07 July 2009

The Double Arson Divorce

Divorces often get ugly. Some even escalate to murder.

Few, however, involve a husband who burns down not one, but two, marital residences, with the arson in each case calculated to circumvent court orders awarding the residence to the wife, in addition to taking his ex-wife hostage at gunpoint while she was en route to a court proceeding, giving false tips to the IRS, and committing life insurance fraud, all in the span of about three years of divorce proceedings.

The wife escaped safely, after being held hostage for more than eleven hours today, at about eight-thirty this evening. As of just before ten p.m. this evening, the husband, age 60 and possibly diagnosed with cancer, had fired dozens of shots at public safety officers (apparently without injuring anyone) and remained inside the house that he had set on fire half an hour earlier, as the fire raged out of control. He tried to commit "suicide by cop," but ended up in an ambulance instead.

For this wife, the worst is probably over. She escaped being held hostage safely. Her ex-husband appears to have acted along in each instance (even his lawyer quit early into the case), and is now headed for the rest of his life in prison, a mental institution, or a hospital. The crimes committed in this case alone would probably provide more than enough fodder for a bar exam question, before even reaching the tort, insurance contract, civil procedure, asset protection, legal ethics, mental health and family law issues raised. There is a good chance that casualty insurance will cover the damage done to the second home, at least, from the arson. The youngest child of the couple was seventeen or eighteen when the divorce began. With some time off to recover from the shock, therapy, and some grit, she can probably rebuild her life and move on.

The big questions are why this happened in this case, and how this husband managed to stay at large so long. Perhaps warning signs that would have prompted police to intervene with arrests and prosecutions weren't sufficient in this case precisely because it otherwise seems an unlikely case to escalate to such violence.

Many extremely contentious and drawn divorces involve custody disputes, but apparently that was not the case in this divorce. The couple have a twenty year old child, married four or five years after that child was born (the divorce was so contentious that the date of the marriage is disputed), and adopted her two children from a prior marriage (one of whom is a law student).

The Connecticut couple was quite affluent. He was an advertising executive and she is an attorney. Normally, one associates affluence acquired through white collar work with a degree of self-control sufficient to be functional. And, Connecticut is not known for a culture of violence. This is the land of insurance company executives and actuaries, not blood feuds.

Violent criminal acts are mostly the province of the young, not the old. Much of this is due to youthful impulsive behavior and gang involvement. The lies and timing of the violent acts in this case, however, do not seem impulsive or connected with gang activity, in the way that much violent crime does. Instead, they seem to suggest psychopathy, or behavior akin to it, although diagnosis at such a distance from the facts is surely an impossible thing to do with great accuracy.

Some people seem to just snap after long periods of relative normalcy when too many parts of their life fall apart. Husbands and wives that develop insane rage at the courts and their ex-spouses in the course of divorce proceedings aren't that unusual, although prolonged ranting at cocktail parties, depressing country music, passive non-responsiveness to court orders to pay money, and semi-coherent letters directed to anyone who will listen, are more common manifestations of these emotions. What makes one person give up or try to address their complaints within the law, and another turn to violence and fraud isn't obvious, nor is it obvious how these situations can be prevented or nipped in the bud. I'm sure this has been studied, but if the results are definitive, they aren't widely known.

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