THE WINDMILLS OF JACK LEVINE, PART 1
WALKING OUT of Maricopa County Superior Court in late 1984, Anthony Abril Jr. should have been a happy man. A jury had just awarded the 32-year-old hairdresser $1.3 million in damages from his insurance company, a remarkable verdict considering that Abril had sued over the distress he suffered after running down two pedestrians, killing one and crippling the other.
The ugly car accident had occurred six years earlier. Abril, son of a state legislator, and his longtime boyfriend were driving home after a night at the bars. Sailing south on Third Street in Abril's 1974 Hornet just after 2 a.m., they hit Pearlie Mae Taylor and Gregory Johnson in a crosswalk at Washington Street.
Taylor, a hotel maid, and Johnson, an unemployed street denizen, were wandering along, also after a night of drinking. Since virtually everyone involved in the accident-Abril, his passenger, the two pedestrians and most of the witnessesÏwas intoxicated to some degree, it remains unknown whether Abril ran a red light, or the couple was crossing against the signal.
A small woman, 4 feet 9 inches tall and 97 pounds when she was autopsied, Taylor was knocked down and became tangled under Abril's Hornet. She was dragged three quarters of a block, wedged between car and pavement.
Johnson rolled up onto the car's hood, slamming into the windshield hard enough to break it. His blood was found on the inside of the car's rear window.
Abril says he panicked as Johnson's arm groped at him through a hole in the bloodied windshield. Abril didn't stop. Taylor's body eventually dislodged from beneath the car. Johnson rolled off the hood. Abril drove like hell to get away from there.
But escape would prove difficult, for Abril personally and for an expanding cast of characters who over time were sucked into the aftermath of his accident.
Through a confluence of timing and personalities, the early-morning incident would spawn years of lawsuits and open a rift in the Phoenix legal community, finally setting up a showdown between one mild-mannered renegade attorney and the collective weight of the State Bar of Arizona.
The clumsy spectacle of Arizona's legal community attempting to police its own ranks would eventually overshadow the horrific events of that early spring morning.
It would also push the boundaries of an emerging national debate over how the legal profession should use its unique power to come down on its own wayward members.
At the time, however, all Abril felt was cold fear.
He was on the hood and I freaked out. I freaked out," Abril recalls now. He grabbed me. I saw blood all over my windshield. I freaked out."
Abril swears he had no idea anyone had been killed. He was fleeing for home, to hide his car in the garage, as police arrived at the accident scene. Taylor was already dead from multiple injuries, including a snapped spine.
Johnson lived, but spent a month in the hospital with a shattered right leg and other injuries. Tests showed that Johnson's blood-alcohol level when he was admitted to the hospital was .43. Some people would be dead at that point, and most would be unconscious. Johnson had been walking across the street.
Abril never reported the accident to his insurance company, and for weeks would not acknowledge to police that he drove the car. He claimed his roommate and passenger, Roy Lechuga, had been behind the wheel.
Ultimately, Abril pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He also admitted to arson after trying to set Lechuga's apartment afire because the former boyfriend testified against him. Abril served a total of two and a half months in prison.
By rights, it would not seem that Abril should be rewarded with more than a million dollars for his behavior.
But Abril sued Globe American Casualty Company, the insurance carrier to which he more or less dutifully mailed $40 a month for his auto policy.
The thrust of Abril's complaint was that Globe had mishandled the claims springing from the accident, and Abril had suffered mightily as a result.
After the accident, Globe refused to pay Johnson the $15,000 Abril's policy called for. So Johnson sued Abril, winning a $110,000 judgment against Abril personally.
The judgment, the carnage he had caused, the prospect of financial ruin, the insurance company's apparent indifference all fused together, as things are prone to do, in Abril's mind. It caused him such anguish that he attempted suicide, Abril's attorney argued at trial.
If Globe had paid Johnson off when it should have, his attorney told the jury, Abril would not have felt driven to wash down 39 of his mother's antidepressant pills with Scotch, would not have spent four days in a coma, and would not have anguished so over the seemingly hopeless mess his life became.
Casting Globe as a soulless corporation that cared little about a black street drunk or the gay Mexican American who ran him down, attorney John D. Chip" Harris told the jury that Abril himself was a victim in the whole sorry tale.
The jury bought it. Other attorneys still wonder at Harris' success, particularly since Abril did little to invite sympathy by showing up for trial dressed in secondhand military uniforms and reading The Communist Manifesto during the proceedings.
It was an amazing piece of litigation by Chip," one attorney says. It was a case nobody thought he could win."
With the judgment, Abril would easily be able to pay off Johnson, clear up his legal fees and still walk away with more money than he had ever had before.
So was Abril happy? He was fuming. Abril, who admits that clarity of thought is not his strong suit, walked away from court with a vague but persistent feeling that he had been used.
I think the insurance company bought him," Abril says of Harris. He was a snotty little lawyer."
Abril was hurt, feeling that his attorney had not treated him with respect, had written him off as a queer Mexican" just like the insurance company did. In an interview with a reporter after the trial, Abril says, Harris belittled him, patting himself on the back for winning such a large judgment on behalf of a gay Chicano."
Chip treated him badly, treated him like a crazy queer," says William Piatt, the attorney who sued Abril on Johnson's behalf. [He] talked down to him. Tony's a young man of very hurt feelings."
Seven months after the trial, Abril found what he considered to be hard proof that Harris had betrayed him-a secret agreement" between Harris and Piatt that arranged for the two lawyers to split legal fees from any eventual settlement of the case, even if Abril came out of the suit with no money.
Abril saw a double-cross. Why would the attorney he had hired to represent him enter into a deal with the attorney of the injured pedestrian whom Abril owed $110,000?
®MD120¯ Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 ®MDNM¯²Although Harris was immersed in preparations to fight Globe's appeal of the verdict, Abril abruptly fired him.
With the $1.3 million judgment hanging in the balance, Abril sought out another attorney-a former law partner of Harris' named Jack LevineÏto take over his case, and to sue Harris for the perceived betrayal.
At that point, Jack Levine made a serious mistake. He took the case, spawning an odyssey of fruitless, costly litigation that ultimately became Jack Levine's slow march to professional ruin.
JACK LEVINE possesses the simple, vexing stubbornness of the righteous. His friends, his detractors, his wife all describe the white-haired, 57-year-old attorney as a childlike innocent, an idealist, a tilter at windmills.
There's a certain amount of naivetø¡e in Jack that on one level is charming, and on another level is a real pain in the ass to live with," says Corinne Levine, his wife for 28 years. Jack, since the day he was born, has been a crusader. Not always for the most popular causes."
On Levine's office wall hangs a Good Joe award from the Sisters of Mercy of St. Joseph's Hospital, a thank-you for his hours of free legal work on behalf of brain-tumor patients. In one of his file cabinets is a letter from J. Edgar Hoover to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asking permission to tap Levine's telephone for the sake of national security.
Raised on the upper west side of New York City, where his parents owned a small floor-covering-and-bedding store, Levine decided his senior year at Bucknell University that he wanted to be a lawyer.
Working days, he attended law school nights at New York University, and took a job with the Port Authority of New York after graduating in 1960.
Each day Levine was supposed to pore over and approve complex construction and building contracts. He soon quit.
I was terribly concerned that I really didn't know what I was doing," he says. I used to wake up with the fear that the second tier of the George Washington Bridge had collapsed and my initials were on the contract."
Levine decided to try his hand as an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was, he reasoned, an upright way to fight the good fight against bank robbers, spies and the like.
He became one of the few Jewish FBI agents at that time. But J. Edgar Hoover's FBI did not live up to Levine's standards.
Hoover and his personality and his ideas so dominated the bureau that a lot of strange things were going on," Levine recalls.
The agency's obsession with Communism, its right-wing politics and its outright illegal tactics-a lot of unauthorized wiretapping and illegal break-ins," Levine says-repelled the young agent.
Levine not only quit, but also did what few in 1961 would dare: He wrote an article for The Nation magazine outlining the FBI's-meaning Hoover's-obsessive use of the Communist party as a straw man to justify the bureau's strong-arm tactics.
Levine then went on a New York radio show and talked about the pervasive civil-rights violations and other bureau idiosyncrasies.
Hoover was predictably livid. Quitting the bureau in itself was enough to incite his wrath, but for an ex-agent to harshly criticize Hoover and his department was unthinkable.
In the midst of the Cold War, with the McCarthy hearings fresh in the national memory, no one-not even the Kennedys-dared take on Hoover publicly. The portly FBI director personified law and order, and his department tenaciously guarded its lily-white, cropped-hair, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. image.
Hoover ruled his realm absolutely. If Levine, as some thought, wanted to choose this as a method of professional suicide, Hoover gladly tried to oblige him.
Striking back, Hoover secured Robert Kennedy's permission to ride herd on Levine by bugging his New York apartment.
The Communist party is already aware of Levine's actions, and it is believed that members of this party will be in contact with him, if they have not already done so," Hoover wrote Kennedy. Further, it is likely that representatives of Soviet-bloc nations will be in contact with him seeking information... .
part 1 of 4
THE WINDMILLS OF JACK LEVINE THIS LAWYER... v4-01-92
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