Originally published October 10, 2013
It’s not every day that a successful Chicago businessman flees the country after moving his money offshore to avoid paying it to his wife in a divorce settlement.
But it does happen, as Lavonda Timke, 74, can attest. Timke’s husband was ordered to pay her millions of dollars. He never did.
Timke’s divorce from her husband, Vernon, could be a cautionary tale for both former Chicago Board of Trade Chairman Patrick Arborand his wife, Antoinette Vigilante.
It’s already been cited as a legal precedent in the Arbor case for its factual similarities.
Vernon Timke was a construction contractor from LaGrange when Lavonda, his wife of 29 years, filed for divorce in 1989.
“He liked to fool around,” Lavonda Timke told me matter-of-factly Wednesday after I lucked out in tracking her down.
A divorce court judge held Vernon Timke in contempt of court when he failed to comply with Lavonda Timke’s discovery requests and also failed to appear in court as ordered. As in the Arbor case, the trial judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest.
About that time, Lavonda Timke would testify, Vernon took his money and left the country.
He stashed the money in the Cayman Islands and established residency in the Virgin Islands. He also kept a Swiss bank account, his wife said.
Vernon Timke told Lavonda by phone that “no judge would tell him what to do with his money after he had worked for 40 years” and that she would never find it.
A traditional housewife who stayed home to raise their three kids as was the norm in the era of their 1960 marriage, Lavonda Timke was surprised to find out just how wealthy her husband was when she finally got a look at their tax returns through the divorce case.
Vernon Timke’s Allied Chimney and Construction specialized in demolition and repair of industrial smokestacks, but also built three of the largest office buildings in Oak Brook and strip malls across the country.
The judge awarded Lavonda Timke $3.9 million as her share of the marital estate, including the couple’s home valued at $300,000, and another $4.5 million in lump-sum maintenance. As in the Arbor case, the judge didn’t trust Vernon Timke to make regular payments.
Vernon Timke took his case to the Illinois Appellate Court, but the justices showed little sympathy for someone who places himself beyond the court’s reach while attacking a court ruling that he defies. Take note, Patrick Arbor, who is planning his own appeal.
Lavonda Timke won the appeal, but she never received the money. Take note, Antoinette Vigilante, who no doubt still hopes to collect on her $18 million award.
Lavonda Timke didn’t even get the house. Her husband deliberately loaded it up with debt, which he didn’t repay, and she lost it in foreclosure.
She and her lawyers spent years unsuccessfully chasing the money.
“When they hide the money, it is almost impossible to find it. They’re almost always one step ahead. You think you find an account that has money in it, and you go in to freeze the account, and the money is gone,” she said.
And nobody in authority was actually trying to locate or apprehend her husband, who traveled in and out of the U.S. at will.
Lavonda Timke sometimes held two jobs to support herself and their youngest child. She sold her jewelry.
Under those circumstances, you might imagine it was a very bitter Lavonda Timke that I encountered on the phone Wednesday. You would be wrong.
Lavonda Timke said she and Vernon fought so long that it had started to affect their children and her own health.
“It was wearing everybody down. It wasn’t worth it. It just wasn’t worth it,” she said. “I thought enough is enough.”
Eventually, she released the judgment against Vernon Timke, signing away her right to the millions of dollars he owed her.
“I got a couple of thousand dollars, and that was it,” she said. Vernon Timke also agreed to pay her lawyers, but never did.
“He loved to be in control of his money. Money, it meant a lot to him,” Lavonda Timke said.
About five years after she released her claim, Vernon Timke was diagnosed with lung cancer. By 1999, he was dead.
Lavonda Timke believes his estate was valued at more than $12 million, which as she says was a “lot of money back then.” But the Virgin Islands claimed half of it in taxes, she said. Her children inherited a portion of the rest, again nothing for her.
Lavonda Timke now has a “small place” in Venice, Fla., and lives on Social Security. She is visiting her daughter in the Chicago area this week.
“It does not bother me anymore,” Lavonda Timke said. “You can’t live on bitterness. It doesn’t get you very far. I’m happy.”
She sounded it.