I vowed to get a bed. I was losing too much sleep floundering on the floor, trying to prove a point to no one but myself. In the darkness long before dawn, I sat in my sleeping bag and promised myself I'd find something softer to sleep on. I also wondered for the thousandth time how people survived sleeping on sidewalks.
The Pylon Grill was warm and stuffy, a layer of cigarette smoke not far above the tables, the aroma of coffee beans from around the world waiting just inside the door. As usual it was filled with news junkies at 4:30 A.M.
Burkholder was the man of the hour. His face was on the front page of the Post, and there were several stories about the man, the shooting, the police investigation. Nothing about the sweep. Mordecai would give me those details later.
A pleasant surprise was waiting in Metro. Tim Claussen was evidently a man on a mission. Our lawsuit had inspired him.
In a lengthy article, he examined each of the three defendants, beginning with RiverOaks. The company was twenty years old, privately held by a group of investors, one of whom was Clayton Bender, an East Coast real estate swinger rumored to be worth two hundred million. Bender's picture was in the story, along with a photo of the corporate headquarters in Hagerstown, Maryland. The company had built eleven office buildings in the D.C. area in twenty years, along with numerous shopping centers in the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington. The value of its holdings was estimated at three hundred fifty million. There was also a lot of bank debt, the level of which could not be estimated.
The history of the proposed bulk-mailing facility in Northeast was recounted in excruciating detail. Then, on to Drake & Sweeney.
Not surprisingly, there was no source of information from within the firm. Phone calls had not been returned. Claussen gave the basics--size, history, a few famous alumni. There were two charts, both taken from U.S. Law magazine, one listing the top ten law firms in the country by size, and the other ranking the firms by how much the partners averaged last year in compensation. With eight hundred lawyers, Drake & Sweeney was fifth in size, and at $910,500, the partners were number three. Had I really walked away from that much money? The last member of the unlikely trio was Tillman Gantry, and his colorful life made for easy investigative journalism. Cops talked about him. A former cellmate from prison sang his praises. A Reverend of some stripe in Northeast told how Gantry had built basketball hoops for poor kids. A former prostitute remembered the beatings. He operated behind two corporations--TAG and Gantry Group--and through them he owned three used-car lots, two small shopping centers, an apartment building where two people had been shot to death, six rental duplexes, a bar where a woman had been raped, a video store, and numerous vacant lots he'd purchased for almost nothing from the city.
Of the three defendants, Gantry was the only one willing to talk. He admitted paying eleven thousand dollars for the Florida Avenue warehouse in July of the previous year, and selling it for two hundred thousand to RiverOaks on January 31. He got lucky, he said. The building was useless, but the land under it was worth a lot more than eleven thousand. That was why he bought it.
The warehouse had always attracted squatters, he said. In fact, he had been forced to run them off. He had never charged rent, and had no idea where that rumor originated. He had plenty of lawyers, and he would mount a vigorous defense.
The story did not mention me. Nothing was said about DeVon Hardy and the hostage drama. Very little about Lontae Burton and the allegations of the lawsuit
For the second day in a row, the venerable old firm of Drake & Sweeney was maligned as a conspirator with a former pimp. Indeed, the tone of the story portrayed the lawyers as worse criminals than Tillman Gantry.
Tomorrow, it promised, there would be another installment--a look at the sad life of Lontae Burton.
How long would Arthur Jacobs allow his beloved firm to be dragged through the mud? It was such an easy target. The Post could be tenacious. The reporter was obviously working around the clock. One story would lead to another.
* * *
It was twenty minutes past nine when I arrived with my lawyer at the Carl Moultrie Building, on the corner of Sixth and Indiana, downtown. Mordecai knew where we were going. I had never been near the Moultrie Building, home of civil and criminal cases in the District. The line formed outside the front entrance, and it moved slowly as the lawyers and litigants and criminals were searched and scanned for metal devices. Inside, the place was a zoo--a lobby packed with anxious people, and four levels of hallways lined with courtrooms.
The Honorable Norman Kisner held court on the first floor, room number 114. A daily docket by the door listed my name under First Appearances. Eleven other criminals shared space with me. Inside, the bench was vacant; lawyers milled about. Mordecai disappeared into the back, and I took a seat in the second row. I read a magazine and tried to appear utterly bored with the scene.
"Good morning, Michael," someone said from the aisle. It was Donald Rafter, clutching his briefcase with both hands. Behind him was a face I recognized from litigation, but I could not recall the name. I nodded and managed to say, "Hello."
They scooted away and found seats on the other side of the courtroom. They represented the victims, and as such had the right to be present at each stage of my proceedings.
It was only a first appearance! I would stand before the Judge while he read the charges. I would enter a plea of not guilty, be released on my existing bond, and leave. Why was Rafter there?
The answer came slowly. I stared at the magazine, struggled to remain perfectly calm, and finally realized that his presence was merely a reminder. They regarded the theft as a serious matter, and they would dog me every step of the way. Rafter was the smartest and meanest of all litigators. I was supposed to shake with fear at the sight of him in the courtroom.
At nine-thirty, Mordecai emerged from behind the bench and motioned for me. The Judge was waiting in his chambers. Mordecai introduced me to him, and the three of us setfled casually around a small table.
Judge Kisner was at least seventy, with bushy gray hair and a scraggly gray beard, and brown eyes that burned holes as he talked. He and my lawyer had been acquaintances for many years.
"I was just telling Mordecai," he said, waving a hand, "that this is a very unusual case."
I nodded in agreement. It certainly felt unusual to me.
"I've known Arthur Jacobs for thirty years. In fact, I know a lot of those lawyers over there. They're good lawyers."
They were indeed. They hired the best and trained them well. I felt uncomfortable with the fact that my trial judge had such admiration for the victims.
"A working file stolen from a lawyer's office might be hard to evaluate from a monetary point of view. It's just a bunch of papers, nothing of real value to anyone except the lawyer. It would be worth nothing if you tried to sell it on the streets. I'm not accusing you of stealing the file, you understand."
"Yes. I understand." I wasn't sure if I did or not, but I wanted him to continue.
"Let's assume you have the file, and let's assume you took it from the firm. If you returned it now, under my supervision, I would be inclined to place a value on it of something less than a hundred dollars. That, of course, would be a misdemeanor, and we could sweep it under the rug with a bit of paperwork. Of course, you would have to agree to disregard any information taken from the file."
"And what if I don't return it? Still assuming, of course."
"Then it becomes much more valuable. The grand larceny sticks, and we go to trial on that charge. If the prosecutor proves his case and the jury finds you guilty, it will be up to me to sentence you."
The creases in his forehead, the hardening of his eyes, and the tone of his voice left little doubt that sentencing would be something I would rather avoid.
"In addition, if the jury finds you guilty of grand larceny, you will lose your license to practice law."
"Yes sir," I said, very much chastised.
Mordecai was holding back, listening and absorbing everything.
"Unlike most of my docket, time is crucial here," Kisner continued. "This civil litigation could turn on the contents of the file. Admissibility will be for another judge in another courtroom. I'd like to have the criminal matter resolved before the civil case progresses too far. Again, we're assuming you have the file."
"How soon?" Mordecai asked.
"I think two weeks is sufficient time to make your decision."
We agreed that two weeks was reasonable. Mordecai and I returned to the courtroom where we waited another hour while nothing happened.
Wan Claussen from the Post arrived with a rush of lawyers. He saw us sitting in the courtroom, but did not venture over. Mordecai moved away from me, and eventually cornered him. He explained that there were two lawyers in the courtroom from Drake & Sweeney, Donald Rafter and another guy, and perhaps they might have a word for the paper.
Claussen went right after them. Voices could be heard from the back bench where Rafter had been killing time. They left the courtroom and continued their argument outside.
My appearance before Kisner was as brief as expected. I entered a plea of not guilty, signed some forms, and left in a hurry. Rafter was nowhere in sight
* * *
"What did you and Kisner talk about before I got back there?" I asked as soon as we were in the car.
"Same thing he told you."
"He's a hard-ass."
"He's a good judge, but he was a lawyer for many years. A criminal lawyer, and one of the best. He has no sympathy for a lawyer who steals the files of another."
"How long will my sentence be if I'm convicted?"
"He didn't say. But you'll do time."
We were waiting for a red light. Fortunately I was driving. "All right, Counselor," I said. "What do we do?"
"We have two weeks. Let's approach it slowly. Now is not the time to make decisions."