By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Donald recalls an incident in 1969, when he was about 20 years old: The three Tobkin men attended a presentation at a school where Ronald was to be enrolled. In the middle of the auditorium sat a black family, alone in their row. Irwin steered his kids to the row and plunked them beside the family, where no whites had deigned to sit.
Then Irwin leaned to Donald and said, "All of us schvartzes [a derogatory Yiddish word for black people] have to stick together." Donald says the lesson was, "All of us are underdogs."
Irwin Tobkin died of heart and blood problems when Donald was 21 years old. "Either medical malpractice or bad health or both" killed Irwin Tobkin, Donald says. Donald had to that point planned to become a rabbi, but in 1970, he says, he was on the campus of Kent State University when National Guardsmen shot 13 student demonstrators, killing four. For Tobkin, old notions of religious influence gave way to realpolitik. He decided to become a doctor. "Put a title behind your name, doctor or whatever, and all of a sudden, you can pick stocks," he says. "There's a lot of money, a lot of power, and a lot of influence."
After graduating from the University of Akron, Donald headed for medical school at Wayne State University in Detroit. After finishing there in 1976, he moved south and began his residency at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. He says he married and divorced in medical school; there he also met a resident named Jane Seyler, whom he wed in January 1977. By the end of that year, he completed his residency and was licensed to practice medicine in Florida. In 1979, he opened a clinic in Pembroke Pines called the Respiratory Treatment Center. In 1980, Jane gave birth to a daughter, Jennifer.
What seemed an idyllic life soon soured. He practiced as a doctor until 1981, when Doctors Hospital in Hollywood suspended his medical privileges; Pembroke Pines General Hospital followed suit in 1982. Though Donald says the dispute centered on his righteous stand over treatment in the face of rising malpractice premiums, the Miami Heraldat the time quoted Pines General Administrator Ed Maas as saying Donald "uttered obscenities at one staff meeting and used 'threatening behavior' at another."
"It was pretty devastating to have people turn on me for economic reasons," Donald says today, adding that for about a year afterward, he suffered from chest pains that a hypnotist helped him relieve.
Court records state that he filed for disability and received $100,000 from a life insurance company and $60,000 a year in long-term disability beginning in early 1982. That same year, he and Jane had a second daughter, Sarah. Donald enrolled in law school at the University of Miami, from which he graduated in 1985.
It was around that time that he says he met Sheldon Schlesinger, one of the most powerful civil attorneys in Florida. Donald's aunt, Grace Israel, had been injured in a car accident, and she hired Schlesinger to sue an insurance company. The attorney visited Donald, who had treated Israel, before taking his deposition. "I asked him, 'How's my aunt's case?'" Tobkin says. "He replied, 'That's up to you. '"
In March 1988, Donald was admitted to the Florida Bar and approached Schlesinger about a job. The established attorney hired the rookie. "He turned me from a doctor to a healer, and a lawyer to a warrior," Donald says. From 1989 to 1992, he earned $115,000 to $178,000 annually working for Schlesinger, according to court files.
An accomplished jurist and doctor (he still has never been sued for malpractice, he says), Donald seemed to be on a roll. But those years were the last time his life seemed so smooth. One reason among several was the breakup of his marriage to Jane. Asked the reason for the second divorce, Donald offers one word with uncharacteristic tenderness: "Marilyn."
At a desk overlooking the old brick street outside the downtown Orlando law office where she works, Marilyn Lindsey, the third former Mrs. Tobkin, advises a visitor that she must be careful of what she says. The fit, blond attorney has been in civil and custody litigation with her ex-husband for more than three years and doesn't want to provide fodder for him in those cases.
Her memories of Donald are bittersweet, emphasis on the bitter. "The emotional torture he can put you through is so intense and at the same time so bizarre, it's a hard thing to live with and a very hard thing to describe," she says. The only comparison she can offer: "Ever see the movie Sleeping with the Enemy? That comes close to it."
Marilyn's life before she met Tobkin reads like the lost chapters of a Bronte novel. Born in Coral Gables in 1962, she began at age 13 to tend horses for wealthy owners. When she was 15, a horse she was riding reared up, slipped, and landed spine-down on her, mangling several of her bones and organs, putting her in a coma for five months, and leaving her with enduring physical pain.
At 16, Marilyn dropped out of high school and left home to exercise horses at tracks around South Florida. "I moved out mainly to get away from my mom's boyfriend," she says, recalling that there were drugs in the home. At age 20, she married Mark Holley, a lifeguard, and began studying nursing. But then she became pregnant and had to delay her education; in 1985, Marilyn bore a daughter, Sydney; the marriage fell apart in 1986; she finished nursing school in 1988.