NCO's Wife Wants Justice for Bigamy
Marla Siemers knew her marriage was over in the spring of 2008. Her husband knew it, too. Having finished his assignment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, he moved to Kentucky and started a family with another woman.
On paper, however, the marriage between Marla and Staff Sgt. Zachariah Siemers had ended more than a year earlier -- in a rural Eastern Washington county courthouse on Nov. 16, 2006.
How could this North End Tacoma couple divorce six months before they separated? How could a relationship that began at 31,000 feet crash so long before the realization that it was over?
Marla, a 48-year-old mother of four children and wife of the same man for 20 years, has spent more than three years trying to explain a story with an increasing number of twists.
Her husband's commanding officer at Fort Knox, Ky., heard the story but didn't seem to care much.
"As far as we're concerned, ma'am, you're the ex-wife," he told her before ending the call.
Someone from the Pentagon inspector general's office at least listened. Send us some information, she was told. She said she never got a meaningful response.
"No one would believe me," Marla Siemers said. "They just thought I was the crazy ex-wife trying to cause trouble or get money."
As it turns out, she wasn't the ex-wife.
That divorce decree is a forgery. It was allegedly authored by her husband, the man now living with his second wife and their two children at his duty station in South Korea.
While still legally married to Marla Siemers.
To her shock, she was cut off completely from military benefits that she relied on, including medical insurance. His betrayal left her emotionally devastated and financially stressed.
The Army started to listen after she hired an attentive lawyer. Now Zachariah Siemers, 39, has been charged with adultery, bigamy and forgery, among other military offenses.
A hearing to determine whether there's sufficient evidence to try him is scheduled for May 21. The soldier couldn't be reached to comment for this story despite numerous attempts.
Back in Pierce County, Marla Siemers is attempting to give her husband the divorce he wanted. But the soldier who faces criminal prosecution for allegedly faking one divorce is the obstacle toward finalizing a legitimate one.
Her lawyer, Michael Scholl of Tacoma, thought he had seen it all until he took the case. In a recent letter to the judge, Scholl welcomed her to "the Collision Between 'Ripley's Believe it Or Not' and 'The Twilight Zone.' "
"I've been doing this for 20 years, and this is without question the most bizarre situation I've ever dealt with," he said.
The romance began on an airplane in July 1991. Zachariah Siemers was flying from Fort Knox, where he was training. Marla Menold was a Delta flight attendant.
Siemers chatted her up. They exchanged phone numbers. Conversations followed. She thought he was sweet and polite. It was easy back then to fly standby, and she visited him several times at his first duty station at Fort Hood, Texas.
They married on May 1, 1992, in Kileen, Texas, just outside Fort Hood.
That fall, Siemers deployed for one year to South Korea. Marla Siemers stayed in Texas, pregnant with their first child. Assignments, and three more children, followed in Kentucky, Georgia and Germany.
Siemers was a tanker and had deployed to support the war in Iraq and a peace-keeping mission in Kosovo.
The family moved to Tacoma's North End in the spring of 2005 after Siemers got transferred to Lewis-McChord. Their 13-year marriage was on the rocks. Marla said her husband admitted to one affair, but she suspected others.
The couple formally separated two years later. In 2008, when he received orders to Fort Knox, he wasn't accompanied by his wife and children but by the other woman. Marla said the woman worked as a civilian bus driver at Lewis-McChord.
Before he left, Marla told her husband she planned to hire a divorce lawyer. She said her husband wanted the divorce to be uncontested and emailed her divorce paperwork from Lincoln County, where he indicated it was quick and easy to end a marriage.
He asked her to sign it. She refused, following the advice of friends and family not to agree to anything until she talked to a lawyer.
"Things were left unresolved, I guess," she said. "Nothing had been signed up to that point."
On June 21, 2008, Siemers married his second wife, shortly after they arrived in Kentucky. A copy of their marriage license is included in Marla Siemers' divorce petition filed in Pierce County. Siemers indicated on the document that he was divorced.
The exact date is unknown, but he filed with the Army a divorce decree purportedly filed in Lincoln County.
There was just one problem with the decree: It's bogus.
"It's not our document," said Lincoln County Clerk Peggy Semprimoznik, who later obtained a copy of it.
Semprimoznik has worked in the office more than 20 years. She has shuffled enough court paperwork to easily point out the discrepancies.
All state court cases have nine digits; Siemers' decree had eight.
State court cases start with the last two digits of the year followed by a single digit that signifies whether it's a criminal, civil or another type of case. The fraudulent decree begins correctly with the two digits of the year but then is followed by four digits.
The date stamp on the front carries the wrong font and format. The court's dating format should have read NOV 16 2006. Instead it read: 16 NOV 2006 -- similar to the military's dating format.
And Semprimoznik, who was contacted by the Army in October, has seen the signature of retired Lincoln County Superior Court Judge Philip W. Borst enough times to know the one on the decree is wrong.
Marla Siemers said her husband also forged her signature on the document.
Semprimoznik would share much of the same information with a Lincoln County Sheriff's deputy after Marla contacted authorities there in March.
The deputy would later inform Marla that there wasn't probable cause to believe a crime had been committed in Lincoln County because the fraudulent document was never filed there, according to a copy of his report obtained by The News Tribune.
Semprimoznik said she'd never encountered a case of forgery during her Lincoln County career.
"It's beyond me what he was attempting to accomplish other than being able to marry the other woman," she said. "He had a military career at stake."
'I got nowhere'
That summer of her husband's second marriage, Marla Siemers noticed her medical bills weren't being paid. It was her understanding that she would be covered under military health insurance until a divorce was finalized.
She was blindsided when a representative told her she was no longer covered because the Army had proof of their divorce. She said she's uncertain whether his second wife knows the divorce decree is phony.
Her own medical bills ran into the thousands of dollars and eventually were turned over to debt collectors. She was in an automobile accident and lost her car after learning Siemers took her name off the insurance policy.
Following the separation, Siemers sent a check each month to help with his former family's living expenses. In December 2008, Marla Siemers secured a state order requiring him to provide child support.
The Siemers's children are ages 12 through 19. The two daughters don't have contact with their father, and the two sons stay in touch periodically, Marla Siemers said. The children support her efforts to bring their father to justice, she said.
She spent the next two years calling around the Army to convince someone the divorce decree was forged.
"I got nowhere," she said. "I was just pretty much at the point of giving up because I wasn't getting anywhere. Nobody was listening to me."
She had filed for divorce in September 2008. In another strange turn, her attorney, Philip Dunlap of Renton, stopped representing her and allowed the court to dismiss the petition without her knowledge.
The attorney later told investigators that "it was a bad time in his life and he 'shut down,' although he never told his client that he could not represent her properly due to his personal circumstances," according to documents obtained by The News Tribune.
The state Supreme Court suspended Dunlap from practicing law in the state for six months starting in March for his failure to represent Siemers and another client, according to a copy of the order.
Marla then retained Scholl, a Tacoma family law lawyer, in February 2011. They resurrected her divorce petition two months later.
Scholl communicated with Zachariah Siemers by email. He said in an interview the soldier wanted to cooperate to finalize the divorce so long as it was done quietly. He cut off communication when Scholl responded that wasn't possible, the lawyer recalled.
Siemers didn't respond to messages The News Tribune left by email and a social-media website. By email, his brigade's spokesman wrote that he twice forwarded The News Tribune's requests for comment to Siemers' civilian attorney, who didn't respond. The spokesman said policy prohibited him from providing the lawyer's contact information to the newspaper.
Siemers was appointed an attorney in Pierce County when his wife filed for divorce, but the attorney withdrew from the case in 2009. The lawyer said in court papers that the soldier failed to submit completed forms.
Soldier is charged
With Marla Siemers' assistance, Scholl secured a copy of the Kentucky marriage certificate. The document got the Army's attention, and Scholl was then able to obtain the fraudulent divorce decree.
"We were the ones that dug this out and basically spoon-fed it to [Army officials]," he said.
On Christmas Eve, while she and the family were watching football, Marla received a knock at the door. It was an Army investigator. He interviewed her and took a handwriting sample.
Zachariah Siemers was charged March 26 with seven violations of military law: dereliction of duty, making a false official statement, larceny, forgery, fraud by submitting a false claim, bigamy and adultery, according to an email from an Army prosecutor that Marla provided to The News Tribune.
The brigade spokesman wrote to the newspaper that Siemers was under investigation, but the charges wouldn't be released until an investigative hearing determines if there's sufficient evidence to move forward. Siemers could face a general court-martial or his case could be resolved in other ways.
The hearing has been delayed and is now scheduled for May 21.
"You don't see the military prosecuting servicemembers for bigamy very often," said Michael Navarre, a former Navy Reserve prosecutor and adviser to the National Institute of Military Justice. He is not involved in the Siemers case.
The military has discretion on what charges it will seek, Navarre continued, and typically prosecutes bigamy and adultery only when it's connected to conduct that brings discredit to the armed forces.
He said he is aware of other cases in which servicemembers have forged divorce decrees.
As the Army builds its case overseas, Marla Siemers is still trying to finalize the divorce back home. In an amended petition filed last month, she's seeking half of her husband's retirement pay, payment of her medical bills since being dropped from his military insurance, and half of the housing allowance her husband received from the date of their separation.
The proceedings have been complicated by the soldier's refusal to respond to her attorney, and neither he nor the Army has provided a physical address where he can be served with divorce papers, Scholl said.
On April 23, due to those difficulties, a judge ordered the divorce trial date postponed until September.
There's more uncertainty. Army officials told her if her husband is court-martialed and dishonorably discharged, they both lose his retirement pay.
If the case were handled as a minor offense, and her husband were allowed to retire in December as planned, Marla Siemers could be in line to receive a share of his retirement. But she would be robbed of the justice she says she deserves.
With a boyfriend fully supportive of her efforts and a job in the travel industry, she said she's not looking for a paycheck and hasn't counted on it. She wants her husband held accountable for his deceit. And she wants a divorce that is legitimate, once and for all.
"This has been such a long process," she said, "and I can't wait until this is all over and I can break free and move on with my life."