San Diego Susan Viola Klat, until recently a night-shift nurse at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest, is now sitting in a Washington, D.C. jail. Three weeks ago she was convicted of making threats against William Rehnquist, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and on May 27 she could be sentenced to nearly four years in jail. It's a "highly unusual case," observes the San FranciscoPbased legal paper The Recorder. It "marks one of those very rare occasions in which intimidating words or gestures directed toward the court ends in any legal action, let alone a criminal conviction."
A former coworker describes Klat, 39, as intense. "She had an opinion on everything; it was either her way or no way, and she would get angry with people who thought differently," says Janet, a nursing supervisor who did not give her last name. "In talking with Sue, there was never an exchange, back and forth. It was just people hearing what's on her mind, what's going on in her life, and that's about it."
Klat's former sister-in-law, Julie Latney, who lives in San Diego, describes her as "very beautiful; a petite little thing with long blondish hair down to her butt." Even so, Latney adds, Klat has few friends and no boyfriend. "She never really had anyone," Latney recalls. "She always kept to herself and didn't get involved in anything."
The one thing Klat did get involved in dominated her conversations, Janet says, and ultimately led to her current predicament: a running battle with the Supreme Court over its refusal to intervene in a custody fight over her daughter, Jennifer. "It was all she could talk about," Janet says. "She was crazy about it. All you had to do was say, 'Hi, Sue, how are you?' and you would get a litany of stories - she just started spouting out information and, toward the end, violent talk."
In February 1996, Klat sent Rehnquist a letter in which she wrote, "One shouldn't have to resort to creating casualties such as the Oklahoma bombing to get your attention. Unfortunately, experience shows that this is the only method that creates change and actually works." Last August, according to federal court documents, Klat set off on a cross-country road trip to Washington, D.C., allegedly to make good on her threat. After arriving in the nation's capital, Klat signed up for gun lessons in a Virginia suburb. She was arrested ten days later after making more threats against Rehnquist to Supreme Court officials - including saying that the chief justice would have to deal with her even if she had to track him down at home. Three weeks ago, after a two-day trial, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found Klat guilty of two felonies for threatening to assault Rehnquist and Supreme Court clerk William Suter.
Latney says that upon hearing of what her ex-sister-in-law had done, "I was blown away by the whole thing. She never seemed super angry or anything; she just had this hatred for her mother [who had been awarded custody of Jennifer]." Jennifer is now a 20-year-old accounting student at Mesa College. According to Latney, Jennifer recently went to Washington, D.C. "to pick up her mother's stuff." She also attended some of the court proceedings, in which Susan represented herself.
Latney says her brother, Kim, and Susan were high school sweethearts at Clairemont High School, where he was the football team quarterback. "They had been dating since they were 16 and got married when Sue got pregnant with Jennifer," Latney recalls. "They moved to Canada because it was easier to get work - Kim worked in a shipyard - but the marriage only lasted six months." Sue and baby Jennifer returned to San Diego and briefly lived with Sue's mother in Tierrasanta, Latney says, before settling in their own place in La Mesa. The Klat family did not see much of Sue; at parties and family gatherings, Jennifer always came with her grandmother. "They didn't have that great of a relationship," Latney says of Sue and her mother.
When Jennifer was a toddler, Sue enrolled in nursing school and began dating a doctor, Latney says. "This doctor didn't like children," Latney says, "and that's when Jennifer started living with her grandmother, and Sue started going back and forth, house to house. I didn't talk to her much; in fact, the last time I talked to her was five years ago, and I think that's when she started losing it."
It was five years ago that Susan Klat lost custody of her daughter to her mother. Janet, who has worked with Klat at the UCSD Medical Center since 1985, says her former coworker was devastated. "She felt it was done underhandedly, and she didn't get the right representation in court," Janet says. "She became obsessed with it; she would be at work studying her law books and writing things in response to what the court had done, but she kept reaching a dead end." According to court records, Klat ultimately filed a federal civil rights action against San Diego County, the state, and other parties, but with no success.
In 1995, court records show, Klat tried to get the Supreme Court to step in, but the high court refused to intervene. In the meantime, county officials came after her for money they had paid out to Jennifer while the girl was in her grandmother's custody. "They garnished her wages," says assistant U.S. attorney John Soroka, who prosecuted the current case. "And that's what really set her off. Unfortunately, sometimes people get a head of steam and don't listen to reason."
Janet agrees. "She became extremely angry," the nursing supervisor recalls. "She started talking about retaliating against the people who were stopping the case from going through [to the Supreme Court]."
In February of last year Klat wrote her threatening letter to Rehnquist, forwarding a copy to the California attorney general's office. "I won't stop until I'm down, and I'll keep coming until it's over," Klat's letter concluded. "You can't live forever." An assistant state attorney general tipped off the fbi. In August, Soroka says, fbi officials interviewed Klat in her Mira Mesa home after she allegedly told coworkers at the UCSD Medical Center that she was going to Washington to shoot the clerk and members of the Supreme Court if the case did not get heard. "She was talking to people, a lot of people, about her discontent with the Supreme Court and the justice system in general, and some of it they felt was pretty scary," Soroka says. "They told their supervisors, and the supervisors contacted the fbi."
Janet, who testified during the trial as a witness for the prosecution, recollects her last conversation with Klat. "During the last week she was here, people who had worked with her the night before came to me one day and said, 'This is really scary - Sue's talking about killing people, about shooting, about bloodshed.' They said they were really afraid she might do something. Up to this point, I had never heard any violent talk myself, so when she came in that night I asked her, 'Sue, what's going on?' and she started talking about her trip to Washington and what she's going to do. She told me she was going to shoot the clerk of the court, and when I said, 'Man, what are you talking about?' she said, 'Here at the hospital, if you want to get into the nursery, you first have to get past the clerks, and it's the same with the Supreme Court. I have to shoot everybody who's standing in my way.' It had never gone this far before; she was actually going to get into her car and go, and everybody felt it was a realistic threat. So I called my supervisor in the morning. I feared for my safety about telling her what Sue had said, because I didn't want her coming after me if she was not convicted. But at the same time, I didn't want to hear about a slaughter in Washington." Klat made no blatant threats during her interview with the fbi, but what she did say was enough to raise eyebrows, Soroka says. "She was being very mysterious," he says of Klat. "She said, 'Oh, no, I never threatened anybody. Why would I do that? That would be wrong,' but they thought enough of it to alert the Supreme Court and the fbi office here."
Within days of her fbi interrogation, Soroka says, Klat packed up her car and drove cross-country to Washington, D.C. She had abruptly quit her job at UCSD Medical Center and, through a visiting nurses association, arranged a transfer to hospitals at Georgetown University and George Washington University. fbi officials monitored her move and posted her picture in the courthouse. "A threat in San Diego is one thing," Soroka says. "But it gets a little more real when it comes to Washington. From what I understand, not too many people are leaving San Diego in the middle of August." Klat arrived in the capital on August 17 and within days went to the Supreme Court building to review her files. She was immediately cornered by security officials and, according to Soroka, made further threatening comments. "They were threats like, 'Nobody has a guardian angel,' 'Nobody lives forever,' and 'I wouldn't take a gun into court, but people have got to leave sometime,' " the prosecutor recalls. "I'm sure she thought she was veiled enough to keep her on the other side of the fence, but it heightened our concern."
A few days later Klat returned to the court. This time she did see her files and spoke to officials about documents she claimed were missing, blaming the chief justice. fbi officials subsequently learned that Klat had made a phone call to a friend in California, relating that she had found someone to teach her to use a gun and asking that her assets be liquidated. The fbi arrested Klat on August 27, 10 days after her arrival in Washington. She was picked up at a rented apartment in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia.
After ordering a psychiatric evaluation, a federal judge found Klat competent to stand trial. A trial date was set for February 24; while preparing for his case, Soroka says, he discovered Klat had signed up for gun lessons in the Virginia town of Manassas. The trial lasted just two days, with Klat performing her own opening statement and cross-examining several government witnesses. It took the jury just three hours to reach a verdict.