The Split from Hell

Vinson v. Vinson: It'll be a cold day in Hades before you see another divorce trial this bizarre

Riveting plot lines and unforgettable scenes — enough to fill a miniseries — made the recent eleven-day divorce trial of Ray and Deanna Vinson something courthouse observers will be buzzing about for months to come.

There were accusations of misleading the president of the United States and lurid accounts of a bleary-eyed Ray Vinson, flanked by security guards, being rolled out of a Las Vegas hotel in a wheelchair. There was talk of dirt-digging private eyes crisscrossing the nation, a Maplewood cop receiving a bribe and a living-room sofa being tossed into a swimming pool. And, oh yes, there was the spiteful custody battle over Bogey, the couple's beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Deanna Vinson was cast as a brittle and fearful CEO, losing all judgment after falling in love with her bodyguard, who once claimed to have thrown a man into a sleeping volcano. Ray Vinson was portrayed as a hard-drinking philanderer whose high-pitched voice helped create an empire known as American Equity Mortgage.

Rick Sealock
Ray Vinson in happier times, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 
Ray Vinson in happier times, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton.

On it went, from sagas of infidelity to tales of lavish lifestyles: $100,000 diamond earrings, private jets and a membership at the exclusive Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach.

There were schemes to paint "Lesbian CEO" on the side of the company's headquarters, unfounded allegations that Ray Vinson ran a prostitution ring. And according to the testimony of a company receptionist, Vinson once placed his erect penis on her shoulder following a casual conversation about the glories of drag racing.

You can't make this stuff up.

The trial began on Valentine's Day in Division 5 of the St. Louis County Circuit courthouse in Clayton. Ray and Deanna never had children together; the baby they're fighting over is American Equity Mortgage, the Maryland Heights-based firm they founded with a few thousand dollars on April Fool's Day fourteen years ago. The company has grown to 45 branches in 26 states and last year made some $3 billion worth of home-equity and bill-consolidation loans.

Over the past eighteen months, the estranged couple has spent a combined $2 million on some of the city's top litigators and nearly $3 million on cunning private eyes. Repeated attempts at a settlement never came to pass.

At one end of a walnut table sat Ray Vinson, a slight, 55-year-old man who wears a brown toupee, a gold pinky ring and vivid blue-and-purple ties that droop below his beltline. Throughout the trial, he often slouched in his seat, fiddling with a pen and twitching his leg. If he caught the eye of an acquaintance, he invariably flashed a smile and a wink.

At the end of another table sat demure-looking Deanna Vinson, her athletic body wrapped in conservative blazers with shoulder pads, turtlenecks and skirts that landed right above her knees. The vanity plate on her Champagne-colored Mercedes sedan reads: QUEEEN. During rigorous cross-examination, a hint of a smile sometimes appeared on her face, as if she were enjoying the challenge. On the stand, she only offered what was required of her.

They told their stories to Circuit Judge Michael Burton, a relaxed and thoughtful jurist, who didn't raise his voice once during the blusterous proceedings.

Representing Deanna was Allan Zerman, considered one of the top divorce attorneys in the nation, an Alan King look-alike who each morning arrived at the courthouse in a black topcoat and a matching fedora. The gray-bearded veteran of the Ozzie Smith and Karen Foss divorce proceedings teamed with fellow Zerman & Mogerman partner James Carmody, a suave, handsome man with a wry sense of humor and a twinkle in his eyes.

Ray retained three members of the Bryan Cave law firm, headed by tall, imposing former U.S. Attorney Edward Dowd, who assisted former U.S. Senator John Danforth as deputy special counsel in the federal probe that followed the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Rounding out the team was James Bennett, a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Lee Marshall, a young associate and former editor of the Washington University Law Quarterly.

"We view this as a business case," explained Marshall. "There are other things surrounding it, but mainly it's about the formation of the business."

The trial, though, was barely under way before it became evident that rehashing the corrosive scenes of a failed marriage would overshadow the machinations of the mortgage business.

During her testimony the 42-year-old Deanna painted a humiliating portrait of the man she once adored. Under questioning by Carmody, she recounted a February 1999 discussion with Ray about his future role at the company.

"I had told him he could no longer come into the office," she said. "And he agreed."

"Had someone informed you of an incident that occurred between Ray and an employee?"

"Yes." She then went on to relay a conversation with one of her managers, who told her of an accusation against Ray.

"I said to him that I was told that he had had [the employee] come to his office, and that he was making sexual comments to her and exposed himself to her, and his response was, 'I know I did and it's getting out of hand.'"

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