Barrister Behind Bars

Former "King of Probate" faces long prison term for ripping off elderly

Wayne Legg handed his wallet, watch and keys to a friend a few minutes before the jury delivered its verdict on Tuesday afternoon.

He must have had a premonition. The panel convicted the once-powerful Mesa attorney on 13 counts of felony theft and fraud after a monthlong trial.

Moments after the verdict, sheriff's deputies handcuffed the 69-year-old man and marched him into custody, where he awaits an August 26 sentencing. Legg will have to serve at least 12 years behind bars if Superior Court Judge Susan Bolton imposes the minimum sentence.

Tuesday's verdict marked a definitive chapter in the fall from grace of the ex-county chairman of the Republican party and chief counsel for Arizona State University.

Prosecutors from the Arizona Attorney General's Office portrayed Legg as a vulture who stole more than $1 million from senior citizens in a scheme hatched with the late Webber Mackey, a private fiduciary who died in 1995 before facing his own criminal trial.

Legg's defense team blamed the venerable Mesa law firm of Killian, Legg, Nicholas & Fischer, claiming his partners had ripped him off, then fed false information to New Times in a successful effort to ruin him. (The firm--which was founded by U.S. Congressman John J. Rhodes and C. Max Killian--recently announced its dissolution.)

The story ("As Helpless As Children," September 8, 1993) described how Legg and Mackey gouged the estates of more than two dozen elderly Valley residents. Many victims were "wards" of the court, deemed incapable of tending to their own affairs because of advanced age or other incapacities.

What happened to these people has particular importance in Arizona, which has the highest percentage of incapacitated wards of any state in the nation.

Legg and Mackey were legally responsible for protecting the wards--Legg as their attorney and Mackey as their guardian-conservator. Wards often are extremely vulnerable, assistant attorney general Sherry Stephens told the jury in closing arguments, which made Legg's deceptions especially egregious:

"Because of his reputation, he was able to do things and to make things happen. . . . Very simply, Wayne Legg stole money."

All of Legg's victims--those named in the grand jury indictment and others--have died. One of those named was Delores Reichwein, a Tempe widow whose 1988 estate of about $650,000 had shrunk to almost nothing by mid-1993.

The evidence showed Legg and Mackey used Reichwein's money to buy and operate a for-profit nursing home in Mesa. They also charged her room and board to live in her own home. In 1989, for example, Legg and Mackey billed Reichwein's estate $22,718 for her lodging. Her estate also paid $37,086 that year for utilities, taxes and other expenses at the home.

Without comment or question, county court commissioners and judges approved almost $200,000 in fees that Legg and Mackey charged to the Reichwein estate. They did so despite extensive evidence before them that the men had charged exorbitant fees.

Legg is a polished public speaker who addressed many church gatherings for decades, making friends and gaining clients--before he voluntarily surrendered his license to practice law in 1993.

He testified last year at his first trial, which ended in a hung jury after an 11 to 1 guilty vote. But Legg's defense attorneys tried a different tack this time. Lead attorney Larry Debus called only a handful of "character" witnesses to evoke the Wayne Legg they knew.

One of those witnesses was an entertaining 87-year-old Texas woman named Cleo Taylor, who said she'd known Legg as a friend for about a half-century.

"We old people get to where we're professional liars," said Taylor, "and I know a liar when I see one. [Wayne] was so honest--Larry, I hate to say this in front of you--that I couldn't understand why people make jokes about lawyers."

On cross-examination, Stephens' co-counsel, Carolyn Passamonte, asked Taylor if she knew anything about the charges against her old friend. Taylor said she didn't.

Debus' presence at the retrial with co-counsel Jerry Busby was a last-minute surprise.

The pair is respected--and high-priced. According to court documents, Legg paid each man about $50,000 through the first trial. (He said in a June 1996 court document that he owed Debus $500,000 and Busby $200,000, which both attorneys later denied.)

In mid-1996, Legg claimed he was broke. He asked that the Public Defender's Office represent him, even though at the time, he owned a home in the gated east Phoenix community known as the Phoenician II.

Despite prosecutors' objections, Judge Brian Hauser appointed two assistant public defenders to represent Legg. The pair prepared extensively for retrial, but performed little more than clerical duties after someone--sources claim it was a member of Legg's church--picked up the tab for Debus and Busby days before the retrial started last month.

Legg's friends and family packed one side of Judge Susan Bolton's courtroom last week to hear closing arguments.

Keith Phillips and his family also listened intently on the other side of the courtroom. In July 1992, Phillips had expressed concerns in a letter to a Probate Court judge that Webber Mackey was bleeding the estate of his late aunt, Tempe resident Grace Gannett. (He and other family members later also accused Wayne Legg of colluding with Mackey.)

Known to all as Grandma Gracie, Gannett died in June 1992, a few months after signing a new will that replaced Keith Phillips' father, Ed, with Mackey as her estate's executor. It turned out that Gannett had scrawled her name on the document at a Mesa hospital, hours after suffering a stroke.

Keith Phillips wasn't a beneficiary of the modest estate, but he cared deeply about Grandma Gracie. In August 1992, he showed up at Commissioner Elizabeth Yancey's court to object to Mackey's pending appointment as the Gannett estate's executor. Yancey told him he had no standing to speak.

Last week, in her closing argument, prosecutor Stephens alluded to the courts' failures to protect Grandma Gracie and others:

"Wayne Legg lied to the court and he misled the court--it was part of his scheme. . . . [But] sometimes the system breaks down, and that's what happened in this case."

Larry Debus, a smooth-talking trial veteran, tried to shift blame during a two-hour summation.

"The number of lies that were told during this trial I can't count," Debus told the jury. "There is deception that runs through this trial."

And that deception by Legg's former law partners, the defense attorney contended, was at the root of his legal woes. "This whole case has to do with the law firm and the power of that law firm," Debus said. "They've taken his dignity and they've taken his reputation."

Debus suggested that Legg's partners first stole money from him, then forced him out of the firm to boost their own bank accounts. Finally, Debus said, the partners contacted New Times to put the final nail in Legg's professional coffin.

"The firm cooperated with New Times, put in all this vile stuff," Debus told the jury. "It was all planted by that office."

(Actually, the paper contacted the firm several weeks after starting its investigation of the Legg case. The seed for the story came from Probate Court sources who knew of the troubles that Legg--then known as the "King of Probate"--was facing.)

Stephens responded sharply to Debus' allegations shortly before concluding her argument:

"This isn't about the law firm. You may not like the law firm or the lawyers in that law firm--but that's beside the point. . . . [It's about] greed, manipulation. . . . Now is the time to hold Wayne Legg accountable."

That sentiment apparently rang true with jurors. Said one of them after the verdict: "All of the parties involved, the victims, must have trusted Mr. Legg at one time," one juror said. "That was the sad thing. He got their trust and then he abused it. That's what we believe he did, and he's going to have to answer for it.

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