Shocking Developments Emerge in Judge's Divorce Case, Attempts to Conceal from Public Fail
Last updated 8/21/2023 at 11:35am
BROOKSVILLE – A local Circuit Judge thought his divorce was coming to close without dispute, until his soon-to-be ex-wife raised new concerns over parental time-sharing and equitable distribution last week in a Hernando County Courtroom.
Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Joel Fritton filed for dissolution of marriage from his estranged wife Maria Fritton last year, and just like a lot of divorces, this one has proven to be quite a roller-coaster ride. Judge Fritton used to be general counsel for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office (HCSO), until he was appointed to the Fifth Judicial Circuit on June 11, 2021.
R News first learned of the contentious divorce in September of last year. That's when Maria filed a report with HCSO, claiming that her husband had become violent and was making threats to order a "hit" on her new boyfriend, Commissioner Steve Champion. Due to the obvious conflict, Maj. Phil Lakin requested the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) handle the investigation. Maria writes in her complaint, "This isn't the first time he has made threats towards someone close to me or my circle." She goes on to explain that her husband warned that no one would believe her allegations. "I have the Sheriff [Al Nienhuis] and Deputies in my pocket," Maria writes. A source close to the family tells R News that Maria was so concerned for Judge Fritton's safety and well-being, due to his homicidal and suicidal statements, that she was forced to amend her complaint upon his request. Due to the retracted statement, the FDLE was forced to abandon their investigation.
It should be noted that the HCSO refused to acknowledge that an investigation was being conducted into Judge Fritton. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, R News discovered an email from Maj. Lakin was sent to HCSO's Information Technology Director Matthew Bologh, asking him to "hide" information from R News regarding the Fritton investigation. In addition, Fritton was able to convince someone within the Fifth Judicial Circuit to conceal his divorce case from public record. Sources say, this is yet another example of Judge Fritton receiving special privileges that the average citizen could not receive.
In an effort to prevent the appearance of prejudice by the Fifth Judicial Circuit, the case was transferred the Eighth Judicial Circuit under Judge Craig C. DeThomasis. On Friday, R News attended a parental time-sharing hearing in Brooksville, and Fritton's attorney Jeffrey Cario wasn't very happy to see R News sitting in the courtroom.
At the start of the hearing, Cario demanded that R News be sequestered from the courtroom. The following paraphrased conversation transpired:
Cario: I'd like to invoke the rule and remove all witnesses, one, who is a potential witness who is Mr. Lemons, who is in the back of the courtroom with his camera. We're asking the court to remove him from the premises.
Judge: He is a potential witness that you've identified?"
Cario: That's correct.
Judge: Can you proffer as to how he would qualify as a witness?
Cario: Mrs. Fritton and Mr. Champion have been using Mr. Lemons as a pawn in this case to try and embarrass and discredit my client. He is not a member of the press.
Cario goes on to reference another one of his cases from several years ago, which the former RNRF also covered. Cario says he invoked the rule of sequestration during that hearing, and that we were subsequently removed from the court. What Cario fails to mention to the Judge is that RNRF sued the court for violating our First Amendment rights and the ruling was overturned. This is a common trick used by some attorneys to prevent the media from reporting on high-profile court cases.
Judge DeThomasis gave R News the opportunity to testify and defend our right to observe and record court proceedings. We reminded the court that we cannot be compelled to disclose our sources; therefore, R News cannot be called to testify as a witness. Maria's attorney Joshua Silverman also defended our right to be present and even provided federal court opinions that supports that right.
In the end, Judge DeThomasis ruled in our favor and the proceeding moved forward with litigating the Fritton's proposed settlement.
Judge DeThomasis was prepared to enter a final judgement in the case because both parties had previously signed a proposed settlement. Silverman argued that Maria was not prepared because she was not afforded an opportunity to dispute multiple issues of serious concern. Silverman argued that Maria did not have legal representation until August 22, 2022, and that she made several attempts to communicate with Cario, in an effort to renegotiate the settlement. Cario alleges that Maria never contacted him or mentioned any issue until Friday's hearing, but R News obtained emails and text messages from a source that shows Maria and her former attorney requesting a reevaluation of the settlement.
According to the proposed agreement, Judge Fritton would only have to pay $800 per month in child support to care for their four minor children. Judge Fritton makes over $182,000 per year, and according to a 2021 campaign financial disclosure affidavit, Judge Fritton claimed to have a net worth of over $1 million dollars. Maria only made $26,000 dollars last year and had to borrow money from family to retain an attorney. In addition, Cario is asking Maria to pay his client's attorney fees.
In light of the developments and lack of Maria's representation prior to hiring Silverman, Judge DeThomasis ordered a continuance, so that Silverman and his client can provide a counter proposal to the court. Court is expected to reconvene at a later date.
Silverman and his client declined to comment following the hearing.
Cario did respond to our request for comment and stated, "As you are aware these parties have children and as such, we will not litigate this case in the media. We are fully prepared to respond to any false allegations being made in the courtroom, not on Facebook. I suggest you wait until this matter is fully addressed in the proper forum before you attempt to defame my client and harm this family."
R News replied, "As a journalist, it would be unethical to use my platform in a manner that would harm children or anyone. This is a "high-profile" case, as it pertains to my audience. Any allegation that a family court judge is abusing his power to influence his own divorce, commit domestic violence, or provide fraudulent information in a financial affidavit would be something the public deserves to know..."
R News will continue to follow any new developments in the Fritton case.