Judge Joel Stephen Gehrke
Can we clone him?
by Cathy Ramey
Because of the sensitive nature of some of the actual criminal charges, to protect the privacy of victims, some individuals are referred to only by first and last initials. All events surrounding these people are part of the public court record in Montcalm County in the state of Michigan and represent real events. This story involves some language which may be considered offensive.
It was "J.D's" first visit inside of a courtroom, a frightening experience, but different than the fear she'd felt ever since her father was released from prison in 1985.
She hardly knew him. He'd been sent to prison for molesting children when she was only four years old. That was in 1981. Then, with his release, he'd gone to court and convinced a Montcalm County judge that all he wanted to do was raise his little girl. At the age of eight, J.D's clothes were packed up along with her favorite toys. She was taken from foster care, the only stable home she'd ever had, and released into his custody.
Initially the transition went okay, but old habits die hard. Eventually her father's odd affection meant that his hands wandered up and down her body and into private places. Sometimes his breath smelled of alcohol when his mouth touched hers, other times she knew he was stoned on something else. All of the time she lived with him she was afraid.
When she was ten J.D. confided to a teacher that her father was doing bad things to her, but by the time a hearing was held the little girl had been pressured by her father's relatives to change her story. She was never called to testify, and the court quickly accepted a plea on a much lesser charge. In the end she went to stay with her foster family again, but only for three months while her father finished a court ordered drug treatment program. After that the court ordered that she be returned to him and he became more physically aggressive, beating her frequently for almost any reason. The sexual abuse continued as well.
When she was twelve a teacher at the school complained of bruises on her body and called the Department of Social Services who took her away. But the court system in Montcalm County, again, hoping to resolve the situation without wasting court time, decided that allegations of physical abuse were not a compelling reason to keep J.D. from going home to her daddy.
For the next six months he frequently locked J.D. into her room and routinely raped and beat her. Finally she fled her home and he fled the state. His court trial commenced approximately two years later after he was extradited and held in jail for over a year.
Before coming to court J.D. had dreamed of going to law school, maybe becoming a judge, but all of that changed. In 1992, she finally faced her father from the witness stand.
"This was an open-court," she remembers. His family packed the small courtroom leaving only the couple who had foster-parented J.D. to support her.
Her father's lawyer, appointed by the court, was from one of Montcalm County's oldest firms, a vigorous defender who made every effort to challenge her testimony.
"As a teenager, to be questioned like that was very hard," she says, her voice trailing off a little. Behind the defense table her father shoved his body forward and called her a liar. At one point he lunged over the table in order to threaten her.
"If my father's lawyer was being really hard," she recalls, the judge would "tell him to stop. He [the judge] made me just look at him and answer the questions so I wouldn't have to look at my dad or his lawyer . . . [they] were very frightening."
Eventually, because of the serious nature of the charges, the case was moved to a higher court in the county. Her father's case was plea-bargained down by Andrea Evanski, a member of the prosecutor's office who sought a quick resolution, and he was sentenced to a minimum of ten years in jail for brutally raping and beating his daughter on several occasions.
The sentence could have been longer, probably should have been longer, but J.D. finally felt safe. To this day she talks of the lower court judge who helped her get through the most intimidating, intimate, embarrassing, and frightening part of the legal process . . . having to speak in public about what her own father had done to her.
"He protected me," she says of the judge. "I was so thankful for that. A lot of judges might have let him swear at me . . . that day was really important in my life . . . I really look up to him."
On February 3, 1995, Peggy Petrekovich remembers driving down the highway with her friend and their four children. The two girls, Angie and Jennie, both nine, sat in the rear seat of her tan Ford Taurus wagon looking through the rear window. There was snow, she recalls, the first of eight inches that would fall that night, and the road, unlit by street lighting, was difficult to see.
Almost before she knew what was happening, a vehicle came up behind her, following so closely that its headlights were nearly hidden beneath the rear window of her car. The girls, facing the oncoming vehicle, were afraid. Only a minute later the driver would careen around her, almost hitting the side of her car, slide off the side of the road and pull up tightly in front of her.
""I flicked my brights and he slammed on his brakes," Peggy remembers.
John Brechting, the driver in the other vehicle had been at a birthday celebration only minutes before. After a few beers, a meal out at a restaurant, and complaining that his cake was too small to feed everyone, he and his family were headed home. He was grouchy and in no mood to follow a slow driver just because there was snow on the ground. He pulled up close, swung around her, over to the side of the road, and back onto the highway, with just barely enough room between his car and hers.
When her bright lights flickered in his mirror he hit the brakes and shifted into reverse. Fortunately Peggy was driving cautiously. She quickly maneuvered past him and continued down the road into the town of Howard City, but now Brechting was behind her again, following too close, his bright beams filling the inside of her car with light.
Peggy's story goes like a made-for-TV thriller movie after this. Feeling panic set in she decided to head for the police station knowing it was not likely to be staffed. The town boasted only one officer, whose title was Chief of Police, and whose schedule was largely unknown. At the station she would leave a message for him, and maybe look for a buzzer to the building, hidden behind one of the local businesses. In fact, no one in the town actually knew where the buzzer was, only that there was one somewhere close by.
After stopping in the parking lot and searching behind her visor to find note paper and a pen, Peggy pulled the handle on her car door. The door swung out about eight inches before hitting against something hard and dark. Suddenly, looming up above her was John Brechting.
With his headlights turned off, and the snow coming down so thickly that visibility was poor, he had wedged his car up close to hers. Now, after twisting her fingers, he grabbed her coat, and yelled to his wife to drive their car away. Pulling Peggy through the opening in the door, he flung her underneath his body into the snow.
Meanwhile, Peggy fought to get up and yell to her friend the number of Brechting's license plate. Getting angrier "he started crunching me with his knees in the side of my ribs and twisting me around trying to keep me from seeing the car . . . My heart felt like it would explode, I couldn't breath, my lips were numb. I couldn't get away from it."
Peggy's own recollection of the events becomes more fragmented from this point on, but her friend and their four children watched stupefied as the man repeatedly picked her up and flung her down to the ground. She fought to use the ink pen as a weapon only to have him grab it and stab her in the cartilage surrounding her ear.
"The last thing I remember is my head smacking up and down on the ground and him not letting me up at all, holding my coat collars across each other choking me. . . . I couldn't see and it was like a dream, like I could hear and was far away, like my ears were plugged and everything was black . . . At this point I thought, he's going to kill me."
Brenda, Peggy's friend, thought the same thing. She moved over to the driver's seat and proceeded to drive the car toward Brechting. She was prepared to run over him if necessary in order to try and save Peggy's life. Brechting, seeing the car moving directly at him, swung his victim around so that the vehicle would hit her instead. At the same time he searched his pockets, as though looking for a weapon, but then stopped moving.
"He had been hurting me worse and harder, then all of a sudden [he] stopped and was holding me up."
Only a minute before, Peggy's own son, six year old David had watched the town's only patrol car come to a halt a half block away from the parking lot. The girls were facing the patrol car and recall that Police Chief Shayler seemed to be observing some of the assault but was in no hurry to intervene. At any rate, the snow was falling so thickly that no one knows just what he saw before Brechting became alerted and ceased beating Peggy.
Brenda managed to grab Peggy's coat and pull her into the car and away from John Brechting. Though his patrol car was now in the parking lot, still Shayler was not responding.
Next Brenda got out and began running toward him, yelling that her friend had been beaten. But instead of going to the car to see for himself, Chief Shayler went to the door of the police station, turned the lock and invited them all to come in, something which Peggy Petrekovich was unable to do until several minutes later.
Once inside the station, Shayler requested to see her driver's license. He placed it on his desk asking both Peggy and her assailant to wait together while he went outside to speak with Brenda.
Peggy recalls, "I was alone with Mr. Brechting. I was scared to death."
After a few minutes Shayler returned to his office, questioned Peggy about her injuries and requested that she follow him outside.
"I told him, my arms are numb, my lips are numb, I can't turn my head and my arm keeps curling up. My cheek and neck hurt a lot." Meanwhile her driver's license with her home address on it was left on the desk in full view of John Brechting. No arrest was made, and he was allowed to leave at the same time that Brenda helped her friend into the car in order to take her to a hospital.
At the hospital where Peggy was seen, the doctor returned from a brief discussion with an officer out in the hall. Where he had been very professional before, now he was brusque, remarking to her that she ought to go to a shelter for battered women. Shamefully, the physician suddenly seemed less interested in treating her as a victim and sent her home without a full examination. Her impression was that he had been told her injuries may have resulted from a domestic dispute.
Only hours after the incident she returned home to find her house had been broken into, the first in a series of break-ins which she attributes to Brechting or his friends. His car had been spotted earlier parked on a side road near her home. (This would be only the first in a long stream of incidents involving break-ins, harassment, and stalking. On the morning of March 24, the day of Brechting's first hearing, the family dog fought off a prowler attempting to pry the front door open. Almost a month later, with Brechting still a free man, the dog was found dead after another attempt was made to enter the family home.)
Two days after being beaten, now able to get out of bed, Peggy requested that Chief Shayler take photos of her injuries. He refused so Peggy found a friend with a Polaroid camera and asked her to do it.
County police, who often worked with the chief responded to each housebreaking as if it were a minor event. Shayler, Peggy says, informed her that she wouldn't be needed at a hearing and refused to supply her with court information about when Brechting's case would come to trial. She was even told her they had lost her charges. However, she refused to be dismissed and sought to find out about court dates on her own.
Despite Peggy's pleading with Shayler that the charges were insufficient, Brechting was to be sentenced in October of '95 for a misdemeanor assault and battery as a result of his initial attack. The charge, if convicted carried only a 90 day jail sentence, and the thought that he might be out of jail after such a short time frightened the Petrekovich family. Already the kids were limited to where they could ride their bikes and play outdoors. Peggy was afraid that Brechting might decide to harm her children as a means of getting back at her.
In response she contacted the Montcalm County Prosecutor's office pleading for the charge to be raised. But despite her several phone calls and visits to the office, Peggy could not persuade them to try the man with a more serious offense. In frustration, she finally wrote the judge a detailed account of all that had taken place, including her dissatisfaction with Chief Shayler's response.
Almost immediately after her letter was sent, Peggy says that Chief Shayler came to her house to threaten her. "You're gonna get your a-- sued . . . You're on your own lady. Try calling the police . . . there's no protection for you," he warned her.
With no satisfactory response from local law enforcement, the County, or even from the prosecutor's office, a good judge was Peggy's only hope for seeing justice done in Montcalm County, Michigan.
Unforeseen at the time, her own experience with injustice would merge with that of the man voted in to sit as judge in the 64B County District Court. The only official to take her case seriously was Judge Joel Stephen Gehrke whose own career on the bench would be called in to question as he sought to reconcile his duty as judge in light of an almost non-existent concern for justice by some other members of the judicial and law enforcement community.
Ted Gehrke remembers November 7, 1990, the day after his son Joel won the County election for judge. At the end of a long afternoon, waiting for a township by township breakdown of election results, he paid a visit to the Circuit Court. Business for the day seemed to be nearly finished as he sat in a back corner seat. At the bench, presiding over a divorce case that took up the last ten minutes of the day, was Circuit Court Judge Charles Simon Jr.
At the end, both parties to the divorce packed away papers and left the room, but Gehrke quietly remained to consider what would eventually become his son's place of employment. Over at the other end of the room a young lawyer entered and informally addressed the judge. Two other men also remained in the courtroom.
"I don't know how that son-of-a-bitch got elected," the lawyer remarked. After calling into question the newly elected judge's qualifications he finished, "They say that Gehrke carries a Bible in his briefcase and has quoted from it in court."
"Well, the son-of-a-bitch better not try that bulls--t in my court because I'll throw him out," Simon responded. Furthermore, he told his lawyer friend, Gehrke was in for "a rude awakening."
"You know who put him in office don't you?" the lawyer asked. "It was those 'Bible-thumping Christians' that put the son-of-a-bitch in office."
"Well, we'll see," was Judge Simon's reply.
Ted Gehrke sat stunned as the judge and lawyer walked from the bench and around a partition to carry on the conversation elsewhere. Meanwhile, one of the two remaining men had noticed him sitting in the back. After asking if he was another defendant, and then probing further for his name, Gehrke responded, "I'm the father of the SOB you heard described earlier by the lawyer and judge, and also one of those 'Bible-thumping Christians' that put him in office."
"I didn't hear anything like that here," one of the men objected.
Gehrke's response was sarcastic. "Of course you didn't. That's because you were sitting closer than me."
Going behind the partition and finding no one there, Gehrke remembers, "I stood there alone for a moment with a sick feeling in my stomach and thought how grateful I was that my son did not have to practice law before such a judge."
The vote was close, within 65 votes, requiring a recount, but clearly the people had voted a 31 year old lawyer named Joel Stephen Gehrke from Butternut, Michigan into office as their judge. He was young, perhaps, but had graduated with honors from law school, worked hard as a research lawyer for the Michigan Court of Appeals, and proved to be a capable prosecutor with an unusually high rate of convictions in another county.
His opponent, Arney Mustonen was 51 and lived in nearby Greenville. He'd held the 64B judgeship for the past 12 years, was a member of almost every club and civic organization in the county, and rubbed shoulders with all of the elite in the judiciary. His pre-election profile alongside Gehrke's was long and incredibly busy. And justice in his courtroom, it was rumored, was especially swift in order for him to keep up with a full social schedule.
Losing the election was unexpected both for Mustonen and his friend Judge Charles Simon who was happy with swift plea bargains and soft sentences as an alternative to actually trying cases. In fact, for several members of a legal-judicial network, November 7, 1990 was a bitter day.
Judge Joel Gehrke
The election was over, but Joel Gehrke still had over a month to go before being sworn in at the Montcalm County Courthouse. In the time remaining he worked to clear up cases in the St. Johns office where he was employed as assistant district attorney. It was there that he received a phone call from the 64B Court Administrator, Dona Gilson, warning him that local attorneys were apprehensive about his coming. It was rumored, she said, that he was some kind of fundamentalist extremist, and the attorneys were deliberating over plans to get him in trouble with the Judicial Tenure Commission. She thought he ought to know.
Later, another conversation with Region III administrator Bruce Kilmer confirmed that trouble was brewing. Already one judge, Edward Skinner, had sworn not to set foot in Gehrke's courtroom.
Kilmer warned him, Gehrke says, "to be careful not to give the members of the local bar a pretext to label me based on preconceptions about my religious views." Instead Gehrke would do well to "try to build bridges" with members of the local bench and bar association.
Attempting to calm the troubled waters in Montcalm County, Joel Gehrke arranged to meet socially with Judge Charles Simon in December, before beginning his term. But for all his effort, no bridges were built, and he came away with an admonishment not to try and tamper with the attorney fee schedule. It was, he remembers, "at that time the highest in the state."
Worried about a cool reception, Gehrke and his wife Kim began preparing their four children for the changes to come. Serving as judge in Montcalm County might not be easy at first, but both of them hoped he would eventually be able to fit in enough to gain the respect of his peers.
He really wanted them to like him, but on the day of his swearing in neither Judge Charles Simon or newly elected Circuit Court Judge Nichols bothered to show up. Though it would normally have fallen to Simon, as the senior judge, to swear him in, the oath of investiture was administered by Probate Court Judge Marvin Robertson from another county.
Montcalm County borders on Grand Rapids but is still very rural. There are several small towns, a community college, and the usual number of churches. Doors are often left unlocked and high school sports scores are a common topic of discussion, but by comparison they have a significant crime rate.
When Gehrke took office, the rate of recidivism was high; most of those charged with criminal offenses were unimpressed by the usual court routine, were sentenced, released, and eventually charged with new crimes. As a result, something happened over the first couple of years on the bench. Judge Joel Gehrke adopted a strong style of his own; one that involved what he now refers to as "indelicate speech," or a manner of talking to defendants in the courtroom in the rough language he believed made sense to them.
While Gehrke's language, calling grown men knot heads, jacka---s and bullies, threatening to kick them in the a-- if they came back, and suggesting that one young woman had allowed her apartment to become merely a whorehouse, gained him a grudging respect among offenders, others in the courthouse began keeping score.
Even a member of his own staff, a longtime friend of Mustonen and Simon, took careful notes in order to fortify any future complaint to the Judicial Tenure Commission (JTC). If there was a way to over-ride the vote of the people through a legal fiat, they intended to have as much documentation as possible which, when pulled out of context and twisted, might suggest that Joel Gehrke was unfit to serve in the capacity of judge. To all appearances, looking through hundreds of pages of transcripts and complaint documents, the people may have brought him in, but a half a dozen courthouse cronies were committed to taking him out.
By September of 1993, Judge Joel Gehrke knew the score. It was routine for attorneys in Montcalm County to challenge his authority with petty notes of complaint sent to the JTC. He'd called a defendant's excuses for beating up on his girlfriend "piss poor" and characterized the man as a "big baby." Such references, Gehrke's opponents argued, were demeaning and unkind.
One attorney walked out on a trial while Gehrke reviewed the opposing attorney's case law citation in chambers. Gehrke refused to accept plea-bargaining whenever the defendant claimed to be innocent, requiring more court time.
Bruce Basom, a prosecutor, frustrated that Gehrke was actually reading the particulars of a law before responding to a surprise Motion in Liminie screamed in his face during a conference in chambers, "I do not have time for you to look up the law."
In October of 1991 Arney Mustonen and Joel Gehrke had lunch together and Mustonen expressed the hope that someday he might make a case against Gehrke to the JTC. Then, he remarked, he'd run for his old seat in the 64B courtroom.
The prosecutor's office refused to extend professional courtesy to Gehrke on a number of occasions, and once they even decided not to deliver a summons which he had signed. The case in question was delayed and eventually set back to another date.
Still, Gehrke refused to get with the Montcalm County program of justice. He would not rush through motions and pleadings, accept plea bargains that incurred unjust punishment, or give way to the pressure to render slight sentences for serious crimes. He expected attorneys in his courtroom to be adequately prepared to defend or prosecute, and on more than one occasion he publicly embarrassed them by pointing out that basic legal procedures were not being followed. Nevertheless, it was Gehrke's role as judge which was challenged for any and every reason.
In a child sexual abuse case Gehrke was ordered to recuse himself from the case after speaking with the child in chambers. His purpose, and the only subject under discussion was whether-or-not the child knew the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie.
Protesting that Gehrke may have unduly influenced the child by following the legal procedure to qualify a minor as a witness, the defendant's lawyer, a man by the name of Hemingsen, part of the long-standing court network who has recently announced himself as a candidate for Gehrke's position, immediately filed a motion to Circuit Court Judge Simon stating that the meeting, without witnesses, constituted a violation of rules.
Gehrke pointed out that the law specifically gave him that discretion, but he argued to no avail. Almost any challenge to his authority, no matter how petty or what the consequences might be to others involved with a case, was upheld by either Simon or Nichols at the Circuit Court level.
The child's mother, S.H., recalls the case with bitterness. Her child had been molested each morning on his way to kindergarten by a young man who was 17 years old. The fact that the older boy was routinely putting his hands into her sons pants and rubbing his genitals came to light while she read the child a story one day.
The book wasn't about sexual abuse, it was all about taking drugs and how that could distort the way a person thinks and acts. S.H. recalls her son saying, "That must be what's wrong with Kevin."
"Who's Kevin? she asked.
"He sits with me on the bus." Her son finished by saying, "He touches my private parts and everyone knows you're not supposed to do that."
S.H. remembers being stunned by what she heard.
It had taken almost a year before the abuser, Kevin Stockton, was taken to trial, and suddenly, Hemingsen, his attorney was delaying all of the proceedings. Her son had been through counseling and interviews by attorneys on both sides, so the trial, she hoped would provide some closure to a painful situation.
Eventually a hearing was held to bar Gehrke from completing the case and a new judge was assigned. S.H. recalls, "It seemed like sabotage . . . they kept offering plea bargains and they wouldn't guarantee Kevin Stockton would get counseling, so I refused them."
The court finally found time on the docket a year later, but S.H. says her son was finally getting over his experiences. She refused to put him through the pain and embarrassment of having to testify again.
Four years later Kevin Stockton was arrested and convicted of sexually abusing other children. He was sentenced to a minimum of 18 and a maximum of 40 years in prison. In a sense, he and his victims had fallen prey to a private vendetta on the part of several members of the legal community whose ultimate aim was to unseat Judge Joel Gehrke.
Eventually lawyers hostile to Gehrke discovered that it took nothing more than their own feigned concern that he might have a bias for or against a defendant in order to get another judge assigned. Nichols and Simon systematically ruled against Gehrke on appeal, especially in criminal cases. The prosecututor never once challenged those reversals in the Michigan Court of Appeals. A friend of Gehrke's humourously referred to him as the "Teflon judge" because it is a given that under the current system his rulings don't stick.
"Bias" and "prejudice" became operative buzz words in case after case in Gehrke's courtroom, preventing him from hearing a good deal of his caseload. He might wear the robe, but the network would rule the realm simply by accusing him of making a wayward remark which, when twisted could sound like something quite different to the JTC.
Take the case of Montcalm County v David Ott, a transient who was suspected of occupying an abandoned building by neighbors in a "well-heeled" neighborhood. The object of the case was to prove that Ott had actually spent the night in the building, a thesis which the prosecution, after fourteen witnesses, was unable to prove. Still, they would try. Witness number fifteen turned out to be a small silver-haired grandmother of a woman named Mary Reed.
Gehrke, concerned that this witness would have nothing new to add to the testimony of others remarked, "I suppose you're going to tell me that this witness spent the night with the defendant on the nights in question?"
Gehrke's remark was relevant since, in order to convict Ott of unlawfully occupying the building as a residence he would had to have actually spent the night there; and the only person who it seemed could prove that was another person sleeping in the building with him.
Mary Reed and everyone in the courtroom had a good laugh. It was determined that she would add nothing new to the testimony already heard, that Ott had been seen going into the building on occasion during the daytime, and the conclusion was that Mr. Ott was found not guilty.
Prosecutor McNamara, sour over having lost his case then included Judge Gehrke's question in a complaint to the JTC, giving the appearance, out of context, that the judge was somehow slandering the witness.
Complaints to the JTC began piling up faster and faster; Gehrke had attempted to coerce a defendant into marrying the woman who he'd had children with. In final remarks he'd said that the next time he saw the man "there better be a ring on your finger."
He required a minor to obey his mother and attend church.
He made a paper airplane out of a letter concocted by an employer to get his employee off the hook on a drunk driving charge, what he calls "a transparent lie," and sailed it from the bench directly toward the defendant and his lawyer.
He had taken a defendant back into his chambers and given him his own clothes to wear in order to preserve the man's dignity just a little (see Humiliated Defendant sidebar).
He made a mock-challenge for a fist-fight to a man who had beaten up his girlfriend. His intention was merely to prove to the man that he could control his temper when he wanted to. He didn't beat his girlfriend because he was "out of control," but because she was weaker and he enjoyed exercising control over her.
He expressed surprise that a defendant had used a deer rifle to settle a minor dispute saying, "it makes my butt pucker," which he defends as "a southern colloquialism for the customary and involuntary reaction one has to being confronted with a gun."
He challenged defense lawyer Richard Palmer to produce evidence for a claim that a Mexican defendant had engaged in a fight with a knife. From the trial transcript Gehrke stated, "So what I've got basically is 'white guy' alleging that 'Mexican' has a knife, right? . . . It's like I'm waiting for a case involving a Hispanic-American where some white guy isn't standing there saying, 'The Mexican had a knife.' And one time I would like to see a knife . . . Was there a black guy there eating watermelon? . . . it gets a little tired after awhile, to be asked to believe these tired racial epithets all the time."
The complaint to the JTC charged that Gehrke, by demanding more than a stereotypical presentation of proof, was presenting himself to be racially prejudiced against the defendant. Make sense out of that one.
In January of 1996 he gave a suspended jail sentence, a suspended fine, and a three-finger slap to the wrist of a man who had grabbed his wife by her sweater and momentarily held her to a wall. The woman had been having an affair with his brother and had given birth a few days earlier to this brother's child.
Stewart Marshall, the husband, had agreed to a reconciliation and the couple agreed together to release the baby to be raised by Stewart Marshall's brother. Only days later Mrs. Marshall changed her mind and refused to either allow the baby to go with the birth-father, or leave herself.
Gehrke, according to an interview at the time, stated "he could understand the emotional distress the woman inflicted on the man. . . . A slap on the wrist and a Bible lesson would suffice."
And the list of pettyisms goes on, and on, and on . . .
Cases like that of Peggy Petrekovich were assigned out to other judges. In Peggy's case her assailant ended up with a 90 day sentence, but one week later was seen less than a mile from her home. He had been granted work-release for twelve hours each day. Though his work was nearly 30 miles in the opposite direction, no action was taken against him and he was seen again the following week.
In July of 1995 Joel Gehrke was ordered by the JTC to respond to the multitude of complaints lodged against him. His opponents filed to have him removed from hearing any case that they would bring into the courthouse, and by April, 1996, though still officiating in courtroom 64B, he would be effectively suspended from hearing 90% of his case load.
According to K.H., a victim who found refuge and justice in Gehrke's courtroom, "He doesn't take guff from anyone. He did everything fair and just. He called my husband names and made him look at me. . . . He said, 'Does it make you feel more manly [beating up a woman]? You aren't tough, you're really a pussy.'"
"My life was in jeopardy at that time. I was terrified to have the case brought to court, but I left that courtroom, not as a victim, I felt safe."
J.D., who is now happily married, sees Judge Gehrke's dilemma this way: "A lot of people are tearing him down for the wrong reasons. They've ruined him and he's gonna lose something he loved to do, something he's worked hard for. And the people that are signing on aren't people to be saying nothing."
And now, his case will go before the Michigan Supreme Court in order that they may decide whether he is to be vindicated, reprimanded or removed from the bench altogether. Ultimately his fate will determine how justice is to be upheld or bartered away in Montcalm County.
Judge Joel Gehrke may be written to at PO Box 608, Stanton, Michigan 48888.