Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsDoctors

Drug Use Weakened Allegations of Abuse : Shooting: Eileen Zelig's claims that her ex-husband was dangerous were easier to dismiss because of her history of pill popping.

September 10, 1995|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With their three kids and suburban Chatsworth home, Eileen and Harry Zelig seemed to one friend as typifying the all-American, professional middle-class family.

But when their marriage unraveled and a bitter divorce ensued, that picture of normalcy evaporated, at least to those privy to the couple's voluminous divorce files.

Those court records reveal that beneath the cloak of domesticity, Eileen Zelig was a housewife who frequented pharmacies throughout the San Fernando Valley to quench her need for the powerful narcotic painkiller Vicodin, an addiction she claimed to have overcome.

She in turn swore under oath that her husband, a physician, supplied her with huge quantities of the drug he obtained from mail-order pharmaceutical companies. She also alleged he abused Vicodin himself while also taking anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs to curb his rage and suicidal tendencies. He denied it.

In almost 800 pages of numbing charges and countercharges, the warring spouses accused each other of physical and emotional abuse, behaviors often associated with taking mind-altering substances, be they perfectly chilled martinis or benign-looking pills.

The role of drugs aside, the couple seemed "so entwined emotionally with allegations going back and forth . . . it was clear they would be at odds forever," said Leonard Levine, one of Harry Zelig's attorneys.

"Forever" arrived Sept. 1, when the doctor allegedly gunned down his ex-wife at a place that had become their personal battleground--the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse Downtown. The couple's 6-year-old daughter was an eyewitness.

Now the three children the Zeligs fought over so furiously are without either parent. Eileen is dead and Harry is in the County Jail, charged with her murder.

Although it is unclear what role drugs played in the tragic ending of the Zeligs' love-hate match, one theme recurs in the court record: Because Eileen was the accused pill-popper and Harry the respected doctor, it was apparently all too easy to dismiss her incessant complaints that he was dangerous.

In court papers, Harry Zelig said Vicodin was his wife's "drug of choice," a precipitating factor in the couple's divorce after 11 years of marriage.

The strong, codeine-based painkiller is a favorite potion of middle-class drug users, substance abuse experts say. Its allure comes from its potency: Vicodin is the most powerful painkiller available without a special, closely monitored prescription written in triplicate as required by law.

"Vicodin is abused a lot," said Robert Popovian, a doctor of pharmacy and a researcher at USC. "It's a problem."

Eileen Zelig said she started using the drug the way experts say most people do--innocently. It was prescribed to her as a painkiller in 1988 for a broken rib, Zelig wrote in a sworn statement.

"People take them for good cause," said Dr. David Murphy, who heads the Exodus Recovery Center, a drug treatment program at Daniel Freeman-Marina Hospital. "Some people have difficulty stopping."

Murphy was an expert witness for Harry Zelig at the couple's custody hearing in mid-1994. He testified that paranoid feelings were a common side effect of prescription painkiller abuse, testimony used to imply that Eileen Zelig's fears were the product of an over-medicated mind.

Indeed, none of the attorneys who had ongoing contact with Harry Zelig suspected that he was capable of violence, despite a criminal charge--never proven in court--that he slapped Eileen once on the night they separated.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think he would shoot her or do anything to her physically," said Levine, Harry Zelig's attorney in the misdemeanor battery case.

Eileen's friends and the couple's neighbors believed otherwise, describing Harry as moody, withdrawn and volatile. They also described incidents in which, despite a restraining order, he circled the quiet cul-de-sac where his ex-wife lived, stalking her. She installed floodlights, got a dog and worried.

But for all the signs that Zelig was a potential threat, drugs undermined Eileen Zelig's credibility again and again.

On the witness stand during the custody hearing, Eileen Zelig was confronted with prescription records showing she had obtained as many as 1,000 pills a month. The cache included the tranquilizer Valium and diet pills, along with Vicodin.

Eileen insisted the prescriptions, obtained in her name, were for Harry Zelig. She and her attorneys also offered a sworn statement from a substance abuse specialist who said Eileen appeared to have a handle on her admitted problem.

Bernard McInerney, a therapist who at one point was seeing the entire Zelig family, also wrote in a sworn affidavit that Harry Zelig admitted obtaining Vicodin for his wife and keeping it in the house when she was struggling to overcome her addiction. McInerney did not return phone calls, and the court file is replete with statements by Zelig about how he agonized over his wife's drug use and its effect on their family.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|