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Judge grants Parker Schenecker immediate divorce

TAMPA — The Scheneckers divorced Thursday.

That was the easy part.

In reality, the couple remains bound by the months or even years of criminal and civil litigation that lie ahead, as courts take up the violent deaths of their two children.

The divorce took only about five minutes and almost no discussion. Parker Schenecker was present. Julie Schenecker was not. Her lawyer said she is under suicide watch in jail. Her husband never spoke except to state he wanted the divorce.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Cheryl Thomas affirmed it by pounding a steel legal stamp on her order, instantly dissolving the Scheneckers' 20 years of marriage.

In divorce law, the process is known as bifurcation. It means a judge immediately ends the marriage, but retains jurisdiction over future distribution of assets. Whatever the Scheneckers saved or owned in their marriage can't be touched by either.

The procedure is almost never allowed in divorce cases involving children. But it is often allowed for childless couples when it is certain that the marriage is irreparable.

"From this day forward," Thomas told Schenecker, "you are considered divorced."

• • •

What comes next is the much harder part — three separate legal actions, months of private negotiations, scores of public pleadings before three judges, many of the toughest issues intertwined.

"A legal minefield," said Edward Brennan, Julie Schenecker's attorney.

The biggest mine is the prosecution of Julie Schenecker on charges that she murdered their two children — son Beau, 13, and daughter Calyx, 16. Their bodies were found Jan. 28 in the Scheneckers' Tampa Palms home, each shot twice. Parker Schenecker, an Army colonel, was in the Middle East at the time. Detectives said Julie Schenecker admitted to shooting the children, but she has pleaded not guilty.

On top of the criminal case is a wrongful death lawsuit recently brought against her by then-husband Parker. With the lawsuit, he seeks to recapture any assets she gets in the divorce.

Key to both the criminal and civil cases is a million-dollar question: What becomes of the couple's net assets of $1,037,898? When Judge Thomas granted the instant divorce Thursday morning, she left the division of assets for another day. Also left for another day and another judge is the issue of who pays for Julie Schenecker's defense.

• • •

Julie Schenecker now has four lawyers.

Lawyer No. 1 is Assistant Public Defender Robert Fraser. He is a veteran criminal defense attorney with 34 first-degree murder cases under his belt, almost half involving the death penalty. He is defending her because the family assets are beyond her reach.

Lawyer No. 2 is her divorce lawyer, Brennan. He has a request pending for the family law court to release $50,000 of Schenecker assets for her legal expenses.

Lawyers No. 3 and 4 are Arnold Levine and his son-in-law, Paul Sullivan. Levine and Sullivan represent Julie Schenecker on the wrongful death lawsuit. They also hope to eventually represent her on the two murder charges. Levine said Thursday he'll defend her pro bono if necessary.

Levine, 79, a lawyer for more than 50 years, is more widely known for representing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than defending murder suspects. But Sullivan is qualified by the state Supreme Court to handle death penalty cases, he said. He is a former prosecutor and has been a defense attorney for 22 years.

Levine's usual fee for civil cases: A little more, he said, than $500 an hour.

He said a case of this nature typically can cost between $250,000 and $500,000.

• • •

For the immediate future, Levine said he will prepare a defense for both the wrongful death suit and the murder charges. The preparation for both is basically the same, he said.

This week, Fraser said he had no problem with Levine preparing to take over. A judge may eventually decide that Schenecker can afford her own lawyer.

Negotiations between the divorce attorneys are ongoing over at least a partial distribution of assets to both ex-spouses.

"We just keep talking," said Brennan, "like the NFL and the players."

Staff writer John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Judge grants Parker Schenecker immediate divorce 05/19/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 20, 2011 12:05am]

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