It's Christmas in February at Else Baumgartner's house. A strand of multicolored lights droops like a downed power line across the walkway to her front door. Webs of gnats cocoon the doorbell.
A towering woman in bare feet swings open the door. Her whole body comes to shake hands, bobbed blond hair framing her square face -- an over-the-hill Heidi. She smiles giddily, like a grandmother who has the whole day planned out.
"Oh, hi. C'mon in," she says.
Inside looks like an Office Depot warehouse. Everywhere, there is paper -- thousands and thousands of pages of paper. Big plastic bins bulge in the dining-room corner. Cardboard boxes overflow in the hall closet.
These are just some of the dozens of lawsuits Elsebeth had filed against public officials.
She sits down at the dining-room table and immediately starts crying. Thus begins her seven-hour diatribe on (in order) Betty Montgomery, biochemistry, the mob, ritual child abuse by cross-dressing priests, the Cuyahoga County judiciary, and high school sports.
She's got a conspiracy for every question. She's sued virtually every public official in Ohio -- twice -- hurling sordid, baseless allegations like rice at a wedding. Now she's one of only 44 people in the state forbidden to file lawsuits. But even that hasn't slowed her down.
In short, Elsebeth Baumgartner is a pain in the ass. For this, she faces 112 years in prison.
It all began in 1996. It was a time of flux for Elsebeth, during which she tried on new careers the way most people try on clothes. She had recently earned both a doctorate in pharmacy and a law degree. She worked as a patent attorney and dabbled in real estate.
That was when she decided to make a run for Ottawa County Prosecutor.
No one really expected her to win. She had 18 months' experience as a lawyer; her opponent, Assistant County Prosecutor Mark Mulligan, had 18 years.
Still, Elsebeth gave it an honest try. She came to potluck dinners and marched in a parade. Everywhere she went, she handed out pens with her name on them.
But behind the cheery facade, Elsebeth was having trouble at home. Just a year earlier, her mom had died from brain cancer. Her father, Kenneth, was despondent.
Then, just a couple months before the election, Kenneth shut the door to his garage, turned the ignition key, and joined his wife in death.
Grief-stricken, Elsebeth dropped out of the race for county prosecutor. She started her own company, a gene-sequencing lab. In 1999 she got a full-page nod in Crain's Cleveland Business -- she was just the type of entrepreneur the city needed.
And if she couldn't hold public office, she could still speak out. She started showing up at Benton-Carroll-Salem school-board meetings. Her husband, Joe, was a three-term member, and she had two daughters in high school.
The girls were the center of their mother's universe. Especially Jessica, who seemed to exhibit Elsebeth's drive for perfection. She was a straight-A student and a star on the cross-country team.
"She was the best and brightest of the community," says Elsebeth. "Somebody who just had an entire lifelong history of success, a superb natural athlete, and then, just frankly, beautiful, in a sense that she didn't know she was beautiful."
But she was still a woman in a man's world. Elsebeth noticed that the football team had the nicest uniforms and a sparkling new stadium, while Jessica's track team was running around in rags. Elsebeth came up with a word for it: the "jockocrasy."
In the middle was a man named Gary Quisno, the athletic director and head football coach. Elsebeth stood up at one school board meeting to say that she didn't think Quisno was being fair to women's sports. At another, she questioned whether it was proper for him to collect a double salary as both coach and athletic director.
What happened next would come to be known as "the weight-room incident."
Jessica was sitting at the leg press one day when a shadow fell over her. It was Quisno. He told her that she hadn't signed up to use the weights.
To hear Jessica tell it, Quisno erupted in a rage and screamed at her until she practically cringed into a fetal position. "Go cry to your mom," he allegedly sneered.
After she left the gym, Jessica indeed told Elsebeth, who accompanied her to the principal's office to file a complaint against Quisno. The mother suspected the coach was attacking her daughter as retaliation for all her "jockocrasy" talk at school-board meetings.
"These guys didn't have the balls to take it to me," Elsebeth says. "The only way you get to me is, you get to what I love."
Call anyone in the Oak Harbor White Pages and mention the name Elsebeth Baumgartner. They'll groan, laugh, or hang up. If they weren't there to witness her dramatic undoing, they at least know it from legend.
This thing was bigger than the jocks, Elsebeth began saying. They were just the hired thugs. The real enemy was them -- a shadowy network of businessmen and public officials united in their desire to shut up Elsebeth.
She traced the money for the well-appointed high school back to tax revenue from the nearby Davis-Besse nuclear-power plant. Elsebeth pored over records from the treasurer's office, searching for the money trail.
She never found it. Clearly, she was dealing with professionals here.
But sure enough, one day she finally caught them red-handed.
At the next school-board meeting, Elsebeth stood up and announced that the school had sold a five-year-old copier to a dealer for the low price of $500. She suspected it was a kickback to the store-owner's wife, who worked for the school.
And that was just half of the story, Elsebeth continued. She had evidence to suggest that a contractor hired to pave the sidewalk outside the school had been allowed to take home some uprooted scrub maple trees.
"I don't know what it is with me," Elsebeth explains. "I just seem to have a nose for fraud."
But board member Kellen Smith wasn't quite ready to call for an audit.
"You ever try to get rid of this crap?" he says.
In the following weeks, Elsebeth made her conspiracy routine a recurring act during the public-comments portion of school-board meetings.
As soon as the floor was opened to the public, Elsebeth would leap from her chair like a woman shot out of a cannon. She would rattle off wild accusations -- ghost employees, padded salaries, contract-steering. Everyone on the board was a crook, Elsebeth claimed, including Virginia Ashley, a 77-year-old retired schoolteacher who spent two days a week reading to kids.
"She was a marionette," says Elsebeth.
There was only one person who might be able to bring Elsebeth to her senses: her husband, Joe. He had been a respected and well-liked member of the school board for more than a decade.
But Joe was acting like someone on a terrorist-hostage tape. With his wife looking on, he'd sit with his head down. When he did talk, he literally read from a script that his wife had written out before the meeting.
"She'd sit in the front row, and she'd nod her head or shake her head however she wanted him to vote, and that's what he would do," claims board member Charles Burns. "Absolutely dominated by her."
Maybe Elsebeth could still be reasoned with, thought Kellen Smith, a longtime Oak Harbor resident who owned an ice-cream-freezer manufacturing company. So he tried to stop her in the hall after one meeting.
She wouldn't talk to him. And after she left, she immediately filed suit against him for assault. Then in an affidavit, she accused Smith's freezer company of being a front. "She said I was sending freezers full of guns down to South America and they were coming back with drugs in them," says Smith.
But, admits Elsebeth, "That was purely speculation."
You couldn't find this kind of drama on daytime television. Hundreds of people packed the gymnasium to see what she'd do next.
"She'd make a grand appearance, doors would swing open, she'd come in carrying stacks of paper," remembers board member Burns.
But some worried that Elsebeth's grandstanding was more like the prelude to a shooting spree. Sometimes you could even see her body shaking as she spouted off. When word got out that Elsebeth had been gun-shopping, board members asked for metal detectors and cops to guard the meetings, just in case she snapped.
"When it comes to a point where you gotta walk through a metal detector to go to a school-board meeting, that's when I stopped going," says one regular audience member, who asked that her name not be used to avoid attracting Elsebeth's ire.
When the school-board members began ignoring her, Elsebeth went to the police. When they brushed her off, she accused them of being in cahoots and went to the FBI. And when the FBI wouldn't take action, she took the law into her own hands.
Under a rarely used law that allows citizens to file a criminal complaint without a prosecutor, she named the players in what she considered to be a vast network of organized crime. They included the county prosecutor, the town police chief, the entire school board, and Beverly Brough, a woman who had taken Elsebeth to small claims court after a dispute erupted over the breeding of miniature schnauzers.
"It's a classic mob situation," Elsebeth says. "Good-ol'-boyism at its worst."
Elsebeth's biotech company withered and died. She just didn't have time for it anymore. This thing was bigger than just Ottawa County.
"Once you're caught up in this vortex, and these corrupt politicians know who you are, they don't leave you alone," she says, rubbing her temples in an attempt to soothe her racing mind.
Neighboring Erie County was even more corrupt, Elsebeth discovered. She had "eyewitnesses."
One was Edward Baxter, the estranged brother of Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter. He'd read about Elsebeth in the papers and wanted her to do an exposé on his brother.
The county prosecutor was a raging cokehead, Edward claimed. What's more, the asshole had just cut him out of the family estate.
It seemed a little sketchy. But then Elsebeth got a call from a woman she would come to call "the black Monica Lewinsky."
The woman, Krista Harris, had another wild tale for Elsebeth. She claimed that she had been Kevin Baxter's sex slave. Now he was making up some crazy story about her embezzling more than $80,000 from her great-aunt as revenge for her trying to break free.
This was a case for Elsebeth Baumgartner, Esq. Calling on her expertise as a patent attorney, she ordered a hearing to have Special Prosecutor Dean Holman thrown off the case, accusing him of secretly working with Kevin Baxter to silence Harris.
With Edward Baxter ready to testify, she also accused Kevin of being a coke junkie. She subpoenaed 60 witnesses, including Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Moyer, who she alleged was the ringleader of a statewide case-fixing racket.
Harris' court-appointed lawyer, Denise Demmitt, thought she was coming to court that morning for an ordinary pretrial. Instead, she had to elbow past 250 people just to get in the courtroom.
"It was insane," says Demmitt. "This woman's a complete bag of nuts."
Elsebeth was like no lawyer Demmitt had ever seen. For starters, Elsebeth named herself as Harris' main witness -- not realizing that would disqualify her as the defendant's attorney. When she was taken off the case, Elsebeth sat in the family section and tried to communicate legal advice to Harris via hand signals.
"They had to have sheriffs come and physically remove her from the courthouse," Demmitt recalls. "Then she would show up out in front of the courthouse with giant signs, picketing."
Frustrated by Elsebeth's theatrics, prosecutor Holman later withdrew a plea deal that would have spared Harris a prison term. She's now serving a five-year sentence at Trumbull County Correctional.
But Elsebeth wasn't going to let Harris go to prison in vain. A chance to strike happened at a Port Clinton City Council meeting in January 2002.
Business execs from a high-speed ferry line called the Island Rocket had come to discuss negotiations for docking rights in the city's harbor. Kevin Baxter just happened to be part-owner of the company.
Before the executives could begin their speech, Elsebeth stood up from the crowd. She claimed that Island Rocket was a drug-smuggling front. To prove it, she claimed to have sworn statements from her "citizens" -- whom she never identified. She asked each partner to submit to a hair-follicle drug test. "The entire organization, I believe, is a corrupt enterprise and should be duly investigated as such," she said curtly. "Thank you."
Elsebeth's latest stunt bewildered Baxter. "It's like, you're in disbelief at the first allegation, and then she just piles it on," he says. "All of a sudden you start to see that this woman is just delusional, she's paranoid, she could be dangerous."
Ottawa County Prosecutor Mark Mulligan had seen enough. He charged Elsebeth with making false statements, a misdemeanor.
The reappearance of her old campaign opponent only confirmed to Elsebeth that she was the target of a conspiracy.
"They're using a criminal investigation against me to obstruct an investigation into themselves," Elsebeth says. "It's hysteria."
Elsebeth had confidence that her fellow Americans, the nine jurors, would let justice prevail.
But at her trial in Ottawa County Municipal Court, Edward Baxter and another brother, Shawn, an admitted coke addict, took the stand, claiming that they'd seen Kevin use coke. Under cross-examination, however, the two were less than convincing. And Special Prosecutor Tim Braun pointed out that they'd only started accusing Kevin of being a junkie after he had cut them out of their parents' wills.
Elsebeth's next witness was Susan Mathis. Mathis was an emotionally distraught woman who, after talking to Elsebeth, became convinced that her mother's suicide had actually been a murder that was covered up by Kevin Baxter.
Jurors weren't buying. They found Elsebeth guilty and quite possibly insane.
Visiting Judge John Adkins ordered Elsebeth to undergo a psychiatric evaluation for "apparent paranoid apprehensions." He also imposed a unique probation: She was banned from making any more accusations against public officials.
But Elsebeth hadn't forgotten the lessons of history. Her father had fought the Nazis in World War II, and her mother had lived under occupation in Norway. "I was raised in a family that taught me you stand up to tyranny," she says proudly.
So she typed up a letter to the lawyers for the Benton-Carroll-Salem schools, accusing them of being cokeheads.
"This is America," Elsebeth reasoned. "We're supposed to be the pamphleteers."
Days later, a line of cruisers headed to Elsebeth's home. You could practically hear the cheers erupting. The school-board members even threw a party to watch a video of her arrest, which the sheriff's department kindly provided.
"I was like, 'Finally, somebody's doing something,'" says board member Smith.
A week later, Elsebeth appeared before the disciplinary panel of the Ohio Supreme Court, which proceeded to suspend her law license temporarily. Now she would have to convince the three-member panel to give it back. Dozens of her closest enemies were on hand, knives sharpened.
But as the hearing was called to order that morning at the Old Courthouse, Elsebeth was nowhere to be seen.
Then Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Lori Brown came into the room and whispered something to panel chairman Michael Murman. He stood up to make an announcement.
"Miss Brown has informed us that she reached Miss Baumgartner on her cell phone," Murman said. "She is filing a lawsuit against Miss Brown and, presumably, the board and so forth, and is on her way."
Minutes later Elsebeth burst through the doors and started handing out copies of the federal lawsuit she had just filed, a suit against nearly every witness against her. She accused them of everything from kickback schemes to child sex rings.
Then she marched out of the courthouse and boarded a plane to Texas to live life as a fugitive.
Elsebeth was sure she could find justice, if she could just find someone not in on the conspiracy. For that, she would need to leave Ohio.
Elsebeth had some friends in Texas anyway. She rented a condo and set up an appointment to meet with an FBI agent in Houston.
Bob Bratton, then the deputy sheriff of Ottawa County, remembers talking to the agents.
"They found out that all she was doing was relaying what she'd seen in the papers," says Bratton.
After two weeks on the run, Elsebeth was arrested at her condo. She paid a few hundred bucks to get out and disappeared again.
But life on the lam was wearing on her. After much pleading from her husband and her attorney, she finally flew back home and turned herself in.
While Joe and her daughters spent Christmas 2002 opening presents with family, Mom spent the holidays in the joint, swapping life stories with local hookers.
"Whenever they're going to jail me, it's always before a major holiday," Elsebeth complains.
While in lockup, Elsebeth found out that she was losing her law license for good. But she had one more chance to try to save it: a 15-minute defense on the floor of the Supreme Court, in front of all seven justices. She wasn't missing this for the world.
She began the hearing by attempting to poll each justice to see if they were biased against her.
"Your court is not monitoring the behavior of its judges and lawyers. It is a joke," she told them.
Justice Paul Pfeifer tried to calm her down.
"Counsel, you raise an interesting legal question in proposition of law No. 6 that may even help you," he told her at one point. He asked if he could pose a question.
"No!" she yelled back.
Moyer tried to tell Elsebeth that her 15 minutes were up. When that didn't work, he watched in silent disbelief as she railed on.
"You are a disgrace! You are a racist! You are a sexist!" she barked at him.
"Please sit down, Ms. Baumgartner. Sit down. Sit down!" he shouted back.
A few months later, Elsebeth was permanently disbarred.
Weeks after the Supreme Court tirade, Elsebeth was back in jail, sentenced to six months for fleeing to Texas.
Elsebeth didn't make it easy on her jailers. She crammed Styrofoam cups down the jail toilet, causing it to overflow.
She also started a jailhouse law practice. Authorities figured that out when convicted crack addict Lavette Biggert started filing motions asking to disqualify the prosecutor and judge from her case because they were junkies who had fixed cases together.
"This woman is a menace to society," Sheriff Bob Bratton says of Elsebeth. "And she thinks it's funny."
After five months behind bars, Elsebeth was given another shot at probation. But Judge John Adkins had a special condition: Elsebeth couldn't sue anybody without his permission.
What Adkins didn't know at the time of the hearing was that Elsebeth had sued him just the day before, alleging, among other things, that he belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.
"She had asked me as I was walking out of the courtroom where I kept my cape and hood," recalls Adkins.
Prosecutor Mulligan tried a different approach. He had Elsebeth declared a "vexatious litigator," banning her from filing lawsuits in the state. She is one of only 44 people in all of Ohio to bear that distinction.
But Elsebeth would outsmart Mulligan too. A week later, she filed a $55.7 million lawsuit against him and others in federal court in Florida.
She was on the lam again, living with Edward Baxter in a trailer park in West Palm Beach. The 54-page suit she filed was brimming with sordid accusations: KKK murders, gun-running, and rape.
"My livelihood has been taken from me, from a bunch of judges and lawyers colluding," Elsebeth says. "Now how am I supposed to prove that, if I can't file lawsuits?"
She found her answer when surfing the internet one day. She stumbled across a blog called "Right Wing Conspirator" that had been started by a 29-year-old ex-marine and railroad conductor from Sandusky named Bryan Dubois.
"I think he has a marvelous raw writing talent, and I started encouraging him," Elsebeth says.
Elsebeth wrote to Dubois to share her conspiracies. The two continued to correspond over the computer and before long co-created Erie Voices, a website detailing their various conspiracy theories.
Dubois was so impressed that he just had to meet Elsebeth. But there was still an outstanding warrant out for her arrest in Ohio. So he drove across the border to Michigan, where she had rented another apartment to be closer to home.
It was there that their brainchild was born. As Elsebeth explains it: "If you were a victim of a smear job in the media or a smear job through legal process, you could hire us. We would demonstrate how your case would be fixed."
To prove it would work, they'd need a "test case." That was easy. Elsebeth was being sued.
It was a libel suit Kellen Smith had filed against her three years earlier, which was just now coming to trial. The case had been delayed so long because Elsebeth had forced four judges to step down for alleged conflicts of interests.
Visiting Judge Richard Markus wasn't bowing out, though. A Harvard grad and 50-year vet of the bar, Markus also owns a company called Private Judicial Services, which assigns retired judges to sit on cases.
Dubois volunteered to "report" on the case from the courthouse, while Elsebeth stayed behind in Michigan. On her end, she filed a $37.8 million federal lawsuit against Markus, Moyer, and several other judges, accusing them of an elaborate case-fixing scam involving Judge Markus' company.
"I've heard [Markus] referred to as Mr. Big," says Elsebeth.
Dubois decided to play hardball. On the first day of trial, after former school-board member Charles Burns finished testifying against Elsebeth, Dubois slipped him a scribbled note in the hallway:
If you guys drop this whole thing, your reputation may not be harmed.
Burns brought the note to Judge Markus, who later had Dubois charged with intimidating a witness, a felony.
"The level of intelligence in the Baumgartner camp seemed to decrease as time went on," says Smith.
On the third day, Elsebeth burst into the courtroom and declared the trial a "sham," as Dubois cheered from the gallery.
Markus had seen enough. He ordered Elsebeth to pay Kellen Smith $175,000, then immediately slapped her with 32 charges of contempt of court. Elsebeth fled back to Michigan before Ohio authorities could arrest her.
Dubois' life was in ruins because of Elsebeth. His wife, Mandy, had taken their two kids and left him. Now he was facing prison.
But he couldn't quit her. They kept the blog going, and Elsebeth occasionally sneaked across the border to have dinner with him.
One night Dubois invited his wife to join them. Mandy called the police instead.
Dubois was in the bathroom of Terry's Tavern in Bay View when he looked out the window and saw police surrounding his Kia Sportage. Elsebeth was in the passenger seat, mouthing, "Help me."
As one officer prepared to smash in the window with a baton, Elsebeth slid over to the driver's seat, shifted into drive, and peeled out. The cops ran to their cruisers and tore off after her.
She jumped on the freeway and headed east, then south, a line of cars behind her in a slow-speed chase, à la O.J. Simpson. Highway patrol deputies set up stop sticks down the road. The Kia's tires exploded. Cops surrounded the car, guns drawn.
"I'm treated like I'm this lunatic," laughs Elsebeth. "Keep in mind, I never sped."
Elsebeth is four hours into her story, and she hasn't once gotten up from the table. She hasn't had a sip of water, nor has she offered one.
When she's asked about the school board, she launches into a discourse on Jim Petro and pay-to-play politics. Ask about Krista Harris, and she unleashes a lengthy harangue about Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, who had absolutely no involvement in the case.
"Sorry, I'm all over the place," she says, before segueing into a dissertation on underground child-trafficking rings.
To an already overwhelmed and understaffed county court system, Elsebeth is like a gruesome 16-car pileup during rush hour. Which is why, less than a month after the car chase, she was arrested yet again, this time on a secret indictment from Cuyahoga County.
Elsebeth was charged with 14 felony counts of intimidation, retaliation, and possessing criminal tools. Assistant County Prosecutor Dan Kasaris had been building the case for months, ever since Judge Markus started showing him e-mails she had sent accusing him of fixing cases and protecting "drug trafficking, pedophilia, and other outrageous crimes." She'd also sent the e-mails to newspapers, the Ohio Supreme Court, and the FBI.
Kasaris cited an obscure law called the "paper terrorism" statute, claiming Elsebeth had used the e-mails and two federal lawsuits she had filed against Markus to intimidate him. Elsebeth was facing up to 60 years in prison. Her bond was set at $360,000.
When she said she couldn't pay it, Kasaris called Ottawa Sheriff Bob Bratton -- who still had nightmares of clogged toilets -- to ask his advice on how to handle Elsebeth.
"He said, 'Put her in solitary confinement,'" recalls Kasaris. "I said, 'Well, can you put that in writing?' He said, 'Sure.'"
Elsebeth spent 10 days in the hole.
"I was held on a higher bond than rapists and murderers," she says. "I'm not accused of any violent crimes. I'm accused of sending e-mails."
Still, her will wasn't bent. She filed three times with the Ohio Supreme Court to have the entire Cuyahoga County bench disqualified from hearing her case. It did no good. Her trial started December 12, 2005.
In her own inimitable way, Elsebeth quickly turned it into a circus.
Waiting for Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold to arrive that day, Joe Baumgartner handed Kasaris a doctor's note from his wife's psychologist, claiming she had post-traumatic stress disorder. She was "battle fatigued" from her long war against the courts and politicians, she says.
The room quieted as Judge Saffold took the bench. Kasaris told her about the note.
Okay, said the judge, and promptly ordered Elsebeth taken to the loony bin.
As deputies approached to escort her, Elsebeth quickly grabbed a bottle of blood-pressure medication and dumped the pills into her hand.
"You're not going to take medication in this case, ma'am," said Saffold.
"I took an overdose just now!" Elsebeth yelled, throwing up her hands.
Deputies rushed her to the jail infirmary and induced vomiting. After a week, they took her to the county psych ward, where she would stay another month.
Rest assured, Elsebeth says; she was just pretending to be crazy.
"I mean, nobody's more competent than me," she says.
Her next trial date is set for July 10. All told -- more intimidation charges have since been added -- she faces 112 years in prison.
"I think initial feelings were that maybe taking her law license, disbarring her will stop some of this. Well, that didn't work," says Assistant Prosecutor Kasaris. "If it takes a stay in Marysville to convince her to stop, then that's what it's gonna take."
Apparently, he doesn't know whom he's dealing with. Elsebeth has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
"I'm going to put the Cuyahoga County Justice system on trial," she says.