After partner's death, survivor had no legal standing

July 25, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

When Jim Bradley killed himself a year ago, he was about 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 140 pounds.

As thin as he was, his mind and his eyes lied to him.

"Jim believed he was fat and would go a week without food," said John Lestitian, Bradley's life partner for 13 years. They lived together in Hagerstown's North End.

Bradley resorted to prescription diet pills for three years to shed weight, Lestitian said. He suspects the pills altered his serotonin and dopamine levels and added to his depression.

Now, Lestitian said he views his partner's death unlike anyone else does. He thinks Bradley's decision to commit suicide was a wrenching but noble act.


"He rode into that combat knowing that he was going to die," Lestitian said. "He did it so I could live, (thinking) 'I'm freeing not only myself, I'm freeing John.'

"Jim believed on the other side was victory."

Lestitian said his own pain worsened after Bradley died.

In their hearts and minds, they were spouses. The state of Maryland didn't agree.

"Only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in this state," Maryland's Family Law Article says.

Without legal standing, Lestitian was unable to inherit their house, which was in Bradley's name. He also couldn't afford to buy it, so he sold it and bought another house in downtown Hagerstown.

He was the executor of Bradley's will, but the will was missing a signature and was invalid. Lestitian had to negotiate a settlement for Bradley's wish to be cremated and have his ashes scattered.

He had to pay taxes on half the balance of their joint bank accounts. He couldn't roll Bradley's retirement account into his own.

"I have no standing," Lestitian said. "I'm not a surviving spouse. I'm a 'friend.'"

Lestitian, 38, is one of 19 people suing five circuit court clerks in Maryland for not allowing them to get married, which would give them many of those rights.

Lestitian, the chief code enforcement officer for the City of Hagerstown, said he's drawing on his roots to push for change.

"My dad hasn't been one to be quiet about things. ... I can't be hurt more than I already have," he said. "I have nothing to lose and I've been blessed with the gift of family and friends and a pretty ... good intellect. I'm ready to debate with anyone."

Lestitian grew up in Pittsburgh in a Catholic family.

He earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and philosophy from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He spent his junior and senior years at St. Paul Seminary, preparing to be a Catholic priest.

But the solitude was not for him; Lestitian decided that he was meant to be joined with a spouse, part of a family.

Instead, he took a job as a correctional officer at a prison in Lancaster, Pa.

"I learned more about the human condition working in a prison in three months than I've learned in my life," he said.

Lestitian then worked as a police officer in Fairfax County, Va., for 4 1/2 years.

He said it's interesting that, under the right circumstances - "if you treat people with respect" - people spontaneously confess to crimes.

Lestitian said he left the job because he felt anti-gay discrimination.

Committed to each other

He and Bradley worked together cleaning condominiums and foreclosed houses. That didn't last long. Lestitian said they clashed and became bored by the work.

When they met one evening through friends in 1990, Lestitian said he considered Bradley "cute, but young."

On their way to a diner, Lestitian helped a police officer make an arrest. Bradley was not impressed.

They met a second time for a drink. Bradley sneaked out when Lestitian used the bathroom.

The third time, though, they discovered they knew people in common and spent hours talking and drinking wine.

Lestitian said they committed to each other in a Catholic holy union service in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 21, 1991.

"Jim had such a gentle way of approaching life," Lestitian said.

He also was a jet-setter.

Lestitian said Bradley was a concierge at the Embassy Row Hotel in Washington, D.C., at 20 years old. He flew on the Concorde.

As a couple, they ate at the best restaurants and received the finest treatment. When tickets to "The Phantom of the Opera" were sold out on Broadway, Bradley made a call and got great seats.

"Jim was one of resources, shall we say. ... It was heaven. It was fabulous," Lestitian said.

After the cleaning work fizzled, Lestitian took a security job with Sears, then went to work for the Arlington County (Va.) Sheriff's Department.

He went on to train officers at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy. Lestitian said he did thousands of interviews with gang members to gather information.

Lestitian and Bradley lived together in Knoxville in Frederick County, Md., for seven years, but teenagers there harassed them for their lifestyle near the end.

'I'd do it again'

By the time they moved to Hagerstown, Bradley's depression had gotten worse, leading him to commit suicide.

"The bottom line is I love this man and I'd do it again," Lestitian said.

The hope that he can find love and commit to someone again is fueling his legal challenge.

After Bradley died, Lestitian found a scrap of paper on which Bradley had written, "May your happy thought always include a hint of me." It was a reference to Lestitian's favorite movie, "Hook," in which the Peter Pan character remembers how to fly by having a happy thought.

"The happy thought is why I entered this lawsuit," Lestitian said.

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