custody cases are so common and vicious these days that almost everyone knows
someone who has been affected by them. These cases are not tried by juries. We trust juries to decide whether someone lives or dies, whether someone
is sentenced to life or parole, but when it comes to the most helpless members
of our society, our children, our justice system
relies on decisions made by individual judges.
court judge is an elected office with a salary that varies with the tax revenue
a county collects. Wealthier counties can afford to hire many highly skilled judges and public defenders to serve its citizens, but there are counties -- even in New York State -- where the justice system must get by with a minimal staff and one overbooked judge.
There are thousands
of county court judges in the United
States, some of them more skilled than
others. Occasionally, there are judges
who allow their personal socio-religious beliefs to prejudice their judgments. In a rural county where most people are
unable to afford high-quality legal representation, such behavior can run
unchecked for years, affecting many child custody cases. This is one such case.
This was a
child custody case that began in1997 when Rachel Knight met Steve Bevilacqua,
they fell in love, and she decided to move to Dallas, Texas
to marry him. This case spans three
states and nine years. One man, the
Honorable James P. Punch of Orleans
County, NY, has
retained jurisdiction of the case the entire time. The child in question, Kohl Jary, has not
lived in New York
State since 1997 -- nine years ago. There is absolutely no documentation
in New York State about Kohl's care, upbringing, welfare, medical care, and education, yet Judge Punch still maintains that his county courtroom in rural Upstate New York is the best place to decide Kohl's living arrangements.
Who is this man and why does he feel his court is the best one to decide the child's fate? Judge James Punch is a longtime
incumbent who first served as Orleans County District Attorney from 1985 to
1990, then was elected County Court Judge for a ten-year term in 1990. In 2000 he was reelected and unless he is removed from office, or a higher court forces a change of jurisdiction, he will continue to sit as Family Court Judge, sole decision-maker over Kohl's home living situation, in the Bevilacqua custody case at least until Kohl Jary is 15 years old. Below is a brief summary of Judge Punch's career and education:
HISTORY OF THE CASE
began in 1997 when Rachel Knight and her son, Kohl Jary moved to Texas to be with her fiance, Steve Bevilacqua. Jeff Jary, Kohl's birth father, remained in rural Upstate New York, living off the dole in the same bedroom he grew up in at his father's house.
In 1999 in Texas, Rachel and Kohl's new "Home State," Rachel went to Dallas County Court to ask for a modification of Judge Punch's original 1997 order so that Kohl could begin attending Montessori preschool and visiting Jeff during school break times. The Texas court granted Rachel residential
custody when Jeff failed to appear in answer to its summons. The Dallas County Court order provided that Rachel was under no obligation to send Kohl to Jeff until such time as Jeff mailed her tickets for Kohl's travel, which he did not do.
by and Steve, Rachel, and Kohl flew at their own expense to the East Coast to
visit all their family members in the area shortly after Christmas 1999. They offered to allow Jeff's Christmas visitation while they were in town. Jeff
agreed to the plan and seemed content with the custody arrangement. On the day of Jeff's Christmas visitation, he arrived with one present for Kohl and a big smile. Shortly thereafter, two policemen knocked on
the door and revealed that an order existed in Orleans County
giving temporary sole custody to Jeff. They had come to remove Kohl from Rachel's custody and transfer him to Jeff's. Kohl was taken from his mother in less time than it takes to tell about it. Kohl was four years old when he was taken without any warning away from his mother's care to his father's house in Orleans County. He would not be returned to his mother's custody until April 2000 .
gone to the Orleans County Family Court and told the court that the State of Texas had heard the custody matter and given custody to Rachel, in direct defiance of Judge Punch's stated preference that he keep jurisdiction of the case. Jeff alleged, untruthfully, that he was
unable to contact Rachel and had no idea of the whereabouts of Kohl. He told Judge Punch that he had heard Rachel was going to be in town to visit her mother, Betty Knight, and he asked the court for permission to remove Kohl in a surprise police-enforced transfer from Rachel's custody during this December 1999 Christmas break.
Jeff's counsel, James D. Bell, insisted that these extreme measures of surprise and police involvement were necessary, because his client, Rachel's ex, swore that he believed Rachel was a kidnapping risk. Judge Punch agreed that the best course of action was to remove Kohl from Rachel's custody before she was even made aware there was a proceeding against her, to prevent her from returning with Kohl to the far-off wilderness of Dallas, Texas [where Rachel and her husband were listed in the telephone directory and ran a business that was well known in the community]. Judge Punch decided that this covert-style removal of Kohl from Rachel's custody via a surprise visit from the State Police was warranted based solely on the affidavit of Mr. Bell.
Even after Rachel's attorney in Dallas, Frank "The Bulldog" Chandler, wrote a letter explaining that Rachel had custody under Texas law, Judge Punch refused to acknowledge the validity of the order of the Texas court, insisting that his rural Upstate New York court, being the court of original jurisdiction in 1997, was the proper forum for the case no matter how long the child lived outside of the area.
In May 2000, Kohl's custody seemed to be settled to everyone's satisfaction, more or less. Judge Punch entered an order giving Jeff the same basic visitation schedule as the Texas order, but containing additional, somewhat bizarre, instructions, including that Kohl should be restricted from calling his stepfather, Steve, "Dad" or "Father", that Jeff's visitation would be at Rachel's expense for the next several years, and that Kohl should not be "exposed to" The Church of the SubGenius, even though both Rachel and Steve were actively employed in promoting the group. The Church of the SubGenius is well known as a satirical comedy group that delivers stinging rants against a variety of social ills. [See http://www.subgenius.com].
seemed settled, as this schedule was followed without any major problems for
over five years. This past December 18,
2005, Rachel put Kohl on a Delta airlines flight to Rochester, New York,
to be picked up by Jeff for his Christmas break visitation. This year was somewhat different, as Jeff was
finally required to share half the transportation expenses. The visitation plan that year was for Kohl to be returned by Jeff to Rachel's mother on January 2, 2006, so she could spend some time with Kohl and then return him to Rachel, now living in Georgia, on
January 7, 2006.
Rachel would not see Kohl again until the third week of January 2006, when she was allowed one brief overnight visit with Kohl at her mother's house. Kohl was visibly changed, appearing closed
and withdrawn and becoming emotional when the subject of his living
arrangements was approached, even very gently, from any direction. He seemed afraid to talk about what was going on in his father's house, or whether or not he wanted to live there.
On December 22, 2005, for reasons of his own, Jeff had once again gone to the Orleans County Courthouse and presented Judge Punch with a series of allegations about not being able to contact Rachel and needing an order of Temporary Sole Custody in order to prevent Kohl from being kidnapped. Judge Punch once again issued Jeff a Temporary Sole Custody order and
allowed him to keep Kohl after his scheduled Christmas visitation. Once again, this was done without making any attempt to contact Rachel and discover whether Jeff's allegations were true. Rachel did not even receive any paperwork from the court until January 9, 2006 -- 17 days after Judge Punch entered the order of Temporary Sole Custody for Jeff.
3, 2006, Judge Punch heard testimony in the case. At first the testimony proceeded normally, but then His Honor instructed Jeff's lawyer, Mr. Lance Mark, to wrap up his case, as it was already very "compelling". His Honor then ordered a two-hour recess to
hear other matters, such as pistol permit applications.
recess, Mr. Marks entered into evidence 16 exhibits taken from the Internet, 12
of which are photographs of the SubGenius event, X-Day. The judge, a very outspoken Catholic, became outraged at the photos of the X-Day parody of Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ -- especially the photo where Jesus [Steve Bevilacqua] is wearing clown makeup and carrying a crucifix with a pool-noodle dollar sign on it while being beaten by a crowd of SubGenii, including a topless woman with a dildo.
His Honor also strongly disapproved of the photos of Mary Magdalen [Rachel Bevilacqua] in a bondage dress and papier mache goat's head, asking repeatedly "Why a goat? What's so significant about a goat's head?" in a transparent effort to reveal the hidden Satanism Judge Punch obviously believes is behind this satirical comedy.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The ACLU has been contacted, and a confidential investigation is proceeding into the judge's conduct on the bench, but the wheels of justice turn slowly, especially in matters of judicial oversight. It is
likely that the Bevilacqua family will need to raise approximately $50,000 to
pursue their case through to an appeals court that will hopefully restore their
son to them. Please help by donating
whatever you can, or at least spreading the word to others who may be able to
help. Any media exposure is welcome as
well. Please PayPal
all donations to Magdalen@subgenius.com,
or send a check directly to:
Christopher S. Mattingly
Lipsitz Green LLP
42 Delaware Avenue
Buffalo, New York 14202-3857
has the potential to set a precedent that could affect all moms who have ever
attended X-day. If any county court judge can deem attending X-day sufficient reason to take away a child, and get away with it, no one's children are safe. Please help the Moms for "Bob" legal fund with a donation if you can, because the last thing anyone wants is for women to be afraid to come to X-day.