Farren later insisted that it was he who pushed the parity issue, not Lionel. But the damage was done. For Libet, Lionel’s motives came clearly into focus. She learned that Lionel had not only declared bankruptcy in 1999—he listed his assets at less than $50,000—but had tax liens against him. “This man is trying to get money from me,” Libet later told a reporter in court.
Libet ignored Lionel’s letters and rejected any financial settlement. She got her New York adoption approved in April. Her lawyers had decided it wasn’t necessary to tell the court about Lionel.
When Lionel learned of Libet’s adoption, the war of wills (and of lawyers) escalated. Lionel filed papers to overturn Libet’s adoption.
There is a high standard for overturning an adoption, especially when the adoptive parent is a good one. And William’s court-appointed lawyer found that William was perfectly happy in Libet’s home. By contrast, the lawyer was concerned about Lionel. “I continue to be greatly troubled by information that has been brought to my attention,” she wrote, particularly his financial track record and his affection for hallucinogens.
But Judge Kristin Booth Glen—the same judge who’d granted the adoption—took a second look at the case; this time she determined that the case was more complicated than Libet’s attorneys had first asserted. Judge Glen reacted to Libet’s legal maneuverings with thinly veiled contempt. Her attorneys, so artful in the past, now seemed too creative for their own good. There was, for instance, Libet’s bizarre assertion that Lionel had adopted a different William than her William—the “mistaken identity” argument, the judge called it. “We all know this was the [same] child,” the judge said. Libet also claimed that Lionel’s Cambodian adoption documents weren’t valid, though her near-identical documents were. Libet had kept Lionel and William apart for almost two years—then argued that such a lengthy separation would make a reunion traumatic for William. As for the renunciation, the judge gave that no weight since it hadn’t been done in New York, where Libet sought her adoption. Further infuriating the judge was the fact that Libet had hidden from a social worker—and, in effect, the court—her alcohol problem.
“The court believes both parties love and care for William,” the judge wrote in her October 11, 2007, decision. The judge didn’t care who was the better parent; parents don’t have to be perfect. In the end, though, Judge Glen cited Libet’s “substantial, material misrepresentations” and overturned her adoption. The judge devised a Solomonic solution: William would continue to live with Libet, where he’d long been comfortable, while she appeals the decision, but Lionel would be his sole legal parent, with visitation rights.
These days, Lionel sees the battle over William as a kind of class war, in which he pitted his humble character against Libet’s privileged background, and won. “She tried to legally kidnap my son,” he says, which is, more or less, what the judge concluded. Sitting in his office in his usual jeans and a knit shirt, Lionel says, “Everyone else sucked up to her. I didn’t, I couldn’t be suppressed.” And then he shifts, his anger building. Suddenly he addresses Libet, as if continuing his argument with her. “I couldn’t sit back and have you to tell me what to think. It’s not going to happen.”
Lionel, now 46, sees William, who’s now 5, two times a week, visits supervised by a court-appointed psychologist. William refers to Lionel not as papa, but as Lionel, no doubt a frustrating echo of Libet’s restriction. Lionel reminds him, “I brought you home from Cambodia.”
Lionel is also trying to get his life back on track. He’s incurred legal fees of close to $1 million, though he’s petitioned the court to make Libet pay. He’s hustling to make money. Recently, he tested the waters with a mesotherapy training course. “Based on my research,” reads the awkwardly worded announcement, “I developed incredible formulas and techniques of injections which have far surpassed my initial training.”
Lionel’s assistant, Leslie Fischer, helped him design the course. An attractive blonde divorcée, she helps with many things these days. She’s attentive, understanding, just what Lionel’s looking for in a girlfriend, which she now is. Leslie couldn’t be more different from Libet, he says. “She’s been extremely supportive. It’s the best relationship I’ve had in my life. She cares more about me than about herself.”
For her part, Libet has sold off most of her Trump Tower footage, at a loss, apparently. Nowadays, when she thinks about her future, she thinks about motherhood. Mostly, she thinks about William. Her home is emptying of children, and William seems crucial to her happiness, which is, for a rich girl, what there is left to want.
Not so long ago, she’d tried to explain this to Lionel. “You can construct a beautiful loving environment for yourself,” she wrote him. He could have girlfriends, a family if he wanted. “You have more options for real happiness than I do,” she wrote. It was an admission and an appeal, a moment of vulnerability. Lionel didn’t listen. He never listens, Libet thought.