Ultimate Judgment: A Case of Emotional Corruption, Betrayal and Abuse

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9781558748316: Ultimate Judgment: A Case of Emotional Corruption, Betrayal and Abuse

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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About 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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part I

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.
ùJohn 15:22

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.
ùJob 34:21-23

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.

You are powerless to change anything, so don't even consider it.

Keep your mouth shut and nothing bad will happen.

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.

And beyond.

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.



Chapter One

"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.

"Pardon?"

"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...

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