The anatomy of an ugly custody battle

THOSE WHO MAY have wandered into the 330th Judicial District Court one day last March couldn’t have seen a better soap opera if they had stayed home and watched afternoon TV.

On the witness stand is a hard-looking woman in her 30s-the personal secretary- who details a series of sordid scenarios concerning her former employer’s ex-wife: scenarios that involve acrobatic sex, affairs with the sons of ex-governors and a record company gone bankrupt. The secretary tells of exotic business trips that she shared with her employer to the Dole Pineapple Plantation in Hawaii and a resort in B坢lize. Her stories, for the most part, make the ex-wife-the mother- appear to be a villainess of loose morals.

The plot thickens. Enter the father, H. Roger Lawler: a tall, macho, curly auburn-haired multimillionaire rancher with a reputation for making ruthless business decisions. On this day, however, Lawler is soft-spoken and smiling on the witness stand as he discusses his tender daily rituals with his 7-year-old daughter: He makes sure she has her lunch money and brushes her hair each morning; he sings Popeye the Sailor Man and Old MacDonald with her in the pickup on the way to school; he sits in an easy chair and reads children’s stories to her each evening after dinner.

When his testimony turns to his ex-wife, the rancher describes Suzanne Lawler as “possessive, jealous and suspicious” and talks of “terrible, terrible scenes” in which he saw her go into “fits of rage.”

It’s now the mother’s turn. She says Lawler is a violent man, and tells the jury about a time when he locked her, her mother and her daughter in a bedroom and shut off the electricity and water to that area of the Lawler ranch. She also talks of the time he came to her Carrollton home, kicked in the door, hit her with a crow bar, and attempted to abduct their daughter. Then, she testifies, there was the time he tricked her into believing that he would leave her alone if she relinquished an automobile and moved out of a home owned by the Lawler trust.

WELCOME TO THE world of the custody fight: an ugly, tacky, costly, exhausting legal bout between divorced parents who both have a desire to remain an active part of their child’s life. In Lawler vs. Lawler, the spoils of victory are in the form of a lively, thin 7-year-old with freckles on her nose. Her name is London Lizbethe Lawler, and she is the one who must face the hard realities of her parents’ divorce and then subsequent custody battle. Although London loves both her mother and father, she will end up living with only one of them. For London’s parents, the custody fight will be an ordeal that will last 16 months and involve four judges and seven attorneys. The trial will require both parents to submit to psychological examinations and will cost tens of thousands of dollars. In the end, a jury will award custody of London to her father.

HERMAN ROGER LAWLER and Bren-da Suzanne Clark met in the fall of 1975 in the lobby of Oz, a futuristic-looking nightclub (now-defunct), which was frequented by Dallas’ beautiful people. At the time, Suzanne was managing a Beverly Hills real estate firm and was visiting her brother in Dallas; Roger was a wealthy Collin County cattle rancher and Dallas apartment developer/investor. Suzanne had been divorced once, and Roger had had three unsuccessful marriages. Suzanne first caught Roger’s eye when he pulled into the parking lot behind her and noticed the attractive woman behind the wheel of a Jaguar.

Suzanne walked in, only to discover that Oz was a members-only club. As she was leaving, she encountered the Lawler flair for the first time. “He said, ’She’s with me. She was only kidding,’ ” Suzanne recalls. The two shared a pleasant evening of drinks and conversation, during which Roger said he was looking for a personal secretary; and offered her the job. She told him that she wasn’t interested.

Within a few days, Suzanne received flowers from the wealthy rancher/businessman at her Beverly Hills real estate office. Then one day, Roger popped into her office while visiting his properties in nearby Woodside, California. That fall, they spent time together at Soldiers Meadows Ranch, Lawler’s sprawling 350,000-acre ranch in Humboldt County, Nevada. They spent Sundays at Roger’s Texas Stadium circle suite and were together on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. While the two were vacationing in Rome the following February, Lawler told Suzanne that it was time they got married. She said no. One month later, however, Suzanne changed her mind. The two were married on March 17, 1976.

Suzanne says it only took her two months to realize that she’d made a mistake. She filed for divorce, but she says she was advised by an attorney that the divorce couldn’t be finalized because she was pregnant. She gave birth to London on January 16, 1977, and the divorce became final the following March 10. For the next five and and a half years, Suzanne had custody of London; she claims that Lawler’s visits with his daughter were infrequent.

Then something happened that turned Suzanne’s life upside down. On December 27, 1982, Roger filed a motion for a modification order, requesting that he be granted custody of London. “I am extremely concerned for the welfare of London,” Lawler wrote in an affidavit. “Suzanne Clark Lawler has taken on a course of conduct that is extremely dangerous to the welfare of London, and her conduct is probably criminal and could cause her to get arrested. She has a violent and uncontrollable temper and is in constant altercations with myself and others. At the present time, London is enrolled in public school, but her mother continues to refuse to permit her to attend school.”

Suzanne never was arrested for anything criminal. But for a father to secure custody of his child-especially in a modification order-it’s necessary that the allegations be strong, especially since judges and juries tend to maintain the status quo. Strong language isn’t unusual when two parents fight for custody. Goings-on that usually are considered strange in real life seem to be almost normal in the custody courtroom.

YET EVEN AS custody battles go, Lawler vs. Lawler was not a typical family-court fight. It was more vicious, says Ronald Bass, a Houston attorney who represented Suzanne, because the weathly rancher had the resources to wage a formidable custody fight.

“It was a setup, very well-choreographed,” says Bass. “He manipulated the system. He gave the jury the impression that Suzanne was unstable, and it worked. In a custody fight, character assassination is the easiest approach.”

But C. Thomas Wesner Jr., one of two attorneys who represented Roger in the heated court duel, says that digging into the mother’s life is both necessary and justified. “The question before the jury is to decide which parent can provide the best home for the child,” says Wesner. “To decide that, the lives of both parents are before the court. The way people live reflects on their character.”

Bass attributes Roger Lawler’s custody victory, which was awarded by the jury on March 20, to Lawler’s money and his “complex and masterful” ability to establish himself as a responsible parent. In short, Bass says, the wealthy rancher did all the right things.

Even though court documents show that Suzanne technically had legal custody of London until the March custody trial, the little girl lived with her father for all but a few of the 16 months of legal maneuverings. When London visited him last summer, he quickly enrolled her in Bethany Christian Academy in Piano, six miles from the Lawler ranch in Frisco. In addition, he hired a private tutor because he testified that London was “neglected educationally.” He took her to the doctor and dentist because he claimed that her teeth were “neglected and rotten” and that she was “too thin.” Lawler testified that London didn’t even know how to brush her teeth when she first began to live with him. He said that she had nightmares and even resisted taking baths.

Suzanne claims, however, that London was in good condition when she turned her over to Roger for visitation. Any financial problems that may have arisen, she says, were due in part to Roger’s failure to pay his child support. In fact, she claims that London’s child support was set at only $300 a month when she divorced Lawler in 1977.

Although Suzanne says that Lawler was a millionaire when she married him, he testified before a Collin County judge in October 1976 that his income was only $1,000 a month.

Not only has the case been ugly, it’s been unusual. For instance, when Roger was awarded custody of London on March 20, the judge foiled to order even temporary visitation privileges, and Suzanne has not seen her daughter since. (A hearing on the matter was pending at the time of this writing.) Roger was found in contempt of court in February for failing to pay back child support; he subsequently failed to appear at an April 6 hearing on the issue. After his failure to appear, the judge issued an order of attachment-a document that, in effect, calls for his arrest. At press time, however, Col-lin County officials had yet to serve him. And Suzanne has even gone as far as to ask the Dallas County district attorney’s office to file perjury charges against one woman who testified in the custody trial.

Adding fuel to the fire of the Lawler divorce and custody fight is the side issue of the massive Lawler trust bankruptcy, an involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy that began in 1976 in Nevada, and now-23 volumes later-is still going strong in the Dallas federal bankruptcy courts. Federal court documents place the value of the Lawler trust at more than $21 million; claims against the trust, however, total more than $15 million. At one point in the proceedings, the IRS had filed claims in taxes, penalties and interest of $16 million. Suzanne claims the IRS has told her that she owes $1 million in back taxes just because she signed the tax returns when she was married to Lawler.

Roger now lives on the ranch with London, and Suzanne currently leases a threebedroom condominium in Nassau Bay near Houston, where she lives with her 16-year-old daughter by her first marriage. The con-do has no furniture, except for beds in each bedroom, since Suzanne says she’s had to sell all her furniture to finance the custody fight. She claims that the total bill to attorney Ron Bass to date is $26,000; she owes two other attorneys who worked on the case a total of $12,000. She works four days a week as a secretary for a local developer.

Perhaps the only comforting thought Suzanne has had in the past year and a half came in the form of a letter from a female member of the jury that awarded custody to her ex-husband. The letter told Suzanne not to interpret the jury’s awarding custody of London to her father as a signal that the 12 people thought she had been a bad mother. “The emotional instability was a factor which the majority of jurors felt would hamper your abilities,” the juror wrote. “I stressed that this is a temporary condition and I truly believe this. … We were well aware of the manipulative antics of the other counsel (Roger’s), but we all agreed to discount these and work with as many facts as we could to do what would be best.”

Still, Suzanne says, her primary goal in life is to regain custody of London. In a recent letter to an administrator at London’s school, she wrote, “My heart is breaking over the loss of this child who was with me for six years until I made the mistake of asking for child support.” Says Suzanne: “I had everything to lose, and now I’ve lost it.”