Revenge of the Husband

When his wife's divorce lawyer pushed him, Lou Telerico pushed back.

When his wife's divorce lawyer pushed him, Lou Telerico pushed back.
Something is all wrong here. This is a courtroom gallery: two rows of ugly orange seats lining the back of a downtown courtroom. It's supposed to be empty.

No one wants to watch a simple little trial for menacing. There are capital murder trials to witness, aren't there? Who wants to see this?

Everyone, apparently. The gallery is nearing capacity. And these aren't your everyday rubberneckers, stray criminals, and curious law clerks. Several local judges, hot-shot lawyers, and court staffers slip in and out, hoping to witness some verbal bloodshed.

Someone is accused of threatening Vince Stafford's life! This they have to see.

Vince Stafford is one half of Stafford & Stafford, the most despised divorce firm in town. His older brother, Joe, has probably done more to earn the duo's reputation. Joe's been accused of calling a judge "a fucking bitch," pushing and choking a female lawyer, and threatening to make a client's husband "a poor man," among other bullish behavior.

But Vince is earning his share of enemies too. Like his brother, he's gained a reputation for goading opponents into uncontrolled outbursts. He also was reprimanded for brawling with an opposing attorney. Inside a courtroom.

They've pushed plenty of people to the edge, these brothers. But one day last summer, a wealthy stockbroker pushed back. He started doing things and saying things that had Vince Stafford running for cover.

Now the guy's on trial. Facing five years for menacing and retaliation.

And that's why all the lawyers and judges keep calling the courtroom, checking to see when Stafford might testify. So many call that the bailiff eventually declares, half-joking, "I'm not saving seats!" And they sneak in when they get a free moment, to get a glimpse of the guy who finally snapped under Stafford's pressure -- and to see if he'll do it again.

To quantify Lou Telerico's success is quite an undertaking. There are Cribs-worthy homes, luxury cars, Arabian horses, Italian suits, his surgically remodeled face and smile. The list goes on. It's probably best to sum it up by pointing out the vanity plates on his $150,000 Mercedes: "XSESIVE."

Telerico earned his excesses trading stocks for Merrill Lynch, where he was a top earner. And by all appearances, he shared them with one woman for four decades: his wife, Elaine.

But in November of 2005, Elaine filed for divorce. Her husband had been cheating on her, she claimed, and with multiple women. Forty years of marriage and a $35 million estate suddenly were slipping from Lou Telerico's hands. And age 63 is not the ideal time to reimagine your life.

Elaine wanted a bulldog for an attorney. And when you throw around words like that -- "bulldog," "pit bull," "animal" -- among Cleveland divorcées, the name "Stafford" is likely to be thrown back at you.

Elaine wound up with Vince.

He showed his teeth quickly. He splashed court documents with accusations that Lou lavished his girlfriends with thousands of dollars' worth of vacations, jewelry -- even breast implants. Dating Lou Telerico, his wife claims, is not unlike winning Bob Barker's Showcase Showdown.

The allegations unraveled Telerico. He stopped showing up for work. When he did show, he would ramble about how he should just pack it all up and start over. Stafford's going to take it all, he would say. What's the point in working? His earnings plummeted. According to his son, he even talked about killing himself.

Finally, in August -- almost a year after Elaine filed for divorce -- the two sides sat down to talk. Lou took his seat quietly -- hoping, it seems, that there was progress to come, that maybe they could salvage something after all.

Across from him sat Vince Stafford.

The meeting started, and then -- right then -- it ended.

Stafford immediately started "pushing buttons -- hot buttons to which my father reacted," remembers the Telericos' son, Mark, who attended the meeting.

Lou Telerico claims Stafford chided him for wasting money on plastic surgery and pearly porcelain veneers. Mark doesn't remember that exactly. But it was clear Stafford knew how to rile up his dad.

It worked. Lou Telerico lost it. His life had crumbled on him, and while culpability could be traced in multiple directions, at the moment, he blamed Stafford. His misery spilled into a verbal tirade against his wife's lawyer.

"Unethical asshole!"

He called him this over and over.

"Unethical asshole!"

Around then, Mark says, Stafford looked into Lou Telerico's eyes. They were glassy. His opponent was on the ropes.

"Are you going to cry for us, Lou?" Stafford asked, according to Mark. "Are you going to cry for us?"

It was a spat better suited for an arena of tanbark and monkey bars. But Stafford, with months of allegations and one quick jab to Telerico's manhood, had reduced the millionaire broker to a tornado of uncontrolled blubbering. His eyes were "completely bugging out of his head," Stafford would later say. "You could see the veins."

Telerico stood up. Mark says his dad was simply trying to leave. But Bernard Agin, a lawyer and accountant who attended the meeting, saw something else. "He was going to hit Mr. Stafford."

Agin says he had to hold Telerico back. This very billable hour -- there were five lawyers in the room -- suddenly had devolved into a bench-clearing brawl: lots of yelling, lots of holding back, no chance of fisticuffs. These are lawyers, after all; there are manicures to protect.

"Let me go!" Telerico hollered, according to Agin. "Let me at him!"

It's hard to imagine Stafford being scared. Telerico's a pint-sized fellow, five foot five at best, and his tan, thin face looks as though it could break with a strong gust of wind. Stafford, meanwhile, is better than six feet, with the torso of an ox. He's RoboCop with a law degree and Nordstrom card.

As Jerry Gold, one of Telerico's defense lawyers, put it: "Vince doesn't hide from anybody."

But a few days after the meeting, Stafford found himself doing just that. He checked his voicemail and found a message from a man named Peter Bunnell, who worked for Merrill Lynch. Call me, Bunnell said. I have "a duty to warn" you of a possible "threat against you."

When Stafford called back, Bunnell brought him up to speed: Telerico had been rambling to his secretary about his crumbling life, and had talked about wanting to "blow [Stafford's] fucking head off." A day later, Telerico's son had seen him watching some sort of hunting DVD on his computer.

The guy snapped, Stafford must have thought then. He'd had opponents threaten him before. This one, it seemed, was going the extra mile.

Stafford hurried home, piled his wife and two kids into the car. With Hunting Valley police escorting them, they drove to a nearby hotel for the night. He brought his family home the next day, but not without 24-hour security. He also called Cleveland police, to report Lou Telerico.

The circus begins on a frozen January morning. With no jury -- Telerico opted for a bench trial -- Judge Stuart Friedman serves as the ringmaster.

Prosecutors Gayle Williams, loud and powerful, and Stephen Arnold, boyish and jittery, lay out their case: Vince Stafford was merely doing his job, representing his client's interests in the way he always does: like a bulldog. It was working. Telerico tried to fight back.

Stafford is called to the stand. This is what the gallery wants to see: Stafford charming the room, Stafford as the victim, Stafford being badgered like he has badgered so often himself.

He fills up the witness box. His posture is perfect, his wavy brown hair freshly cut. His voice, low and gravelly, could narrate a movie trailer. When he talks, he turns his head to look Judge Friedman in the eyes, just as he would advise his clients to do.

From the onset, Stafford carefully paints the scene: Stafford the Family Man vs. Telerico the Whacko.

Both men belonged to the Barrington Golf Club, Stafford says, so they occasionally saw each other there. Stafford points out that he attended the club with his two children. Telerico, on the other hand, went with his girlfriend. Once, he even let her wear a football jersey bearing his name.

"The audacity," Stafford tells the judge.

At the defense table, Telerico just smiles. Even on the witness stand, his wife's lawyer is pushing those buttons.

Stafford goes on. Once, in the locker room, Stafford was changing his young son when Telerico showed up. "He started rattling off my street name," Stafford says, "with the most arrogant, smug look on his face." Stafford recalls Telerico's words: "You have no idea what you can find in the member directory. You have no idea who you're messing with."

At the August settlement conference, Stafford was just trying to do his job, he tells the judge. But Telerico -- he lost it.

"I was pretty disgusted," Stafford says.

When he got Bunnell's message, Stafford panicked as he packed up his family. "I didn't want to file a police report," he says. "I didn't have a choice."

It only got worse when he learned of Telerico's visit to a shooting range.

Yes, the guy has definitely snapped.

"He was at Stonewall Gun Range," Stafford says, "five days after he threatened to blow my fucking head off!"

This is what Vince Stafford does!

This, essentially, is Telerico's defense. His lawyers, Jerry Gold and John Pyle, hound each witness about what Stafford must have done to set Telerico off at the meeting. Did he mention plastic surgery? Did he ask him if he was going to cry?

There are complicated legal arguments to be made, about the definitions of "menacing" and "retaliation." But there's a simpler case too. Vince Stafford is a dick, the lawyers seem to be saying. Who could blame Telerico for going a little nutty?

"When it comes to goading, there aren't many people better than the Stafford brothers," Gold says when cross-examining Agin. "Sitting there, laughing, looking sweet and smiling."

Agin recalls being surprised by Stafford's undaunted demeanor: "He was just sitting there calmly."

Yes, Stafford got to Telerico, his lawyers say. But he wasn't going to hurt anyone. Just look at him!

Telerico's secretaries were called to the stand. They had witnessed his rants about blowing Stafford's head off. "We didn't know if he was really serious," one says.

"I just blew it off, that Lou was venting," agrees the other.

And the guns: Telerico's lawyers claim it was all an ill-timed curiosity about a potential hobby. A friend testifies that Telerico wanted to learn how to skeet shoot to ingratiate prospective clients. That's why he was at the shooting range. That's why he was watching the gun DVD in his office.

"We certainly understand why Vince felt the way he felt," Pyle tells the judge. "But what he was feeling was based on half-truths."

It takes Friedman a few hours to make his decision. By the time he emerges, the gallery is again teeming with lawyers and court staff eager to hear the verdict.

In a way, it's Vince Stafford and his bullish lawyering that are on trial. While Telerico's lawyers tried to paint Stafford as a bully who pushed too far, prosecutors urged the judge to consider it a different way: that even a Stafford brother can be a victim of a crime. "Vince Stafford is a person some people absolutely hate," Williams, the prosecutor, told the judge. "Whether you like him, love him, or hate" Stafford, she said, Lou Telerico committed a crime.

But as Friedman reads his ruling, it's clear Telerico will be going home. If Telerico was serious about blowing Stafford's head off -- and was really out shopping for a gun -- the prosecutors failed to prove it, the judge says.

As for Telerico's behavior at the settlement conference -- that, the judge says, went exactly as Stafford planned. "A trap was laid," the judge tells Telerico. "You went right into it."

Not guilty: With those two words, the room rises. Someone applauds, but it's brief and faint. Most here have no stake in the events; they just came for the show, and the show is now over.

Reporters swarm Telerico, who makes a brief statement about being thankful that the truth won the day. But Telerico can't say anymore. It could jeopardize his divorce case.

Yes, the divorce. It's still not settled. It goes to trial in February, and Vince Stafford is still on the case.

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