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.
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."
Zaratti pressed for a jury trial to gain primary custody -- it cost his ex an estimated $50,000, but she prevailed. Again and again, he challenged the $900 monthly support payment as excessive. He objected to paying the uninsured medical expenses of the boy. When he gained an order for her to pay $525 for his attorney's fees in the contempt action against her, Zaratti was back for $194 more -- the cost of filing the contempt paperwork.
The motions and legal battles outlived state District Judge John Montgomery, then they marched into Fort Bend County when his ex moved there and found another husband and an auditor's job with a school district.
Zaratti eventually convinced a judge in Fort Bend that his meager law practice -- he said he was now making about $30,000 a year -- required a reduction in the $900 monthly support to $500.
Over the years of the case, Zaratti insisted that no male nonrelatives be allowed to spend the night at his ex-wife's house when she had the child. He even asked in an interrogatory for the names and dates that such activities occurred. He objected to the kid being left in the care of anyone possibly "addicted to tobacco," among other substances.
If some of it sounded extreme, there was plenty in the voluminous case file to present him as nothing more than a loving father concerned about the welfare of his only child.
Then came Christmas 2003.
When he never arrived to pick up their son for visitation, Susan's search for information took her to the county jail, where C. Tom Zaratti turned out to be in custody without bail -- held on child pornography charges.
Earlier last year, the computer at his home malfunctioned. Zaratti took it back to the Best Buy outlet for repairs by a technician. The worker alerted police after he discovered hundreds of pictures of underage children, nude and engaged in sex.
He first arrest was in June. He was freed on $10,000 bail.
The revelations about Zaratti were only beginning. A month after he got out of jail, Zaratti took on a client in a DWI case. She was a small woman, about five feet tall and weighing about 100 pounds.
In an affidavit for a later search warrant, Harris County D.A.'s investigator Johnny Bonds stated that the 32-year-old client he interviewed looked more like she was in her early twenties. She told investigators Zaratti demanded the remainder of his unspecified fee from her, then told her there was a way he would forgive the debt: to have sex with him. And if she refused, he would make sure she got jail time for her offense. According to the affidavit, he told her to come to his home, without makeup and hair arranged in girlish braids, with her pubic area completely shaved. She said she had sex with him on several occasions in August to retire her debt.
At least one time, he led her to a computer on a table in his living room and pulled up a file labeled "Teens" and showed her several images of children engaged in sex, the affidavit stated. One that she recalled vividly was of a young blond girl about 11 years old, having anal and vaginal intercourse with two adult men.
While Zaratti was hosting the viewing session, on the opposite side of the living room was his seven-year-old son, watching television, the affidavit says.
Texas Ranger Drew Carter and other investigators headed to the nondescript brick home in Sharpstown, seized the computer and found images of the blond child and other girls performing sex acts for men.
That was on Christmas Eve.
In early January, Susan read a small newspaper account of the arrest of her ex-husband for his second count of possessing child pornography. More discoveries were awaiting her.
The mid-morning December 24 search led to the seizure of the computer, which soon joined the one taken from his home before the June arrest. This time, however, Ranger Carter was back before a judge, gaining permission to remove a beige floor safe from the front closet of the home.
Inside the safe were more tantalizing items. Investigators removed a pilot's license and birth certificate bearing the name Cayetano Zarate. Several envelopes contained photos of naked women. One packet had 109 photos of them -- all shredded. Another contained 64 pictures of an unclothed woman, one with her engaging in oral sex with a man. There were clothed shots of her and one with her and Zaratti. On one photo was a label with a woman's name, followed by "Aug 1997 20 yrs."
Twenty-one handguns, ranging from a .22 to a .44-caliber magnum, some still bearing HPD evidence tags, were in the safe.
Jewelry spilled from several bags and pouches -- rings, pendants, necklaces, ear studs and earrings, tie clasps. No value was given for them, although one medallion was engraved "To Mom With Love."
Most of all, there was cash -- loads of it -- in varying currencies from various countries, including Russia and South Africa. The man who had complained so long about $900 a month in child support had stacks and stacks and envelopes stuffed full of U.S. bills -- three of them were in the $1,000 denomination. The $100 and $50 amounts were wedged into 29 bundles totaling more than a quarter of a million dollars.
That prompted another hearing in the custody case, this one requested by not Zaratti but his ex-wife. Susan's attorney, Daniel Hoke of Richmond, pressed him about the cash: Where did it come from?
The attorney invoked his Fifth Amendment right against incriminating himself. That answer was repeated on questions about his allegedly showing his "client" the child porn with his son in the same room.
For months, Zaratti had continued regular visitations after the first child porn arrest, without even telling his ex about the charge. Hoke asked him if his wife didn't deserve to know. Zaratti replied that he didn't have any reason to tell her.
"Our position is that he is underpaying dramatically," Hoke says. "I think his income is a lot more than what he's led the court to believe." Hoke thinks some of the loot from the safe -- the guns and jewelry -- may have been nothing more than payment Zaratti took for some earlier cases.
State District Judge Robert Kern granted a motion to require Zaratti's visitations to be supervised under a special Fort Bend County sheriff's program. "At least it will be in a protected environment," Hoke explains. "Whatever he would say or do, or take off with the child, she would have some protection against that."
His other worry is the future of support for the boy if the charges against his father lead to prison time. "I assume the IRS would be interested in how a guy who makes about $35,000 a year, according to his own testimony, has over $220,000 in cash sitting in a safe in his house. There's going to be a lot of people, eventually, trying to get their hands on this money. My concern is that if he does go to prison, that the funds will go to the benefit of his child."
While the district attorney's office can seize cash found to be gained illegally, the money and items in the safe were recently returned to Zaratti. Ted Wilson, the chief of the D.A.'s Special Crimes Bureau, explains the problems: The discovery of the floor safe was considered to be outside the permitted scope of the first warrant, which authorized the search for only the computer. The second warrant for the contents of the safe was therefore determined to be flawed.
Zaratti is believed to have used the funds to post his $300,000 cash bond for his release in late February. Prosecutors wondered if there would be a parade of attorneys ready to vouch for Zaratti's character at the bond hearing, although only two witnesses were called. Wilson notes that one was a bar owner; the other was a blackjack dealer Zaratti had met at a bar.
The defendant and his attorneys, civil and criminal, did not return phone calls for comment. Zaratti's ex would say only that she fears for the safety of herself and her son.
On the civil side of the action, Hoke -- the latest of many attorneys in the years-long custody battle -- says he doesn't know that much about the earlier history of Zaratti or why Susan's divorce was so sudden.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.