Did federal prosecutors use the late Warren A. Wilson III as a pawn in a strategy to convict another attorney? His wife of 28 years says he was innocent.
Did federal prosecutors use the late Warren A. Wilson III as a pawn in a strategy to convict another attorney? His wife of 28 years says he was innocent.
By David R. Corder
On an October morning two years ago, Warren A. Wilson III dictated a 10-minute message as he sat in his gold-colored Lexus sedan. The clarity of his words left no doubt as to his purpose. He explained how a federal indictment, unsealed hours earlier, had extinguished all joy in his life, and his innocence seemed to matter naught.
Moments later the family law attorney walked a few feet to a tiny sandy beach along the northern edge of Tampa Bay and sat down cross-legged next to a tree stump. While gazing at the tranquil waters, as the Gulf breeze rustled short-leaf pines, Wilson, 52, put the barrel of a loaded 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
News of his death triggered grief and disbelief that reached far beyond his immediate family. Wilson was well known in the north Pinellas business and legal communities. The Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce chose him as its 1994 Citizen of the Year. Palm Harbor internist Arthur R. Polin and certified public accountant Shan Shikarpuri, another Citizen of the Year recipient, eulogized him. He and U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, had been close friends.
Everyone wondered what had motivated a respected attorney to end his own life so suddenly, violently. Could it be guilt? Did he suspect wrongdoing on the part of others and was distressed over his inability to subvert it? Or had depression set in over the year since the U.S. Attorneyis Office, southern district of Ohio, sent him a target letter for prosecution?
iNo!i asserts Beth Strosser Wilson, his widow and longtime law partner.
iNo!i says Dennis Long, a longtime law partner to Beth and Warren Wilson and now an assistant Pinellas County attorney.
iI knew Warren from law school,i Long says. iWe practiced law together for 18 years. The answer would be, no. He practiced in an area with high stress and difficult clients to deal with. He always attempted to get the best results for his clients, but he was always above board and did his best.i
Itis been two difficult years since Oct. 4, 2002, when Beth Wilson lost the college sweetheart she met on the debate team at the University of Florida. It was love at first sight for the dark-haired woman from Miami and the fair-haired man from Clearwater. Following graduation in 1974, they married and entered the universityis law school.
Photographs of Warren, who she calls her soul mate, adorn the law office Beth Wilson shares with Colleen Bratcher, Warrenis protEgE. There is Beth and Warren smiling. Thereis a collage of pictures of him as a member of the universityis Florida Blue Key, the stateis oldest and most prestigious leadership honorary society. Thereis a picture of him with the late Bob Hope, who spoke at the university at Warrenis invitation.
On a recent November day, Beth Wilson talked publicly for the first time about the days, weeks and months that preceded her husbandis death. Tears fall, especially as she listened to Bratcher recall her mentor.
She talks about the sacrifice her husband made on behalf of her and their adult son, Scott. She purposely mutes her curiosity about the forces that brought about her husbandis death. In her sorrow, anger simmers. Itis been a difficult time: Scottis twin died in 2000 from complications associated with cerebral palsy, her father died in 2001, then there was Warrenis death.
In part, Beth Wilson blames Domenic L. Massari III, a disbarred Tampa attorney, for Warrenis death. Massari pleaded guilty last year in the scheme that implicated her husband. She also blames overzealous prosecutors. She says the U.S. government targeted her husband as an unwitting pawn.
iThe one thing people need to know is just because youire indicted doesnit mean youire guilty,i she says.
At 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2002, federal prosecutors faxed a 55-page indictment iout of the bluei to the Wilsonsi law firm, Beth Wilson says. It had been a year since her husband received a target letter from the prosecutors, eight years since the alleged crime. She and Warren wilted under the weight of the allegations. The indictment accused him of two counts of conspiracy to defraud the United States, one count of money laundering and embezzlement and two counts of wire fraud.
The charges stemmed from a civil action Warren had filed in 1994 in the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court on behalf of Delbert Schultz against his son, Richard D. Schultz, the former CEO of Ohio-based National Revenue Corp. At about the same time, Richard Schultzis ex-wife sued to prove he had concealed marital assets. He would later admit in a plea agreement that he hid his wealth through a network of lawyers, accountants and business people from Canada to Florida.
In the Tampa Bay area, Richard Schultz recruited Massari.
Massari pleaded guilty last year to federal charges he manufactured a fake letter of agreement that purportedly transferred about $5 million in National Revenue stock to the father from the son. To legitimize the scam, Massari typed the agreement on a typewriter and backdated it to 1973.
Massari asked Warren to represent the elder Schultz. The two lawyers had known each other since high school. They met while Warren was on Clearwater High Schoolis debate team and Massari was on the debate team at Tampais Jesuit High School. Their friendship continued through their college days in Gainesville.
The Schultzes quickly settled their dispute. Clearwater attorney Charles N. Castagna, who did not respond to a GCBR request for comment, mediated the settlement. Circuit Judge Philip A. Federico approved it. But Warrenis attorney, Gary Trombley, says the court records show Warren didnit even attend the hearing.
iThatis what makes this so bizarre,i Trombley says.
From the beginning, Trombley didnit question Warrenis innocence. He knew his client had a solid reputation. Warren served on a panel that recommended judicial nominations. He was chair of the Clearwater Bar Associationis family law committee.
Trombley traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak directly to the prosecutors on Warrenis behalf.
iI found they had no definitive proof that Warren Wilson was implicated in the events that Domenic Massari caused,i he says. iIt was their speculation there may have been some involvement but no hard evidence. It was obvious at the time the government was trying to exert some pressure on Warren Wilson to give testimony against Domenic Massari.i
But the allegations put Warren in a no-win situation, Trombley says. Warren insisted he knew nothing about Massariis illegal actions. iIt was obvious (then) to Warren Wilson that Domenic Massari wasnit involved in anything illegal,i he says. iHe had nothing to offer the U.S. attorney.i
In an interview with Tromleyis law firm investigator, Massari professed to the legitimacy of the Schultzesi letter of agreement. He also told a GCBR reporter in November 2002, heid prove his innocence in the matter. In 2003, though, he pleaded guilty.
iDomenic Massari hoodwinked his good friend to participate in a sham lawsuit with which Warren Wilson had no knowledge,i Trombley says.
Trombley spoke with federal prosecutors the day the U.S. District Court, Columbus, Ohio, unsealed Warrenis indictment.
iIn our discussions, in my opinion, the case was brought to put pressure on Warren Wilson to testify against Domenic Massari,i he says. iThey wanted Domenic, but he was holding firm to his story. Warren was, quote, a ethrowaway defendant.i i
Thatis what Trombley wanted to tell Warren in a meeting scheduled for the day after the indictment. On the morning of Oct. 4, Beth and Long became worried when Warren failed to show up for a divorce trial in Tampa.
iTo Warren, the indictment was like a death toll,i Trombley says. iThis was as bad as being found guilty.i
Federal court records in Columbus contain nothing about the guilt or innocence of Warren, says Columbus attorney Terry K. Sherman, who represented Massari. There is no testimony because everyone associated with Richard Schultzis scam pleaded guilty.
iThere was no testimony on the record about Warren Wilson,i Sherman says. iIn the whole process, he was never mentioned. Because he was no longer living no one made a definitive determination of his guilt or innocence. I really donit know the basis of why he was indicted.i
On Sept. 30, a federal judge sentenced Massari to 12 months in prison. Two years earlier, the court sentenced the mastermind, Richard Schultz, to two-and-a-half years in prison and ordered him to pay a $1.26 million fine to the Internal Revenue Service.
Sherman says Massari talked to him about Warrenis suicide.
i(Massari) was very saddened by his death,i Sherman says. iI donit think he ever painted Warren to me as culpable. It was Domenicis feeling that Warren was a good and sincere person.i
That may be as close anyone can get to the truth about what the federal prosecutors know about Warrenis involvement. All evidence and testimony, which includes financial documents and other information, have been sealed.
iNothing on Mr. Wilson was ever made public,i says Fred Alverson, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorneyis Office, Columbus. iMr. Wilson should be presumed innocent, because an indictment is merely an accusation. And until the government presents evidence in court, and until heis convicted by a jury or until he pleads guilty, everyone has the presumption of innocence.i
That statement offers Beth Wilson no consolation. She finds it incredulous to think the government treats its citizens with such dispassion and disregard.
In a moment of candor, she expressed a sense of satisfaction on news that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was retiring. It wasnit that Ashcroft had anything to do with her husbandis prosecution. But the alleged abuse of power happened on his watch.
iIf Warren had any knowledge or inkling that this was a sham lawsuit, or the promissory note was fake, any idea that is wasnit a valid promissory, then why would he hire a mediator who could have figured it all out?i she says. iAs far as I know, he didnit figure it out, either.i
Beth is not alone in her outrage. The governmentis action against Warren angered his friends who planned to buy a full-page ad in the St. Petersburg Times to criticize the prosecution. On reflection, however, the group decided against the idea.
iWe felt he was such a victim of the system we were quite frankly afraid of retribution,i Art Polin says.
It did not matter to Polin even if o and he doesnit believe itis so o his friend of 20 years was guilty.
iThe biggest tragedy was while he was so afraid what people might think, the packed funeral home was testimony that there was so many people who cared about him and whom none of this would have made a damn bit of difference about how they thought about him,i he says. iThis was a senseless tragedy.i
The response to Warrenis death tells how much an impact he had during his lifetime, Polin adds.
iBesides being somebody with an incredible wit and sense of humor, there was another side to Warren that only a select number of people knew,i he says. iLawyers have a reputation for not being the warmest, fuzziest people, and Warren could be as tenacious as any of them. But he was the kind of guy whenever there was anybody who needed help that guy was there. Whether they could pay him or not for his services it didnit matter. He helped a lot of people.i
Beth says the couple feared Warren would be treated with the same disregard as the Tampa federal prosecutors treated Steven and Marlene Aisenberg over the disappearance of their missing baby daughter Sabrina. It cost the Aisenbergs a couple million dollars to defend themselves against unproven accusations, she says. (They later prevailed in recovering their costs, plus damages.) But the anguish the couple suffered was in the back of Warrenis mind when he called Trombley about the indictment, his wife says.
i eThis could cost me a million dollars,i i she recalls Warren telling Trombley on the telephone. His lawyer agreed.
Warren repeated his concern about the expensive cost of fighting the charges in the goodbye message to his wife.
iUh, Beth, Iim sorry to, um, to have to address you this way, but, um, it obviously wasnit going to work in person,i he said. iIf you think about it, thereis really no other choice, um, for me. Um, any kind of defense, given the estimates and the time and resources, uh, would just destroy us, uh, even if we prevailed.
iUh, I canit afford a million dollars out of our, your retirement,i he adds. iThe whole lifestyle is going to be destroyed by any kind of defense (of) this. The alternative, pleading guilty, losing my (law) license, um, I think you know me well enough, and that Iim proud enough, that I would never want the public stigma that would go along with that Oi
Rather than fight Warren chose closure.
iI want you to make it clear that it was not out of a matter of guilt,i he said. iAnd you and Dennis and Trombley know that, uh, but it was a matter of abuse of the prosecutorial discretion and the abuse of the (federal) grand jury system.i
Warren Wilsonis goodbye message to his wife
iUh, Beth, Iim sorry to, um, to have to address you this way, but, um, it obviously wasnit going to work in person. If you think about it, thereis really no other choice, um, for me. Um, any kind of defense, given the estimates and the time and resources, uh, would just destroy us, uh, even if we prevailed.
iUh, I canit afford a million dollars out of our, your retirement. The whole lifestyle is going to be destroyed by any kind of defense (of) this. The alternative, pleading guilty, losing my (law) license, um, I think you know me well enough, and that Iim proud enough, that I would of never want the public stigma that would go along with that; um, you know, leaving town and opening up somewhere else like other people do. I, I, just couldnit do that.
iUm, it, it, um, it clearly, uh, is the right alternative, um, and candidly for me, uh, and this is very selfish, uh, for me, itis the better alternative. Uh, you saw how difficult it was last night. I just canit go through that day after day, week after week, month after month. I wouldnit be able to focus on the clients. I wouldnit be able to, to, be a good husband. It, it, would just cast such a pall on our life. Um, now I obviously realize this will, too, but this brings closure immediately to the situation. It doesnit, um, it doesnit drag on; thereis (no) more expense involved.
iI want you to make it clear that it was not out of a matter of guilt. And you and Dennis (Long) and (Gary) Trombley known that, uh, but it was a matter of abuse of the prosecutorial discretion and the abuse of the (federal) grand jury system. Um, perhaps, Gus and Mike (Bilirakis) one day could make a legacy of my, um, fate, um, by getting some changes in the system. I mean even someone with our limited resources canit fight the federal government if they file a 55-page, 30-something count indictment. The Hyde amendment, uh, is, is, a drop in the bucket for what we would need to recover, uh, when we prevailed, period.
iAnd certainly tell Dennis I appreciate all his efforts and his kindness, uh, as a friend. He was there in need when I needed him, and he stood by me. Iim very concerned about mom and dad. Um, Iim concerned about you, but, um, Iim more concerned about mom and dad, given their health and how theyill take this. Youill have to get (brother) Jim (Wilson) to work with you on that.
iTell Mike I never wanted to taint any of his, uh, career or any of his reputation. So I didnit even want to bother him with it now. Um, tell Willie I appreciate him being one of my best friends and, uh, standing by me when I needed him. Uh, I guess the same for Al (Polin) and occasionally Pursue and the others.
iI know this is gonna be tough on (son) Scott (Wilson). Um, Scott, I love you dearly, and itis partly out of that love that I do this. I donit want you to see me go through what I would have to go through otherwise. I want you to think of me as you and I were, best friends on that last baseball trip we did. I want you to stay in (college), finish the school year. Maybe, youill have plenty of time to, to, recover in the summer and take your job with (a management firm) and make a great success of your life. Stand by mother. I know it will be tough on her, but if you think of it logically, and thatis always how I lived my life, um, this is one of three alternatives. And itis the one, um, that certainly is the course of least resistance for me, and the one that brings closure quickly, uh, to the matter.
iBeth, I only hope that one day (federal prosecutor) Martin (Yost) realizes the abuse that heis done, and thereis some type of, uh, judgment eventually for someone, um, that abuses the system. Also, tell Howard Moss (a client) that Iim, Iim, really sorry I couldnit finish, um, his case. Um, I did dictate the final argument. Um, I know that Colleen (Bratcher), Dennis and Wayne and the others can, can, put together a winning, uh, final argument for him. I think all the seeds have been laid, um, for that. The trouble with me attempting to finish it now is just that my heart and mind arenit focused, and I just, I just canit, uh, concentrate certainly, or do it at this time. And to start giving everybody explanations now is to start the process that I donit want to start.
iTry to think, Beth, of all the good times that we had; um, uh, that this is a bad hand that weive been dealt. But, um, I guess itis no different than what we got with Brett (the coupleis deceased son), certainly reminiscent of all the bad luck weive had since Brettis death. And that it could have happened in a plane flight, could have happened in a car accident, um, could have happened at a heart attack. And, at least, I chose the terms upon which I would go out. And you have been a great wife, a wonderful companion, a best friend to me my whole life. I canit thank you enough for the, for the time and consideration and thoughtfulness youive put in. Iim sorry it, um ended this way, but obviously it had turned. It wasnit in our fate.
iUh, get Scott to cancel the flight and hotel for next week. I just didnit think about it, um, and I donit have the material. But Scott knows it all and can do that. I know you and Dennis will have some decisions to make regarding the firm. Um, Iill certainly leave it to your best judgment. Um, Colleen can either wrap up the cases I have, or you can refer iem out.
iI guess to an extent possible try to keep the details of this, um, quiet. Um, I just wouldnit want people to think that, uh, particularly, the nature of the charges, that this was some cop out and we were guilty, and, um, so forth. Itis just too much of an explanation to explain: eNo, youire innocent, but you canit afford to defend yourself.i Um, maybe just (say) just that Iive had severe depression and Iive been battling it for a while. Maybe that would be a sufficient explanation.
iNow, donit think this is a rash decision. Um, um, back when it started, and, and, I learned the facts of life and what would happen if in fact an indictment came, I took a great length of time and thought it out, and, um, came to this conclusion. And, yes, I did tell you I would, would do it, um, but thereis just no reason to discuss it with you now. Um, if youill really give it long and careful consideration later, I think youill see that itis, itis the best for you and Scott. Also, I, I just donit want him to be involved in this and to feel differently about his father.
iUm, certainly, I thought about waiting. But I just didnit see the situation changing. Uh, once filed, theyire never going to withdraw it. Theyire never going to make me an offer that keeps my license. We donit have the money to defend it, and I certainly donit have the energy, uh, uh, to do that also. Um, so the longer I waited, the more agonizing it was for me. And, and certainly just watching you react to me, this reaffirms that I just need to get it over with. Um, god, you know, I just never intended it this way. Uh, it is so incredible that, um, what a twist of circumstance puts us in situations. Uh, donit be mad at me, or angry. Um, I hope in a few weeks youill understand that this really was the best decision and, uh, that, um, I really did it for my good because I couldnit handle it. And I, I did it to bring closure immediately, uh, for you and the family and the firm. I do have a belief in, in some afterlife. Um, and I do believe Iill see you again, sweetheart. Um, (youire) always the only one that I ever loved in my whole life.i