A Lawyer onTrial

In Larry Debus' game, you have to play all the angles if you want to become one of the best. And he's long been known as one of the best in town.

The veteran defense attorney knows that a jury will take stock of how his clients behave, dress and breathe in court.

And so it came as no surprise last week when a Debus client shuffled into the courtroom for the start of trial looking more like one of his victims than a master white-collar perpetrator.

The client was accused thief Wayne Legg, a former attorney. Clad in a black cardigan and open collar, the 65-year-old Legg appeared slightly befuddled as he awaited the opening statement of Sherry Stephens, an assistant state attorney general.

Debus had done the visual-image part of his job well. The doddering defendant in no way resembled the Legg of a few years ago, when he was an omnipotent Mesa attorney known as the "King of Probate."

It must have seemed hard for the unknowing to believe that prosecutors are convinced this benign-looking senior citizen is a vulture who seduced, cajoled, lied, cheated and stole more than $1 million from dozens of vulnerable senior citizens.

The packed spectators gallery kept sneaking peaks at Legg as prosecutor Stephens began her coherent, methodical account. The audience included many Legg supporters and family members. (Many of those who aren't sympathetic to the defendant are listed as witnesses, and are prohibited from listening in.)

No doubt owing to the gravity of Legg's deeds, there was little joy as prosecutor Stephens told jurors of the horrors wrought by Legg and his onetime co-defendant, Webber Mackey, a fiduciary who died last year before going to trial.

"You're probably going to ask, 'Didn't the court look at what was going on?'" Stephens told the mostly middle-aged jury. "Well, the court makes mistakes. In essence, the system breaks down and the checks and balances built into it fail. ... Sometimes, the reputation of the lawyer is such that people--including judges and family members--are reluctant to challenge it."

Stephens used large placards set on an easel to help spell out her compelling case against Legg. Each placard included a photo of the six aged (and now deceased) victims named in the grand jury indictments against Legg.

There was Grace Gannett, known to all as Grandma Gracie. She was a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania whose estate vanished during the short time Legg and Mackey controlled it. It was Gracie's granddaughter, University of New Hampshire professor Cinthia Gannett, who first had raised the possibility that Legg and Mackey had plundered Grandma Gracie's estate.

In a letter to relatives after her grandmother's death in June 1992, Cinthia Gannett wondered, "Could there be some complicity in the relation between the Legg firm (or just one of its attorneys) and Mackey, protecting each other from any outside interference and skimming/draining the estate in a variety of legal and semi-legal ways?" (Cinthia Gannett is expected to testify at Legg's trial.)

There was Mona Van Volkenburgh, a senile client of Legg's who was in her 90s when she scrawled her name on an apparently illegal will not long before she died in 1990. The revised will meant more money for Legg and Mackey.

There was Delores Reichwein, whose $650,000 estate dwindled to almost nothing by the time she died, mostly because of Legg's court-approved pillaging of it.

And there were many others whose names the jury will never know, whose faces they will never see. Joanne Lindberg, a resident of tiny Cut Bank, Montana, had stayed at a Phoenix hotel for several days, awaiting the oft-delayed start of Legg's trial. She and her husband had driven to Arizona for the proceedings in honor of their late friend, Ellen Davis, whose last days in early 1993 were haunted by Legg.

"Wayne Legg was after my friend's $5 million just as he was after those other people's money," said Lindberg, who neither sought nor received any of Davis' estate. "Right at the end, Ellen knew that Legg was not to be trusted, and she thought she'd done something wrong by dealing with him. It was pathetic. He was like an animal, just dying to suck her bank account dry. I wanted to be in the courtroom to watch for my friend."

But Lindberg had to return to Montana two days before Legg's trial started last week. Prior to her departure, she recalled one of the last things Ellen Davis had told her before lapsing into unconsciousness.

"She told us, 'If I only could live long enough to hear the jail cell clang behind Mr.Legg,'" Lindberg said.

That is what Larry Debus is up against: victims who were as helpless as children. Wayne Legg almost certainly will have to testify, to try to salvage what's left of his life.

In his opening statement, Debus blamed two parties for the rip-offs: Wayne Legg's old law firm and Legg's partner in crime, the late Webber Mackey. It's Debus' only chance.

The law firm may be the better of two long-shot wagers:
Before Legg publicly fell from grace, the venerable Mesa firm of Killian, Nicholas, Fischer, Wirken, Cook & Pew feared embarrassment and potential loss of clients--and billable hours--if word of Legg's misdeeds made news. So the firm's partners didn't confront Legg--and never contacted law enforcement authorities--until well after New Times reported Legg's exploitation of clients' estates ("As Helpless As Children," September 8, 1993).

Debus suggested that the firm had conspired to ruin Legg and to take his client base.

Debus also tried to shift blame onto the recently deceased Mackey, a longtime gas-station owner whose only qualification to serve as guardian/conservator to incapacitated "wards" was that he knew Wayne Legg--their attorney.

In truth, Mackey was so deferential to Legg that support staff inside Legg's law firm dubbed him "Mackey the Lackey."

The trial is expected to last several weeks. Legg hasn't yet spent a minute in jail. But if Sherry Stephens and her witnesses sway the jury, Wayne Legg's next sartorial statement will be pink underwear instead of black cardigan.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin