FROM THE TENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF
NATCHITOCHES, NO. 87644 HONORABLE ERIC R. HARRINGTON,
Richard Ducote Attorney at Law COUNSEL FOR
PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT: Danae Marie Guillot Starks
Taylor Townsend Attorney at Law COUNSEL FOR
DEFENDANT/APPELLEE: Brad Dyson Starks
Marie Guillot Starks In Proper Person PRO SE: Danae Marie
composed of John D. Saunders, Elizabeth A. Pickett, and
Shannon J. Gremillion, Judges.
SHANNON J. GREMILLION JUDGE.
Marie Guillot Starks appeals the trial court judgment
awarding interim custody of the two minor children to the
paternal grandparents with the parents having supervised
visitation. For the following reasons, we affirm.
AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Marie Guillot Starks (Danae), the mother of the two minor
children, Eastin, born 7/25/08 and Kennadi, born 10/11/12,
appeals the trial court's judgment awarding custody to
the paternal grandparents and granting her supervised
visitation. Danae and the defendant-appellee, Bradley Starks
(Brad), were married in September 2007. On February 22, 2015,
Danae was shot in the head and arm. In March 2015, she filed
a petition for a divorce alleging that Brad had been
physically abusive to her "on a repetitive basis
throughout the marriage." While the petition alleged
that Danae "suffered a gunshot wound to her left-upper
forehead with the bullet traveling through her face and
exiting her lower left jaw," Brad was not named as the
shooter. The petition states that the "facts surrounding
the event remain under investigation by the Sabine Parish
Sheriff's Office." Danae requested sole custody of
the children with supervised visitation rights by Brad.
Numerous procedural motions were subsequently filed relating
to venue, and the matter was subsequently moved to
Natchitoches Parish from Sabine Parish.
filed an answer and requested that he be awarded sole custody
due to Danae's "severe mental illness." Brad
thereafter filed a petition for temporary custody and an ex
parte order urging that Danae suffered a self-inflicted
gunshot wound and was refusing to seek mental health and/or
psychiatric counseling for the issues that led to the
self-inflicted gunshot wound. He further argued that Danae
attempted to check-out their children from school, which
resulted in the school going on "lockdown." Brad
was granted temporary custody, and Danae was given supervised
visitation and prohibited from entering the children's
school. In May 2015, Danae filed a declinatory exception of
lis pendens arguing that the same matter was pending in
Avoyelles Parish. Danae filed a petition for divorce in
Avoyelles Parish on April 16, 2015. In June 2015, the trial
court denied Danae's exception of lis pendens.
a June 2015 hearing, the trial court, Judge Lala Sylvester
presiding, ordered all of the parties to undergo mental
health evaluations with Dr. John C. Simoneaux.
2015, Brad filed a motion and order for writ of injunction to
prohibit Danae from posting on social media that he had shot
her and on a website that offers free reconstructive surgery
to victims of domestic abuse. Brad attached numerous records
in support of the writ. In July 2015, the trial court ordered
all parties to undergo mental health evaluations with
Shreveport-based Dr. Mark P. Vigen. Following a July 2015
hearing, all parties and the court agreed to have a hearing
to determine culpability in the shooting of Danae (the
shooting hearing) separately from the custody hearing while
psychological evaluations were pending.
August 2015, the trial court granted Danae supervised
visitation with her children every Saturday. That same month,
Brad filed a rule to fix child support. In November 2015,
Danae filed a motion for temporary custody because Brad had
been arrested in March 2015 and charged with possession of
schedule IV controlled dangerous substance (Xanax), DWI, and
possession of marijuana, had entered into a pre-trial
diversion program, and had his driver's license
January 2016, following five days of trial only relating to
the shooting, Judge Lala Sylvester found that the gunshot
wounds to Danae's head and forearm were self-inflicted.
In eleven pages of reasons for judgment, Judge Sylvester
concluded that Brad proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the
shooting was a failed suicide attempt. Danae filed a motion
to designate the January 2016 judgment as a final appealable
judgment. Danae also appealed the January 2016 judgment.
Danae's motions to appeal the findings were denied.
2016, a La.Civ.Code art. 102 divorce was granted. In July
2016, the trial court denied Danae's motion to designate
the January 2016 judgment as a final appealable judgment and
denied her motion to appeal. In August 2016, Danae filed a
motion for access to school campus & education records,
for court ordered drug testing, and for modification of
custody. In October 2016, Danae filed a motion to recuse
Judge Sylvester based on allegations of ex parte
communications with the children's school. Judge
Sylvester recused herself, not conceding that any legal
grounds existed to mandate the recusal, but because Danae
believed that the Court was not impartial. The supreme court
appointed Judge Eric Harrington to preside ad hoc.
filed another ex parte motion for modification of custody.
Following an October 24, 2016 hearing, temporary custody of
the children was granted to Ken Starks (Brad's father)
and his wife, Barbara Jan Starks, who are to be assisted as
needed by Sherrie Moore (Brad's mother) and Tom Moore.
Brad was granted "closely supervised" visitation
and Danae was granted custody three weekends each month from
Friday until Sunday.
February 2017, Judge Harrington, after considering the
findings from the shooting hearing and the testimony of the
evaluating psychologists and witnesses relating to the
custody issue, rendered an interim custody order in April
2017. He issued extensive oral reasons for his judgment
maintaining the placement of the children in the custody of
the paternal grandparents while allowing the parents
visitation with mandatory drug-testing. Judge Harrington
found both Danae and Brad were unfit to have custody of their
minor children and that it was in the best interest of the
children to be placed in the paternal grandparents'
custody. Detailed instructions were provided in the custody
order. In part, Danae was ordered to undergo counseling for a
year until she was emotionally stable, and Brad was ordered
to maintain sobriety for one year and undergo random drug
testing. Danae's weekend visitations were modified to
require supervision by her parents.
now appeals both the January 2016 judgment finding that the
gunshots wounds were self-inflicted and the April 2017
interim custody order. Danae assigns as error:
1.The trial court, Judge Sylvester, clearly erred as a matter
of law and abused its discretion in refusing to hear the
testimony of the parties' then 7-year-old son that he
personally witnessed his father threatening his mother with a
gun at the car window.
2.The trial court, Judge Sylvester, clearly erred as a matter
of law and manifestly abused its discretion in allowing into
evidence purported expert testimony regarding the location of
Mr. Stark's cell phone before, during, and after the
3.The trial court, Judge Sylvester, clearly erred as a matter
of law and manifestly abused its discretion in refusing to
admit into evidence proof of how easily Danae Stark's
handwriting could be copied by anyone.
4.The trial court, Judge Sylvester, erred as a matter of law
and manifestly abused its discretion in finding beyond a
reasonable doubt that Danae Starks shot herself.
of Review in Custody Matters
making decisions regarding custody, the best interests of the
child are of paramount importance. La.Civ.Code art. 131.
Numerous factors are at the trial court's disposal in
making this determination and are set forth in La.Civ.Code
art. 134. However, the trial court is not limited to
considering the factors enunciated but should consider the
totality of the facts and circumstances in the particular
situation. Hawthorne v. Hawthorne, 96-89 (La.App. 3
Cir. 5/22/96), 676 So.2d 619, writ denied, 96-1650 (La.
10/25/96), 681 So.2d 365.
court's determination in a child custody case will not be
disturbed unless there is a clear abuse of discretion.
Id. Additionally, the trial court's finding is
entitled to great weight on appeal as it is in a superior
position to assess what the children's best interests are
based on its consideration of the testimony of the parties
and witnesses. Id.
we note the somewhat unusual procedural posture of this case
to which all parties agreed, at a hearing on July 14, 2015,
to litigate only the issue of culpability in the shooting of
Danae as a factual matter to be determined before the custody
motions could be settled, along with the resolution of the
injunction filed by Brad to prevent Danae from posting claims
on the internet claiming that he shot her. In Danae's
pre-trial motion, she phrased the issue as, "At the July
14, 2015, conference it was agreed that the central question
related to both the custody and injunction proceedings was
whether Ms. Starks shot herself or whether Mr. Starks was
involved in the shooting." Danae argued that Brad bore
the burden of proving that she shot herself.
pre-trial brief states that contrary to Danae's pre-trial
brief, "The only issue before the Court . . . is
regarding the Writ of Injunction. The issue of custody is not
before the Court. The custody issue can only be heard after
the completion of Dr. Mark Vigen's evaluation." In
his appellate brief, Brad argues that Danae bore the burden
of proving that Brad shot her.
the issue of whether Danae shot herself was a significant
underlying factor in the overall custody determination, which
was not held until February 2017.