Amateur Sleuthing Lands Grisham in Real-Life Court

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007

He's a lawyer. He's a best-selling author. Now he's The Client.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled yesterday that John Grisham must face a jury for his actions in a real-life whodunit.

Grisham, author of "The Pelican Brief," "The Firm" and "The Runaway Jury," among other bestsellers, lives outside Charlottesville. His son attended the private St. Anne's-Belfield School, where he played baseball for Alan Swanson, the head coach. Grisham and Swanson became friends, according to court papers, and Grisham is on the school's board of trustees.

In 1996, Swanson's wife, Donna Swanson, began receiving harassing anonymous letters, which included allegations that her husband was cheating on her, according to the ruling. Grisham also received an anonymous letter.

In 1998, according to a lawsuit, "Grisham was intrigued by the idea of trying to 'get to the bottom' of who was writing them, and he decided to play amateur detective."

Grisham and the Swansons targeted another St. Anne's parent, Katharine Almy of Charlottesville, who has three children.

Grisham and the Swansons took the letters to a handwriting expert, who told them that he needed more samples.

Both sides agree that Grisham and Alan Swanson then obtained enrollment and medical release forms from the school filled out by Almy and stamped "strictly confidential." They provided the forms to the handwriting expert, who issued a report saying the letters "possibly" were written by Almy, the lawsuit states.

Grisham provided the expert's report and the letters to the Albemarle County police, and a detective visited Almy. The lawsuit states that she was horrified that she was being investigated and repeatedly denied writing the letters. The detective reportedly told her to stop writing the letters. The lawsuit says that Almy provided handwriting samples to another examiner, who cleared her, and that she passed a polygraph test.

But Almy alleges that she was devastated by the accusations and the investigation. And when she later found out that forms had been taken from school for use in the investigation, she was further humiliated.

Almy was on the board of directors of a support group for victims of domestic abuse, the lawsuit says, and led weekly meetings and coordinated services for victims.

In 2000, even as the letters kept coming, Almy sued Grisham and the Swansons for intentional infliction of emotional distress. She withdrew the suit in 2003 but refiled it in 2004. A year later, Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge William R. Shelton threw it out, saying the case had no merit.

Almy appealed. And yesterday, in an opinion written by Justice Barbara Milano Keenan, the high court ruled that Shelton was wrong for judging the case on its merits. The defense motion to dismiss the case should have been evaluated strictly on whether Almy had enough legal basis to get the case to trial, Keenan wrote, determining that Almy's claims of severe distress and depression were sufficient.

No one answered the phone at Grisham's home yesterday. His attorney, Thomas Albro, said the author "had no intention of causing this woman any emotional distress or harm. It is clear from the evidence . . . that everything he did was in good faith and was designed to find out who was sending the harassing letters." The Swansons' attorney did not return a call.

Bernard J. DiMuro, Almy's attorney, said that the story "could have come directly out of one of Mr. Grisham's novels" and that Almy "became the victim and wrongful target of a Barney Fife-style investigation instigated by Mr. Grisham and the Swansons that tarnished her reputation in the community while inflicting severe emotional distress."

The cliffhanger? The author of the letters. That remains a mystery.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company