In August 2005, Northern California resident Melinda Geisness met John Hedderman at Duke's restaurant near the Huntington Beach Pier and gave him $3,000 in cash and a $3,000 check.
Geisness paid the money, a retainer for legal fees, for Hedderman to represent her as her attorney in an upcoming custody case against her ex-husband. Now remarried and using her new husband's surname, Geisness not only wanted to prove her ex shouldn't have custody of the child, but she also hoped a paternity test would show the child wasn't his. Hedderman did not give her a receipt.
Skip to November of that year. While waiting for her day in court, Geisness received a call from her ex-husband. Her ex, whose name was redacted from district attorney's investigation documents obtained by the Weekly, told her he had obtained full custody in a backroom deal between their lawyers, according to those documents.
Unbeknownst to Geisness, the man she had hired to represent her was, technically, not a lawyer. He had resigned from the State Bar of California four years earlier; owed $325,000 in taxes, judgments and other debts; and was operating a phony law firm out of a post-office box in a Westminster UPS Store.
Hedderman, now 47, was arrested in January and released on $70,000 bond. The DA's office issued a press release Jan. 15 saying it was looking for more of Hedderman's clients to step forward. He faces 16 felony charges, with the possibility of 12 years in prison. A pretrial is scheduled for Feb. 6. His lawyer, listed on court documents as public defender Leonard Gumlia, did not return phone calls from the Weekly.
According to documents, Hedderman handled several cases after he ceased to be an officer of the court, including a divorce that languished for two years without being resolved, a bankruptcy for a woman who spoke no English and a suit stemming from a 2006 Garden Grove car accident. Most of his clients came to him by word of mouth, but as in Geisness' case, he also allegedly stole clients from a Tustin law firm where he worked three hours per week as a paralegal.
Hedderman seemed to disappear along with the money (usually cash) his clients gave him. But in 2006, investigators tipped off by Geisness, who filed charges claiming that Hedderman had forged her name on the documents that forfeited custody of her child, finally located him at his other job: teaching at a now-closed degree mill in Anaheim known as Maric College.
Maric, which had previously been known as Lee College and CEI College, was one of several still-existing campuses of the school throughout California. A representative for the school, which is based in San Diego but owned by a Florida-based firm, refused to answer questions about Hedderman or why the campus in Anaheim closed. To the school's credit, Hedderman was a legitimate attorney when he was hired to teach in late January 2001—for about a week, anyway. Although he had been admitted to the bar in 1988, he resigned Feb. 3, 2001, after a series of suspensions beginning the year before.
According to the State Bar of California, Hedderman had a tendency to miss court appearances and appointments with his clients, kept money he was supposed to refund, and didn't pay fines imposed on him for his general incompetence.
Alan Gordon, supervising trial counsel for the State Bar of California, says Hedderman was not disbarred, but attorneys sometimes resign preemptively when facing disbarment because there's "a perception that it's less shameful."
Attempts to reach Hedderman via a cell-phone number listed in documents failed; the number had been reassigned.
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Gordon says any of Hedderman's clients who were on the losing side, like Geisness, probably have a good chance of getting the judgments reversed as long as they were unaware he wasn't allowed to practice law. (Any positive outcomes for Hedderman's clients would most likely stand, Gordon says.)
When contacted at her home in Martinez, Geisness said she was looking forward to the trial but didn't want to comment until after she testifies.
She did say that two years later, she still has not succeeded in gaining custody of her child.