It was a big claim for small-claims court: "I think he killed his wife." The words reverberated through a near-empty justice of the peace court last Thursday, providing an odd new twist in the case of Sharon Davis, an Oak Cliff schoolteacher who disappeared nearly two years ago and is still missing.
Davis' husband, lawyer and political activist Ron Davis, was in Judge Luis Sepulveda's court suing lawyer Cheryl Wattley for the work she did representing him in the case last year. Davis says Wattley owed him a refund of part of the $10,000 retainer he had paid her, something between $1,500 and $4,700.
The money dispute was low-budget, but with the attorney-client privilege between Davis and Wattley stripped away, new information emerged from the witness stand about Davis and his concerns about being investigated in his wife's disappearance.
Sharon Davis was last seen on June 13, 2001, two days after she had filed to end her 21-year marriage.
Wattley's attorney, Russell Wilson, told the jury he believes Davis killed his wife and should be thanking Wattley for her work. "The fact is if he hadn't paid Miss Wattley, he might be in prison today instead of in a suit," Wilson said. "You can believe he wasn't all calm and cool then. Why did he hire an attorney? Because he committed a crime, that's why. So he played the criminal system to his favor, and now he's trying to play the civil system to his favor."
Davis, who represented himself, responded, "The police have never once intimated that I did anything. They never once said I did anything."
Davis, who has consistently denied any involvement in his wife's disappearance, is an uncooperative witness in a missing persons case, not a suspect in a criminal matter, Dallas police say. Citing his privilege as a lawyer, Davis has declined to provide a detailed alibi for his whereabouts on the morning his wife disappeared and has given a variety of theories to the media and the couple's two children about where she is now. (See the Dallas Observer cover story "The Reluctant Witness," July 18, 2002.)
Wattley, who Davis hired eight days after his wife vanished, described for the court how she worked to make Davis appear to be cooperating with authorities, while actually not. For instance, she said, she agreed to a police request for Davis to be polygraphed, then asked for the questions in advance. "I knew that would be unacceptable," she said. "But you can't say he refused to take a polygraph."
Also, she testified that Davis told her he was concerned the matter might spark other investigations into tax evasion and money laundering. "I think you were," she told Davis when he pressed the issue during his cross-examination.
Davis runs a tax-exempt nonprofit, the Dallas Economic Development Corp., through which he pays himself, federal records show. He has been self-employed since 1992, when he left his job as a Dallas code enforcement supervisor and began collecting disability payments for what he claimed was a psychological disorder following an on-the-job mugging.
Davis paid Wattley in cash, according to testimony last week, and told police that his wife had taken between $10,000 and $25,000 in cash from their house when she disappeared. Asked by Wattley's attorney whether he was involved in transactions designed to avoid taxes or other reporting requirements, Davis said, "There are people who like to deal in cash...Someone gives money to me to give to someone else. I distribute the money. I distribute money all the time."
In his final arguments, Davis said, "There was no testimony whatsoever about money laundering. I have cash. Do you realize how many people have cash all the time? I have been working all my life. I deserve to have cash."
Wattley, who says she did not know Davis very well when she took him on as a client, says she quit representing Davis last June, around the first anniversary of Sharon Davis' disappearance.
She says she gave an interview to a TV reporter in which she said Davis clung to hope that his wife was still alive and that he and his children were praying for her return. Davis took strong issue with her comments, she says. Instead, he wanted her to paint his ex-wife as mentally ill, or on mood-altering drugs. "He wanted me to say a lot of negative things, and I refused to do that," Wattley says.
Davis, who hired Wattley without drawing up a contract, told the jury he sent her a flurry of letters last June and July "asking for an accounting" and then a demand letter.
His subsequent lawsuit backfired in more ways than one.
While Davis quibbled about money, Wattley's attorney rummaged through various unflattering chapters in Davis' life in an attempt to show him as angry, petty, vindictive and unbelievable. "Mr. Davis is not a reputable person," Wilson told jurors, who apparently agreed.
Although Wattley asked for nothing in the case, the six-member jury came back to rule in her favor and awarded her $1,558, which was the minimum Davis had said he was due.
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Later, Wattley said she found the whole exercise to be bizarre and not the kind of thing she would have advised Davis to do were she still giving him legal counsel. "I wouldn't have been there," she says.
Davis, who has declined all interview requests from the Observer, did not return several calls this week.
Wilson says he was amazed that Davis would take such a minor matter to court given what could be at stake. Still, he says, little was learned about where Sharon Davis might be.
"There was no confession," Wilson said. "There's still no body, and as I pointed out to the jury...still no tears from Ron Davis."