Feed the Machine

Bonnie Warner filed for divorce three years ago. She's still waiting.

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A rotating cast of judges and lawyers has delivered no - peace to Bonnie Warner. - Walter  Novak
A rotating cast of judges and lawyers has delivered no peace to Bonnie Warner.
Once upon a time, Bonnie Warner was blissfully ignorant. She was 21, and she found Dean Warner handsome and hard-working. Vows of eternal devotion evolved into three kids and 25 years.

But when you're young and marry for looks, you're bound to find trouble. There was arguing, accusations of violence, an escalation of distrust and disdain. "It was a rocky marriage from day one," she says. Yet Bonnie held on. Maybe it was the children. Maybe the pull of gravity. Maybe it was that when you're economically dependent, you just can't see a better place to go.

By July 2001, however, she was a willing combatant no more. She filed for divorce.

Three years, three lawyers, and $20,000 later, she's no closer than when she started. Even by the slothful standards of the judiciary, her case is unusual. Dean's lawyer, Maureen Fiorilli Zito, has been practicing for 18 years. She can recall "maybe one" divorce that took longer.

Another lawyer puts it more succinctly: "That's outrageous."

It started as a typical affair. The marriage's bitter last days turned into a free-for-all once the lawyers were called. Bonnie indicted her husband for violence, fiscal malfeasance, and stiffing her on child support. Dean charged his wife with harassment, violating court orders, and mangling his business affairs. There's no telling who's right. In divorce, the truth is in the eye of the accuser.

It didn't help that their case was before Judge James Celebrezze, who, in that distinctly Cleveland way, won his job not for his wisdom, but for his famous Italian surname. In 2002, the Cuyahoga County Bar Association took the rare step of not recommending him for reelection. It was a polite, lawyer way of saying, "Voters beware: This guy's a stiff."

Sometimes Bonnie would arrive in court, only to find Celebrezze a no-show. Sometimes her own lawyers were the culprits. "We have been there so many times, and either her attorney was late or didn't show up," says Zito. Each time Bonnie burned another day of vacation, with nothing to show for it. (Neither Dean nor Celebrezze responded to interview requests.)

First Celebrezze ordered their Rocky River home sold; the couple would split the proceeds. But they fought over everything from doorknobs to toothbrushes. Then Dean's aluminum-reprocessing business collapsed. Bonnie believed he was hiding money, but couldn't afford the forensic accountant's $8,000 bill to scrutinize the books. Then, two years ago, Dean simply stopped paying support. Celebrezze never bothered to address the matter. Nor would he release money from the home sale. Only the lawyers, naturally, were allowed to tap it for their fees.

In the legal system, you gotta keep feeding the slot machine for a chance to buy justice. Bonnie was quickly running out of quarters. Dean had always been the breadwinner; she works as a teacher's assistant. So Bonnie took charity from her 82-year-old mother, but she too was going broke.

Desperation breeds when you've spent your life comfortably in Rocky River, only to discover that, in your late 40s, you have no earning power, no way to pay for such essentials as medicine, transportation, housing. On her kitchen table sits a stack of papers large enough to be used in an ESPN strongman competition. Included is the court docket, which runs a full nine pages of entries. Also included are pounds of Bonnie's letters, heavily underlined for emphasis and loaded with a freight car's worth of exclamation points. They contain the rage of the aggrieved.

Bonnie kept pressing her lawyers for action, but they could only do so much. Celebrezze was in a bad mood, they would tell her, or he had to catch a flight. Things would have to wait.

But as the delays continued, Bonnie became increasingly frantic. Her lawyer had enough. Bonnie had unrealistic expectations, she was told. She was fired as a client.

Bonnie got a second lawyer. He had a heart attack. Then Bonnie accused him of failing to do work he promised. The lawyer feared she would fire a complaint against him -- and one against Celebrezze. So he warned the judge and fired Bonnie as well. Celebrezze recused himself.

Ask attorneys about a client who's now on her third lawyer, and they smile wryly, as if to say, "The woman's gotta be a nut." Zito puts it more politely: "The wife who filed is on her third attorney. We are now on our second judge . . . If a client comes to me and says she's fired two attorneys, I think that's a red flag."

But talk to Bonnie, and you know she's not nuts. She chain-smokes, and her jagged monologues are filled with hairpin turns and abrupt shifts from forward to reverse. Yet this is behavior of the anguished and broke, not the crazy.

Her sin is that, like so many people who've never been to court, she actually bought the PR about "swift justice." What she found was a system burdened by old English protocol, rules that make the BMV look efficient, and judges elected solely on their Irish and Italian names. It's pure luck that some are actually good at the job.

The smart client just feeds money into the machine, then sits and takes it. But Bonnie wanted someone to see that she was desperate. She expected the courts to live up to their advertising as the greatest legal system in the world. And she paid handsomely to make it happen. But she's now entering her fourth year of waiting. She won't get her trial till October.

If she paid 20 grand to a business and never got service, we'd say she was screwed. But since she paid it to the legal system, we call her naive and crazy for expecting something in return.

All Bonnie wanted was to get out of a bad marriage. She ended up with a far more worthless husband: the courts. Her sin is that, like many who have never been to court, she actually bought the PR about "swift justice."

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