Rachel Crowley hoped she had seen the last of her husband when a judge sent him to prison for 20 years for kidnapping and torturing her with a stun gun at a North Charleston motel in 2006.
The attack left her scarred and rattled, alone and broke. Crowley didn’t have the money to hire an attorney, and she was scared to provoke her husband by filing for divorce. She hoped that if she just let him be, he would serve his sentence and leave her alone.
But Clark David Thomas wasn’t about to let that happen.
The 50-year-old inmate got himself a do-it-yourself legal guide, taught himself some law and filed his own divorce complaint, accusing Crowley of mental and physical cruelty, adultery and habitual drunkenness.
What’s more, Thomas asked the court to award him alimony and force his victim to support him and pay his legal expenses. He also sought the return of his property, including a stash of Maxim men’s magazines.
Thomas filed his initial complaint in November 2010, and the case dragged out for nearly two years before coming to a head in a Charleston County courtroom last week.
Thomas buried his bride, now 27, in a blizzard of paperwork and legal motions, many aimed at revisiting the allegations at the heart of his 2008 criminal trial.
Because Thomas was entitled to represent himself, the state had to foot the bill for his trips to Charleston from Broad River Correctional Institute in Columbia, where he is serving his sentence.
Two prison guards had to accompany him on each trip, corrections officials said.
The cost to taxpayers? Close to $5,000, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Family Court judges offered to grant him a divorce about a half-dozen times over the past two years, but each time Thomas turned them down. He wanted a trial where he could face his wife in court and refute her accounts of abuse at his hands, which he has long insisted were fabricated.
He said he also worried that not contesting her claims of abuse would be seen as a tacit admission of his guilt.
“I never got a chance to tell my side of the story,” he told a judge Thursday. “I sought to prove I’m not the animal I have been depicted as being.”
So for eight long hours, with 34 witnesses in tow and one hand shackled to his side, Thomas attempted to do just that as his loyal family, his trembling wife and his horrified mother-in-law looked on.
“I just want this to be over,” Crowley said. “It’s like I am having to relive everything all over again.”
Thomas and Crowley met through mutual friends and were married in March 2004. She was a girl from the country, just 19. He was 41, an electrician by trade and a repeat offender with a criminal record ranging from check fraud and forgery to domestic violence.
By all accounts, the pair had a tumultuous relationship filled with fights, substance abuse and hard times as they bounced from one motel to another without a stable home.
Crowley said Thomas got her hooked on heroin, crack cocaine and booze to control her. Thomas denies that was the case, though he acknowledged struggling with a drug problem.
Crowley had gone back to live with her mother in Adams Run when Thomas showed up at their house on June 5, 2006, and invited her to go with him to his North Charleston motel room to retrieve her belongings.
When they walked into the room, Thomas pulled out a stun gun, jammed it into her back and pushed her to the floor, police said. He restrained Crowley with plastic zip ties, handcuffs, tape and shackles as he repeatedly abused her and jolted her body with electric charges from the stun gun, police said.
Investigators said Thomas held Crowley for about 45 hours before she was able to escape after he took her for a drive in his minivan.
Police arrested Thomas the same day, though he insisted that what happened in the motel room had been consensual. Investigators didn’t buy his story, and neither did the jury that found him guilty in July 2008 of kidnapping and criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature.
He will not be eligible for release until December 2024.
Thomas initially filed for an uncontested divorce in November 2010, seeking only an official split and to have his court fees paid by Crowley.
He later came back with demands for alimony, and he asked the court to find her at fault for cruelty and misbehavior during their marriage. He accused her in court filings of concocting the kidnapping story to get back at him for asking her for a divorce in June 2006.
North Charleston attorney Laree Hensley agreed to represent Crowley, assuming it would be a relatively simple divorce case. She then helped Crowley, who is unemployed and of limited means, file a counterclaim for divorce.
Thomas delayed a trial with a flurry of motions — enough to take up about a foot of space on a courthouse shelf. He also filed grievances against two Family Court judges and Crowley’s attorney.
He sought yet another delay Thursday so he could have more time to prepare, but Family Court Judge Lisa A. Kinon told him it was go-time.
At Hensley’s request, Kinon also limited testimony to events that occurred after June 7, 2006, the day Thomas was arrested. That’s because Thomas had insisted that he and Crowley were willingly together as a couple at the motel and that he was simply making love to his wife that day.
That placed the day of their official separation at June 7, making the crime itself and prior marital problems off-limits for the hearing.
Thomas, a wiry, bespectacled man with short, graying hair, repeatedly complained about that move during the proceeding, calling Hensley “a tricky one” and accusing her of “bushwhacking” him and railroading his case.
Again and again, he tried to bring up the crime for which he was convicted, only to be met with objections from Hensley. Dozens of times, the judge reminded him that they were there to discuss his divorce, not re-try his criminal case.
“I think you are trying to defend yourself against things I don’t even know about,” Kinon said. “This is a divorce case.”
Clearly frustrated, Thomas seemed at a loss as to how to proceed. He called witnesses, then didn’t know what to ask them, lapsing into rants against the system. He tried to introduce several documents that had no bearing on the divorce.
He kept losing track of his paperwork, delaying the proceeding several times as he pawed through the mountain of documents before him with the one free hand not shackled to his waist.
“Quite frankly, my case has been pretty much wrecked,” he said. “Every corner I turn, I’m getting my head whacked off. I don’t know what to do.”
Nearly three dozen witnesses — several police officers, a doctor, a lawyer and more — packed the courtroom to await their turn to testify.
Thomas kept one doctor waiting for two hours before he called her to the stand to ask her about treating Crowley for mental health issues. When the doctor explained that she had seen Crowley only for a wellness visit and a pap smear, Thomas ran out of questions for her.
He called one of his friends to the stand and asked the man if he had anything useful to say to help him out. “Get divorced,” his friend replied.
At another point, the judge asked Thomas what he hoped to gain through one line of questioning. He shrugged and chuckled. “That was a Hail Mary.”
Later, Thomas had an attorney who had once represented him pulled from plea hearings on another floor so he could testify in the divorce. Thomas called the attorney arrogant and insinuated that the man had an affair with Crowley, without offering any evidence to back up that assertion. The attorney, fuming, denied any relationship.
When Thomas finally got Crowley on the stand, he peppered her with questions about how long she had lived with her mother and what dates she had been arrested for disorderly conduct.
She stared straight at him and, in an even voice, said she couldn’t recall with specificity.
But she had no problem answering his question about where she had gone after leaving him at the motel in 2006. “To the hospital,” she replied.
Judge Kinon remained patient with Thomas throughout the day while nudging him along through the process.
In the end, she ruled that Thomas had failed to establish any of the claims in his complaint. She turned down his request for alimony and attorney fees, and said there didn’t appear to be any of his property left to give back, including the Maxim magazines.
She then granted Crowley a divorce from him, along with matching restraining orders for the ex-couple. Kinon also lauded Hensley for her work on the case.
Because Thomas had made the case so onerous for Hensley, the judge ordered him to pay her attorney’s fees — a $9,000 bill. He must pay her within 30 days of his release.
He might just be able to do that too, as financial documents show Thomas has a $25,000 trust fund awaiting him when he completes his sentence.
After Kinon announced her ruling, Thomas shot a look at his family, started to laugh and tossed his head back. “Wow!” he shouted, before correctional officers led him away.
Crowley left the courtroom, hugging her mother and Hensley. “Oh my God. Oh my God,” she kept saying, her eyes brimming with tears. “Thank you so much. I can’t believe it finally happened.”
She and her mother planned a modest celebration to mark the end of her marriage. But they couldn’t help but think about the petition Thomas said he is preparing to ask the courts for post-conviction relief, a strategy aimed at winning a new trial or a reduced sentence.
Before they know it, they could be back in the same courthouse with him all over again.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.