Divorce Wars

July 20, 2006 — -- Some people will do extraordinarily nasty -- even deadly -- things to those they once loved.

Sometimes they hurt themselves in the process.

Most recently, Dr. Nicholas Bartha blew up his $6.4 million Manhattan townhouse to keep the valuable property from his ex-wife in a divorce settlement.

In an e-mail shortly before the July 10 explosion, he warned her that he would leave the house "only if I am dead."

Bartha was pulled from the rubble alive but died from severe burns. New York medical examiners declared his death a suicide.

Police were unable to speak to Bartha after the blast because he was in a medically induced coma, but authorities investigated whether he had tampered with a gas line leading into the home's basement.

Bartha didn't just blow up his home. He blew the lid off the often-insane world of vengeful lovers.

Famed divorce lawyer Raoul Felder says he sees this sort of extreme emotion dozens of times every year.

"Maybe they don't blow up the house," he said. "Maybe they destroy a collection of records or try to injure a pet."

Mimicking Hollywood

Divorce -- especially among celebrities -- has become a source of entertainment.

Society often revels in the sordid details of celebrity divorces.

The divorce battle between actors Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards reveals just how much the public can be entertained by a play-by-play account of a deteriorating marriage.

"This is certainly the year's nastiest divorce. No question about it," said Barry Levine, executive editor of The National Enquirer.

In court filings, Richards called Sheen unstable and violent, and said he was addicted to gambling, prostitutes, and visiting pornographic Web sites.

"Now the fact of the matter is that Denise Richards knew very well that as soon as that hit the clerk's office in Los Angeles Superior Court, that that would be pumped out everywhere across the world," Levine said. Sheen vehemently denies the allegations.

Celebrities sometimes use their fame to get revenge. They use verbal warfare and the public's interest in someone to humiliate their estranged spouses and lovers.

Look at the seemingly endless divorce and custody battle between actors Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin.

In court and in public statements, Baldwin accused Basinger of "child snatching" their daughter while the actress said that he had alienated himself from their child with his violent temperament.

"The Baldwin-Basinger divorce was a kind of modern Hatfield and McCoys," Levine said, referring to two families that feuded in the backcountry of West Virginia and Kentucky in the late 19th century. Their war has become a metaphor for bitter feuds and rivals.

"There were some incredible blowouts that he had with his beautiful wife, Kim, in front of restaurant, on the street. … And he's just blowing at the top of his lungs," Levine said.

The tabloids and the public are willing witnesses to the airing of this kind of dirty laundry, i.e.., David Gest alleging that Liza Minnelli had beat him and forced her bodyguard to have sex with her during their short-lived marriage.

"Here's little Liza who is 5-foot-5. She has artificial hips," Levine said. "Oftentimes she's in a wheelchair and David Gest alleges in this bombshell lawsuit and court papers, that Liza physically abused him in violent drunken rages."

Reality Worse Than Hollywood

"The War of the Roses," the 1989 dark comedy starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, drove home the fact that divorce battles fought by average people in real life could be lethal.

This year, Bruce Gagner set fire to his house in Washington state just two days after separating from his wife. Gagner's neighbor captured the fire on a cell-phone camera.

Gagner yelled to onlookers not to call 911 because the fire was his "choice."

Gagner's attorney argued that he was drunk at the time of the blaze. At trial, the jury deliberated for less than an hour before convicting Gagner of arson.

Like Bartha, Gagner didn't want his wife to get her hands on their property.

"It's never about the money. It's about hurting the other spouse," said divorce lawyer Suzanne Bracker. "They go after that property that they know the other spouse really values and has pride in."

Vengeance Big or Small

Sometimes warring estranged spouses try to hurt each other through their pets.

"I had a case where they put a kitten in a dishwasher and a little puppy in a microwave oven," Felder said. "The kitten lived, and the puppy died. That was done by a spouse simply to injure the other spouse."

Felder says he refuses clients who are focused on vengeance.

"Those cases are disaster cases. The law can't help them. The lawyers can't help them," Felder said. "They want revenge, vengeance, to inflict hurt, inflict harm, and see somebody out on the street."

No matter what the battle is over: money, real estate, or simple humiliation, most divorce lawyers agree that it's really about making the other person vulnerable.

Often that means targeting emotional attachments.

We've seen instances when a spouse has turned her husband's prized golf clubs into scrap metal. Or a woman who has taken scissors to her husband's treasured rack of custom-tailored suits, turning thousands of dollars of slacks into shorts.

Seemingly small attachments become big battles when it comes to matters of the heart.

In Kentucky, as soon Lynn Goldstein heard she'd lost custody of her cats, she began frantically hiding them.

However, Goldstein didn't know that her ex had hired a private investigator to follow and tape her. A judge watched the tape and sent Goldstein to jail for 30 days.

Driven to Desperate Measures

Sometimes bad behavior between warring spouses escalates way beyond damaging pets or property.

In the 1960s, a cappella group The Persuaders summed it when it sang, "It's a thin line between love and hate."

Hurting your ex-lover can become an obsession.

"I have had clients who have been murdered under suspicious circumstances during the divorce actions," Bracker said.

Brenda White was caught on camera in April smashing her sport utility vehicle into an office lobby as she allegedly tried to run down her ex-husband. She broke his legs.

She didn't stop there, though. Prosecutors say she continued to back up into him again. White is currently facing charges of attempted murder.

"The problem is fragile people begin divorce cases. As the pressure builds up, then they become twisted and do crazy things," Felder said. "It's very hard to recognize that person right at the beginning of the journey."

In Texas, Clara Harris is serving a 20-year sentence for repeatedly running over her 44-year-old orthodontist husband with her Mercedes in 2002 after finding him with another woman.

Her rage was caught on tape by her own private investigator. She had hired the private eye to document the affair.

A heat of the moment crime -- or crime of passion -- is considered not as serious a legal offense as one carefully planned out.

"People are so angry that they really have poor impulse control. They do vicious things, malicious things, and quite stupid things," Bracker said.

At the end of the day, these attempts to hurt the other party often backfire.

Felder says Bartha's ex-wife is in better financial shape now than she was before he tried to keep the property away from her.

"The opposite result is going to take place in this case, the wife and daughter are going to end up with the entire proceeds of this house that is going to be worth much more because he blew it up," Felder said.

It's easy to forget divorce usually begins because at least one party thinks it will solve his or her problems.

As writer Dorothy Dix once noted, "Many people think divorce is a panacea for every ill. … They find out, when they try it, that the remedy is worse than the disease."