Ultimate Judgment: A Case of Emotional Corruption, Betrayal and Abuseby Meg Clairmonte, Aurora Mackey (With)
When millionaire shrimping magnate Donald Sahlman died of cancer in November 1992, his friends, family and business associates crowded into a church in Tampa, Florida to mourn a man who was gentle, generous and compassionate. But their benevolent image of Sahlman was about to be shattered. In a case that would shock all who knew him and set a legal precedent, Sahlman was put on trail and posthumously charged with the heinous sexual abuse of his stepdaughter.
This is a gripping story documented with actual court transcripts as Clairmonte details the sexual and emotional abuse she suffered at her stepfather's hands for twenty-five years. Perhaps even more shocking are Clairmonte's allegations against her own mother, who conspired in the abuse and even facilitated it, selling her daughter into sexual and emotional slavery for financial security. In this precedent-setting court case, Sahlman's estate was ordered to pay Meg Clairmonte $3 million. This riveting story is one of emotional corruption, obsession and betrayal at their darkest levels, but more importantly, it is the story of human courage, resilience and ultimate triumph.
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Digging Up the Bones
If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin.
For his eyes are upon the ways of man, and he seeth all his goings. There is no darkness, nor shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves. For he will not lay upon man more than right; that he should enter into judgment with God.
The worst secret is the one everyone around you knows but never talks about. It's the ghost that lives with you and whispers in your ear, the apparition whose shadow undulates through the air you all breathe, but everyone pretends not to see it. Over time, whatever you think or feel about it doesn't even matter anymore, because there are rules to govern your silence, to keep you from speaking of it:
Nothing is wrong here, and if there is, it is only with you. This is just the way things are.Those were the rules in my family, the unspoken ones that permeated every facet of my life, Nick's life, even Mom and Donald's. They are what held our terrible secret firmly in place for three decades, burying the truth so deep that it even went to the grave.
You are powerless to change anything, so don't even consider it.
Keep your mouth shut and nothing bad will happen.
Even after the newspapers wrote all those big stories about what happened, my own lawyers still thought I was in no condition for the whole truth, that I'd collapse or go hysterical or kill myself if they told me everything. There were parts that would have been much too painful, they said, and some things a person was just better off not knowing. That, they told me, was something they'd learned from other trials and cross-examinations: Never ask a question unless you're prepared to hear any answer. And I, in their estimation, was not prepared.
Maybe they were right. Maybe back then I couldn't have handled the knowledge of what my mother made me out to be, or how bad Nick and the priest betrayed me, or what all those doctors thought I could have done in my half-crazed state. Maybe I would have done exactly what those lawyers were afraid of.
But one thing I've learned since then. The truth doesn't stay well buried. The truth wants out of its tombùeven if it has to destroy lives in the process, even if it has to rip a family apart, even if it is forced to leave a path of destruction in its wake.
The truth wants out, and if given a chance it will find a way.
At least, that was what happened to us.
"You cold?" Ernie asks.
My teeth are chattering and I'm hugging myself, pulling my sweater close to my chest. The lobby feels as if we're sitting under a blasting air conditioner. But maybe it's just me. Even though it's February, and winters here are hardly what anyone could call harsh, Ernie and Nick both look just the opposite of cold. Ernie's spread out in the chair beside me in a cotton shirt and slacks, no tie, and Nick, my brother, is wearing the usual, a T-shirt and jeans. Nick is drumming his fingers on top of a magazine lying on the table beside himùupside down I see it's the Florida Bar Journalùand under his armpits are dark patches of sweat.
"I'm freezing. Now tell me again how you know this lawyer?" I say to Ernie, quiet enough so that the receptionist at the long desk across the room won't hear me.
"Meg, don't worry," Ernie says. "I already told you. He's a big estate lawyer, supposed to be one of the best in Tampa. You just go in there and tell him everything, and let him take it from there. Listen to what he has to say. He probably does these kinds of cases all the time."
Nick stops drumming on the magazine. He doesn't believe for a second, any more than I do, that this or any other lawyer in Tampa handles cases like ours all the time.
"But what if he doesn't believe us, Ernie?" Nick asks. "What if he says we're making it all up and throws us out? Wouldn't be the first time we've heard that, would it, Meg?"
Nick gives a snort of disgust, and I know just what he's thinking. He's remembering my mother's face the last time he saw her. And as soon as I recall the image of her standing in the doorway calling out after Ernie and me, my heart thuds in my chest. You're both a bunch of damn liars! And you and your brother can rot in hell!
"Nick's right," I say. "Maybe this whole thing isn't such a good idea. Maybe it's just going to mess everything up even more."
Ernie glances at the receptionist and then hunches forward and laces his fingers together. Instinctively, Nick and I both lean toward him as if we're going into a huddle.
"Look," he says quietly. "You want to walk out of here right now, then go ahead. No harm, no foul, Okay? I'm sure not going to tell you what to do. But you want to know what I think? You're both scared. Hell, I would be, too. But we've already gone over all of this, all the details. You deserve some compensation for what you've been through. You both go in there with that attitude, and I think everything will be okay. All you need is the right lawyer." Ernie looks at us both to see how we're reacting to his pep talk. "Okay?"
We both nod, but slowly, as if we want him to convince us some more. But there's no time for that. A woman with a neat French bun and dressed in a form-fitting navy suit approaches and says Mr. Arnold will see us now. She leads us down a corridor, her high heels sinking soundlessly into the carpet, to an office at the end. She knocks softly on the door, and then without waiting opens it.
"Ms. Cassedy, Mr. Clairmonte and Mr. Haefele are here to see you," she says to the man sitting at a dark wood desk across the room. She smiles briefly and then leaves us in the doorway.
From where we stand, the office looks as if it hangs out into space. Two walls of solid glass give a full view of downtown Tampa, the Hillsborough River and the harbor, scattered with small boats, just beyond. Heavy clouds scud across the sky from the east. Another storm coming.
The lawyer rises from his leather chair and walks over to greet the three of us, extending his hand first to Ernie, then me and then Nick. Lynwood Arnold is a pleasant-looking man, in his mid-fifties with silver hair and a round, unlined face. He's dressed in a crisp white shirt, red tie and tasteful gray suit, and has the soft spongy look of someone who spends most of his time at a desk. Motioning to a long sofa against one wall, he tells us to make ourselves comfortable, and then sits in an armchair opposite us. But no sofa on Earth can make me comfortable. Sandwiched between Nick and Ernie, I'm shaking so badly I'm certain I'm visibly vibrating the whole sofa.
"Well," he says, looking first at Nick and then me.
There can be no doubt that Nick and I are brother and sister. We both have the same wiry black hair and coffee-colored skin that came from having a black father and white mother. Ernie, on the other hand, looks like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, that movie where he's all beefed up and street tough as a boxer.
"I understand from Mr. Haefele's phone call that your stepfather recently died," Mr. Arnold says. "And that you recently received a document concerning his estate?" I nod and then, when he doesn't say anything more, hand him the folded piece of paper I've been holding. He scans it, nods, and then lays it on the coffee table. "This is a notice of administration," he says. "Are you aware of what that is?"
"We're kind of aware," Ernie answers. "Something about a time limit to challenge the will? But that's why Meg and Nick are here. They got the notice in the mail three weeks ago. They wanted to know their legal rights. And that's why I called you."
If Lynwood Arnold thinks it's strange that Ernie's doing the talking for Nick and me, he doesn't show it. He just nods thoughtfully and crosses one leg over the other. "And Nick, you received a copy of this document as well?"
"Uh, not really," Nick says. "I don't exactly have a permanent address right now. I'm kind of staying with friends. Meg called me and told me about it. She and Ernie live together, so that's where it got sent. And then we all talked it over, and then we decided to . . . ." His voice trails. "We want to know what it means, just like Ernie said."
"I see," Lynwood Arnold says. "Well, what the document means is pretty much what Mr. Haefeleù"
"Ernie is fine," Ernie says.
"All right. It's pretty much what Ernie said. The notice gives you thirty days to challenge your stepfather's estate, or else you forfeit any future right to do so. After that time, you would have no legal right to contest the will or challenge the estateùit's essentially 'forever hold your peace.' Since the document was dated three weeks ago, that only gives you seven more days to respond."
"She sent it after she threw us out," Nick says.
"After our mother threw Meg and me out," he says. "She did it right after that."
He picks up a yellow legal pad. "Before we get to issues related to the estate, I need to ask you a few questions. Now, your stepfather's name was . . . ?"
"Donald Sahlman," Nick says, and then spells it.
He writes it down. "Your mother was married to him when?"
"In 1983. So for about nine years," Nick says. "But she'd known him for years before that. Since she met him in Guyana. Meg and I were kids."
The lawyer writes something on the legal pad. "Any idea why your mother hired a lawyer? Why she's asking for a formal response from the two of you about your stepfather's will?"
"Sure," Nick says. "She thinks Meg and I are a bunch of liars. Greedy liars is what she called us, didn't she, Meg? Anyway, she thinks we're just mad because we were left out of the will."
Lynwood Arnold studies Nick a moment. "And are you?"
"Mad?" he asks. "Nah."
He nods, jots something else down. "Have you met your mother's lawyer yet or had any conversation with himùCharlie Luckie?"
Nick shakes his head.
"And do you know for a fact that you haven't been provided for in your stepfather's will? That you've been excluded?"
"Absolutely," Nick says. "Meg and I have known that for years, haven't we, Meg? You see, the way it always was, Donald was going to leave half of everything to our motherùshe used to be Patricia Clairmonte but she's Patricia Sahlman nowùand half to his son from his first marriage, Don Jr. Meg and I always knew we'd be left out of it. We never expected him to do anything different."
"And can you by chance estimate the value of the estate? If you know, of course."
Nick grins. "Oh we know, all right. At least seventeen million. Maybe more."
Lynwood Arnold's pen stops over the notepad, but his expression doesn't change a bit. If he's as big a lawyer as Ernie said, I suppose he's used to talking about big money.
"I see," he says. "And what did your stepfather do?"
"You mean his work? For a living?" Nick asks. "Donald used to be the owner with his brother Jack of Sahlman Seafoods, right here in Tampa. It's the biggest seafood company in the entire world. Donald and Jack owned a huge fleet of shrimp trawlers, and they even had a seafood plant down in Guyana. That's where my mother first met him back in the 1960s, working as a secretary. Anyway, Donald sold his share of the company in . . . I don't know, about 1979, wasn't it, Meg? Yeah, twelve or thirteen years ago. For seventeen million. He always boasted about that. Then he retired and lived the good life. Didn't he, Meg?"
The whole time Nick's been talking, my heart has been thudding in my ears. My hands won't stop shaking either, even though I've been pressing them tightly between my knees. Even to me Nick's voice sounds arrogant and cocky, as if Donald's money, and the fact that he's dead, explains or justifies our entire reason for sitting here. As if the mention of seventeen million dollars should be enough in itself, and the rest of it should be the lawyer's problem to work out.
When Nick stops talking, Lynwood Arnold turns his eyes on me. It's obvious by the way he's waiting for me to say something that he's wondering, So is this how you see things, too? Are you like your brother? I want to open my mouth and tell him there's so much more to it than any will, any inheritance, that Nick isn't necessarily speaking for me, but I'm paralyzed. It feels just like one of my recurrent bad dreamsùthe one where I'm running through a swamp and something horrible is chasing me, deep under the water, but I can't scream. Nothing comes out but a high-pitched squeak, like air escaping from the stretched end of a balloon.
I jerk my head. Lynwood Arnold is looking at me, waiting.
"I asked whether you had given thought to challenging the will," he says. "Whether that is your intent."
My intent. Three or four months ago, while Donald was still alive, I could have said perfectly what my intent was. When I knew he'd be dead very soon, there was only one thing I wanted. But ever since that day two months ago in Father Venard's office, my intent, my entire focus, had been completely blurred. It was just like the priest said: But now that he's dead, Margaret, it must be obvious to you that your goal is gone now, that your goal is no longer possible. You must realize that, don't you?
Ernie reaches over and takes my hand. "It's okay, Meg," he says softly. "Just tell him. You have to tell Mr. Arnold or he can't help you. He's got to know what he's dealing with, okay? Tell him about what Donald did to you so he'll know. It's okay."
I grip Ernie's hand.
The script has already been written for me; and this is what Ernie expects me to do.
I always do what's expected of me.
If it gets bad I can cut myself off from what's happening to me.
I'm good at this: I can separate myself from the shame and not feel a thing.
"Just tell him, Meg," Ernie says again.
And then, when I do open my mouth, the words pour out like a waterfall. They stream out without punctuation, almost without breathing. It is a torrent of words, propelled by the force of every day I have remained silent. I'm telling this perfect stranger, this Southern gentleman with silvery hair and an expensive suit, the most horrible and shameful things any person could tell another human being. Things that, until just two months ago, only one other person in the world has ever heard me say.
"I know you don't believe me," I say to the lawyer. "I know you won't believe any of this but it's the truth, and I don't care if you believe me or not, because I'm sick of everyone saying what a good man Donald Sahlman was, because he wasn't. And you want to know why I'm here? Because no one has any idea who he really was or what he really was or how he tortured me my entire life. Abused me my entire life! And if one more person tells me what a saint he was I'll scream!"
I sink back against the sofa. I've stopped trembling. All that's left is the anger, the fury, the thought that I don't even care now what he thinks of me, whether he believes me or not. The hell with him and anyone else. It's out now. I've taken it as far as I can go. I did what Ernie said to do.
No one says anything right away. Then Ernie breaks the silence. "So you can see what I meant on the phone, Mr. Arnold. These kids have been through a lot. A hell of a lot. And Nick has, too, haven't you, Nick?"
Lynwood Arnold looks at Nick. "Your stepfather did this to you as well?"
Nick nods, but his expression has changed. All of his previous arrogance and cockiness is gone. Suddenly he looks nervous, like a rabbit staring down a rifle barrel. "It was pretty much the same thing as Meg, Mr. Arnold. I just wasn't around it as long as she was. I kind of ran away."
Lynwood Arnold writes again on his legal pad. "And you are how old now?"
"Thirty-two. Meg is thirty. She lived at home a lot longer than I did. Until she was twenty-five. That's when she married Tom Cassedy. They're divorced now." Nick swivels to look at me. "You know, Meg, maybe you should tell Mr. Arnold what Mom and Donald did when they found out you were getting married. Or when they found out you were pregnant."
All at once I feel as if I've just taken my clothes off in front of a window without realizing that binoculars were trained on me. I don't know why I hadn't fully realized it before, but it hits me then that Nick and I might have to talk about everything, expose every tiny piece of our lives. But it's too late to cover up now. The lawyer has already heard enough to know it's all about filth and horridness. Part of me feels as though it would almost be a relief if he threw us all out right here and now.
"Well," he says, "first of all, I'm not going to tell you I've ever handled a case like this before. This isn't within my area of expertise. Primarily I deal with wills and trusts."
Nick and I glance at each other. Both of us have been following Ernie's advice, to see what the lawyer said and then take it from there. But the way Lynwood Arnold is talking, it sounds as if he's about to send us packing. And suddenly I feel an odd sense of desperation. When I first walked into his office I had no idea what I wanted. What is your intent? But now that we're about to be dismissed, the idea of just walking away from this seems as if it would be the worst thing of allùas if Donald would be winning again, controlling me even from his grave. I picture Donald in his marble casket, his eyes closed, smiling and then whispering, I told you no one would believe you, Margaret. Who'd you think they'd believeùa rich white man like me or a little nigger girl like you? You think anyone would ever believe a word you say?
"You think we should forget it, don't you?" I say. My voice is quavering with anger. "That's what you're thinking. Who's going to believe someone like me saying things about a rich man like him? You think I'm lying, don't you?"
Lynwood Arnold tilts his head. "I didn't say that," he says slowly. "But from what you and your brother have said, it sounds to me as if neither of you is talking about challenging the will. Neither of you has said you think you have a right to be included in the will. Am I right about that?"
Nick and I glance at each other and then, even though we've never discussed this, we both nod.
"What you're talking about," Lynwood Arnold goes on, "actually sounds more like a personal injury claim."
A personal injury claim. I always thought that's what people sued for after they were in an automobile accident or if they slipped and fell in a supermarket. It never occurred to me we could do something like that against Donald. But then the reality of what he's suggesting strikes me. "But how do you sue a man who's dead?" I ask. "How are you supposed to get anyone to believe what he did now that he's gone?"
Lynwood Arnold folds his hands in his lap. "Well, that's a good question," he says slowly. "And the short answer is, not easily."
He's going to throw us out right now, I think. He'll do it politely, but here's where he buzzes his receptionist so she can show us the way out.
"I think there's someone you should meet," he says. "A personal injury attorney here in this building. I don't know what he'll say, but would you be willing to talk with him, answer some questions?"
I can't answer for Nick, but to me it's a reprieve I didn't expect. At least Lynwood Arnold hasn't slammed the door in our faces.
"I'll talk to anyone you want," I say.
The second I set eyes on the lawyer Lynwood Arnold introduces us to the next day, a lead ball drops in my stomach. Richard Gilbert is take-your-breath-away gorgeous: six foot three, with dark blond hair and lapis-blue eyes set into a strong, kind face. He's probably not much older than I am. Talking to Lynwood Arnold was like forcing yourself to tell intimate things to a doctor, someone you imagine only could be interested in the facts, but this other lawyer is a whole different story. No way, I think, can I tell this man what happened.
But I'm wrong about that. Richard Gilbert is soft-spoken and has a gentle refinement about him, almost as if he'd stepped off the elevator out of a different century. It doesn't take long before I sense I can trust him. I feel it even though I get the distinct sense he's sizing me up, that while he's asking me questions he's also trying to determine how easily I could lie to him.
Richard Gilbert is particularly interested in my mother's part in everything. He asks me several times what she knew, what she saw, what she did. It would be impossible to go into everything right now because it would take ages, so I tell him just the basics: what happened growing up in Guyana, after we moved to Florida, before I got married to Tom Cassedy, after my son Cameron was born, after my divorce, what happened after Donald died. I rattle it all off so quickly, almost without taking a breath, that I wonder how much of it he's hearing.
Richard Gilbert is sitting in an armchair beside Lynwood Arnold. He's watching me the entire time, not writing anything down. I can tell by his face that I've shocked him, although I don't know by which part. "And in all these years, you never told anyone?" he asks. "Not one person?"
I shake my head. "Just Ernie."
"And your mother, she denies everything? She says none of it ever happened?"
When I nod he puts his elbows on his knees and places his fingertips together, prayerlike, to his lips. "I realize you came here expecting me to give you an answer about what I think about all this, from a legal standpoint, that is," he says. "And unfortunately, I'm afraid I can't do that."
I open my mouth to protest, but he raises one hand, signaling me to let him finish. "But right from the start I need to tell you and Nick what a lawsuit would mean. From what I understand your stepfather was an extremely wealthy man with an apparently good reputation. He's also dead and can't defend himself. Right now I'm not going to go into all the legal difficulties of bringing charges against a dead personùand there are lots of them.
"But I will tell you this: Bringing any kind of claim against your stepfather, just by the nature of his wealth and status alone, would be bound to get all kinds of publicity," he goes on. "Horrendous publicity. I'm talking about the newspapers, television, everything. Every aspect of your life would be opened up to that. And believe me, I've seen what that can do to people. You open up the newspaper, and there you are on the front page. The most intimate details of your life, right there for everyone to read about."
Lynwood Arnold, who until now has been sitting quietly in a leather executive chair, clears his throat. "There's also the problem of the timing," he says. "Perceptually, that is. Since neither of you talked about this abuse to anyone until after your stepfather died, the question that would be bound to come up is: Why did you wait until now, until your stepfather is dead and can't defend himself, to say anything?"
Nick is rocking slightly on the sofa. His eyes are moving from side to side as if he's already picturing an imaginary headline: Sex Abuse Shocker! Unemployed Cocaine Addict Sues Dead Millionaire Stepfather. It's obvious, at least to me, that Nick is weighing the risks, that he's trying to figure out if the publicity would be worth the possible payoff. But not me. I don't know exactly what's happened since the day before, but I don't need any time to weigh anything. My trembling is over; my fear seems to have disappeared.
Now I want to fight. Now I want to tell what happened. If nothing else, I want just one person to believe me. And if I can tell it to someone like Richard Gilbert, I think, I can tell it to anyone.
Nick stops rocking. He sits upright and looks at both the lawyers and then me. "All right," he says. His voice is suddenly determined, as if he's just figured it all out. "I don't care anymore. Let's go for it. Let's nail the son of a bitch."
Richard Gilbert leans forward and laces his hands together. His brows furrow, and already he seems to understand that Nick is unpredictable, that his mood swings could be a problem.
"Meg," he says, turning to me, "how clearly do you remember things that happened? How well do you think you could tell us everything?"
I don't know why he's asking me that. "I already told you what Donald did, what my mother did. Ask me whatever you want. I'll tell you whatever you want to know."
"No," he says, "that's not what I mean." He shifts in his chair and crosses one leg over the other. "Lynwood and I would need you to tell us exactly the way things happened. Not just basically what happened, but all the details, everything you can remember. And let me tell you why. Most people, especially if they're important or respected, go to great lengths to conceal their bad deeds. That may sound like an obvious fact of human nature, but it's worth remembering. On the outside, they may appear to the world to be one thing, and thenùas you and your brother are suggestingùin reality be something completely different. And those people are usually highly invested in maintaining that illusion, in covering their tracks. That's what makes it so difficult in cases that boil down to one person's word against another, where there are no witnesses.
"But there's always something," he goes on. "If you dig deep enough there are always signs, always clues the person leaves behind: People who might have seen something or suspected something, medical records. It could be a lot of things. And that's what we'd be looking for now, Meg. Those signs, those clues Donald Sahlman left behind. Anything that would help us prove what really happened." He's staring at me intently, gauging how I'm reacting. "Do you think you could do that? Help us find proof of what Donald Sahlman did to you?"
I'm nodding my head, but I can't bring myself to tell him what I'm really thinking.
I remember everything, but no one else was ever there. No one except my mother ever saw or knew a thing, and now she's lying through her teeth. For thirty years, I never told a soul. Nick didn't know about me, and I didn't know about him. Donald is dead now, and we'll never find any proof. We won't find it, because there isn't any.
Not even that I am the one who killed him.
I look at Ernie and then the lawyers. After a long moment, I nod. "I'll try," I say.
(c)2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Ultimate Judgment by Meg Clairmonte and Aurora Mackey. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
Meet the Author
Meg Cassedy Clairmonte was born in Barbados and grew up in British Guyana. At age 12 she moved to Tampa, Florida, where she currently lives with her two sons.
Aurora Mackey is a freelance journalist and was an award-winning staff feature writer and columnist with the Los Angeles Times. She was also a medical and healthcare reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News. Her work has appeared in newspapers across the country, including the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald.
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