Martin Chitwood on Being Falsely Accused of Domestic Violence
After enduring a humiliating court ordeal, prominent Atlanta attorney and decorated war veteran Martin Chitwood writes about what happened to him to highlight the injustices suffered by men wrongly accused of domestic violence. The attorney, 74, whose wife of less than five years, Carol (n/k/a Carol Swanson Smith), 55, had accused him of dozens of acts of extreme and brutal domestic violence, was found not liable at trial on every single claim. Despite the verdict, Mr. Chitwood says his reputation now lies in tatters thanks to the groundless sensationalizing of the case by the press a full two years before the verdict was rendered, which unfairly branded him as an abuser before he had his day in court. Mr. Chitwood affirms that his decision to tell the story of his ex-wife’s case against him is not motivated by a desire for revenge, and that he is speaking out purely to promote a much-needed debate.
On August 31, 2017, I was exonerated on all claims of domestic abuse made by my former wife, Carol (n/k/a Carol Swanson Smith). After a five-week trial involving dozens of abuse allegations, a 12-person jury concluded that I had not committed a single act of domestic violence, rendering a verdict 100% in my favor. This verdict marked the end of a saga that had begun three years earlier when, unbeknownst to me, Carol called the police while I was out at lunch to report a false claim of domestic abuse against me.
At approximately noon on Wednesday August 13, 2014, I left my beautiful home in La Jolla, California — where I planned to retire soon — to get some lunch at a nearby restaurant. When I left, I had no idea it would be more than nine months before I would be able to spend another night in my home, and that I would not have access to my physical possessions during that period. I would never get back many of the things I left there, including those things I treasured most dearly. I would lose all my photographs, including the only ones of my parents, all my military records, and a scrapbook from a movie I wrote in the late 1980’s that was given to me by the cast. I would also have to leave behind my two white golden retrievers Haka and Lily, which was profoundly upsetting to me as anyone who knows me would attest. (The court later ordered Carol to return my dogs to me.)
The morning of August 13th started simply enough. Carol had gotten up early to drive her friend who had been visiting us to the airport, and I worked out with my personal trainer at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. But my world soon changed. When I returned, Carol started an argument over whether I had fully participated in entertaining her friend during her visit. It struck me that Carol was unusually aggressive. We had had arguments before — our marriage of not quite five years wasn’t working out. However, the argument that morning had a different tone. Carol asked me if I was going to divorce her, and I replied that I couldn’t live with someone who could never tell the truth — a factor that had been the primary catalyst for almost all of our disagreements. As Carol walked away, ending the argument, she said, “You need to remember what happened to your friend Brad.” I didn’t understand her comment at the time, but I would soon realize what she meant.
The day before, I had gotten an email notification from my bank that a bill was due, and when I tried to log on to pay it, I was informed that my password had been changed. When I attempted to reset my password, I discovered that my personal security questions had also been changed. I was initially alarmed, but other than me, only Carol knew what the answers to those questions had been, and I assumed the issue was a bank error that we would straighten out once Carol’s friend had left.
After our argument that morning, the rest of the morning was uneventful. I watched the financial news and played with the dogs, and Carol sat at her computer and shopped online. Just after noon, I decided to go out for lunch and asked Carol if she would like to join me, but she said she preferred to eat at home. So I went by myself.
When I returned from my fateful lunch, there was a police car in my driveway. We had a construction project underway on the roof of our home, and I was concerned someone had been hurt. I approached the police officer, explained that I lived there, and asked if there had been an accident on the roof. The police officer replied that Carol had called 911 and reported that I had attacked her, and he would have to arrest me. I was taken to a police station and booked, and eventually I was locked in a jail cell in downtown San Diego with approximately two-dozen other men. I was the oldest person in the jail cell, and I was the only one who didn’t sit down all night. Instead, I paced in the cell trying to make sense of what had just happened to me. As I went over everything in my mind, I would come to understand what Carol had meant when she said, “You need to remember what happened to your friend Brad.”
Brad had gone through a tumultuous divorce a few years earlier. We had been friends since 1962, when we lived in the same dorm as freshmen at the University of Georgia. We were both attorneys in Atlanta, and both avid tennis players. As part of a bitter custody dispute, Brad’s wife had claimed that he had been physically abusive toward her and had molested their children. During the divorce, my friend found a letter hidden in a drawer that his wife had received from her attorney prior to initiating the divorce. The letter explained that the way she could assure she would get the house during a divorce was to allege domestic violence. Brad’s wife, in turn, accused him of marital rape, and with the help of her attorney she filed criminal charges against him with the District Attorney. Marital rape is a felony, and if Brad were convicted of those charges, he would not only face prison time, he would also lose his license to practice law, which was his only way to earn a living. Bound by the circumstances, he settled his divorce case on his wife’s terms, and he had ongoing financial obligations to her that were both much more than what he thought they should be and what they would have been but for her false allegations.
After I married Carol, we often socialized with Brad. During those get-togethers, he sometimes vetted frustration over the financial plight he found himself in because of his wife’s false allegations in their divorce. Carol was an avid listener. As I paced about in the jail cell following my arrest, I suddenly knew what Carol had meant the day before when she said, “You need to remember what happened to your friend Brad.”
The next morning after posting bond, I immediately contacted my banker to change my password and cancel my credit cards, realizing the changes to my bank account that were inexplicable the day before were much more serious than I originally thought. I also called an attorney in Atlanta and instructed her to prepare divorce papers. I then returned to my home in La Jolla just long enough to pack a small suitcase and booked a flight back to Atlanta. I had recently sold my home in Atlanta while vacationing in La Jolla, so I checked into an Atlanta hotel. I would live in a hotel for the next several weeks until I found a suitable house to rent.
Carol and I had met through an exclusive online dating service in 2008 when she was 45 and I was 64. She had never been married before and was looking for a husband, and I was interested in finding someone with whom I could enjoy my upcoming retirement. We clicked, and I was very taken with her. Like me, she enjoyed discussing politics and following professional tennis. She was good company, and we always seemed to want the same type of food and be interested in seeing the same movies. On paper, she was an executive for G.E. Canada, a former Olympic gymnast, and had been crowned Miss Canada in the 1980’s. She said that she and her identical twin sister had been cast as the Doublemint Twins when they were younger. Although I would later learn these claims were not grounded in truth, at the time we met, I had no reason to question her. She was engaging and attractive, and I liked her. After we were married, I discovered a darker side of Carol, and she would eventually disclose to me that she had been diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder before we met, which in retrospect, makes perfect sense. I came to understand her Internet search for an older and wealthy companion had had a predatory undertone and that I had been targeted. (Shortly after our separation, she began a serious relationship with a retired CEO who is ten years my senior who she also met online, and they were married shortly after the trial.)
Our relationship progressed quickly, and almost immediately, Carol began to discuss quitting her job in Canada and moving in with me in Atlanta. She also became obsessed with getting married and having a fairy tale wedding in the same Canadian castle where her twin sister had married 20 years earlier; in fact, she started a spreadsheet of wedding expenses months before we were engaged. I, on the other hand, was not anxious to get married — particularly because the Great Recession had just begun, making it a financially insecure time for me — but I knew it was important to her, and I was enjoying the relationship. We agreed that if we were to marry we would sign a prenuptial agreement that would govern how we would divide certain property in the event of divorce. Carol drove the process of getting the agreement in place and did so very quickly because she considered it urgent to get married.
Although we had agreed to adhere to a (generous) budget for the wedding, Carol disregarded it entirely and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more than we had allotted, seemingly sparing no expense, and she also hid the additional wedding costs from me. As a result, right out of the starting gate, she tainted our marriage by being untrustworthy, and her lack of honesty would become a recurring issue. In order to conceal the true cost of the wedding, Carol made a series of transfers from our joint account to a secret account that she maintained in Canada from which she apparently paid some of the expenses. When I found out about the transfers and what they were for, she apologized for tricking me and swore she would never do it again. However, discovering Carol’s dishonesty only a few months after our wedding unnerved me and prompted me to ask my lawyer what it would take to dissolve the marriage. My lawyer said she would send a draft set of divorce papers to my office so I could think about it, but instead, she inadvertently sent them to our home address, where they were intercepted by Carol, even though I had already decided I didn’t want a divorce.
Once Carol saw the draft papers, her paranoia that I would divorce her overtook her, and her mindset about the marriage changed, even though I tried to convince her I didn’t want to get divorced. Strangely, I was the one who felt contrite even though it was her dishonest money-wiring scheme that had initiated our marital problems. I would later understand that Carol’s psychological disorders made her incapable of contrition. As a gesture of my trust, I asked Carol to take over managing our joint account. But instead of building trust, Carol was devising — and implementing — plans to stockpile money in preparation for what she viewed as our inevitable split. She used her new control of our account to ramp up more wire transfers to her secret Canadian account, the same act of deceit that had caused me to distrust her in the first place. I would find out that she was still transferring money six months later, when my banker contacted me about the unusual wires. I contemplated divorce again more seriously this time and discussed it with Carol, but once again, I didn’t really want one. And once again, Carol apologized and promised never to deceive me again. Carol ceased the wire transfers but almost immediately came up with two new schemes for diverting funds during our marriage: frequent ATM withdrawals typically totaling our limit of $2,000 per day and using counter deposits to skim money off of large deposits. I wouldn’t find out about the ATM withdrawals and skimming until our divorce proceedings.
In addition to diverting funds, Carol secretly spent staggering sums of money during our marriage on expensive gifts, cosmetic dentistry, plastic surgery procedures, and other extravagant luxuries. I wasn’t overly bothered by the lavish expenditures, but I was profoundly disturbed by the deception. As time went on, it became clear to me that dishonesty permeated Carol’s every move. She couldn’t tell the truth about anything. She couldn’t be truthful about why she was taking a trip or visiting a doctor. If I asked her what time she got up, she would stop and think about what would be the most strategic answer.
Notwithstanding the cloud of dishonesty, Carol and I were enjoying a nice life together. We lived in a beautifully decorated home in La Jolla that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and we belonged to the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club and the La Jolla Country Club. We developed a routine we loved. We would work out, eat gourmet meals, and dote on our dogs. We followed politics and tennis closely. We socialized often with my tennis friends, and it was a good life. Most of the time, I viewed staying married to Carol a better choice than getting divorced.
But Carol’s paranoia that our marriage would fail became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and she became fixated on ensuring that she would walk away from the marriage with more money and property than she had agreed to under the prenuptial agreement. Learning from Brad’s experience and fearing that divorce was imminent, Carol decided to start planting abuse allegations against me. When I left the house for lunch on August 13, 2014 a few hours after our brief argument, Carol sprang into action. Being from Canada, she thought she could call 911 and make a police report while I was out without me knowing about it. Unbeknownst to Carol, in California, the police have a mandatory protocol for domestic violence calls. After the police came to the house and took Carol’s statement, she frantically tried to get them to leave before I returned from lunch, telling them she would lose everything if I found out she had called them (which they meticulously documented in the report). When the police told her upon my arrival that they were required to arrest the perceived aggressor in a domestic violence call, she begged them not to arrest me. Apparently, her plan had been to make a report that she could use against me in the future without me knowing about it. But when I came back home sooner than she expected and the police arrested me, Carol knew she had prematurely set her plan into motion because now that she had made a false police report and triggered my arrest, I would certainly file for divorce.
As I was bonding out of jail the morning after my arrest, Carol was frantically executing her next steps. Her first stop was the courthouse to apply for a restraining order against me, which was granted as a matter of course. From there she visited our primary care physician to create medical documentation of her “injuries,” all of which were contrived for a physician’s examination and subjective (e.g., tender scalp, sore wrist). Significantly, within a 24-hour period, Carol made drastically different — and inconsistent — statements to the police, in her restraining order application, and to her doctor regarding the abuse I had allegedly committed against her that she claimed had prompted her to call 911. While she told the police we had struggled on the second or third step of the circular stairs in our home and fallen together to the ground, she told the doctor I threw her down a flight of ten stairs. Of course, both versions were false, and we had never even been on the stairs together that day. Remarkably, she called the doctor’s office several months later and among other changes, she asked the doctor to alter her medical records to state that I had only thrown her down six stairs, not ten (because she realized there were only six consecutive steps). Even if the doctor had been willing to revise her records, the computer software prohibited him from making changes, so instead, he made a detailed notation of Carol’s request for the change. During the course of the litigation, this would not be the only instance that Carol tried to obstruct discovery. Twice (that we know of), she wrote to her doctors telling them that they are not required to comply with document production subpoenas, and she suggested self-serving limitations on what they produced. My legal team found out about Carol’s improper obstruction with these doctors from their depositions and document productions.
In responding to my divorce complaint through her initial Atlanta attorney, Carol agreed we had irreconcilable differences and did not claim any abuse. However, after that filing, Carol added Los Angeles attorney Lisa Bloom of the Bloom Firm to her legal team, and Carol’s plot to accuse me of abuse to benefit in the divorce took hold. Bloom’s very first appearance in the case was at Carol’s November 2014 deposition, at which Carol could only vaguely recount a few non-specific allegations of abuse, as she had not yet developed her elaborate tale of having been raped, strangled and tortured by me. At the deposition, Carol volunteered that she had sustained an injury above her eye in a fall and that she didn’t know what caused her to fall. However, a month after her deposition, Bloom submitted an errata sheet, revising Carol’s sworn testimony to say that she remembered I had pushed her, causing her to fall. Carol’s willingness to fabricate stories — the cause for the breakdown of our marriage — enabled her to invent a sudden flood of elaborate memories about how I purportedly abused her. Her storytelling was a symptom of the psychological disorders she had struggled with throughout her adult life. However, because her stories had inconsistencies that she would quickly and implausibly explain away when pointed out to her, it was easy to detect when she was not telling the truth. Any well-meaning attorney would discern that what Carol needed was additional psychiatric help and that no good could come from litigating her false claims, but Bloom saw the promise of a big settlement payday.
Around the time Carol altered her deposition testimony, she was busy preparing a document she titled “Abuse Evidentiary” at Bloom’s instruction, which purported to detail the abuse that she allegedly suffered at my hands over the course of our almost seven year relationship. Her first draft was 172 pages long (even though she had been unable to articulate any specific examples of abuse at her deposition a month earlier) and covered the years 2008–2014, which included our courtship. It set forth vivid, shocking descriptions of abuse that she would eventually use to challenge the prenuptial agreement (unsuccessfully), and later make the basis for her civil domestic violence case that she filed against me in California, which ended in the jury verdict that was 100% in my favor.
Shortly after Carol prepared the first draft of her Abuse Evidentiary in December 2014, her legal team realized that under Georgia law, the abuse was required to have been “unforeseeable” at the time of the marriage in order for a challenge to the prenuptial agreement to be sustainable, and they directed her to modify the Abuse Evidentiary so that it only covered the period we were married. The new version was only 120 pages long and began with our marriage in November 2009. Whereas the draft written just weeks earlier alleged that I drugged and violently raped her shortly after we met, under the new legal parameters that Carol had been given, I was a perfect gentleman until the day after the wedding. In January 2015, Carol’s lawyers filed nine affidavits on Carol’s behalf that they had written or edited, seeking to set aside the prenuptial agreement. One of the affidavits, signed by Carol herself, became known to my attorneys as the “Shock & Awe” affidavit because it was conspicuously designed to shock the conscience of the court. It was 35 pages long and full of lurid and fantastical details, including multiple allegations of anal rape and attempted murder. The other affidavits all came from family or friends of Carol. Significantly, when the jury reached its verdict more than two years later, it implicitly found that information contained in the affidavits was untruthful.
Notwithstanding the plethora of new, horrifying, and sensationalized allegations in the Shock & Awe affidavit, the court enforced the prenuptial agreement, holding that only unforeseen changes in the financial conditions of the parties could be sufficient to set aside the agreement. After the prenuptial agreement was enforced, Carol threatened to file a separate suit for domestic violence in California using the same trumped-up allegations that had been developed to shock the Georgia court unless I paid her millions of dollars. I refused to settle the fraudulent claims brought against me, and in April 2015, two months after the enforcement of the prenuptial agreement, Bloom shamelessly initiated a suit in the San Diego County Superior Court, tracking the lurid, contrived claims that were in Carol’s Shock & Awe affidavit, including her outrageous and unsupportable allegations of anal rape and attempted murder. At the time of the filing, the divorce was also still proceeding in Atlanta. (Ultimately our divorce was finalized in May 2016.)
As the case progressed towards trial, many legal issues were put before the court, and without exception, I won every single one. This foreshadowing of my eventual vindication at trial coupled with my unwillingness to settle drove Carol and her lawyers to ramp up their litigation tactics, and they were able to get news articles published in Atlanta and San Diego that sensationalized Carol’s false claims of abuse, with the dual goals of tainting the jury pools in both venues and leaving my reputation in tatters. I had worked hard my entire life, which included serving in Vietnam as a Special Forces A-Team commander, building one of the most successful securities law practices in the country, and excelling in sports at a high level, and all of the sudden, my legacy boiled down to a scandalous, embarrassing, and false news story. Yet once I was cleared of any wrong doing after a full jury trial, somehow it wasn’t newsworthy.
With the steadfast support of my defense teams, including former San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst and Susan Hack of Higgs Fletcher & Mack in San Diego and Randall Kessler and Marvin Solomiany of Kessler & Solomiany, LLC in Atlanta, we vigorously litigated the case for nearly two and a half years. In addition to spending millions of dollars on my defense (I could have settled for much less), I spent nearly every waking moment working on the case, consumed with gathering the facts and evidence my lawyers needed in order to win and clear my name. While the majority of claims against me were dismissed on summary judgment, a number of claims — many of which were impossibly ill-defined and therefore very difficult to defend — went to trial. The trial lasted five weeks, and on August 31, 2017, three years after Carol had me arrested on a false domestic violence report, a 12-person jury rendered its verdict, specifically finding that I did not commit any domestic violence, whatsoever. While the verdict was a thrilling conclusion to my saga, to this day, the damage to my reputation has yet to be repaired. I recognize that many, if not most, men who are falsely accused of domestic violence would not have the financial ability to fund a defense or the legal experience that I was fortunate enough to have, but even with those critical resources, the irreversible damage I suffered is inescapable.