Friday, November 14, 2008
Lawyer pleads guilty in document forgery
Gerard Marks didn't give any reason why he had forged legal documents, the prosecutor said.
CHRISTIANSBURG -- Months after it was revealed that a lawyer who formerly practiced in Christiansburg had forged several legal documents, including property easements, divorce decrees and adoption orders, the reason behind his actions remains unclear.
Even Gerard Marks' defense attorney, Mac Doubles, called Marks' actions "seemingly inexplicable" Thursday in Montgomery County Circuit Court during a hearing on the charges brought against him.
Marks, 45, hardly spoke at the hearing, only answering substitute Judge Ford Quillen's yes-or-no questions.
Marks had been scheduled for a jury trial but instead entered into a plea agreement with Botetourt County Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom, who was appointed a special prosecutor in the case. Montgomery County Commonwealth's Attorney Brad Finch recused himself from the case.
As part of the agreement, Branscom dropped 14 of the felony charges Marks faced. Marks pleaded guilty to the remaining seven counts of forgery of a public document.
The dropped charges were related to the same offenses, Branscom said.
One of the people affected by Marks' actions was Ray Batiato.
Batiato, who lives in Floyd, had hired Marks to handle his divorce.
His wife, from whom he had been separated for about 16 months, lived in another state. It was Marks' job, in part, to have the divorce papers delivered to her.
In August 2007, Marks told Batiato the divorce had been finalized. He met Batiato at the Montgomery-Floyd county line and gave him the divorce decree, which appeared to have been signed by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Bobby Turk.
Batiato went straight to the Floyd County Courthouse to get a marriage license. The same day, he and the woman he planned to marry bought a house.
Soon, Batiato got an e-mail from the daughter of the woman he thought was his ex-wife.
"How can you be divorced?" she asked.
Batiato offered to get a copy of the divorce decree. But when he called the Montgomery County Circuit Court clerk's office to ask for one, he was told nothing was filed there.
The clerk suggested that perhaps it was filed in Floyd County. She checked. It wasn't.
A few days later, Batiato was called into Circuit Court Judge Ray Grubbs' chambers in Floyd County. Don't get married, the judge told him; you're not divorced.
"This has really caused a lot of difficulty for me," Batiato said Thursday. "His inactions have caused a lot of collateral damage."
More than a year later, Batiato still is not divorced. The process has become very difficult, he said, and cost him at least $12,000.
Still, Batiato can't say he is angry at Marks, whom he called a kind man.
"He is accountable for what he did or didn't do for everybody," Batiato said, "but in my heart I still feel compassion for him.
"Why he would do something like that, it's beyond the imagination."
Marks forged Turk's signature at least five times and Grubbs' once, Branscom said.
In one case, Branscom said in court Thursday, a couple had arranged to adopt a baby before it was born. The adoptive parents were distressed when they found out they hadn't legally adopted the child, worried that the birth mother might want to claim it. The adoption has since been finalized.
Last month, with Marks' consent, the Virginia State Bar revoked his license to practice law. He has cooperated with all authorities, Branscom said.
In August 2007, Marks met with a Virginia State Police investigator, Branscom said. Marks admitted to the forgeries, Branscom said, but "was unable to give any reason that he had forged these documents."
As part of the plea agreement, Branscom agreed to recommend that Marks serve no more than two years in prison. Marks is expected to be sentenced at a hearing in March. He will remain free on bond until then.
Branscom said that because Marks has no prior record, forgery convictions would normally result in probation rather than jail time.
However, he said, he plans to seek jail time in Marks' case.
"This is such a unique type of forgery and strikes at the heart of how the legal system works," he said after Thursday's hearing.
Branscom said he wonders whether there are other couples who wrongly think they are divorced or have legally adopted a child. He said he would be surprised if all the cases of forgery had been uncovered. Because the documents aren't filed in the courthouse, he said, there is nothing to track.
Anyone who received a legal document from Marks should check to see if it is filed in the courthouse, Branscom said. If it's not, he asks that they call him at 540-473-8227.