Judge shot in Mack case wants to defuse volatile divorces
Associated Press Writer
Weeks before he was shot, the family court judge handling Darren Mack’s divorce discussed making an instructional videotape to explain what was in store for angry couples who take their war to court rather than finding a way to settle their differences.
Just days before a bullet smashed through the window of his third-floor chambers and into his chest on June 12, Judge Chuck Weller was attending a training course at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to learn more about defusing the often volatile feuds.
Mack, a wealthy pawn shop owner, is in a Reno jail, charged with slashing his wife to death, then shooting Weller.
Jim Denton, a veteran political consultant and longtime friend, said Weller told him over lunch in May that such a videotape tape would describe “exactly how the family court system works, exactly what to expect and more importantly, the things you can do to avoid going into the family court system.”
Judge Charles McGee, a longtime colleague who handled Weller’s cases while he was hospitalized, said educating the soon-to-be divorcees would go a long way toward making the confrontations safer for everyone.
“Part of the way you secure the courthouse is not by bricks and mortar or bulletproof glass. It is allowing these people an area to vent their terrible pent up emotions without getting into a courtroom, which seems to exacerbate that because it is built around a system of law where you try to point out the worst part of someone,” McGee said.
“Most of these people are not bad people. But they’ll start drinking or maybe she’ll be unfaithful and they’ll start using these terms as if they are totally unfit people or parents so they can prove their point and win.”
“Well, there’s no winner in a family court case. There’s a group of losers, including the children,” he said.
Mack is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 1, 2007 on charges he fatally stabbed his wife, Charla, and shot Weller hours later with a high-powered rifle from a parking garage 300 yards away.
Within minutes, Weller told paramedics he suspected Mack. Annie Allison, Weller’s assistant who received a shrapnel wound, said the judge had discussed the “contentiousness” of the case.
After Mack’s last court appearance, Allison said, Weller “came in, drew my office door and told me, ‘That guy gave me the look of death.”‘
Weller has recovered from his wounds. Mack surrendered to authorities in Mexico 11 days later after an extensive manhunt.
A friend of Mack’s testified at his Aug. 30 preliminary hearing that Mack was frustrated with Weller’s handling of the divorce case and felt he wasn’t getting a fair hearing. A reporter for a Reno television station earlier said Mack had approached her in the weeks before the shooting with allegations that Weller was corrupt.
Mack earned more than $500,000 a year from his pawn shop and had a net worth of $9.4 million as recently as 2004, court documents show.
Charla Mack’s lawyer, Shawn Meador, said in a court filing that Mack ignored Weller’s order in May 2005 to pay $10,000 a month in temporary alimony payments. Weller found him in contempt of court, but Mack filed for personal bankruptcy in August to avoid paying, according to the filing.
Judge McGee said he handled Mack’s previous divorce from his first wife, and that case was “a real donnybrook” too.
“Family court judges draw the ire of some people who are incapable of thinking objectively because of the pressures of divorce and custody matters,” McGee said. “The angry party blames the judge. Women may say the judge is biased against women and men will claim that the judge is biased against me, sometimes in the same case.”
That’s why Denton and others think Weller is on the right track with plans for the instructional videotape.
“You have to remember, if my wife and I choose to get a divorce and we can settle custody issues, we can settle property issues, we can settle monetary issues, we are never going to see the inside of Chuck’s courtroom,” Denton said.
Dale Koch, the president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges who is circuit court judge in Portland, Ore., said it is not the court’s role to tell people whether to get divorced.
“But it is our role if people are going to become involved in the system to try to get disputes resolved outside the courtroom rather than inside the courtroom,” Koch said.
“It is their property, their children, so it’s best to create an environment where they are the ones trying to resolve things,” he said.
James Hays, the president of the Coalition of Fathers and Families NY in New York, is no fan of the family court system but said the judges are right about the benefits of settling differences outside of court.
“We tell people first off, go put your marriage back together if you can because you have no idea what you are getting into,” he said.
Hays and his group – a non-profit political action and advocacy group for fathers – has been criticized for pointing to Mack’s case and others as evidence of why child custody laws should be changed so fathers have more legal rights in a system they claim is heavily weighted in favor of women.
“We say that the system is creating these people (like Mack) and we get vilified,” Hays said.
“We have been warning people about this and it seems like every time we bring it up as an issue, it’s like killing the messenger. Just because we point out what is going on doesn’t mean we agree with it or advocate it.”
But Hays said many men feel they are treated unfairly in the legal system and don’t know where to turn.
“If you’re the man and didn’t want a divorce and it is forced upon you and you walk into court and are looking at the loss of your house, your assets, your children, often times your career itself, it is too much for them and they go over the edge,” Hays said.
Michael Argen, president of the New Jersey Council For Children’s Rights, said family court systems need more scrutiny to determine if they do any good.
“Certainly, a judge being shot is wrong and no sane person would advocate such an act. However, it may be time to investigate how these people have been brought to these points to commit such acts,” Argen said.
“As long as … the recipients of federal and state grants can justify their existence and cries for more funding, there will be no change in the system. The cash flow must be diverted to pro family programs and not programs that propagate family destruction,” he said.
Mary Mentaberry, executive director of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in Reno, said Weller’s idea for a videotape would help better prepare couples for the acrimony of the courtroom.
“There are a lot of folks out there who don’t understand what the court system is. It’s really mystical,” she said. “It could help allay some of that fear, help them recognize the situation and how serious it is.”