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Two widows with the same husband fight legal battle in Pinellas over survivor's benefits

ST. PETERSBURG — Shortly after a young inmate killed her prison guard husband, Julia Ann Hesson filed for survivor's benefits.

But the Ohio woman didn't expect the response from the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Office, a national program that dispenses death benefits to families of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

The office denied Hesson's claim, saying another woman deserved the benefit award of more than $150,000.

That woman's name is Julie Keady Hesson. She's 41 and lives in St. Petersburg. She had been married to William Hesson, too. In fact, officials said, the two never divorced.

The Ohio woman, 29, is appealing the board's decision, and the intriguing case is now making its way through civil court in Pinellas County.

• • •

William Lynn Hesson married Julie Keady in winter 1995 in North Carolina. Four years later, they split up. The couple was living in Hawaii at the time, where William Hesson was stationed in the Army.

Julie Keady Hesson left for New York. She tried to file for divorce.

But according to court documents, her attempts failed because she couldn't serve him with papers.

Five years later, in 2004, William married another woman: Julia Ann Bernhardt. The couple have two children together.

On April 29, 2009, William Hesson, who was working as a guard at a Cleveland-area juvenile correctional facility, was killed at work.

In January 2010, a teen inmate at the facility pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, admitting that he struck the 39-year-old guard with a fatal blow to the chest during some horseplay.

Then Julia Ann Hesson found out she wasn't her husband's only widow.

"Mr. Hesson never informed the plaintiff of his previous marriage to the defendant," court documents state.

• • •

Both women made their case to the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Office. In February, officials determined Julie Keady Hesson, who by now had moved to St. Petersburg, was William Hesson's legal spouse, awarding her $157,873.

But Julia Ann Hesson, in a six-page complaint filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, argues that Julie Keady Hesson held herself out as divorced from her estranged husband for the past decade.

To prove that, she is asking the court to grant a "pure bill of discovery," allowing her access to evidence that would show the St. Petersburg woman behaved as if she was divorced for the past 10 years.

The benefits office found in favor of Julie Keady Hesson, "even though the defendant has admitted to having no contact with Mr. Hesson since their estrangement in 1999," Julia Ann Hesson's complaint states. "Documentation is necessary to prove that the defendant has held herself out as being divorced."

Ohio lawyer Matthew Hunt, who represents Julia Ann Hesson, declined to talk about the lawsuit.

But the first wife's attorney did offer up a few more details about the situation.

St. Petersburg attorney Bob Heyman said his client, Julie Keady Hesson, also had two children with William Hesson.

He said she raised them without the support of their father.

"She raised his children by herself," Heyman said. "She has not had the benefit of child support for 10 years."

Heyman said Julie Keady Hesson stands by the hearing officer's decision.

"She understands Julia Hesson's circumstances," he said. "Unfortunately, it was the result of a bigamous marriage."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

Two widows with the same husband fight legal battle in Pinellas over survivor's benefits 08/08/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 8, 2011 10:35pm]
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