The Advocate

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

He's only been an attorney for about five years. In that time, he's won some trials, and lost some, same as most other criminal-defense lawyers. Overall, he seems competent in his courtroom demeanor and technical presentation.

It's his out-of-court modus operandi that has saddled him with a reputation that includes the words "slimy" and "greasy." In Ferragut's world, there's a sound bite born every minute. Stick a camera or a pencil in his face, and he'll give good copy, guaranteed. He's the Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County's criminal-defense crowd.

Actually, both Arpaio and Ferragut have a lot riding on the Anthony trial: In press conferences last summer, the sheriff said Anthony's home had been "the scene of horrible violence," and that he and his investigators were convinced of Anthony's guilt.

Attorney John Gaertner Jr. accuses Ferragut of stealing his onetime client, David Anthony.
Kevin Scanlon
Attorney John Gaertner Jr. accuses Ferragut of stealing his onetime client, David Anthony.
David Lee Anthony is on trial for his life in Maricopa County Superior Court.
courtesy of Maricopa County Sheriff'S Office
David Lee Anthony is on trial for his life in Maricopa County Superior Court.

To the contrary, Ferragut says sheriff's investigators and prosecutors have the wrong guy -- if, indeed, Donna Anthony and her children truly are dead.

Says Arpaio, a man who understands the power of publicity better than most, "I know [Ferragut] has made himself famous, but I guess now we'll see just how good a lawyer he is."

He pauses briefly, then adds: "That darned guy is on TV more than me."

Ulises Ferragut walks briskly to the county courthouse from his offices on the 16th floor of a downtown Phoenix office building.

He certainly looks like a successful lawyer: Attired in a conservative, perfectly tailored dark suit, Ferragut's black shoes are so shiny he could use them as a mirror, and his briefcase is overflowing with legal papers.

Ferragut has craggy, angular good looks, smiles often, and has a healthy head of black hair suspiciously devoid of gray. He'd easily fit in on one of those lawyer-based television shows such as The Practice and Ally McBeal. He's trim, though he says he doesn't get nearly as much exercise as he should.

"Hey, man, you're the guy on television, aren't you?" a passerby in tattered clothes asks him during the short walk.

"I don't know," the attorney replies, smiling.

"Yeah, it's you."

"Well, thanks."

"Keep on fighting them, man," the passerby says.

Today, November 22, is the sentencing of 16-year-old Derrick Booth, who's pleaded guilty to attempting to have nonconsensual sex with a 12-year-old girl. Ferragut hasn't called reporters on this one, and in fact asked New Times that his client's name not be used in any published accounts.

The Booth case is another freebie for Ferragut. He says he agreed to take it late in the proceedings, after a county detention officer asked if he'd help the incarcerated youngster. Ferragut says he met with Booth and felt empathy for him, in part because the boy was raised mostly in foster homes after the premature death of his mother.

Ferragut and Booth sit at the defense table in Judge Robert Budoff's courtroom. The sullen Booth is facing a possible 10 years in prison, though prosecutors aren't quarreling with a probation officer's recommendation of just six more months in jail and registration as a sex offender.

Ferragut tells the judge: "What Derrick needs most is treatment and, quite frankly, Your Honor, my experience with the Madison Street Jail is that . . . getting him out of there is appropriate. The quicker we get him treatment, the quicker this community can be safe."

But a Child Protective Services caseworker tells Budoff there's a 90- to 120-day waiting list for applicants to get into a treatment program for juvenile offenders. That doesn't leave Ferragut any wiggle room.

The handcuffed Booth apologizes to Budoff, and begs for a second chance.

"That's what everyone wants," the judge replies.

Budoff then orders six more months in jail -- unless authorities can find a treatment facility for Booth before then.

Booth shakes Ferragut's hand before a sheriff's deputy returns him to jail. The attorney hasn't struck a better deal for the teen -- there really wasn't much he could do -- but things have turned out okay.

In the lobby, the caseworker thanks Ferragut profusely for supporting Booth, in whom she's also taken an interest.

"You did a great job," she tells him.

Later, Ferragut says he feels a kinship with the Booths and Botkins of the world because of his own, often difficult upbringing.

"I look at these kids and I see something of myself," he says. "Low self-esteem, kind of goofy, no social skills, getting beat up constantly. I didn't know a word of English when I came here, and sometimes it's hard to believe I actually did become a lawyer."

To be sure, Ferragut's trail from young Cuban expatriate to high-flying Valley attorney has been unconventional. Along the way, he served stints with the U.S. Marines and Army, taught school in East Los Angeles, finished law school at the age of 34, and went to work as a Maricopa County public defender.

Ferragut was born in Cuba in October 1962, during the height of the missile crisis. His father had been a second baseman on a semipro team in that baseball-crazed nation during the 1950s (Ferragut Jr. himself is a huge Arizona Diamondbacks fan), then became an electrical engineer. Things changed after the revolution, and Ferragut Sr. spent time in Fidel Castro's labor camps because of the family's pro-Batista leanings.

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