Lawyer William Hill (left) and Claud Tex McIver
Lawyer William Hill (left) and Claud Tex McIver (JOHN SPINK / AJC)

It wasn’t just that a partner in one of Atlanta’s oldest law firms—also a politically prominent Republican—had inexplicably shot his wife while stopped at a traffic light at the entrance to a city park.

It was that the story kept changing.

Each new tweak to the tale of how Diane McIver was shot to death by her husband, Fisher & Phillips senior partner Claud “Tex” McIver, stoked a public chorus of growing suspicion. Soon, county prosecutors added their voices.

McIver has been known for years in Republican circles, but a more public portrait is emerging in court hearings of a man with an inordinate fondness for guns, and, according to prosecutors, a desire to wield political influence. Questions in court explore his relationships with a Fulton County judge whose son is McIver’s godson and with a member of Georgia’s judicial watchdog agency whom McIver has hired as his private investigator.

For more than two months after Diane McIver’s death, law enforcement authorities were quiet about the case. But after McIver, as the designated executor of his wife’s estate, began auctioning off all her possessions, Fulton County prosecutors launched a zealous — and public — pursuit of her husband and worked to thwart what they say they view as his efforts to profit from her death. Prosecutors challenged the auctions McIver had arranged and sought to remove him as executor of her estate. They also launched a hunt for a second will they have claimed in court papers could reveal a financial motive for Diane McIver’s death. No second will was found, and McIver’s attorneys cried foul.

Prosecutors now appear to have the upper hand. In April, they persuaded a county grand jury to elevate involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct charges to malice and felony murder. Before the indictment was handed down, they also persuaded a judge to revoke McIver’s bond, a position that Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney reaffirmed on Tuesday.

William Hill, a member of McIver’s defense team, reiterated Tuesday after McIver was denied bond that Diane McIver’s shooting was an accident. McIver, he said, “is suffering greatly” while prosecutors have “created fictions like the phantom will.”

The circumstances of Diane McIver’s death remain murky, and the saga — a tale of wealth, political prominence, guns, race and privilege — is far from over.

“If the national news were not all politics and the focus was back on the latest celebrated trials, this case would be the talk of cable television,” said veteran criminal defense attorney B.J. Bernstein.

DIANE’S DEATH

Early news reports of Diane McIver’s death on Sept. 26, 2016, were sparse: an unidentified woman shot in the back while riding in a car near Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.

Atlanta media quickly discovered that the unidentified woman was McIver, president of U.S. Enterprises, a scrappy airport advertising firm that had successfully sued the city of Atlanta over sweetheart airport vendor deals. Her husband, who sat on the Georgia Board of Elections and had been a member of a panel that recommended candidates for judgeships for then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Police released few details about the shooting. Diane McIver had been riding in a sport utility vehicle with “people she knew” when she was shot, and a firearm was discharged inside the vehicle, an Atlanta police spokeswoman told local media outlets. Detectives were investigating. No charges had been filed.

Fisher & Phillips issued a public statement, calling the shooting “an unthinkable tragedy” and referring to Tex McIver as “a respected law partner with deep community ties.”

SHIFTING STORY

McIver’s first statement to news media, two days after the shooting, injected an element of racial unrest into the story of his wife’s death at a pivotal moment in the country. When a family friend of Tex McIver, Bill Crane, explained the circumstances that led to the shooting, he tied the incident to the Black Lives Matter protests that were being held that weekend in Atlanta and around the country. Tex and his wife, he said, were being driven through unfamiliar downtown streets, and the lawyer was wary of people he spotted as they passed by. Fearing carjackers and concerned about potential rioting, Tex asked his wife to pass him a gun that he kept in the SUV’s console. That gun would eventually end his wife’s life in what McIver and his lawyers maintain was a tragic accident.

Crane’s Black Lives Matter comments were spotlighted and drove national news coverage of the case.

Then McIver’s attorney, Stephen Maples, contradicted Crane, telling media outlets that McIver never had any concern about Black Lives Matter protests. Instead, according to Maples, McIver had asked for the gun as the Ford Expedition drove through an area where homeless people congregated.

But one detail was off. That neighborhood was not where Diane McIver was shot. The bullet was fired three miles north in an upscale neighborhood directly across from the entrance to Piedmont Park, known as the Central Park of the South.

Whether McIver feared protesters, carjackers or the homeless wasn’t the only part of the story that changed. So did explanations from McIver, his attorney and his spokesmen as to how and why the gun — which McIver said was wrapped in a plastic grocery bag on his lap in the back seat — was fired.

McIver was removing the gun from the bag when it went off.

The SUV hit a bump, causing the gun to discharge.

There wasn’t a bump. Instead, McIver fell asleep with the gun in his lap.

He forgot about the gun.

He was startled, or jarred, awake, and the gun discharged.

He was awakened by the gunshot.

He just didn’t remember.

AN ARREST

How the gun went off wasn’t the only problem with McIver’s narrative. Other details shifted. For a prosecutor, the changing explanations are “giving you the case on a silver platter,” said J. Tom Morgan, DeKalb County’s former district attorney. “The more you try to come up with explanations, the more they sound like lies.”

Within a week of the shooting, Maples said McIver had taken a polygraph administered by a former FBI agent. Polygrapher Richard Rackleff told local television outlets that he asked McIver if he had intentionally fired the gun, if he had done anything to cause the gun to fire or knowingly discharged it in his SUV. McIver said no to all three questions, Rackleff said. He also said the lawyer was telling the truth.

Last October, nearly a month after the shooting, the Fulton County medical examiner released Diane McIver’s autopsy, which introduced more questions about the shooting narrative. Still, weeks passed and no charges were filed. McIver’s lawyer continued to insist there never would be.

When Tex McIver arranged to auction off his wife’s possessions, what had been a simmering suspicion by county prosecutors and police finally boiled over. On Dec. 21, two weeks after the first auction, police issued an arrest warrant charging McIver with involuntary manslaughter, a felony, and reckless conduct, a misdemeanor. Bail was set at $200,000 — a high bond in Fulton County for a crime that by statute labeled the shooting as unintentional. McIver was ordered to wear an ankle monitor and surrender his passport. He retired from Fisher & Phillips after he was charged.

McIver was also barred from having any guns in his possession. 

McIver — a member the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Gun Violence — had lots of guns. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, a friend of McIver’s, took custody of 10 handguns and 25 long guns the lawyer had at his farm, where the living room was styled after a saloon with guns mounted on the walls and a chandelier adorned with revolvers. Family friends who had searched the McIvers’ condominium before McIver returned home after his arrest pulled more guns from a closet and from atop an armoire in the master bedroom.

McIver’s arrest didn’t stop the lawyer from continuing to liquidate his wife’s assets. In early January, when Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard learned that McIver had arranged another auction, he tried to stop it. The DA filed two emergency motions: one to stop the auction and one to prevent McIver from using estate assets to pay his lawyers to fight the criminal charges. Both were denied.

Meanwhile, throughout last winter and early this spring, a county grand jury continued to investigate Diane McIver’s death, quietly subpoenaing people and records in what Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker eventually revealed in court papers was a hunt for a second will. Prosecutors secured a search warrant for McIver’s condominium on April 14 to look for evidence of the document; instead, they found a gun hidden in McIver’s sock drawer.

That gun was enough to prompt Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney to revoke McIver’s bond.

McBurney said evidence in the case demonstrates that McIver “poses a significant threat to himself and to others when he possesses firearms. “The threat to others is patent,” the judge continued. “Witness the uncontroverted facts underlying the indictment.”

POLITICAL CONNECTIONS

The next day, a grand jury indicted McIver on charges of malice and felony murder, both potential death penalty offenses. It also charged McIver with illegally attempting to influence three witnesses, among them his spokesman, Bill Crane, whom he allegedly urged to retract his Black Lives Matter statements. McIver’s defense lawyer Hill said this never happened and insisted that McIver never asked Crane “to be anything but candid with police.”

Rucker, the assistant district attorney, claims McIver won’t stop there.

Last week, he fought to keep McIver from securing a new bond on the enhanced criminal charges. He said McIver would try to leverage his political prominence to influence not only witnesses in the pending case but also public officials to speak on his behalf.

Rucker then revealed that Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall recently visited McIver in jail, and told McIver, “I’m with you 1,000 percent.” Schwall’s ex-wife also was prepared to testify at the hearing on McIver’s behalf, and Schwall’s father also stood up in court and asked that McIver be released.

Rucker also singled out Richard Hyde, former longtime investigator and now a commissioner for the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which disciplines the state’s judges over ethical infractions, noting that he now works for McIver. He also is in possession of a number of the lawyer’s guns in a safe at the law firm where he works as an investigator for former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers. And the wife of the polygrapher who administered McIver’s polygraph works for the JQC on which Hyde serves.

WHAT’S NEXT

With twists at every turn, it’s hard to tell what may come next in the Tex McIver case. The trial is set for October. Hill, one of McIver’s attorneys, noted McIver’s advanced age Tuesday, and said he is “suffering greatly” after having lost his wife in a tragic accident, only to be told he’ll be kept in jail until trial. Hill also said that the court “has looked the other way when the D.A.’s office violated court orders, violated state statutes, created fictions like the phantom will and made misrepresentations to the court.”

Meanwhile, in addition to keeping McIver locked up, a fight is still ongoing in county probate court over Diane McIver’s will, where prosecutors have persuaded the court to seal the majority of the record, including challenges to the will and McIver’s appointed role as executor.

At McIver’s arraignment, Rucker announced that the district attorney has retained two King & Spalding attorneys, senior litigation partner Ray Persons and partner Leticia “Tish” McDonald — both longtime business litigators — and sworn them in as special assistant district attorneys to handle the “probate issues that have been intertwined” with the ongoing murder case.

Questions also persist regarding seized materials McIver’s condominium and the office of a estate planning lawyer McIver and his wife had consulted. McIver sued the DA over what he claimed was the illegal seizure and use of privileged and work-product protected documents and communications. The DA has retained Anita Wallace Thomas, a partner at Atlanta’s Nelson Mullins, to draw up protocols for reviewing the seized materials, Rucker said.

And about McIver’s alleged efforts to seek help from politically connected friends? Rucker has put the court on notice.

“It’s just the way it appears,” Rucker continued. “It’s just bad. And it does not give any confidence that there is a fair administration of justice.”