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Trial opens for millionaire accused of hiring hit man to kill socialite wife
By Emanuella Grinberg, Court TV
(Court TV) On the morning of a crucial hearing in her divorce from her husband, Atlanta socialite Lita McClinton Sullivan opened the door of her opulent Buckhead home to a deliveryman who, in an instant, handed her a box of long-stemmed roses and fired a gunshot in her head. In the past 19 years since the 35-year-old's death, the investigation has produced all the elements of a crime novel, from wealth, greed and sex to class warfare, international intrigue and a fugitive on the run.
The reality of the case, however, has remained grim for the victim's parents, Emory and JoAnn McClinton, who have faced their daughter's ex-husband and accused killer, James Vincent Sullivan, several times in court without ultimate resolution. Even after the McClintons, prominent members of Atlanta's black elite, won a $4 million wrongful death judgment against James Sullivan in 1994, the millionaire with roots in Boston's Irish working class managed to evade criminal charges by fleeing to Thailand, where he remained on the lam for four years.
(Court TV) On the morning of a crucial hearing in her divorce from her husband, Atlanta socialite Lita McClinton Sullivan opened the door of her opulent Buckhead home to a deliveryman who, in an instant, handed her a box of long-stemmed roses and fired a gunshot in her head.
In the past 19 years since the 35-year-old's death, the investigation has produced all the elements of a crime novel, from wealth, greed and sex to class warfare, international intrigue and a fugitive on the run.
The reality of the case, however, has remained grim for the victim's parents, Emory and JoAnn McClinton, who have faced their daughter's ex-husband and accused killer, James Vincent Sullivan, several times in court without ultimate resolution.
Even after the McClintons, prominent members of Atlanta's black elite, won a $4 million wrongful death judgment against James Sullivan in 1994, the millionaire with roots in Boston's Irish working class managed to evade criminal charges by fleeing to Thailand, where he remained on the lam for four years.door, the couple was in the midst of a bitter and potentially costly divorce, in which Lita Sullivan accused her husband of infidelity and cruelty.
On the day of the murder, James Sullivan was hundreds of miles from the crime scene in his Palm Beach mansion, where his wife, who was 10 years younger, had left him in 1985.
The 10-year relationship between the self-made millionaire and the debutante had taken a turn for the worse in 1981, when the couple left Atlanta to start a new life in a $2 million landmark Palm Beach mansion with hopes of ascending the ranks of high society.
The climb to the upper echelons of Palm Beach's social scene proved difficult for the biracial couple, and eventually, James Sullivan was seen on the town with women other than his wife, according to Lita Sullivan's divorce petition.
Lita, whose upbringing in a prominent black Atlanta family had accustomed her to the fineries of life, also accused her husband of stinginess, in spite of his net worth.
On Jan. 16, 1987, Lita Sullivan was scheduled to attend a court hearing in downtown Atlanta to determine the legality of a postnuptial agreement limiting James Sullivan's financial payments in any divorce settlement.
She never made it to the hearing.
A new wife
With nothing linking James Sullivan to the crime scene, a judge dismissed an indictment in 1987 for lack of evidence, and the investigation stalled.
Meanwhile, with a third wife on his arm eight months after the murder, James Sullivan resumed his life with greater success as he assumed the role of head of the Palm Beach Historic Preservation Board.
The couple's happiness was short-lived, however, and Hyo-Sook Choi Rogers filed for divorce in 1990.
During the divorce proceedings, his wife, who went by Suki, implicated James Sullivan directly in his second wife's murder.
Suki Sullivan testified that she began to fear her husband after he confessed to setting up the hit on Lita Sullivan to avoid a costly divorce payout.
Suki Sullivan claimed that, after a fender-bender in which her husband was the driver, he begged her to take the blame in order to keep suspicion off him in light of the continuing investigation into Lita Sullivan's death.
Suki Sullivan agreed, but the scheme was discovered. James Sullivan received one year of house arrest for felony perjury, under which he resided as the divorce trial began.
Suki's statements paved the way for the McClintons' wrongful death suit, for which a jury awarded them $4 million in 1994. Representing himself, James Sullivan went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court to argue that a statute of limitations barred the McClintons from suing him.
But by the time the Supreme Court affirmed the $4 million judgment in 1999, James Sullivan had fled the country.
When Suki Sullivan gave her statements in court, federal prosecutors had amassed enough circumstantial evidence to indict James Sullivan on five charges of violating interstate commerce.
The evidence came in the form a record of a collect call to James Sullivan's Palm Beach home from a pay phone at a rest area outside of Atlanta about 40 minutes after Lita Sullivan was killed.
Also, wiretaps of James Sullivan's Palm Beach home after the death produced a recording of him talking to a friend about the caliber of the .9 mm murder weapon, information the police had withheld from the public. Although prosecutors theorized that Sullivan had arranged Lita's murder via telephone across state lines, they didn't have enough to charge him with murder.
But the circumstantial evidence wasn't even sufficient for a conviction for violating interstate commerce. James Sullivan's high-profile attorneys questioned the content of the telephone call from Georgia to Palm Beach, and attacked Suki Sullivan's credibility as a gold-digger.
In November 1992, James Sullivan's trial ended in a directed verdict of acquittal based largely on the lack of provable substance of the phone calls.
Once again, the millionaire was a free man.
A second shot at prosecution
By this time, the death of Lita Sullivan and James Sullivan's suspected involvement had gained a great deal of media attention.
A profile on the TV show "Extra" caught the eye of a Texas woman, who told authorities that she remembered James Sullivan as the man who gave her boyfriend at the time, Tony Harwood, $25,000 in a brief meeting in a Florida diner in 1987.
Harwood, who was arrested in 1998, admitted to authorities that he bought the roses and drove the hit man to Lita Sullivan's home.
Harwood finally pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter in 2003 and agreed to testify against Sullivan. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, receiving four years' credit for the time served.
Since giving his initial statements, however, he has waffled on whether he was actually the gunman.
Even so, authorities issued another indictment against James Sullivan in 1998 for the murder of his second wife.
By the time they went looking for him, he was gone.
Friedly says authorities now believe that, with the help of an Irish passport he obtained in 1994, James Sullivan may have left the country as early as 1997 for Costa Rica.
His trajectory continued through Panama into Venezuela, from where authorities believe he caught a flight to Thailand in 1998.
The fugitive did not take long to find a Thai woman with whom to share his luxury condo at the Springfield Beach Resort, located in Thailand's exclusive Cha-am beach resort area.
When "America's Most Wanted" broadcast a segment on him, tips from Thailand began flooding in.
In 2002, Thai authorities began monitoring James Sullivan while the U.S. secured papers for his arrest.
Missing a shoe
When Sullivan was arrested in July 2002, he initially claimed he would not fight extradition, a position he would eventually reverse.
After two years of legal wrangling to prevent his return, James Sullivan was finally extradited to the U.S. His two years in a Thai lockup had not treated him well, and on the day of his return, he greeted the press battered, bruised and missing a shoe.
Since Sullivan's return, defense attorney Don Samuel, who did not return calls for comment, worked to prevent his prosecution.
In a motion filed to support its theory of double jeopardy, the defense claimed that James Sullivan could not be tried for Lita Sullivan's death because he had already been acquitted in federal court.
The argument went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ultimately sided with Fulton Superior Court Judge John Goger's ruling that the federal prosecution concerned the use of interstate commerce facilities to commit murder-for-hire, a crime which was not within the jurisdiction of the state.
Even so, much of the evidence used in James Sullivan's federal trial is expected to resurface for his state trial.
But the old evidence, in addition to the emergence of a new witness, a jailhouse snitch who claims Sullivan solicited him as a backup hit man, will likely be subject to the same scrutiny as during his federal trial.
Opening statements are expected late Monday or early Tuesday. The trial will be aired live on Court TV and Court TV Extra.