Law News

The Deadly Side of Family Law

For lawyers and judges, the potential for danger lurks just below every courtroom clash

by Mike Mckee
California Law Week/Cal Law
Tuesday, June 22, 1999

Whoever was waiting in the dark outside George Taylor's hacienda-style home in Rancho Cucamonga on the night of March 18 apparently hated the Los Angeles County jurist deeply enough to pull a shotgun trigger in cold blood.

Taylor, who had just returned home from a retirement dinner for a fellow judge, hadn't even turned off the engine of his white Mercedes-Benz before three fatal blasts ripped through the driver-side window, hitting him in the head and chest. The car lurched forward with a crunching bang against the house.

Taylor's wife, Lynda, apparently roused by the ruckus, rushed outside, where she was quickly killed by two shots to the chest. Her body was found crumpled on the garage floor.

"A gruesome sight," recounts next-door neighbor Larry Waggoner, one of the first people on the scene 42 miles east of Los Angeles. "My God, a man comes home from work and gets his head blown off. That's not supposed to happen."

In normal walks of life, maybe. But Taylor worked in family law, where the potential for danger lurks just below the surface of every courtroom clash over divorce, child custody, child support and property division. Detectives suspect Taylor, a family court commissioner, was targeted by someone ticked off by one of his rulings and that his wife just happened to be in the way.

If that's true, the Taylors' brutal demise amounts to another grim anecdote in the horrific lore of violence against family court professionals. Statistics are scarce, but judges and lawyers nationwide agree from all the stories they hear about fatal shootings, bombings, knifings and beatings that family law is the most dangerous area in which to practice.

"It's something no one would dispute," says Dallas lawyer Mike McCurley, a former president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers who says he's been shot at twice, placed on an assassination list once and "threatened more times than I can imagine."

"In probably no other area of the law," the McCurley, Kinser, McCurley & Nelson partner says, "has our court system become more aware of the tendency for violence."

A survey conducted by the American Bar Association in 1997 found that 60 percent of family lawyers had been threatened by clients of opposing counsel and 17 percent by their own clients. As judges and lawyers from coast to coast are fond of saying, criminal court is where bad people are on their best behavior, while family court is where good people are at their worst. And the judges and lawyers a losing litigant blames for his woes apparently make tempting targets.

"You take somebody who's got this big load on [his] shoulders and add a little more weight to it, and [he's] going to blow," says Miami lawyer Maurice Jay Kutner, chairman of the ABA's family law section. "Some people just lose control and they act out accordingly."

Attacks with deadly results have been reported in just about every state, in both big cities and small towns. In one of the worst rampages on record, two lawyers were killed and another lawyer and two judges were wounded in 1992 when a non-practicing attorney shot up an appeal court in Fort Worth, Texas, after losing custody of his son. None of the victims had anything to do with the case, but the gunman, who was executed in 1994, blamed a legal conspiracy for allegations he had molested his boy.

Closer to home, the perils of family law were graphically demonstrated in 1996 when a pipe bomb detonated in the office of Santa Cruz divorce lawyer Jack Jacobson two days before Christmas. Boxed and wrapped holiday style, the explosive ripped three fingers from Jacobson's right hand, blew off the little finger and the tip of the middle finger from his left, and caused massive injuries to his torso, right eye and eardrums.

After 10 surgeries, Jacobson is back in business and upbeat, even though police -- who assume the attack was related to his work -- have made no arrests.

"He didn't kill me, but he accomplished enough damage that I think he was satisfied. It's such a fluke thing that I don't think it's going to happen twice," the buoyant 53-year-old says. "But I screen my cases a bit more so I'm not in a situation where I'm dealing with someone who I think is unstable. Family law is a very volatile practice."

The brutal deaths of Lynda and H. George Taylor stunned their co-workers. They were fun-loving people who adored jazz and USC sports and appeared to have no enemies.

Philip Hickok, supervising judge of the Norwalk-based southeast division of L.A. County Superior Court -- where Taylor was one of three family court commissioners -- says local family lawyers just a few months ago declared the 68-year-old "the best, most-respected family law judge they've ever worked with."

"He took pride in being a fatherly figure, not being a judge," Hickok says.

Lynda's co-workers at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in nearby Colton say the 61-year-old occupational therapist had a unique ability to motivate even the most unapproachable psychiatric patients. They also say she was an excellent piano and accordion player, held patents on equipment that helped disabled children function better, and was phenomenal at soliciting donations.

"If you asked that lady to do anything, she had time to do it," says one co-worker, who asked not to be identified. "She'd use her own money to do things. She had a heart of gold."

No one was aware of threats against Taylor, and at least one friend says he and Lynda never expressed concerns about job-related violence.

"In all my dealings with the Taylors, there had never been any mention of a particular case," says the friend, who requested anonymity. "And Lynda had never mentioned any particular fears about George's work."

The couple lived in Alta Loma, a long-settled neighborhood near the 10,000-foot peak Mount Baldy, 40 miles from George's Norwalk court and 23 miles from Lynda's hospital. It's far from the L.A. basin's high-crime districts, and it's home mostly to older couples whose grown children -- like the Taylors' two each from previous marriages -- have moved away.

With manicured lawns, colorful flower gardens and perfectly maintained sidewalks, the community looks like a place where Ward and June Cleaver might retire. Neighbors relish the privacy of their pin-drop quiet surroundings and still find it difficult to believe two murders were committed in their midst.

"You think of things like this in more affluent neighborhoods, like Hollywood, or in barrios and ghettos," says Betty Pinkerton, a homemaker who lives directly across the street from the Taylors' eerily quiet house at the corner of Mustang and Arabian avenues. "Nothing ever happens here."

The sound of gunfire was so alien that next-door neighbor Waggoner -- a retired junior high school physical education teacher who was watching the NCAA basketball tournament that night -- thought his mules were kicking the wooden fence that separate their corral from his backyard. Jara Agnew, a teen-ager who lives across from Waggoner, thought it was a car backfiring.

By the time everyone converged on the Taylors' house, there were no killers in sight, only the two bloody bodies.

"[George's] car was still running," Waggoner recalled recently, while sitting in his kitchen, which faces the Taylors' backyard pool. "The lights were on, and he was just lying there with his head sideways. From the way he was positioned, I doubt George even saw who did it."

Detectives have little to go on. They're not even sure whether more than one person was involved or if it was a contract killing.

But they've released fliers, with descriptions of a white 1990-92 Honda CRX sighted in the neighborhood the night of the murders being driven by a white male, 45 to 55 years old, with brown or gray curly hair and glasses. So far, however, neither the fliers nor a $25,000 reward offered by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors have produced a single phone call from a tipster.

"The information coming to us on such a high-profile murder is minimal," says Sgt. Bobby Dean, the San Bernardino County homicide detective heading up the probe. Having the case profiled on TV's America's Most Wanted might be the next step.

In the meantime, homicide officers are driving the 60 miles from San Bernardino to Taylor's Norwalk court each day to dig through the nearly 800 family court cases the commissioner handled in his last 15 months. They're hoping to find a shred of evidence that could point to the killer.

"It's a tough case, a very tough case," Dean adds. "It could take a very long time [to crack]."

For a short time, investigators thought there might be a link between the Taylors' deaths and the torching of a family law practitioner's house 30 miles away in La Habra Heights two nights earlier. The home's owner, Whittier solo practitioner Edward Wilson, had appeared before Taylor at times.

"There were a couple of similarities," Dean says, "but as far as we know, [the arson] is coincidental."

For Wilson, though, the fire, in the wee hours of March 17, had to be jolting. Five times since Dec. 30, 1995, his offices in Whittier have been set afire. The last time, on Feb. 5, the entire three-story building -- a half-block from the city police station -- burned to the ground. Its charred remains still testify to the power of the flames. But the La Habra Heights fire, which gutted Wilson's house less than 48 hours before the Taylor murders, was the most unnerving so far because evidence indicates attempted murder. A flammable liquid was poured through a pet door, police say, and the garage door was tied down to trap Wilson, his wife and son inside.

Wilson didn't return telephone calls seeking comment, obviously preferring to lay low. But Whittier police hope the most recent fire -- being probed by L.A. County -- will yield clues that will help with their investigation into the five office fires.

They also say the signs indicate fairly strongly that Wilson has been targeted because of his job.

"I've been a police officer for 24 years and I've not seen this amount [of individual arson] over three years," says Whittier police officer Chuck Drylie. "You'd have to be an idiot not to think someone's after this guy."

Family law isn't for the fainthearted, as Dallas lawyer McCurley knows well. Few people have cheated fate as often as him.

Shot at twice -- one bullet hit the top of his car and the other "didn't even come close" -- and placed on a hit list by a "rich and powerful man" in a "high-priced divorce case," he also was the lawyer for the woman whose husband opened fire in Fort Worth.

In fact, the man, George Lott, had McCurley in mind as one of his victims, but ended up turning himself in at a Dallas television station. "Believe it or not," McCurley says, "the station called to warn us."

Security was increased at Texas courts in the aftermath of the shootings, as it has been at courts nationwide. But metal detectors and extra manpower for courthouse patrols can't always stop a determined stalker.

"If somebody wants to get you, there's not much you can do," says Miami lawyer Kutner, "unless you've got a full-time bodyguard, an armored car and security in the office."

After all, attacks often take place away from the courthouse -- at offices like Jacobson's in Santa Cruz or even at homes.

Roderic Duncan, who was a family court judge in Alameda County for 10 years, says he even got a threat in the mail at home after he retired in 1995.

"A guy wrote me and addressed it to my home address and included his return address, and said: 'I'll never forgive you for letting my wife take my child and leave the state. I think about it all the time.' And he said he would see me again sometime," Duncan says.

Police determined the man was no real threat, but it still bothered Duncan. "That doesn't happen to you doing civil jury trials," he says. "And it doesn't really happen in criminal trials either."

McCurley and Kutner say family court lawyers have to work hard at keeping tension down by watching for signs of a client's emotional meltdown, taking threats seriously and not intentionally antagonizing opposing spouses in what could be the worst moment of their lives.

"Our court system takes threats very seriously now, sort of like when kids make school threats -- we listen now," McCurley says. "If you sense that a client's in trouble, get him to a psychiatrist, get him help. Most of these people are not mean. They are out of control."

In the meantime, it might be wise for lawyers and judges to be extra cautious.

That's advice Carolyn Martin, a Long Beach solo practitioner who says she practiced in front of Taylor two or three times a week for 10 years, intends to follow.

"I don't walk out of the building without canvassing the parking lot," she says. "I am aware of what's going on around me at all times."

Kutner of Miami sometimes goes much further. "If I'm really feeling uptight," he says, "I carry a concealed weapon, which I have a permit for. I don't know what good it would do, but it gives me a little more feeling of security." Friends and co-workers have decided to memorialize the Taylors, lest they be forgotten.

Lynda's co-workers have taken donations for a plaque to be placed on a piano she secured for patients, while a local bar association has commissioned an oil painting of George that will hang in the master calendar courtroom in Norwalk. In addition, a few family law practitioners had planned to hoist drinks at a Long Beach bar on Friday, which would have been Taylor's 69th birthday.

"We all felt as if we were part of his family," Martin says. "There's a great sense of loss, that someone as talented and dedicated as him is gone."

But, perhaps the greatest tribute is the vow by family court lawyers and judges not to be unduly intimidated by angry threats or savage acts.

Norwalk Supervising Judge Hickok says danger exists every day.

"The potential [for harm] is there for every one of us," he says. "But to what degree do you let it consume you? If you do retire, quit or leave the bench, you've given up. And hasn't your assailant won?"

Mike McKee is an associate editor at The Recorder, a San Francisco publication affiliated with California Law Week.

Copyright 1999 NLP IP Company -- American Lawyer Media.