CHATSWORTH — Eileen Zelig was just starting to get her life on track. After months of acrimonious child support battles with her ex-husband and surviving on welfare checks and money from yard sales, she planned to attend her first class Tuesday to become a paralegal.
She'll never have the chance because she was fatally shot outside a Los Angeles County Superior courtroom Friday. Her ex-husband, Dr. Harry Zelig, 48, of Woodland Hills, was arrested on suspicion of killing her.
Friends said Eileen Zelig, 40, a Chatsworth homemaker with no source of outside income, was inspired to pursue paralegal studies by her experiences representing herself in divorce court appearances because she could no longer afford an attorney.
"She had the books and everything" for the class, said Dana Takit, a longtime friend of Eileen Zelig. "Two days before she died she was really happy. She said 'Now I have the beginning of a new life.' "
Since their divorce in 1994, the Zeligs fought bitterly over money and property, friends of the couple said.
According to court records of the couple's divorce and custody fight, Eileen Zelig filed many reports claiming that she feared her husband. During one hearing, records show that a judge ordered Harry Zelig to turn over his collection of about four pistols to Iris Joan Finsilver, a Beverly Hills attorney who represented him until two months ago. Finsilver said the guns are still in her office.
However, Finsilver and other friends of Harry Zelig said the news of the shooting was startling and unlike anything he would do.
"He's an educated person, a physician," said Finsilver, who represented Harry Zelig throughout his divorce and custody battles. "I could never have perceived something like this happening."
Joseph Fischbach, a civil attorney who has known Zelig for 16 years, said the killing is not all one-sided. "Harry is not a monster. He's totally devastated," he said.
Friends of the Zeligs said the couple did not always have a tumultuous marriage, but it began to unravel in 1991.
"They seemed to be a normal family except for when he was moody," said neighbor Nancy Wankovsky. "As neighbors, you knew when to stay away from him."
Wankovsky said Harry Zelig was very reserved and rarely said more than "Hello."
Eileen and Harry Zelig met in 1980 while they both were working at a West Los Angeles managed health care clinic. Harry Zelig was a general practitioner and Eileen worked as an office manager.
"There was a chemistry between them at first," said Takit, who had been friends with Eileen Zelig since 1973 when they were students at the University of Kentucky.
"They had a lot of fun and they laughed a lot together," she said.
The couple married in 1982 and had their first child on their first anniversary.
Zelig's success as a doctor was important to his wife, who wanted more than anything to be a mother and stay home with her children.
"She enjoyed being a mom to the hilt, it was like a profession to her . . . and she was great at it," Takit said.
Two other children were born, the youngest in 1989. Problems between the couple began gradually after that, forcing them to seek marriage counseling in 1991.
The marriage, however, was continuously weakened by numerous arguments between the couple over various issues, including her desire to move to another state. At one point, according to court records, Eileen Zelig abruptly took her children to her parents' home in Philadelphia in 1991 after her husband allegedly threatened to kill the family dog.
But it was an argument between the couple in 1993, when Harry Zelig was arrested for slapping his wife, that led to the divorce last year and subsequent bitter court battles between them.
Both Eileen and Harry Zelig were at fault for the ongoing legal feud, according to their friends and court records.
In court documents, Eileen Zelig claimed her ex-husband had abused her and that she feared for her life. He claimed she was using the legal system to destroy him financially.
In January, 1994, Eileen Zelig pleaded no contest to a count of disturbing the peace following a confrontation between the couple several months earlier at his office. Zelig said the incident aggravated his heart problems. The case was dismissed in July, 1994, after Eileen Zelig completed a domestic violence counseling program.
Last month, she obtained a court judgment ordering him to pay about $5,400 in outstanding support. At the time, his payments for the mortgage, child support and spousal support totaled more than $3,500 a month, court records show.
But Harry Zelig contended he could not afford the steep support payments. Earlier this year, he was hospitalized with health problems, including diabetes and heart trouble. At the same time, he said his job as a consultant to the Medical Board of California was revamped and his pay was cut.