Real-Life War of the Roses

ByABC News

M I A M I , June 17, 2004 -- On the 31st floor of a condominium overlooking Biscayne Bay lives a couple who have crossed the thin line between love and hate: Michael and Rona Rose.

He calls her a gold digger. She calls him a sociopath and a psychopathic liar.

Michael Rose, 57, is an attorney who has practiced in Miami for more than 30 years. Rona, 36, is a full-time mother and former beauty queen. After a nine-year marriage, during which they had a son, Rona filed for divorce. What led to that act — and the financial and emotional repercussions it caused — are fascinating.

ABCNEWS followed the couple for almost a year, as their bitter divorce became a real life version of The War of the Roses — the popular novel that spawned a hit Hollywood movie, and coined a new phrase to describe the rage of a bitter divorce.

Like their fictional counterparts, Michael and Rona Rose lived together through the divorce. But the real Rose story concludes with an ending that even Hollywood couldn't have come up with.

Love and Chicken

In the Hollywood version of The War of the Roses, the actor Danny DeVito tells the story of the battling couple.

His character, serving as the movie's narrator, said of the couple: "They met great, they agreed on that, but the way I saw it, the bastards never had a chance." The same might be said of the real-life Roses.

"I met Rona in a fast food chicken place, and I was just enamored of her. Just taken aback by her. I liked the way she looked and I liked the way she ate chicken," Michael said.

Rona remembered how he approached her. "He gave me his card and he winked and he said, 'Call me.' Very confident. Confidence is a nice quality in a man," she said. She said she called him two days later.

But the relationship from the start was volatile. "We went together for three years and it was up and down. It was like a roller coaster," said Michael. Still, they were married in 1994. It was Michael's second marriage. He was 48. She was 27.

What Went Wrong Where?

In most failed marriages, there's a turning point. For Rona, it was her 34th birthday.

Michael left her in a restaurant that day, and went to a strip club, she said. He didn't come home until two in the morning.

"Sure, I did it. Absolutely," Michael told Primetime. But he said she started a fight at the restaurant, yelling and screaming at him. "She walked out of the restaurant, and then I was angry with her and I said there's only one thing that I know is going to make her angrier with me. And that's why I went."

What pushed her over the edge happened last summer on a family vacation, Rona said. She said Michael said to her, in front of their son, "'You don't care about him.' And something went off in my brain."

Two weeks later, Rona was back in Miami. "I was sitting on my balcony and I just said, 'What am I waiting for?' " she said. "I called my mom. She came over and I said, 'I'm ready to file for divorce. I can't, I can't do this anymore.' "

Fighting Points

When the Roses moved their war from their house to the courthouse, they wound up paying nearly $1,000 an hour to watch their divorce lawyers do what they had been doing for months — argue.

One of the main issues was, of course, money. Early on, there were emergency hearings questioning whether Michael was giving Rona enough to live on.

Rona's attorney, Andrew Leinoff, wanted to know why Michael seemed to have no money for Rona, but money for things like keeping an expensive Bentley automobile.

Michael acknowledged making nearly $8 million in the booming stock market in the late '90s — but when the market went bad, he said, so did his finances.

A Settlement?

On April 28, 2003, Michael made an offer to settle in front of Primetime cameras: a $400,000 lump sum and $6,000 a month alimony for a couple of years.

But Rona rejected the offer … and the following week, the roses went to trial. Legal fees were mounting, and would eventually top $300,000. Court costs to Florida taxpayers would be even higher.

If divorce is war, the divorce trial is the decisive battle. The weapons are thousands of documents, and thousands of words of testimony.

When Kornreich tried to attack Rona's character, Judge Gill Freeman limited his efforts, reminding him that Florida is a no-fault state.

She told Kornreich: "I don't care why this marriage has fallen apart. All I have to do is figure out what the assets are" — and who should get what, what alimony is appropriate, and where the Roses' 8-year-old son should live.

Leinoff argued that Michael's long hours meant their son should live with Rona, and then turned to questions about Michael's finances. He challenged his claim of lack of resources and questioned his record-keeping.

After a long afternoon of cross examination, Kornreich asked the judge for a recess. The break became a half an hour, and by then, it was too late to conclude the trial. Instead, the judge ordered the Roses to try — for the fourth time — to mediate a settlement and avoid a return to court.

The mediation was scheduled for three weeks later, Memorial Day, 2003.

Stranger Than Fiction

During mediation, Michael's proposal remained the same as before, $400,000. Leinoff maintained it was too low. So the real "War of the Roses" resumed in court.

The trial ended May 30. And two weeks later, on June 13, Judge Freeman released her decision.

The Roses' son would live with Rona, but the judge awarded Michael generous visitation rights.

The judge accepted the figures Michael had provided regarding his income, but she award Rona $6,000 a month in alimony for the first year, and $4,000 a month for the two years after that. If she were to remarry, the alimony would stop.

The judge did award Rona a lump sum of $700,000, but from the proceeds of their apartment, provided it sells.

But the story didn't end there. Rona's new boyfriend, Bob Witek, a builder from Aspen, Colo., told Primetime he "would love to ask her to marry me." On Monday, the Roses are expected to go back to court to say they've settled, and to try to reduce lawyers' fees, which are now more than $300,000.

Michael told Primetime it wouldn't matter to him emotionally if Rona married. But it would make a difference to him financially, since it would mean he wouldn't have to pay alimony.

Meanwhile, Rona has yet to see any of her lump sum — because the Roses haven't sold their condominium yet — and continue to live there together.

The words of the Danny DeVito's character in the fictional story ring true: "A civilized divorce is a contradiction in terms."

This story originally aired on Sept. 18, 2003.

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