Wounded Reno judge had been targeted by fugitive, spokesman says
Associated Press Writer
RENO – Judge Chuck Weller was told weeks ago that the man now suspected of shooting him had launched a campaign to ruin the judge’s career, a spokesman for Weller said Wednesday.
Police focused on Northern California as they searched for Darren Mack, a wealthy Reno pawn shop owner wanted in the slaying of his estranged wife and for a sniper attack that wounded Weller, who was handling the couple’s contentious divorce.
Investigators also said Mack, 45, may be armed with a high-powered semiautomatic rifle, has a student pilot’s license and might try to flee the country.
“Our understanding is that he would not be able to rent an aircraft by himself, but obviously that’s a concern that he could try to make a short hop out of the United States,” Reno Police Lt. Ron Donnelly said.
Police issued a murder warrant Tuesday for Mack in the stabbing death of his wife, Charla Mack, 39, and declared him a suspect in the shooting of Weller, a family court judge who a gunman shot through the window of Weller’s third-floor office at the Washoe County courthouse complex. Police aren’t sure which of the Monday attacks occurred first.
Weller, 53, who was shot once in the chest, was released from Washoe Medical Center on Tuesday to an undisclosed, secure location, police said.
A spokesman for Weller said in a statement that the judge had been harassed prior to the shooting.
A member of a father’s advocacy group told Weller that an “angry man” he identified as Darren Mack was starting a campaign against Weller, using friends, associates, the media and anonymous Internet blogs to try to ruin his reputation, said Jim Denton, a Las Vegas political consultant.
Mack was reportedly upset by how Weller was handling Mack’s divorce case.
Because of the harassment, Weller called out as soon as he was shot for someone to warn his wife, Roza, to get the family out of the house and to safety, Denton said.
Weller told paramedics that Mack was the man he’d been told had started the blog attack on him four to six weeks ago, Denton said.
Meanwhile, authorities leading the manhunt turned their attention to the San Francisco Bay Area after reports that Mack contacted a cousin in Moraga on Monday morning and may have used a credit card at Sacramento International Airport later that day.
The corporate credit card issued by his business, Palace Jewelry and Loan, had been designated for Mack’s use. It was swiped through a machine at the exit of the airport parking garage about 2:30 p.m., Donnelly said.
“We think it is a high probability he was there but it was not a 100 percent confirmed sighting,” Donnelly said. Police were reviewing grainy surveillance video, he said.
Moraga police went to a residence where a cousin, Jeff Donner, had reported being contacted by Mack by telephone within 15 minutes after Weller was shot, but the officers concluded Mack had not been there.
Donner told reporters Wednesday that Mack’s “message was ‘If anything happens to me, please make sure that the true story about the injustices that are going on in that courtroom get out to the media and the public.”
“He was just obsessed with bringing this judge down. Not physically. I never heard anything like that, but by reputation,” Donner said.
“The judge was very biased, very prejudiced, made decisions before he heard all the facts and was very unfair and very unjust,” he said of Mack’s impressions of the judge.
Donner said he was shocked by reports of the shooting because Mack is “just not a violent person.”
“If he is in fact responsible for this, it is totally out of character and it is simply an example of somebody that has snapped,” he said, choking back tears.
“If Darren is listening, if he’s watching, we love him. We care about him and we’ll do anything to assist him to bring him in,” he said. “My concern is that he’s going to get cornered someplace and the police are going to kill him.”
Investigators were searching data bases at public and private airports and rental agencies across the western U.S., Donnelly said.
“We are trying to determine whether he has tried to leave the country. We don’t really have any viable leads since the Sacramento lead and the Moraga lead,” Donnelly said. “The trail pretty much goes cold after those two things.”
He said Mack may try to contact one of the women he met through several Internet dating services he had accounts with.
Mack owns a Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle, which is missing, Donnelly said. The high-powered rifle, which police believed was used in the shooting of Weller, is the same type of firearm John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad used in a series of sniper killings in the Washington D.C. area in 2002.
In addition to the blog campaign, Weller said he’d been harassed by someone who anonymously placed a newspaper advertisement last week to auction a motorcycle, listing Roza Weller’s name and directions to their home. Numerous bikers showed up at the Wellers’ home at 7 a.m. Saturday.
Several times last week, he also was awakened at night by his wife, who was alarmed by their dogs barking, Denton said.
Weller, who in past years offered legal advice on the radio and in a Reno Gazette-Journal column, also suffered a gunshot wound by a robber in Washington D.C., in 1978 shortly after graduating from Georgetown Law School.
“That time, I just stood there. This time, from experience, I knew enough to get down as soon as I was hit,” Weller said in the statement.
About four hours after Weller was shot, police discovered the body of Mack’s estranged wife lying face down in a large puddle of blood in her town home garage with stab wounds to her upper torso and neck. A detective found an empty sheath for a “dagger” on the floor of the master bedroom closet.
Charla Mack filed for divorce in 2005, and a mutual restraining order was signed in May 2005, court records. A custody hearing was scheduled Sept. 7-8 before Weller.
Shawn Meador, Charla Mack’s lawyer, said in a court filing that Mack ignored Weller’s order in May 2005 to pay $10,000 a month in temporary alimony payments to his wife. Weller found him in contempt of court, but Mack filed for bankruptcy in August to avoid paying, according to the filing.
Court documents filed six months before the couple separated in 2004 said Mack earned more than $500,000 a year and had a net worth of $9.4 million.
Meador said in court documents that Mack continued to live a “lavish” lifestyle, took frequent vacations with girlfriends and often attended “swinger” parties in Las Vegas and San Francisco.
The document also states that Mack was upset because his wife refused to agree that they accumulated no community property during their marriage. Unless she agreed, Mack said he would “destroy” her, the document said.
Associated Press writer Jordan Robertson in San Francisco contributed to this report.