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It was a Sunday afternoon in the spring. Rachel and I were making mango salsa and margaritas. My small kitchen was wrecked and Buddy Guy was playing in the background. Rachel loves Buddy Guy. It was sunny outside and I was in a good mood, soon to be engaged. The phone rang and the voice on the other end was unfamiliar and trembling. It was Robert, the father of my client, Dianne.
“Does Craig Robertson the attorney live here?”
It does not take long for a young divorce lawyer to learn to hate hearing from clients at home.
The Friday before had been fairly typical. I had Dianne’s temporary hearing in Canton at 9:00 o’clock. Like most mothers, Dianne’s biggest concern in the divorce was for her little boy, Alex. I had not been prepared to present testimony because we were confident we would settle, even if just on a temporary basis. We had been engaged in some settlement discussions before the temporary, but nothing had been completely worked out and Dianne was nervous. Our Judge insisted we talk, as he always does, and as a result, an Agreed Temporary Order was executed and filed before lunch.
Dianne was a pleasant twenty-nine-year-old woman, two years older than me at the time. She took blood thinner for a medical condition. Dianne had been a registered nurse at a local hospital in heart surgery for about five years. Her husband was a nurse too. They had each been married before, but Alex was their only child. Alex loved trains. They would sometimes take him to watch them rush by in the afternoons.
Dianne’s husband had stabbed a man many years before the couple met, but there had never been physical violence between the parties. Dianne thought she could “fix” him, but had now come to the decision she wanted to end the relationship. Our petition for divorce was based on cruelty, which is always difficult to prove. Of course, no one knew what he had planned, but looking back, he forecasted his actions.
“I hope you die first so I can piss on your grave,” he once told Dianne.
He threatened to take full custody of Alex on a regular basis. One evening he called and said he was going to make out a will, asking Dianne if she knew how much social security she would draw if something happened to him. He alluded to suicide on several occasions and was constantly trying to get Dianne to come to the house, attempting to use Alex as a tool to manipulate her. Ruby, Alex’s maternal grandmother and present co-guardian, remembers him saying that the day of court would be the sorriest day they had ever experienced. At the time, these statements seemed to be just the ranting of a person amid divorce, encompassing the verbal domestic abuse causing Dianne to seek the dissolution of her marriage. Counsel opposite knew Alex’s dad was upset, but everyone gets upset when it comes to divorce. Everyone says things they do not mean.
One afternoon following the parties’ separation, Alex’s father called Dianne at work. He asked Dianne if she had heard about an incident at a daycare in Jackson where the father shot the mother, their kids and then himself. He said “You never know —that could happen anywhere,” and hung up. Alex was visiting with his father at the time, and Dianne was planning to pick him up shortly thereafter.
A few hours later he called again, telling her she was a sorry excuse for a mother, and she had ruined Alex’s life. He claimed Alex had become despondent and would not play soccer. He was going to get full custody of Alex; she was a bitch and a bad influence on Alex. He wished her blood clot would go to her brain and she would become a vegetable for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, Dianne could hear Alex crying in the background calling for his mommy. He finally let Alex talk to her and she told him she loved him very much. Alex begged for her to come get him, and Dianne instructed Alex to ask his daddy. At first he refused, later recanting, saying that he would bring Alex to her at the hospital. She got her friend, Karen, to go to the parking garage with her where they would meet. Alex and his father passed right by them, but Alex’s dad acted like he did not see her. He called her car phone and accused her of not being where she said she would be. Dianne then told Alex’s father she was coming to his house to get the child. Karen rode with her. When they got to the house, Alex’s father was standing in the front yard —a wild look in his eyes. She asked for Alex and was told he was riding his toy car around the block. Alex was only three at the time, and Dianne did not approve. Alex’s dad then remarked to Karen she was living dangerously by riding to the home with Dianne. Karen questioned him about what he meant, and he just laughed and said, “Oh, the way she drives.”
He told Dianne to get out of the truck, and they needed to talk. Dianne tried to get out, but Karen held her arm. When Alex came around the block, Dianne got out and he ran to him. She scooped up her son and they left, not bothering to get his clothes. Alex’s dad called back on her car phone, again wanting to talk. He called her once more when she got to her parents’ house and said for Alex’s sake, her physical health and his mental health, they needed to get this divorce over.
The police report states Robert was with his daughter at the couple’s house collecting her things pursuant to the Temporary Order. On the way to the home, Robert and Dianne both mentioned they had a bad feeling about the day, but being so close by, they decided to go ahead. They almost turned back. Alex’s father must have been having second thoughts too, because before their arrival, he called Ruby and asked if they had left. When she told him they had, he said something about needing to go out for a while. Ruby explained that her husband and daughter should be there momentarily. His voice had been calm and collected. This must have been when he finally made up his mind. He called his parents and asked if they loved him, but heard the truck drive up while he was still on the phone. His parents must have sensed something was wrong, because they left their home in North Mississippi and headed for Jackson immediately following the telephone call.
Alex’s father walked out the door past Robert with the weapon concealed, went to the passenger side of the truck and shot Dianne several times –the first at point blank range to the head. He then went back around to the front yard and announced, “I told you that you would be sorry.”
He pulled the trigger once more, this time with the gun pointed to himself. A picture of Alex was taped to his chest. The autopsy revealed he was full of beer, cocaine and valium.
When the police searched the house, they found it was equipped for combat. In the living room, there was a black handled stainless steel steak knife lying on the coffee table. On the kitchen table among about seven beer cans lay another steak knife. In the walk-in closet off the master bedroom were several shotgun rounds and pistol ammunition boxes. A single shot twelve-gauge lay on the bed concealed by a blanket. Next to the bed on the nightstand was another black handled steak knife. Finally, the dining room contained the last of his arsenal: a loaded rifle covered by a blue towel in the corner. The rifle was armed with a twenty-round magazine of steel piercing bullets, and it had a scope and custom cheek mount. Across from the rifle in the opposite corner of the dining room was a tablecloth covering a broken pile of china and plates. The china had belonged to Dianne’s grandmother. The suicide note revealed a bitter and angry man who chose to orphan his only child and blame others for his mistakes.
As I hung up the phone a wave of surreal panic flooded my mind. I shared the immediate concern of Dianne’s family, Alex. Within minutes I was on the phone with L.C. James, my boss who is considered to be among the best in the business. Together we formulated a plan, spending the next few days making sure Alex was provided for and the media did not misconstrue Dianne’s story. We later dealt with Alex’s permanent custody, Dianne’s estate, insurance claims, social security, retirement benefits and the monitoring of Alex’s guardianship.
In the aftermath of Dianne’s death, I have often wondered if there was anything we could have done differently. Looking back, Alex’s dad forecasted his action loud and clear, but his threats seemed to be nothing more than the exclamations of a man who did not want to be divorced –regardless of his fault. He panicked and he had access to guns. He wanted Dianne dead, so he killed her. Obviously, we now know a great deal more than we did before Dianne’s temporary hearing, and I have certainly learned many lessons about life and the practice of law from Dianne and her divorce.
Alex is now six. He did not attend the funerals for his parents. He lives in a loving home with his maternal grandparents, and he sometimes visits his father’s parents. Ruby remembers the day of Dianne’s funeral. She was sitting at the table with Alex. He was eating an apple, his bedtime snack.
Alex said, “Nannie, I don’t want to go to heaven.”
“Why? Everyone wants to go to heaven.” “My daddy’s going to heaven.”
“How do you know?” she responded.
He said, “My daddy told me he and mommy were going to heaven to live with Jesus. I wish they would come back.”
“They did go to heaven to live with Jesus. When you die, if you believe in Him you will go to heaven too. But you cannot come back.”
Alex changed the subject.
Craig Robertson is the founder of Robertson + Easterling. For over 24 years, he has practiced exclusively high net worth divorce and complicated family law in Mississippi. You will want him in your corner because he knows the things you care about deeply are at stake, and he will counsel you about wholistic modalities to foster health and wellbeing. He wrote this article twenty years ago in the aftermath of the event he describes which shaped his approach to the practice of family law.