How a Vicious Child Custody Battle Led to the Murder of Christine Belford

David Matusiewicz and Family harassed and stalked the mother of his children to intimidate her into giving up custody of their three girls. An unrelenting smear campaign was launched causing Christine to live in constant fear for her life and her girls’ safety.

The Matusiewicz Family was obsessed with getting the children by any means necessary.

A National First: Cyberstalking Resulting in Death (Jessica Masulli Reyes & Saranac Hale Spencer (Delaware, The News Journal)

When Optometrist David T. Matusiewicz and his former wife Christine Belford divorced in 2006 after having three children, their custody dispute appeared to be normal.

Throughout the years, their story was strewn with charges and counter charges, lies, kidnapping, spying, a hacked Facebook account, vitriolic postings on social media, and the murders of Christine Belford and her friend Laura Mulford, both gunned down by David’s father, Thomas Matusiewicz, in the New Castle County Courthouse lobby while walking into a child support hearing in 2013.

The Senseless Murder of Christine Belford

On the morning of February 11, 2013, Christine Belford dropped her girls off at school and headed to the courthouse. Her friend, Laura Beth Mulford, offered to accompany her for support.

A gunman fatally opened fire in the New Castle County Courthouse in Delaware.

“I could see there was a man chasing a woman. He opened fire on her,” said Steven Rinehart, a corporal with Delaware Capitol Police.

“Then the shooter turned towards another woman and chased and shot her several times.”

Rinehart pursued the assailant and exchanged gunfire. The officer ordered the shooter to drop his firearm but instead, the assailant turned the gun on himself.

“The man, while he’s standing there, takes a gun and blows his head off,” said Cris Barrish, an investigative reporter for the Wilmington News Journal.

The women were shot dead moments after they entered the building. Their killer, who subsequently took his own life, was David’s father, Thomas Matusiewicz.

David was found at the courthouse and arrested on a petition for violation of his federal probation tied to traveling with his parents.

David’s mother, Lenore denied any involvement in the shootings. She claimed that her husband acted on his own. At the time, Lenore was released due to a lack of evidence to hold her.

The Courthouse Shooting

Three Members of Matusiewicz Family Convicted of Federal Stalking Crimes Resulting in the Murder of Christine Belford (U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Delaware)

WILMINGTON, Delaware. A federal jury convicted David T. Matusiewicz, his mother, Lenore Matusiewicz, and his sister, Amy Gonzalez, of interstate stalking and cyberstalking, in violation of federal law.  The jury found all three defendants criminally responsible for the death of Christine Belford, who was murdered in the lobby of the New Castle County Courthouse by co-conspirator Thomas Matusiewicz on February 11, 2013.

The Trial

Jurors saw video of Christine Belford crumpling to the floor after being shot at the New Castle County courthouse, the first day of testimony in the trial charging the family of her killer with conspiring to stalk her online, leading to her death.

Federal prosecutors showed the footage from a surveillance camera that caught the moment Thomas Matusiewicz shot her in the courthouse lobby with a .45 caliber handgun. He also killed Belford’s friend Laura Mulford, and wounded two Capitol Police Officers before shooting himself to death.

Prosecutors said that the family launched an online campaign through Facebook, YouTube, and a website they set up to harass and intimidate Christine Belford while she and David Matusiewicz were embroiled in a bitter custody dispute.

The three defendants watched the surveillance video of Christine’s death, which was played on a dozen screens around the courtroom.

Christine had a gunshot wound to her upper left chest, said Jessica Walizer, who was at New Castle County courthouse on the morning of the shooting for an unrelated child support hearing. “She was laying on her back, not on her right side, but halfway between,” Walizer said during a recorded deposition.

She had gone to Christine’s side after the gunfire had stopped and said, “if you can hear me, blink your eyes,” Walizer told the court. Christine blinked her eyes. At that point, Walizer said, Christine’s chest was “rising and falling.”

By the time paramedics arrived, Christine wasn’t breathing and had no pulse, Thomas Hobbs told the jury. Hobbs was one of the paramedics who responded to the scene.

“When I walked in, the first thing that hit me was the smell of gunpowder,” said Jeffrey Shriner, the New Castle County Police Officer who had handled the investigation when David Matusiewicz kidnapped his daughters in 2007.

Shriner had gone to the courthouse when he heard over the police radio in his car that there had been a shooting. When he found out that it was Christine Belford who had been shot, “My first thought was, ‘Where’s David?’ ” Shriner told the court.

Neighbors: Christine Belford was terrified in months leading up to courthouse shooting

The Newark neighbors of Christine Belford paint a picture of someone who was in constant fear for life. The couple lived in Middletown. Christine later moved to Newark, Delaware. “If you look around the house, the windows, she had all the windows secured and locked,” said one neighbor. “She’s got cameras all around her house, and at one time she had two German Shepherd dogs. So, she was terrified of what could happen.”

David and Christine’s History and Custody Dispute

Christine Belford was known to police as she and her ex-husband David Matusiewicz had been in a bitter, widely-publicized custody dispute.

As they worked the case, detectives learned that Christine Belford’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1998. The next year she began dating David, who was well-educated and had his own optometry practice. They dated for two years, got married, and in short order had three daughters. But David’s parents, Thomas and Lenore, didn’t support his relationship with Christine, which would later become a serious issue.

In 2003, when the couple’s second daughter was just two months old, David’s parents moved in with them. They couldn’t afford to live on their own at that point, said Timothy Hitchings, Christine Belford’s attorney.

The in-laws seized control. “Christine felt like she had been kicked to the curb as far as how to deal with her children,” said Jeff Shriner, a detective with New Castle Police.

That live-in arrangement lasted for nine months, causing the marriage to suffer. Christine reached a breaking point and filed for divorce in 2006.

The couple had to come up with some custody agreement for the kids and, in the process, David tried to minimize her contact with her children. “David made a claim that Christine was not fit to be a mother,” said Det. Shriner.

A psychologist, however, found that David had issues of his own. “The psychologist said David … saw the world from his perspective only,” said Hitchings.

In February 2007, the divorce was finalized. “The court decided that the parents should have shared custody,” said U.S. Attorney Ed McAndrew.

In early summer of 2007, the children were living with their mother Christine when David asked to take the children on a two-week vacation with his mother Lenore to Disney World in Florida. Christine consented to the trip and they left on August 26.

When her ex-husband failed to bring the children back or return to his business after more than two weeks, Christine became concerned and filed a missing person’s report.

Det. Shriner was assigned as the investigator. He learned that David had sold his optometry business to his partner for $900,000. “He had a very, very large cache of money … to go on to run,” said Det. Shriner. Detectives found that David’s house had been emptied of the furniture, indicating that he had no plans to return.

Det. Shriner secured a felony warrant for three counts of parental abduction against David. He enlisted the help of U.S. Marshals to search countrywide and, if needed, beyond.

At the same time police looked at financial transactions, toll records, and any other information that might lead to David’s whereabouts. Amid the investigation, Christine struggled to keep it together.

“Christine had a child from her other marriage,” said her friend. “The other child was older and knew what was going on. Christine tried to keep everything as normal as she could for the older girl.”

Det. Shriner’s attempts to get information from David’s father, Thomas Matusiewicz, and sister, Amy Gonzalez, proved fruitless. They appeared unconcerned, the investigator said.

David Matusiewicz | Thomas Matusiewicz | Lenore Matusiewicz | Amy Gonzalez

Meanwhile, Christine discovered that the mortgage on the marital home was in default. It came to light that David had forged her signature on financial documents, which amounted to fraud, according to Hitchings. Money from that transaction went into Thomas and Lenore’s bank account, so their financial records were subpoenaed. This led to the revelation that the parents had purchased a recreational vehicle and a BOLO was issued.

Det. Shriner found out that Thomas and Gonzalez had moved to Texas. The Matusiewicz’s email communications were tracked. It would take a year for that strategy to pay off, when investigators located the missing children in Nicaragua. On March 12, 2009, Belford and the authorities flew to Central America. David and Lenore were taken into custody without incident.

After 18 months, Christine was reunited with her kids, at which point she learned that David had told the girls she’d committed suicide. “It’s a very, very devious, evil thing to say to a child,” said McAndrew.

David pleaded guilty to kidnapping and bank fraud. He got four years in federal prison. Lenore was given 18 months for her role in the abduction.

On January 8, 2010, Christine filed a motion in family court and successfully terminated David’s parental rights and Thomas and Lenore’s grand-parental rights.

In response to the filing, the Matusiewicz family upped its course of criminal conduct, investigators said. There was a multi-pronged effort to defame her through internet postings accusing her of neglecting and abusing her daughters.

In September 2010, Lenore was released from prison and moved to Texas to be with her husband and daughter. Two years later, David was released from prison and moved in with his parents in Texas.  Tracey Campbell found it “unbelievable that they let [David] out of jail for abducting his kids. … [H]e only got four years.”

How It All Began

The family’s public saga began in 2006 when David Matusiewicz and Christine divorced, leading to a bitter custody battle that took an unusual turn when David and his mother, Lenore, kidnapped the three girls. They were found a year-and-a-half later in the tiny Nicaraguan village of Catalina.

Attorneys for the Matusiewicz family said their clients’ actions were aimed at saving the children from their abusive mother, claiming that David and Lenore kidnapped the three girls in 2007 and fled to Central America in a motor home because Christine was sexually abusing one of the girls.

David Matusiewicz made his first public allegation of sexual abuse at his sentencing for the kidnapping, after authorities found him, the girls and his mother in the family’s cramped motor home in Nicaragua. They were discovered 18 months after telling Christine he was taking them on a two-week trip to Disney World. When the girls asked about their mother, David told them she was dead, explaining she had taken her own life.

In 2009, Matusiewicz and his mother pleaded guilty to charges connected to the kidnapping. Matusiewicz was sentenced to prison and lost his parental rights.

The District Court and Delaware’s Family Court rejected the notion that Christine had sexually abused one of the girls, and questioned why David Matusiewicz didn’t come to authorities sooner. The family court said the sexual abuse claim was “baseless” and “made up.”

But the Matusiewicz Family never accepted that, and began an obsessive campaign to regain custody of the three girls. Their actions during that campaign fueled arguments by prosecutors in an emerging area of law spawned by changes in technology, changes that have led to cyberbullying in virtually every kind of relationship.

David Matusiewicz directed the campaign from federal prison starting in December 2009, writing to his sister, Amy Gonzalez: “I’m done playing Mr. Nice Guy.” He wrote a letter instructing his sister to send anonymous complaints about Christine’s character and parenting skills to Delaware social service workers.

The Matusiewicz Family created a portal on a website devoted to a theory about the JonBenet Ramsey murder, posting an essay called “A Grandmother’s Impossible Choice.” It accused Christine of threatening to sell the girls for $50,000 each to a pedophile, and of sexually abusing one of the girls. It accused her of throwing food onto a rug for her daughter and dog to fight over. Similar allegations were sent in letters to the girls’ school and church.

Two of David’s Girlfriends Testify to Helping Matusiewicz Family

While in prison for kidnapping his three girls, David Matusiewicz had romantic relationships with two women, both of whom his family used in the effort to get the children back from their mother, Christine Belford, according to testimony.

The two women—Cindy Bender, his high school girlfriend, and Courtney Emerson, whom he met while they both volunteered at the Special Olympics—each testified in U.S. District Court. 

The family enlisted a friend to spy on Christine at her Newark home. The friend secretly videotaped her and took down the license plates of cars parked in front of the home.

The family enlisted Cindy Bender to befriend Christine on Facebook and report back with information about her life. She gave the family her Facebook username and password so they could hack into her account.

In November 2011, Belford began feeling pressure from the campaign. She wrote to her attorney, “David has nothing to lose at this point, he has lost everything. He may allow me to survive to suffer. I may survive long enough to watch the girls be harmed. I may even go missing. All of this could be possibilities.”

In December 2011, David’s father, Thomas Matusiewicz drove from Texas to Delaware to see his granddaughters with no notice. Security cameras show Christine’s boyfriend telling Thomas Matusiewicz to leave as the girls hid in the house. The unannounced visit frightened Christine and sent her into a tailspin. She put her house on the market.

In a Nov. 1, 2012 email, David Matusiewicz wrote to his sister, saying “prepare yourself to be managing 4 by this time in 2013″—suggesting that Amy Gonzalez would soon get custody of the three children he and Christine had together.

David Matusiewicz attempted to get permission from probation to travel to the East Coast. He was granted that wish after filing a petition to reduce his child support payments; those payments were originally based on his salary as a doctor, but at that time David was a waiter in a restaurant. Court staff in Delaware told David he could listen to the hearing via phone, but he opted to travel with his father and mother from Texas to Delaware, and his father accompanied him to the hearing.

The car David and Thomas Matusiewicz drove to the courthouse on the day of the shooting contained ammunition, a military style knife, an electric shock device, binoculars, pictures of Christine’s children and home, three sets of plastic handcuffs and a bulletproof vest.

Police also found a spiral-bound notebook in the car labeled “H/L” that listed the names of people the family felt had wronged them during the custody dispute, including U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Sleet, who had presided over David Matusiewicz’s kidnapping sentencing. Prosecutors alleged this was a hit list.

Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland’s law school, said she does not think it will be difficult to prove the Matusiewicz family intended to terrify Christine Belford. Citron wrote the book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.”

“To me, it’s not the hardest thing to show,” she said, noting that the evidence shows Belford was frightened. Proving intent is typically difficult to do, Citron said, but “this seems like a pretty good case.”

The cyberstalking statute also fits because it specifies that the crimes must have occurred in different jurisdictions; in this case, much of the online harassment emanated from Texas.

The Jury’s Verdict

The jury’s verdict followed the August 2013 indictment charging David T. Matusiewicz, Lenore Matusiewicz, and Amy Gonzalez with one count of conspiring to commit interstate stalking and cyberstalking, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 371 and 2261A(1)-(2); two counts of interstate stalking, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2261A(1); and one count of cyberstalking, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2261A(2).  This appears to be the first federal conviction of any defendant for cyberstalking resulting in death, in violation of the Violence Against Women Act.

News Coverage of the Verdict (WHYY)

According to the indictment and court documents filed in this case and in prior cases, David T. Matusiewicz and Christine Belford were engaged in divorce and child custody proceedings in the Family Court of Delaware in 2007.  In August 2007, David T. Matusiewicz and his mother, Lenore Matusiewicz, kidnapped the three young children born of his marriage to Christine Belford and fled to South America.  In March 2009, David and Lenore Matusiewicz and the young children were found living in a motor home in Nicaragua.  David and Lenore Matusiewicz were arrested and prosecuted in Delaware, and the children were returned to the care of their mother, Christine Belford. 

In September 2009, David and Lenore Matusiewicz both pled guilty to crimes relating to their kidnapping of the children.  In December 2009, David T. Matusiewicz was sentenced to 48 months in prison to be followed by 5 years of supervision by the United States Probation Office. 

In the days following his December 2009 sentencing, David T. Matusiewicz and Lenore Matusiewicz began to orchestrate, from their prison cells, a course of conduct designed to stalk, harass, and intimidate Christine Belford and her children.  They enlisted Thomas Matusiewicz, Amy Gonzalez and various other persons in this effort, which stretched from December 2009 to February 2013. 

The Matusiewicz family began their stalking campaign by broadly disseminating—by mail, email, websites, Internet postings, and other means—false allegations that Christine Belford had, among other things, abused her children, suffered from mental illness and attempted to harm Lenore Matusiewicz.  They used a website, posted YouTube videos, and sent letters to Christine Belford’s church, her children’s schools, the family’s neighbors, friends and relatives repeating their false and defamatory allegations.  Christine Belford and her children were placed in fear and suffered substantial emotional distress as a result of the Matusiewicz family’s widespread, public dissemination of this false and defamatory information. 

In August 2011, the Family Court of the State of Delaware terminated David T. Matusiewicz’s parental rights as to his children with Christine Belford following a multi-day trial.  In doing so, the Family Court rejected David T. Matusiewicz’s assertion that Christine Belford was abusing the children, referring to those allegations as “baseless” and “made up.”  Following the completion of the Family Court termination of parental rights trial, the Matusiewicz family recruited and used a variety of people to conduct physical and online surveillance of Christine Belford and her children. 

After his release from federal custody, David T. Matusiewicz resided in southern Texas, first with his sister Amy Gonzalez and then with his parents Lenore and Thomas Matusiewicz.  Between September and November 2012, the United States Probation Office twice denied David T. Matusiewicz’s requests for permission to travel from Texas to New Jersey. 

On November 9, 2012, David T. Matusiewicz filed a petition to reduce the monthly child support arrearage payments he owed Christine Belford in the Family Court of the State of Delaware.  That petition ultimately resulted in the scheduling of the February 11, 2013, court hearing.  Christine Belford was ordered to attend that hearing in the New Castle County Courthouse. 

On January 8, 2013, David T. Matusiewicz received permission from the United States Probation Office in Texas to travel to Delaware to attend the child support arrearage hearing scheduled for February 11, 2013.  However, David never informed the probation officer that he intended to travel to Delaware with his parents. 

Between February 4 and 7, 2013, David, Lenore and Thomas Matusiewicz traveled from Texas to the Delaware Valley in two vehicles—a Honda Civic and Honda CRV—later found to contain numerous weapons, ammunition, restraints, an electric shock device, several gas cans, a shovel, and numerous pictures of the interior and exterior of Christine Belford’s residence.

On the morning of February 11, 2013, David and Thomas Matusiewicz drove to a parking garage near the New Castle County Courthouse in the Honda CRV. After entering the courthouse lobby at approximately 7:30 a.m., David T. Matusiewicz entered and stayed in the security screening line, while Thomas Matusiewicz moved around the lobby, occasionally approaching and talking to his son David. 

Thomas Matusiewicz went into the lobby of the New Castle County Courthouse at 7:40 a.m. There, he waited 35 minutes for his former daughter-in-law, Christine Belford, to arrive for a scheduled child-support hearing. When she got there with her friend Laura Mulford, he opened fire and killed them both.

Thomas Matusiewicz fired a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun, shooting both women in their upper bodies at close range. The shooting occurred in the courthouse’s public lobby, in an area visitors reach before arriving at the metal detectors in place for security purposes.

Thomas Matusiewicz also shot two Capitol Police officers in the chest, but their Kevlar vests are credited with saving their lives. The state police said Capitol Police returned fire. One shot hit Matusiewicz as he tried to walk out of the lobby. Police said the suspect then turned the gun on himself. Thomas Matusiewicz died on the sidewalk of the courthouse of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The Chief Medical Examiner determined cause of death was suicide by gunshot wound to the head.

David Matusiewicz, who was inside the courthouse with his mother when the shooting began and was held for questioning afterward. He was taken into custody for what police said was a violation of his parole. 

This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Delaware State Police.

“We concluded that the only way to ensure these kids could remain safe into the future was to prosecute the entire Matusiewicz family,” said McAndrew. “We had to show that death resulted from this group of people who had an agreement, a common criminal objective to cyber stalk Christine Belford.”

David Matusiewicz was charged with internet stalking, resulting in death. His sister and mother were charged as co-conspirators. The three defendants were convicted of and sentenced to life in prison.

Christine’s oldest daughter testified against her mother’s killers in the trial and insisted that she had never been abused in any way by her mother. 

The state Attorney General’s office secured a court order forbidding Lenore from having any contact with her grandchildren. She was required to stay 1,000 feet away from them at all times and could have no direct or indirect contact with them.

“The children are safe,” State Attorney General Beau Biden said. “We sought this no-contact order because we believe Lenore Matusiewicz is a danger to the children and should not have any contact with them. Her actions over the past five years have given us serious concern that she poses a risk to the children’s safety.”

Lenore Matusiewicz Dies While Serving Life Sentence (Jessica Masulli Reyes, Delaware, The News Journal)

David Matusiewicz, Amy Gonzalez Appeal Cyberstalking Convictions, Claim Trial Tainted (Xerxes Wilson, Delaware, The News Journal)

United States of America v. David Matusiewicz, Lenore Matusiewicz and Amy Gonzalez

United States Court of Appeals. The defendants each argue that the evidence presented to the jury was insufficient to convict them of any of the counts in the indictment. Their sufficiency challenges revolve around the same argument that was presented to and rejected by the jury: that Thomas acted alone in killing Belford and the defendants neither knew about nor participated in his plan.

Court of Appeals Affirmed the Criminal Convictions and Life Sentences

Third Circuit Court of Appeals Affirms Landmark Cyberstalking Resulting in Death Conviction in Matusiewicz Case (U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Delaware, September 2018)

WILMINGTON, Del.  – David C. Weiss, United States Attorney for the District of Delaware, announced today that the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the criminal convictions and life sentences of David T. Matusiewicz and Amy Gonzalez for their roles in stalking and killing Christine Belford in the New Castle County Courthouse in February 2013.  After killing Ms. Belford and her friend, Laura “Beth” Mulford in the Courthouse, the Defendants’ father, Thomas Matusiewicz, took his own life following a gun battle with Delaware Capitol Police Officers. Defendants’ mother, Lenore Matusiewicz, was also convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her role in this crime, but died while her appeal was pending.

Following a five-week jury trial in the summer of 2015, Defendants were convicted of all charges, including cyberstalking resulting in death. This was the first such case in the history of the nation.

In a 77-page precedential opinion, a unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed these convictions and sentences “in all respects” and specifically recognized the trial judge for handling this “complicated case” – involving “numerous issues of first impression” – with “exceptional precision and care.”  Regarding the landmark charge of “cyberstalking resulting in death,” the Third Circuit concluded that the Government sufficiently proved its case, stating that the defendants’ stalking conduct was the “actual” and proximate” cause of Ms. Belford’s death. 

directing his family to send letters to Belford’s acquaintances accusing Belford of sexual abuse; setting up the in-person court hearing that brought Belford to the courthouse where Thomas shot her; lying to probation officers about the need to attend the hearing in person; and traveling from Texas to Delaware in two vehicles that were filled with numerous weapons.

spreading false accusations of child abuse by creating online postings and YouTube videos, and sending defamatory emails and letters to Belford’s acquaintances; preparing false polygraph reports about these accusations; recruiting third parties to surveil and report on Belford and the children; providing Thomas with temporary cell phone number and cleaning his safe when he traveled to Delaware in 2011 and showed up at Belford’s house; and filing numerous petitions for custody of the children beginning two days after Belford was killed.

Ultimately, the Court found that there was “overwhelming, uncontradicted evidence” that the accusations against Ms. Belford were false and that “both David and Gonzalez were intimately involved in this stalking campaign and conspiracy.” 

United States Attorney Weiss stated the following: “As the Court of Appeals observed, this is a watershed case of national importance.  Cyberstalking is a form of psychological terror that deeply impacts its victims.  Individuals who engage in such conduct are on notice that the Department of Justice will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.  This outcome can never bring back Christine Belford and her courageous friend, Laura ‘Beth’ Mulford, or compensate their families for their loss – but it does rightly hold those responsible for these heinous acts.  I want to thank once again the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Delaware State Police for their superb investigative work in this matter.”

How a Vicious Child Custody Battle Led to the Murder of Christine Belford

The Senseless Murder of Christine Belford