A 52 year old father of three was shot in the back with a high velocity rifle in the parking lot near his downtown office at 6:31 p.m. on a Wednesday. He was a divorce lawyer, and the shooter was his former client.
Nancy Petersen filed for divorce from her husband, Michael, in 2002. There were the usual requests for temporary financial support and financial documents. There were depositions, affidavits, exhibits, and witness lists.
There were also all of the signs of high conflict. Multiple allegations of contempt. An appointment of a professional to protect the best interests of their child. One attorney after another withdrawing.
It was over two years before the divorce decree was entered. An appeal followed. Three years after the first court filing, the Petersens were still in court over disputes.
Grand Island, Nebraska was shocked by this shooting by the man whose home was a concrete bunker with more than a dozen guns and a dozen boxes of bullets. The town was even more shocked when the morning after attorney Todd Elsbernd was gunned down, the body of Nancy Petersen was found dead in her home in rural BuffaloCounty.
Michael Petersen is being held without bond on two counts of first degree murder.
As divorce lawyers, we often hear other attorneys say, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never do what you do.”
They’re right. Being a divorce attorney is not for the faint of heart. But for those who have a courageous and compassionate heart.
Each day we call forth our courage to have truthful conversations with our clients about everything from what is impossible under the law to how their emails to their spouses are hurting their case. We face bullying tactics by other attorneys, take zealous stands for what our clients need, and realize that we are at risk for being blamed despite doing our best.
Each day we live in our compassionate hearts. We know that no one wants a divorce, although they may need it. We understand that the journey of divorce is difficult. We recognize that if we resort to cynicism in how we view our work that we will no longer be able to gently pull a tissue from the box for the man who weeps on the other side of our desk as he tells the story of his broken spirit.
People who knew him describe Todd Elsbernd as a great dad and a loving husband. He included divorce in his law practice despite his expertise in other areas. Surely it was his courageous and compassionate heart that made this possible. May his fellow divorce attorneys carry his spirit onward.