bob and marlene
got married on a borrowed boat called Paradise Found on a hazy April day in 1984. She wore white. He wore peach. They exchanged traditional vows. But then they broke the vow "to love and to cherish," and broke that other one, "for better or for worse." They decimated "for richer, for poorer." They annihilated "in sickness or in health." Their divorce started in 1995. They're still fighting over the money in court. They've run through 10 judges and 16 lawyers. Their Hillsborough County Courthouse file is up to Volume 13. Only one wedding vow remains that Bob and Marlene haven't broken: "Till death do us part."
When Marlene talks about those 13 volumes of marital history, the word love does not pop up — ever. Somewhere in those 13 volumes was a marriage, but as she tells it, the marriage mostly boiled down to a business deal, one that went bad, very bad.
He's a blond, she's a blond. He sounds South, she sounds North. He's now 60, and she's 51. He looks hangdog, persecuted. She is fire and wit, a full tank of righteous indignation. He has lawyers galore. She can't find a lawyer to take her case. But she has law books, and she has learned how to use them.
It all started over dinner at the Isla Del Sol yachting club in St. Petersburg — one that Bob was having with his second wife. Marlene was their waiter.
He came back a few nights later without the wife, said he was soon to be divorced. He was an inventor, had patents. He invented things made of plastic, like water filters and shaving cream dispensers and bottle caps that made water taste like lemonade. She liked the sound of that. She was a licensed practical nurse, but a born marketer. If he could make something, she could market it.
Marlene says their marriage was business from the "I do." They spent their honeymoon with his mother in Mississippi. They had no children. He was like "a brother." But within a year, they had formed two companies together, called Romar and Safety Pure.
For the next five years, the marriage/business prospered. They found investors for their companies, including Marlene's mother, who chipped in $50,000. Bob signed a $1-million distribution deal with Wal-Mart. They began living like millionaires. They bought a waterfront home in St. Petersburg, a Peachtree Street condo in Atlanta (where Marlene's poodle Mikey flashed his fangs at neighbor Elton John), a Rolls for Bob, a Mercedes for Marlene, a Peter Max painting, and a five-carat diamond for Marlene on their fifth anniversary.
They put everything they bought in her name.
Then, in 1990, Marlene had a car accident — and the Mercedes, the business, and the marriage all seemed to go down in the crack-up.
Marlene suffered a brain lesion and 15 cracked teeth. She went under heavy medication. She says she was out of her head when Bob asked her to sign a $150,000 second mortgage on their home, telling her they stood to lose everything if she didn't sign it.
By 1995 they had separated. Marlene faced a posse of creditors. She lost the home, the condo, $150,000 worth of artwork, including the Peter Max. She got Graves' disease. She ended up moving in with her mother and applying for public assistance.
Bob moved to Alabama, remarried, bought a big house, cars — everything in his fourth wife's name. He went on to invent a toothpaste dispenser that somehow colors toothpaste as it comes out.
Marlene never saw Bob in the flesh again.
• • •
Among the 10 judges who have tried to conclude the divorce of Bob and Marlene these past 13 years, most have condemned, shamed, or otherwise verbally humiliated Bob. They've damned him for contempt and threatened to throw him in jail.
They've blasted him in Tampa, while he has stayed out of earshot in Birmingham. His lawyers take the heat.
The first to bawl out Bob, in absentia, was Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, author of the "Amended Final Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage" in 2001.
Holder vented outrage over Bob forcing his wife to sign a second mortgage while she was incapacitated by her brain injury. He said Bob's sworn testimony "represents either a gross lack of understanding of the meaning of the term 'income,' or an intentional understatement of his financial position." He suspected Bob had "arranged his financial affairs so as to shortchange the wife." He blamed Marlene's impoverishment on Bob's "misrepresentations."
He said he particularly found it "more than suspect" that Marlene's largest judgment creditor — who got her house, artwork and jewelry — was one of Bob's business partners.
Holder set Marlene up for life. He ordered Bob to pay:
• A lump sum of $240,000.
• $6,000 a month in permanent alimony.
• $500 a month for medical insurance.
• 29 percent of Bob's interest in a company called World Drink USA, and half of Bob's interest in seven other companies.
• Half interest in all of Bob's patents.
• All of Marlene's attorney's fees.
For as long as Bob has lived in Alabama, most of that Florida order hasn't been worth the paper Holder printed it on.
• • •
The closest Marlene ever got to a life as a wealthy divorcee was in 2003. That year, she seemed to have Bob on the run.
Her Tampa lawyer, Raymond Haas, had already persuaded Holder to find Bob in civil contempt for not paying up. Haas got the next judge in the case — Marva Crenshaw — to issue a warrant for Bob's arrest. Haas got a third judge — Monica Sierra — to find Bob in indirect criminal contempt. Sierra even said she would throw him in jail for six months unless he paid Marlene $402,000.
Problem was, none of those orders was enforceable in Alabama. And the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office doesn't extradite delinquent ex-husbands. To enforce all those Florida judgments, Marlene's lawyer, Haas, joined forces with a Birmingham lawyer to take the case to Alabama court.
In October 2003, the court of Shelby County, Ala., found Bob in civil contempt and ordered him to pay $162,000 in back alimony or go to jail.
Why just $162,000 was never clear. The Alabama court made no mention of Bob paying her attorney fees, or her medical insurance, or her $240,000 settlement, or any of the other goodies in Judge Holder's original order.
Come June 2004, Bob sent checks to the court for $162,000, plus $26,500, and $13,000 for interest.
Marlene expected all that money to go to her. But it didn't. She ended up with $80,000. Her St. Petersburg and Birmingham lawyers, Ray Haas and Paul Shaw, got the rest.
Hey, she yelped, Bob's supposed to pay the lawyers. That was what her Florida divorce order said.
No, her lawyers said. She signed contracts with them. She owed them. If she wanted Bob to pay her legal fees, she would have to sue him. Of course, that would mean more legal fees.
Marlene was famous for her fiery e-mails. She sent one to Haas:
"Why should I suffer and have to pay attorney's fees to make him pay for what was already ordained in the Florida court? I'm still left holding the debt from the marriage judgments for 20 years and he walks free. This I will not tolerate. What's the next move?"
In Alabama, there didn't seem to be a next move, at least one she could afford.
Marlene e-mailed Haas: "That idiot you hired in Alabama got himself and you paid a substantial amount of money to leave me destitute."
Haas e-mailed Marlene: "Frankly, both Paul (his man in Birmingham) and I are tired of your abuse."
Marlene e-mailed Haas:
But Haas kept working, unsuccessfully trying to get the Hillsborough sheriff to extradite Bob. He also represented Marlene before the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal. He lost. The court ruled that Hillsborough Judge Sierra's order of criminal contempt was not legal.
Marlene fired Haas again on July 7, 2006.
From then on, she was her own lawyer.
• • •
Last February, Bob and Marlene spoke to each other for the first time since their divorce. They talked 560 miles apart. He was in Birmingham, she was in her kitchen in Feather Sound, sipping chardonnay.
They weren't catching up on the ups and downs of their lives these past 13 years — her remarriage to a Pinellas sheriff's deputy, his prostate cancer.
She was taking his deposition. From her law books, she had learned how to get the court to make him do that.
Bob looked into a tightly focused videocamera. He had deep lines in his face, passive torment in his blue eyes. He wore black. He looked like a POW awaiting water-boarding.
"What does your wife's wedding ring look like?" Marlene asked.
Dolefully, Bob looked toward his lawyer.
His lawyer: "Objection."
"Bob," she said, "is she wearing the five-carat diamond wedding ring that you stole out of my jewelry box?"
“Do I have to rephrase it?," Marlene said. "Is that what you're saying? Forgive me my ignorance. Do you recall taking my ring, my five-carat diamond, out of my jewelry box, Bob?"
Bob looked again at his lawyer. No help there.
Bob rubbed his eyes, looked heavenward.
"No, I don't recall taking it out of your jewelry box."
• • •
At a downtown Tampa law library, Marlene learned how to file a motion to compel Bob to show all his money, all his assets. She demanded documentation for jewelry, guns, furniture, boats, jet skis, stocks, bonds, retirement funds, bank statements, patents, any conceivable thing of value.
She got judge No. 10 — Hillsborough Circuit Judge Bernard Silver — to approve the motion.
Bob wrote back that he has no records. He sent two years of tax returns.
Marlene filed a motion to find Bob in contempt.
Judge Silver denied it. Instead he ordered lawyer No. 16 — Bob's Tampa attorney Sheldon McMullen — to make Bob swear in writing he didn't have those documents.
That was it? That was all the judge could do? Are the Florida courts that toothless? Marlene stood before Silver in May. Why can't you do more, she asked. Then, in colorful nonlegalese, she added, "I'm not trying to p---- you off, I swear." The judge looked startled.
"You're not," he said. Basically, he told her, she was just wasting her time.
"You're entitled to your day in court," the judge said. His voice sounded tired. He was judge No. 10, this was year No. 13, and she had nothing to show for it. Probably won't ever.
The judge leaned forward. He sounded sympathetic. He sounded done. He told her all his powers stop at the state line.
"Even if I rule 100 percent in your favor, I'm just going to add another piece of paper — the next page of Volume 13."
• • •
Marlene stood outside Silver's courtroom. She looked like a lawyer.
"This is not the end," she said. "If I've learned anything about the law, I've learned you can always file another motion. You can always object."
Marlene raised her voice. Now she sounded like a lawyer.
"Well, I object."
"I'll always object."
John Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2258.