|Chapter 2 of Incriminating Evidence. ©2001 Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc.|
"THE ASSHOLE PREMIUM"
"The Hall of Justice isn't a big tourist attraction."
San Francisco Police Chief, San Francisco Chronicle.
In San Francisco, the wheels of the justice grind at a snail's pace in the Hall of Justice, a monolithic six-story structure that rises above the 101 Freeway at the corner of Seventh and Bryant. The criminal courts, DA's office, chief medical examiner and county jail jockey for position in this crowded testimonial to industrial-strength urban architecture. A modernistic new jail wing that opened in the early nineties adds little to the overall ambiance of the original gray building, which dates to the late fifties and looks as if it could withstand a nuclear attack. I park my eleven-year-old Corolla in the pay lot next to the McDonald's and walk quickly through the throng of reporters who are already camped on the front steps of the Hall. The news is out.
I glare into the nearest camera and invoke Skipper speak. "We have a situation. This misunderstanding will be resolved shortly and Mr. Gates will return to his duties at the DA's office." I push through the heavy doors, nod to the guard as I pass through the metal detector and walk up the stairs to the sixth floor of the new jail wing, known as County Jail Number 9.
I present my state bar card and driver's license to Sergeant Jeff Dito, a mustached, olive-skinned sheriff's deputy who administers the intake center with a steady hand. He studies my bar card through deepset eyes. When I explain I'm here to see Skipper, he furrows his brow. "'Mr. Law and Order' is in booking," he says. He punches some buttons on his computer keyboard and makes a phone call. "He'll be up in a few minutes."
It's early, but things are hopping. For historic bureaucratic reasons, the jail facility is run by the County Sheriff's Department. Deputies walk through the hallway. I nod to a couple of my former colleagues from the PD's office. I take a seat next to a man who is trying to persuade his parole officer that Jesus is talking to him. The parade of humanity resembles a flea market on a busy afternoon. Police, prosecutors, public defenders and criminals barter in the hallway. Instead of selling trinkets and other junk, the prosecutors sell trips to jail and probation terms. The defense attorneys do their clients' bidding. If you sit here long enough, it almost sounds as if you're listening in on a half dozen simultaneous time-share pitches for those condos in Mexico. When I was a PD, I used to make some of my best deals in the corridor just outside the old booking hub on the sixth floor of the Hall. That part of the facility is now used for hard-core prisoners. The new jail wing is a lot quieter.
Whenever I'm in the Hall, I think of my dad, who was a San Francisco cop. He died a few weeks after Grace's first birthday. He was beside himself when I decided to go to law school. He detested lawyers--even the prosecutors. He was appalled when I became a PD. He took it as a personal affront. Somehow, I still expect to see him walking down the corridor, chest out, cigarette in his hand.
Five minutes later, Sergeant Dito nods and a deputy leads me to an airless room just behind the intake desk, where I find Skipper pacing like a caged lion. Even unshaven and in an orange jumpsuit, he's impressively handsome, all trim six feet six of him. His charismatic public persona remains intact. Until now, I have never seen him dressed in anything other than a top-of-the-line Italian suit. He wags a menacing finger at me. "Somebody's ass is going to fry for this," he says.
Hopefully, it won't be yours.
"I'm going to kick the chief's butt all the way back to Northern Station for promoting McBride," he snaps. Inspector Elaine McBride made the arrest. She's only the second woman to make homicide inspector on the SFPD. She's tough. Her stellar reputation is well-deserved. Skipper sits down in a heavy wooden chair. "This is preposterous," he says. "It's a publicity stunt."
This sort of thing just isn't supposed to happen to God-fearing Republicans. In many respects, getting arrested is society's great equalizer. Even a well-connected, rich white guy like Skipper has been strip-searched, showered with disinfectant, given a medical interview and placed in a holding cell. There isn't much dignity left after the process is completed. I place a pad of white paper in front of me on the table. Most lawyers have stopped using those ugly yellow pads because they can't be recycled. I look directly into his eyes. "You're the DA," I say. "You know the drill. Tell me what happened."
He's indignant. "Nothing happened," he replies, emphasizing each syllable. He looks at the drab walls. On Friday, he was sitting in his opulent office on the third floor of the old Hall. Now he's sharing space with murderers, child molesters and pimps. "We had a kickoff rally for my campaign in the grand ballroom at the Fairmont last night. Fifteen hundred people showed up. It was terrific."
Particularly if your idea of a good time is paying a thousand bucks a head to the Republican caucus to eat rubber chicken and kiss Skipper's ass.
"The program broke up around eleven," he continues. "Then we had a summit conference upstairs."
Skipper never attends garden-variety meetings. Every gathering rises to the level of a "summit conference." You would think they were talking about nuclear disarmament. Likewise, Skipper never serves on committees. Whenever he is with another person, they become a "task force." I decide to play along. "Who was at the summit conference?" I ask.
"A couple of people from Sherman's campaign. We were setting ground rules for our debates. They left around twelve-thirty."
Leslie Sherman is Skipper's worthy opponent. She's a state senator from L.A. She's a liberal Democrat. I don't mention it, but I'm planning to vote for her. Skipper can't stand her.
"Who showed up from her staff?" I ask.
"Dan Morris and one of his lackeys." His voice drips with contempt.
Morris is Sherman's campaign manager. He's the most successful political consultant on the West Coast. He's also the most vicious. Although he didn't invent the negative campaign ad, he may have perfected it. He makes the guys in Washington look like choirboys. He ran Skipper's campaign for DA two years ago. Then they had a little falling out. Seems Dan wanted to double his fee this time around. Skipper thought the four hundred thousand Dan charged for the DA's race was exorbitant and he balked. True to form, Dan switched sides. He's already taken off the gloves. Although it's still early, the Sherman camp is running attack ads suggesting Skipper isn't morally qualified to be the chief law enforcement officer of the State of California.
I ask, "Was anybody else with you?"
"Turner was there." Turner Stanford is Skipper's confidant, campaign manager and former law partner. He lives around the corner from Skipper in Pacific Heights. They spend a lot of time hobnobbing in the rarified air of San Francisco's aristocracy.
"My daughter was there, too," he adds. Ann Huntington Gates is a one-woman wrecking crew in local government. A couple of years ago, Skipper convinced the mayor to appoint Ann to fill a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors. It's a decision the mayor has regretted ever since. She lobbies long and hard on behalf of the real estate developers and other big-business interests. By and large, the people from the neighborhoods hate her. She doesn't seem to care. When she isn't terrorizing the Board of Supervisors, she operates at the high end of the legal food chain. She's a partner at Williams and Perry, a big downtown firm. She's a tenacious commercial litigator. She'll remind you of it every chance she gets.
"What about Natalie?" I ask. Skipper's long-suffering wife. Serious old-line money. Her great-grandfather was a Crocker. Her mother's family used to own the Chronicle, where her name appears regularly in the society column.
"She stayed for a few minutes and went home. She was tired." He sighs and adds, "I have no idea how I'm going to explain all of this to her."
I guess even self-centered guys like Skipper have to answer to somebody from time to time. "So you decided to stay at the hotel?" I ask.
"I do it all the time," he replies. "I had a breakfast meeting this morning." His eyes wander over my left shoulder. "I didn't want to go all the way out to the house."
This is odd. He lives ten minutes from the hotel. "May I assume, Skipper, that the dead man wasn't there when everybody left?"
"And he wasn't in your room when you went to bed?"
He looks a little too solemn. "I was by myself."
Uh-huh. "And when you woke up this morning, the dead man was in your bed with you?"
"He was in the bed," he explains. "I fell asleep in the chair. I was watching TV. I woke up when the room service waiter knocked on the door. That's when we found the body."
"You didn't hear anything?"
He's a sound sleeper. "Did anyone else have a key to your room?"
"Just the hotel staff, I suppose."
There you have it. He fell asleep in the chair in front of the TV. In the middle of the night, a body wandered into his room and plopped itself into his bed. Same thing happened to me in Cabo last week. "Skipper," I say, "did you know the guy?"
His eyes dart toward the door. "I'd never seen him before."
"Do you know how he died?"
"It looked like he had suffocated. His face was covered with gray duct tape. He was handcuffed to the bedposts."
I can confirm this from the police reports. "Did you touch the body?"
"Of course. I checked for a pulse. I pulled the tape off his face in case he could still breathe. I tried to release the handcuffs, but I didn't have a key."
"Then you called the police?"
"I called the hotel operator, who put me through to security. I told them to call the cops."
"You realize your story sounds just a tiny bit odd, don't you?"
He looks right at me. "I didn't do it."
It's his story and he's sticking to it. "For some reason, the police seem to think you did."
His eyes narrow. "It's no big newsflash that I'm not going to win any popularity contests with the SFPD. I'm making the cops work harder than they have in a long time."
They hate his guts. Although the public perceives Skipper as a champion of law-and-order, the police aren't as easily impressed. They think he ducks the tough cases.
"I did the right thing," he says. "I gave them my statement. Next thing I know, McBride decides to be a big shot and arrests me."
"What are you leaving out?"
"Nothing." Even in an orange jumpsuit, he is capable of sounding condescending. "It's a setup. I'm ahead in the polls. My political enemies want to embarrass me. That's the only plausible explanation."
Another plausible explanation is that he did it. On its face, that would seem pretty far-fetched. Politicians call each other names, lie, cheat and run attack ads. By and large, they don't commit murders in hotel rooms. And it seems unlikely that a murderer would spend the night in the same room as the dead body and hang around until the cops showed up.
I ask if he's spoken to Natalie.
"I talked to her for a few minutes right before I called you. She's terribly upset. Ann went over to try to calm her down."
"I'll go talk to McBride and the DA," I say. "The arraignment will be later this week. I'll need you to sign a client retention letter and I'll need a fifty thousand-dollar retainer."
"Fifty thousand?" he says. "Seems a little steep."
If this case goes to trial, he'll spend at least a quarter of a million dollars on legal fees and another hundred thousand for experts, jury consultants and investigators. He's well aware of this. "Grace has to eat," I say. "If you're out of here as soon as you think, your money will be cheerfully refunded."
"We're a little tight on cash. We've put a bunch of our liquid assets into the campaign war chest. You know how it is."
Actually, I don't. "If you want me to represent you, I'm going to need a fifty-thousand-dollar retainer. If that doesn't work for you, you'll have to find somebody else to handle your case."
I hear him sigh. "Okay," he says, "fifty thousand it is. Bring along the letter this afternoon. I'll sign whatever you want."
It's not like he's going to read it.
"I want to be able to pick co-counsel," he says. "I may want to bring in somebody else." He pauses and adds, "And I'm not sure I want to use your ex-wife."
Come again? "She's my partner. More importantly, she's one of the best criminal defense attorneys in San Francisco. If you hire me, you hire my firm. That includes Rosie. If you give her any gas, we'll withdraw. Understood?"
"Jesus, Mike," he says, "you have to let me pick my own team." He pauses. "And you can't expect me to use Carolyn."
Carolyn O'Malley is the third attorney in our firm. She's "of counsel," which means she isn't a partner, but she shares office space with us and we pay her an hourly rate. She was a prosecutor in San Francisco for almost twenty years. She started out in misdemeanor court and worked her way up to the head of the sex crimes unit. She joined us about six months ago after she was unceremoniously purged from the DA's office in one of Skipper's moments of uninspired judgment. In a characteristic fit of pique, she switched sides. Most of her vitriol has been directed at one person: Skipper.
"Rosie and Carolyn are essential members of my team," I say. "I won't work without them. Maybe it would be better if you find somebody else to handle your case." I stand and head toward the door.
As I reach for the handle, I hear Skipper's voice behind me. "Listen," he says, "I'm in a tight spot. I need your help."
I turn around and face him. "Rosie and Carolyn are part of the package. If you're smart, you'll hire the best defense attorneys your money can buy. Am I making myself clear?"
"If you still want me to represent you, I'll be back this afternoon with a retention letter. I'll let you pick co-counsel, but I'm going to make all the final decisions on strategy. Rosie sits at the defense table."
"Good. And I'm going to need a check for a hundred thousand dollars."
He's unhappy. "I thought you said it was fifty."
"It was. The price just went up." Rosie and I refer to this as charging the Asshole Premium. We reserve such special treatment for our more difficult clients. "Is there a problem?"
"No," he says through clenched teeth. "No problem."
The deputy knocks on the door. "We need to finish your client's paperwork," he says.
It's my turn to point a finger at Skipper. "Don't talk to anybody," I tell him. "I'll see if I can get this cleared up before things get out of hand."
"I didn't do it," he insists. "Somebody's going to pay for this."
I'm walking past the intake desk a moment later when I hear my name called out by an unmistakable velvet voice. "Michael, do you have a moment to chat?" Skipper's close friend and my former partner at Simpson and Gates, Turner Hamilton Stanford IV, doesn't speak to anyone. He chats.
I turn and look into the eyes of the man I once dubbed the "Silver Fox." Everything about him is in muted tones of gray. The impeccably-tailored Italian suit. The neatly-pressed kerchief in his breast pocket. The full head of hair and meticulously trimmed beard. Turner may be the best-dressed man to have set foot in the Hall in thirty years. At sixty-one, he carries his slender six-foot two-inch frame with the erect bearing of a former athlete. He and Skipper were teammates on the Stanford basketball team.
We shake hands. Turner's polished, soft-spoken demeanor and elegant air mask a vicious greedy streak. In legal circles, he's what's called a "juice" lawyer, which means he charges his clients exorbitant sums to manipulate the San Francisco planning commission and obtain building permits and zoning variances. Most people believe PacBell Park never would have been built without his influence. In his spare time, he dabbles in real estate development and political consulting. He also owns an obscenely expensive French restaurant near Union Square.
Turner's earned millions from his law practice, but he made most of his money the old-fashioned way--he inherited it. Although I have never been able to trace his exact lineage, he claims he is a descendant of the family that founded the university in Palo Alto that bears his name. I've always had doubts about that.
He never raises his voice. "I got here as soon as I could," he says. "I stopped to see Natalie for a few minutes. Skipper told her he was going to call you." He pauses and adds, "This is a disaster." I've never been able to read him. Although Turner is running Skipper's campaign and they're close, he's a registered Democrat. He manages to delude himself into believing the sixties never ended. It's difficult for self-righteous liberals like me to deal with limousine liberals like him, especially when they run political campaigns for fascists like Skipper. While I'm busy casting stones, I suppose I should point out that the lawyers of Fernandez and Daley are willing to represent Republicans as well as Democrats, as long as they are prepared to pay our very reasonable fees.
I explain that I have already spoken to Skipper. "He said you were there last night."
I ask him if he knows what happened.
"The police won't tell me anything," he says. He glances at Sergeant Dito and lowers his voice. "We had a summit conference with Sherman's people."
Now he's doing Skipper speak.
"I left around twelve-thirty," he says. "Next thing I knew, there was a phone call from Skipper at seven-thirty this morning. By the time I got there, they had already arrested him." He says he had a conversation with Inspector McBride about the wisdom of her decision to arrest Skipper. Notwithstanding Turner's impassioned plea, McBride went ahead and hauled him in.
We decide the intake desk may not be the best place to talk about the events of last night. He says he's going to see Skipper. Then he's going to hold a press briefing.
I'm talking to Rosie from the pay phone in the lobby of the Hall. You aren't allowed to bring cell phones into the jail. "Did you really tell Skipper he was going to have to pay the Asshole Premium?" she asks.
"He is an asshole," I deadpan.
"Are you out of your mind? I'm surprised he didn't fire you on the spot." Rosie has never fully appreciated my rainmaking skills. It might be fair to say they are somewhat unconventional. She's also keenly aware of my rather lackadaisical attitude toward money.
I assure her that I did not use the term asshole when I told Skipper he was going to have to give us a larger retainer. I leave out any mention of the fact that Skipper isn't wild about including her or Carolyn on the defense team.
"Maybe you're starting to get the hang of private practice," she says.
I tell her about my conversation with Skipper. "He's adamant. He says he didn't do it."
"Do you believe him?"
I stare at the high ceiling for a second. "I find it very hard to picture him killing someone. Besides, he's very calculating. I can't imagine he would do anything that would jeopardize his political career."
She reflects for a moment and asks again, "Does that mean you believe him?"
I hesitate and say, "I'm not sure." I glance at the guard sitting by the metal detectors. "One other thing." Here goes. "We need to talk about whether we want to take on Skipper as a client."
"Not again," she says. I can hear the irritation in her tone. "What's there to talk about?"
"I don't trust him. It's too personal. There's too much history."
"I can think of about a hundred thousand reasons. That may be enough to pay for a year at Stanford when Grace gets there."
"She's going to Cal."
"Mike," she says, "let's take it from the top."
I hate this.
"What do we do at our firm?" she asks.
This little ritual reminds me of when we were married--and why we got divorced. "Criminal defense law."
"That means we represent criminals, right? You know, crooks?"
"Yeah. Crooks." I really hate this.
"And crooks do bad things, right? And they lie."
"Yes they do, Rosie."
"And we don't make moral judgments about our clients, do we?"
"No, we don't." Well, she doesn't. I do.
"That's right. So the fact that Skipper may be a manipulative liar makes him just about the same as all of our other clients, doesn't it?"
"It's not the same."
"It is the same, except for one thing."
I always lose these arguments. "What's that?" I ask.
"How much money does Skipper have?"
"Millions." If he runs short, we can get paid in campaign posters.
"Millions," she repeats. "I don't like him any more than you do. But he needs a criminal defense attorney and he can pay us. That's good enough for me."
I hate it when she's right.
"Get the retainer and we'll see what happens," she says. "One other thing. Natalie called. She wants to talk to you right away."
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