Judge or Be Judged

updated 11/23/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1992 01:00AM

"YOU'RE GONNA GET A LETTER FROM ME," said the voice on the phone, the simple statement crackling with menace. The man was a stranger—he had to be a stranger—she thought, and yet..."You better listen to every word of it and do what it tells you to do, or you're gonna be in serious deep trouble, and you're not gonna see your daughter again, you hear me?" By now the voice sounded frantic. "I'm a sick and desperate man, and you'll be hearing from me."

The scene played like a B movie. But it was all too real. Law enforcement authorities say the recipient of the threatening call—one of many that culminated eventually in a blackmail demand for $20,000—was Joy Silverman, 45, a wealthy Manhattan socialite and top Republican fundraiser. Her blackmailer? Allegedly the lover with whom she had broken off a long extramarital affair a year ago—the ambitious, respected chief justice of New York State's highest court, 62-year-old Sol Wachtler.

In the beginning the identity of Silverman's harasser was a mystery. Indeed no one even suspected that Wachtler, who had once been regarded as a potential U.S. Supreme Court nominee, had been involved with Silverman, who in 1989 was nominated by President Bush—but not confirmed—to be U.S. ambassador to Barbados. (She and her now estranged third husband, businessman Jeffrey Silverman, had previously donated $300,000 to Republican causes.) Silverman—who had inherited millions from her late stepfather Alvin Bibbs Wolosoff, a developer on Long Island, near New York City—is a stepcousin of the judge's wife of nearly 41 years, the former Joan Wolosoff (whose own fortune is estimated at $91 million). That family tie provided the perfect excuse for Silverman to be seen with her paramour during a discreet affair said to have lasted several years.

In April, a few months after breaking up with the jurist, Silverman began receiving anonymous calls, as well as lewd notes with New Jersey postmarks, directed at her and her 14-year-old daughter, Jessica. In September she called in a powerful Washington friend, FBI Director William S. Sessions, who got the bureau involved in the case. At first the FBI conjectured that a jealous woman was behind the letters, since New Jersey is the home of the estranged wife of Silverman's new flame, affluent matrimonial lawyer David Samson. Upon investigating, however, agents learned that Mrs. Samson had received similar threats from a man who said he had embarrassing photos of her husband with Silverman.

Then came an important break in the case. In early October agents monitoring Silverman's calls traced one to Judge Wachtler's mobile phone. Over the next few days the caller, apparently using a mechanical device to distort his voice, demanded $20,000 in exchange for compromising photos of Silverman. The extortion calls all came from pay phones near the judge's home on Long Island.

Soon the blackmailer was threatening to kidnap Jessica. After one such call, lawmen lifted a fingerprint matching Wachtler's from the public phone where the call had been placed. Some of the 80 agents assigned to the ease had Silverman arrange for the hush money to be paid—and then they waited for the arrival of the suspect. (So much manpower was deployed, authorities later explained, because of the seriousness with which they took the threats after the recent kidnapping and murder of New Jersey-based Exxon executive Sidney Reso.)

On Nov. 7, Wachtler drove up in his dark, state-issued Caprice and cruised around the area of the designated pickup site in midtown Manhattan. But instead of stopping to collect the money, he simply drove off. When the shadowing agents saw him destroying documents in his car as he drove along the Long Island Expressway, they sounded their sirens and pulled Wachtler over. On the front seat they found a device for distorting voices over the phone.

Wachtler was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion. But his arrest raised more questions than it answered. For days newspaper and TV commentators speculated on motives and floated theories. How could this outstanding jurist, a man with an unblemished reputation for integrity, have become involved in such a sordid scenario? Why did Wachtler, himself the father of four grown children, threaten to kidnap Jessica and send her salacious messages?

And why would someone thought to be on the verge of running for Governor throw away a lifetime's work on a desperate scheme that he must have known was doomed to failure? Was it a last-ditch attempt to frighten the woman he loved into turning to him for help? Was the judge ill, perhaps under the influence of medication for the cancer he was rumored to be suffering from? (His family denies the cancer report.) Or just obsessed?

"You think you're in the Twilight Zone," said Norman Siegal, who as executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union had brought cases before the judge many times. "There's nothing in the public life of Sol Wachtler that in any way would lead you to believe he could do any of these things." The only person who might have had any answers to the questions being raised about him was in his pajamas, shackled to a bed at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center under a 24-hour suicide watch, reportedly sobbing remorsefully during visits with his wife and children. (The Wachtler children are: Lauren, a Manhattan lawyer; Alison, an actress; Marjorie; and Philip, an aspiring politician.)

On Nov. 10, Wachtler, drawn and at times fighting back tears, appeared at a bail hearing in lower Manhattan. During the brief but emotionally charged appearance, Judge Sharon Grubin announced she would allow him to be detained at home. "If my decision in releasing you reflects even a small amount of the wisdom you have shown us from the bench, we will have done all right," she said.

Wachtler left the courtroom wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet and headed for his beige-brick town house in the tree-lined Long Island community known as the Greens at North Hills. There private security guards hired at his expense are to ensure that he leaves only to visit doctors or lawyers or to go to court—until a scheduled Nov. 27 pretrial proceeding on the federal extortion charges, which carry a maximum prison term of 20 years. Following his release, Wachtler resigned as chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, a $120,000-a-year post he has held since 1985, effectively ending a distinguished 24-year judicial career.

Until this recent reversal of fortune, there seemed to be no limit to how far Wachtler, the Brooklyn-born son of a traveling auctioneer and a housewife, could rise. Touted in the past as a possible U.S. Attorney General as well as a Supreme Court prospect, he was considered the Republican moderate version of his friendly rival Mario Cuomo—but with even greater charm. Like New York's Governor, who had appointed him to his position but whom he sued last year to wrest more operating capital for the 5,000 judges he oversaw, Wachtler had a way with words. Weeks after becoming the youngest top jurist in state history, he called for the abolition of the grand-jury system, maintaining that district attorneys had so much sway that, by and large, they could persuade the panels to "indict a ham sandwich."

Yet as his career advanced, Wachtler at some point began straying from his wife, Joan, a social worker and teacher at Nassau Community College on Long Island. No one is saying when the clandestine affair with Silverman began. But eight years ago he and she were thrust together when Wachtler was named executor of the $24.8 million estate left by Silverman's stepfather—an assignment that netted the judge a fee of more than $500,000. At the time, Joy was married to Jeffrey Silverman, Jessica's father and the multimillionaire chairman of a Fortune 500 home-improvement company. (Her first husband, Richard Simons, the father of her 22-year-old son, Evan, is a builder. Second husband David Paul is a former Miami bank chairman jailed during the savings-and-loan scandal for bank fraud.)

Despite her wealth, Silverman suffered a humiliating rejection in 1989 when President Bush tried to appoint her to the Barbados ambassadorship. Critics of the nomination noted that she lacked both a college degree and any kind of work history—the experience listed on her résumé amounted to hosting dinner parties. Still, Wachtler stood by her. It was his signature that certified the financial-disclosure forms she presented to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Eventually, Bush withdrew Silverman's nomination and appointed her to the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She continued to be a valued Bush advisor and was a major fundraiser during the recent campaign.

In the face of the copious evidence amassed by the FBI, observers expect the Wachtler case to be settled as quietly as possible with a plea bargain. It is, after all, the kind of situation in which, as U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff observes, "there are no winners." Should the case never come to trial, the mystery of Judge Wachtler's motives seems likely to remain forever unsolved—perhaps, one suspects, even by him.

PAM LAMBERT
MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York

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