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Case of John Michael Farren seen as refresher course on domestic violence

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; C01

NEW CANAAN, CONN. -- The gate to 855 Weed St. is always open, and the driveway curves invitingly toward a cheerful Cape Cod. But what mattered to Mary Margaret Farren in the darkness of Jan. 6 was that lights were on inside.

The 43-year-old lawyer swung the BMW into the drive of a family she didn't know, leaned on the horn, pounded on the front door. When it opened, she collapsed, bleeding, in the airy stillness of a New Canaan foyer.

"She made several remarks implying that she did not think she was going to live," New Canaan police Sgt. Louis Gannon noted in his report. Summoned by the owners of the house on Weed Street, the officer found Farren on her side, inside the front door of the dumbfounded family's house, shivering and pale under a pile of blankets in an expanding pool of blood.

She said her husband had tried to kill her, first with his hands, then with a metal flashlight, according to the police report. She said his plan was to kill her and then himself. She said that he was still at home, a mile away, and that there was a gun somewhere in the house.

The sergeant relayed the information to the squad cars screaming toward the house she had fled. And so what appeared before J. Michael Farren a year after leaving the White House were four police officers, two with shotguns, one with an assault rifle, one with a shield held across the other three, advancing toward the $4 million home of a man last employed as deputy counsel to the president of the United States.

Mike Farren came out with his hands up. After he was handcuffed, the officers photographed the blood on the floor of the master bedroom, where his wife said he erupted over divorce papers that would cite "long-term verbal, emotional and, in at least one instance, physical abuse."

They photographed ligature marks around Mike Farren's neck that matched the pattern of his braided belt. They photographed blood on his hands.

"He said to me, 'I am killing you' as he was strangling me," Mary Farren wrote in an affidavit from her hospital bed, private guards posted in the corridor. "Based on my husband's past associations and resources, I will need enhanced personal security measures, including but not limited to bodyguards, for a substantial period of time."

The statement was filed with a motion intended to prevent her husband, charged with attempted murder and strangulation, from making bail a Superior Court judge had set at $2 million.

"That's a lot of money," said Leroy Webber, a bail bondsman at the courthouse in Stamford, seven miles and a world away. In New Canaan (median household income: $178,000), a woman in jodhpurs and jacket can be seen on Main Street on a weekday afternoon. Mike Farren could easily write a check for $2 million, his wife said, when she sued him for $30 million, in part to prevent him from making bail.

"His past associations with people of power, wealth and influence," she wrote, reinforced her fear that Farren would find a way out of jail, and "facing the possibility of being incarcerated for the rest of his life, may take the children and run."

Working-class upbringing

Forty years before he lived in a house with a remote-control gate, John Michael Farren lived in a two-family home on Walnut Street in Naugatuck, Conn. His mother was a nurse, his father a police captain who had died when Michael was young.

"Just an Irish Catholic cop, brought his kids up in Naugatuck," said Ellenor Rohfritch, Michael Farren's sister, describing a working-class upbringing in a company town. "We grew up with U.S. Rubber Company. Everybody's mom and dad worked."

Rohfritch drove up from West Hartford in the early hours of Jan. 7 to collect Grady, the family's Havanese. Rohfritch's daughter had already taken the two girls whom Mary-Margaret had pulled from their beds when she fled the house. The 7-year-old was in pajamas in the back seat. The baby, 4 months old, lay on the passenger seat.

"I wake up in the morning, it's a 'Twilight Zone,' " Rohfritch said. "Our hearts will never get around it. You hope your head will."

Her brother went to Fairfield University, a nearby Jesuit school, graduating in 1972, the year a Republican state lawmaker named Ronald Sarasin was making a run for Congress. Michael Farren asked him for a job.

"He had an interest in politics, and had just gotten out of college and was interested enough to, rather than go out for a real job, work with us in the campaign," said Sarasin, who hired Farren as his driver, and upon winning, made him his district representative, the member's eyes on the ground of the 5th District.

For a career in politics, Mike Farren got a master's in public policy and studied law at nights. He made the move to Washington in 1981, the start of the Reagan Revolution, and earned his stripes at the Republican National Committee before landing at the Commerce Department, where another Connecticut Yankee, Malcolm Baldrige, was in charge.

Commerce people did well when Vice President George H.W. Bush took the White House: Farren was a deputy in the transition team, then won a plum job as Commerce undersecretary for international trade. When Bush ran for reelection, Farren became deputy campaign manager under George Teeter.

"He was more of a Washington Republican, I think, than a Connecticut Republican," Sarasin said, drawing a distinction.

Putting down roots, Farren bought a rowhouse on the Third Street SE, so close to the Capitol that neighbors today count three members of Congress within five doors. With his pick of jobs after Clinton beat Bush, he went to work as staff lobbyist for Xerox.

"He was a hot commodity," said a friend of two decades, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his employer disapproves of publicity. "His powers of analysis and memory are astounding. He's somebody who can remember a fact from 20 years ago and how it relates to policy both then and now.

"Having said that, he definitely was -- is -- a very intense guy. Had a temper. He could get extremely angry, in a way that would stand out from other people."

"I work in politics," the friend said, when asked to elaborate. "There's a lot of swearing. It's a general part of the day. And this was unique."

On a Saturday in May 1997, at the age of 44, Farren married Mary Margaret Scharf, then 31, "a very chipper, upbeat, happy person who is also a very meticulous lawyer," said the friend. "Both of them are very meticulous, organized people." She was a lawyer, too, also out of the University of Connecticut but raised in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a management consultant and a school nurse. An associate at Steptoe and Johnson at the time, Mary Margaret Farren would later specialize in energy regulation at Skadden, Arps, representing private utilities before a federal board.

Colleagues remember thinking Mike Farren had done very well for himself. The wedding was at St. Peter's Catholic, not far from the townhouse.

"To me, he was very jovial, interesting to talk to, because of the job he had at the Commerce Department," said Jim Goldschmidt, a neighbor who as a business editor at the McClatchy (then Knight-Ridder) Washington bureau would try in vain to coax details on Japanese trade deals out of Farren. "I'll put it this way: He was down-to-earth. Some guys, when they reach a certain position, they get haughty."

Goldschmidt recalled last seeing Mary Margaret supervising a kitchen remodeling effort, during maternity leave after the birth of their first girl seven years ago. "I never saw any evidence that they had any trouble at all," Goldschmidt said.

In addition to the Capitol Hill townhouse, the Farrens also had a second, bigger home, in Edgewater, Md., in a gated community overlooking the South River, outside Annapolis. Neighbors say Xerox bought the house when they moved home to Connecticut in 2004. Mike had been named general counsel, overseeing all legal affairs for a $15 billion multinational headquartered in Norwalk.

The place they bought in New Canaan was bigger still: 388 Wahackme Rd. runs 9,500 square feet, a five-bedroom, seven-bath pile tucked well away even by local standards. The iron gate separates its private driveway from the private road that runs from Wahackme.

"But you know what?" said Sue Delaney, who counsels victims of domestic violence in the area. "Nobody can hear you scream."

'Only the furniture' is different

Of the support groups operated by the area Domestic Violence Crisis Center, the one staff calls "the 2.5 Group" is made up of women living on parcels of at least 2 1/2 acres. The residential zoning accounts for a landscape of woods, stately homes and winding roads that come together so pleasantly a motorist can drive 45 minutes looking for an address without feeling the faintest anxiety.

And yet, when center director Rachelle Kucera Mehra talked to groups of 25 or 30 in New Canaan, more than a quarter of the women approached her afterward to report either growing up in a violent household or having left a violent relationship.

"That was staggering," she said. "I've never had that percent seek me out."

Attorneys for Mary Margaret Farren did not return a reporter's calls. Colleagues at Skadden Arps repeated the firm's instructions to turn aside media inquiries. But advocates for battered women in southeastern Connecticut spoke of the Farren case as a refresher on the lesson first taught a quarter-century ago, when 6-foot-10-inch John Fedders lost the Security and Exchange Commission chairmanship after his wife, Charlotte, described an 18-year marriage of tyranny and beatings.

"Whether you're in a 2.5 or in subsidized housing, the dynamic is surely the same," Delaney said. "It's only the furniture that's different."

They have stories.

"There was this dentist, when they went out to dinner she could only look down at her plate or at him," Delaney said. "And she was only allowed to chew her food a certain way."

"We've had guys put GPS's in their wives' car" to track their days," she said. One sneaked into the basement, using a baby monitor to eavesdrop on the house he'd left.

"Domestic violence," said Kucera Mehra, "is about power and control."

There's no shortage of either here. With a population of 19,000, New Canaan has a town budget of $100 million. It has a municipal health and human services department, with five full-time employees. In October, purple ribbons on lapels mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

But isolation comes as easily as community. And Connecticut is one of only five states that does not fund shelters around the clock.

"I've been here for 50 years and I don't know anybody on my street anymore," said Genevieve Radtke, 90, who like most moved from New York City, an hour's drive away. "I only see them driving in their car and their cars have black windows. That's the way it is here."

Said her friend Delores Klein, 67: "That's one of the things people buy for is that issue of privacy. If you want to get involved, you can. If you don't want to get involved, you're left alone."

In Connecticut, Mary Margaret Farren worked from home. For the last year, her husband was there, too. Mike Farren had left Xerox in June 2007 and joined the White House of George W. Bush. He was a deputy to Fred Fielding, with an office in the West Wing and oversight of two dozen lawyers in the Eisenhower Office Building next door.

In an office frantically busy as a matter of routine, handling every legal issue that can come before a president, a half dozen lawyers were hired for Bush's final year, as subpoenas rained in from Hill Democrats who smelled blood in the unusual dismissal of seven U.S. attorneys. None would be interviewed.

"It's not a political hot potato," said Amy Dunathan, who was an associate counsel. "It's not that. It's only personal. What do you do when a colleague, who you really liked and respected . . . I can't really put it into words. We're truly shocked to our cores."

One White House colleague remembered Farren as sensitive to lawyers' morale, but also rigidly preoccupied with hierarchy and the process he was charged with overseeing.

"When I saw him get really, really mad at people, it was if people didn't show the proper deference to the hierarchy," said the colleague, who asked not to be identified because of the notoriety of the Farren case.

"I never saw anybody at the White House get as mad at his secretaries and assistants. It was very unusual. He would raise his voice very high and get red-faced. He would gesticulate a lot."

Farren left before the election, returning to Connecticut and the personal fortune accumulated while at Xerox. The second baby, Elizabeth, was born in September. Mary Margaret was at the home of a friend, police wrote, when the process-server notified her husband Jan. 4, a Monday.

"I could no longer remain married and live in a marital relationship where I was in a state of almost constant anxiety as a result of the Defendant's temper, volatility and personality," she later wrote.

It's unclear whether the couple saw each other before that Wednesday night, when, according to police accounts, Mike Farren said he wanted her to drop the proceedings and stay together. She said she could not. He walked toward her.

When she said, "Do not approach me," he "exploded in rage," she told police. She has flowing brunette hair. Her husband pulled out "gobs" of it, she said. She said he threw her across the room and began hitting her with a metal flashlight. On the floor, she passed out for a time, she told police, and went briefly blind when he strangled her.

Then she remembered the alarm button on the security system, which automatically summoned police.

"Don't hit the alarm button," Mike Farren warned, according to the police account. When she managed to do so, "he went nuts" at the sound, she reported. Again, the flashlight.

At this point, according to the affidavit, she pleaded with him to stop, saying they could work it out. He paused for a moment, she wrote, then decided: "You're just saying that because you're scared."

Mike Farren then announced he was going to slit his wrists, his wife said. She told police he took a kitchen knife into the bathroom and made an effort to get her in as well. Instead she scrambled to her daughter's room screaming, "Daddy's trying to kill me," got the startled barefoot girl and her infant sister down to the garage, into the BMW sedan and past the gate.

The bloody BMW keys were photographed as evidence. So was Mary Margaret's lacerated face, broken nose, broken jaw, bruised arms, legs, torso. In an image now attached to the divorce action, she leans forward in the emergency room, the entire chair behind her black with blood. Police ended the interview the second time she began vomiting blood.

"Generally in the more affluent areas, the level of violence is far more severe," said Kucera Mehra, who emphasized that owing to confidentiality obligations she was discussing not the Farren case, but the rationale commonly passed on by women stunned to find themselves in a shelter:

" 'I'm a professional. I'm highly educated. I have a family, an extended family, a social life, career. And I have figured this out,' " she said they say.

" 'I'm aware of this level of control that's been part of my life, but I've felt that I can manage that. I'm going to make this relationship work. I've made everything work before.' "

The judge cut the victim's request in half, moving $15 million beyond her husband's reach. He remains in Garner Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Newtown.

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