. She and her attorneys also offered a sworn statement from a substance abuse specialist who said Eileen appeared to have a handle on her admitted problem.
Bernard McInerney, a therapist who at one point was seeing the entire Zelig family, also wrote in a sworn affidavit that Harry Zelig admitted obtaining Vicodin for his wife and keeping it in the house when she was struggling to overcome her addiction. McInerney did not return phone calls, and the court file is replete with statements by Zelig about how he agonized over his wife’s drug use and its effect on their family.
In their effort to counter Zelig’s allegations of drug impairment, Eileen and her lawyers also submitted to the court a statement from a teacher at the children’s grade school saying she saw Eileen Zelig several times a week and she was always lucid and sober.
Regular users can quickly build up a tolerance to drugs and go to great lengths to conceal their habit, several experts including Murphy noted. Nonetheless, Murphy said, overuse of a prescription drug does not necessarily mean someone is an inadequate parent.
“Is it possible to be a real good mother and have addictive disease? Of course,” Murphy said.
Both Harry and Eileen looked to the Family Law court for more than it could deliver--salvation from their obsessive relationship.
In one affidavit, Harry urges the court “to assist me so that Eileen is prevented from . . . using the court system as her private vigilante.”
Eileen, too, begged for relief from escalating harassment. “He follows me, leaves hang-up calls on my telephone and continues to exert control over me by withholding financial support,” she wrote.
Both pleas were filed this year after the case was supposedly resolved. Eileen Zelig had won full custody of the children last year. A financial agreement and visitation schedule was signed. But soon after, Harry, a diabetic with high blood pressure and heart disease, became too sick to work full time.
Despite receiving a six-figure earthquake insurance check in late 1994, an ever more frantic Eileen, by now acting as her own attorney, lodged a barrage of court actions known as ex parte motions, which give the opposing side less than 24 hours to appear in court to respond to a request or complaint.
“Eileen’s conduct in this matter is hysterical for the situation,” Iris Joan Finsilver, Zelig’s divorce lawyer, wrote the judge.
Harry Zelig added in a separate declaration, “She fantasizes about me wanting to attack her physically.”
Eventually, Finsilver dropped out of the case, not long after complaining in court records that she, too, had been on the receiving end of Eileen’s constant calls. The estranged couple were left with no buffer.
Harry was frantic at having to show up at court every few weeks, according to court records, but apparently not so frantic as to pay the child and spousal support he owed. The payments had been lowered, with Eileen’s consent, because of his truncated work schedule.
“He apparently couldn’t abide by court orders,” said Michael Maroko, Eileen’s former attorney. “He wasn’t willing to accept, or not able to handle, a situation of having an expense to pay.”
In May, Harry Zelig maintained he was under too much stress to return to work. As a consultant to the California Medical Board, the state panel that oversees licensed physicians’ ethics and discipline, he asked for a leave of absence. However, a letter from Medical Board official John C. Lancara, filed with the court, said Zelig resigned because his ex-wife had garnished his wages.
When he obtained another job as general practitioner at Lakeside Medical Group in Glendale, Eileen hired a private detective to verify his employment and promptly attached those wages too, as was her legal right.
She also submitted to the court a chilling May letter from her ex-husband that promised she would never see another cent of spousal support from him again.
“There will be an end to wage assignments now and forever,” he wrote. “I have no problem with going to jail or dropping out of sight and letting you chase me around the planet.”
Attached to the letter was a copy of the Old Testament chapter in which Sampson is robbed of his strength by Delilah, only to vanquish his enemies. Harry Zelig also threw in a copy of the Declaration of Independence and an article headlined, “Child Support Payments Can’t Replace Fatherhood.”
“I have nothing left,” Zelig had written a few months earlier, referring to lost assets, health and ability to work.
Conversely, Eileen drew strength from representing herself in court and had planned to start paralegal classes last week. Using primers on family law purchased from a legal publisher, Eileen had one more legal tactic up her sleeve. And that is what brought the couple together for the last time.
On Sept. 1, Harry Zelig arrived from his furnished apartment in Woodland Hills at the courthouse by bus. He had no choice.
In her latest effort to obtain court-ordered support, Eileen Zelig had successfully arranged to have her ex-husband’s 8-year-old Ford, virtually his only remaining asset, seized. He was there to get it back.
Eileen Zelig told a friend she expected her ex-spouse to bring along enough cash to redeem the car, worth at best $4,000. Instead, witnesses say, he brought a gun.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.