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Wages of Sin

updated 08/25/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/25/1997 01:00AM

IT STARTED WITH A NASTY RUMOR. Dorothy Hutelmyer was in the parking lot of a Burlington, N.C., elementary school in 1995 when a friend reported hearing that she and Joseph Hutelmyer—the college sweetheart with whom she had three sons, a handsome red-brick house and, as far she knew, a perfectly happy marriage of 17 years—were about to split up. "At the time, I laughed," says Hutelmyer, now 40. But within a month, she was weeping. On Jan. 5, 1996, Joe, 43, a successful insurance executive, left her for another woman—his longtime administrative assistant Margie Cox, 39. "It was like a bolt out of the blue," says Dorothy. "...I decided this was wrong. This woman does not have the right to break up a strong, loving marriage.... And I thought, 'What am I going to do about it?' "

She decided to get revenge. By dusting off a century-old North Carolina law designed to protect husbands and wives from predatory home wreckers, Hutelmyer filed a suit against Cox for "alienation of affection"—or in plain English, for stealing her man. In a decision that instantly gave heart to jilted spouses everywhere, on Aug. 5 a Graham, N.C., jury sided with the spurned wife, ordering Cox to pay her a staggering $1 million. Hutelmyer and her lawyer, James Walker, successfully used testimony from some 15 witnesses to convince the panel that Cox—who married her former boss last May and now goes by the name Lynne Hutelmyer—used peroxide, short skirts and relentless flirting to woo her new husband, whom she also sometimes accompanied on out-of-town business trips. "She's a sinner," says Dorothy, who has regularly attended the Reformed Presbyterian Church since her divorce from Joe last March. "What she did was against the laws of society. She put it in her mind to seduce him and to continually seduce him until she got what she set out to get."

Not so, counters the second Mrs. Hutelmyer. Lynne, now a full-time college student, insists she began a physical relationship with Joseph in 1994 only after he had assured her that his marriage was damaged beyond repair. When his company was put up for sale in 1990, he says he tried to talk to his wife about the increasing professional and financial pressures he was feeling. "I wanted serious conversation, someone to argue with, to learn something from," Joe says, "and Dorothy just didn't provide that." His ever-sunny wife never wanted to listen, he claims, and he never confessed how unhappy he was with the marriage. "My biggest regret was I didn't continually push to convince Dorothy how bad things were."

What Dorothy Hutelmyer did supply, by all accounts, was a stable home for Joseph and their sons—Kevin, 16, Chris, 15, and Lee, 12. A native of Levittown, Pa., she had been a third-year English major on a scholarship to Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill College when she met Joseph, a blind date for a formal dance. They fell in love and were married in Levittown in 1976. Three years later they moved to Burlington, where Joe, a 1976 Drexel University graduate with a degree in business, began climbing the ladder to a $150,000-a-year job as president of Seaboard Underwriters Inc. "I suppose I had my hands full, but it didn't seem like it," says Dorothy, a PTA officer. "I loved it—being at home, being a mother."

Dorothy says she now realizes that by the early '90s her marriage was foundering. Joe was increasingly absent from home—working late or on business trips, as he explained it—and the couple were rarely physically intimate after 1993. (Dorothy once surprised Joe by renting a hotel room for them in an unsuccessful attempt to spark their sex life.) Joe and Lynne admit to becoming an item in the summer of 1994. Lynne, then a recent divorcee with two children of her own, flatly denies she played the part of the temptress—although she did trade in her glasses for contact lenses and have her hair cut fashionably short. "I reacted the way a lot of people who are newly divorced react," she says. "I was doing what I could to feel better about myself."

In September 1995, Joe Hutelmyer rented an apartment for his secret trysts with Lynne. He finally told Dorothy he wanted out of the marriage just after New Year's Day 1996. "When the kids were out somewhere and it was just the two of us at home," says Joe, "I just realized that without those kids we had nothing."

Surprisingly, the couple remained friendly until Dorothy's court victory, sitting side-by-side at PTA meetings. Although she shows no sympathy for Lynne (whose assets, including a $3,000 engagement ring from Joe, Dorothy will now try to collect as part of the damages awarded by the nine-woman, three-man jury), she still respects the man who betrayed her. "I know this sounds crazy," Dorothy says of her ex, who pays $4,000 in monthly child support, "but I think he's a good person who did something, well, something very stupid."

PATRICK ROGERS
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT and TODD RICHISSIN in Burlington

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