The Advocate

Is Ulises Ferragut a hell of a lawyer or just plain hell?

Let this be stated for the record: Ulises Ferragut Jr.'s mother loves him.

Marie Brito says she knew her older of two children was special, even when she and her then-husband, Ulises Sr., were raising him in their native Cuba. She says her son had a rare combination of great focus, compassion for those less fortunate, and a gift of gab.

"I just knew he would become a lawyer someday," Brito says.

Ferragut at his downtown Phoenix office.
Kevin Scanlon
Ferragut at his downtown Phoenix office.
Ferragut at his downtown Phoenix office.
Kevin Scanlon
Ferragut at his downtown Phoenix office.

And so he did -- and a media star to boot.

If you watch local television news, you'll surely recognize Ferragut. He's the well-dressed Latino guy sitting next to his client as the cameras whir. Most often, that client is a Madison Street Jail inmate charged with homicide, carjacking, hostage-taking, carrying weapons onto a plane, plotting to kill Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whatever.

Sometimes, as with accused murderer David Anthony, he lets his clients do the talking. Other times, he's the mouthpiece.

In little more than a year since Ferragut quit the county Public Defender's Office to start a private practice, the 39-year-old has become the most visible criminal-defense lawyer in town.

He's also become the most hated, at least by peers, who insist he's little more than a glory-seeking media slut.

"Oh, so you're doing a story on 'Useless,'" said a sheriff's deputy who patrols the downtown courthouse. He was one of about 20 people -- most of them lawyers -- who immediately invoked the nasty tag when asked about Ferragut.

Ferragut's detractors point with disdain to the high-profile Anthony trial, which started Tuesday in downtown Phoenix. The juicy case -- husband is accused of murdering wife and her two kids, though their bodies have never been found -- is complicated, and expensive to litigate properly.

Not only did Ferragut "steal" Anthony as a client from another barrister, the oft-repeated story goes, he's doing the case for free -- for the publicity.

"He's a media hound, period," says John Gaertner Jr., a Phoenix attorney who represented Anthony briefly last summer. Though every lawyer contacted about Ferragut shared that assessment, Gaertner is one of the few who would go on the record.

"I've never solicited any client, not one," Ferragut counters. "I'm not stupid enough to do that. I know there are a lot of people saying bad things about me, but they're not my clients. Prosecutors hate my guts, too, so I must be doing something right."

He has a theory about it all: "People that I respect tell me I come across as arrogant and smug until you get to know me. I am arrogant, and I do have an ego. Some think that a guy from the Public Defender's Office shouldn't go out and be on TV, making a name for himself. I know some people think I'm Mr. Media Whore, but I truly don't gauge success by how many times I've been on TV. Quite frankly, that's quite shallow. I think there's a lot of professional jealousy going on."

The attorney vehemently denies he "stole" Anthony, and says he and law partner Cynthia Leyh agreed to represent the Peoria man gratis because they believe he's innocent.

Same goes for the appeal now being crafted on behalf of Brian Eftenoff, the infamous Ahwatukee salesman convicted last year of killing his wife by forcing cocaine down her throat.

And Ferragut also provided free legal service for Sean Botkin, the Glendale teen who held ex-schoolmates and a teacher hostage with a loaded gun in October 2000.

The Botkin case marked Ferragut's first media-intensive experience. He defended the young man while still with the Public Defender's Office, then quit so he could continue his representation after a conflict of interest arose because that office once represented one of the hostages.

Ferragut claims business for his firm is booming, and says the firm now has about 150 clients. The vast majority of those clients, he adds, are of the paying variety.

"I'm not going to say I'm the best lawyer in town, or a lawyer who gets it right every time," he says. "But I get flak from attorneys and judges for everything, whatever it is. There's this impression that we're these shysters shucking people out of their money, or that we're doing it for free to get our names out there so we can make the big bucks down the road. I don't get it."

Ulises Ferragut is like the guy in writer Elmore Leonard's latest crime novel, Tishomingo Blues, who tells a pal what he sells for a living: "Myself, man, myself." He's as ambitious as a college freshman crashing a sorority party, and will work relentlessly to score.

Though Ferragut's image among inmates is that of a kindred spirit who happens to be a lawyer, he's not the proverbial bull in the china shop. He's actually a likable fellow, cordial to almost everyone he meets -- adversaries, colleagues, judges, clients, the guy on the street.

But is he any good in court, the only place where it's supposed to count? Quite frankly, to lift a phrase Ferragut uses incessantly, he's not the next Gerry Spence, but who is?

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