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More Divorce and Child Support Related Violence Caused By Oppressive System
‘If it was a mistake, it cost the lives of my family’
By Robert Patrick and Heather Ratcliffe
  Charlie Finninger, owner of Finninger's Catering, is surrounded by family, employees and police at the scene of a shooting.
(David Carson/P-D)
Did the state make some kind of mistake in calculating Herbert L. Chalmers’ child support, possibly sparking a rampage that killed four women — including his children’s mother and two members of the family whose business garnisheed his wages?

Chalmers made it clear he felt there had been an error, railing about it for months before Tuesday’s bloody spree. He complained about it to some survivors of the tragedy before using his last shot on himself.

Now the Missouri Department of Social Services says it intends to find out.

“We’re aware of the allegations,” spokeswoman Deborah Scott said late Friday, confirming an internal investigation. “Did we do everything right?” If not, Scott vowed, “We’re going to do something about it.”  She did not specify what could be done, nor say whether the results would become public.

Chalmers told his boss, co-workers and at least one friend that part of his salary was being wrongly withheld.

“What set him off was the fact that they were garnisheeing his check,” his co-worker James Lee, 76, said after the shooting stopped. Lee and another co-worker said Chalmers denied being the father of the children.
Records indicate that Chalmers had accepted responsibility as father on the birth certificates, but reportedly he claimed later he determined he was not their father.

Jerryl Christmas, a spokesman for Chalmers’ family members, said they were unaware of any dispute over paternity.

The children are now grown, and the child-support issue involves payments allegedly owed from the past.

Charlie Finninger, who with his wife owned Finninger’s Catering Service in St. Louis, said Chalmers, a five-year employee, complained several months ago that the garnishment was wrong.

“I told him my hands were tied,” Finninger said. “I told him if the state was wrong, then he should fight it.” Finninger offered Chalmers copies of documents to help make his case.

It appeared that Chalmers had been gunning Tuesday for Finninger, whose employees hid him in a freezer when the shooting started. His wife, Cleo, 79, and daughter Christine Politte, 44, were killed.

Finninger wondered aloud Friday whether Chalmers had been right about an error. “If it was a mistake, it cost the lives of my family.”

Sandra Stamps, who dated Chalmers on and off for almost 20 years, said Chalmers raped her and threatened to kill her the morning of the attacks. After putting a gun to her head, he said he was enraged that his wages were being reduced for child support, Stamps recalled. He told her he couldn’t survive on $200 every two weeks and was going to kill the people who had made him suffer.

Besides Cleo Finninger and Christine Politte, police said, Chalmers killed Sylvia Haynes, 53, mother of his children, and a woman named Carol Moore, 35, whose body was found in the apartment of a former girlfriend of Chalmers, but who had no known connection to either.
Citing confidentiality concerns, the Department of Social Services has blocked reporters’ requests for information about Chalmers’ case, though a St. Louis judge opened a narrow window Thursday by agreeing to unseal part of the court record.

It appears that Chalmers’ withholding for child support had almost doubled over three years.

A 1995 child-support case names Chalmers as the father of two sons, Mike and Herbert III, and a daughter, Leslie, born between 1981 and 1985.

State records obtained by the Post-Dispatch indicate that a payment of $600 in back child support was received on his account with the state on March 30, with a $75 payment on March 7 and a $10 payment on Jan. 10.

Haynes was due to receive all of that money. A $600 check was cut or sent March 31, and a $10 check was dated Jan. 11. State records showed one more check, for $75, dated April 24, 2006 — six days after Haynes’ death.

The St. Louis Circuit Court file related to the case, obtained by the Post-Dispatch and The Associated Press over the state’s objection, shows that Chalmers was originally ordered in 1995 to pay $133 per month for support of the children.

In January 1996, that was upped to $138, including back support.

The case was closed in 1997. The only reason listed is “other.”

A May 4, 2000, letter from a child-support enforcement investigator requested a copy of all orders and modifications for Chalmers’ case.

Another letter, that August, requested a copy of a 1997 court order because of questions over the amount owed.

On Aug. 16, 2002, Chalmers’ employer, listed then as the Missouri Division of Employment Security, was ordered to withhold $302.05, including what was past due.

On April 1, 2003, ADECCO Employment Services was ordered to garnishee Chalmers’ wages in the amount of $362.46, again including arrears.

Those April documents are the last in the case file.

Chalmers’ payroll records were not available, and Finninger said he did not know how much his worker had been earning.

“A thorough review”

Scott, of Social Services, said that changes in income withholding can now be done administratively and would not necessarily appear in a court file.

She said state law does not allow her to comment on child-support records, or why Chalmers’ back child-support payment ballooned from $362 per month in 2003 to what seems to be $675 three years later.

Scott said that if the amounts the Post-Dispatch obtained were accurate, “. . . then certainly we would be looking into that to determine whether or not an error has been made by the department.”

“We would take any mistake that we discovered in a case such as this very seriously,” she said. “We are doing a thorough review, and we will act accordingly on what we learned.”

The department refused a request to release records on Chalmers’ child support obligations or any appeals that he made, citing state law that they say makes the records confidential. A department lawyer unsuccessfully cited the same law in court Thursday when trying to keep all contents of the court file a secret.

The agency collected more than a half-billion dollars in child support in fiscal year 2005, Scott said, for more than 378,000 children. More than half of the money came from income withholdings. “It’s an important way of insuring that those dollars get to the children who need them,” she said.

“That’s important work to help families be able to be self-sufficient and stay off of public assistance,” Scott said. “Obviously, in the course of that work, there are people who are unhappy. There are sometimes threats. We take all those threats very seriously and report those to the proper authorities.”

Chalmers had faced criminal or civil action over back child support decades ago. The file was closed in 1984 and destroyed in 1993. John Dockery, director of Child Support Enforcement in the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office, said he could not comment further about it.

Christmas said Chalmers’ relatives were in shock. “Of course, they offer their condolences and prayers to all the victims of this tragedy,” he said, “and ask that the community pray for them as well.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

rpatrick@post-dispatch.com | 314-621-5154

hratcliffe@post-dispatch.com | 314-863-2821