Though wounds heal, fight goes on — (St. Petersburg Times)

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St. Petersburg Times

February 21, 1999

Author: ADAM C. SMITH[]

Cynthia Bader awaited reconstructive surgery two days after her husband repeatedly punched, choked and slammed her head to the ground on Christmas Eve 1997. Now, as he awaits sentencing for attempted manslaughter and aggravated battery, she struggles to protect herself in divorce court as their assets dwindle.

The first person who saw Cynthia Bader after her Christmas Eve beating in 1997 could not tell through all the blood whether he was looking at a man or a woman. Her husband of 12 years had pummelled her so hard on an Englewood driveway that he knocked off pieces of her face, breaking his right hand in the process.

Today, the 41-year-old St. Petersburg woman has more than 50 metal plates and screws in her head. She has double vision and can’t feel the right side of her face. And even with her wealthy husband, Charles, sitting in a Charlotte County jail awaiting sentencing on an attempted manslaughter conviction, Cynthia Bader and her allies say the legal system is helping her husband continue to abuse her.

As her divorce slogs through the Pinellas County Court system, Mrs. Bader and her 10- and 12-year-old daughters have struggled to pay bills, several times having to go to court to push her husband to pay required alimony and child support. Meanwhile, she has watched her husband fast deplete their more than $1-million in marital assets, skiing in Colorado, snorkeling for lobster in the Keys, and hiring some of Pinellas County’s most prominent and expensive lawyers to handle his criminalandcivil defenses.

“It’s a continuing nightmare. It’s almost like he’s above the law,” Mrs. Bader said after another recent incremental divorce hearing before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Mark Shames. “Charles used to tell me that if I ever left him, he’d make sure I’d have nothing. That’s exactly what he’s doing, and that’s exactly what the system allows him to do. Even in jail, he can control me.”

But Bader, 41, and his attorneys are quick to assert that Cynthia Bader would not be going through what she is now if she hadn’t been unfaithful to her husband in the first place.

“She’s the one that cheated. She’s the one that slept with another guy,” said Anthony Battaglia, Bader’s criminal defense attorney. “She has to share some of the responsibility.”

The Baders are from St. Petersburg, where their hotly contested divorce has received little local attention. In Charlotte County, where the beating occurred and where Charles’ father is a prominent lawyer, the Bader case is notorious. People there are even following the slow progress of the divorce proceedings in Pinellas.

“This is the most emotional case that I’ve ever been involved in, and it’s incredible how Cyndi could be getting such a raw deal in that divorce,” said Russell Kirshy, a Charlotte County attorney who handled the criminal case early on when he was a prosecutor and has followed the case since then.

“I find it difficult to imagine how Charles Bader has gotten away with as much as he has. He tried to kill his wife, and now he’s selling marital assets without permission, violating court orders repeatedly, and the judge just gives him more money. It’s extraordinary to me.”

A dream dissolves

Charles Bader used to tell people his family was like something out of a storybook. “It couldn’t be more of the American dream – wealthy, successful, good looking, the dog, the fish,” he recounted last week in a brief interview from the county jail in Punta Gorda.

Cynthia, a onetime hairdresser and bartender, worked occasionally as a personal fitness trainer but mostly kept up their $540,000 waterfront home in St. Petersburg’s Yacht Club Estates. Charles, a car salesman-turned auto finance specialist, was pulling in more than $80,000 a year in his early 30s even without a college degree. At 36, he no longer had to worry much about earning a paycheck.

Bader won a $970,000 judgment in 1993 against an extermination company whose truck ran into Bader’s vehicle six years earlier. The accident left him with back, shoulder and neck injuries that he said made it impossible to work in a profession requiring extended periods of sitting or traveling. He also began receiving more than $12,000 a month in disability payments, though lately those payments have dropped to about $4,000. He has sued one of his insurance companies, which stopped makingpayments after concluding Bader was not as severely disabled as he contended.

The luxurious trappings with which the Baders surrounded themselves – glistening marble throughout their 4,000 square-foot home, a BMW for her, a Toyota Land Cruiser for him – could not stop the marriage from disintegrating. Mrs. Bader had a love affair that her husband found out about in early 1997 with help from a private detective. They had been through marriage counseling previously, tried it again this time, but it was unfruitful. Both filed for divorce in May 1997.

The Baders had separated by the holidays, but, for their kids, agreed to spend Christmas Eve together in Charlotte County. After a tense dinner, an argument broke out in front of Cynthia’s sister’s Englewood home.

Charles Bader, who accused his estranged wife of resuming her affair, said he snapped after his wife struck him and told him, “At least I’m (sleeping with) someone I love.” Cynthia denies saying that or hitting him. What happened next is undisputed.

Bader repeatedly choked and punched his wife in the face, even as one of his daughters screamed. He slammed her head against the driveway. By the time a passer-by pulled Charles off his wife, she was grossly disfigured and, according to a deputy, appeared on the verge of death. Her face fractured and cut, her eyes bulging from their sockets, she managed to tell the deputy in a raspy, blood-clogged voice, “Charles did this to me.”

Bader, blood covering his clothes and his hands swollen and bleeding, denied nothing. A deputy saw him lying down, punching the ground and crying, “I’m sorry for what I did. I know it was wrong, but I could not stop myself. I lost control,” Deputy Rocco Casano wrote in his report. Casano charged him with aggravated battery.

Casano later reported receiving a call from someone at the county jail who said he was getting “a lot of pressure” about Charles Bader from Charlotte County Judge Kenton Haymans. Casano spoke to the judge, who told him Bader’s father, Port Charlotte lawyer Robert Bader, had phoned him and asked that he be released that night.

Free for Christmas

Casano told the judge that Charles Bader nearly killed his wife. “So this was more than a couple of slaps,” Judge Haymans was quoted as telling Casano in the deputy’s report.

The next morning, Christmas, Haymans released Bader with no bail to the custody of his father.

Haymans has faced criticism before over his handling of domestic abuse cases. In 1995, he reviewed a police report about a man who beat up his wife after hearing her talk about another man in her sleep. The wife “needs some counseling on how to moan without speaking names,” the judge was quoted as saying in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Cynthia Bader maintains that Haymans’ private phone call with her husband’s father prompted the judge to free Charles less than 12 hours after he nearly killed her, enabling Bader to promptly withdraw $52,000 from the bank. Three months ago, Mrs. Bader filed formal complaints against Robert Bader and Judge Haymans with the Florida Bar and Judicial Qualifications Commission, both of which have confirmed to her that they are investigating.

Haymans did not return phone calls. Robert Bader declined to comment for this story.   A few days after the beating, prosecutors added attempted murder to Bader’s charges. Another judge had him arrested and held on $500,000 bail, later reduced to $200,000 and paid by his father.

The criminal trial lasted four days in Punta Gorda earlier this month, with Battaglia arguing that Bader was temporarily insane when he beat his wife. A combination of stress over their marital problems, two vodka grapefruits over dinner, and prescription drugs including the anti-depressant Prozac pushed him into a blind rage that he said he can’t remember to this day. Two psychologists hired by the defense backed that argument.

The jury took 2 1/2 hours to convict Bader of attempted manslaughter and aggravated battery. Those charges are less than what prosecutors sought, but Bader faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced March 11. A relieved Cynthia Bader called it justice.

Charles Bader’s St. Petersburg divorce attorney, Peter Meros, sees it more as a tragedy.   “We have an absolutely impeccably respectable citizen and father. By this one mistake, caused by the irresponsible behavior of his wife, he’s lost everything,” Meros said.

A financial drain

Bader’s looming prison sentence could well mean still more delays in the bitterly contested divorce. The court has not yet determined the future needs of the children, how Bader is going to help support his children from prison or how the roughly $500,000 in remaining marital assets should be divided. Nor has Shames ruled on the validity of a divorce agreement Mrs. Bader signed months before the beating that gives her husband the bulk of the assets.

In the meantime, as the assets dwindle, both sides are arguing over how much money Charles Bader should be allowed to spend.

Bader so far has spent more than $100,000 on his assorted lawyers and said the divorce could have been settled months ago, if his wife’s divorce attorney, Jane Grossman, hadn’t been so keen on taking every penny he had.

Mrs. Bader said she would be happy to divide the assets in half if it would speed up the divorce. Why, she asked, does someone who beat up his wife have a right to spend all their money on a “dream team” of defense lawyers?

Grossman declined to comment for this story, but in court pleadings has repeatedly accused Charles Bader of liquidating at least $200,000 in marital assets, much of it in direct violation of court orders freezing accounts. Bader has denied most of those charges and said if he had violated court orders, he did it unintentionally and that the money went for basic living expenses.

On Jan. 19, Judge Shames acknowledged Bader appeared to have made “significant numbers of expenditures” in violation of court orders. Still, Shames granted Bader’s request for more money to pay his attorneys.

Battaglia told Shames that his unpaid legal costs are mounting, but he also said he would never walk away from a client in the middle of a criminal case. On top of the $50,000 Bader said he paid Battaglia up front, Shames directed another $15,000 for the criminal attorney. Meros received another $10,000 and Grossman, despite her urging against awarding more marital assets for lawyers, another $8,000.

The following week, Bader revealed at a hearing that he had quietly sold a rental house in Port Charlotte, and that his father had the proceeds of roughly $18,000. Shames was furious that Bader could be liquidating assets while not keeping up with court-ordered alimony payments.

“I bent so far backwards in this matter for Mr. Bader that I’ve risked falling on my head and cracking my skull,” the judge said before finding Charles Bader in contempt of court and ordering that the money be transferred that day to an escrow account controlled by Meros.

As of late last week, the money still had not been transferred, though Shames continued to rebuff Grossman’s efforts to rescind the additional money for lawyers.

Shames said he could not comment on pending litigation, but Meros scoffed at the notion that Mrs. Bader has been treated shabbily in the proceedings. If that were the case, Meros said, she wouldn’t still be living in the family’s $540,000 home (the Baders have about $300,000 in equity in the house), and Charles Bader would have seen his daughters in the past year.

Mrs. Bader, despite her frustrations and her wounds, speaks optimistically about the future.

“I had an affair. I know that’s not right. It’s very wrong. But that doesn’t give someone the right to try to kill me,” she said, sitting in a luxury home she won’t long be able to afford. “All these material things, they’re not what make people happy. After so long of being under someone controlling who I am, I’m now 41 years old and finally know who I am.”