Gasket Case

Their marriage was on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Their divorce was on Hard Copy.

Joe Hrudka is a self-made man. He came out from under the hood of a car andcreated the Mr. Gasket auto-parts empire.

Denise Hrudka, a former beauty queen, moved from her parents' house into Joe's mansion, dreaming of familial bliss.

They were once worth more than $100 million. They owned sprawling estates in Ohio, Florida and Paradise Valley. They had four daughters andspent a dozen years living in the lap of luxury.

Denise and Joe spent the next four years embroiled in the kind of vicious legal battles fought only in the realm of the ultrarich. The Hrudkas' war has been waged by at least 17 attorneys who have racked up nearly $1 million in legal bills.

They've been to divorce court. They've been to bankruptcy court. And last month they stood before the Arizona Court of Appeals, where Denise is challenging the terms of the divorce judgment.

Denise Hrudka has lost nearly everything trying to get away from Joe. Everything except Joe.

Denise also has screwed up a lot. She hired some of the wrong people and fired some of the right ones. She fought battles she couldn't win and ignored the good fights. The more Denise fought, the more she lost.

Joe apparently has come to view the divorce as a business deal--and he is a cunning master of that cutthroat game. It's something you pick up becoming a multimillionaire. In business, only a fool is merciful to competitors.

"Joe had a lot of money. He always told me, for years, that if she left him, she'd have nothing," says Murray Fox, a longtime friend of the Hrudkas.

Denise got $7,400 a month in spousal and child support, not exactly chicken feed to the average Joe.

But Mr. Gasket is not your average Joe.
He's turned the divorce into a cottage industry. Denise filed bankruptcy. He sent her into liquidation, positioning himself as her primary creditor. Now, as expensive jewelry, antique furniture and cars are auctioned to pay off Denise's debts, Joe often buys the valuables. So he is, in essence, both buyer and seller, plus he gets to keep the goods he buys.

How nasty has this gotten? It's off the charts. One day last July, armed with a bankruptcy-court order, Joe had the authorities clean out the rented home where Denise lives with their children. She made him take the children's furniture, too.

Denise Hrudka went into the divorce thinking the system would work for her.
But Joe Hrudka knew how to work the system.

Denise Zuzak met Joe Hrudka (pronounced RUDD-kuh) at a car show in Cleveland in the late 1970s. They met again at a party in a bar. The second time, something clicked.

Joe was 39 years old, the divorced father of three children.
Denise was charmed by the business wizard with the rough exterior.
Not long before their meeting, Joe had sold his wildly successful company, Mr. Gasket, to the W.R. Grace Corporation. He was a local celebrity, routinely described as "independently wealthy" and an "entrepreneur."

And he was smitten with Denise.
At 26, she was a tall, dark-haired beauty. She had been crowned Miss Cleveland a few years before she met Joe, and since then had worked in her father's aluminum foundry and taught piano lessons.

Their August 1978 wedding was preceded by an ominous event. Two days before they exchanged vows, Joe presented Denise with an antenuptial agreement and demanded that she sign it. No signature, no wedding, he said. She was caught off guard and, weeping, signed the document.

Denise's father paid for the wedding, despite Joe's wealth. It was a big affair--600 attended--that was covered by Cleveland TV stations.

Joe assumed the role of provider.
Denise was, by all accounts, deliriously happy on the pedestal where Joe had placed her. He showered her with gifts, jewelry, cars.

Friends say Denise didn't marry for money, though.
"She was never ostentatious, never had a big head about her," says Fox, who was at the Hrudkas' wedding. "She was just a real nice girl. She really, really cared about him. It's really sad."

Shortly before they married, Joe had bought one of the largest homes in the Chagrin Falls suburb of Cleveland, a 55,000-square-foot mansion known as Roundwood Manor. Together, the newlyweds set about remodeling and decorating the place with the finest furnishings and antiques.

Their first daughter was born about a year after their marriage. Three more daughters followed within six years.

By 1981, W.R. Grace was foundering withMr. Gasket. So Joe bought it back andreturned to work full-time. It was a profitable venture that netted him additional millions.

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Lisa Davis