OF A SHOWDOWN AT THE JUKEBOX
Rockwall, TX – Women wore black and flags flew at half-staff in the brisk breezes of the first cool change of cotton season on Friday, 9/11, in this fashionable lakeside community a short drive east of Dallas.
Inside the ornate courthouse, a massive edifice built of twenty-first century prefabbed concrete columns and cross-beams around a circular floor plan radiating courts and offices around its hub, in an auxiliary courtroom decorated in subdued shades of Baylor green and gold that resembles nothing so much as the ornate décor of the lobby of the Adolphus in downtown Dallas, all was hushed circumspection.
The overall effect of the building is that of the set of a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza with a cast of thousands, massive columns under a chiseled lentil proclaiming “In God We Trust,” and a security scheme rivaling the arrivals and departures lounges of DFW International. One is reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rather catty remark about his impression of Glenn McCarthy’s Shamrock Hilton when newly built on Houston’s South Main before there was a medical center or a domed city forging into the “space age,” and the times resounded with Frank Baum’s tales of the Emerald City and the blockbuster “Giant” – something the great man said about finding out what it’s like to live “inside a jukebox.”
Stephen Warren, whose track record spans the oil patch, east to west
Stephen Warren, a transplanted Tennessee builder with a track record that spans the oil fields of east Texas through the Dallas-Ft. Worth enclave of Highland Park, and thence to the Permian Basin, whispers his oft-repeated lament, his eyes darting to the door each time its loudly clattering emergency egress strikers and locks announced the clamor of a new arrival. “I came down here and met the girl, married the girl; that’s true, but I never had any idea I’d run into all this trouble.”
“All this trouble” is a massive series of civil and criminal cases stemming from his divorce from Leslie Cavanaugh Bird, an impeccably tanned woman with a layered head of highlighted big hair who arrived with husband in tow, dressed in a black pedal pusher pants suit, her left profile peering from underneath a Veronica Lake fall of luxuriant hair at the respondent’s side of the courtroom, as she stood to announce her plea of “Not Guilty.” When the judge gave a sudden admonition, she made a harried and awkward lateral move to her left in platform wedgie sandals, stepping around her civil lawyer and dodging swivel chairs to stand at her criminal defense attorney’s side.
It’s a saga in which at least five law firms have struggled to cope with the difficulty of enforcing the divorce decree as to an original standard possession order of his children. During its fitful progress, the likes of famed criminal defense trial lawyers “Racehorse” Haynes and Dick DeGuerin have wandered on and off-stage, both obtaining take nothing default judgments through the outright dismissal of very serious indictments for criminal complaints against Warren of a disgusting nature.
In a moment of truth inside a moment of truth, her ex-husband, Stephen Warren, awaits her decision at high noon on Sunday, 9/13, to see if she produces his daughters for a totally supervised, video-monitored visit in the highly impersonal setting of FLP, a “visitation center” located in Brook Hollow, the aging Trammel Crow Trinity River bottoms industrial district with a Harry Hines Boulevard address at Regal Row.
Under the horns, Leslie Cavanaugh Bird, and her husband
Why? He is still living under the onus of having been accused in sworn affidavits leveled by his ex-wife of aggravated sexual assault of herself and of her oldest daughter. Both cases were dismissed by the prosecutors in “the interest of justice” when cooler heads prevailed. There was little or no proof to support the allegations “beyond a reasonable doubt” to jurors, according to memoranda filed in court papers.
If found guilty in a civil proceeding of a contempt of court citation involving numerous allegations of interference with one of the stormiest child custody arrangements in recent memory, she faces five and one-half years of quality time in the County Jail. Unlike the state’s penitentiaries, this is hard time, the kind that doesn’t involve probation or parole, two for one good time, or credit for time served.
The truth is, Stephen Warren has not seen or heard of his children, two girls he last saw in their pre-school years, because his ex-wife absolutely refuses to make them available.
Make no mistake, this drama is a carefully orchestrated mano a mano – woman to woman – as intense as anything that ever occurred in showdowns at Madrid’s Plaza de Toros, the Speedway of Indianapolis, or on the House of Pain’s gridiron. It’s conflict that is played not for sport, but for blood, a man’s good name, and the fate of the flesh of his flesh, two daughters who survive a third who passed away in a tragic death from a childhood disease.
Cynthia Clack, family law troubleshooter, Stephen Warren’s attorney
There was a moment, as there is in any battle of wits, when Leslie Bird regarded the encroachment on her territory by her rival, a petite lady lawyer with a reputation as a troubleshooter in the arcana of Texas Family Law, Cynthia Clack, whose buff-colored card reads in cursive script, simply, “Attorney at Law.” There is an Odessa phone number – and that’s it. No cell, no e-mail, no website – nothing further. Mojo.
As Ms. Clack stepped across the invisible line, into the part of the courtroom’s well that is reserved for the respondent, Ms. Bird suddenly sat erect in the swivel captain’s chair, her back arched, nostrils flared, peering warily from under her helmet of impeccably layered, shoulder-length hair, her sandaled feet placed directly under hips, fingers curved and ending in manicured talons, her hands resting on the polished surface of a green granite table big enough to play ping pong.
Her rival Cynthia Clack was busy orchestrating a full-frontal assault on an argumentative contention by the seasoned veteran Chuck Miller, an associate of David Rohlf, lead counsel for Ms. Bird, that the respondent had no time to prepare to furnish subpoenaed items supporting eleven allegations of contempt, a subpoena which he insisted lacked “specificity” as to the time and date of each of the allegations of the complaint.
The truth is, all the violations alleging contempt are of outright refusal to honor the terms of the divorce decree granted by a judge more than a decade in the past. It’s all a matter of record.
Ms. Clack met Miller’s repeated question, “Is that what we were served with at 4:30 p.m. yesterday?” by stepping across the invisible dividing line and motioning to Rohlf as her associate, Lane Haygood, replied to the Judge that the subpoena had been filed with the court on September 8, and that, in any case, as to the dates, they are all specified in the decree of 2005.
Lane Haygood, former Houston prosecutor associated with Ms. Clack
As Haygood strode forward to the bench to publish his document to the Court, there was a sudden flurry of activity from two very worried barristers, visibly agitated, as they pawed through their trial briefs and banker boxes stuffed with documents. Mr. Dickens would have been proud to describe the set, scene and setting as their fingers flew through files nearly as voluminous as his celebrated Pickwick Papers. Neither was able to find a hard copy of the document, and gratefully accepted copies furnished by Haygood at the Court’s order, duly certified by the Court’s Notary thus summoned from the Coordinator’s office.
Neither Ms. Clack, nor Mr. Haygood was able to conceal little half-smiles from their faces when they faced away from the bench to return to their places at the plaintiff’s table. As the Daughters of the American Revolution docents at Williamsburg say of General George Washington’s full length portrait treading on the British Union Jack in the House of Burgesses, they both looked a little “like a kitty cat with cream on its whiskers.”
But here is a good place to describe the L-shaped show trial-sized courtroom buried unobtrusively behind an obscure passage that appears to lead to the ladies’ room off the fourth-floor rotunda of this massive suburban temple of justice.
There are electronic monitors mounted in the jury box, stage right, twin large-screen monitors mounted on the walls of the gallery, left and right, and the counsel tables are situated between two massive support pillars dressed in darkly fruitwood-stained hardwood trim contrasting with a pale pastel shade of cool mint green. These serve as proscenium to the spectacle of what occurs in that hotly contested territory. A hint, inside the barre, the emerald carpet is festooned with ranks of bright gold stars.
On the support pillars are twin thermostats facing one another – his and hers temperature controls resembling those in certain upscale luxury sedans of both foreign and domestic manufacture engineered for the comfort of cruising couples. It’s a nice touch. Hot, cold, no problem – no sweat, no sweater needed. It’s not until the spell is broken that one suddenly realizes it’s cold enough in this mausoleum to wear a fur coat or a gray flannel suit in comfort.
Miller made several remarks about how he did not believe the return of service on the subpoena was valid, that the process server left off his registration number and various other lawyerly objections, but the truth is, the documentation had been on electronic file for days.
Tut, tut. Someone did not check the tickler file, review the electronic filing system. As the ace barrister, James Baker, III, often said, “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.”
The judge had heard enough. He allowed the legal team from Odessa thirty days to revise their pleadings to be more reflective of the precise dates of contempt – items such as not allowing holiday or summer vacation visitations, requiring the use of Warren’s last name in the children’s’ school records, or sharing their medical histories and report cards, exchanges of gifts – the minutiae of family life that makes up the story of that great Texas phrase coined by the Cowtown sportswriter, Dan Jenkins – “life its own self.”
The truth is simple enough. Leslie Cavanaugh Bird has kept Stephen Warren’s kids from him, and what with a massive influx of information from the Rockwall Independent School District, the swearing in of witnesses from their staff and the staff of FLP Visitation Center to give depositions at Dallas within a month, there is little doubt that his lawyers may very well firm up their criminal allegations against her.
She’s facing some serious jail time, and if the judge rules there is reason to move forward, it is likely her lawyers will plead on her behalf for a jury trial.
So mote it be.
Watch these columns on Sunday, 9/13, to learn if Ms. Bird in fact allows her daughters to see their father at the supervised visitation center on Harry Hines Boulevard in Big D. If not, according to his attorney Cynthia Clack, there will be additional complaints added to the already bulging basket in the contempt case pending against her.