The Advocate

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

In 1967, the Ferraguts got permission to leave Cuba. But the government then played a cruel trick on the family, certifying only two passports for three people (Ferragut's sibling is seven years younger than him, and hadn't been born yet). Ferragut Sr. stayed behind, as his wife and son migrated to Spain.

The Ferraguts moved to the States after the Cubans finally allowed Ferragut Sr. to join his family about a year and a half later. Ferragut says his parents had little money at first, and they moved into government-subsidized housing on Los Angeles' Skid Row.

His father found work wherever he could get it -- dishwashing, house-painting, ditch-digging -- and his mother toiled at a pen factory. (Ferragut Sr. later would earn a master's degree in engineering, and become a supervisor for PacBell.)

Ferragut says his elementary public-school teachers considered him mentally handicapped, and recommended his placement in special-education classes. His mother transferred him to a Catholic school, where a teacher, Mrs. Oswald, later would inspire him.

"I was rebelling and refused to learn at first, so they thought I was dumb," he says. "But this teacher took me in, and kept telling me she knew I had what it took to make it in life, and I kind of believed her."

Still, Ferragut says he lacked direction after graduating high school, so he joined the Army, serving for three and a half years as a helicopter mechanic. After his honorable discharge, he enrolled at a junior college, then matriculated at Loyola Marymount University, a fine Jesuit school near L.A.

Ferragut earned a degree there in political science. But he says he still didn't know what to do with his life, so he confounded friends -- and the liberal Jesuit priests with whom he loved to converse -- by joining the Marines as a 27-year-old.

"I came in as a lieutenant, and I left as a lieutenant," Ferragut says of his second three-year stint, much of which he says was spent disbursing paychecks to fellow jarheads. "The military doesn't like free thinkers, and they're not there to improve your values and ideas -- same as law enforcement. Still, I feel a bond with other Marines, and I appreciate the fact that I served."

He shows that appreciation by hanging a sword -- awarded to all Marine Corps officers -- in a prominent place behind his office desk.

Ferragut taught at an inner-city high school in L.A. after his honorable discharge, then was accepted into the McGeorge School of Law in northern California. Strapped for money, he continued to teach during the day and attend law school at night, until earning his degree in 1996. He was 34.

But Ferragut failed the California bar exam after graduation, and looked to Arizona as an alternative. After passing the easier Arizona exam, he submitted job applications in 1998 at both the Maricopa County Public Defender and County Attorney's offices.

In a precursor of media things to come, Ferragut says he sent the PD's office a videotape of himself in action during a mock trial, along with his résumé. He says he took a job there before the county attorney got back to him.

In July 1998, Ferragut drove across the desert to start his new life. (He has two children of his own, ages 10 and 4, and has recently remarried, to a mother of two who is a sous chef at a Scottsdale restaurant.)

Ferragut says he immediately was perplexed by Sheriff Joe's popularity: "I told myself, 'How in the world can someone like Arpaio have such persuasion over the average person?' I mean, the chain gangs, the pink underwear, for God's sakes. I knew I wasn't in L.A. anymore."

He says some of his new public defender colleagues considered him too much of a go-getter:

"Some attorneys there perceived me as being too aggressive, too motivated. Part of it was some arrogance on my part, and part of it was I wanted to learn. I wanted to walk through the fire of the courtroom, experience judges jumping all over you, experience losing a case, winning a case. I was overachieving there, and I was on the fast track."

Several lawyers with whom Ferragut worked agree with him -- at least about the arrogance and fast-tracking. Right away, they say, Ferragut was studying firsthand how the local media operate.

Case in point came during the Scott Falater "sleepwalking" murder trial in mid-1999. Ferragut attended that trial often, and closely observed how the attorneys interacted with the media throng.

But like most public defenders, Ferragut continued to toil under the media radar screen until October 2000. That month, 14-year-old Sean Botkin held 32 elementary school students and a teacher hostage for about an hour with a loaded 9mm semi-automatic. County Attorney Rick Romley portrayed the incident as Arizona's "Columbine," an exaggerated reference in that the teen didn't actually hurt anyone.

Ferragut says he didn't even know anything about Botkin when his supervisor handed him the yellow juvenile file. He walked to the jail to introduce himself to his new client -- that's routine, he says -- and was stunned by Botkin's youthfulness.

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