TAMPA — Maria George said the only way to stop her ex-husband from "calling his Godfather" and arranging her death by poison, by bullet or by sabotaging her car brakes was to write a letter.
So in 2004 she sent one to 3,000 people, alleging threats, spousal abuse and business misconduct by her investment-banking ex-husband. She sent it to Chicago's business elite.
Copies also went to director Steven Spielberg and entertainers Conan O'Brien and David Letterman. A lawyer later asked if Santa Claus got one.
"Did I have an address for Santa Claus?" George said. "If I did, I would have sent it."
So opened Wednesday the federal bankruptcy trial George vs. George in a Tampa courtroom. On its face, the case is about an ex-husband, George, who is trying to preserve a $9.7 million defamation judgment he won against an ex-wife he says won't stop lying about him.
The judgment was awarded by an Illinois court in 2006. But Maria George, who now lives in Clearwater, filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and said she can't pay.
In the bankruptcy, George lists $27,000 in assets and $12.2 million in liabilities. The defamation judgment will be erased unless Scott George proves at trial this week that the debt stems from "willful and malicious injury" caused by his ex-wife.
But scratch under the surface, and the case reveals more than debts and creditors and arcane bankruptcy law.
At its heart, George vs. George is about the destruction of a family that seemingly had everything.
The Georges married in 1980. Maria thought the wedding was perfect. They honeymooned in Hawaii. The future was bright.
Scott worked in investment banking, first at Salomon Brothers and later at other firms.
By the 1990s, the couple lived in a $3 million, 22-room home where they regularly entertained social and business luminaries. Scott earned more than $1 million. He started his own company and sold it for $3 million.
He and his wife walked in Chicago's philanthropic circles. Their pictures appeared regularly in local newspapers.
But the good times ended in the mid 1990s, when the couple began divorce proceedings. A bitter divorce trial came in 1999. Scott George won custody of the couple's three minor children.
And that might have been the end of the story.
Just before Thanksgiving 2002, Scott George was working as the national director of mergers and acquisitions in Ernst & Young's investment banking division. He got a call from a high-ranking company official telling him about something he had received in the mail.
It was a 61-page "bill of particulars" his wife had written and filed in the divorce containing devastating allegations of misbehavior, threats, Scott's temper and business misconduct.
About 20 partners first got the document.
All lies, Scott George said, but the impact soon became apparent. Ernst & Young would be bought out by another firm, and George was the only partner in his division not invited to stay.
He filed a defamation suit against his ex-wife. And then in 2004, she sent the letter to the 3,000 recipients.
It said her ex-husband had extorted millions from former employers with threats of reverse discrimination lawsuits. It said he had put a contract on her life.
Scott George, 56, said negotiations with many potential employers dried up. He finally found a job that paid him just $160,000 annually.
But he won a measure of redemption with the big defamation verdict.
On Wednesday, Maria George, 55, who is unemployed, testified about how sending out the material was a way of getting her husband's threats out in the open, making it impossible for her to be harmed.
She said law enforcement officers told her to do this, though she could not name specifically who.
"I feel that my letter saved my life," George told the judge.
She acknowledged to her husband's attorney, Mike Markham, that she has no proof of death threats.
"If I had real evidence, I wouldn't be sitting here," George said. "I'd have a bullet in me … I'd be in a body bag at the bottom of the Chicago River."
She has hardly spoken to her ex-husband in a decade, but George said he continues to "threaten me all the time."
Markham asked: how?
George was unable to point to any specific threat. Instead, she spoke of e-mails that were "not secured," phone calls with mysteriously static that often dropped off unexpectedly. Sometimes when she enters her Clearwater condo, "I have a very eerie feeling" that someone has been inside, she said.
Markham noted with sarcasm that his client hadn't kept any promise to kill her.
"You're still sitting there alive today," he said.
Perhaps the most telling sign of how much George has become estranged from her four children was her adult son, Stephen, sitting in the audience.
He sat with his father's current wife. None of the children still speak to her, according to testimony. The couple's oldest son, Peter, 28, told attorneys in video testimony his mom is trying to destroy his father with lies, not protect her life.
"I just wish she would stop."
The trial is expected to continue Thursday with the testimony of Scott George.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com.