Aspenite in murder-for-hire case scores legal victory over phony lawyer
While former Aspen resident Gwen Bergman sits in an Oklahoma prison for a murder-for-hire conviction, she recently scored a legal victory that will allow her to sue Howard Kieffer, who awaits sentencing after being found guilty of impersonating a lawyer.
In June a federal appeals court ruled she can pursue her civil fraud case against Kieffer, who held himself out to be an attorney when he represented her in a murder-for-hire trial last year.
The appellate court’s ruling, made public this week, reversed the trial court’s dismissal of Bergman’s lawsuit against Kieffer. Now Bergman, 53, can go ahead and sue – she’s seeking $170,000 – after the lower court dismissed the case on the grounds that she did not follow proper procedure when filing the suit.
Filed last year in Denver federal court, Bergman’s suit claims she paid $70,000 to Kieffer to represent her in a May 2008 bench trial in Denver. There she stood accused of hiring a hit man on the Internet in 2004 to kill her ex-husband, John LaCouture of Aspen, who was never harmed.
Kieffer was one of seven defense attorneys who represented Bergman, court records indicate.
After the four-day trial U.S. District Judge Walker Miller found her guilty of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, and use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire. In November, Miller sentenced her to concurrent sentences of 108 months. He also ordered her to undergo mental health treatment.
But in the months leading up to the sentencing, Kieffer’s credentials as an attorney were called into question, chiefly because of a July 2008 Denver Post article that reported he did not have his law license and he never graduated from law school.
That article sparked a criminal investigation, and in May, a federal jury in North Dakota convicted Kieffer, of Duluth, Minn., on charges of mail fraud and false statements in impersonating a lawyer, The Associated Press reported. He is believed to have represented clients in 10 states, and faces up to 25 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. He is scheduled to be sentenced July 30.
It is unclear from court records if Bergman has taken actions to appeal the conviction or seek a new trial because Kieffer was found to be a phony lawyer.
Her lawsuit says he “masqueraded as an attorney,” and accuses him of fraud, misrepresentation and extortion.
In her lawsuit, Bergman does not have an attorney, as she is representing herself on a pro se basis. She has hand-written her complaints from her prison in Forth Worth, Texas, where she was incarcerated until being transferred to Florida and then Oklahoma.
She also continues to fight to have property that was seized from her returned. Among the property she wants returned are her Yukon SUV, animals, jewelry, cash, checks and luggage, according to court papers she filed in May.
Additionally, she filed a motion to have the case transferred to California, because, she alleges, the Colorado courts conspired with Kieffer. The change-of-venue motion was denied last week.
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