Sharon Graham and her husband managed to buy a house on ten Covelo acres, raise three children, buy a few things, accumulate a little money for their retirement. They aren’t much different from other working Americans who stay married and roll out of bed every morning to go to work, day after day. But if dad suddenly walks out the door of the modest, mutually achieved shelter, its comforts and even the money jointly put away for the couple’s Golden Years, mom has got to at least try to defend herself.
Sharon Graham learned on July 12th, 1996 that she’d have to defend herself. Exit routine, enter court combat.
Sharon Graham’s life had fallen in on her.
In her Forest Service uniform, the former Mrs. William Graham is official-looking but not officious. She’s a slim, gracious woman whose sense of humor has not disappeared beneath an avalanche of officially-sanctioned betrayals, her former husband’s at least equal to those of several attorneys and the Sonoma County courts. Sharon Graham, now 54, has applied her formidable will to learning the law to protect herself from it. She hopes her story will be of use to the many other women casually exploited by a legal system indifferent to them.
Sharon and Bill Graham had been married for 30 years when Bill suddenly announced he was leaving their Covelo home to move in with his mother in Jenner. He’d retired from Caltrans, had suffered a major heart attack, and had undergone, his wife says, a personality change at least as radical as the heart surgery which saved his life, and was generally no longer the man she’d been married to for three decades.
Bill was vague about why he suddenly felt a southward pull, but once he was out the door he asked his wife to join him in Jenner as soon as their Covelo property could be sold.
“We were going to move together,” Sharon remembers. “We were going to sell our place here in Covelo. We’d agreed that I would move down there with him and get a job.”
It didn’t work out that way.
Bill had other plans, all of them apparently centered upon a youngish raven-haired hairdresser who lived across the street from his mother’s house in Jenner.
Mother? She didn’t fit well with the new domestic arrangements. Mom, 82, lasted just over a year before her son dispatched her to a nursing home. She doesn’t have to be there, is seldom visited by the son who evicted her although he did find her monthly income a big boost to his new family’s prosperity, and Gran was at least as convenient as a tax deduction for a while.
Wandering Bill, as this particular marital tragedy played out, was set in motion by his infatuation with the lady across that street in Jenner. He married the hairdresser the day after his hurry-up divorce was final. If the Sharon’s attorney — a woman with the improbable surname of de la O — had informed Sharon that the law made it possible for Californians to quickly shed one mate for another, a whole heckuva lot of hassle could have been avoided.
“Bill wanted to marry his lady friend,” Sharon now realizes. “I wouldn’t have gotten in his way, but I didn’t know what he was doing when he filed for divorce.
Sharon did know that whatever was up it would be wise for her to protect her share of the couple’s jointly accumulated worldly goods. “The courts have made me feel as if I’m picking on a married man. But I was married to this guy for 30 years and gave him three beautiful children.”
The hairdresser may have known Bill for a total of two years, if that.
The love struck former Caltrans man has also stashed his mom in a nursing home, become a Jehovah’s Witness, gone back to work for a trucking firm based in Windsor, qualified as partially disabled, to supplement his generous Caltrans retirement checks, and generally pulled a whole lot of legal fast ones on the wife and family he left behind.
Nearly three years later, Sharon is still at home in Covelo, a foot-high stack of legal papers piling up on her dinette table. The former Mrs. Graham is still picking up all the pieces.
She’s also spent many long, lonely hours driving the twisting road along the Eel River from Mendocino County’s eastern-most community to Ukiah and Santa Rosa for an emotionally and fiscally expensive series of lessons that Lady Justice’s courts still favor the gentleman even if he hasn’t behaved like one.
“I’ve only worked for the Forest Service for seven years,” Sharon says, counting off the contents of the large burden her husband left her with when he headed for the door. It’s the first job I’ve had that came with a retirement plan. I worked for this home. I cleaned the saw mill. I worked in restaurants. My parents gave us the down payment for this house. When he left there were mortgage payments, property taxes, insurance, everything.”
Twenty days after Wandering Bill abandoned Sharon at their Covelo home, the former Caltrans homebody filed for divorce in Sonoma County. He didn’t tell his wife why he wanted out of their marriage. There was no mention of the siren singing her irresistible song at Bill from her seductive house by the sea. It fetched him all the way from Covelo to Jenner. Sharon was still planning to move south with her husband. She hadn’t heard the song and knew nothing about the siren.
Twenty-three days after Mr. Graham had chucked 30 years of marriage to Mrs. Graham, a man appeared at her Covelo door at 9 pm with the divorce papers. The man who served Sharon with the legal news that her husband was divorcing her smirked, “Here’s a little something from Bill.”
Thirty years of marriage had ended with a cheap cruelty — a verbal kick in the teeth achieved at the expense of a woman sent reeling by totally unexpected bad news.
“I was shocked,” Sharon says. “Bill had even told friends that I would be coming to Jenner soon. I thought we were going to sell this house and I’d join him there.”
California law says you’ve got to live in the county you file for divorce in for three months before you can begin to untie the matrimonial knot. Which is why lots of estranged Golden State couples still head east for Nevada, land of the instant divorce decree.
“My husband threatened to kill me if I didn’t go along with it,” Sharon says offhandedly about the kind of verbal menace that sends less confident citizens running to the nearest gun store.
Sharon was left to try to puzzle out these devastating events by herself. As she emerged from a state of shock at her new status, she looked around for legal protection.
“I thought a woman lawyer would be better for me so I asked a lady lawyer in Willits for the name of an attorney in Santa Rosa,” Sharon recalls, wondering why Mendocino County wasn’t the proper venue to sort things out since she and Bill had lived here most of their married life.
But the Forest Service receptionist had no idea she was beginning an emotionally and fiscally exhausting journey through a legal labyrinth unrelated to simple justice.
The lady lawyer in Willits put Sharon in touch with a Santa Rosa attorney with the exclamatory surname of Teresa de la O.
de la O advised her Covelo client not to make a fuss over the fact that her former husband had illegally been permitted to file for divorce in a jurisdiction he hadn’t lived in for much more than a month. Nor did the ineffable de la O inform the famously imperious Cerena Wong, the judge of the Sonoma County Superior Court where Mr. Graham began his hurry-up divorce, that Mr. Graham had pulled a residential fast one, claiming Jenner as his home when he’d only been there a month.
Later, when Judge Wong was specifically made aware that Wandering Bill’s new matrimonial freedom had been achieved on the false claim that he was a legal resident of Sonoma County, the judge made no effort to rectify the error, thus perpetuating the original fraud perpetrated in her courtroom.
Seven months after he’d left Covelo, Mr. Graham married the hairdresser he’d met across the street from mom’s house in Jenner.
de la O blithely informed the former Mrs. Graham that she was diligently working to advance her claim on the couple’s joint property — including state retirement funds — when she hadn’t even take the first steps to protect Sharon’s claim to her fair share of her husband’s retirement. Sharon complained about de la O’s treacherous sloth, de la O fired herself.
And so commenced a plague of lawyers.
Mrs. Graham began a virtual commute to Santa Rosa for court appearances even though Mendocino County clearly was the appropriate venue to fairly divide things up. She often had to take off work to get to Santa Rosa’s user-unfriendly court cattle calls although it might be late afternoon before her case was called. The courts, Sharon discovered, operate on the monarchical principle that their time is more important than yours.
In one bizarre episode many legal treacheries later, Sharon had appeared for the usual 9am round-up only to have the judge lecture her and a roomful of aggrieved former spouses, almost all of them women, “Don’t make a career of your divorce; get it over with.”
Sharon snorts, “I didn’t make a career out of my divorce; my lawyers did!”
In another casually arrogant display of judicial self-indulgence, Judge Wong appeared in her crowded 9am courtroom to moan about how lousy she was feeling until, with an imperial wave of her hand, she ordered everyone to come back in three hours.
Meanwhile, Mr. Graham quickly managed to convince himself that he was the victim — that he was entitled to his fair share of his and his ex-wife’s modest accumulation of assets. And then some.
Wandering Bill proceeded to make claims through his own series of lawyers on everything from the couple’s home on ten Covelo acres to his former wife’s scant retirement benefits. He even managed to obtain a decree from the Sonoma County courts compelling his ex-wife to pay rent to him on the house he’d abandoned.
A man walks out on a 30-year marriage but the essential victim of the abandonment is forced to fight for her rightful share of the combined work product.
The besieged and still bewildered former Mrs. Graham, assuming her unhappy experience with de la O was merely the bad luck of the legal draw, drew a worse hand. de la O had only cost Sharon Graham money she didn’t have and, perhaps, a wariness for lawyers with New Age monickers.
Enter P.C. Culp in whom correctness, political and otherwise, begins and ends with his middle initials.
Henry P.C. Culp is a full-of-himself Santa Rosa attorney grown fat and arrogant over the years off divorce cases. Culp cost Sharon more than money — he casually placed her in physical danger.
“I told Culp to just do his job. I said I wanted everything split 50-50. That’s California law,” Sharon says, still aghast that a simple rule could be made so complicated. “I borrowed $2,000 from my father to retain Mr. Culp.”
Her former husband was making increasing demands on their joint property and Sharon’s eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the dark murk of the legal system. She needed someone to represent her interests. “Culp calls me up and says how about a four-way settlement conference? He tells me it’s a lot cheaper than a trial and says he’ll check with my husband and his attorney. If they agree, we’ll meet in my office,” Sharon remembers as she points out that “any man who walks out on his wife without even discussing divorce isn’t likely to to sit and talk.”
Culp began by trying to save his client some money, Sharon concedes, although after 30 years of life with Bill she now had serious doubts about the good intentions of her former spouse and the legal system he’d unleashed on her.
On the memorable morning of June 12th 1997 the parties met in Culp’s comfortable Santa Rosa office.
Sharon remembers the day this way: “My ex-husband is an alcoholic. He’s had a five-way heart bypass. He was not reasonable. He was abusive. His own lawyer had to calm him down. He lied about sharing expenses with his mother.” Bill’s 82-year-old mother had by then been deposited in a Santa Rosa rest home as old lady’s Jenner home underwent its conversion to Wandering Bill’s and the hairdresser’s love nest.
Four hours of Bill’s tantrums and indignant denials later, the retooled Caltrans man had agreed to a rough agreement on a 50-50 property split.
“Bill’s lady lawyer was very good at getting him to cooperate,” Sharon recalls.
A follow-up conference solidified a fair distribution of the couple’s collective goods. Bill’s lady lawyer had gotten him to do the right thing.
P.C. Culp proceeded to do the wrong thing, whether out of incompetence or simple indifference to the welfare of his client. Or both.
A month after the settlement conference, Bill appeared at 7am at his former Covelo home. The agreement he’d just signed off on stipulated that Wandering Bill appear at his old homestead only if he were accompanied by a deputy.
“He just showed up on his own,” Sharon says. “I was scared. I panicked. I called Culp. At 9am Culp called back to say he was sorry that he’d forgotten to tell me Bill was coming. I said, ‘Mr. Culp, if I would have gone to work, he would have cleaned me out.’”
Culp forgot to tell Sharon her ex-husband, who had threatened to kill her, who had constantly flipped out at the settlement conferences, was coming by himself to Covelo to get his share of 30 years of joint effort, much of which wasn’t rightfully his.
Bill’s lawyer, and his sole link to rational behavior and a fair settlement with Sharon, took a job in Sacramento. Bill’s new lawyer advises him to scrap all that has gone before and start over again. Bill likes that advice.
P.C. Culp is content to advise Sharon “to screen” the death threats Bill calls in to her at home and at her Forest Service job in Covelo.
“I’m the receptionist,” Sharon exclaims in the shocked voice of a person unable to believe her own lawyer can be so blithely indifferent to her welfare, “how can I screen the calls?”
Bill has routinely threatened his ex-wife with terminal violence and has even lobbed a death threat at his son.
By now, fully appalled at how unprotected a divorce victim is, and just as appalled at the haphazard performance of her attorney P.C. Culp and the arbitrary behavior of the Sonoma County courts, Sharon decides one day to take her adult children to Santa Rosa for an instructive look at mom’s adventures in the legal system. On the day of her family’s judicial field trip, sitting as judge is de la O.
O mi god O!
Culp soon informs his increasingly skeptical client he wants out of responsibility for her case. (Sharon paid Culp $2,000 up front.) Culp claims Sharon lied to him. He says she’s asked him to do illegal things although he can’t produce evidence of anything beyond his own casual abandonment of his client’s interests.
The judge for this session was an accommodating member of the club-like Sonoma County bar named Carla McDermott. She was sitting in for a judge named Antolini whose absence went unexplained; citizen-serfs dare not ask whither heir black-robed betters.
Insta-judge McDermott blithely allows Culp to take a hike on Sharon, leaving Sharon legally and fiscally much weaker than ol’ P.C. found her.
McDermott had dismissed Sharon’s very real, verified, and entirely legitimate complaints about her derelict attorney. The judge had reduced Sharon’s shabby treatment at P.C.’s grasping hands to a mere clash of equivalently unyielding personalities. “It’s obvious you two don’t get along,” Judge Carla summed up.
Lawyers continue to profit from the matter of Graham versus Graham.
Wandering Bill’s new lawyer, a bullying harridan by the name of Margaret M. England, fired off a threatening blast at Sharon containing this typically pompous solipsism: “As to your uncooperative response to my request for a continuance, please be on notice by this letter that I am not available. The mediation which has caused a conflict in my calendar was due to the Honorable William L. Bettinelli’s schedule, not my own. I will have someone from my office make an appearance on my behalf to request the continuance and state on the record that we requested a continuance upon notice of the necessity of same from you which you would not comply with causing my client unnecessary attorney’s fees and costs. We will be asking for sanctions in the form of fees.”
We’ll cast Barbra Streisand as Margaret M. England and the King of old Siam as Bettinelli.
Get the picture here?
A 54-year-old woman working at a $23,000 a year job in Covelo has inconvenienced a couple of lawyers making at least a hundred annual thousand who live and work in Santa Rosa.
And the lawyers claim Sharon has let the property go. A real estate salesman has been conveniently produced to say the Covelo property is not marketable, an assessment which would seem to be belied by the fact that Wandering Bill’s voracious attorney is trying to get more rent out of Sharon for the house she half-owns and which has sheltered her for the past twenty-five years.
Judge Cerena Wong, at a subsequent appearance in the matter of The Marriage of Sharon and William Graham, consoled Sharon from the bench, “At least you won’t be kicked out of your house over the holidays.”
And here Sharon is, trundling off to work every morning at age 54 as her ex-husband and the legal system gear up for another run at stealing everything she’s worked a lifetime for.
“I’ve had to go to therapy. It’s like the man I loved and worshipped fell out of an airplane. These laws need to be changed and these lawyers need to be held accountable. What have I learned from all this? I’ve learned that the way the courts are now, the best liar wins.”