A Hotshot Phoenix Attorney Finds Love Behind Bars

Phoenix attorney Carmen Fischer has a thing for bad boys. Really bad boys.

You may vaguely recall her name making headlines in 1999 when it was revealed that the veteran defense lawyer had engaged in an affair with one of her clients, Michael Sanders, as Sanders was tried for a double homicide in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Sanders claimed to be a bounty hunter, but in 1997, he and his body-armor-wearing accomplices were pulling a home-invasion robbery when two of the occupants, a man and a woman in their 20s, ended up riddled with bullets from Sanders' gun.

For the double homicide, Sanders was convicted and caught two life terms in prison. But it was Sanders' prowess as a seducer, rather than his cold-blooded killin', that earned him national headlines.

See, Sanders and Fischer, his court-appointed attorney, were caught in flagrante delicto during visitation by guards at the MCSO's Madison Street Jail. Or as flagrante as you can get while behind bars.

Detention officers spied the pair hugging and kissing. News accounts told of Fischer wearing short skirts for the benefit of her client, and they salaciously quote jail reports of the lady lawyer having her "skirt hiked up and her legs spread" as Sanders was "leaning toward her with his right hand reaching between her legs."

There was even some videotape of one incident that made the rounds on local TV. Fischer was booted from the case as a public defender but was allowed to represent Sanders as a private attorney.

The public was outraged. Commentators heaped scorn on Fischer and the State Bar of Arizona, which at the time did not have a specific rule against clients and counselors doing the deed — though conflict-of-interest rules supposedly covered such improprieties.

The Bar brought a complaint against Fischer, but Fischer beat the rap, with the hearing officer ruling that she had been tried by "jailhouse rumors" and that the Bar had been unable to substantiate its claims against her.

The record of the complaint was expunged, and Fischer's Bar slate remains clean — for the moment.

In 2003, a specific ethical rule was added to the Bar's canon, and makin' whoopie in any form became verboten for lawyers and their clients.

But Fischer's yen for dudes in the pen did not subside. In fact, you could say she doubled down on felony love this year by marrying Angel Lopez Garcia, an alleged leader of the New Mexican Mafia, the much-feared, prison-based Latino gang infamous for running drugs, violence, and for following a code of "blood in, blood out."

That is, once you're in the NMM, it's "'til death do you part." Either that, or you join the federal witness-protection program and pray a lot.

Garcia is tatted from head to toe with organized-crime insignia, like a Hispanic version of Robert DeNiro's character in Cape Fear. Garcia truly is a dangerous individual, known on the street and in the pen by his nickname "Chipas."

His priors include a conviction for a drive-by shooting. And he apparently was the driver of a car pursued by Glendale cops in a 2006 chase that ultimately resulted in Officer Jeremy Esh getting shot through the neck.

Esh survived. Garcia wasn't the shooter, but when he was arrested in 2007 by U.S. Marshals at a QuikTrip on the west side, he ran. For good reason. A prohibited possessor, Garcia had a 9 millimeter semiautomatic tucked in his waistband.

For the gun, Garcia pleaded guilty and caught time in federal prison. However, he's still facing an indictment brought by the County Attorney's Office against him and several accomplices for operating a criminal street gang, money laundering, and running meth and marijuana.

Recently, Garcia was shipped back to Sand Land by the feds to serve a nine-year stint for a prison assault.

Fischer signed on to represent Garcia as an associate counsel in the county matter. This, while representing one of Garcia's co-defendants, Martin Leon.

According to the State Bar, Leon has an ethical complaint lodged against Fischer. Bar spokesman Rick DeBruhl declined to give details, but sources suggest that it has to do with Fischer's conflict in representing both men while romantically involved with one.

How the course of true love ran between Garcia and Fischer is not fully known. Fischer did not respond to repeated phone and e-mail requests for comment.

The address listed on her state Bar account is a UPS drop box. I visited two addresses associated with her law practice in Phoenix. At one, I was told she had not worked out of that office for a year. At the other address, a law office in the Luhrs Tower, former suite-mates said she'd moved out long ago.

However, Garcia and Fischer's marriage license indicates that the unlikely couple were wed July 25 while Garcia was doing time for his weapons conviction in the federal facility known as "Big Sandy," in Inez, Kentucky.

The bride was a blushing 56 at the time; the groom 32.

Fischer listed herself as the veteran of two previous marriages and rightly notes her occupation as "lawyer." Garcia has been divorced once. Next to his occupation is typed "investor."

Well, organized crime is a business. He may not look like Gordon Gekko, but Garcia could be seen by some as a venture capitalist of a different sort.

Interestingly, both bride and groom give as their "current residence" the Phoenix UPS drop box that Fischer has on her Bar listing. A pastor in the Universal Life Church, which ordains ministers online, joined the pair in matrimony.

Although I did not receive a call back from Big Sandy's public-information officer, I know that federal inmates are allowed to marry with the consent of their warden. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons' website leaves the impression that conjugal visits are not allowed.

Law enforcement sources claim Fischer has sent nude photos of herself to Garcia.

I cannot find any indication that Fischer has removed herself as an associate counsel in Garcia's pending county charges, though the Bar's ethical rules clearly state that being married to a client can be a conflict in certain instances.

In any case, the U.S. District Court in Arizona is not twiddling its thumbs waiting for the Bar to act.

A couple of weeks ago, the federal court's jurists voted unanimously to remove Fischer as a so-called CJA panel attorney. CJA stands for "Criminal Justice Act," and under that federal statute, certain private attorneys can be appointed to represent those in federal court who cannot afford a lawyer.

Fischer had been a CJA attorney for several years, and by all accounts, she has a good reputation. Judges, prosecutors, and cops all told me that — other than her unusual penal proclivities — she's considered a competent attorney.

The recent hearing stripping Fischer from the CJA list has been sealed, but Chief Judge Roslyn O. Silver explained that Fischer's marriage to a member of the New Mexican Mafia was the reason for her de-listing for any pending or future cases.

"Because of the severity of the allegations, the seriousness of them, [and] the potential harm involved, we decided as a court that she should be removed from the panel completely," Silver said.

Silver pointed out that because the federal court has other cases before it dealing with members of this same criminal street gang, it had no choice but to act expeditiously.

It was not just that Fischer had married a nefarious individual. Rather, there were specific cases that could potentially be affected by Fischer's association with Garcia.

"We cannot afford, nor can anyone afford, the possibility with this particular group, of any potential harm to anyone," Silver said.

At the same time, she lamented the action the court was forced to take against Fischer, stating that she'd known Fischer "all my career" and that Fischer was perceived as a "professional lawyer" by the court.

"Carmen Fischer was well regarded," offered Silver. "So it was regretful from our point of view that we had to remove her from the panel. It was a unanimous decision, but it was a difficult one."

Even Fischer's adversaries in court shared this opinion. One prosecutor described Fischer as well liked, even while her romantic lapses are the subject of some derision.

"A lot of us have a lot of respect for her," the prosecutor told me. "But a lot of us are very upset with the decisions she's made in her personal life. It's hard to reconcile."

What's difficult to stomach, however, is that Fischer has successfully skirted discipline from the state Bar.

Alleged sexual monkeyshines with a double-murderer was bad enough, but Fischer's connection to someone who is characterized as a shot-caller in the New Mexican Mafia is downright scary.

Law enforcement officials are concerned that, were Fischer so inclined, she could abuse mail or visitation privileges that spouses and lawyers have, in furtherance of illegal activity.

It's worth observing that even defense lawyers are officers of the court, with a duty to justice, just as are prosecuting attorneys.

Being in bed, figuratively and literally, with organized crime is at variance with this obligation.

I'm sure some will argue that Fischer has the right to marry anyone she wants. And with that sentiment, I would agree.

On the flip side, there should be some standards that lawyers should obey in this regard.

Maybe Fischer should explore a different career, one in which dating a criminal is no biggie. Only, there are few other jobs in which her affection for imprisoned bad boys could be requited.