ST. LOUIS It started as a tale of intrigue. Nobody answered the phone at a small law office in St. Peters. Clients arriving for appointments in late October found an eerie scene: door unlocked, nobody there, computers running, case files on the floor.
The question of where Jeffrey M. Witt had gone was not just curiosity. People who hired him were defaulting on cases because he missed their hearings. He even had settled some clients' cases without their knowledge and took the money.
Nobody seemed to know what had happened to the former Marine and father of five. Looming in the background was that five years before, he helped police catch an ex-client who had planted a bomb that nearly killed a man. And, earlier in 2013, he accused an employee a disbarred attorney of impersonating him, triggering criminal charges.
While clients were left reeling, Witt fled across four continents, living on a shoestring budget and an old friend's largess.
And when he slipped back into the U.S. to visit his one-time fiancee, it was into the waiting arms of the FBI.
The final pieces are falling into place now. Witt, 39, pleaded guilty last month of bank and mail fraud and aggravated identity theft, relating to missing client money and trickery in borrowing against his mother's house without her knowledge. Another lawyer has largely finished unraveling the abandoned clients' cases.
In telephone and jailhouse interviews with the Post-Dispatch, Witt justified his erratic behavior as the product of violence and fear. But some around him describe an emotionally troubled man who just buckled under financial problems and a tumultuous personal life.
Some of Witt's clients lost their houses, criminal cases, civil suits and even custody of their children because of his disappearances, in October and earlier, according to lawyers and lawsuits.
Dawn Upton, 40, of Winfield, said she paid Witt to represent her on burglary and assault charges and that he lied in claiming he had arranged a deal with prosecutors. "I paid him $3,000 and it's just gone," she said.
Pearl Dotson, of St. Charles, asked Witt to look into a hit-and-run that put her in a hospital. Instead, he forged her signature and cashed a settlement check worth about $2,500, she said.
Dotson said Witt was "messed up and confused" in their last phone call. "When he fled, everybody thought he was dead."
A close friend from high school said Witt often spoke of someone threatening him and his children. "And so when he was gone, I assumed that they had finally caught up with him." The friend asked not to be named, fearing a link to Witt could hurt him professionally.
Witt grew up in Creve Coeur in the St. Louis area, attended several colleges and did a stint in the Marines that was cut short by respiratory problems. "Things started going south" when Witt was 21 and his father died, the friend said.
Witt's first marriage failed after just weeks. His second, in 2002, lasted about eight years and produced three children. He has two other children with another woman, Tiffany Smith-Miller, and lived with her.
Battling depression, Witt was hospitalized more than once for Xanax overdoses. At the time, he denied suicidal intentions. But in a recent interview, he admitted that in January 2011, "I was done." He said, "I just took it all ... everything that was in the cabinet."
Smith-Miller said Witt frequently kicked her out of the house, became violent and blamed her for business failures. She called their life together "the merry-go-round from hell."
Kenneth Carp, a lawyer who spent 600 hours trying to straighten out the legal mess, said Witt long had a reputation for missing hearings. He would "champion causes" then drop the ball, Carp said. "From day one he would take people's money and not show up."
Early in 2011, Witt's mental health problems forced him to close his practice for weeks.
He also was getting divorced, facing a series of bar complaints and was under pressure because of his involvement in the bombing investigation, Smith-Miller said.
In 2013 it got even worse.
In June, Smith-Miller left with their children for Colorado.
In September, he arranged for a client to impersonate his mother to obtain a $100,000 line of credit backed by her house, and immediately took $60,000 of it. He confessed to his brother and mother that same day, then doctored documents to falsely claim the loan was canceled.
On Oct. 2, Missouri's Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint alleging Witt missed deadlines, failed to file documents and didn't reveal to clients that one of his employees was an ex-convict and disbarred attorney.
Two weeks later, he was arrested in the St. Louis area for DWI. Witt claimed he had been threatened earlier that day, and impaired by anti-anxiety pills.
That night, his mother went to police about the fraudulent loan.
A week after that, a St. Louis County judge entered a nearly $1 million malpractice judgment against Witt and his office.
By Oct. 24, clients found his office in disarray, and called police. Investigators located him the next day at home near Creve Coeur.
But within five more days, he was gone.
His law license was suspended Dec. 2. Authorities noted that he had 58 open cases in Missouri courts and four in federal courts. Clients had been cast adrift.
In interviews, Witt said his motive to flee was simple: 2 1/2 years of threats and beatings by a man who felt Witt had wronged his mother, a client. The lawyer said he was threatened again on Oct. 28.
"Monday I had a gun to my head," he explained. "Tuesday, I was out of there."
The Post-Dispatch could not reach the man Witt named.
Whatever the reason, Witt said he flew to Chicago and then the Philippines, with little more than a pair of shorts, a pair of shoes, a notebook computer, a pen and less than $4,000.
Unhappy there, Witt soon headed for Australia. He said he obtained credit cards and has no intent to pay the roughly $20,000 he put on them.
Witt said Smith-Miller, his one-time fiancee, was the only person who knew his whereabouts until he asked a lawyer to tell a federal prosecutor he was alive. Witt then told his ex-wife, and the high school friend.
He said he flew to the United Arab Emirates for the prospect of a job but became so worried about how an American ex-Marine would be received that he never left the airport. Then came several weeks in Jordan, followed by a move to Istanbu, via Lebanon, and more job searching. Discouraged, he flew to London, with just $40 left.
In England, Witt said, he lived on proceeds from sale of his laptop computer. His high school friend sent money for several nights at a hostel after Witt said he had spent one night under a highway bridge.
After three or four weeks, he was back in Istanbul about a possible job. People in a mosque took him in; the old friend paid for a hotel.
Witt asked Smith-Miller for money to flee Turkey, which led to a plan to meet in New York for the weekend. Witt said he was unaware he had been indicted. When he arrived March 7, FBI agents were waiting.
Witt was disbarred in June. He pleaded guilty of the federal charges July 25 and faces probably four or five years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 16.
He insisted in a jailhouse interview days before his plea that he took no clients' money for himself: it all went to his tormentor until he finally fled.
Witt told Smith-Miller that the loss of professional stature was the primary reason he left, although he also mentioned threats.
Carp said it made no sense for Witt to stick around so long if he and his children really were threatened. "Because if you're in that much fear, you run," he said, adding that if the kids are in jeopardy, "take them with you."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith, who is prosecuting Witt, would not comment on the claims of beatings and threats.
Witt said he expects to argue in court that his mental health problems and duress from beatings and threats are factors worthy of a shorter sentence.
He lamented that apparently he will get no special consideration for helping authorities in a series of other cases. Indeed, he played a role in alerting investigators to suspicions that a client, Milton "Skip" Ohlsen III, set off a bomb in 2008 that wounded a lawyer in a garage in the St. Louis area.
He said his role was greater than previously disclosed, wearing a "wire" and introducing an Ohlsen accomplice to undercover federal agents.
Goldsmith, the prosecutor, said, "The plea agreement, which is public, does not contemplate any benefit for any cooperation Witt purports to have provided."
Some of Witt's case files are in the hands of other lawyers. Some sit, unclaimed, in storage in Jefferson City. He is still being sued by former clients, but barely has money for toiletries in jail.
Witt said he hopes to join Smith-Miller in Colorado after prison. She said that depends upon whether he can ever regain her trust.
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