The Life We're Handed

The boy stands in his father's kitchen, dark eyes flashing, arguing his case for a red motorcycle. Not far from where the youth stands, a neighbor in this middle-class suburb is throwing a garage sale like no other seen in Coral Springs. Among the household pickings: the red motorcycle, offered at a mere $140.

The father hesitates. His son is only 13 years old, though tall for his age. Through the open French doors beyond the kitchen, a cool blue swimming pool wells up to greet the eye. But the five-bedroom house itself is warm beyond comfort. The father has shut off the air conditioning to save money. The $1300 mortgage payment is three months in arrears, a fact unknown to the boy. These days, $140 means something.

The father, an airline pilot, is broke, or nearly so.
The son, by dint of fate, is a teenage millionaire.
Rising in the hot air of the kitchen, the boy's right hand reaches out to rev an imaginary throttle. Now is when a stranger, standing across the room, might notice for the first time that the hand is not a normal hand. Not normal, but appearing to be scalded red, the fingers curled over at half the length of normal fingers, the whole appendage shrunken from the wrist down.

A claw as much as a hand.

A warm wind blew across a beach 20 years ago and 1200 miles to the south. In his dreams Robbin Pittock still feels it. But in the daylight world, he only recalls the scene when pressed to do so.

The scene: Robbin coming out of the surf and up the beach with Brad Haylock, his copilot. The fishing boat that brought them seven hours up the Colombian coast from Cienaga is leaving the cove fast, its four-cylinder flathead diesel going pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. The prison and the prison break already a midnight memory.

There on the beach, waiting for them at sunrise beside the cove: Raul Campos with two other Colombians, guns in their waistbands, and Rafael, the translator. And Jean, the woman Robbin Pittock would soon marry, wearing tight denim pants and a plaid shirt.

"It was beautiful," Pittock remembers. "White sandy beach, palm trees all over. It had been a while since we had been out. One place we were down under the ground, and there was nothing but bare light bulbs and a dirt floor with one little hole in it where you could take a crap. We were sicker than pigs. I was down to 113 pounds."

That morning the most beautiful thing was Jean.
"It was unbelievable that she was there, but there she was," Pittock recalls. "I hugged her. I kissed her. Then she says, 'Guess what? Now that you're out of jail, we're kidnapped.'"

In 1977, before cocaine turned the smuggling business bloody, Robbin Pittock was one of a legion of young men with a pilot's license, a taste for adventure, and a growing blank spot on his resume. That December he topped off a DC-3 cargo plane and left Miami. When he landed on a jungle airstrip in Colombia to pick up a load of marijuana, the military arrested him and Haylock, and the pair spent until Easter and beyond in a series of jails.

As Pittock tells it, Jean flew down from Miami with enough money wrapped around her waist to bribe guards and arrange for the fishing boat to show up near the prison south of Cienaga. The person doing the arranging was Campos, a long-time smuggling connection. The problem was that Pittock had double-crossed Campos on a previous 5000-pound dope deal.

"Raul wanted $300,000," Pittock says, explaining why exaltation turned to fear that morning on the beach. Before long, Pittock says, Campos stuck a gun down Jean's throat. It was the first of several very tense moments in what turned into a monthlong camping trip at the cove.

Eventually Pittock talked Campos into letting Jean go back to the United States to arrange the $300,000 payment. When no money came back, Pittock persuaded Campos to let him travel to the nearest town, Santa Marta, to use the telephone. Then he made a break for it, turned himself in to police, and wound up in the hands of a friendly Interpol agent who protected him.

With the help of an airplane provided by another smuggler, Pittock made it back to the Bahamas and on to Boca Raton, arriving in time to surrender himself on separate pot-smuggling charges he faced in the United States. The result was five years' probation, a $10,000 fine, and a felony record.

There would be other arrests related to contraband -- one in Guatemala, another in Aruba. But by then, Pittock says, he was merely a casualty of circumstance. He was out of the business.

In April 1978 in Las Vegas, he and Jean got married. By 1979 she was pregnant with their first daughter, Mandy. Alexander followed, then Jaclyn.

The lesson Pittock learned from his late twenties, he says, is that the world is full enough of danger without looking for it. Often enough, it finds you.

"En route we stopped at a gas station," Robbin Pittock says. "I said, 'Hey bud, come back here, I'll let you pump the gas.'" It was his son's first try at a new skill. "He pumped it with his right hand, of course."

Alexander Pittock was four years old on April 19, 1990, riding to Costco with his father in a van. The van needed new tires. When they got to the discount store on SW 137th Avenue in Miami-Dade County, the pair picked out tires first, then went back inside to buy cereal and milk. At the time, store policy prohibited kids from riding in the shopping carts, so Alex dawdled beside his father.

"I rounded the frozen-food section -- you really couldn't see anything coming -- and as soon as I got around the corner, here's this forklift coming right at us, just a little off to one side. It passed by us. I looked around and Alexander was down on all fours."

The forklift had run over the boy's hand.
"I immediately picked him up. I picked him up and noticed his hand. I was like a dog, I guess -- blinking, turning my head from side to side and looking at him. I just couldn't understand what I was looking at. What is that? What am I looking at? It was just gone -- the tissue; all of the tissue was just gone. Gone. They call it a glove amputation. It's like you took the flesh and just took it off the way you would take a glove off. The blood, the arteries, gone. There's nothing there but 100 percent pure white bone. But I still didn't understand what was going on.

"The forklift operator had stopped. Then I heard the announcement: 'Lock the front doors, nobody leave the store.' So then I had him in my arms, and he was like Dad Dad Dad Dad!"

Pittock remembers being at the front of the store, waiting for the ambulance.

"I lit a cigarette. You're not supposed to smoke in there of course. Mostly, I'll tell you the truth, I got really preoccupied with the way other people were reacting, because I just didn't know what was going on. I had never seen anything like that. And I guess they hadn't either, but they had found the flesh of his hand on the floor. Luckily they put it on ice."

From Baptist Hospital, Alex was transported by helicopter to Mount Sinai Medical Center. A surgeon with the unlikely name of Felix Freshwater began an eight-hour operation to rejoin the bones of the boy's hand with his flesh.

"Guilt, yeah," Pittock says. "I went through a lot of private stuff, my own moments. And I remember they told me that in a lot of ways it would be worse than the death of a child because it goes on and on."

Weeks of follow-up surgery turned into months, and Alexander was left with a hand that would always lack strength and mobility.

From time to time, while Alex was still in the hospital, Pittock would fly cargo jets out of Miami International and level out at a thousand feet over the medical facility, then power up and head for the horizon. It was a not-so-secret sign for his son.

While never admitting liability, Costco eventually agreed to pay $2.1 million in connection with the accident. In May 1992, a probate judge in Miami-Dade County approved Northern Trust Bank as the guardian of a trust fund established for Alex. The goal was to manage the money in "an investment program with a growth orientation" until the year 2003, when Alex turns 18 years old.

"I thought: Northern Trust, big bank, big company, they must know what they're doing," Pittock recalls.

The court also named Jean Pittock as co-guardian. (Robbin Pittock originally sought to join his wife in the guardianship role, but his high-risk job made him a less-desirable choice, and his felony record legally excluded him.) At the same time, the judge agreed to give Jean control over a $1000-per-month allowance -- later raised to $1500 -- "to be used for the special needs of the ward."

To the layman it would seem that Alex Pittock must by now be a very wealthy young fellow. Nearly seven years after the Costco settlement, his $2.1 million might have grown substantially, given the vigorous U.S. economy and spectacular run-ups in the stock market witnessed by this decade.

The reality is something altogether different. Beginning in the spring of 1992, a small army of lawyers, investment managers, psychologists, and doctors took their cuts of the money. Looking ahead to a life of limited personal and professional options, Alex Pittock continues to watch his future take a hammering. At the moment the trust fund stands at roughly $1.4 million. That fact lies at the heart of a family's disintegration.

Lawyer Joel Wolpe, who undertook the lengthy and complex negotiations with Costco Wholesale Corp., got paid handsomely: $720,000, plus $66,946 in additional costs. Debts to insurance companies, surgeons, and medical-rehabilitation experts ate another $149,725. After a few other expenses, Northern Trust Bank, as co-guardian, took over the actual sum Alex received -- $1,034,189.

With five staff economists and various other legal and financial experts on its payroll, the bank's services don't come without a price. To safeguard Alex Pittock's money, Northern Trust requested a base annual fee of $2000, plus further yearly expenses predicated on a sliding scale: $9 per $1000 on the first half-million, $8 per $1000 on the next half-million. The fees add up. In December 1993, for example, former chief probate court judge Moe Tendrich agreed that $15,130 of Alex's money should go to Northern Trust for its administration of the minor's account -- just for the period from May 1992 to September 1993.

In October 1996 attorney Howard Kuker finished a three-year stint as counsel to the guardianship and submitted his comparatively modest bill of $1387 (for a total of nine hours and fifteen minutes of work). The judge approved it, meanwhile appointing John J. Raymond, Jr. the new legal protector of Alex's money. Only ten weeks later, Raymond petitioned the court for $9800 in attorney's fees. He got them.

If Raymond's bill seems high, there were extenuating circumstances. Yet another lawyer, C. Thomas Tew, was brought in to review the bill. He found it acceptable given "the novelty and difficulty of the issues involved." In short, Raymond discovered that Northern Trust Bank had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Though the "issues" are never directly addressed in the public court file, Raymond's detailed billing makes reference to "Northern Trust's administrative and investment failings," a "breach of fiduciary duty," and questions regarding "initial computation of damages." Raymond summed up the damages to Alex Pittock's trust account in a settlement proposal and sent it to Northern Trust's senior vice president. Stephen A. Lynch III wrote back on December 13, 1996: "While I could argue with your proposal, we agree with it."

Lynch declined to discuss the past management of the trust fund, citing law that forbids revealing client information.

In late 1997 Northern Trust agreed to pay $74,718 out of its own pocket, depositing the money into Alex Pittock's trust account. In addition the bank agreed to manage the trust free of charge for the next three years.

Robbin Pittock fumed, convinced that Raymond had settled for too little in his negotiations with Northern Trust. He filed a complaint against Raymond with the Florida Bar Association, claiming Raymond had a serious conflict of interest: Raymond, as the court-appointed lawyer for the co-guardians, served Jean Pittock and Northern Trust. So how could he effectively negotiate a settlement with the bank?

On February 24 of this year, Florida Bar investigator Kevin Tynan concluded that Pittock's complaint was groundless. Tynan didn't elaborate on his conclusion. Other probate lawyers suggest, however, that Pittock simply didn't understand the legal technicalities involved, some of which are unique to trusts and guardianships. In essence, they say, Raymond's loyalties lay with the ward, Alexander, and the attorney's behavior in going after Northern Trust makes it clear that he lived up to that responsibility. An appearance of conflicted interest may have existed, but there's no evidence of anything more.

A month later a snarling Raymond noted in court documents that Pittock's Bar complaint was nothing more than "a continuing slanderous attack... upon Jean Pittock and her advisors."

Whatever the truth about that, Pittock's motives certainly revolved around Jean as much as Alex.

In yet another courtroom, this one in Broward County, attorney Steven Butter rose to question an estranged wife: "Were you, in fact, having an affair with the karate teacher?" he asked.

"Yeah," replied Jean Pittock.
The teacher in question was Greg Silva, a seventh-degree black belt who ran the Pittock kids' Coral Springs karate school and today operates a billing company for other martial arts training centers. But for Jean Pittock, on October 19, 1994, the affair with Silva wasn't the force driving her incipient divorce. Her husband, she claimed, had become an alcoholic monster.

Two weeks earlier he had barged into her bedroom, drunk, and beaten her black and blue, she testified. Robbin Pittock's drinking and the violence were a long-standing pattern.

Under cross-examination she acknowledged trying to kick him. The black and blue marks in question appeared on her legs. Having noted that "it's nothing for him to just slap you up against the face," Jean acknowledged it had been ten years since such a thing had in fact happened.

Robbin Pittock admitted slapping his wife on the night in question. He also acknowledges an on-again, off-again drinking problem he claims is now firmly in the past. But he puts a different spin on the events of that October evening.

His rage was spurred by finding a secret diary of his wife's affair -- but also from his discovery of a checkbook, the guardianship checkbook that allowed Jean to draw money from Alexander's trust fund, he says. Robbin claims he had never before examined it.

Recalling the day Moe Tendrich approved the special-needs allowance and put Jean in charge of it, Robbin says: "Like any probate judge would, he specifically pointed at us and ordered us that the money would not be used to put food on the table or clothing on Alexander's back or a new car in the driveway."

The law jibes with Robbin Pittock's sense of things. Section 744.444 of the Florida statutes governs what a guardian can do without additional court approval. It specifically states that the law "does not authorize the guardian of a minor to expend funds for the ward's living expenses if one or both of the ward's parents are alive."

To Robbin Pittock something looked awry.
Photocopies of the checks indicate the first ones were written in the summer after the Costco settlement: $48.72 for a locksmith. $591.12 for American Express charge-card payments. A $1200 check written to Jean herself and deposited in the couple's joint checking account.

The next year the amounts increased: four checks totaling $6000 written in her name, the money again transferred into Jean and Robbin's account. $1760 to East-West Karate, the martial arts school run by Silva and attended by the children. A $960 check written to International Tours and Cruises, a travel agency.

By late 1994, when the couple split up, Jean had written checks totaling $2320 for vacations in North Carolina and Vermont, and $9454 in checks naming her as the recipient of the money. In addition there were numerous checks for groceries, cable TV, utility bills, dry cleaning, and miscellaneous drugstore expenses.

In court documents Jean claims Robbin was well aware of these expenditures. But after the breakup, without his direct knowledge, the money flow continued, according to a stream of canceled checks. Under the probate court's order, Jean wasn't required to make a formal accounting of the expenditures.

In 1995, $5800 in checks for cash, plus $1000 for credit-card payments. In 1996, nearly $4000 in personal checks, and more than $2500 in credit-card payments. 1997: Another $2403 for credit-card debt, $3640 in personal checks, and $2410 ostensibly written for Alexander's karate training. Plus $500 for a birthday dinner.

Mandy, the oldest daughter, briefly moved in with her mother in the early days of the divorce. Now 18 years old, she hasn't spoken with Jean in two years. What she saw in late 1994 and early 1995 was her mother transforming herself, she says. "She had a nanny watching us basically all the time. She was either working or she was out with Greg, taking trips to Hawaii all the time. She got a new car. She got her bellybutton pierced. She got breast implants. It was basically like seeing a whole new person. She became someone we didn't even recognize.

"After she moved in with Greg, they got this nice apartment. All this new furniture, all these new dishes, everything new. I'm wondering where all this money is coming from," Mandy says.

In court documents Jean offered her view of what Alexander's special-needs allowance is meant for: "It was always for the electric, American Express if we had spent too much that month and just could not afford to pay for it. That's what the trust fund was set up for."

Jean Pittock declined to be interviewed for this story. Before hanging up the phone on a recent afternoon, she offered this opinion: "Robbin is blowing smoke up yours. The man is mentally ill. He's an alcoholic. I have no love for that man."

Howard Kuker, who served as attorney for the guardianship for three years, says Pittock's accusation of his wife misspending his son's trust fund monies hasn't been resolved because Pittock hasn't yet submitted a formal objection to the probate court. "If Robbin has sufficient proof to show a mishandling, then why isn't he doing something about it? Maybe he needs to move on with his life."

After her divorce Jean Pittock retained custody of her kids for eight months. After that, in December 1995, she agreed to give custody of the children to Robbin. She had a curious explanation for why she agreed to this: She says in court documents that she feared he would commit suicide otherwise.

From late January 1996 to early December 1997, police responded to calls from the five-bedroom house in Coral Springs no fewer than 18 times. None of the calls was related to a suicide attempt. A police log flags them with terms like criminal mischief, neighbors' complaints, juvenile disturbances, suspicious incidents. Most had to do with Mandy.

"I was basically running wild," she says today. "Why was it happening? My dad and me were having our own separate problems, and we weren't communicating. In the beginning when I started drinking, I was upset by the divorce. Eventually I went to AA for it, and now I don't drink. Ever since then everything's been great."

By last summer Pittock says he had halted a pattern of binge-drinking. He still stayed in touch with his drinking buddies, though. One of them, Pat Thompson, called him up looking for work. Pittock recommended him for a job at a local cargo hauler named Fine Air.

On August 7 the 42-year-old Thompson sat in the cockpit of a DC-8 cargo jet, rolling from Fine Air's hangar on the north side of Miami International to runway 27-right. He told the 26-year-old first officer, Steven Petrosky, to fly the first leg of a trip south. The plane was loaded with squares of denim bound for a blue jeans factory in the Dominican Republic.

At 150 miles per hour, Petrosky pulled back on the control column, and the plane lifted in the air. The nose immediately pitched up to a higher-than-normal angle, according to the flight data recorder.

"Oh, shit!" exclaimed Thompson, his words captured on the plane's cockpit recorder.

The 141-ton jet clawed its way above 500 feet, then fell back to Earth. The plane crashed tail first, then the right wing plowed into a field. It skidded across a road into the International Airport Center, a collection of computer stores and shops. Everyone onboard was killed.

"[The loaders] had misloaded the airplane as it turns out," Pittock says. "On takeoff the center of gravity -- the balance point of the airplane -- was way too far aft."

Pittock, who had been best man at Thompson's wedding, was absent from the funeral.

Pittock, who flew for Arrow Air, made his last flight that night. "I tried to get out of it. I tried to call in and tell 'em I was, you know, upset -- a lot -- but they couldn't find anyone to replace me.

"Most people can take four balls and juggle 'em. Maybe six. You get a dozen balls going in the air, and pretty soon you're gonna start dropping some."

After a discussion with his boss at Arrow Air and a consultation with his doctor, Pittock decided to take time off from flying.

Thinking of his dead friend's wife, Pittock called the attorney who negotiated on his behalf with Costco in the early '90s. In conversation the attorney happened to mention that Pittock's ex-wife was petitioning the probate court for more of Alex's trust fund money.

Through the remaining months of 1997 and into 1998, Pittock fought his ex-wife in two related issues on two separate fronts. In Miami-Dade probate court, Jean asked for and received an increase of $500 per month in Alexander's special-needs allowance, partly for the purpose of sending him to a psychologist named Anita Fischler.

Meanwhile she hired the psychologist's husband's law firm to petition the Broward Court so she could get custody of Alexander, Mandy, and Jaclyn. She also asked for and received trust fund monies to send Alexander to Nova School, a private institution affiliated with Nova Southeastern University. As it turned out, both Anita Fischler and her husband-attorney serve on the headmaster's advisory committee.

The cozy relationship between his wife's family lawyer and his child's psychologist looked increasingly ominous to Robbin Pittock.

"I couldn't believe my ears," he says. "I thought: They're using Alexander as a total dupe -- on the pretense that they're gonna help him emotionally. Meanwhile they're using him to find out all the details of our home life so the attorney can use it in a custody fight."

Pittock was skeptical of the need for -- and the expense of -- the psychological treatments. His own employment insurance would arguably cover the expense of any necessary treatment. Why would trust fund monies go for such a thing, unless Alexander had social or psychological problems directly related to his injury?

In May this year, he confirmed his own suspicions by sending Alexander to a family counselor named Sanford Gunther. Gunther wrote that Alexander was basically well-adjusted but sometimes upset by the divorce and subsequent squabbles.

Nor did Pittock like the idea of the new school. He had always favored keeping Alexander in the mainstream.

By this time the judge in Broward family court had appointed a general master to deal with some of these issues; Marks concluded there was no compelling reason Alexander couldn't stay in public school. But to be on the safe side, he appointed a guardian ad litem to explore the question of schooling.

The guardian ad litem, John Jordan, noted in his report that "Alexander... says some of the teachers (one or two) said that when his work was not good he must have been with his father the night before. He took that as a slam on his father."

He added that Alexander "does not like going to a psychologist, because he feels there is nothing wrong with him. He would like his parents to stop fighting."

In the end Pittock agreed to allow his son to attend Nova but mailed a letter to Anita Fischler stating he never wanted her to see Alexander again. In addition he filed a formal complaint against her with the American Psychological Association. His attorney petitioned the Broward family court to bar Fischler from testifying in the custody matter; and Michael Fischler's firm withdrew as counsel in the dispute. Most recently Jean dropped her effort to regain custody of Alex and the other children.

It may have been a Pyrrhic victory for Pittock.
Sitting in his hot living room, he mulls the latest in overdue attorney's bills, this one for $4340.

"I have never permitted a client to be so far in arrears as your account reflects in 30 years of practice," the letter reads.

Anita Fischler declined to comment on Pittock's claim of a conflict of interest. Her husband calls the notion ridiculous. His firm never intended to call his wife as a witness in the custody dispute -- to do so, in fact, would have been strategically stupid because her testimony would have been easy to impeach. It simply happened that both he and his wife were acquaintances of Greg Silva and came to know Jean through him.

"His perceptions are his perceptions, and no one can change that," Fischler says of Robbin Pittock. "But there never was a conflict of interest."

Two Mondays ago Robbin Pittock packed a bag and drove to Atlanta. He checked into the Red Roof Inn on the north side of Hartsfield International and the next morning went in search of his copilot and flight engineer. The three men climbed into the cockpit of an L-1011 Tristar, a plane comparable in size and power to a 747 jumbo jet. It was Pittock's first time at the controls.

The appearance of the cockpit, even its smell, makes for an exact replica of the real thing -- but the cockpit never leaves the nondescript building that contains it. "You have jet noise, you have the virtual reality visuals outside the window," Pittock says of the multimillion-dollar flight simulator. "Let's say you land and smack the brakes on, it'll send the nose down and give you a forward sense of motion. When you take off and give it power, it actually tilts you back in your seat.

"I've seen others -- the newest simulators -- where you look out the window and see people walking around in the terminals," he adds. "There's one where a kid comes up to the window and waves at you. It's something they put in to sort of ease the tension. I mean, you're under the gun, stressed out. It's one emergency right after another, and you really can't tell you're not in a real airplane."

Within a few weeks, Pittock hopes to be back in the air for real, somewhere he hasn't been since the day of the Fine Air crash in Miami more than a year ago. Emotionally the simulator training represents his return to a normal work life.

On December 10, midway through the week of required simulator training in Atlanta, Pittock got permission to take the day off. He settled into a rented Nissan and powered south toward Tallahassee. He had embarked on an existential errand that only a sliver of citizens ever need to contemplate, and he made the trip alone, crossing the Florida line an hour after dawn.

The governor, and the several cabinet members who make up the state's clemency board, sat waiting in a paneled room. Pittock's hearing was perfunctory and brief, and not quite what he'd expected. He didn't really know what to expect.

A few months earlier, Pittock had applied for and received formal clemency in connection with his decades-old smuggling felony. Last Thursday Governor Chiles recommended a full pardon, and with it the restitution of his voting rights, his right to own a gun, and complete cleansing of his record.

Time can't bring back his son's hand or his wife's love, but in the Sunshine State of second chances, time occasionally wipes the slate clean of less important things.

"Religiously speaking, forgiveness is divine," Pittock says when pressed. "I guess they think society should forgive you too, at least after this many years. Not to sound philosophical or anything. Hey, maybe they're just trying to throw you a Milk-Bone for not pissing on the carpet."

Asked why he waited this long to do away with his criminal record, Pittock employs the second person: "It's part of a reorganization of your life. Trying to clear up things in your past. I'm getting older, and I'll tell you: lately I've started looking at older people. They're not old for long. Your midlife comes and kind of stays around. Old age is only there for a couple of blinks.

"The guardianship has something to do with it, too," he adds. "I don't want Jean's lawyers bringing this up anymore, implying I'm somehow involved with drugs because of what I did 20 years ago."

On the phone from Atlanta, Pittock notes that Alexander turns 14 years old next fall. At 14, his son will have a better legal standing to offer the probate court an opinion on who should be his guardian and how the money in his trust accounts should be used.

Pittock also mentions that he wound up buying his son the red motorcycle.
"He rode it for the first time the other day," Pittock says. "Didn't get it out of second gear -- not because he couldn't but because I really wanted him to take it easy. He needs to learn how to control the thing with his disability. The steering and balance isn't the problem, it's his grip. Most people can grab the handlebars and hang on, but he can't do that the same way. He takes his hand and rolls it up and down on the throttle. He's never going to be a famous dirt bike racer, but he can have fun with it within his limitations. I guess that's all any of us are doing anyway."

Contact Sean Rowe at his e-mail address: Sean_Rowe@newtimesbpb.com

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Sean Rowe