By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
WALKING OUT of Maricopa County Superior Court in late 1984, Anthony Abril Jr. should have been a happy man. A jury had just awarded the 32-year-old hairdresser $1.3 million in damages from his insurance company, a remarkable verdict considering that Abril had sued over the distress he suffered after running down two pedestrians, killing one and crippling the other.
The ugly car accident had occurred six years earlier. Abril, son of a state legislator, and his longtime boyfriend were driving home after a night at the bars. Sailing south on Third Street in Abril's 1974 Hornet just after 2 a.m., they hit Pearlie Mae Taylor and Gregory Johnson in a crosswalk at Washington Street.
Taylor, a hotel maid, and Johnson, an unemployed street denizen, were wandering along, also after a night of drinking. Since virtually everyone involved in the accident-Abril, his passenger, the two pedestrians and most of the witnessesÏwas intoxicated to some degree, it remains unknown whether Abril ran a red light, or the couple was crossing against the signal.
A small woman, 4 feet 9 inches tall and 97 pounds when she was autopsied, Taylor was knocked down and became tangled under Abril's Hornet. She was dragged three quarters of a block, wedged between car and pavement.
Johnson rolled up onto the car's hood, slamming into the windshield hard enough to break it. His blood was found on the inside of the car's rear window.
Abril says he panicked as Johnson's arm groped at him through a hole in the bloodied windshield. Abril didn't stop. Taylor's body eventually dislodged from beneath the car. Johnson rolled off the hood. Abril drove like hell to get away from there.
But escape would prove difficult, for Abril personally and for an expanding cast of characters who over time were sucked into the aftermath of his accident.
Through a confluence of timing and personalities, the early-morning incident would spawn years of lawsuits and open a rift in the Phoenix legal community, finally setting up a showdown between one mild-mannered renegade attorney and the collective weight of the State Bar of Arizona.
The clumsy spectacle of Arizona's legal community attempting to police its own ranks would eventually overshadow the horrific events of that early spring morning.
It would also push the boundaries of an emerging national debate over how the legal profession should use its unique power to come down on its own wayward members.
At the time, however, all Abril felt was cold fear.
He was on the hood and I freaked out. I freaked out," Abril recalls now. He grabbed me. I saw blood all over my windshield. I freaked out."
Abril swears he had no idea anyone had been killed. He was fleeing for home, to hide his car in the garage, as police arrived at the accident scene. Taylor was already dead from multiple injuries, including a snapped spine.
Johnson lived, but spent a month in the hospital with a shattered right leg and other injuries. Tests showed that Johnson's blood-alcohol level when he was admitted to the hospital was .43. Some people would be dead at that point, and most would be unconscious. Johnson had been walking across the street.
Abril never reported the accident to his insurance company, and for weeks would not acknowledge to police that he drove the car. He claimed his roommate and passenger, Roy Lechuga, had been behind the wheel.
Ultimately, Abril pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He also admitted to arson after trying to set Lechuga's apartment afire because the former boyfriend testified against him. Abril served a total of two and a half months in prison.
By rights, it would not seem that Abril should be rewarded with more than a million dollars for his behavior.
But Abril sued Globe American Casualty Company, the insurance carrier to which he more or less dutifully mailed $40 a month for his auto policy.
The thrust of Abril's complaint was that Globe had mishandled the claims springing from the accident, and Abril had suffered mightily as a result.
After the accident, Globe refused to pay Johnson the $15,000 Abril's policy called for. So Johnson sued Abril, winning a $110,000 judgment against Abril personally.
The judgment, the carnage he had caused, the prospect of financial ruin, the insurance company's apparent indifference all fused together, as things are prone to do, in Abril's mind. It caused him such anguish that he attempted suicide, Abril's attorney argued at trial.
If Globe had paid Johnson off when it should have, his attorney told the jury, Abril would not have felt driven to wash down 39 of his mother's antidepressant pills with Scotch, would not have spent four days in a coma, and would not have anguished so over the seemingly hopeless mess his life became.
Casting Globe as a soulless corporation that cared little about a black street drunk or the gay Mexican American who ran him down, attorney John D. Chip" Harris told the jury that Abril himself was a victim in the whole sorry tale.
The jury bought it. Other attorneys still wonder at Harris' success, particularly since Abril did little to invite sympathy by showing up for trial dressed in secondhand military uniforms and reading The Communist Manifesto during the proceedings.