BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Mary Ward, a divorced gay woman, lost custody of her pre-teen daughter, Cassey, in 1995 when a Pensacola judge declared the girl should “live in a nonlesbian world.”
Judge Joseph Q. Tarbuck ruled Cassey’s father would make a better parent — even though John Ward had pleaded guilty to murdering his first wife in a rage over custody of their daughter, who years later said he tried to sexually abuse her.
In 1996, a Florida appeals court upheld Tarbuck’s decision and an anguished Mary Ward, 47, died of a heart attack soon after.
A documentary about the case, UNFIT: Ward vs. Ward, debuted Monday at the 14th annual Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. The 75-minute movie was produced by Miami Beach filmmakers Edwin Scharlau and Katie Carmichael.
“Mary Ward was a very good mother. Mary Ward was a flawed human being like we all are, but she was a very good mother. And what happened to her shouldn’t happen to anyone,” Carmichael said. “She lost custody of her 11-year-old daughter to her ex-husband solely because she was a lesbian.”
John and Mary married in 1983, shortly after he was released from a Florida prison for the second-degree murder of his previous wife, Judy.
“I wanted her to give me my divorce and custody of my daughter. And she told me she’d see me in hell first. And I told her to save me a seat. And then I shot her,” Ward told Geraldo Rivera in a 1996 television interview six months after he got custody of Cassey.
“I shot her three times in the upper left shoulder. She told me not to kill her, she would give me the baby and a divorce. I fired three times point blank into the heart. ... I reloaded and shot her six more times point.”
A week after the Geraldo appearance, John and Judy’s grown daughter, Michelle McInnes, told a Pensacola TV station: “The one thing a lot of people don’t know is my dad tried to molest me, and I know my dad tried to molest other children.”
Mary Ward had three children from a previous marriage. Her eldest daughter, Carla Janes, calls John a racist.
“When I was 16 or 17, I brought a friend of mine over, a black girl,” Janes says in UNFIT. “He was like, ‘Get that damn n----r out of my yard.’”
In 1989, Mary sought a divorce, which became final in 1992. John agreed to let her have custody of Cassey and pay $150 a month in child support.
By 1994, Mary had a new partner, Marjorie Wright, and John had married Rita Hamby. When Mary sought an increase in child support, “John filed for a complete modification of custody,” Scharlau said.
Although Mary’s sexual orientation had not previously been an issue, John and his new wife said they didn’t want Cassey raised in a lesbian household.
“John had been aware that Mary had same-sex relationships before they married,” Scharlau said. “He knew she was in a same-sex relationship because he helped move Mary into Marjorie Wright’s apartment.”
After a two-hour hearing, Tarbuck ruled against Mary.
“She was devastated,” Carmichael said. “The way she defined herself was by her children.”
After Mary lost Cassey, she called the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.
“Up until the part that she told me that John had murdered his first wife, the story was all too common,” said Kate Kendell, NCLR legal director at the time and now executive director.
She and Tallahassee attorney Charlene Carres took Mary’s case.
“I was struck by not just the legal injustice, but the human injustice. She so clearly was a lovely person and a devoted parent,” Kendell said.
“John never really wanted [Cassey]. She lived with him for a few months on and off over the next year after Mary’s death. After two or three years, she was living with Carla and being raised by Carla, who in the final ironic twist is a lesbian. This was all for naught.”
Cassey told the filmmakers she regrets not being able to stay with her mother.
“I look at my brother and my sisters, and how they’re, you know, doing good and have all their friends and great jobs and homes, and I think if Mom would have got to raise me it would be the same because they had the love and support from Mom,” she says in UNFIT. “But my dad was country and kind of narrow-minded.”
It was “very common” in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, for gay and lesbian parents to lose custody because of their sexual orientation, Kendell says, but today, Mary Ward’s story would have a different ending.
“I think things have progressed so much in Florida that Mary would not need NCLR. At the trial level, she would have been able to retain custody of Cassey. Even assuming that she lost, as was the case in her first trial, I think we … would have prevailed upon appeal.”
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., who wrote about the case in the 1990s and appears in UNFIT, isn’t so certain:
“I will argue that there still is a greater fear among some people of a lesbian mother than of a father who was a convicted killer, a racist and accused but unconvicted child molester,” Pitts said.
“It more than astonishes me. It appalls me. The starkness of it. There’s no gray area here. No nuance. Just homophobia. Straight, no chaser.”
IF YOU GO
The Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival runs through May 6. Ticket information and a full schedule are at www.mglff.com.