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.
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?
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.
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."
"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.
"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.
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.
"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."
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."
Betty Collins adds, "And he set us up with the media, too, so we could tell people about our son and who he really is."
During a recent interview at his office, Ferragut says his firm gets calls each week from prospective clients who already have attorneys. As if on cue, Ferragut's secretary interrupts him with a call from a prisoner accused of first-degree murder.
The pair speaks briefly, and Ferragut promises to come by the jail later that day to chat. He says the man had sent him a note requesting a meeting. Ferragut says he doesn't plan to notify the man's current attorney before visiting.
"I think it's appropriate to just go see him," Ferragut explains. "He has an absolute right to go elsewhere, and how dare I deny him that right?"
Speaking generally, State Bar of Arizona director of lawyer ethics Lynda Shely says it's not mandatory for an attorney to let anyone know that he or she has been approached by an already represented client. But, as Shely notes, it's highly unusual for attorneys even to kibitz with someone else's client, much less do what Ferragut does routinely.
What accused murderer David Anthony's first attorney has accused Ulises Ferragut of doing is far more than just being rude: He says Ferragut solicited, then stole his client from under him.
The Anthony case is a weird one: a death-penalty case in which prosecutors will seek three murder convictions, even though the victims' bodies have yet to be found.
What's almost as interesting as the murder case are the controverted machinations that led to Ulises Ferragut taking over Anthony's representation last August.
Anthony hired Phoenix attorney John Gaertner after his arrest, and allegedly paid $30,000 to get the defense rolling. Gaertner says he treated Anthony as he treats all of his jailed clients -- meeting with him, then keeping him informed of upcoming court hearings and such.
But, in late August, Gaertner's law partner told him she'd heard in a media report that Anthony had replaced him with Ulises Ferragut.
"Not only does this guy up and steal my client, he didn't even have it in him to call me about it," says Gaertner, an affable man whose mood sours when he discusses Ferragut.
Though Gaertner said weeks ago he'd be filing a complaint with the State Bar, a spokesperson for the Bar says there are no disciplinary actions pending against Ferragut -- nor are there any past complaints on file.
Ferragut depicts a benign changing of the guard that began when he went to court last August 20 for the sentencing of a client on drug charges. He says Anthony was sitting in the juror's box as the hearing proceeded.
Recalls Ferragut: "He gestured over to me, so I went over and introduced myself. I know two prosecutors say I just walked up and handed him my card, but please. David said he'd like to talk to me about representing him, and I said sure. Then me and Cynthia [Leyh] went over to the jail, and agreed to represent him for free. And I did leave John a message, telling him Anthony had asked me to represent him, and that I wanted to compare notes with him. One or two days later, he calls me screaming bloody murder, says he's going to file a Bar complaint. That's it."
Counters Gaertner: "Ferragut's style is to take runs at other people's clients and see what will stick. I don't go to jail and pick them out and say I'll do it for free. Then, in this case, he puts the guy on television before he's even read the police reports or seen the four-hour police interview that David gave. I feel sorry for Mr. Anthony."
A transcript of a jailhouse telephone call from Anthony to his daughter, Deanna, on the evening of August 20, 2001, adds to the intrigue. During the call (jail authorities routinely record prisoners' phone calls), Anthony tells her that Ferragut is going to be his new attorney.
"Do you remember that kid that took a gun to school and all that?" Anthony tells her. "Well, he represented him, and they have about seven or eight murder cases going now."
He says he'd seen Ferragut that day, during the sentencing of the drug defendant: "And then [he] came over and talked to me. And so I asked this guy that he was representing . . . what kind of guy he was. He said, 'Oh, he has lots of people working for him.' John [Gaertner] is a nice guy, but I feel better with this guy here."
Anthony tells his daughter that Ferragut "wants to get the media involved. He wants to launch a media campaign and stuff like that, you know. . . . He's got a plan already, and he said he had thought about coming out to see me."
Anthony mailed a letter the next day to Deanna and her fiancé, which police later confiscated during the execution of a search warrant.
"He came to me while I sat in the juror's box yesterday for my hearing," Anthony wrote in part. "He told me who he was, and said that his firm had discussed my case and would like to represent me pro bono if I would be interested. I told him I would certainly be interested because I am innocent. And he said, 'I know you are. Here is my card, and I will come see you today.'"
A week later, however, Anthony told a far different story in an affidavit filed with the court: "I recognized [Ferragut] as an attorney, and motioned to him to get his attention. . . . I asked him if he would come to see me to discuss representation in my case. Mr. Ferragut handed me his card, and I place(d) it in my pocket."
Later that day, Anthony added, "I expressed to [Ferragut and Leyh] my disappointment with Mr. Gaertner's representation. . . . At no time did [they] . . . attempt to solicit, force or coerce me into agreeing to change counsel."
But there was yet another issue smoldering behind the scenes of Anthony's case. Ulises Ferragut has never been lead counsel in a death-penalty case, a topic that Judge Frank Galati addressed at a hearing last September.
During the in-chambers hearing -- which Galati kept open over Ferragut's objections -- the attorney avowed he hadn't solicited David Anthony: "Quite frankly, I was not intending on doing anything inappropriate. I would have no reason to do it in front of three prosecutors. That would be foolish . . ."
Galati later told Anthony he wouldn't have appointed Ferragut or Leyh to the case had he been given the chance, because of their lack of experience in Arizona death-penalty cases. Anthony said he wanted the pair to defend him, and questioned why Galati even had called the hearing.
The judge responded, "We're here because you are about to embark on a case that could result in you being strapped to a gurney and a needle being put in your arm and you dying."
If police reports and search warrant affidavits are accurate, the case against David Anthony is a strong circumstantial one, with a classic alleged motive -- money and domestic discord. Prosecutors also are touting blood evidence gathered at Anthony's home, though investigators apparently didn't find the "blood bath" that Arpaio spoke of last summer.
Because the bodies of Donna Anthony and her two children -- who were 14 and 12 at the time they disappeared -- haven't turned up, David Anthony may have a fighting chance at winning a reasonable-doubt acquittal. But he ought not to be overconfident.
Prosecutor Vince Imbordino is a methodical veteran, and long ago earned the nickname "Dr. Death" because of his propensity for putting defendants on death row.
Last November, Galati issued a gag order against all parties talking to the press about the then-pending trial. "Pretrial events," Galati wrote, "indicate that the parties are prepared to try the case in the media and attempt to use the media to influence the jury pool."
Before the gag went into effect, Ulises Ferragut discussed the Anthony case and what it means to him.
"I'm a Cuban-American and I'm a fighter for myself and those I represent," he said, "and I don't appreciate people like Sheriff Joe telling the world that my client is guilty, guilty, guilty. I think my guy is innocent, and I think the County Attorney's Office is afraid that the jury will think so, too.
"But if the perception is that I'm doing this case and other high-profile cases because I crave to be on Barbara Walters, then I guess people really don't understand me."
Ferragut doesn't have to add that, if David Anthony does walk, his fame -- and his business -- will skyrocket even more.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.