Widow's Lament

In 1956, Anna Elisabeth Colsch married a GI from the Frankfurt Army base and followed him to Minneapolis. He died in a car crash a few years later. Or so she was told.

When Angelic got back to her room, she dialed the hospital. A nurse diagnosed her condition as shock, and told her to drink water and sleep. Then she opened the local yellow pages and called an attorney. By the next afternoon, she'd hired Catherine Lighty of the Kendrick & Malane law firm. Angelic now says she was told a suit against Johnny would probably cost her "$3,500 and not a penny more." By the time a final ruling came down, she was in the hole over $14,000 and counting. As of last month, all her life savings had been spent.

Lighty's first legal strategy was this: a classic heart-bone suit. On June 12, 1996, she compiled a three-page claim against Johnny, alleging that in 1959 he'd abandoned his wife and stepson by faking his own death. During the intervening years, it read, "Plaintiff has suffered emotional distress, both from the believed death and loss of her spouse and from having to support herself and her child with no help from Defendant.... The acts and omissions by Defendant, John P. Swanson, complained of herein constitute the tort of outrage, intentional infliction of emotional distress, bigamy, misrepresentation and/or fraud." Though the suit didn't specify a monetary amount, it asked for a division of any and all marital property and reimbursement of legal expenses. The Yakima County judge tabled the complaint on the grounds that the marriage had already been invalidated in 1994, and later dismissed it as frivolous.

Next move: Lighty filed a motion asking the court in nearby Kittitas County to overturn its invalidation, arguing that Johnny hadn't made a thorough enough search for his first wife, that Angelic hadn't been given fair chance to tell her side of the story, and that the marriage was dissolved based solely on Johnny's testimony, which was an outright lie. Meanwhile, Angelic flew back to Germany twice, collecting various papers to support her claim--Johnny's affidavit supporting "his wife's son" Renaldo's immigration visa, Angelic's visa application (with the "married" box checked), sworn affidavits from the interpreters at their wedding, a verification of their ceremony from Angelic's mother, and their marriage certificate. The judge in Yakima would later rule all these documents inadmissible as evidence, since they were not properly notarized.

While this suit was pending, and just to be safe, Johnny and his current wife, Rozella, drove across the county line and were legally--if temporarily--divorced. According to his lawyer, Pat Cockrill, the couple was afraid that if the invalidation were overturned, Johnny could be charged with criminal bigamy. On a lesser note, both were also nervous about any publicity the case might set off: Johnny was by then an "ordained minister" and with his wife ran an enterprise that, for a handsome fee, conducted weddings and hosted receptions in their house and garden. A minister facing possible bigamy charges might have been bad for business. Lighty later claimed that Johnny also transferred nearly all his assets to Rozella, in order to protect them. The judge in Yakima issued a restraining order that froze his bank accounts and placed a lien on his property--an order that was eventually removed.

The parties to the various suits went back and forth for months, lobbing accusations and complaints across the courtroom in live testimony and whenever possible, it seems, on paper. The files are thick with affidavits, responses, and replies--any judge's nightmare, especially since there were so few precedents for a case this odd. The drama, too, was thick--the stuff of tabloids and miniseries. In one memorandum, Johnny begins, "A long time ago in a land far away, an American GI wanted to help his German girlfriend come to the states." In one of her declarations, Angelic remembers first catching sight of her dead husband after years as a widow: "It all came back to me in a flash as if it were yesterday, my love for John, my hopes and dreams for our future, but then I realized that was years ago and instead John had given me only heartbreak and pain."

Eventually, Lighty's tactics backfired. The plan, she told her client, had all along been to overturn the invalidation and, in turn, sue Johnny for a simple divorce in which their community property--at one point she estimated Johnny's assets at over $300,000--would be divided and Angelic's legal fees covered. That never happened. On Nov. 15, 1996, Kittitas County Judge Michael Cooper ruled in Johnny's favor. The court's Conclusions of Law declared that Johnny had met due-diligence requirements in his efforts to locate Angelic and serve her with a summons before their marriage was invalidated in 1994; that his testimony at that time was legitimate and true--meaning that he had indeed been induced "by fraud and misrepresentation" into marriage in Germany; and that the invalidation of their marriage stands. Case closed.

Down and Out

And with that, any further legal action is out of the question, not so much because justice couldn't be argued for once more in the courts, but because, as Angelic puts it, "I'm as broke at the bank as I am in my heart." The available period for an appeal to the ruling in Washington has long since expired. In order for another judge to hear her case, says Coon Rapids attorney Paul Kaster, "We're talking at least a $20,000 retainer to get the thing rolling. If that were possible--and it's obviously not, with Angelic now sunk into poverty--I'd get a private investigator to turn up all Johnny's assets and from there go right after this guy. We'd be looking at 50-50 alimony over 30-odd years. We'd try to capture proceeds from a house sale, which would be sizable." Kaster also says that to buttress Angelic's case, he would look into the issue of whether there could be grounds for some criminal complaints, from social-security fraud to collusion to bigamy. "What I'm saying, bottom line, is that this is a magnificent can of worms. All Johnny's other wives would be hiring attorneys. But as for getting, finally, her so-called 'day in court,' I don't think it's on the horizon for Angelic."

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