Suicides, addiction — even murder — vex state’s lawyers

March 04, 2018
A judge found in January that Thomas Schnieders II, seen here in his booking photo, is mentally competent to stand trial on a charge that he beat his elderly mother to death with a crowbar. Schnieders suffers from schizophrenia. The Florida Bar wants to increase services to attorneys suffering from mental illness and substance abuse.

As a state prosecutor, Thomas Schnieders II always took the high road, pursuing justice, not just convictions, to the point where he even left the State Attorney’s Office just to take a stand on how domestic violence cases are handled, colleagues said.

But few who worked with him knew he struggled mightily with mental illness until his arrest in 2015 on charges he killed his mother with a crowbar and beaten his father. He had deemed her the devil.

“He was the nicest guy. He was a man of his word, a man of integrity. I loved that man,” said West Palm Beach attorney Grey Tesh. “He must have been on meds back then. I tried many cases against him and, I tell you, you had to bring your A-Game.”

In the wake of Schneiders’ breakdown and the high-profile suicides of attorneys, the  Florida Bar — the organization of licensed lawyers — is looking to set up a program to help with the mental health and wellness of its members.

It’s a subject that has resonated among lawyers who have either struggled with mental illness or substance abuse — or know a colleague who lost the battle.

The stigma

The Bar hopes, through a small six-member task force to beef up programs for attorneys and judges, to educate them on “best practices” and set up a 24-hour hotline. It already has a Mental Health and Wellness Center website, which asks: “Need someone to talk too?”

The Bar is holding meetings throughout the state for lawyers and judges to get their feedback and will be in West Palm Beach on April 18 at the Palm Beach Bar Association luncheon.

“When you think about the DNA of lawyers, we practice in an adversarial system. We deal with other peoples’ problems and we deal with people at the most horrible times in their lives emotionally and economically,” said Florida Bar president Michael J. Higer. “We make those problems our own.”

Florida Bar President Michael Higer 

Higer said he recognizes that not every remedy fits every attorney. “There is not a one-shoe-fits-all type of solution,” he said. “The major issue is to destigmatize mental illness in our law firms, courts and our law schools,” he said.

Tesh said that lawyers are indeed fearful about coming forward because of the stigma.

“I know a lot of lawyers who suffer from mental illness to varying degrees and the numbers suffering from alcoholism and drug addictions are huge,” he said. “I think there are people who could benefit from such a program, but there so much stigma to it. It will be, ‘Oh God, that guy’s crazy.’ So it has to be a way so they keep it confidential.”

And the stigma is powerful when it comes to lawyers talking about mental illness. One attorney spoke extensively to The Palm Beach Post on the issue but then a few days later asked that he not to be named.

“I’m a great lawyer. I win my cases. The real issue is at the end of the day is, ‘Where do I go?’ That’s why lawyers need help,” the attorney said. “Mental illness sometimes catches up to you. You can run, but you can’t always run fast enough. It’s horrible.”

High-profile suicides

South Carolina lost six lawyers to suicide in 18 months around 2008 and Kentucky also suffered a spate of lawyers taking their own lives. CNN in 2014 ended up reporting a story entitled: Why are lawyers killing themselves? Often it is the attorneys, who from all appearances, are at the top of their game.

The legal community here got jolted into action after a rash of suicides of high-profile attorneys in South Florida.

Richard Sharpstein, known for his quick wit and generosity, was a go-to criminal defense figure in Miami. He had represented cocaine cowboys and troubled cops with his telltale gravelly voice tailor-made for soundbites.

Sharpstein, 63, took his life on Dec. 9, 2013, drowning in the bathtub a week after being honored as one of South Florida’s top attorneys. Few of his close colleagues even knew he was struggling.

In October 2016, Steven Cantor, a prominent Miami tax attorney, jumped from the parking garage of his Miami office building. He was 66.

Then last year, the tolls of mental illness on the South Florida legal profession became hard to ignore.

Ervin Gonzalez, 57, often preached how class-action litigation was at times the last check on corporate malfeasance. He was found dead in his home on June 8.

Gonzalez’s many high-profile cases included litigation over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He also represented homeowners victimized by sulfur-emitting Chinese drywall.

“Ervin’s passing reminds all of us that mental illness can strike anyone regardless of how accomplished or content they might appear,” a statement read from his law firm, Colson Hicks Eidson, at the time of his death.

Gonzalez’s suicide came just a month after federal prosecutor Beranton Whisenant, who was just 38, shot himself at a Hollywood beach, police said.

Drugs and alcohol

Big-time lawyers who committed suicide or were arrested on murder charges are the cases that make the news. But many suffer in silence or sink into alcoholism or drug dependency.

At least three Broward County judges in recent years have been disciplined because of alcohol-related issues following DUI arrests — one in the courthouse parking lot.

The American Bar’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being found as high as 36 percent of practicing lawyers qualify as problem drinkers and that 28 percent suffer from some level of depression.

Miami attorney Adam Moskowitz, who is not involved with the Bar’s initiative, said about three years ago he realized that he was heading down the wrong track when it came to his drinking.

“As I kept becoming more successful in my class actions, I started to get caught up with other lawyers. It was very easy to go out with a big group as a stress reliever or a crutch to drink,” he said. “It started to take a toll physically.”

Miami attorney Adam Moskowitz says many in his profession suffer from substance abuse. When he saw himself going down that path, he changed his lifestyle, stopped drinking, and says he now hasn’t been happier. Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Moskowitz started gaining weight and feeling that he wasn’t living up to his duties as a new father. So he stopped drinking. These days he has opened his own class-action firm, The Moskowitz Law Group, runs marathons regularly and is an adherent of meditation.

“I could see that it could lead to real problems for me personally and I wasn’t willing to go down that path. I had a friend commit suicide,” he said.

Descent into madness

As shocking as the suicides have been in recent years, few in the legal community could be prepared for Schnieders’ descent into madness in July 2015.

Schnieders worked as an assistant state attorney in West Palm Beach from 2001 to 2004 before leaving the office after what he considered a lenient plea deal was offered to a prominent real estate developer in a domestic violence case.

Lucy Chernow Brown — a former Circuit Judge in whose courtroom Schnieders practiced for several years — told The Post what everyone said when an attorney goes off the rails, whether it be suicide, drug or alcohol abuse, or, in this case, homicide: She was shocked.

“He’s the last person I would imagine would fall apart like that,” Chernow said.

“I never noticed anything out of the ordinary,” Chernow Brown said. “He seemed to be well-liked by everyone.”

Schneiders worked in private practice but struggled with schizophrenia and lived with his elderly parents in their Winston Trails home west of Lantana. In the end, he saw demons and began to think his mother was the devil.

He attacked his parents as they left to go church with a crowbar. He killed his 84-year-old mother, Delena, according to a police report. His father survived by playing dead. A judge, months after his mother’s death, found Schneiders unfit to stand trial. In January, another judge found that he was competent, but felt it necessary to order the jail to provide him with his medication so that he remains so.

Tesh said he used to eat lunch with Schneiders regularly and served with him in the same court.

After Schneiders left the State Attorney’ Office, Tesh like others lost track of their likeable colleague. When he heard about his arrest, Tesh immediately went to jail to visit him.

“No matter what he did, he was still my friend. I still consider him a friend. He just suffers from an illness,” Tesh said.

He said at the jail, Schneiders recognized him but “he was definitely different. He was just not with it.”