The media has been buzzing lately with Johnny Depp and his wife Amber Heard’s divorce drama. As with any legal fracas, it is the evidence that will ultimately prove or disprove the charges being made.
Years ago we had a case where a woman, angry over her boyfriend terminating their love affair, decided to go after half of his assets by faking that they had been secretly married. Sounds crazy, right? Well, she’d successfully pulled this secret-marriage stunt before with another former boyfriend (we discovered later in our investigations), so she was quite savvy about how to legally pull this off. And she almost succeeded, too, because she worked hard to fabricate evidence of their having said “I do.”
Here’s the true story of…
The Bride Who Faked It for Money
Our agency was hired by a local family lawyer to disprove a common law marriage between his client, Clay, and Clay’s last live-in girlfriend, Patty, a paralegal for an attorney in the area (Clay and Patty are not their real names).
Patty had just filed for divorce claiming that she and Clay were “common law” married. She asserted this based on the fact that they had lived together for a few years with what she said were multiple instances of representations to other people and to government agencies that they were married. In the language of common law marriage this is called “holding oneself out as married.” A court can find this status in a divorce proceeding based on such evidence as the couple telling others they are married and that they conduct transactions as a married couple – for example, filing taxes, signing deeds, registering for a hotel or registering an auto under a married name.
In her divorce filing from their common law marriage, Patty made substantial claims against Clay’s retirement account and home equity in addition to demanding alimony. In short, this was a full-on divorce and if the court agreed with Patty, she would be entitled to a large settlement. Therefore, our goal was to show that although the couple had lived together, their conduct did not match the legal formula for being married. In short, we had to show that Patty was faking it for money.
Our investigative strategy was to attack the validity of Patty’s claims, one by one:
- First, she claimed that she and Clay had registered as a married couple at a posh downtown Denver hotel the previous summer. Additionally, she claimed that during this stay, they had a small, informal ceremony in a hotel reception room. By contrast, our client claimed that they had stayed there for a weekend and had attended a Colorado Rockies baseball game with both Clay and Patty’s children. We knew that Clay had paid for the room, and Patty had registered them as using the same last name.
- Second, Patty also claimed that they had received Christmas cards as “Mr. and Mrs. Clay” as well as other correspondence from friends and family members addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Clay.”
- Third, Patty had two friends from the mixed softball league that she and Clay had played in who were ready to testify that throughout the last league season, Clay and Patty had openly told other people that they were married.
To disprove her assertions we:
- Researched public records filed by the couple to determine if they filed public, official documents indicating that they were either married or single. We confirmed, at the DMV that Clay bought a BMW convertible two years before the break up. Clay told us that Patty drove the car exclusively. Patty asserted in the divorce papers that the car was hers. We learned from registration records that the car was not registered jointly, and that only Clay was on the title and registration. This contradicted what Patty had said. We also learned from bankruptcy records that Patty had filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy eighteen months before the break up, and she had listed herself on those papers as single with no spouse. Coincidentally, she left out any mention of “her” BMW in the bankruptcy papers. Patty had to either admit to lying to the bankruptcy court or she would have to agree, in our case, that just months before, she had told a federal bankruptcy judge, in a sworn statement, that she was single.
- Contacted recipients of the Christmas cards and interviewed each of them. They denied receiving cards signed by both Clay and Patty, and one told us that they had never even seen Clay’s handwriting.
- Interviewed the softball coach who told us that during each softball game in the previous season, Clay and Patty had stood in separate groups. The coach also said that Patty spent all of her off-field time in a corner chatting with the two women who were to testify on Patty’s behalf. The softball coach looked up Patty’s softball registration for that season, and that paperwork did not show Clay’s name in the space for “emergency contact/spouse.”
We were stymied by hotel management when we tried to get information about the room that Clay and Patty had rented the previous summer. The hotel management would not release information about the room, even though Clay had paid for it, because Patty was the person who had signed the room registration. Since registration made it “her” room, we were denied access to these records.
Ultimately, the attorney we worked for had us return with a subpoena for these records. The hotel billing records showed that there was never a “reception” room rented for the ceremony as Patty had claimed.
Writing Tip: Keep in mind that your fictional PI will not always have an easy time getting hotel registrations, unlike sensationalized accounts in stories.
She Doctored Emails, Too
Patty also presented emails from her “husband” where he discussed their secret wedding and reception. The emails looked real enough, so we contacted a computer guru who specialized in email software to analyze them…he checked out the headers & code and said, “They’ve been doctored. Somebody took the original emails from this guy, deleted the text, and replaced it with this new text on [date].”
Patty and her lawyer agreed to a tiny settlement, and that there was no marriage, hence no divorce with Clay.
The Lingering Result
Patty gave us a kind of backhand compliment. Obviously stung by our work, she wanted revenge and she wanted it bad. She located our names and our business name in court records. For months after the case had been closed, we received angry emails, written both under her name and under assumed identities. Funny how the language, grammar, even the misspellings were identical in her emails and the “other sender’s” emails!
As time progressed, she also made false reports to government agencies about us. One agency took her claims seriously and conducted an investigation into our business and us, but found nothing to substantiate her rantings.
She finally disappeared from our lives, but we always suspect she is out there somewhere, looking for the next big fake one.
All rights reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman. Please do not copy/distribute any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Images noted as in the public domain are copyright-free and yours to steal.