At one end of the Los Angeles courtroom sat the Albans, looking grim and determined. Hunkered uncomfortably in her wheelchair, Julie Alban, 23, trembled when the prosecuting attorney held up the gun whose bullet had severed her spinal cord. Her mother took her hand.
Opposite them across the aisle, looking equally distressed, sat the Ridder/Ackerman clan with Bradley Ackerman seeming especially intent on avoiding the gaze of the former girlfriend he had shot in the back.
Time was when these families had been close. Among the wealthiest and most prominent citizens of Long Beach, the parents had even traveled to Israel together. And Ackerman and Julie Alban, who had lived across the street from each other since early childhood, had spent weekends together at Ackerman's Westwood apartment, shared trips to Las Vegas and Mexico, and finally become involved in what Julie Alban later described as a "very close relationship."
Then that relationship went awry.
During a stay at the Alban home, Ackerman, the 24-year-old stepson of Long Beach Press-Telegram Chairman Daniel H. Ridder, did the unexpected. Using a handgun owned by Julie's father, prominent orthopedic surgeon Dr. Seymour Alban, Ackerman shot the woman while she was sleeping, then turned the gun on himself.
Alban Left Paralyzed
Ackerman recovered from the bullet wound in his chest; Julie Alban was paralyzed from the waist down. Now the families were in court watching Ackerman being tried for attempted murder.
In testimony, Julie Alban attributed the June 8 shooting to her rejection of Ackerman's proposal of marriage. Ackerman painted a very different picture. Deeply depressed by his failures as a tennis player, the one-time national junior champion said, he had become a compulsive gambler and Valium user. On the night of the shooting, he said, an overdose of Valium caused him to "black out" and unintentionally shoot the woman he loved.
This week a jury apparently believed Julie Alban's version. After deliberating 11 1/2 hours over four days, the jury convicted Ackerman of attempted first-degree murder, an offense carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. After ordering Ackerman to be held without bail in the hospital section of the Los Angeles County jail, Superior Court Judge J.D. Smith set sentencing for Feb. 6.
But beyond the legal battle, a quieter drama was unfolding. For here was the spectacle of two families trying to grasp the unthinkable, former friends trying to sort out conflicting loyalties in order to reconcile new realities with old ones. Like the Capulets and Montagues of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", they were struggling to cope with tragedy.
The struggle could be seen in several small vignettes.
One was the image of Dr. Seymour Alban, looking mild with hunched shoulders, speaking quietly to the Ridders amid the glare of television lights during a recess in the corridor. A description of the meeting in Ridder's own newspaper as "amiable" drew angry disagreement from the Albans.
Later Julie's mother, Reva Alban, her eyes reflecting her strong feelings, invited Daniel Ridder outside the courtroom for a hushed conversation that she described as an "intense confrontation" regarding certain perceived errors in his testimony. The idea of marriage, Ridder had suggested, had been pushed by Seymour Alban himself rather than by Ackerman.
At another point in the conversation, Ridder, looking polished but uncomfortable in a gray suit, was heard to be saying: "We honestly feel that he wouldn't have done it if he hadn't taken all those pills."
'Picked Up Stray Puppy'
In an interview after the exchange, Reva Alban described her family's former friendship with the young man who had pulled the trigger: "We picked up a stray puppy and he turned out to be a rabid dog."
Then there was the riveting moment when Julie Alban was asked on the witness stand whether she had loved Ackerman until he shot her. She replied that she had, then broke into tears while the young tennis champion buried his face in his hands.
All of that seemed a memory Tuesday as Ackerman, Daniel Ridder and other grim-faced family members gathered for one last time in the courtroom to hear the jury's decision. Notably absent were the Albans, who remained at home.
"It's only what's fair," Julie Alban said in a telephone interview after the verdict was announced. "It's totally reaffirmed my faith in the criminal justice system."
But there was a hollowness to her satisfaction. "Brad meant a lot to me and it's a horrible feeling of betrayal that he could make a decision to end my life," she said. "I think it's a sad story. It's the complete destruction of two lives."