Secret of real estate agent's 1999 murder haunted lawyer

LARGO — Pinellas lawyer Jay Hebert held a secret that gnawed at him for nearly a decade.

In 1999, a 22-year-old client named Lesley Stewart admitted to him that she helped bury the body of Belleair real estate agent Rosemary Christensen.

Stewart told Hebert that her boyfriend, Robert Glenn Temple, murdered Christensen, his wife. Stewart said Temple talked her into helping him clean up the mess and burying the body.

Hebert urged Stewart to tell authorities, but she refused and left the state with Temple. The case was unsolved, and Christensen's whereabouts became one of Pinellas County's most enduring mysteries.

Hebert wished he could have helped solve the case. But the rule of attorney-client privilege — a lawyer cannot divulge client secrets — prevented him from doing so.

Hebert, a father of two children who is active in the community, said the case haunted him, keeping him up nights. "Initially, I thought of it every day," he said.

He felt awful for Christensen's family and friends. He was bothered every day by a billboard he passed on his way to work seeking information about the case. He felt bad when he saw the detectives on the case at lunch or in the courthouse.

A weight was lifted off Hebert's shoulders this week when — nine years later — Stewart finally decided to come forward and lead investigators to woods in North Florida where Christensen's body was buried.

Detectives recovered the body Monday and charged Temple with murder on Wednesday.

"I'm grateful that she came forward," Hebert said Thursday.

Days after Christensen's murder, Temple and Stewart went to see Clearwater lawyer Denis de Vlaming, who decided they needed separate lawyers. So he called Hebert. While Stewart admitted her role to Hebert, de Vlaming said Temple denied any involvement in Christensen's disappearance.

Hebert could have been disbarred if he told detectives what he knew before Stewart came forward. Even tipping them off anonymously would have violated lawyer ethics, said Bobbi Flowers, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law.

If lawyers started telling client secrets, the whole justice system would crumble, Flowers said.

"Once you start having those kinds of exceptions to the rule, then the public says, 'Well wait, if lawyers can tell secrets I give them, then I'm not going to tell them secrets.' And without that information, lawyers cannot advise them," Flowers said.

"Mr. Hebert was between a rock and a hard place," she said. "He had to be looking at the system as a whole, and you have to believe in the system as a lawyer. And you have to uphold the values of that system. Otherwise the system can't function."

One of the most famous cases of this type occurred in New York in the 1970s when a serial murder suspect told his lawyers where he buried some of his victims' bodies. The lawyers would not divulge that information.

Though this led to widespread support in the legal community, the public reviled them. They received hate mail and death threats. The parents of one victim filed ethics complaints against the lawyers, but they were dismissed.

One of the lawyers has since died, but the other is hailed as a hero by lawyers and received a standing ovation at a 2006 lawyers conference in Chicago, according to the American Bar Association Journal.

Flowers said there is an exception if lawyers are told that a crime will occur in the future. In Florida, they are required to notify authorities of that.

Pinellas sheriff's Detective Michael Bailey, who investigated the Christensen case, said he could tell Hebert was relieved that Stewart came forward.

Bailey saw it after detectives and Hebert interviewed Stewart during a conference call. Hebert leaned back in his chair and let out a large breath of air.

"He was upset over this. It bothered him," Bailey said.

He understands the importance of attorney-client privilege, Bailey said, and doesn't hold any ill will for Hebert.

"We don't hold any grudges," Bailey said. "He just couldn't. If he could have given us some linkage, he would have."

Hebert said Stewart called him last week because Temple threatened to kill her. Stewart told him she wanted to tell authorities about the murder, which Hebert was glad to hear. He engineered the interview with detectives that led to the recovery of the body and the arrest.

Hebert, a youth hockey coach and past president of the Police Athletic League, said he received a phone message Thursday from Christensen's family. He hadn't returned the call Thursday afternoon, but hopes they understand his predicament.

"I would hope they understand our system of justice and our ethical system for lawyers," he said.

Hebert said he has no regrets or guilt about following the ethical guidelines and keeping the secret. He lectures each semester at Stetson about attorney-client issues, including the privilege. Though he couldn't tell students in the past about this particular case, he plans to now.

"Now I can actually talk about it," he said. "I certainly can add it to the lesson."

Chris Tisch can be reached at (727) 892-2359 or tisch@sptimes.com.

Secret of real estate agent's 1999 murder haunted lawyer 09/11/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 18, 2008 8:57pm]

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