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Candidate denies abuse allegations

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002

CLEARWATER -- Public defender Chris Yeazell, trying to unseat longtime Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb, was accused by his ex-wife during a bitter divorce of battering and intimidating her -- charges that were never proven and that Yeazell denies.

Yeazell, 40, of St. Petersburg, was never charged with battery, and a judge later dismissed three domestic violence injunctions his former wife filed against him during their divorce. She later pleaded no contest to a charge of filing a false police report in one abuse allegation. A no contest plea means a defendant neither admits nor denies guilt.

The allegations, including claims that Yeazell broke ex-wife Lisa Yeazell Williams' nose in 1993, were repeated frequently by Williams and considered by a judge as he prepared a ruling. They were never supported in court, and the judge ruled the claims would not have an effect on his findings.

"Chris hit me in the face," Williams testified in a 1998 deposition. "I covered up and protected Chris, and I said I had a car accident ... Then I said that Chris, I don't remember exactly what I said. He punched me in the nose or hit me in the nose."

She said she lied to an investigator, telling him she was in a car crash, to protect Yeazell's job as a public defender.

Yeazell said Friday that all allegations of abuse are false. The 1993 injury his wife suffered was in fact the result of a minor car accident, and she began making allegations of abuse only when the couple hit a rocky period in their marriage and considered separation. After they reconciled, the allegations didn't surface again until 1998 when divorce proceedings began.

"It was made clear to me, if I fought for custody of the children, these allegations would be made," Yeazell said.

Cobb said he did not intend to bring up the allegations in his bid to retain the Dade City judgeship he has held since 1977. But if any were to be true, he said, they would not reflect well on a judge.

Yeazell's extensive divorce file is packed with claims and counterclaims as the couple fought for custody of their two young daughters. Yeazell alleged Williams ran into him with her van when he tried to pick up the children for visitation. He said he required treatment at a hospital for a knee injury.

He asked police to investigate. She filed a domestic violence injunction.

No charges were filed, and the injunction was dismissed.

She filed another injunction, claiming he grabbed her arm, and included a photograph of bruises on her upper right arm.

"I feel my life is in danger when (Yeazell) becomes angry, especially after drinking alcohol. He has become violent in the past, including pushing, shoving, body blocking and breaking my nose," Williams wrote in her injunction request, which was dismissed.

Yeazell filed his own domestic violence injunction, claiming Williams was endangering their daughters. With it, he filed a photo of one daughter's cheek, with an area of apparent bruises circled in ink.

"Lisa Yeazell (Williams) has engaged in an escalating pattern of violence and abuse directed toward me as well as our children," Chris Yeazell wrote in his injunction request in January 1999. "Her deteriorating mental condition -- as well as her threats -- would suggest that concern for future harm is warranted."

That injunction also was dismissed.

Each time, a judge indicated there was not enough evidence to continue.

Yeazell's divorce attorney, William Bennett, said the allegations were frustrating in that many were made over periods when the couple was alone and there would be no witnesses to counter or support the claims.

"Those allegations came one after the other," Bennett said. "There's just no defending it, how do you prove a negative?"

In one instance, where Williams called for police claiming Yeazell struck her at their children's preschool, witnesses did not support her version, and she was charged in August 2000 with filing a false police report. Court records show she pleaded no contest in March 2001.

Circuit Judge Walt Logan, in a report entered into the court file, found that the couple, while intelligent and successful on their own, simply could not get along.

He called it "finely honed animosity."

Efforts to reach Williams late Friday were unsuccessful.

Yeazell said Friday he was eventually pleased to have liberal visitation rights, which include three weekends a month, plus some weekday time, as well as weeks in the summer. He said he thinks the experience would make him a better judge.

With the divorce hearings winding down this year, Yeazell filed a motion to have Logan remove himself from the case because he might run against him. The judge stepped aside, and two months later Yeazell filed paperwork to run against Cobb, 66.

Yeazell said he filed that request out of an abundance of caution after word got out that he was going to run for a judgeship, and Logan was up for reelection. The topic came up at a Florida Bar function, and a friend blurted out Logan's name with the judge a few feet away.

Bennett advised Yeazell it would be best to have his case before a judge not up for reelection this year.

-- Chase Squires covers courts in east Pasco and Dade City news. He can be reached at (352) 521-5757, ext. 27, or toll free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 27. His e-mail address is squires@sptimes.com.

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