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Men who broke and killed lawyers


Channel 7 'ABC' Wed Dec 30 22:04:19 1998 

Announcer: From ABC News in New York, Diane Sawyer and Sam Donalds.
  "Welcome to 20/20 Wednesday." 
  "What about you." 
  "Snow here.  It was great too, could have thrown a snowball at you if you had only been here.  Welcome back.  We hope you had as great a holiday as we."
  "We'll start tonight with a story about a dangerous profession, one that may surprise you." 
  "As you know, lawyers are not always held in the highest esteem in this country.  They're made the butt of jokes.  But it turns out some lawyers are becoming targets of violence.  One part of the profession is at particular risk."
  "You might think they are the attorneys that deal with hardened criminals, but the occupation of divorce lawyer has now become one of the most hazardous.  The mix of money, heartbreak and raw human emotion can be an explosive and deadly combination."
Unidentified: "It never occurred to me that his life was at stake."
Reporter: "Greenville, Illinois.  Thomas Meyer, 66, shot to death outside his office."
 

"911 Emergency, what are you reporting?"

 

"Police, Police, my boss has been shot."

Reporter:  "Orange County, California.  Ronald Weiss, 62, murdered just inches from his desk." 
 

"He pulled a gun out and started firing at me."

Reporter: "And in Dayton, Tennessee, James Mckenzie, 53, was gunned down as he left work to go to the courthouse.  All three of those men had successful careers, careers you might not think would put their lives in jeopardy.  They spent their time in rooms like this, representing clients, because they are, or were, attorneys.  But these men weren't attacked representing hardened criminals.  Each of them were shot handling a divorce case."
 

"This area of law is the most dangerous you could be in because you're dealing with raw human emotions." 

Reporter: "Celebrity divorce attorney Raoul Felder says the violence, unfortunately, does not surprise him." 
Raoul Felder: "I was a federal prosecutor, and I prosecuted organized crime.  These are the worst criminals in the world, and I got less threats when I was prosecuting organized criminals than I did when I was in the divorce practice."
Reporter: "And the violence seems to be on the rise.  Last year, a majority of family lawyers, in a small survey by the American Bar Association, said they had been threatened by an opposing client. Generally, it's a husband going after his wife's attorney.  How often?  No one knows.  But divorce attorneys we spoke to say more and more they are being targeted." 
 

"Because you're dealing with people who hate you.  Who hate you.  Even if you do your job right, and probably somebody hates you worse if you do your job right."

 

Roger Sandsmark

 

"Police, Police, my boss has been shot, Mr. Ron Weiss."

 

"Okay, what happened?" 

 

"The man came in, asked him for his name and shot him."

Reporter:  "That 911 phone call recorded in Orange County, California, came just minutes after attorney Ron Weiss was shot by his client's ex-husband, Roger Sandsmark. Sandsmark barged into Weiss' office, screaming his name, according to his secretary of 27 years, Jenny Soldan." 
 

"He was just totally focused on Ron, and then all of a sudden he pulled out a gun.  Ron actually went like this in front of his face, with his hands --"

Reporter:  "Put his hands up?" 
 

"He put his hands up and he says, "Mr. Sandsmark, think about what you're about to do.  Let's think this through, let's think this over.  And I think when he said that, about three times, Mr. Sandsmark shot him.  He just -- the gun went off.  And ron screamed so loud.  When he screamed that loud  scream, I'll never forget it, I started running down the hall.  And the gun all the time was going off."

Reporter:  "With the last bullet he fired, Sandsmark took his own life.  Ron Weiss was dead." 
 

"It was like a dream.  When I woke up the next day I had to ask my husband if this was what really happened, and if he was really dead."

Reporter:  "More than a year later, Ron Weiss' colleagues are still struggling to make sense of what happened to this popular attorney and dedicated family man.  According to Jenny Soldan and attorney Stuart Knight, who shared an office with him, all the bloodshed seemed to be triggered simply by money." 
 

"Mr. Sandsmark was really quite adamant about his wife not having any part of his pension.  He did not want that to happen."

Reporter:  "Attorney Weiss had won a share of Sandsmark's pension money for his ex-wife." 
 

"If it's a little bit of money or if it's a lot of money, it doesn't matter, because to the person, it's everything.  And so they'll fight over it."

Reporter:  But is it just money? 
 

Kelly McGinness

 

"Everybody who's getting divorced at some point is twisted and distorted."

Reporter:  "Children can raise the emotional stakes even higher, as they did here Greenville, Illinois.  Kelly McGinness was married for 12 years and had two young children, when his wife filed for divorce.  A bitter custody dispute followed.  Attorney Larry Lefevre represented McGinness." 
 

"I thought he was a good father.  I think if you met him, you'd have probably liked him all right.  He was a little bit withdrawn, but there was nothing about him that would immediately make you dislike him or fear him."

Reporter:  "But after McGinness lost custody of his children, he fired Lefevre and waged his own battle against everyone involved in the case.  Judge Ann Callis presided over the divorce and made the custody ruling." 
 

"After the ruling came down, he was saying that all of us, court reporter included, colluded together and changed the transcripts to make him look bad."

Reporter:  "Did you?" 
 

"Absolutely not. There's no reason for four or five people to get together and collude against one man.  I think that's indicative of his state of mind."

Reporter:  "Callis says McGinness's anger soon turned into irrational acts.  He started stalking her to talk about the decision." 
 

"His behavior became a little bit more bizarre where he'd come to the courthouse.  He seemed to always know when I was there."

Reporter:  "But no one imagined how far McGinness would go.  Nearly five months after the custody ruling, he again went to the state's attorney's office complaining about corruption in his case.  Nearly two hours later, he waited outside the office of Tom Meyer, his ex-wife's attorney.  When Meyer left work to go home, McGinness shot him dead.  As the killer fled, police told Callis and Lefevre that now their lives were also in danger."
 

"I was probably near hysterical because I thought I was going to be killed in front of children.  They indicated to me they thought he was on his way to kill me."

Reporter:  "Judge Callis went into hiding, and so ultimately did attorney Larry Lefevre." 
 

"I stayed at about five different places, including my own house.  When I got in the house, I would grab a shotgun and walk around With it. If I went outside, I'd put on bulletproof vest.  So yeah, there was some fear."

Reporter: "Kelly McGinness became the target of a national manhunt and riveted the public with letters to the local media accusing the Court of, among other things, bias against fathers.  After 86 days on the run, he showed up at Larry Lefevre office carrying a shotgun.  He calmly entered through the back door, walked past the secretary's desk and up the back stairway to the second floor.  There, he made his way down the hallway to Lefevre's office.  When he reached the entrance, he opened fire.  Luckily, Lefevre was still in hiding and no one was injured.  When you heard that he had been at this office and shot up your office, what was your reaction?" 
 

"I consider the people I work with a part of my family, and to put these people at that kind of risk just made me really angry."

Reporter:  "Do you believe what he did was an attack on the entire system, or an attack on you and Mr. Meyer and the judge personally?" 
 

"I think it was an attack on the entire system. And I think he felt his way to attack the system was selected assassinations."

Reporter:  "So he just couldn't accept what was handed down?" 
 

"He couldn't accept the fact that someone would divorce him, could divorce him."

Reporter:  "And did." 
 

"And did divorce him.  That's correct."

Reporter:  "McGinness was arrested and pled guilty to Meyer's murder. He is now serving 70 years in prison and refused our requests for an interview." 
 

J.D. Creason

 

"He took something from me that was extremely important."

Reporter:  "Barbara Meyer is Tom's widow." 
 

"Tom was an excellent attorney and it had not occurred to me that a divorce case could become this emotional to the point that a life was taken."

Reporter:  "Nor did any of the lawyers expect this enduring reminder of their work, a bullet hole in their office.  Larry Lefevre has taken it as a warning and heightened office security. In California, at Ron Weiss' old office, a bullet hole serves as an ugly reminder of his senseless murder, and a number of attorneys have become more wary of new clients.  One is even installing a bulletproof window for protection. But none of these precautions would have protected 53-year-old attorney Jimmy McKenzie from the husband of his client.  J.D. Creason shot him on the street the day before the case was set to go to trial." 
 

"He just raised his right arm up and started firing at me. He struck me two times in the stomach, three times in the left leg and one time in the arm."

Reporter:  "Incredibly, McKenzie survived six gunshots. And in this case, there had been clear warning signs. Creason's wife Joanne had filed for divorce after 35 years in what she calls an emotionally abusive marriage." 
 

"He was the boss.  We did what he said.  He always had a pistol loaded.  When I left, I was afraid he'd kill me."

Reporter:  "And lawyer Jimmy McKenzie knew he was a target." 
 

"J.D. Creason had told his attorney that he intended on taking care of me, the circuit court clerk, his wife and his son one way or the other."

Reporter:  "But McKenzie, like many divorce attorneys we spoke to, didn't take the threat of violence seriously."
 

"We sometimes get so many threats that we just become callous about it and don't think that anything will happen."

Reporter:  "McKenzie says both parties had worked out an agreement about who'd get what property after the split. But then Creason changed his mind." 
 

"He basically refused to sign it because it didn't include a mirror that he wanted to keep himself, which was agreed at the time that she would keep.  So basically, we're talking about a dispute over one mirror."

Reporter:  "J.D. Creason was arrested immediately following the shooting and is about to stand trial.  His attorney says he will plead not guilty."
 

"I feel like I'm alive by the grace of god.  I guess I feel like Jimmy took my shots."

Reporter:  "Jimmy McKenzie is now fully recovered from his bullet wounds, but was so traumatized by the attack, he's temporarily refused to take on any new cases.  He keeps a gun in his desk drawer, and despite being shot, remains adamant that all clients deserve aggressive representation."
 

"If somebody tried to tell me that I brought it on myself or that, you know, I acted in such a way to justify what he did, I can only say that attorneys have a duty and responsibility to represent their client.  We have to look out for their best interest.  If we step on somebody's toes, then maybe they should have been stepped on."

Reporter:  "Others who have been touched by violence say they're now screening clients more carefully. The question is will it help."
  "If somebody's going to do it, all the bulletproof glass and all the armed guards and all the security is not going to help you."
  "You really don't know what really monsters lurk behind regular people.you just don't.  And for the most part, you find out too late." 
  "Legal experts tell us there are some things lawyers can do to protect themselves from highly emotional clients.  They should be courteous to both sides in the case, avoid a hostile environment and, of course, always take threats seriously.  By the way, Jimmy McKenzie has recently become a judge and understandably, he does not hear divorce cases."
Announcer:  Next, an inspiring story. … 

Back to Men who broke   TOP

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Posted 1998 12 31
Updates:
2000 05 10 (re-formated)
2001 02 05 (format changes)