Divorce Wars: Litigation as Blood Sport

Few aspects of civil society can devolve more quickly and more dangerously into personal civil war than the dissolution of a marriage.

New York City police officials were reminded of that Monday as they investigated whether the gas explosion that destroyed a four-story Manhattan town house was the result of a bitter divorce battle between Dr. Nicholas Bartha and his wife, Cordula.

Police say Bartha, a 66-year-old internist, sent an e-mail message to his wife stating: "You always wanted me to sell the house. I always told you, 'I will leave the house only if I am dead.'"

According to police, Bartha had tried to kill himself several times throughout the divorce proceedings, which have been going on since 2001. In 2005, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court held that the town house was marital property. As part of the settlement, a judge ordered Bartha to auction off the $6.4 million building and divide the proceeds with his wife.

On Friday, Bartha was handed eviction papers by a sheriff's deputy.

Out of Control

Attorneys and psychiatrists told ABC News the Bartha case is one of the worst they have ever seen. But not the first.

"When they are bad, they can spin out of control easily and fast, and the effect snowballs to the point where people ultimately -- after exhausting all remedies -- do something seemingly as crazy as blowing up the residence,'' said William Beslow, who has represented Tatum O'Neal, Mia Farrow and Patricia Duff in contentious divorce proceedings.

Prominent New York divorce attorney Raoul Felder was more specific. "I had a client murdered by his wife,'' Felder said. "I have seen [cases in which] a kitten [was] put in a washing machine, a puppy in the microwave -- the puppy died, the kitten lived.

"I have seen art collections slashed, a guy with a vinyl record collection had it returned by his wife all smashed into bits,'' Felder added. "I've seen clothes ripped up. One gentleman got his wife tickets to some hot play, and when she returned, her stuff was in the street. I've seen children taken at airports."

Felder said divorce cases are a unique and sometimes monstrously painful form of litigation. "In all other litigation, the stuff is replaceable,'' he said. "But dignity and validation are not replaceable. If I sue someone for not delivering lumber, it has nothing to do with me as a human being. If I lose my divorce case, there's a lack of validation as a human being.''

Hurt, Humiliation and Rage

The U.S. divorce rate has remained relatively steady for more than a quarter century -- at least as steady as the stream of high-profile, acrimonious divorce cases.

There were 2,219,000 marriages performed in the United States in 2004 -- the most recent year for which statistics are available -- according to the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within 15 years, about 43 percent of those marriages will end in divorce, according to CDC surveys.

"The relationship between marriage and divorce has been about two to one since at least 1976,'' said NCHS spokesman Bill Crews.

The list of bitter divorces seems endless.

Last month a Nevada businessman, Darren Mack, allegedly shot the judge in his divorce case after he allegedly killed his wife, Charla. Police believe the couple's eight-year-old daughter was upstairs playing with a friend during the attack.

"When there's physical violence in a courtroom, or when it's directed to a judge or attorneys, it's more likely to be in a divorce case then in a criminal case," said Judith Wallerstein, a California psychologist who has written amicus, or friend of the court, briefs for landmark state Supreme Court custody battles.

"Divorce leads people to behave in ways that are entirely out of keeping with the way they were before," she said. "This is because of the tremendous hurt and humiliation followed by the rage."

Last April actress Denise Richards claimed in court papers that her estranged actor-husband Charlie Sheen was "addicted" to gambling and prostitutes, and that he frequented pornographic Web sites from the couple's home computer -- charges Sheen has vehemently denied.

Richards is reportedly so angry at Sheen she has banned his parents from visiting the couple's two granddaughters.

Former Hollywood power couple Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin have been battling in court since 2002 over custody of their daughter. Basinger has claimed she was physically abused, while Baldwin has charged the actress has a "pathological need'' to turn their daughter against him. Both have charged that the other suffers from severe emotional problems.

In 1999 Marla Maples told a London newspaper that if her ex-husband, developer Donald Trump, ever ran for president -- he was considering a Reform Party presidential bid at the time -- she would tell the world "what he's really like.'' Trump promptly threatened to withhold $1.5 million in alimony payments.

Revlon CEO Ron Perlman's 1998 divorce from Patricia Duff was a tabloid staple for months as reporters detailed Duff's financial demands for their daughter, which included more than $3,000 a month for clothing, $1,450 for dining out and more than $30,000 monthly for nannies and maids.

In a recently published memoir, "Oh the Glory of It All," author Sean Wilsey details a breathtaking lifestyle of sex, drugs and marital infidelity, including his father's affair with beach book author Danielle Steel, that led to his parents' 1979 divorce.

At the time, it was one of the most expensive divorce cases in San Francisco history. His mother, San Francisco society columnist Pat Montandon, sought $57,000 a month in alimony from her husband, Al Wilsey, but was awarded only $20,000.

"If your mother had cared as much about being a wife as she did about being a star, we'd still be married,'' Wilsey told his son after moving into the Fairmont Hotel, according to the book.

Suicide Rare

Such bitterness and recrimination, experts say, sometimes comes with the territory when you're dealing with a breakup.

"There's sometimes this massive reaction of anger that the other spouse has the temerity to say, 'I don't want to be with you anymore,''' Beslow said. "Take the trauma of a business dissolution and then multiply that by a factor of 10 or 20 and you begin to approach the emotional trauma of a divorce,'' Beslow added. "And that's without children.''

Despite the bitterness that accompanies some divorce cases, attorneys said apparent suicide attempts like Bartha's are uncommon.

"Suicide is very rare in divorce cases, but it happens,'' Felder said. "If you're reasonably astute, you pick up on it and, as an attorney, you get them into competent hands.''

"I've seen a lot of hard-fought litigation, but I've never seen anything like [the Bartha case],'' said Manhattan attorney Robert Stephan Cohen, who represented New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his 1993 divorce and model Christie Brinkley in her split from Billy Joel.

He believes divorce cases sometimes get so vicious because "it often involves probably two of the most important things in a person's life -- what may be most of their money and their children.

"And they have no control over the process. It leaves some people feeling very lost. For clients and their lawyers, it's no romance,'' Cohen said. "That's when you get married."