The Advocate

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

"I kind of bonded with this kid," Ferragut says, "and I decided right there I was going to fight for him."

But his supervisors soon told him he'd have to drop Botkin because the PD's office had represented one of the hostages in an unrelated case. At a crossroads, Ferragut says he decided to quit the office and continue to defend the boy. He says he worked out of his home for a few months, then hooked up with Cynthia Leyh, another public defender who wanted out.

"I didn't have any idea of what it meant to be in private practice," he says. "I just knew I had to represent Sean, though I had no idea what was going to happen after that."

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.

The law offices of Ferragut and Leyh officially opened on New Year's Day 2001. Ferragut says calls immediately started coming in, thanks mostly to publicity generated by the Botkin case.

Unlike most defense attorneys -- who'd rather eat Arpaio's green baloney than have their clients talk to media -- Ferragut elected to have Botkin and his parents take their case to the public in a spate of interviews.

"I had to do something for that kid because he was headed straight for prison," he says. "The way I read the rules, I'm obliged to protect my client's reputation. And if you have credible info, then fire back against the Romleys and Arpaios of the world, and maybe even the playing field as far as a jury pool goes. The county attorney hates that I've figured out how to beat them at their own game."

But did he? Though Ferragut had been beating the drums for the courts to treat Botkin as a juvenile, Romley announced last February that his office would prosecute Botkin as an adult. Romley said he'd decided this, in part, because juvenile judges may only retain control over their charges until they are 18.

Prosecutors didn't really want to throw the book at Botkin, though he still was facing enough felony charges on paper to keep him locked up forever. Instead, they offered a plea bargain that called for a long probation term, with additional jail time. But Ferragut didn't want his client to have a felony record, and he rejected the offer.

Ferragut continued to attack the County Attorney's Office in the media as the trial date neared. In early March, prosecutor Cathy Hughes informed Judge Stephen Gerst of Ferragut's extralegal activities.

As evidence, she submitted a March 6 radio show in which Ferragut had sparred with KTAR's David Leibowitz. During the interview, Leibowitz told the attorney he was foolish for not accepting the plea on Botkin's behalf. Immediately afterward, Ferragut called Leibowitz's supervisor and requested more time to explain himself. Soon, he was back on the air.

"Hey, twice in one day, we're really getting pretty chummy," Leibowitz told him, sarcastic as could be.

"Yeah, I tell you, I think I [should] collect a paycheck from you guys," Ferragut replied.

"Well, there you go. You certainly worked enough here recently."

On March 9, Sean Botkin pleaded guilty in Superior Court to two counts of kidnapping and one count of aggravated assault. Judge Gerst later sentenced him to seven years' probation, and a year in jail. Botkin served only a few months on the latter before authorities found a treatment facility that accepted him.

Prosecutors later expressed dismay over what they saw as Ferragut's grandstanding, noting he'd eventually agreed to the same plea bargain that had been on the table for months.

But Ferragut is unrepentant.

"Sean got a lot of support from the community, and Romley was feeling the pressure," he says. "My point was that the adult system was not equipped to provide services to juveniles in residential treatment. As a juvenile, he would have gotten services immediately. I know Rick Romley and the other big shots over there don't like what I did in the Botkin case, causing headaches. But I was just doing my job for that kid."

By the end of the Botkin case, Ferragut had become a commodity in the Valley's very competitive criminal-defense industry. Since then, he's represented accused stalkers, thieves, murderers, drug smugglers, gangbangers, a man with suspected terrorist ties, and a shoplifting television reporter.

"I certainly don't have Rick Romley or Joe Arpaio calling me up telling me I'm doing a great job," Ferragut says, "but I don't think my clients have many complaints."

The latter seems to be true, at least according to a smattering of ex-clients (and their families) contacted at random by New Times.

"Unlike the first attorney we hired, Ulises kept us informed about everything that was going on with our son," says James Collins Sr. His son, James Jr., was sentenced last year to 12 years in prison after his conviction on aggravated assault and other charges for injuring two motorcycle cops in September 2000.

"When my wife Betty and I met with Ulises and asked if we had a chance, he said, 'Hell, yeah, you got a chance.' He also said it would be a tough case to fight, and it was. But Ulises did an outstanding job, and we would recommend him to anybody."

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