I got a call from a police detective in Pennsylvania the other day. He asked if I’d ever written any articles about a Fairfax lawyer named Robert Zaniel. I hadn’t. Then he sent me two articles with my byline on them which appeared to be from the Washington Post Web site, describing the supposed arrest of Zaniel. They were phony cut-and-paste jobs, but not obviously so.
I was flattered to be included in such a ruse. (But remember criminals, all rights ARE reserved.)
Then I learned that these were apparently standard intimidation tactics used by a longtime Fairfax County man named Ronnie Lee Durham, who later changed his name to Ronnie Lee Johnson. In the mid-2000s, he made false charges that caused his wife to be arrested and jailed 10 times and he sent similarly false, accusatory letters to her employers, causing her to be fired. His wife eventually hired Zaniel for her divorce, and after that was concluded, she and Zaniel subsequently won a $1.35 million judgment against Durham in Fairfax for malicious prosecution and defamation.
And now we learn that Durham, 49, has been hiding in Pennsylvania ever since, until his arrest last month for allegedly stealing another man’s identity and apparently planning to flee again to avoid his Fairfax mess.
Then, it wasn’t so flattering to be part of his ruse. And when you talk to the former Terri Durham, you learn about the real damage that was done. She is receiving Social Security disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder, for what she endured from Ronnie Durham. She has not seen her son outside of a courtroom in five years.
And it was her son who turned Ronnie Durham in to the Pennsylvania police.
“All I’ve been through has made me a better person,” said the former Terri Durham, 49, now remarried and living a safe, happy life as Terri Harley. “I learned how having nothing feels.”
Rock bottom came after her 10th arrest when her husband falsely claimed she was abusing him. Because she’d been arrested so many times, no judge would grant her bond, even though every previous charge had been dropped. She spent 17 days in jail, then fled to a battered women’s shelter after the case was dismissed and hid from her husband.
That’s when she hired Zaniel as her lawyer. Terri Harley started to cry talking about how steady and supportive Zaniel had been for her, even as Zaniel began absorbing written and phone abuse from Ronnie Durham.
“This is way beyond just an ugly divorce,” said Zaniel, 59, a family law practitioner for 34 years. “This is in a different universe. There are a lot of crazies out there, but I was real lucky until I ran into this guy. And he wasn’t even my client.”
In April of this year, Zaniel started getting calls from other lawyers about the “article” in The Washington Post, which had been mailed out to them. It does not appear to be online anywhere. Then in May, while he was in court in Warren County, the judge in his case, retired Arlington Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Kendrick sitting as a substitute, asked Zaniel from the bench about his legal troubles, because the judge’s wife had received the “article.”
“This has put a cloud over my reputation and it’s very unfair that’s happened to me,” Zaniel said. “It’s extremely frustrating because there’s no way to prove” who was behind the article, Zaniel said. At least there wasn’t, until it turned up in Durham’s house during a police search last month.
Ronnie Durham, AKA Ronnie Johnson, though allegedly trying to flee the country, was released on bond. (His passports were seized and bank account frozen.) He could not be located for comment.
Ronnie and Terri Durham both grew up in Northern Virginia and met while in high school; Ronnie was at Lee High in Springfield, Terri at Edison High in Franconia.
They married in 1986, and their son Nathan was born in 1989. Terri Durham Harley said her husband graduated with a physics degree from George Mason, became hugely successful and wealthy while working in computers with NASDAQ in the 1990s, and the family returned to Northern Virginia in 2002.
Terri began to take college courses, against her husband’s wishes, she said. She began to realize that what she said was a life of verbal and physical abuse was not normal or acceptable, and began to rebel for the first time.
In 2007, Terri moved out. She said Ronnie Durham became enraged and began to spread malicious lies about her. He obtained a protective order against her, then used it to repeatedly go to Fairfax magistrates and claim that Terri had assaulted or tried to kill him. Warrants were issued on 10 different occasions, but Ronnie Durham would never show up in court to prosecute and the charges were always dismissed.
During her 10th stay in jail, the one where she spent 17 days because no judge would grant her bond, her husband allegedly sent a letter to her law firm, telling them she had committed bank fraud, violent crimes against Ronnie Durham and suffered “rage attacks,” according to Fairfax court records.
“He systematically tried to ruin her,” said Julie Hamilton, a criminal defense lawyer who stepped in each time and helped Terri get out of jail and charges. “He knew how to manipulate people, he was good at it. He made her life a living hell.”
In September 2008, she went into hiding in a battered women’s shelter. Her son stayed with his father. Terri met another man, Andrew Harley, to whom she is now happily married, though Ronnie Durham harassed and filed lawsuits against him too.
At some point in 2009, Ronnie Durham allegedly sent a tax form to the IRS informing them he’d paid his wife $84,000 from his business in 2007 and she had paid no taxes. It took Terri Harley over a year to clear that one up, court records show.
The Durhams’ marriage was dissolved in May 2009. Terri Harley sued her ex-husband for malicious prosecution and defamation two months later in Fairfax Circuit Court. Ronnie Durham AKA Ronnie Johnson [he formally changed his name in Montgomery County in 2007, for reasons unknown] didn’t much respond to the suit, and didn’t show up for the trial in March 2010.
Terri Harley showed up though and testified before Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Lorraine Nordlund. She described abuse and arrests and lost jobs and PTSD. Nordlund ordered Ronnie Durham to pay his ex-wife $485,000 for abuse of process and malicious prosecution, and $850,000 for defamation.
When defendants lose a lawsuit like that, they are required to show up later for a “debtor’s interrogatories,” at which lawyers try to figure out how much money can actually be paid. But Ronnie Durham AKA Ronnie Johnson didn’t show up for that either, so a capias warrant was issued, which Zaniel believes remains outstanding.
Meanwhile, Durham-Johnson and his son moved to Feasterville, Pa., in Bucks County. Ronnie Durham began working in a data center in Langhorne. And it was there that police believe he waded through medical information and found a Ronnie P. Johnson in Mississippi, according to Pennsylvania court records.
He obtained a driver’s license and an identification card in New Jersey as Ronnie P. Johnson, and had filled out a passport application for Ronnie P. Johnson, Detective Eric Landamia of the Lower Southampton Township police wrote. He also already had a passport for Ronnie Lee Durham and a passport for Ronnie Lee Johnson.
“When you have two passports, why apply for a third?” Landamia said the other day. “Unless you’re looking to get out of Dodge.”
On June 1, his son Nathan, now 22, called the Lower Southampton police and asked to meet an officer in a public parking lot somewhere. And then he turned over all his father’s various IDs, the police affidavit said.
Police searched Ronnie Durham-Johnson’s house in Feasterville on June 5 and found numerous documents related to Ronnie P. Johnson of Mississippi, including his birth certificate. Landamia located Ronnie P. Johnson who said he hadn’t given Ronnie Durham-Johnson permission to get a driver’s license or passport in his name. Ronnie Durham-Johnson was arrested and charged with seven fraud-related felonies.
The search of Ronnie Durham’s house also turned up not only two Washington Post articles about his legal nemesis, Zaniel, but also a letter to the League of Women Voters with more derogatory comments about Zaniel. The discovery confirmed Zaniel’s belief that Durham had written the article, which contains no attribution of any of its information, but does invite readers to call the police if they know of more sexual misconduct by Zaniel.
Zaniel is an accomplished divorce lawyer with a seemingly spotless record. He chaired the local bar’s juvenile and domestic relations court committee and won a bar president’s award for his work on the circuit court manual. He has lectured on how to keep clients happy.
“I cringed every time I had to go to court on a motion with this guy,” Zaniel said. “Every time in court, he would call me a liar. ‘Mr. Zaniel has a history of lying to the court,’ in front of all my colleagues. I didn’t have anyone in my life that disliked me so much. I’ve never been sued or complained against. It’s been stressful for me.”
Terri Harley said her ex-husband sent anonymous letters to employers or family of numerous other people who angered him, including a police officer and his own sister.
Landamia said Nathan Durham turned on his father because Ronnie Durham allegedly was trying to transfer ownership of his house on Janelle Street in Franconia to his son, to keep it away from Terri Harley. “He didn’t want any part of his name being forged,” Landamia said.
Terri Harley said her son is a victim of Ronnie Durham-Johnson, though she doesn’t like that word, “victim.” She is worried about him, devastated that she hasn’t seen him in five years.
“I don’t see life or my ex or our life together through a victim’s perspective,” Terri Harley said. “It’s critical to understanding and, ultimately, the healing process.” She said doctors are amazed at her resilience and resolve “after the number of years of serious abuse with which I lived.”
Resilience and resolve are good qualities to have. By doing what Nathan Durham did last month, “It appears my son carries them as well,” Terri Harley said.