THE POINT OF NO RETURN
“The Die is Cast.” (“Alea Iacta Est”)
—Julius Caesar to his army after crossing the Rubicon River
When I first read Barack Obama’s unique and eloquent search for his identity through the prism of race, Dreams of My Father, I was powerfully taken with his story. President Obama was just twenty-one when he realized that any chance he had to truly know his long-lost father had passed. When the phone rang to relay the bad news from a half world away, he was in a New York tenement on the border of East Harlem, “smelling eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss.”
Imagine that, if you can. President Obama went on to find his Last of the Gladiators in his family and his country—a lucky stroke for those of us who love and admire him.
When I was a little boy, as I was just learning to crawl and recognize letters, I noticed a collection of fine red leather books that my father would take from the shelf from time to time to leaf through. I remember him dozing on a couch with one of these red books in his lap. I found those very same books years later, and realized that they were a collection penned by a single author, Winston Churchill, who, on behalf of the Allies, helped save the world as we know it by defeating the Nazis in World War II. This was a man my father admired and honored. When I hear that name to this day, I stop and listen, so as to glean whatever I can about him. My father wouldn’t waste his time on an unworthy character, so neither will I.
Someday, I am quite sure, my grandchildren will stumble upon a treasure of books written by the former president of the United States, Barack Obama. They will know, in their heart of hearts, that their grandfather wouldn’t waste his time on an unworthy character, so neither should they. “This is a man my grandfather admired and honored,” they will think, quieting the world around them to hear what they can hear.
That is how the world of words and ideas are passed through the ages, from generation to generation, in those who love and trust us to do right by them, forever and always, amen.
While I was building MedWorks, Dad was bathing in a lifetime of accomplishments. By this time, with close to 1,000 major jury trials under his belt, Jimmy was the undisputed leader of the criminal defense bar in New York. He had accomplished just about everything he had set out to do when he drove back to Brooklyn from the Marine Corps base to start law school.
The History Channel filmed a one-hour biography on Dad called Mouthpiece: Voice for the Accused—James M. La Rossa, which debuted at the second Tribeca Film Festival in 2002. It received accolades and a good deal of press.
Dad began his three-hour summation to a jury in one courtroom, while his partner, Mike Ross, or associate Andrew Weinstein, picked a jury for the start of his next trial. Federal prosecutors knew there was no deal-making with Jimmy. That’s why clients paid such exorbitant fees. He wasn’t there to negotiate plea deals. Dad laced his gloves on and stepped into the ring day in and day out.
Some of his cases were, in fact, settled. But that usually happened just before the trial started. In dozens of cases, it was not uncommon for prosecutors to get cold feet as the jury was being seated and offer Jimmy an attractive deal for his wayward client. It was more common to just throw down and let the chips fall. May the best man win, and all that crap.
A splashy “NOT GUILTY” verdict courtesy of Jimmy would be a career-stopper for a lot of young, up-and-coming US attorneys. Prosecutors like Rudy Giuliani tried to beat him by making him a target of fictional “criminal probes.” Dad was already well established as a gifted attorney and an ethical officer of the court, so even Giuliani and his henchmen couldn’t engineer their make-believe bullshit to get Jimmy barred from trying a case.
I had seen Dad out-charm many a jury with my own eyes. He even had a large group of retired groupies who waited on benches outside the courthouse at Foley Square in the early mornings so that they could be first to line up for seats in Jimmy’s court. As a teenager, I was once caught in an elevator with one of Dad’s juries as they headed for a lunch break. I was as quiet as a church mouse, not wanting to compromise my father, but they fawned over me in such an overt way that they left no doubt how they felt about my father. It didn’t necessarily mean that Dad’s client would walk, but it was a good sign, I guess. I always went back and dutifully reported to my father. He knew I was too smart to utter a word in front of the jurors other than “No, ma’am,” “yes, sir,” and “thank you.”
One day I was walking with Dad through the lobby of the Federal court in Manhattan. Other lawyers and court staff made way for him as if he was a rock star. All of a sudden, a man with an unruly head of graying hair and a black cape came out of nowhere to stop Dad. He was so over-the-top I thought about laying him out on the marble. The maniac was William Kunstler, the noted civil rights attorney. “Jimmy,” he cried out, attention-seeker that he was.
As the story goes, Mr. Kunstler had found himself in court weeks before without a wallet or money. Jimmy, having grown up poor, always carried a big wad of cash with him, so he gave the caped crusader a handful of large bills to get him through his day. As Dad introduced me to the eccentric attorney, Kunstler pulled out a personal check to cover the borrowed money and handed it to Jimmy, who gave it a glance and told Kunstler, “Bill, I’m not going to cash this, but I will carry it in my wallet. If I’m ever mugged by the ‘Brotherhood,’ I’ll show them your check and they better leave me be, or you’ll have some explaining to do.”
We all laughed, but true to his word, Jimmy kept Kunstler’s personal check in his wallet until it decomposed.
My father also earned the respect of the press, the Democratic “machine,” which ran much of the Big Apple until well into the 1990s, as well as many of the lion-like Federal District Court judges in the southern and eastern districts.
Prosecutors were faced with the additional burden of chancing nDad’s close relationships with judges, another reason not to square off with him in a full-blown trial. Most of the state court judges thought they owed Jimmy their seat thanks to Uncle Meade’s antics. Federal judges are proudly independent, but as Dad’s former partner, Mike Ross, used to say, “Everyone wants to get close to the fire. Your father was that fire.”
Dad’s distrust of the federal government ran deep. One of the ways he revolutionized the defense bar was by taking a page out of the government’s playbook. He was among the first defense lawyers to match the investigative techniques and firepower of prosecutors by hiring private investigators to assist in defense cases. These PIs were usually ex-NYPD. The first and most successful was a savvy Irish veteran named John McNally.
Over the course of their lives, Dad and John would trap prosecution witnesses in their own lies over and over again. McNally set up two large, old-fashioned cassette recorders in Jimmy’s top two office drawers, and they started to tape some of Jimmy’s more noteworthy conversations.
(The rough-and-tumble world of organized crime is as result- driven as it gets. If you were in their good graces, they were at your feet, spreading good cheer and hundred dollar bills to everyone within eyesight. If you fell out of favor, however, they were at your throat. There was only one way to deal with the mob and keep their respect. Jimmy, with McNally’s help, could be equally calculating.)
Just before Dad died, we made a very risky trip back to New York. Neither Dad nor I said it, but this trip was to say goodbye. We had a jam-packed schedule, which took its toll on Dad, but we had to do it. We supplied the New York hotel suite with everything that Dad would need, so it was more of a hospital than an apartment. I thought I was going to lose him the second night, after his closest lawyer friends threw him a big party. He woke in terrible distress in the middle of the night. I ran to the refrigerator and broke the seal on the liquid morphine and shot just the right amount under his tongue. He stabilized immediately. I carried him back to his bed and sat with him most of the night. Morphine is an unusual drug in that the right amount releases the pulmonary system from spasms. Too much suppresses the entire respiratory system and can lead to death. We got very lucky that night.
The night before we were scheduled to fly back to California, we had a quiet dinner with a lawyer and close friend of ours. Rounding out the foursome was one of the only undisputed crime family bosses, Roberto D’Orca (not his real name), a movie star handsome man, who wanted to say his own goodbye to Jimmy. Dad’s voice was hoarse, so we had to lean in to hear him. Jimmy told our friend, Mr. D’Orca, stories about his “family” he did not know himself. D’Orca was incredulous that Jimmy had his entire family history on the tip of his tongue.
The morning after Dad died, I called our friend to break the bad news. He lives in the same house he has always lived in. As the line was ringing, I pictured an old-fashioned telephone bolted to a kitchen wall. Finally, an answering machine picked up. I told the machine the news and apologized for saying it in a message and hung up. Two and a half months later, he was the first guest to arrive for Dad’s memorial. We hugged warmly, truly joyful to see one another, and that was that.
The legendary life and times of Jimmy La Rossa were just that: legendary. Born at the right moment, in the right place, with an abundance of talent and guts to handle a generation’s worth of the wildest cases and unimaginable clients.
On any given day, I could find out what Dad was doing by reading the metro sections of three New York newspapers. Dad’s trials were often standing-room-only events. A perfunctory search of contemporaneous press reports about his trials numbered in the thousands of pages.
Jimmy’s life was a roller coaster, and his resumé read like a roadmap to the most brash crimes and “eccentric” clients of a generation. Some of his clients, though, were more colorful than the actual trials themselves:
—The famed Pierre Hotel robbery was a $27 million hotel robbery ($162 million in today’s dollars)in early 1972, called for by Lucchese Crime Family member Christie “The Tic” Furnari, Samuel Nalo, and Robert Comfort, an associate of the Luccheses, and carried out by several of Comfort’s Bypass Gang burglars. This robbery would later be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest, most successful hotel robbery in history.
Masquerading as guests, the robbers took all of the hotel employees and some unlucky guests hostage. The robbers had done previous research on the guests of the hotel and used the hotel’s index system to systematically choose which safety deposit boxes to pilfer within the vault. Within two and a half hours, the robbers were able to make off with $28 million in cash and jewels. Giving each of the hostages a $20 bill as “hush money,” they slipped away just ahead of the incoming morning crew.
Dad led the defense on behalf of Furnari, who had the distinction of having Jimmy’s services almost twenty years later during the case that ultimately crushed the New York Mafia, the Commission Trial.
-For many years, a vicious Colombian named Pepe Cabrera, who had a special affection for Jimmy, ran the biggest drug cartel in Colombia. He built an impenetrable mountain retreat with a very short runway that only one kind of Falcon jet could land on or take off from. To transport the loads, he hired only Vietnam-era pilots. The deal was they had to make three drops in the US. After the third drop, the pilot owned the plane and could start a new life wherever he wanted. Pepe never wanted to see them again.
Pepe also dealt in emeralds. One day, a jeweler in the Bronx got on the wrong side of Pepe and his men killed him in broad daylight. After a short trial in state court ended in acquittal, Pepe threw Jimmy a big party and disappeared.
Months later, Pepe asked Dad to be the best man at his wedding at his Colombian retreat. When Jimmy got there, he discovered that the wedding was a sham. The priest was an actor. The bride, a young, strict Catholic, insisted on this formality. For Pepe’s ruse, hundreds of people were present. Jimmy declined to be the best man because of the obvious ethical concerns, so Pepe quickly found an actor who looked like Jimmy. Problem solved.
Pepe returned to NYC and again allegedly killed someone. He was also indicted by the Feds for racketeering. The state trial came first, and Jimmy somehow quashed the indictment before a jury was seated. Before the Feds could transfer Pepe from custody for the Federal trial, he was mistaken for another prisoner and, to great fanfare in the New York tabloids, was accidentally released. He disappeared and Jimmy never saw him again.
-An Orthodox jewel merchant with ties to Dad’s longtime client, Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, was taking $25 million in diamonds from Miami to Toronto. He had the necessary legal and customs paperwork to bring them into Canada. When a Toronto blizzard forced the jet to land at JFK, however, the merchant was immediately arrested, taken to the Tombs, a municipal jail in Lower Manhattan, and had his diamonds confiscated.
The jewel merchant languished in anonymity in the Tombs until someone notified Jimmy about what had happened. Jimmy called the US Attorney and told him if he didn’t meet him at the federal courthouse at Foley Square in an hour, he was going to call the press and have thousands of orthodox Jews camped out in downtown Manhattan. Jimmy’s passionate skewering of what transpired at JFK infuriated the judge, who threatened to throw the US Attorney himself in the Tombs. Later that day, the jeweler arrived safely in Toronto with his jewels in tow, only a little worse for the wear and tear.
-Jimmy accepted one and only one divorce case, “to have a little fun.” A Greek shipping magnate, with secretive real estate holdings and sham corporations all over New York, finally went too far by having a baby with a young woman. His beautiful middle-aged wife filed for divorce. Jimmy uncovered all of the husband’s illegal activities and packaged them within a simple motion he drafted but didn’t file. With the threat of being exposed, losing millions, and perhaps going to jail, the Greek magnate capitulated, giving his wife everything she wanted. The magnate tried to retain Jimmy for himself following the divorce but Dad refused. The heiress credited Jimmy with saving her life, and they remained friends for the rest of Dad’s days.
-In the 1970s and ’80s, the Meadowlands (home to the New York Jets and Giants) had a racetrack featuring “trotters.” Jockeys rode on little carts, or sulkies, behind the horse. The sport attracted heavy gambling and was constantly being investigated. Finally, in an effort to close the track down, the Feds indicted the most successful trotter jockey.
Some criminal trials center on the law; others are mostly about the fact patterns. Because he always meticulously prepared for trial, Jimmy became an expert in trotting, casting so much reasonable doubt on the variations of the sulkies, strides of the horses, track conditions, etc., that in complete confusion and fury at this seeming gratuitous prosecution, the jury acquitted the jockey weeks before Christmas.
-Two elected surrogate judges preside over every issue involving wills and estates in the entire city of New York. More money runs through these courts than any other in the nation. For a generation, Eve Preminger and Marie Lambert were those two surrogate judges. Eve Preminger’s husband was a top negligence lawyer, Ted Friedman. Friedman was indicted by the City’s Corporation Counsel after winning huge settlements through what the City deemed questionable methods. It was a long, technical trial and ended in Jimmy’s orchestration of a not-guilty verdict.
After the Friedman trial, Marie Lambert was the subject of a probe encouraged by the big white-shoe law firms who didn’t like her gruff treatment of them. When Jimmy exposed the root of the probe and leaked it to the press, it was suddenly dropped. The bulk of Dad’s practice was not in Surrogate’s Court, but he liked to walk in unannounced in the middle of a big trial. Invariably, Eve Preminger or Marie Lambert would suspend court and jump into Jimmy’s arms while the white-shoe lawyers watched and seethed.
-The last mega drug cartel in New York was run by the ruthless Nicky Barnes, who was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole after a massive government sting operation. Fearing an imminent indictment, Barnes’ lieutenant, Freddie Myers, showed up at Jimmy’s office seeking representation. At the first of three meetings, Jimmy told him he didn’t want the case under any circumstances. After insisting on another face-to-face, Myers flat-out asked Jimmy how much money he wanted to take the case. Dad thought, If I make up a number, he’ll go away. So, he quadrupled his highest trial fee. The next day, Myers and entourage returned with two briefcases stuffed with cash. Dad looked up and said, “All I can tell you, gentlemen, is that you will receive the best defense humanly possible.”
-Jimmy’s use of investigators proved to be a game-changer in his many trials. Example: The notoriously paranoid Ross Perot retained Jimmy to spy on several of his own employees and present a neatly constructed case against them to Texas prosecutors.
-While representing former Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez, Jimmy was especially aggressive in deposing a big, beefy wannabe gangster, who had managed to sell millions of dollars in fake Hernandez merchandise and memorabilia. Before the deposition was over, the proceedings had to be stopped numerous times because the witness was hyperventilating. According to my sister, Susan, a young lawyer at the time, Hernandez turned to her and said, “Jeez, your old man must have been hell to grow up with.”
-In the 1980s, in an effort to expand their influence, the Royal Saudis started a worldwide bank that was quickly the subject of criminal probes and indictments. This became known as the BCCI Scandal. The Saudis hired every major law firm in the US. At one time, there were more American lawyers in Riyadh than camels. Jimmy would try the New York portion of the case with one proviso: He wouldn’t meet the Saudis in the Middle East. He would take the case if, and only if, he could meet them and prepare at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. For the better part of three years, Dad flew the Concorde to Paris, where the Saudis reluctantly met him. Ultimately, the bank was wound down and the indictments never went to trial.
-One of Dad’s nuttier clients, bar none, was Arden Perrin, a very proper Brit who owned distilleries that made Gilbey’s Gin, among other spirits. Jimmy would fly the Concorde to see Perrin, who was not allowed in the US because of some past misdeeds. Upon arrival in London, Jimmy would be picked up by a driver and a physician, who would hook him up to electrodes of some sort that would “refresh” him so he wouldn’t need to rest. (In Switzerland, the eccentric Perrin was having some sheep’s organs implanted in his body.) After working with Perrin at his estate outside of London, Dad would be taken back to the Concorde to return to New York. This went on for some time until the novelty wore off and Jimmy refused to make the London trips. For years thereafter, Perrin just showed up wherever Jimmy happened to be. Once, when the whole family was in the Bahamas, I saw in the distance a man in a three-piece suit walking up the beach. I gave Dad the heads-up. Jimmy rolled his eyes and he and Perrin went somewhere private to chat.
Perrin showed up like a ghost to have a few moments with Jimmy in the French West Indies, in Paris, and in Jerusalem. The last time Jimmy saw Perrin, he was sitting on a park bench outside of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. According to Jimmy’s driver, Neil, they spoke for ten minutes. Perrin got up, walked away, and was never seen again.
-When an Israeli general (and war hero) was indicted by the US attorney in Boston, he turned to Jimmy. The general owned a medical device company that supplied cardiovascular stents to a large company in Massachusetts, Boston Scientific. Apparently, these stents had contributed to numerous deaths attributed to a proprietary coating, which the FDA ruled was a criminal violation.
When Jimmy went to Jerusalem for a deposition of the general, he quickly tired of the food. The general made a call to clear airspace between Israel and Jordan and the general flew them to a small town in Jordan known to have a good Italian restaurant. When they got there, the general was crestfallen because the restaurant was closed. Jimmy banged on the door and convinced the owner to open because he had come all the way from New York City.
The chef woke his wife, set up a table, and Jimmy and the general ate for hours. Within a year, Jimmy convinced the US Attorney in Boston that the coating was done to specs provided by Boston Scientific. In lieu of a criminal indictment, Boston Scientific paid a large fine and the general never spent a day in court.
Dad’s summations were legendary. They often stretched to four hours and people (including other lawyers) stood in line to watch the show.
One of the most memorable summations of the many I witnessed over the years was Jimmy’s very last one. Jimmy’s client was the French conglomerate Vivendi. A civil suit had been brought against it by a noted rapper, Ja Rule, from the days prior to Vivendi’s purchase of the Def Jam label. Apparently, when Ja Rule was incarcerated, Vivendi’s business practices were less than sterling.
In a courtroom packed with lawyers and French executives who had come to watch Jimmy make his two-hour summation, he slogged through the argument, belting out names like Shady/Aftermath, Jay-Z, Irv Gotti, G-Unit, and Ja Rule. At one point, he transposed names and was corrected by the opposing counsel. I bit my lip trying not to laugh. Nevertheless, he walked out of the courtroom without a care in the world. Knowing full well that, despite his summation, he had lost the case, he turned to me and said, “Let’s go eat.” And that was that.