Once-stellar F. Lee Bailey now broke, beleaguered

By Michael D. Sallah and Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writers

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In 1981, F. Lee Bailey was still at the top of his game.

The defense attorney to the stars – with clients like Dr. Sam Sheppard and Patricia Hearst behind him, and O.J. Simpson still to come – was visiting a friend, wealthy agribusiness executive George Weasel, on a large estate about 25 miles southwest of Toledo.

Mr. Weasel had hired the flamboyant lawyer to handle his divorce. The two became fast friends, in part because of their shared love for flying jets.

One day over cocktails, Mr. Bailey suddenly stood up and said: “Do you want some lobster? I can get the best lobster anywhere,” Mr. Weasel recalled.

Without hesitation, the pair hopped on Mr. Bailey’s Lear jet and headed for Boston. They were met at the airport there by men with two large vats, filled with plump, live New England lobsters.

They got right back in the plane and returned to Ohio, where Mr. Bailey cooked up the catch. “Lee knew his lobster, and he knew how to cook it,” Mr. Weasel said.

Mr. Bailey was at the top of his profession back then, and he lived like it: imported scotch by the case, Dunhill cigarettes, casual jaunts to exotic places. He was the man America’s most famous people called when they ran into trouble, and those phone calls were very, very profitable.

Those old days must seem like another era to Mr. Bailey today. Last week, a Florida judge recommended that the 67-year-old litigator be disbarred. He is accused of taking millions of dollars worth of stock from a convicted drug smuggler he represented and refusing to turn it over to federal prosecutors.

The greatest irony for a lifelong high spender: Mr. Bailey says he needed the money because he’s broke.

Cantankerous, egotistical, and obstinate, he has been in scrapes with the ethical guardians of his profession before. He was almost disbarred 30 years ago when a Massachusetts judge said his attitude showed “a self-esteem of such proportions as to challenge description.”

But this may be the old warrior’s last chance. In the last year, his wife and mother have died, and his work load has been reduced by all the time he has spent in court defending his own actions.

“It’s sad, because this is a guy who was probably the most prominent lawyer in the country,” said Darrell Van Horn, a former assistant Lucas County prosecutor and friend of Mr. Bailey. “To go through this at this stage of his life has got to be tough.”

There’s a lien on Mr. Bailey’s million-dollar home near Palm Beach, Fla., and he claims he’s living off the good will of friends and associates. In a recent court appearance, he told the judge the only money he had was in his wallet.

His fall is all the more remarkable considering the pinnacles he once attained. Francis Lee Bailey was among the first lawyers to turn himself into a celebrity by using the news media in high-profile cases. And in the process, he became perhaps the most recognized American lawyer of the 20th century.

“I’ll hire F. Lee Bailey” became the potent retort of anyone facing thorny legal problems.


He first came to prominence in 1964 as a young man in a Cleveland courtroom. Just four years out of law school at Boston University, he convinced a judge to give a new trial to Dr. Sam Sheppard, the doctor who was accused of murdering his wife in the case that later inspired the television series, The Fugitive.

Mr. Bailey eventually got the U.S. Supreme Court to agree on appeal and won his client an acquittal in the retrial.

It was the first – but not the last – time that Mr. Bailey was in a “trial of the century.” Indeed, he seemed to be involved in most of them.

Mr. Bailey’s argument for a retrial centered on the massive pretrial publicity in the Sheppard case, which he argued had influenced the jury and meant his client could not get a fair trial.

But it was perhaps the last time the Massachusetts native complained about massive publicity. He spent much of his career seeking the spotlight, going after such high-profile cases and taking his arguments to the media.

His celebrity status thrust his social life into the headlines, particularly his protracted affair with singer Connie Francis. He rubbed shoulders with the famous and was a frequent guest on late-night talk shows.

And when he wasn’t appearing on television shows, he was sometimes hosting them. At 34, he was picked to host a show called Good Company, where he interviewed the rich and famous about their lifestyles. The show’s producer, David Susskind, said of his host: “He’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s sexy, he’s a natural for television.”

Years later, Mr. Bailey hosted another show, Lie Detector, where he sought such scoops as whether Zsa Zsa Gabor was telling the truth about whether she married men for their money.

His name was prominent in almost every medium. His books were best sellers, particularly his first, The Defense Never Rests. The book’s jacket gushes: “F. Lee Bailey is probably the most controversial – and certainly the most talked about – American lawyer since Clarence Darrow.” And his lectures were well attended around the country, including several appearances in Toledo.

To some attorneys, Mr. Bailey’s penchant for publicity was grating; even some of his clients didn’t like it. Newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst appealed her conviction for a bank robbery, saying Mr. Bailey spent too much time seeking a book deal to provide her a proper defense.


But many of his clients were still drawn to his undeniable ability in a courtroom. He was known for a razor-sharp memory, cross-examining witnesses for hours without using notes.

“He truly mastered the art of cross-examination, far more than most lawyers,” said James Tuschman, who spent a day with Mr. Bailey when the celebrated attorney visited Toledo for a lecture in the 1970s. Mr. Tuschman, a lawyer himself, now chairs the University of Toledo’s board of trustees.

Cases that seemed hopeless to some turned into victories for Mr. Bailey. In 1971, he defended Capt. Ernest Medina, an Army officer implicated in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. In his memoirs, Mr. Bailey calls Mr. Medina “the most decent man I’ve ever had the privilege to defend,” and despite significant evidence against his client, he won an acquittal.

Later, Mr. Medina admitted that he had been aware of what was happening during the massacre and had “not been completely candid to avoid disgracing the military, the United States, his family, and himself.”

Mr. Bailey also played a role in getting the release of one of Toledo’s most notorious gangsters, Thomas “Yonnie” Licavoli, who took over Toledo’s rackets in a wave of violence during the Depression. Licavoli was convicted of four murders, including the killing of Toledo bootlegger Jack Kennedy, in one of the city’s most infamous slayings.

In 1970, Mr. Bailey was hired as part of a legal team to try to get Licavoli out of the Ohio Penitentiary. At a speech in Toledo, he compared his new client to Dr. Sheppard, saying both were notorious in the state: “There seems to be a feeling Licavoli must be kept in prison as long as possible.” Licavoli was paroled two years later and died shortly after his release.

Mr. Bailey didn’t win all of his cases. His defense of Ms. Hearst was unsuccessful, as he couldn’t convince jurors that she was brainwashed by her Symbionese Liberation Army captors.

He was the lawyer for the alleged “Boston Strangler,” Albert DeSalvo, and recorded his client’s confessions to the crimes. DeSalvo was never charged in the crimes, however, and was killed in prison while being held on unrelated charges.

Mr. Bailey has had legal troubles of his own. Twice he has clashed with state bar associations, resulting in disciplinary action. In 1970, he was censured by a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice for doing what brought him his fame in the first place: talking to the news media about his case.

Justice Paul Kirk wrote that Mr. Bailey “is unwilling to concede that he could have been wrong; he believes that he alone should decide if ‘special circumstances’ exist to justify a departure from the established norms of conduct; he studies rules and judicial orders with a purpose of evasion rather than a will to comply with their spirit for the general good.”

He concluded that Mr. Bailey has developed “a philosophy of extreme egocentricity for the defense of criminal cases involving the use of news media.”

Disbarring Mr. Bailey “would not be essentially wrong,” Justice Kirk wrote. But the justice said he chose to merely censure him because disbarring Mr. Bailey “would close the door to possible reconsideration of values and standards by one who is still young in the profession.”

A year later, the Supreme Court of New Jersey suspended Mr. Bailey’s privileges to practice in the state for one year, again because of his efforts to plead his case through the media.

Over the years, a string of legal problems – including drunk-driving arrests and a mail-fraud case – exposed Mr. Bailey to the other side of the legal process. Often representing himself, he was never convicted of a serious charge.


Mr. Bailey sometimes used his legal troubles as a way to portray himself as a maverick, someone who was not part of the legal establishment. A former Marine jet pilot, he likened his role to a pilot fighting a lonely battle.

“If I ran a school for criminal lawyers, I would teach them all to fly,” he wrote in his memoir. “I would send them up when the weather was rough, when the planes were in tough shape, when the birds were walking.

“The ones who survived would understand the meaning of ‘alone.’ If I understand anything, I understand that.”

Colleagues said that Mr. Bailey didn’t try to ingratiate himself to judges and other lawyers. “Lee never gives an inch on anything,” said Seymour Gelber, former judge and Miami Beach mayor. “It’s not in his nature. That sometimes makes him extremely unpopular.”

But no matter who he was defending, Mr. Bailey did it in high style. He would fly across the country at a moment’s notice in his own eight-seat Lear jet, collecting huge legal fees.

“Lee would fly in, and I’d be expecting him to stay for a couple of days, and he’d no sooner sit down than the phone would ring, and he’d be off flying to somewhere else,” said Mr. Weasel, 75, whose Henry County estate was sometimes a home away from home for Mr. Bailey in the early 1980s. “He would stay here for weeks at a time, just to get away,” said Mr. Weasel.

By the mid 1980s, Mr. Bailey had decided that he wanted to move his practice from Boston to south Florida. He began to study for the Florida bar exam while living in an oceanfront condo in Palm Beach.

That’s when Mr. Van Horn, the Toledo lawyer, first met Mr. Bailey, when they were both studying. Mr. Van Horn’s wife at the time, Polly, was a close friend of Mr. Bailey’s wife, Patricia.

Mr. Van Horn, 52, recalls dining one night at the Palm Beach condo. “We were having a rack of lamb dinner, but Lee kept getting calls from people representing [Panamanian dictator Manuel] Noriega, trying to get him to take the case,” he said. “Then two minutes later, the Justice Department would call. He was back and forth on the phone all night.”


Soon after meeting him, Mr. Van Horn learned that Mr. Bailey’s connections to the Toledo area went back decades.

In the mid 1960s, when he was searching for a new venue for the Sam Sheppard case, Mr. Bailey drove around Ohio, talking to local residents in each city to see if they believed his client could get a fair trial there.

Mr. Van Horn said Mr. Bailey told him Toledo was one place where he felt his client could get an open-minded jury.

Mr. Van Horn also began to notice a Bailey trademark: heavy drinking. He recalls going to dinner with Mr. Bailey and his wife one night at a Palm Beach restaurant.

“I remember him ordering a double scotch on the rocks, and then he stopped the waiter and said to bring two. And before he finished his second drink, he was already ordering two more. By the end of the night, we were all singing Italian songs.”

Indeed, the opening words of Mr. Bailey’s second memoir, For the Defense, are: “Heavy trials make me thirsty.”

In 1989, Mr. Bailey was admitted to the Florida bar. But the next time most Americans heard his name was a few thousand miles west, in Simi Valley, Calif. In 1995, he was part of the legal “Dream Team” that defended O.J. Simpson in his double-murder trial. Mr. Bailey cross-examined Detective Mark Fuhrman on whether he had used a racial slur against African-Americans in the last 10 years.

Mr. Fuhrman’s denials came back to haunt him five months later, when the defense produced tapes of the detective using the “N word” dozens of times in an interview with a writer. The taint of racism left by the exchange was cited by many analysts as a critical point in Mr. Simpson’s eventual acquittal.

It was the last time Mr. Bailey was in the spotlight in a favorable way.

He has always been able to pull himself out of trouble, but with the latest charges, it may not be so easy.

“Lee’s in some serious trouble now, and he’s going to need a lot of help,” said Mr. Gelber, the former Florida judge and mayor.

Mr. Bailey told a Toledo audience in 1970 that he held drug smugglers in a special brand of contempt. He said he declined to represent smugglers unless he believed they were innocent.

By the mid 1990s, Mr. Bailey had evidently changed his mind, in a case that has come back to haunt him.


In 1994, federal drug agents made a major catch: They arrested Claude Duboc, believed to be one of the most important marijuana smugglers in the world, in Hong Kong. He was extradited to the United States and retained Robert Shapiro, another of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team,” to be his attorney.

Since Duboc’s trial was to be held in Florida, Mr. Shapiro contacted his old friend and mentor, Mr. Bailey, to handle that end of the case. According to federal documents, each attorney was to receive a $1 million fee from Duboc.

Their client’s guilt was never in doubt; Mr. Bailey even referred to him as a man “with no legitimate source of income.” But he was fabulously wealthy, with two large estates in France and valuable collections of cars, boats, and artwork.

Among Duboc’s assets was 602,000 shares of Biochem Pharma, a Canadian company whose research into a possible AIDS drug was likely to send the stock’s value soaring.

Mr. Bailey and Duboc’s other lawyers negotiated a deal: In return for a guilty plea from their client and what they called “extraordinary cooperation” – meaning Duboc would forfeit all of his possessions to the federal government – prosecutors would go easy on him and give him a lighter sentence.

Because the Biochem stock was expected to gain in value, Mr. Bailey kept it separate from Duboc’s other assets. Federal officials claim that that arrangement was temporary and that the stock was supposed to be turned over to the government as well.

Mr. Bailey claimed the stock was his to keep as part of his legal fees.

When he refused to turn over the stock in 1996 – by then worth more than $16 million – he was found in contempt of court. With cameras flashing and reporters watching, Mr. Bailey was led away in handcuffs and leg irons to jail.

He spent more than 40 days there before agreeing to give up his yacht and $16 million, having to borrow some of the money he handed over.

But his troubles weren’t over. The Internal Revenue Service slapped a $243,000 lien against him for allegedly underpaying his income taxes in the early 1990s. Last year, in a New York case, he said in an affidavit that “heavy reverse cash flows” have left him unable to pay his mortgage or office rent.

Big spending

Some who know Mr. Bailey would say that his big spending finally caught up with him. “If Lee made $1 million, he would spend $1.5 million,” said Mr. Van Horn.

And his handling of the Duboc stock led the Florida Bar to file a complaint against Mr. Bailey, alleging misappropriation of funds, lying in court, and attempts to influence a judge. On July 17, a special referee, Collier County Circuit Judge Cynthia Ellis, released her findings: He should be permanently disbarred.

“At the end of the day, [Mr. Bailey] has forfeited his privilege to practice law in the state of Florida,” she wrote. “Frankly, it is difficult for this referee to conceive of a more egregious act of circumstances than those which Mr. Bailey has brought upon himself.”

Mr. Bailey continues to defend himself, saying prosecutors are out to get him and are lying about the stock deal.

The final decision now lies with the Florida Supreme Court.

If he is disbarred in Florida, he would likely face a similar fate in Massachusetts, where he founded his practice. That would likely mean the end of his storied legal career.

The strain is clearly showing on Mr. Bailey. His face is haggard and tired, and his hands shake. He is still grieving the loss of his mother and wife.

But he refuses to give up his legal career. “I will continue to represent my existing clients with all appropriate vigor,” he said in a statement last week.

“He’s an old Marine, you know, and Lee’s not just going to lay down,” said Mr. Gelber. “He’d just as soon slug it out.”