LAS VEGAS – As a family court judge in Reno, Chuck Weller decides who gets the children, who pays child support and who gets visitation rights. Because of that, a lot of people have it in for him.
Police think one of them, Darren Roy Mack, was so mad that he shot Weller in the chest as the judge stood near a third-floor courthouse window Monday.
Mack, a pawn shop owner who was awaiting a custody hearing in Weller's courtroom in September, is accused of stabbing his estranged wife to death and is also a suspect in the sniper attack. Weller, 53, remained hospitalized in good condition, and a nationwide manhunt for Mack was under way Wednesday.
To some, the shooting was no surprise in the highly volatile world of family law.
"They're always going to be unpopular with somebody anytime you've got two parents disputing who should have custody of their children and one parent wins and one parent loses," said Multnomah County, Oregon, Circuit Court Judge Dale Koch, president-elect of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Some cases, he said, are "just tragedies waiting to happen."
Before the shooting, Weller was vilified on several Web sites critical of family court judges. He was called Hitler, a bully, abusive. Numerous postings complained that he makes decisions before he hears cases, is unsympathetic and rules like a tyrant. Fathers, in particular, were harsh, with one labeling him the worst judge in America.
One person wrote: "I am not sure monster describes him accurately. Judge Chuck Weller in my belief suffers from `God complex' and possibly other things as well."
Ken McKenna, a fellow lawyer who has known Weller for more than 20 years, described Weller as an efficient, no-nonsense judge, and said some people mistake those qualities for brusqueness or harshness.
McKenna suggested that the resentment comes with the job. He called family law the most volatile, emotional area of law.
"People's lives are being affected to the core of their beings," he said. "Mothers are being taken away from the children. Children are being taken away from their fathers. People tend to lose their reasonableness and they act irrational. It is a very scary situation."
No group keeps national statistics on the number of threats and attacks against judges. After the husband and mother of a federal judge were shot to death in Chicago in 2005 and a judge in Atlanta was killed the next month, the center, along with the National Sheriff's Association, suggested a national database on threats be set up. (Neither murder case involved matters of family law.)
Legislation pending in Congress would provide funding for bulletproof windows, something the Reno courthouse did not have, more security personnel and other improvements at courthouses around the country.
Koch said judges in his court sometimes ask for escorts to and from their vehicles.
"I still to this day remember a case where I decided against a person who never made any direct threats toward me, but the level of hate mail I was receiving, I still think about that person every time I go out and get in my car," Koch said.
Garret Idle went before Weller in 2005 seeking to increase his visitation time with his two children. Instead, he said, the judge slammed him for more child support and did not listen to any of his concerns about his son and daughter.
"Weller is very abusive. He's a monster," Idle, 48, said. "He's destroyed everything I've worked for."
Idle said that he met Mack at a support group for noncustodial parents and that the two would talk about how unfair they thought the judge was. Mack was upset at having to pay a lot of child support, Idle said.
"He's been going to court for a year and he got the extreme royal shaft" from Weller, Idle said. "He said he had to file Chapter 7 [bankruptcy] because he was getting nailed."
Police believe that Mack, a 45-year-old father of three and owner of a jewelry store and pawn shop a few blocks from the courthouse, fired with a rifle from a parking across the Truckee River two blocks away — the distance of at least three football fields.
Weller, a married father of two daughters, graduated from Georgetown University's law school in 1978 and moved to Reno in 1982. He entered private practice and mostly handled divorce and custody cases. He hosted a legal advice program for a few years on the radio and wrote a legal column for the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Weller was elected as one of four family court judges in Reno in 2004, saying he was a good communicator who could help move families through the legal system.
The state Commission on Judicial Discipline accepts complaints on judges but does not publicly acknowledge them unless it acts upon them. The commission has not acted against Weller.
But Idle has had enough of Weller and said he isn't sympathetic.
"I think karma finally came back to bite him," Idle said. "Hopefully Weller will have a change of heart in the way he deals with human beings."