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Like a lot of divorced parents, Susan Zaratti prepared for one of the bleaker moments of the yule season last December: relinquishing her seven-year-old son for the required Christmas visitation days with his father, her ex.
She was 24 when she fell in love in 1995 with C. Tom Zaratti, a veteran criminal defense attorney 27 years her senior. The lawyer with the dramatic shoulder-length sweeps of midnight-black hair arranged their wedding for Vegas -- he was a regular player at Caesar's Palace. Then the bright lights quickly gave way to a harsher reality. Eleven months later, they separated, only weeks before she gave birth to the boy.
Divorce didn't distance her from Zaratti or their differences. Bitter years of custody strife were continuing. By the end of last year, Tom Zaratti had managed to obtain a court order to cut his $900 monthly child support obligations nearly in half. When she had failed to release the boy for visitation once, he had her found in contempt of court. He was adamant about being with his son.
Their history made the Christmas Eve that much stranger. Susan Zaratti and the boy waited and waited. Her ex-husband never showed up. Internal alarms went off. She started checking and calling -- acquaintances and even hospitals. She finally traced him to the Harris County jail. But it only added to the expanding mysteries about this man she thought she had known so well.
"I was stunned at what I found out later," she says. "I had no idea of what had been happening for so long."
For outsiders to the justice system, Tom Zaratti could cultivate some of the glamour associated with the practice of criminal law. He'd headed to the courthouse and never looked back after gaining his law degree from Texas Southern University in 1975. Records have been purged of his legal name change in 1983, but its purpose was apparently to jettison a birth name of Cayetano Zarate for the more Italianesque Zaratti.
More recently, he underwent LASIK surgery and surrendered his long black tresses to short hair dyed yellow-blond, prompting other lawyers to playfully tease the 59-year-old about his locks.
But the efforts at flamboyance contrasted with his frugality as well as reality. Despite the image, he'd maintained his office in his modest Sharpstown-area home. Zaratti had established himself as little more than another longtime lawyer making a career from hustling clients amid the crowds of defendants drawn into courthouse hallways. Rather than high-profile or high-dollar defenses, he carved a living out of the bulk business of cases like drunk driving, theft, assault or gun or drug possession.
There were a couple of scraps with the state's Commission on Lawyer Discipline along the way.
A 1995 commission complaint outlined one tiff. He'd agreed to represent a defendant in court; the man got another lawyer and routinely pleaded out to a DWI before Zaratti showed up. When Zaratti did arrive, he allegedly displayed a tape recorder, said he had taped the guy agreeing to have him as a lawyer -- and threatened to have the man charged with perjury unless he was hired. So the guy paid him a $100 fee, even though his case was over.
Two years later, another complaint alleged that Zaratti tried to sign up a couple in court, then began disparaging the attorney they had already hired. The commission quoted him as telling them the competitor wasn't even certified in criminal law (neither is Zaratti, for that matter) and could do nothing for them. He argued to them that "he had more clients and made more money" than she did, the complaint stated.
Both complaints against him were later nonsuited by the state, with nothing in the files to reflect the reason for the dismissals.
Some lawyers describe him as a friendly journeyman practitioner, reasonably competent in his limited arena. Others say he's one of those attorneys who demean the profession.
The D.A.'s office once briefly closed off misdemeanor files to him until he apologized for berating a young prosecutor, and some peers say his credibility is thin among the prosecutorial ranks.
"Tom makes a good show for his clients," says one attorney. "He wants to be their 'knight,' but sometimes that good show is acting like a jerk to a prosecutor. It might impress a client, but it isn't going to get them a decent deal with the state."
That confrontational style has bemused his peers, but it took on a much harder edge when it came to his own custody battle.
The sheer size of the Zarattis' divorce decree -- 26 pages -- demonstrated the complicated pact hammered out in 1996.
Susan would get temporary support of $1,000 monthly until the birth of the child, which turned out to be a single month's payment. Tom would provide for the medical expenses for the delivery and the child, and pay $900 a month in support after that.
Within a few months, Tom Zaratti began his years of efforts to change the agreement or have his ex found to be in violation of the decree. He protested a trip she wanted to take with her son to Colorado, saying the altitude would worsen his boy's respiratory problems. Approaches to schooling, homework and discipline were disputed. He complained that she allowed the child to crawl on a carpet accessible to her dog "that sheds and is dirty."