Gag denied: Trial looms in $11 million Grisham suit

It sounds like the plot of a Hardy Boys mystery: prominent people get threatening letters and go snooping through confidential records at a tony private school to get handwriting samples to nail the letter-writer.

Only in this case, the amateur sleuths are not Frank and Joe Hardy; they're best-selling author John Grisham and St. Anne's-Belfield development director Alan Swanson.

And while the Hardy boys would by now have nabbed the perp, in the Mystery at St. Anne's, the sleuths instead are being sued for $11 million by a woman who says Grisham, Swanson, and his wife, Donna, St. Anne's, and handwriting experts they hired, engaged in a conspiracy to inflict emotional distress and engage in malicious prosecution.

In the latest chapter, more than two years after Katherine Almy filed suit on August 11, 2000, in Albemarle Circuit Court, defendant Donna Swanson receives three more mysterious unsigned letters, the latest in November.

Because the Swansons moved and Almy was present at a December 2 deposition in which their new address was revealed, defense attorneys went to court to get Almy's notes– to no avail. Almy testified she hadn't kept them.

During the same court appearance, the defense tried to get a peek at the therapy records of Almy's minor children, claiming that Dr. Stephen Alexander's early sessions with the children back in the late 1980s and early 1990s would provide a baseline for his diagnosis of Almy's depression.

"I'm reluctant to have the children's records brought into this," Judge Edward Hogshire responded, refusing to disclose to the defense any more than the general terms of what was involved in the children's visits to the therapist.

In August of this year, Hogshire denied defense motions to impose a gag order during discovery. One of Grisham's lawyers, James W. Morris III of Richmond, noted that the press was interested in the case. Almy's attorney, Michael Barnsback, shot back, "Because John Grisham's involved, we can't talk about it? That's ridiculous."

Morris pointed out that tabloids are "rife with gossip."

"The press prints gossip at their peril," replied Hogshire. "There are remedies for that."

St. Anne's' attorney Colin Thomas argued for the gag order because Almy "has been very critical of the school. That's pretrial publicity, and that's what we seek to avoid."

"Some of this is First Amendment stuff," Hogshire responded. "Every school gets criticized. I'm limiting it to financial and medical records."

The Mystery at St. Anne's began in 1996, when Donna Swanson started receiving "cruel" letters designed to break up her marriage, according to the lawsuit. In 1998, Grisham began receiving letters, too, although "different in tone," presumably meaning they weren't attempting to break up his marriage.

According to the lawsuit, the Swansons and Grisham, who is on the St. Anne's board, determined that Almy was the letter writer, and took from school files copies of the contract she'd signed to enroll her children and a document about her son marked "strictly confidential."

Handwriting experts David Liebman and Cina Wong, who are also named in the suit, analyzed the samples and determined the handwriting matched the unsigned letters. Grisham and Swanson filed a complaint against Almy with Albemarle County police.

On September 1, 1998, Almy passed a polygraph test, and a handwriting analysis by the state cleared her of the letter-writing charge.

The trial is scheduled for January 22.

One result of the whole affair is that Delegate Rob Bell is drafting a bill to protect confidential records in private school files.

But even with all the time spent in court, and with the trial looming, one question remains unanswered: Who is the mysterious letter-writer?