Metcalf had a seedy little office in a ratty brick building, two blocks down from the family law courthouse. Sarah led the way with Jim following up three flights of narrow dingy stairs to Suite 312, etched on the frosted glass door. Inside they found an empty receptionist’s desk, a cheap plastic couch with two matching gold plastic chairs, and some tattered magazines on a rickety coffee table.
Before they could sit down, the door to the inner office opened, and Bob himself appeared. He was in his late fifties with a thin, wiry build, a high forehead and a receding hairline. He was wearing a cheap brown suit and a light blue tie that bore the stains of a lunch, either past or present.
Sarah and Jim took the seen-better-days chipped pressed wood chairs in front of Bob’s desk and declined his offer of bottled water from the dorm-room fridge behind his desk.
“Thanks for meeting with me,” Sarah began. “This is Jim Mitchell, my private investigator.”
Bob shook all hands offered and sat down behind his desk. Sarah noticed a stack of thick folders in front of him.
“Are all those files Alexa’s case?”
He nodded. “If she got the children to Michael’s for visitation fifteen minutes late, he’d drag her to court over it. He litigated everything. How is she by the way?”
“Not good.” Sarah briefly recapped the hearing in front of Judge Tomlinson.
“Sorry to hear it. She’s a sweet woman. Not a malicious bone in her body, but she ruined her life by marrying a class A dick like Michael Reed.”
“Really? Her former criminal defense lawyer called her a ‘lying, manipulating bitch.’”
Bob Metcalf waved his hands impatiently. “Well, he didn’t talk to me, then. He must have been talking to Tara Jacobs. She was Michael’s lawyer.
“Alexa came in here just trembling the first time we met. She’d been served with one of the most vicious sets of divorce pleadings I’ve ever seen. Michael hired the nastiest family law attorney in San Diego County to make all out war on her. Obviously you can tell I don’t have high-end clients,” he waved his arms around the small office, full of sagging book cases, with the view of a pay-per-hour parking lot below. “The truth is, none of the attorneys who are able to stand up against Tara Jacobs would take Alexa’s case because she couldn’t afford them. And no one wanted to be crosswise of Coleman Reed.”
“Why did you take it?” Jim asked.
“Truth be told, at first I thought I’d get some attorney’s fees out of it. Not from her, of course. Michael had tied up all their money, so she couldn’t touch a cent. But judges usually award attorney’s fees out of the deepest pocket. Since Michael had all the money, I figured he’d have to pay for Tara and me, too.”
“But I gather that didn’t happen?” Sarah said.
“No. This was the damnedest case I’ve ever seen. Right from the get go.”
“What do you mean?”
“The judge threw her and the kids out of the family home in La Jolla and gave it to Michael. That’s unheard of. At the time, she had a two-year-old and a one-year-old, and she was a full-time stay-at-home mom. No judge makes the primary parent move out of the family home. But that was just the beginning.”
“Was that when you realized you weren’t going to get any money out of the case?”
He nodded. “I made the usual request everyone makes at the end of the hearing, and I thought Judge Watkins was going to hold me in contempt. He said, ‘Mrs. Reed graduated first in her class from Georgetown. She’s perfectly capable of getting a job that will pay your fees. I see no reason why she should sponge off the plaintiff.’”
“Wow!” Sarah breathed. She noticed Jim wince as he sat beside her taking notes on a yellow pad.
“Yeah, nasty stuff. And, again, remember she was unemployed with a toddler and an infant, and Michael was about to become a full equity partner at Warrick, Thompson. In most cases like that, the judge awards the wife a huge chunk of child support and temporary alimony. Alexa got a little, but nothing like what she was entitled to.”
“So why did you stay on the case?”
Bob shrugged. “I thought, why not? Most of my other clients pay me pennies on the dollar. She was so sweet and grateful, and I knew she was in a desperate situation. We worked out a deal. She’d prepare papers for me, memoranda, briefs, things like that. I’m a rotten writer, and I barely passed the bar after going to an unaccredited law school. She made me look really good on paper for the first time in my career.”
“So what happened after that?”
“I tried to negotiate a settlement with Tara Jacobs. It would have been in everyone’s best interests to settle. Alexa needed to focus on her babies and finding a job. Michael had no use for kids; his career and his women were his life.”
“Did you know about the abortion Warrick, Thompson paid for?” Jim asked.
“The paralegal he knocked up in his first year?”
“Sure. Alexa told me about that. And about his affairs.”
“So she knew about the other women?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah, Michael wanted her to know. He liked taunting her with them to show her how powerless she was. That was Michael’s biggest ego trip. He knew he had gotten where he was riding on his old man’s coat tails, and he hated Alexa because she was so much smarter and had earned her way to the top. I believe he married her solely for the sadistic pleasure of destroying her.”
Jim wrote faster and faster.
“Could you testify to this at trial?” Sarah asked.
He nodded. “Actually, it would give me great pleasure. It’s been far worse for Alexa, don’t get me wrong. But it took an emotional toll on me, too, having to go into those hearings with her and watching the judge call Michael a saint and her a no-account free loader.”
“Was it really as bad as that?”
“I can pull some hearing transcripts, if you’d like to read them.”
“I would,” Sarah said. “So how did Alexa react to Michael’s affairs?”
“The way any wife would. Tried to reason with him. Tried to get him to go to counseling. But he beat her instead.”
Jim’s head shot up from the legal pad. “I’ve looked for evidence of that, but I haven’t found any. What have you got?”
“Only Alexa’s word. That’s why Brigman got away with shafting her the way he did. He labeled her a borderline personality disorder and declared her a chronic liar. And she didn’t have the money to bring in an expert of her own to testify against him. Wouldn’t have done any good, anyway. All the family law judges thought Brigman was the voice of God. They just rubber stamped anything he said. What Brigman called borderline personality disorder was post traumatic stress disorder from all the beatings.”
“But a judge can’t do that,” Sarah insisted. “Wholesale adoption of expert opinion is an unauthorized delegation of judicial power.”
“You graduated in the top of your class like Alexa. That’s exactly what she said. And we took it to the court of appeal. And lost. Some of the judges up there had been on the family law bench before they were kicked upstairs. They knew how much they liked to have a so-called expert to decide the tough issues, so they didn’t have to split the baby themselves. They didn’t want to take that out away from their brother judges still on the hot seat.”
“How did Brigman come to be involved in Alexa’s case in the first place?”
“Ah, that’s where the plot thickens. When Alexa first came to me, I thought Michael just wanted to dump his inconvenient family and be free to do his fooling around on the books instead of off. He was a good-looking guy, as you know, and attractive to women. But he was about to make partner, and being a Warrick partner and the son of a sitting United States Supreme Court justice would make him hotter than George Clooney. So I thought he’d just pay Alexa off, do a couple of pro forma visitations a year with the kids, and let everyone go about their business.”
“But that didn’t happen?”
“Not by a long shot. As soon as I tried settlement negotiations with Tara Jacobs, I knew something really sinister was up. She laughed in my face, and two days later filed a motion to give Michael full custody of the children.”
“But he couldn’t raise them. His career wouldn’t let him do that.”
“Right. And that should have been the beginning and end of the matter. But he’s Michael Reed, son of Coleman Reed. If he wants something, he gets it.”
“And he wanted Alexa’s children?”
“Exactly. Because he could control her through them. For men like Michael, its only about power and control.”
“So what happened?”
“I tried to knock it out of the water at that first hearing on the career issue, but I never had a chance. The court ordered both parties into psychological evaluations. As a practical matter, that meant Ronald Brigman would decide who got the children.”
“And he gave them to Michael?”
“Not at first. Michael didn’t want that in the beginning because if he had gotten the kids from the get go, he would have lost his power to control Alexa. No, what Michael wanted was to humiliate her over and over again in the place a lawyer like Alexa should have been most respected – in the judicial system.”
Bob paused to open the top file on his desk, and Sarah marveled at his insights. Maybe he didn’t understand every esoteric legal innuendo, but he had a PhD. in street smarts.
“Here’s a couple of examples. A hearing on February 15, 2009, because she was ten minutes late bringing the kids for visitation. Her excuse: Sam pooped in his diaper as they were leaving the house and she had to change him. Court reamed her out. The next month, March 18, 2009, she was a half hour late because Meggie was crying and too upset to get in the car. Alexa’s explanation: Meggie was beginning to have nightmares because she had to sleep in a strange bed at Michael’s. The court told her it would hold her in contempt if she ever again referred to the bed at Meggie’s father’s house as a ‘strange bed.’” Bob let the file drop shut and looked at Sarah and Jim with his mild, watery eyes. “That went on from 2009 until the day Michael died.”
“How did Alexa manage?”
“She tried to hold up – at first. She obviously knew even better than I did that almost every word out of the judge’s mouth was a violation of her and the kids’ federal constitutional rights. That’s one thing I never understood in law school, con law. But Alexa had it down. Like you, Ms. Knight.”
“She’d sit up late at night, drafting motions and supporting memoranda in her case. Beautiful things. And I’d file every one of them. And then Tara Jacobs would come to court and snarl about how Alexa was just a lush who was demonstrating she had the smarts to go back to work as a lawyer but who was trying to live off her ex to punish Michael for divorcing her and showing the world what a crazy psycho she was.”
“And the court bought that?”
“Every time. I could never get the judge to listen to the legal merits of Alexa’s motions because Tara would turn every hearing into a character assassination. Little by little, defeat by defeat, it started to wear her down.”
“How was she supporting herself?”
“Ok. This next part I might not be able to testify to unless Alan Warrick agrees.”
“What do you mean?”
“The legal community here is really just one small town. Full of backstabbing and politics.”
“I’m discovering that.”
“Well, Coleman threatened to pull all of the clients that his rainmaking had brought to Warrick, Thompson and divert them to other firms if Alan hired Alexa back. And Michael poisoned every other legal well where she could have possibly gotten a job. I know that because Alan told me. That’s why he’d have to testify for you, if you needed that evidence.”
“So Tara Jacobs would stand up in court and claim Alexa was a lazy freeloader who wouldn’t go back to work, while Michael was making sure she couldn’t get a job in this town?”
“Exactly.” Bob nodded at Jim.
“And she couldn’t get a job out of town because Michael wouldn’t let her take the kids. So how did she make any money?”
“Alan sent her research projects to do for him and a couple of other sympathetic partners on the down low. He paid her in cash, so there’d be nothing to show up if Michael subpoenaed her bank records. And Michael did subpoena those records more than once.”
“So she eeked by on the secret work from Alan and the little bit she got from Michael?”
“Right. And then her world went up in flames.”
“Well, Meggie and Sam were afraid of Michael. They had barely seen him before the divorce. He was always at work or on a date. I mean kids that little don’t want to leave their mothers in regular families. But the stress on those babies was horrible. They cried, they wet the bed, and Meggie stopped eating for a while.”
“And Brigman blamed Alexa?”
“Who else? He claimed she was working to alienate them from Michael.”
“When they’d never been bonded to Michael in the first place.”
“Common sense was never part of Ronald Brigman’s approach to life. He was also a colossal control freak. I think he enjoyed tormenting Alexa as much as Michael did. She was smart enough to know everything he did was illegal, and he loved rubbing her nose in the fact she couldn’t do anything about it.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, Michel kept her in court pretty continually from January to July 2009. Then fate got a little kinder to Alexa for a bit The actual divorce went through in July, and Michael made partner in August. He was so hot on the dating market that, for a while, he forgot how much fun he was having in family court. And Alexa somehow got those little babies to understand that even if they had to go to Michael’s for a weekend, they’d always get to come back home. Of course, separation was the greatest fear for all three of them because Michael had built a record in family court that would have given him full temporary custody in a heartbeat if he decided to pull that string. It was the most powerful weapon he could have held over Alexa’s head.”
“So when did things change?”
“They managed to get through 2010 without much happening. But then, in January 2010, Michael lost it with Sam, who was going through the terrible two’s. Michael knew he was always at risk of beating somebody up, so he usually had a girlfriend there when the kids were with him. But one Saturday night, his date fell through and Sam ran all over the house after his bath and wouldn’t come put on his pajamas. Michael took the kids home on Sunday and told Alexa the bruises on his arms were from a fall in the backyard, but Meggie had seen the whole thing and told the truth.”
“So wouldn’t proving Michael was the abuser help Alexa’s case?”
“In a normal family law situation, yes. But, again, this is Michael Reed.”
“So what happened?”
“We went to court to change the visitation. The court denied the motion and referred the whole thing to Brigman again for another psych evaluation.”
“And he turned it all against Alexa?”
“Yep. His report said she did it, and she coached Meggie to lie. He ordered her to go to counseling with some hack court-appointed evaluator like himself, and the court ordered anger management counseling for her. It was one of Michael’s finest acts of humiliation.”
“Did you all appeal that?”
“No. Alexa had figured out that if she’d quietly dance to Michael and Brigman’s tune, she’d get to keep the children. And she loved them above all else. I mean, she was literally going through hell for them. And there was no chance of her starting a new life for herself. No man in his right mind would have wanted to get mixed up in that mess and get his own character assassinated in court.”
“So she did as she was told?”
“She did. But then Michael lost it again, this time with Meggie. It was January 2012. She was four and Sam was three. Brigman did exactly the same thing again: he turned it around on Alexa. But this time he went farther. He ordered the kids to go to counseling to ‘improve’ their relationship with their father. When he got it ‘improved’ enough, he was going to ‘enlarge’ their time with their father. In lay terms, that meant he was brainwashing the kids against their mother a little at a time to prepare them to go live with Michael full-time. And she was helpless to stop it.”
“Who was the therapist who was working on the kids?”
“But that’s a blatant conflict of interest. Not to mention the constitution does not permit involuntary psychotherapy to change children’s bond with their parents.”
“Again, that’s what Alexa said. And this time we went to the court of appeal.”
“And lost. She actually argued her own appeal. You should have seen her in her suit. Alan Warrick came, too. He had tears in eyes when it was over. But he got out of there before Michael and Tara Jacobs saw him.”
“And after that?”
“I told her to pack her bags and get out of this town.”
“You mean, leave her children?”
Bob nodded grimly. “She was never going to have a life here. Michael and Brigman would see to that. I told her better a clean break with the kids than losing them a day at a time for years and years and never knowing when the final blow would fall. She had the credentials to make partner in one of those big Wall Street firms. I told her to go back east and rebuild her career, get married, and have some more kids with someone else.”
“What did she say?”
“That she’d never leave Meggie and Sam.”
“I can only admire your endurance, Mr. Metcalf.”
“Bob, please. If she ever wakes up, you’ll see she deserved my help and more. I’m glad she’s got someone at the top of the class, this time. I hope you can save her life.”
“Me, too. But there’s one more thing I have to ask.”
“Anything for Alexa.”
“This whole story is so one-sided – ”
“You’re going to ask if Michael was bribing Brigman. We think he was. We never had any way to prove it, though.”
“No evidence at all other than losing every hearing you went to?”
“There’s long been a rumor in the bar that Tara Jacobs has bribe deals arranged for her clients with certain evaluators. It’s possible that Michael decided to put Alexa through hell, heard about Tara, and signed up with her knowing his money would buy himself an evaluator.”
“So Michael filed for divorce in January, and Brigman was appointed in what month?”
“Did you ever subpoena Michael’s bank records?”
“We tried, but Tara would only turn over his tax returns, and even though Alexa was entitled to see the bank records – Lord knows, he’d seen hers several times – the court bought his claim they were covered by attorney client privilege because he sometimes deposited client money in his accounts before it went into the firm trust account.”
“Another violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.”
“The court didn’t care. It’s also possible that Judge Watkins was on the take, too. There were some judges up in Orange County back in the nineties who were caught favoring clients who donated to a “Judicial Retirement Fund” that funneled the money to individual judges. Let me know if I can do anything else to help you. I know what you’re up against.”