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Custody meet turns tense

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Tense moments ensued outside a Gwinnett courtroom Monday morning when a slain Lawrenceville mother's family came within several feet of the only suspect police have named -- her husband.

A scheduled child custody hearing was averted when attorneys for both sides worked out a behind-the-scenes deal allowing the family of Nique Leili visitation rights to her youngest daughters, whom they haven't seen since before their mother's body was found in her subdivision woods July 16.

As other hearings were being adjudicated, both parties exited the courtroom for a lobby at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. Leili's husband, Matt Leili -- a tall, stocky figure with buzzed hair, wearing a gray blazer with an open collar -- bee-lined for a lobby conference room, as roughly a dozen of Nique Leili's supporters milled in the lobby.

After the agreement was struck, Nique Leili's family bird-dogged the conference room door, until one of Matt Leili's defense attorneys, Lyle Porter, emerged and calmly asked them to keep a distance.

"How can you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning," the victim's mother, Harriett Garrett, said to the attorney.

Deputies intervened and ushered the family outside the courthouse. Matt Leili emerged a few moments later, wearing sunglasses and walking briskly away with Porter. He has not been charged in his wife's death, and his counsel reiterated his innocence Monday.

"As a spouse, he was automatically suspected," said co-counsel Sumner Riddick, a Lawrenceville attorney.

Riddick said his client continues to work from home in the software industry as his daughters, ages 9 and 12, have resumed attending school. Both are straight-A students and heavily involved in extracurricular activities, he said.

"These are bright kids -- extraordinarily bright," Riddick said.

Days after her death, Nique Leili's father, Douglas Chatham, filed for custody of the girls. The deal struck Monday will allow a brief, unsupervised visitation this week, followed by visitations one or two Saturdays a month. Provisions will forbid overnight visits and restrict either side from speaking ill of the other, Riddick said.

The case was also transferred to Gwinnett Juvenile Court, where an independent attorney will be appointed by the court to represent the girls, investigate their living situation and report back to the court. Another custody hearing in the lower court is pending.

Chatham's attorney, Noel Benedict, said his client had hoped for more visitation rights. The children in question did not attending the hearing.

"I don't think anyone's happy with the compromises," Benedict said.

Nique Leili's sister, Amy Elk, called the outcome frustrating, but said her camp remains optimistic. She had no intentions of confronting Matt Leili in the lobby, she said, but wanted to make her presence felt.

"We had no intention of saying anything, I just wanted him to look one of us in the eye," Elk said. "This isn't the end; this is just another step."

It's another step in many bizarre ones since the 44-year old went missing July 8, following an argument with her husband of 13 years.

Friends and family stumbled on Nique Leili's remains in sticks and leaves minutes into a volunteer search a week later. Matt Leili had closed himself off from police and her family a couple days prior, officials have said.

A strange legal battle over control of Nique Leili's remains was settled outside court when the two sides agreed to have separate funerals. Though a consent order permitted Matt Leili to essentially borrow the remains for his own funeral, he declined to. Nique Leili's family buried her in Athens, next to her grandfather.

Officials with Gwinnett police and the Gwinnett Medical Examiner's Office said Monday that Leili's death is still being actively investigated as a homicide. Authorities have indicated that toxicology testing by Georgia Bureau of Investigation scientists on samples collected during Leili's autopsy -- which did not reveal a cause of death -- could be vital.

That testing usually takes several months, but Gwinnett officials asked that it be expedited when the samples were submitted July 28, given the magnitude of the case.

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said Monday that toxicology tests have wrapped, but additional testing "which could take several more weeks" has been requested by the Gwinnett Medical Examiner's Office.

Authorities would not specify what the additional testing entails.

Matt Leili was supported in court Monday by his neighbors and an aunt who'd flown in from New York, his attorney said.

"This is a tragedy all the way around," Riddick said. "We're hopeful this is a first step to the families getting along."