H. Beatty Chadwick is not one to back down—seemingly no matter what the consequences. When he was ordered by a Pennsylvania court to pay a share of $2.5 million in a divorce dispute, he said he was broke. As a result, an incredulous judge cited him for contempt and had him thrown in jail, where he has spent the last 12 years (and counting), making his the longest prison term ever for civil contempt. Chadwick, 70, insists he doesn't have the money, claiming he lost his fortune in a bad foreign investment made before his wife left him in 1992. But the judges don't buy that. Neither does his ex, Bobbie Applegate. "This is not about the money and never has been. It's about the game. The competition," says Applegate. Or, as she also told a court hearing: "When I left he said, 'I will destroy you.'"

There were happier days, but they didn't last long. The couple fell in love in 1976, when Bobbie was a 21-year-old Sunday school teacher in Lebanon, Pa., and Chadwick, then 39 and separated, was a successful lawyer. They moved in together five months later. "I wasn't there more than a couple of weeks before I realized I made a mistake," says Applegate, now 52 and living with her second husband in Thomaston, Maine, where she makes a modest living painting landscapes. "He was so controlling."

Still, she stuck by him—mostly, she says, because Chadwick was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma a few months before they wed and she felt sorry for him. So she says she put up with Chadwick's domineering ways on everything from household chores like mowing the lawn to rationing her use of toilet paper and scheduling sex (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 a.m.). Chadwick denies he rationed toilet paper, says they split household chores and has a different recollection of their marriage. "We really had a pleasant and happy relationship," he told PEOPLE in a jailhouse interview, dressed in day-glo orange prison garb with shackles on his arms and legs. And the scheduled sex? "I don't know where she came up with that," he said.

Increasingly unhappy, Bobbie finally decided to leave her husband while they vacationed in France in September 1992. "There was literally something sick about the relationship that was driving me to the point of suicide," she says. "The only thing to do was get out and heal." This, says Chadwick, came as news to him: "I was in shock." A brief attempt at counseling failed, and Bobbie left for good. It was then, she says, that Chadwick told her she would never get a cent, calling it his "scorched earth" policy.

Chadwick's view? "She said she wanted everything she could get, and I said, 'I won't agree to that. I'll fight you.'" And what of the "scorched earth" policy? Well, he admits, he might have used words like that. At one of the couple's divorce hearings, Chadwick told the court that a failed real estate venture had cost him about $2.5 million—the sum total of his worth. But Applegate's lawyer Al Momjian claims Chadwick had wired the money to Gibraltar and London, diverted some to Luxembourg and then had much of it sent to a New York bank, deposited into the account of an H.B. Chadwick and then to three annuities in H.B. Chadwick's name. Most of that money then went to Panama, Momjian claims. Chadwick says he did not have control of the money after it went to Gibraltar. Delaware County Judge Joseph Labrum didn't believe him and found him in contempt. In November 1994 he ordered him imprisoned. Chadwick failed to attend subsequent court hearings and was arrested the following April at his dentist's office after showing up for a 7 a.m. cleaning.

Since then, Chadwick, who is still battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, has refused to budge—despite losing dozens of pleas to county courts, state appeals courts, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, federal courts and even the U.S. Supreme Court. "He brought it on himself," said prominent divorce attorney Raoul Felder. "He anointed himself king." Others are saddened by Chadwick's situation. "To think that somebody I knew as scrupulously honest as Beatty ends up in jail for 12 years ... my God," says John Christy, a retired CEO who was once Chadwick's boss.

Labrum, now retired, said he "absolutely" believes Chadwick has access to the money he claims he lost. "He will not tell," he says, "and therefore he stays in jail." In 2005 a court-appointed special magistrate hired forensic accountants to find Chadwick's money, but they came up empty. Which is why Chadwick is still behind bars in the Delaware County, Pa., jail, spending his days in the law library helping fellow inmates with their legal woes and preparing his own appeals. "He's never been a problem," says one prison official. "He's actually a pleasure."

As for the money, experts say it may never be found—which is why Mike Malloy, Chadwick's attorney, believes his client should be released. "There's something to be said for letting Beatty out the door and following him," he says. "Nothing else has worked."