By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
In the early evening of December 10, 1998, David Ziskind picked up his telephone in Miami to call his daughter in Texas. When it rang in the living room of his ex-wife's house in Lubbock, ten-year-old Amy rushed to answer. "Hi, Daddy, do you want to hear about my snowman?" she exclaimed, referring to a composition for school.
Amy's mother, 45-year-old Sybil Hart, left the living room to give her daughter some privacy. "I could hear her chattering away in the living room. She was very happy and excited."
Then the chattering stopped. After a prolonged silence, Hart looked in on Amy. "I found her bug-eyed and ashen. She was holding the phone, quivering. I said, 'Hang up, hang up.' She moved back, saying, 'I'm okay, I'm okay.'"
Hart took the receiver and hung up.
A few seconds later Ziskind called back and Hart answered. "I asked him, 'What did you tell her, she's crying?' He said, 'I told her I'm not her father.'"
For the next three days Amy stayed home from school. "I tried talking to her and the only thing she would say is, 'I wish I didn't know. I wish I didn't know. Why did he have to tell me?'" Hart recounted.
Hart's tale, told to a Miami-Dade circuit court judge a month ago, was the latest installment in one of the oddest family disputes ever to pass through the justice system here. It started when Ziskind discovered through a chance DNA test that he had probably not fathered Amy. (Her name has been changed for this story.) He wanted to disown the girl, so he petitioned the court to reduce the amount of his child support payments. But Judge Maynard "Skip" Gross denied the motion, in effect ordering the gray-haired academic to remain her father. Gross also ordered Ziskind not to breathe a word to Amy.
That made Ziskind's December phone call to Amy a crime. On March 23 Gross sentenced him to six months in jail for contempt of court. He is presently appealing the decision.
Ziskind v. Ziskind may be more than just an odd tale. Because it deals with issues at the crossroads of law and science, its disposition could become a legal precedent that would determine the fate of similar cases throughout Florida.
To understand the court system's role in untangling such a messy family dispute, one must take a tortuous journey through a five-year-long custody battle. The duel spans three states, involves two ex-spouses out to destroy each other, and has devastated one little girl. At heart it's a tale about the implosion of an American family and the limits of the law in legislating matters involving love and fidelity.
David Ziskind, an experimental psychologist at the University of Miami, has salt-and-pepper hair, dark eyebrows, and a calm, resonant voice. He talks about the emotional turmoil of his life in a clinical, detached manner, perhaps because of years of academic discipline. Or maybe such emotional distance comes from his past. Ziskind's parents fled Poland hours ahead of invading Germans and he was born in 1947 in an Austrian displaced-persons camp. "I've always distrusted authority," he says.
Ziskind initially agreed to talk to New Times about his case, but stopped after his lawyer advised him against the interview. His ex-wife Sybil, a petite 45-year-old with wavy brown hair, declined to comment for this article. Both of their lawyers also refused to discuss the case. The following account is culled mainly from court papers.
David and Sybil Ziskind seemed compatible when they married in Miami in 1980. Both were Jewish and Ph.D. candidates in psychology at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. A year after their marriage, Sybil gave birth to their first daughter, Tanya. Two years later Becky was born. (All the childrens' names have been changed.) In 1986 Tufts awarded Ziskind a doctorate and a year later he moved to Philadelphia to take a job analyzing highway safety tests for a research firm called Ketron. His family followed a year later. When Sybil arrived on New Year's Day 1988, she was pregnant with the couple's third child.
By the time Amy was born in June 1988, her parents' marriage was failing fast. Ziskind declined to elaborate, but he acknowledged the couple could not get along. In March 1990 Ziskind moved out of their house to a nearby apartment. Not long after that, Sybil returned to Miami Beach and took a job helping her father manage an apartment complex.
In August 1990 Ziskind's $40,000-per-year contract with Ketron expired. Although he had no job, he decided to stay in Philadelphia because his father, who also lived in that city, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After his father's death in late 1990, Ziskind moved to Miami to be near his children.
He stayed with Jerry Turner, a stocky, handsomely ruddy man, who was his closest friend at the time. They had met during college. (Turner declined to comment for this article.)
Ziskind began casting about for work, but the want ads were not exactly clamoring for men in their forties with doctorates in experimental psychology. He found part-time jobs toiling in a T-shirt shop and a junkyard. Later he worked as a substitute teacher for the public school system. He eventually took a room in an apartment building near Biscayne Bay and the Venetian Causeway.