“Is it my fault that my client was stupid?”
Two women at the end of the jury box shifted uncomfortably in their seats. If Gavin Wright thought ignorance would be his saving grace in these embezzlement charges, comments like that would only pulverize his defense. I could feel the prosecution’s glee from my vantage point six rows back. It was week two of the trial; the prosecution had rested, and the defense was waging equal battles between the substantial evidence presented by their opponents and the defendant’s narcissistic tendencies. Neither was helping their case.
Wright stood charged with embezzling over $500,000 from the estate he managed for his client, Isaac Sikora, and day by day he was adding a new definition to the word chutzpah. There was nothing more endearing to a jury than stealing money from grandpa.
I turned my head toward the administrative assistant who had discovered the alleged theft. Her hands were clenched in her lap, her head down, and she stared at some stain on the carpet, probably wishing she could sneak out the side door. Since Wright was her boss, she’d brought the financial irregularities to the attention of the victim’s son, Nathan Sikora, but only after the elder Sikora had passed away. Nathan was now whispering furiously in the prosecution’s ear. I imagined the expletives were flying.
Tension crackled in the room with each insensitive remark by Wright, but his psych profile prevented him from controlling himself. Oh well, two more points for the prosecution.
It was entertaining, but I was more interested in the jury’s reaction. I furiously jotted notes for the article I would post later that day as I watched the circus unfolding. Despite her best efforts, juror number eight was showing her hand. She despised Wright, but as I knew, that didn’t mean she was a shoo-in for the vote to convict. It wasn’t unusual for a juror to dislike the accused or even the victim for that matter—after all, criminal cases didn’t always involve the best and the brightest. Nonetheless, it was the jury’s role to set aside personal feelings and bias and draw a conclusion based on the facts of the case, even when you thought the accused was a heartless SOB.
Wright sat back in the witness box, flicked a piece of lint off the sleeve of his custom-tailored Italian suit, then shot a look at his attorney that said, “I’d rather be on the golf course.” His arrogance enveloped him like a storm cloud. As a onetime prosecutor myself, I’d met many an attorney who seemed to think “I” was the only pronoun in the English language, but it was a quality usually reserved for trial attorneys, not estate wonks like Wright.
I leaned forward in my seat, stared at Wright, and tried to come up with words to describe the undercurrent in his testimony. The flavor of the setting and the emotion in the courtroom were key components in adding texture to the story I was writing on this case for my employer, Link-Media. Facts were the primary elements, but getting my readers to feel the tension in the room was important for taking this story to the next level. Anyone could throw up five hundred words and call it done, but I was developing a reputation for going deeper. In my fourteen months with the digital news outlet, I’d broken a story about a casino scheme involving the highest levels of Chicago government and exposed a tainted energy drink product that had taken the lives of three people and nearly killed my sister. This wasn’t the time to get sloppy.
The defense attorney made a move to get the questioning back on track, asking Wright about financial reporting cycles and the frequency of communication between him and Mr. Sikora. The legal strategy seemed to be a claim that this half-million sum was largely expenses related to administration of the estate over the seven years Wright and Sikora had been associated. Hell of a fee structure.
A reporter from the local NBC affiliate slid into the bench next to me. I couldn’t help but shoot my eyes at the hideous lime-green-and-orange plaid tie knotted around his neck. Had he dressed in the dark, or was he color blind?
“Hey, Andrea,” he whispered. “Do you hate this guy as much as everybody else here does?”
I glanced at my colleague and lifted an eyebrow.
“Nice tie,” I said, then turned back to the defense attorney without saying more. Did he really think I would respond? The TV news guys seemed to think they stood on top of the pecking order and we peons in the digital world were just wannabes hoping for our shot. Sorry, I wasn’t going to add any color commentary.
“Mr. Wright,” the defense continued, “you testified earlier about the monthly administrative expenses charged to Mr. Sikora. How did these fees compare to those of other clients?”
“Every client is different,” Wright replied. “We start with a base rate then make adjustments based on the number of man-hours put into the client’s assets, the types of investments, the complexity of their personal tax situation.”
“And was Mr. Sikora’s tax situation complicated?”
“He was an aggressive investor and impulsive about buying assets.” Wright shrugged, bored with the whole thing. “It was difficult to get a handle on his ownership stakes, let alone the tax implications on the estate when your client doesn’t involve his partners. We were in constant contact with his broker, trying to get information on acquisitions. This went on for the entire time I worked for Mr. Sikora. Of course, that meant more work for my firm, and our fees reflect the work our client directed us to do, nothing more.”
Wright tugged on his French cuffs and gave his attorney a practiced smile. Slickwas the word that came to mind when I looked at him. There was an undercurrent beneath the polished exterior that was hard to identify, as if his poise were practiced rather than innate. Throwing punches in a bar fight or dining in one of the fine restaurants his lifestyle afforded him were two scenarios in which I could easily imagine him.
“I might also add,” Wright continued, “that Mr. Sikora changed his mind frequently about how to distribute his assets upon his death. Some months his son was on the short list, others Mr. Sikora felt inclined to donate his wealth to charity. I can’t take responsibility for the lack of communication between my client and his son or the quality of their relationship. I was simply following my client’s lead.”
Nathan Sikora jumped to his feet, his chair clattering to the floor behind him. “Liar!” he screamed. His face was as red as the burgundy sweater he wore, and his hands trembled with rage.
The judge slammed his gavel as the prosecution took Sikora’s arm, attempting to calm him down, but he was having none of it. Rage and accusations spilled out uncontrollably as the courtroom visitors watched, erupting into a low rumble of their own. My seatmate chuckled and scribbled in a notebook, delighted with the show.
Two attorneys now whispered in Sikora’s ears while he ignored them and continued his tirade. As his volume and agitation increased, Sikora pushed off his counsel and made moves toward Wright. Toward what end wasn’t clear, but no one was taking the chance. The bailiff stepped forward as the legal team blocked his movement. With control of the courtroom at risk, the judge continued to call for order, eventually having no choice but to have Nathan Sikora removed from the courtroom.
As Sikora was led out of the courtroom, the room buzzed with shock and amusement. The judge called for lunch recess, and the jury filed out.
“Just another day at the carnival,” my journalist friend added before rushing out of the room himself. I had a feeling Sikora was about to have his day in the press.
I exited the building into Daley Plaza, hoping the line at the deli salad bar around the corner hadn’t yet gotten unbearable. Buttoning my wool coat against the sharp February wind, I pulled gloves out of my pocket and headed west. Twenty feet out I noticed a crowd building around a woman standing near The Picasso, a monumental fifty-foot-tall COR-TEN steel sculpture that anchored the square. Cameras and voice recorders pointed in her direction. Elyse Wright, the accused’s ex-wife.
There was no mistaking the sharp line of her blonde bob and the impeccable wardrobe of the ad executive and former Mrs. Gavin Wright. Together the former couple had made a striking pair, she with her fair beauty and he with his dark skin and easy smile. They were photographed frequently in social pages, particularly for their support of the Lincoln Park Zoo.
As I reached the group, I heard Elyse reiterate—for the benefit of the evening news cycle—the same line of defense she’d used in court.
“Gavin, and Gavin alone, is responsible for the heartless betrayal of an elderly man’s trust. I was duped just as completely as Mr. Sikora.”
Today Ms. Wright was showing her survival skills. She had kicked her lying husband to the curb and wasn’t about to go down with him. I knew the sentiment.
Her testimony had been as harsh and as deadly as a lethal injection, an impressive blend of victimization and “nail the bastard.” Unwisely, she was now holding court on her own. But after hearing her testimony for the prosecution, I didn’t imagine the defense wanted anything to do with her. If she could add a couple dozen more nails to her ex-husband’s coffin, she’d do it in a heartbeat. This stunt seemed more about self-preservation, and I got the feeling she was a pro.
“Ms. Wright? Andrea Kellner from Link-Media.” I pushed around to the side of the small group. “Can you speculate on a motive? Was your husband desperate for money? Were there financial problems in his business?”
Elyse Wright turned to me with a hard stare. “It was greed and arrogance. Nothing more. But you know all about arrogant men, don’t you, Ms. Kellner?”