The Fifth Witness (Mickey Haller Series #4)by Michael Connelly
Mickey Haller has fallen on tough times. He expands his business into foreclosure defense, only to see one of his clients accused of killing the banker she blames for trying to take away her home.
Mickey puts his team into high gear to exonerate Lisa Trammel, even though the evidence and his own suspicions tell him his client is guilty. Soon after he learns that… See more details below
Mickey Haller has fallen on tough times. He expands his business into foreclosure defense, only to see one of his clients accused of killing the banker she blames for trying to take away her home.
Mickey puts his team into high gear to exonerate Lisa Trammel, even though the evidence and his own suspicions tell him his client is guilty. Soon after he learns that the victim had black market dealings of his own, Haller is assaulted, tooand he's certain he's on the right trail.
Despite the danger and uncertainty, Haller mounts the best defense of his career in a trial where the last surprise comes after the verdict is in. Connelly proves again why he "may very well be the best novelist working in the United States today" (San Francisco Chronicle).
"Connelly may be our most versatile crime writer.... His Mickey Haller novels are testaments to the sublime architecture of plot.... Reading this book is like watching a master craftsman build something that holds together exquisitely, form and function in perfect alignment."
Just in time for his movie debut this spring, Connelly brings back the Lincoln Lawyer for a satisfying case that pits him against a real-estate foreclosure mill.
Lisa Trammel never met Mitchell Bondurant, but the two of them had reason to loathe each other. As senior vice president at WestLand National Bank, Bondurant made the call to foreclose on Trammel's house after her husband left her and their 9-year-old son and her mortgage went underwater. Nothing daunted, Trammel started a grassroots organization called Foreclosure Litigants Against Greed (FLAG) to fight WestLand and its allies in the media, and hired Mickey Haller (The Reversal, 2010, etc.) to fight WestLand in court. Both the legal battle and the media circus take a dramatic new turn when Bondurant is found bashed to death in a parking garage and a witness places Trammel half a block away within a few minutes of the bashing. Det. Howard Kurlen, LAPD, immediately picks up Trammel, questions her and then arrests her for murder. Digging in her heels, she insists that she didn't kill Bondurant; she never even met Bondurant; she's never changed her story one bit; and every bit of forensic evidence against her—and by the end, there's plenty—can be explained as part of a frame-up. It's the job of Mickey, his investigator Dennis ("Cisco") Wojciechowski and his new associate Jennifer ("Bullocks") Aronson to dig up someone who could plausibly have framed her. As the evidence piles up against Trammel, evidence casting suspicion on Bondurant's other associates piles up alongside it. Mickey is beaten up by two guys who clearly don't like the questions he's been asking. The mountain of paperwork prosecutor Andrea Freeman reluctantly shares with Mickey discloses an unsavory connection that could well point to another killer. And the third-party suspect Mickey zeroes in on obligingly behaves exactly like a guilty party.
"With me, it's don't ask, don't tell," Mickey tells the starry-eyed Bullock, who wonders why this junkyard dog never asks his client if she's innocent. Though the answer isn't as mysterious as you might like, the courtroom scenes—thrust, parry, struggle for every possible advantage—are grueling enough for the most exacting connoisseur of legal intrigue.
The New York Times
"Heart-pounding....To say that Nine Dragons is coiled tight with suspense understates Connelly's accomplishment in portraying Bosch at the cusp of a new world."
Los Angeles Times
"Connelly may be our most versatile crime writer.... His Mickey Haller novels are testaments to the sublime architecture of plot.... Reading this book is like watching a master craftsman build something that holds together exquisitely, form and function in perfect alignment."
"Heart-pounding....To say that Nine Dragons is coiled tight with suspense understates Connelly's accomplishment in portraying Bosch at the cusp of a new world."
Connelly may be our most versatile crime writer.... His Mickey Haller novels are testaments to the sublime architecture of plot.... Reading this book is like watching a master craftsman build something that holds together exquisitely, form and function in perfect alignment."—Bill Ott, Booklist
PRAISE FOR NINE DRAGONS:"
Heart-pounding....To say that Nine Dragons is coiled tight with suspense understates Connelly's accomplishment in portraying Bosch at the cusp of a new world."—Paula L. Woods, Los Angeles Times"
A Michael Connelly novel is a thing of cool beauty, meticulously plotted, rigorously controlled."—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune
Meet the Author
Michael Connelly is the bestselling author of the Harry Bosch series of novels as well as The Poet, Blood Work, Void Moon, Chasing the Dime, and the #1 New York Times bestsellers The Scarecrow and The Lincoln Lawyer. He is a former newspaper reporter who has won numerous awards for his journalism and his novels. He spends his time in California and Florida.
- Sarasota, Florida
- Date of Birth:
- July 21, 1956
- Place of Birth:
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- B.A. in Journalism, University of Florida, 1980
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
The Fifth Witness
By Connelly, Michael
VisionCopyright © 2012 Connelly, Michael
All right reserved.
—The Magic Words
Mrs. Pena looked across the seat at me and held her hands up in a beseeching manner. She spoke in a heavy accent, choosing English to make her final pitch directly to me.
“Please, you help me, Mr. Mickey?”
I looked at Rojas, who was turned around in the front seat even though I didn’t need him to translate. I then looked past Mrs. Pena, over her shoulder and through the car window, to the home she desperately wanted to hold on to. It was a bleached pink, two-bedroom house with a hardscrabble yard behind a wire fence. The concrete step to the front stoop had graffiti sprayed across it, indecipherable except for the number 13. It wasn’t the address. It was a pledge of allegiance.
My eyes finally came back to her. She was forty-four years old and attractive in a worn sort of way. She was the single mother of three teenage boys and had not paid her mortgage in nine months. Now the bank had foreclosed and was moving in to sell the house out from under her.
The auction would take place in three days. It didn’t matter that the house was worth little or that it sat in a gang-infested neighborhood in South L.A. Somebody would buy it, and Mrs. Pena would become a renter instead of an owner—that is, if the new owner didn’t evict her. For years she had relied on the protection of the Florencia 13. But times were different. No gang allegiance could help her now. She needed a lawyer. She needed me.
“Tell her I will try my best,” I said. “Tell her I am pretty certain I will be able to stop the auction and challenge the validity of the foreclosure. It will at least slow things down. It will give us time to work up a long-range plan. Maybe get her back on her feet.”
I nodded and waited while Rojas translated. I had been using Rojas as my driver and interpreter ever since I had bought the advertising package on the Spanish radio stations.
I felt the cell phone in my pocket vibrate. My upper thigh read this as a text message as opposed to an actual phone call, which had a longer vibration. Either way I ignored it. When Rojas completed the translation, I jumped in before Mrs. Pena could respond.
“Tell her that she has to understand that this isn’t a solution to her problems. I can delay things and we can negotiate with her bank. But I am not promising that she won’t lose the house. In fact, she’s already lost the house. I’m going to get it back but then she’ll still have to face the bank.”
Rojas translated, making hand gestures where I had not. The truth was that Mrs. Pena would have to leave eventually. It was just a question of how far she wanted me to take it. Personal bankruptcy would tack another year onto foreclosure defense. But she didn’t have to decide that now.
“Now tell her that I also need to be paid for my work. Give her the schedule. A thousand up front and the monthly payment plan.”
“How much on the monthly and how long?”
I looked out at the house again. Mrs. Pena had invited me inside but I preferred meeting in the car. This was drive-by territory and I was in my Lincoln Town Car BPS. That stood for Ballistic Protection Series. I bought it used from the widow of a murdered enforcer with the Sinaloa cartel. There was armored plating in the doors, and the windows were constructed of three layers of laminated glass. They were bulletproof. The windows in Mrs. Pena’s pink house were not. The lesson learned from the Sinaloa man was that you don’t leave the car unless you have to.
Mrs. Pena had explained earlier that the mortgage payments she had stopped making nine months ago had been seven hundred a month. She would continue to withhold any payments to the bank while I worked the case. She would have a free ride for as long as I kept the bank at bay, so there was money to be made here.
“Make it two-fifty a month. I’ll give her the cut-rate plan. Make sure she knows she’s getting a deal and that she can never be late with the payments. We can take a credit card if she has one with any juice on it. Just make sure it doesn’t expire until at least twenty twelve.”
Rojas translated, with more gestures and many more words than I had used, while I pulled my phone. The text had come from Lorna Taylor.
CALL ME ASAP.
I’d have to get back to her after the client conference. A typical law practice would have an office manager and receptionist. But I didn’t have an office other than the backseat of my Lincoln, so Lorna ran the business end of things and answered the phones at the West Hollywood condo she shared with my chief investigator.
My mother was Mexican born and I understood her native language better than I ever let on. When Mrs. Pena responded, I knew what she said—the gist of it, at least. But I let Rojas translate it all back to me anyway. She promised to go inside the house to get the thousand-dollar cash retainer and to dutifully make the monthly payments. To me, not the bank. I figured that if I could extend her stay in the house to a year my take would be four grand total. Not bad for what was entailed. I would probably never see Mrs. Pena again. I would file a suit challenging the foreclosure and stretch things out. The chances were I wouldn’t even make a court appearance. My young associate would do the courthouse legwork. Mrs. Pena would be happy and so would I. Eventually, though, the hammer would come down. It always does.
I thought I had a workable case even though Mrs. Pena would not be a sympathetic client. Most of my clients stop making payments to the bank after losing a job or experiencing a medical catastrophe. Mrs. Pena stopped when her three sons went to jail for selling drugs and their weekly financial support abruptly ended. Not a lot of goodwill to be had with that story. But the bank had played dirty. I had looked up her file on my laptop. It was all there: a record of her being served with notices involving demands for payment and then foreclosure. Only Mrs. Pena said she had never received these notices. And I believed her. It wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where process servers were known to roam freely. I suspected that the notifications had ended up in the trash and the server had simply lied about it. If I could make that case, then I could back the bank off Mrs. Pena with the leverage it would give me.
That would be my defense. That the poor woman was never given proper notice of the peril she was in. The bank took advantage of her, foreclosed on her without allowing her the opportunity to make up the arrears, and should be rebuked by the court for doing so.
“Okay, we have a deal,” I said. “Tell her to go in and get her money while I print out a contract and receipt. We’ll get going on this today.”
I smiled and nodded at Mrs. Pena. Rojas translated and then jumped out of the car to go around and open her door.
Once Mrs. Pena left the car I opened the Spanish contract template on my laptop and typed in the necessary names and numbers. I sent it to the printer that sat on an electronics platform on the front passenger seat. I then went to work on the receipt for funds to be deposited into my client trust account. Everything was aboveboard. Always. It was the best way to keep the California Bar off my ass. I might have a bulletproof car but it was the bar I most often checked for over my shoulder.
It had been a rough year for Michael Haller and Associates, Attorneys-at-Law. Criminal defense had virtually dried up in the down economy. Of course crime wasn’t down. In Los Angeles, crime marched on through any economy. But the paying customers were few and far between. It seemed as though nobody had money to pay a lawyer. Consequently, the public defender’s office was busting at the seams with cases and clients while guys like me were left starving.
I had expenses and a fourteen-year-old kid in private school who talked about USC whenever the subject of colleges came up. I had to do something and so I did what I had once held as unthinkable. I went civil. The only growth industry in the law business was foreclosure defense. I attended a few bar seminars, got up to speed on it and started running new ads in two languages. I built a few websites and started buying the lists of foreclosure filings from the county clerk’s office. That’s how I got Mrs. Pena as a client. Direct mail. Her name was on the list and I had sent her a letter—in Spanish—offering my services. She told me that my letter happened to be the first indication she had ever received that she was in foreclosure.
The saying goes that if you build it, they will come. It was true. I was getting more work than I could handle—six more appointments after Mrs. Pena today—and had even hired an actual associate to Michael Haller and Associates for the first time ever. The national epidemic of real estate foreclosure was slowing but by no means abating. In Los Angeles County I could be feeding at the trough for years to come.
The cases went for only four or five grand a pop but this was a quantity-over-quality period in my professional life. I currently had more than ninety foreclosure clients on my docket. No doubt my kid could start planning on USC. Hell, she could start thinking about staying for a master’s degree.
There were those who believed I was part of the problem, that I was merely helping the deadbeats game the system while delaying the economic recovery of the whole. That description fit some of my clients for sure. But I viewed most of them as repeat victims. Initially scammed with the American dream of home ownership when lured into mortgages they had no business even qualifying for. And then victimized again when the bubble burst and unscrupulous lenders ran roughshod over them in the subsequent foreclosure frenzy. Most of these once-proud home owners didn’t stand a chance under California’s streamlined foreclosure regulations. A bank didn’t even need a judge’s approval to take away someone’s house. The great financial minds thought this was the way to go. Just keep it moving. The sooner the crisis hit bottom, the sooner the recovery would begin. I say, Tell that to Mrs. Pena.
There was a theory out there that this was all part of a conspiracy among the top banks in the country to undermine property laws, sabotage the judicial system and create a perpetually cycling foreclosure industry that had them profiting from both ends of the process. Me, I wasn’t exactly buying into that. But during my short time in this area of the law, I had seen enough predatory and unethical acts by so-called legitimate businessmen to make me miss good old-fashioned criminal law.
Rojas was waiting outside the car for Mrs. Pena to return with the money. I checked my watch and noted we were running late on my next appointment—a commercial foreclosure over in Compton. I tried to bunch my new client consultations geographically to save time and gas and mileage on the car. Today I worked the south end. Tomorrow I would hit East L.A. Two days a week I was in the car, signing up new clients. The rest of the time I worked the cases.
“Let’s go, Mrs. Pena,” I said. “We gotta roll.”
I decided to use the waiting time to call Lorna. Three months earlier I had started blocking the ID on my phone. I never did that when I practiced criminal, but in my brave new world of foreclosure defense, I usually didn’t want people having my direct number. And that included the lender attorneys as well as my own clients.
“Law offices of Michael Haller and Associates,” Lorna said when she picked up. “How can I—”
“It’s me. What’s up?”
“Mickey, you have to get over to Van Nuys Division right away.”
There was a strong urgency in her voice. Van Nuys Division was the LAPD’s central command for operations in the sprawling San Fernando Valley, on the north side of the city.
“I’m working the south end today. What’s going on?”
“They have Lisa Trammel there. She called.”
Lisa Trammel was a client. In fact, my very first foreclosure client. I had kept her in her home for going on eight months and was confident I could take it at least another year further before we dropped the bankruptcy bomb. But she was consumed by the frustrations and inequities of her life and could not be calmed or controlled. She’d taken to marching in front of the bank with a placard decrying its fraudulent practices and heartless actions. That is, until the bank got a temporary restraining order against her.
“Did she violate the TRO? Are they holding her?”
“Mickey, they’re holding her for murder.”
That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear.
“Murder? Who’s the victim?”
“She said they’re charging her with killing Mitchell Bondurant.”
That gave me another great big pause. I looked out the window and saw Mrs. Pena coming out through her front door. She held a wad of cash in her hand.
“All right, get on the phone and reschedule the rest of today’s appointments. And tell Cisco to head up to Van Nuys. I’ll meet him there.”
“You got it. Do you want Bullocks to take the afternoon appointments?”
“Bullocks” was what we called Jennifer Aronson, the associate I had hired out of Southwestern, a law school housed in the old Bullocks department store building on Wilshire.
“No, I don’t want her doing intake. Just reschedule them. And listen, I think I have the Trammel file with me, but you have the call list. Track down her sister. Lisa’s got a kid. He’s probably in school and somebody’s going to have to take him if Lisa can’t.”
We made every client fill out an extensive contact list because sometimes it was hard to find them for court hearings—and to get them to pay for my work.
“I’ll start on that,” Lorna said. “Good luck, Mickey.”
“Same to you.”
I closed the phone and thought about Lisa Trammel. Somehow I wasn’t surprised that she had been arrested for killing the man who was trying to take her home away from her. It’s not that I had thought it would come to this. Not even close. But deep down, I had known it was going to come to something.
I quickly took Mrs. Pena’s cash and gave her a receipt. We both signed the contract and she got a copy for her own records. I took a credit card number from her and she promised it would withstand a $250-a-month hit while I was working for her. I then thanked her, shook her hand and had Rojas walk her back to her front door.
While he did that I popped the trunk with the remote I carried, and got out. The Lincoln’s trunk was spacious enough to hold three cardboard file boxes as well as all my office supplies. I found the Trammel file in the third box and pulled it. I also grabbed the fancy briefcase I used for police station visits. When I closed the trunk I saw the stylized 13 spray-painted in silver on the lid’s black paint.
“Son of a bitch.”
I looked around. Three front yards down, a couple of kids were playing in the dirt but they looked too young to be graffiti artists. The rest of the street was deserted. I was baffled. Not only had I not heard or noticed the assault on my car that had taken place while I was having a client conference inside it, but it was barely past one and I knew most gangbangers didn’t get up and embrace the day and all its possibilities until late afternoon. They were night creatures.
I headed back to my open door with the file. I noticed Rojas was standing at the front stoop, chatting with Mrs. Pena. I whistled and signaled him back to the car. We had to get going.
I got in. Message received, Rojas trotted back to the car and jumped in himself.
“Compton?” he asked.
“No, change of plans. We’ve got to get up to Van Nuys. Fast.”
He pulled away from the curb and started making his way back to the 110 Freeway. There was no direct freeway route to Van Nuys. We would have to take the 110 into downtown where we’d pick up the 101 north. We couldn’t have been starting off from a worse position in the city.
“What was she saying at the front door?” I asked Rojas.
“She was asking about you.”
“What do you mean?”
“She said you looked like you shouldn’t need a translator, you know?”
I nodded. I got that a lot. My mother’s genes made me look more south of the border than north.
“She also wanted to know if you were married, Boss. I told her you were. But if you want to circle back and tap that, it’ll be there. She’d probably want a discount on the fees, though.”
“Thanks, Rojas,” I said dryly. “She already got a discount but I’ll keep it in mind.”
Before opening the file I scrolled through the contacts list on my phone. I was looking for the name of someone in the Van Nuys detective squad who might share some information with me. But there was nobody. I was going in blind on a murder case. Not a good starting point either.
I closed the phone and put it into its charger, then opened the file. Lisa Trammel had become my client after responding to the generic letter I sent to the owners of all homes in foreclosure. I assumed I wasn’t the only lawyer in Los Angeles who did this. But for some reason Lisa answered my letter and not theirs.
As an attorney in private practice you get to choose your own clients most of the time. Sometimes you choose wrong. Lisa was one of those times with me. I was eager to start the new line of work. I was looking for clients who were in jams or who had been taken advantage of. People who were too naive to know their rights or options. I was looking for underdogs and thought I had found one in Lisa. No doubt she fit the bill. She was losing her house because of a set of circumstances that had fallen like dominoes out of her control. And her lender had turned her case over to a foreclosure mill that had cut corners and even violated the rules. I signed Lisa up, put her on a payment plan and started to fight her fight. It was a good case and I was excited. It was only after this that Lisa became a nuisance client.
Lisa Trammel was thirty-five years old. She was the married mother of a nine-year-old boy named Tyler and their house was on Melba in Woodland Hills. At the time she and her husband, Jeffrey, bought the house in 2005, Lisa taught social studies at Grant High while Jeffrey sold BMWs at the dealership in Calabasas.
Their three-bedroom house carried a $750,000 mortgage against an appraised value of $900,000. The market was strong then and mortgages were plentiful and easy to get. They used an independent mortgage broker who shopped their file around and got them into a low-interest loan that carried a balloon payment at the five-year mark. The loan was then folded into an investment block of mortgages and reassigned twice before finding its permanent home at WestLand Financial, a subsidiary of WestLand National, the Los Angeles–based bank headquartered in Sherman Oaks.
All was well and good for the family of three until Jeff Trammel decided he didn’t want to be a husband and father anymore. A few months before the $750,000 note on the house was due, Jeff took off, leaving his BMW M3 demo in the parking lot at Union Station and Lisa holding the balloon.
Down to a single income and a child to care for, Lisa looked at the reality of her situation and made choices. By now the economy had stalled out like a plane lumbering into the sky without enough airspeed. Given her teacher’s income, no institution was going to refinance the balloon. She stopped making payments on the loan and ignored all communications from the bank. When the note came due, the property went into foreclosure and that was when I came onto the scene. I sent Jeff and Lisa a letter, not realizing Jeff was no longer in the picture.
Lisa answered it.
I define a nuisance client as one who does not understand the bounds of our relationship, even after I clearly and sometimes repeatedly delineate them. Lisa came to me with her first notice of foreclosure. I took the case and told her to sit back and wait while I went to work. But Lisa couldn’t sit back. She couldn’t wait. She called me every day. After I filed a lawsuit putting the foreclosure before a judge, she showed up at court for routine filings and continuances. She had to be there and she had to know every move I made, see every letter I sent and be summarized on every call I received. She often called me and yelled when she perceived that I was not giving her case my fullest attention. I began to understand why her husband had hightailed it. He had to get away from her.
I began to wonder about Lisa’s mental health and suspected a bipolar affliction. The incessant calls and activities were cyclical. There were weeks when I heard nothing, alternating with weeks where she would call daily and repeatedly until she got me on the line.
Three months into the case she told me she had lost her job with the L.A. County School District because of unexcused absences. It was then that she talked about seeking damages from the bank that was foreclosing on her home. A sense of entitlement moved into the discourse. The bank was responsible for everything: the abandonment by her husband, the loss of her job, the taking of her home.
I made a mistake in revealing to her some of my case intelligence and strategy. I did it to appease her, to get her off the line. Our examination of the loan record had turned up inconsistencies and issues in the mortgage’s repeated reassignment to various holding companies. There were indications of fraud that I thought I could use to swing leverage to Lisa’s side when it came time to negotiate an out.
But the information only galvanized Lisa’s belief in her victimization at the hands of the bank. Never did she acknowledge the fact that she had signed for a loan and was obliged to repay it. She saw the bank only as the source of her woes.
The first thing she did was register a website. She used www.californiaforeclosurefighters.com to launch an organization called Foreclosure Litigants Against Greed. It worked better as an acronym—FLAG—and she effectively made use of the American flag on her protest signs. The message being that fighting foreclosure was as American as apple pie.
She then took to marching in front of WestLand’s corporate headquarters on Ventura Boulevard. Sometimes by herself, sometimes with her young son, and sometimes with people she had attracted to the cause. She carried signs that decried the bank’s involvement in illegal foreclosures and in putting families out of their homes and onto the streets.
Lisa was quick to alert local media outlets to her activities. She got on TV repeatedly and was always ready with a sound bite that gave voice to people in her situation, casting them as victims of the foreclosure epidemic, not garden-variety deadbeats. I had noticed that on Channel 5 she had even become part of the stock footage thrown up on the screen whenever there was an update on nationwide foreclosure issues or statistics. California was the third leading state in the country for foreclosures and Los Angeles was the hotbed. As these facts were reported, there would be Lisa and her group on the screen carrying their signs—DON’T TAKE MY HOME! STOP ILLEGAL FORECLOSURE NOW!
Alleging that her protests were illegal gatherings that impeded traffic and endangered pedestrians, West-Land sought and received a restraining order that kept Lisa one hundred yards from any bank facility and its employees. Undaunted, she took her signs and her fellow protestors to the county courthouse, where foreclosures were fought every day.
Mitchell Bondurant was a senior vice president at WestLand. He headed up the mortgage loan division. His name was on the loan documents relating to Lisa Trammel’s house. As such his name was on all of my filings. I had also written him a letter, outlining what I described as indications of fraudulent practices by the foreclosure mill WestLand had contracted with to carry out the dirty work of taking the homes and other properties of their default customers.
Lisa was entitled to see all documents arising from her case. She was copied on the letter and everything else. Despite being the human face of the effort to take her home away, Bondurant remained above the fray, hiding behind the bank’s legal team. He never responded to my letter and I never met him. I had no knowledge that Lisa Trammel had ever met or spoken with him either. But now he was dead and the police had Lisa in custody.
We exited the 101 at Van Nuys Boulevard and headed north. The civic center was a plaza surrounded by two courthouses, a library, City Hall North and the Valley Bureau police complex, which included the Van Nuys Division. Various other government agencies and buildings were clustered around the main grouping. Parking was always a problem but it wasn’t my worry. I pulled my phone and called my investigator, Dennis Wojciechowski.
“Cisco, it’s me. You close?”
In his early years Wojciechowski was associated with the Road Saints motorcycle club but there was already a member named Dennis. Nobody could pronounce Wojciechowski so they called him the Cisco Kid because of his dark looks and mustache. The mustache was now gone but the name had stuck.
“Already here. I’ll meet you on the bench by the front stairs to the PD.”
“I’ll be there in five. Have you talked to anyone yet? I’ve got nothing.”
“Yeah, your old pal Kurlen’s running lead on this. The victim, Mitchell Bondurant, was found in the parking garage at WestLand’s headquarters on Ventura about nine this morning. He was on the ground between two cars. Not clear how long he was down but he was dead on scene.”
“Do we know the cause yet?”
“There it gets a little hinky. At first they put out that he’d been shot because an employee who was on another level of the garage told responding police she had heard two popping sounds, like shots. But when they examined the body on the scene it looked like he had been beaten to death. Hit with something.”
“Was Lisa Trammel arrested there?”
“No, from what I understand, she was picked up at her home in Woodland Hills. I still have some calls out but that’s about the extent of what I’ve got so far. Sorry, Mick.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll know everything soon enough. Is Kurlen at the scene or with the suspect?”
“I was told he and his partner picked up Trammel and took her in. The partner’s a female named Cynthia Longstreth. She’s a D-one. I’ve never heard of her.”
I had never heard of her either but since she was a detective one, my guess was that she was new to the homicide beat and paired with the veteran Kurlen, a D-3, to get some seasoning. I looked out the window. We were passing a BMW dealership and it made me think of the missing husband who had sold Beemers before pulling the plug on the marriage and disappearing. I wondered if Jeff Trammel would show up now that his wife was arrested for murder. Would he take custody of the son he had abandoned?
“You want me to get Valenzuela over here?” Cisco asked. “He’s only a block away.”
Fernando Valenzuela was a bail bondsman I used on Valley cases. But I knew he wouldn’t be needed this time.
“I’d wait on that. If they’ve tagged her with murder she isn’t going to make bail.”
“Do you know if a DA’s been assigned yet?”
I was thinking about my ex-wife who worked for the district attorney’s office in Van Nuys. She might be a useful source of back-channel information—unless she had been put on the case. Then there would be a conflict of interest. It had happened before. Maggie McPherson wouldn’t like that.
“I’ve got nothing on that.”
I considered what little we knew and what might be the best way to proceed. My feeling was that once the police understood what they had in this case—a murder that could draw wide attention to one of the great financial catastrophes of the time—they would quickly go to lockdown, putting a lid on all sources of information. The time to make moves was now.
“Cisco, I changed my mind. Don’t wait for me. Go over to the scene and see what you can find out. Talk to people before they get locked down.”
“Yeah. I’ll handle the PD and I’ll call if I need anything.”
“Got it. Good luck.”
I closed the phone and looked at the back of my driver’s head.
“Rojas, turn right at Delano and take me up Sylmar.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be. I want you to drop me and then go back up Van Nuys Boulevard and find a body shop. See if they can get the paint off the back of the car.”
Rojas looked at me in the rearview mirror.
The Van Nuys police building is a four-story structure serving many purposes. It houses the Van Nuys police division as well as the Valley Bureau command offices and the main jail facility serving the northern part of the city. I had been here before on cases and knew that as with most LAPD stations large or small, there would be multiple obstacles standing between my client and me.
I have always had the suspicion that officers assigned to front desk duty were chosen by cunning supervisors because of their skills in obfuscation and disinformation. If you doubt this, walk into any police station in the city and tell the desk officer who greets you that you wish to make a complaint against a police officer. See how long it takes him to find the proper form. Desk cops are usually young and dumb and unintentionally ignorant, or old and obdurate and completely deliberate in their actions.
At the front desk at Van Nuys station I was met by an officer with the name CRIMMINS printed on his crisp uniform. He was a silver-haired veteran and therefore highly accomplished when it came to the dead-eyed stare. He showed this to me when I identified myself as a defense attorney with a client waiting to see me in the detective squad. His response consisted of pursing his lips and pointing to a row of plastic chairs where I was supposed to meekly go to wait until he deemed it time to call upstairs.
Guys like Crimmins are used to a cowering public: people who do exactly as he says because they are too intimidated to do anything else. I wasn’t part of that public.
“No, that’s not how this works,” I said.
Crimmins squinted. He hadn’t been challenged by anybody all day, let alone a criminal defense attorney—emphasis on criminal. His first move was to fire up the sarcasm responders.
“Is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right. So pick up the phone and call upstairs to Detective Kurlen. Tell him Mickey Haller is on the way up and that if I don’t see my client in the next ten minutes I’ll just walk across the plaza to the courthouse and go see Judge Mills.”
I paused to let the name register.
“I’m sure you know of Judge Roger Mills. Lucky for me, he used to be a criminal defense attorney before he got elected to the bench. He didn’t like being jacked around by the police back then and doesn’t like it much when he hears about it now. He’ll drag both you and Kurlen into court and make you explain why you were playing this same old game of stopping a citizen from exercising her constitutional rights to consult an attorney. Last time it went down like that Judge Mills didn’t like the answers he got and fined the guy who was sitting where you are five hundred bucks.”
Crimmins looked like he’d had a hard time following my words. He was a short-sentence man, I guessed. He blinked twice and reached for the phone. I heard him confer directly with Kurlen. He then hung up.
“You know the way, smart guy?”
“I know the way. Thank you for your help, Officer Crimmins.”
“Catch you later.”
He pointed his finger at me like it was a gun, getting the last shot in so he could tell himself that he had handled that son-of-a-bitch lawyer. I left the desk and headed into the nearby alcove where I knew the elevator was located.
On the third floor Detective Howard Kurlen was waiting for me with a smile on his face. It wasn’t a friendly smile. He looked like the cat who just ate the canary.
“Have fun down there, Counselor?”
“Well, you’re too late up here.”
“How’s that? You booked her?”
He spread his hands in a phony Sorry about that gesture.
“It’s funny. My partner took her out of here just before I got the call from downstairs.”
“Wow, what a coincidence. I still want to talk to her.”
“You’ll have to go through the jail.”
This would probably take me an extra hour of waiting. And this was why Kurlen was smiling.
“You sure you can’t have your partner turn around and bring her down? I won’t be long with her.”
I said it even though I thought I was spitting into the wind. But Kurlen surprised me and pulled his phone off his belt. He hit a speed-dial button. It was either an elaborate hoax or he was actually doing what I asked. Kurlen and I had a history. We had squared off against each other on prior cases. I had attempted on more than one occasion to destroy his credibility on the witness stand. I was never very successful at it but the experience still made it hard to be cordial afterward. But now he was doing me a good turn and I wasn’t sure why.
“It’s me,” Kurlen said into the phone. “Bring her back here.”
He listened for a moment.
“Because I told you to. Now bring her back.”
He closed the phone without another word to his partner and looked at me.
“You owe me one, Haller. I could’ve hung you up for a couple hours. In the old days, I would’ve.”
“I know. I appreciate it.”
He headed back toward the squad room and signaled me to follow. He spoke casually as he walked.
“So, when she told us to call you she said you were handling her foreclosure.”
“My sister got divorced and now she’s in a mess like that.”
There it was. The quid pro quo.
“You want me to talk to her?”
“No, I just want to know if it’s best to fight these things or just get it over with.”
The squad room looked like it was in a time warp. It was vintage 1970s, with a linoleum floor, two-tone yellow walls and gray government-issue desks with rubber stripping around the edges. Kurlen remained standing while waiting for his partner to come back with my client.
I pulled a card out of my pocket and handed it to him.
“You’re talking to a fighter, so that’s my answer. I couldn’t handle her case because of conflict of interest between you and me. But have her call the office and we’ll get her hooked up with somebody good. Make sure she mentions your name.”
Kurlen nodded and picked a DVD case off his desk and handed it to me.
“Might as well give you this now.”
I looked at the disc.
“Our interview with your client. You will clearly see that we stopped talking to her as soon as she said the magic words: I want a lawyer.”
“I’ll be sure to check that out, Detective. You want to tell me why she’s your suspect?”
“Sure. She’s our suspect and we’re charging her because she did it and she made admissions about it before asking to call her lawyer. Sorry about that, Counselor, but we played by the rules.”
I held the disc up as if it were my client.
“You’re telling me she admitted killing Bondurant?”
“Not in so many words. But she made admissions and contradictions. I’ll leave it at that.”
“Did she by any chance say in so many words why she did it?”
“She didn’t have to. The victim was in the process of taking away her house. That’s plenty enough motive right there. We’re as good as gold on motive.”
I could’ve told him that he had that wrong, that I was in the process of stopping the foreclosure. But I kept my mouth shut about that. My job was to gather information here, not give it away.
“What else you got, Detective?”
“Nothing that I care to share with you at the moment. You’ll have to wait to get the rest through discovery.”
“I’ll do that. Has a DA been assigned yet?”
“Not that I heard.”
Kurlen nodded toward the back of the room and I turned to see Lisa Trammel being walked toward the door of an interrogation room. She had the classic deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes.
“You’ve got fifteen minutes,” Kurlen said. “And that’s only because I’m being nice. I figure there’s no need to start a war.”
Not yet, at least, I thought as I headed toward the interrogation room.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Kurlen called to my back. “I have to check the briefcase. Rules, you know.”
He was referring to the leather-over-aluminum attaché I was carrying. I could’ve made an argument about the search infringing on attorney-client privilege but I wanted to talk to my client. I stepped back toward him and swung the case up onto a counter, then popped it open. All it contained was the Lisa Trammel file, a fresh legal pad and the new contracts and power-of-attorney form I had printed out while driving up. I figured I needed Lisa to re-sign since my representation was crossing from civil to criminal.
Kurlen gave it a quick once-over and signaled me to close it.
“Hand-tooled Italian leather,” he said. “Looks like a fancy drug dealer’s case. You haven’t been associating with the wrong people, have you, Haller?”
He put on that canary smile again. Cop humor was truly unique in all the world.
“As a matter of fact, it did belong to a courier,” I said. “A client. But where he was going he wasn’t going to need it anymore so I took it in trade. You want to see the secret compartment? It’s kind of a pain to open.”
“I think I’ll pass. You’re good.”
I closed the case and headed back to the interrogation room.
“And it’s Colombian leather,” I said.
Kurlen’s partner was waiting at the room’s door. I didn’t know her but didn’t bother to introduce myself. We were never going to be friendly and I guessed she would be the type to stiff me on the handshake in order to impress Kurlen.
She held the door open and I stopped at the threshold.
“All listening and recording devices in this room are off, correct?”
“You got it.”
“If they’re not that would be a violation of my client’s—”
“We know the drill.”
“Yeah, but sometimes you conveniently forget it, don’t you?”
“You’ve got fourteen minutes now, sir. You want to talk to her or keep talking to me?”
I went in and the door was closed behind me. It was a nine-by-six room. I looked at Lisa and put a finger to my lips.
“What?” she asked.
“That means don’t say a word, Lisa, until I tell you to.”
Her response was to break down in a cascade of tears and a loud and long wail that tailed off into a sentence that was completely unintelligible. She was sitting at a square table with a chair opposite her. I quickly took the open chair and put my case up on the table. I knew she would be positioned to face the room’s hidden camera, so I didn’t bother to look around for it. I snapped open the case and pulled it close to my body, hoping that my back would act as a blind to the camera. I had to assume that Kurlen and his partner were listening and watching. One more reason for his being “nice.”
While one by one I took out the legal pad and documents with my right hand, I used the left to open the case’s secret compartment. I hit the engage button on the Paquin 2000 acoustic jammer. The device emitted a low-frequency RF signal that clogged any listening device within twenty-five feet with electronic disinformation. If Kurlen and his partner were illegally listening in, they were now hearing white noise.
The case and its hidden device were almost ten years old and as far as I knew, the original owner was still in federal prison. I’d taken it in trade at least seven years ago, back when drug cases were my bread and butter. I knew law enforcement was always trying to build a better mousetrap, and in ten years the electronic eavesdropping business must have undergone at least two revolutions. So I was not completely put at ease. I would still need to exercise caution in what I said and hoped my client would as well.
“Lisa, we’re not going to talk a whole lot here because we don’t know who may be listening. You understand?”
“I think so. But what is happening here? I don’t understand what’s happening!”
Her voice had risen progressively through the sentence until she was screaming the last word. This was an emotional speaking pattern she had used several times on the phone with me when I was handling only her foreclosure. Now the stakes were higher and I had to draw the line.
“None of that, Lisa,” I said firmly. “You do not scream at me. You understand? If I’m going to represent you on this you do not scream at me.”
“Okay, sorry, but they’re saying I did something I didn’t do.”
“I know and we’re going to fight it. But no screaming.”
Because they had pulled her back before the booking process had begun, Lisa was still in her own clothes. She was wearing a white T-shirt with a flower pattern on the front. I saw no blood on it or anywhere else. Her face was streaked with tears and her brown curly hair was unkempt. She was a small woman and seemed even more so in the harsh light of the room.
“I need to ask you some questions,” I said. “Where were you when the police found you?”
“I was home. Why are they doing this to me?”
“Lisa, listen to me. You have to calm down and let me ask the questions. This is very important.”
“But what’s going on? No one tells me anything. They said I was under arrest for murdering Mitchell Bondurant. When? How? I didn’t go near that man. I didn’t break the TRO.”
I realized that it would have been better if I had viewed Kurlen’s DVD before speaking with her. But it was par for the course to come into a case at a disadvantage.
“Lisa, you are indeed under arrest for the murder of Mitchell Bondurant. Detective Kurlen—he’s the older one—told me that you made admissions to them in re—”
She shrieked and brought her hands to her face. I saw that she was cuffed at the wrists. A new round of tears started.
“I didn’t admit anything! I didn’t do anything!”
“Calm down, Lisa. That’s why I’m here. To defend you. But we don’t have a lot of time right now. They’re giving me ten minutes and then they’re going to book you. I need to—”
“I’m going to jail?”
I nodded reluctantly.
“Well, what about bail?”
“It is very hard to get bail on a murder charge. And even if I could get something set, you don’t have the—”
Another piercing wail filled the tiny room. I lost my patience.
“Lisa! Stop doing that! Now listen, your life is at stake here, okay? You have to calm down and listen to me. I am your attorney and I will do my best to get you out of here but it’s going to take some time. Now listen to my questions and answer them without all the—”
“What about my son? What about Tyler?”
“Someone from my office is making contact with your sister and we will arrange for him to be with her until we can get you out.”
I was very careful not to introduce a hard time line for her release. Until we can get you out. As far as I was concerned, that might be days, weeks or even years. It might never happen. But I did not need to get specific.
Lisa nodded as if there was some relief in knowing her son would be with her sister.
“What about your husband? You have a contact number for him?”
“No, I don’t know where he is and I don’t want you contacting him anyway.”
“Not even for your son?”
“Especially not for my son. My sister will take care of him.”
I nodded and let it go. Now was not the time to ask about her failed marriage.
“Okay, calmly now, let’s talk about this morning. I have the disc from the detectives but I want to go over this myself. You said you were home when Detective Kurlen and his partner arrived. What were you doing?”
“I was… I was on the computer. I was sending e-mails.”
“Okay, to who?”
“To my friends. To people in FLAG. I was telling them that we were going to meet tomorrow at the courthouse at ten and to bring the placards.”
“Okay, and when the detectives showed up, what exactly did they say?”
“The man did all the talking. He—”
“Yes. They came in and he asked me some things. Then he asked if I wouldn’t mind coming to the station to answer questions. I said about what and he said Mitch Bondurant. He didn’t say anything about him being dead or killed. So I said yes. I thought maybe they were finally investigating him. I didn’t know they were investigating me.”
“Well, did he tell you that you had certain rights not to speak to him and to contact a lawyer?”
“Yes, like on TV. He told me my rights.”
“When we were already here, when he said I was under arrest.”
“Did you ride with him here?”
“And did you speak in the car?”
“No, he was on his cell phone almost the whole time. I heard him say things like ‘I have her with me’ and like that.”
“Were you handcuffed?”
“In the car? No.”
Smart Kurlen. He risked riding in the car with an uncuffed murder suspect in order to keep her suspicions down and to lull her into agreeing to speak with him. You can’t build a better mousetrap than that. It would also allow the prosecution to argue that Lisa was not under arrest yet and therefore her statements were voluntary.
“So you were brought here and you agreed to talk to him?”
“Yes. I had no idea they were going to arrest me. I thought I was helping them with a case.”
“But Kurlen didn’t say what the case was.”
“No, never. Not until he said I was under arrest and that I could make a call. And that’s when they handcuffed me, too.”
Kurlen had used some of the oldest tricks in the book but they were still in the book because they worked. I had to watch the DVD to know exactly what Lisa had admitted to, if anything. Asking her about it while she was upset was not the best use of my limited time. As if to underscore this, there was a sudden and sharp knock on the door followed by a muffled voice saying I had two minutes.
“Okay, I am going to go to work on this, Lisa. I need you to sign a couple of documents first, though. This first one is a new contract that covers criminal defense.”
I slid the one-page document over to her and put a pen on top of it. She started to scan it.
“All these fees,” she said. “A hundred fifty thousand dollars for a trial? I can’t pay you this. I don’t have it.”
“That’s a standard fee and that’s only if we go to trial. And as far as what you can pay, that’s what these other documents are for. This one gives me your power of attorney, allowing me to solicit book and movie deals, things like that, coming from the case. I have an agent I work with on this stuff. If there’s a deal out there he’ll get it. The last document puts a lien on any of those funds so that the defense gets paid first.”
I knew this case was going to draw attention. The foreclosure epidemic was the country’s biggest ongoing financial catastrophe. There could be a book in this, maybe even a film, and I could end up getting paid.
She picked up the pen and signed the documents without reading further. I took them back and put them away.
“Okay, Lisa, what I am about to tell you now is the most important piece of advice in the world. So I want you to listen and then tell me you understand.”
“Do not talk about this case with anyone other than me. Do not talk to detectives, jailers, other jail inmates, don’t even talk to your sister or son about it. Whenever anyone asks—and believe me, they will—you simply tell them that you cannot talk about your case.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m innocent! It’s people who are guilty who don’t talk.”
I held my finger up to admonish her.
“No, you’re wrong, and it sounds to me like you are not taking what I say seriously, Lisa.”
“No, I am, I am.”
“Then do what I am telling you. Talk to no one. And that includes the phone in the jail. All calls are recorded, Lisa. Don’t talk on the phone about your case, even to me.”
“Okay, okay. I got it.”
“If it makes you feel any better, you can answer all questions by saying ‘I am innocent of the charges but on the advice of my attorney I am not going to talk about the case.’ Okay, how’s that?”
“Good, I guess.”
The door opened and Kurlen was standing there. He was giving me the squint of suspicion, which told me it was a good thing I had brought the Paquin jammer with me. I looked back at Lisa.
“Okay, Lisa, it gets bad before it gets good. Hang in there and remember the golden rule. Talk to no one.”
I stood up.
“The next time you’ll see me will be at first appearance and we’ll be able to talk then. Now go with Detective Kurlen.”
The following morning Lisa Trammel made her first appearance in Los Angeles Superior Court on charges of first-degree murder. A special circumstances count of lying in wait was added by the district attorney’s office, which made her eligible for a sentence of life without parole and even for the death penalty. It was a bargaining chip for the prosecution. I could see the DA wanting this case to go away with a plea agreement before public sympathy swung behind the defendant. What better way to get that result than to hold LWOP or the death penalty over the defendant’s head?
The courtroom was crowded to standing room only with members of the media as well as FLAG recruits and sympathizers. Overnight the story had grown exponentially as word spread about the police and prosecution’s theory that a home foreclosure may have spawned the murder of a banker. It put a blood-and-guts twist on the nationwide financial plague and that, in turn, packed the house.
Lisa had calmed considerably after almost twenty-four hours in jail. She stood zombie-like in the custody pen awaiting her two-minute hearing. I assured her first that her son was safe in the loving hands of her sister and second that Haller and Associates would do all that was possible to provide her with the best and most rigorous defense. Her immediate concern was in getting out of jail to take care of her son and to assist her legal team.
Though the first-appearance hearing was primarily just an official acknowledgment of the charges and the starting point of the judicial process, there would also be an opportunity to request and argue for bail. I was planning to do just that as my general philosophy was to leave no stone unturned and no issue un-argued. But I was pessimistic about the outcome. By law, bail would be set. But in reality, bail in murder cases was usually set in the millions, thereby making it unattainable for the common man. My client was an unemployed single mother with a house in foreclosure. A seven-figure bail meant Lisa wouldn’t be getting out of jail.
Judge Stephen Fluharty pushed the Trammel case to the top of the docket in an effort to accommodate the media. Andrea Freeman, the prosecutor assigned to the case, read the charges and the judge scheduled the arraignment for the following week. Trammel would not enter a plea until then. These routine procedures were dispensed with quickly. Fluharty was about to call a short recess so the media could pack up equipment and leave en masse when I interrupted and made a motion requesting him to set bail for my client. The second reason for doing this was to see how the prosecution responded. Every now and then I got lucky and the prosecutor revealed evidence or strategy while arguing for a high bail amount.
But Freeman was too cagey to make such a slip. She argued that Lisa Trammel was a danger to the community and should continue to be held without bail until further into the proceedings of the case. She noted that the victim of the crime was not the only individual involved in foreclosing on Lisa’s place of residence, but only one link in a chain. Other people and institutions in that chain could be endangered if Trammel was set free.
There was no big reveal there. It seemed obvious from the start that the prosecution would use the foreclosure as the motive for the murder of Mitchell Bondurant. Freeman had said just enough to make a convincing argument against bail, but had mentioned little about the murder case she was building. She was good and we had faced each other on cases before. As far as I remembered, I had lost them all.
When it was my turn, I argued that there was no indication, let alone evidence, that Trammel was either a danger to the community or a flight risk. Barring such evidence, the judge could not deny the defendant bail.
Fluharty split his decision right down the middle, giving the defense a victory by ruling that bail should be set, and giving the prosecution a win by setting it at two million dollars. The upshot was that Lisa wasn’t going anywhere. She would need two million in collateral or a bail bondsman. A ten percent bond would cost her $200,000 in cash and that was out of the question. She was staying in jail.
The judge finally called for the recess and that gave me a few more minutes with Lisa before she was removed by the courtroom deputies. As the media filed out I quickly admonished her one more time to keep her mouth shut.
“It’s even more important now, Lisa, with all of the media on this case. They may try to get to you in the jail—either directly or through other inmates or visitors you think you can trust. So, remember—”
“Talk to no one. I get it.”
“Good. Now, I also want you to know that my entire staff is meeting this afternoon to review the case and set some strategies. Can you think of anything you want brought up or discussed? Anything that can help us?”
“I just have a question and it’s for you.”
“What is it?”
“How come you haven’t asked me if I did it?”
I saw one of the courtroom deputies enter the pen and come up behind Lisa, ready to take her back.
“I don’t need to ask you, Lisa,” I said. “I don’t need to know the answer to do my job.”
“Then ours is a pitiful system. I am not sure I can have a lawyer defending me who doesn’t believe in me.”
“Well, it’s certainly your choice and I’m sure there would be a line of lawyers out the door of the courthouse who would love to have this case. But nobody knows the circumstances of this case or the foreclosure like I do, and just because somebody says they believe you, it doesn’t mean they really do. With me, you don’t get that bullshit, Lisa. With me, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell. And that goes both ways. Don’t ask me if I believe you, and I won’t tell you.”
I paused to see if she wanted to respond. She didn’t.
“So are we good? I don’t want to be spinning my wheels on this if you’re going to be looking for a believer to take my place.”
“We’re good, I guess.”
“All right, then I’ll be by to see you tomorrow to discuss the case and what direction we are going to be moving in. I am hoping that my investigator will have a preliminary take on what the evidence is showing by then. He’s—”
“Can I ask you a question, Mickey?”
“Of course you can.”
“Could you lend me the money for the bail?”
I was not taken aback. I long ago lost track of how many clients hit me up for bail money. This might have been the highest amount so far, but I doubted it would be the last time I was asked.
“I can’t do that, Lisa. Number one, I don’t have that kind of money, and number two, it’s a conflict of interest for an attorney to provide bail for his own client. So I can’t help you there. What I think you need to do is get used to the idea that you are going to be incarcerated at least through your trial. The bail is set at two million and that means you would need at least two hundred thousand just to get a bond. It’s a lot of money, Lisa, and if you had it, I’d want half of it to pay for the defense. So either way you’d still be in jail.”
I smiled but she didn’t see any humor in what I was telling her.
“When you put up a bond like that, do you get it back after the trial?” she asked.
“No, that goes to the bail bondsman to cover his risk because he’d be the one on the hook for the whole two million if you were to flee.”
Lisa looked incensed.
“I’m not going to flee! I am going to stay right here and fight this thing. I just want to be with my son. He needs his mother.”
“Lisa, I was not referring to you specifically. I was just telling you how bail and bonds work. Anyway, the deputy behind you has been very patient. You need to go with him and I need to get back to work on your defense. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
I nodded to the deputy and he moved in to take Lisa back to the courthouse lockup. As they went through the steel door off the side of the custody pen Lisa looked back at me with scared eyes. There was no way she could know what lay ahead, that this was only the start of what would be the most harrowing ordeal of her life.
Andrea Freeman had stopped to talk with a fellow prosecutor and that allowed me to catch up with her as she was leaving the courtroom.
“Do you want to grab a cup of coffee and talk?” I asked as I came up beside her.
“Don’t you need to talk to your people?”
“All the people with cameras. They’ll be lined up outside the door.”
“I’d rather talk to you and we could even discuss media guidelines if you would like.”
“I think I can spare a few minutes. You want to go down to the basement or come back with me to the office for some DA coffee?”
“Let’s hit the basement. I’d be looking over my shoulder too much in your office.”
“Her and others, though my ex and I are in a good phase right now.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“You know Maggie?”
There were at least eighty deputy DAs working out of Van Nuys.
We left the courtroom and stood side by side in front of the assembled media to announce that we would not be commenting on the case at this early stage. As we headed to the elevators at least six reporters, most of them from out of town, shoved business cards into my hand—New York Times, CNN, Dateline, Salon, and the holy grail of them all, 60 Minutes. In less than twenty-four hours I had gone from scrounging $250-a-month foreclosure cases in South L.A. to being lead defense attorney on a case that threatened to be the signature story of this financial epoch.
And I liked it.
“They’re gone,” Freeman said once we were on the elevator. “You can wipe the shit-eating grin off your face.”
I looked at her and really smiled.
“That obvious, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. All I can say is, enjoy it while you can.”
That was a not-so-subtle reminder of what I was facing with this case. Freeman was an up-and-comer in the DA’s office and some said she would someday run for the top job herself. The conventional wisdom was to attribute her rise and rep in the prosecutor’s office to her skin color and to internal politics. To suggest she got the good cases because she was a minority who was the protégée of another minority. But I knew this was a deadly mistake. Andrea Freeman was damn good at what she did and I had the winless record against her to prove it. When I got the word the night before that she had been assigned the Trammel case, I had felt it like a poke in the ribs. It hurt but there was nothing I could do about it.
In the basement cafeteria we poured cups of coffee from the urns and found a table in a quiet corner. She took the seat that allowed her to see the entrance. It was a law enforcement thing that extended from patrol officers to detectives to prosecutors. Never turn your back on a potential point of attack.
“So…,” I said. “Here we are. You’re in the position of having to prosecute a potential American hero.”
Freeman laughed like I was insane.
“Yeah, right. Last I heard, we don’t make heroes out of murderers.”
I could think of an infamous case prosecuted locally that might challenge that statement but I let it go.
“Maybe that is overreaching a bit,” I said. “Let’s just say that I think public sympathy is going to be running high on the defendant’s side of the aisle on this one. I think fanning the media flames will only heighten it.”
“For now, sure. But as the evidence gets out there and the details become known, I don’t think public sympathy is going to be an issue. At least not from my standpoint. But what are you saying, Haller? You want to talk about a plea before the case is even a day old?”
I shook my head.
“No, not at all. I don’t want to talk about anything like that. My client says she is innocent. I brought up the sympathy angle because of the attention the case is already getting. I just picked up a card from a producer at Sixty Minutes. So I’d like to set up some guidelines and agreements on how we proceed with the media. You just mentioned the evidence and how it gets out there into the public domain. I hope you are talking about evidence presented in court and not selectively fed to the L.A. Times or anybody else in the fourth estate.”
“Hey, I’d be happy to call it a no-fly zone right now. Nobody talks to the media under any circumstances.”
“I’m not ready to go that far yet.”
She gave me the knowing nod.
“I didn’t think so. So all I’ll say then is be careful. Both of us. I for one won’t hesitate to go to the judge if I think you’re trying to taint the jury pool.”
“Then same here.”
“Good. Then that’s settled for now. What else?”
“When am I going to start seeing some discovery?”
She took a long draw on her coffee before answering.
“You know from prior cases how I work. I’m not into I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. That’s always a one-way street because the defense doesn’t show dick. So I like to keep it nice and tight.”
“I think we need to come to an accommodation, Counselor.”
“Well, when we get a judge you can talk to the judge. But I’m not playing nice with a murderer, no matter who her lawyer is. And just so you know, I already came down hard on your buddy Kurlen for giving you that disc yesterday. That should not have happened and he’s lucky I didn’t have him removed from the case. Consider it a gift from the prosecution. But it’s the only one you’ll be getting… Counselor.”
It was the answer I was expecting. Freeman was a damn good prosecutor but in my view she didn’t play fair. A trial was supposed to be a spirited contesting of facts and evidence. Both sides with equal footing in the law and the rules of the game. But using the rules to hide or withhold facts and evidence was the routine with Freeman. She liked a tilted game. She didn’t carry the light. She didn’t even see the light.
“Andrea, come on. The cops took my client’s computer and all her paperwork. It’s her stuff and I need it to even start to build the defense. You can’t treat that like discovery.”
Freeman scrunched her mouth to the side and posed as though she was actually considering a compromise. I should’ve seen it for the act it was.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “As soon as we are assigned to a judge, you go in and ask about that. If a judge tells me to turn it over, I’ll turn it all over. Otherwise, it’s mine and I ain’t sharing.”
“Thanks a lot.”
Her response to my request for cooperation and her smiling way of delivering it only served to underline a thought I had growing in the back of my mind since I had gotten word she was on the case. I had to find a way to make Freeman see the light.
Michael Haller and Associates had a full staff meeting that afternoon in the living room of Lorna Taylor’s condo in West Hollywood. Attending were Lorna, of course, as well as my investigator, Cisco Wojciechowski—it was his living room, too—and the junior associate of the firm, Jennifer Aronson. I noticed that Aronson looked uncomfortable in the surroundings and I had to admit it was unprofessional. I had rented a temporary office the year before when I was engaged in the Jason Jessup case and it had worked out well. I knew that it would be best to have a real office, instead of two staff members’ living room, for the Trammel case. The only problem was it would add another expense I would have to eat until I manufactured fees out of the movie and book rights of the case—if I managed to make that happen. This had made me reluctant to pull the trigger, but seeing Aronson’s disappointment made the decision for me.
“Okay, let’s start,” I said after Lorna had served everybody soda or iced tea. “I know this is not the most professional way to run a law firm and we’ll be looking into getting some office space as soon as we can. In the mean—”
“Really?” Lorna said, clearly surprised by this information.
“Yes, I just sort of decided that.”
“Oh, well, I’m glad you like my place so much.”
“It’s not that, Lorna. I’ve just been thinking lately, you know, with taking on Bullocks here, it’s like we’ve got a real firm now and maybe we should have a legit address. You know, so clients can come in instead of us always going to them.”
“Fine with me. As long as I don’t have to open shop till ten and I can wear my bedroom slippers to work. I’m kind of used to that.”
I could tell I had insulted her. We had been married once for a short time and I knew the signs. But I would have to deal with it later. It was time to put the focus on the Lisa Trammel defense.
“So anyway, let’s talk about Lisa Trammel. I had my first sit-down with the prosecutor after first appearance this morning and it didn’t go so well. I’ve done the dance with Andrea Freeman before and she’s a give-no-quarter kind of prosecutor. If it’s something that can be argued then she’s going to argue it. If it’s discoverable material that she can sit on until the judge orders her to give it up, then she’ll do that, too. In a way, I admire her but not when we’re on the same case. The bottom line is that getting discovery out of her is going to be like pulling teeth.”
“Well, is there even going to be a trial?” Lorna asked.
“We have to assume so,” I answered. “In my brief discussions with our client she has expressed only a desire to fight this thing. She says she didn’t do it. So for now that means no plea agreement. We plan on a trial but remain open to other possibilities.”
“Wait a minute,” Aronson said. “You e-mailed me last night saying you wanted me to look at the video you got of the interrogation. That’s discovery. Didn’t that come from the prosecution?”
Aronson was a petite twenty-five-year-old with short hair that was carefully made to look stylishly unkempt. She wore retro-style glasses that partially hid brilliant green eyes. She came from a law school that didn’t turn any heads in the silk-stocking firms downtown but when I interviewed her I sensed that she had a drive that was fueled by negative motivation. She was out to prove those silk-stocking assholes wrong. I hired her on the spot.
“The video disc came from the lead detective, and the prosecutor wasn’t happy about it at all. So don’t be expecting anything else. We want something, we go to the judge or we go out and get it ourselves. Which brings us to Cisco. Tell us what you’ve got so far, Big Man.”
All eyes turned to my investigator, who sat on a leather swivel chair next to a fireplace that was filled with potted plants. He was dressed up today, meaning he had sleeves on his T-shirt. Still, the shirt did little to hide the tats and the gun show. His bulging biceps made him look more like a strip club bouncer than a seasoned investigator with a lot of finesse in his kit.
It had taken me a long time to get over the idea of this giant beef dish being my replacement with Lorna. But I had worked through it and, besides, I knew of no better defense investigator. Early in his life, when he was cruising with the Road Saints, the cops had tried to set him up twice on drug raps. It built a lasting distrust of the police in him. Most people give the police the benefit of the doubt. Cisco didn’t and that made him very good at what he did.
“Okay, I am going to break this into two reports,” he said. “The crime scene and the client’s house, which was searched by police for several hours yesterday. First the crime scene.”
Without using any notes, he proceeded to detail all of his findings from WestLand National’s headquarters. Mitchell Bondurant had been surprised by his attacker while getting out of his car to report for work. He was struck at least twice on the head with an unknown object. Most likely attacked from behind. There were no defensive wounds on his hands or arms, indicating he was incapacitated almost immediately. A spilled cup of Joe’s Joe coffee was found on the ground next to him along with his briefcase, which was open, beside the back tire of his car.
“So what about the gunshots somebody said they heard?” I asked.
“I think they’re looking at that as car backfire.”
“Or one and an echo. Either way, there was no gunplay involved.”
He went back to his report. The autopsy results were not yet in but Cisco was betting on blunt-force trauma being the cause of death. At the moment, time of death was listed as between 8:30 and 8:50 A.M. There was a receipt in Bondurant’s pocket from a Joe’s Joe four blocks away. It was time-stamped 8:21 A.M. and investigators figured the fastest he could have gotten from the coffee shop to his parking space in the bank garage was nine minutes. The 911 call from the bank employee who found his body was logged at 8:52 A.M.
So estimated time of death had an approximate twenty-minute swing. It wasn’t a lot of time but when it came to things like documenting a defendant’s movements for the purpose of alibi, it was an eternity.
Police interviewed everyone who was parking on the same level as well as all of those who worked in Bondurant’s department at the bank. Lisa Trammel’s name came up early and often during these interviews. She was named as an individual Bondurant had reportedly felt threatened by. His department kept a threat-assessment file and she was number one on the list. As we all knew, she had been served with a restraining order keeping her away from the bank.
The police hit the jackpot when one bank employee reported seeing Lisa Trammel walking away from the bank on Ventura Boulevard within minutes of the murder.
“Who is this witness?” I asked, zeroing in on the most damaging part of his report.
“Her name is Margo Schafer. She’s a bank teller. According to my sources she’s never had contact with Trammel. She works in the bank, not the loan operation. But Trammel’s photo was circulated to staff after they got the TRO against her. Everybody was told to be aware of her and to report it if she was seen. So she recognized her.”
“And was this on bank property?”
“No, it was on the sidewalk a half block away. She was supposedly walking east on Ventura, away from the bank.”
“Do we know anything about this Margo Schafer?”
“Not now, but we will. I’m on it.”
I nodded. It usually wasn’t necessary for me to tell Cisco what to investigate. He moved on to the second part of his report, the search of Lisa Trammel’s house. This time he referred to a document he pulled from a file.
“Lisa Trammel volunteered—their word—to accompany detectives to Van Nuys Division about two hours after the murder. They’re claiming she was not placed under arrest until the conclusion of an interview at the station. Using statements made during that interview as well as the eyewitness account of Margo Schafer, the detectives obtained a search warrant for Trammel’s home. They spent about six hours there looking for evidence, including a possible murder weapon as well as digital and hard-copy documentation of a plan to kill Bondurant.”
Search warrants designate a specific window of time during which the search must take place. Afterward, police must in a timely manner file a document with the court called a search-warrant return that lists exactly what was seized. It is then the judge’s responsibility to review the seizure to make sure that the police acted within the parameters of the warrant. Cisco said the detectives Kurlen and Longstreth had filed the return that morning and he had obtained a copy through the clerk’s office. It was a key part of the case at this point because the police and prosecution weren’t sharing information with the defense. Andrea Freeman had shut that down. But the search-warrant request and return were public records. Freeman could not stop their release. And they gave me the best look at how the state was building its case.
“Give us the highlights,” I said. “But then I want a copy of the whole thing.”
“This is your copy here,” Cisco said. “As far as—”
“May I please get a copy, too?” Aronson asked.
Cisco looked at me for permission. It was awkward. He was silently asking if she was truly a member of the team and not just a client hand-holder I had brought in from the department-store law school.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“You got it,” Cisco said. “Now, the highlights. As far as the weapon goes, it looks like the detectives went into the garage and took every handheld tool they could find off the workbench.”
“So they don’t know what the murder weapon was,” I said.
“No autopsy yet,” Cisco said. “They’ll have to make wound comparisons. That will take time but I’ve got the medical examiner’s office wired. When they know it, I’ll know it.”
“Okay, what else?”
“They took her laptop, a three-year-old MacBook Pro, and various and sundry documents relating to the foreclosure of the home on Melba. This is where they might piss the judge off. They do not specifically list the documents, probably because there were too many. They mention just three files. They are marked FLAG, FORECLOSURE ONE and FORECLOSURE TWO.”
I assumed that any foreclosure documents Lisa had at home were documents I had given her. The FLAG file as well as the computer could hold names of the members of Lisa’s group, an indication that the police were possibly looking for co-conspirators.
“Okay, what else?”
“They took her cell phone, one pair of shoes from the garage and here’s the kicker. They seized a personal journal. They don’t describe it beyond that or say what was in it. But I’m thinking that if it’s got her ranting against the bank or the victim in particular, then we’ll have a problem.”
“I’ll ask her about it when I visit her tomorrow,” I said. “Back up for a second. The cell phone. Was it specifically stated in the warrant application that they wanted her phone? Are they suggesting a conspiracy, that she had help killing Bondurant?”
“No, nothing about co-conspirators in the application. They’re probably just making sure they cover all possibilities.”
I nodded. Seeing the moves the investigators were making against my client was very helpful.
“They’ve probably filed a separate search warrant seeking call records from her service provider,” I said.
“I’ll check into it,” Cisco said.
“Okay, anything else on the warrant?”
“The shoes. The return lists one pair of shoes taken from the garage. Doesn’t say why, just says that they were gardening shoes. They were a woman’s shoes.”
“No other shoes taken?”
“Not that they’re taking credit for. Just these.”
“You’ve got nothing about shoe prints at the crime scene, right?”
“I’ve got nothing on that.”
I was sure the reason for the seizure of the shoes would become apparent soon enough. On a search warrant police throw as wide a net as the court allows. It’s better to seize as much as possible than leave anything behind. Sometimes that means seizing items that ultimately have nothing to do with the case.
“By the way,” Cisco said, “if you get the chance, the application makes interesting reading if you can get past the misspellings and grammar issues. They used her interview extensively but we already saw all of that on the disc Kurlen gave you.”
“Yes, her so-called admissions and his exaggerations.”
I stood up and started pacing in the middle of the room. Lorna also got up and took the search warrant from Cisco so she could make a copy. She disappeared into a nearby den where she had her office and where there was a copier.
I waited for her to come back and hand a copy of the documents to Aronson before I began.
“Okay, this is how we are going to do this. First thing is we need to get moving on getting a real office. Some place close to the Van Nuys courthouse where we can set up our command post.”
“You want me on that, Mick?” Lorna asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“I’ll make sure there’s parking and good food nearby.”
“It would be nice to be able to just walk to court.”
“You got it. Short-term lease?”
I paused. I liked working out of the backseat of the Lincoln. It had a freedom to it that was conducive to my thought processes.
“We’ll take it for a year. See what happens.”
I looked at Aronson next. She had her head down and was writing notes on a legal pad.
“Bullocks, I need you to hand-hold our current clients and respond with the basics to new callers. The radio ads run through the month so we can expect no downturn in business. I also need you to help out on Trammel.”
She looked up at me and her eyes brightened at the prospect of being on a murder case less than a year after being admitted to the bar.
“Don’t get too excited,” I said. “I’m not giving you second chair just yet. You’ll be doing a lot of the grunt work. How were you on probable cause back at the department-store school?”
“I was the best in my class.”
“Of course you were. Well, you see that document in your hand? I want you to take that search warrant and break it down and tear it apart. We’re looking for omissions and misrepresentations, anything that can be used in a motion to suppress. I want all evidence taken from Lisa Trammel’s house thrown out.”
Aronson visibly gulped. This was because I was issuing a tall order. And it was more than grunt work because the task would probably mean a lot of effort for little return. It was rare that evidence was kicked wholesale from a case. I was simply covering all the bases and using Aronson on one of them. She was smart enough to see that and it was one reason I had hired her.
“Remember, you’re working on a murder case,” I said. “How many of your classmates can say they’ve done that yet?”
“Damn right. So next I want you to take the disc of Lisa’s police interview and do the same thing. Look for any false move by the cops, anything we can use to get that knocked out as well. I think there might be something here in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling last year. Are you familiar with it?”
“Uh… this is my first criminal case.”
“Then get familiar with it. Kurlen went out of his way to make it look like she came in for a voluntary interview. But if we can show he had her in his control, cuffs or not, we can make a case for her being under arrest from the start. We do that and everything she said before Miranda goes bye-bye.”
Aronson didn’t look up from her writing.
“Do you understand your assignments?”
“Good, then go to it, but don’t forget about the rest of the clients. They’re paying the bills around here. For now.”
I turned back to Lorna.
“Which reminds me, Lorna, I need you to make contact with Joel Gotler and get something rolling on this story. This whole thing might go away if there’s a plea agreement, so let’s try to get a deal now. Tell him we’re willing to go low on the back end for some decent up-front cash. We need to fund the defense.”
Gotler was the Hollywood agent who represented me. I used him whenever Hollywood came calling. This time we were going to go calling on Hollywood and proactively try to get a deal.
“Sell him on it,” I told Lorna. “I’ve got a business card in the car from a producer at Sixty Minutes. That’s how big this is getting.”
“I’ll call Joel,” she said. “I know what to say.”
I stopped pacing to consider what was left and what my role was going to be. I looked at Cisco.
“You want me on the witness?” he asked.
“That’s right. And the victim, too. I want the full picture on both of them.”
My order was punctuated by a sharp buzzing sound from an intercom speaker on the wall next to the kitchen door.
“Sorry, that’s the front gate,” Lorna said.
She made no move to go to the intercom.
“You want to answer it?” I asked.
“No, I’m not expecting anyone and all the delivery guys know the combination. It’s probably a solicitor. They walk this neighborhood like zombies.”
“Okay,” I said, “then let’s move on. The next thing we need to be thinking about is the alternate killer.”
That drew everyone’s undivided attention.
“We need a setup man,” I said. “If we take this thing to trial it’s not going to be good enough to just potshot the state’s case. We are going to need an aggressive defense. We have to point the jury in a direction away from Lisa. To do that, we need an alternate theory.”
I was aware of Aronson watching me as I spoke. I felt like a teacher in law school.
“What we need is a hypothesis of innocence. If we build that, we win the case.”
The gate buzzer went off again. It was then followed by two more long and insistent buzzes.
“What the hell?” Lorna said.
Annoyed, she got up and walked to the intercom. She pushed the communication button.
“Yes, who is it?”
“Is this the law offices of Mickey Haller?”
It was a woman’s voice and it sounded familiar but I couldn’t immediately place it. The speaker was tinny and the volume turned low. Lorna looked back at us and shook her head as though she was confused. Her address was not on any of our advertising. How did this person get to the front gate?
“Yes, but it is by appointment only,” Lorna responded. “I can give you the number to call if you want to set up a consultation with Mr. Haller.”
“Please! I need to speak to him now. This is Lisa Trammel and I’m already a client. I need to speak with him as soon as possible.”
I stared at the intercom speaker as though I believed it to be a direct pipeline to the Van Nuys women’s jail—where Lisa was supposed to be. Then I looked at Lorna.
“I guess you’d better open the gate.”
Lisa Trammel was not alone. When Lorna answered her front door my client walked through in the company of a man I recognized as having been in court during Lisa’s first appearance. He had been in the front row of the gallery and stood out to me because he didn’t look like a lawyer or journalist. He looked Hollywood. And not the glitzy, confident Hollywood. The other one. The Hollywood on the make. Either a toupee or amateur dye job on the hair, requisite matching fringe on the chin, wattled throat… he looked like a sixty-year-old trying without a lot of success to pass for forty. He wore a black leather sport coat over a maroon turtleneck. A gold chain with a peace sign on it hung from his neck. Whoever he was, I had to suspect he was the reason Lisa was walking free.
“Well, you either escaped from Van Nuys jail or you made bail,” I said. “I’m thinking that somehow, someway, it’s the latter.”
“Smart man,” Lisa said. “Everyone, this is Herbert Dahl, my friend and benefactor.”
“That’s D-A-H-L,” said the smiling benefactor.
“Benefactor?” I asked. “Does that mean you put up Lisa’s bail?”
“A bond, actually,” Dahl said.
“Who did you use?”
“A guy named Valenzuela. His place is right by the jail. Very convenient and he said he knew you.”
I paused for a moment, wondering how to proceed, and Lisa filled in the space.
“Herb is a true hero, rescuing me from that horrible place,” she said. “Now I’m out and free to help our team fight these false charges.”
Lisa had worked previously with Aronson but not directly with Lorna or Cisco. She stepped over and put her hand out to them, introducing herself and shaking hands as if this was all part of a routine day and it was time to get down to business. Cisco glanced over at me and gave me a look that said What the hell is this? I shrugged. I didn’t know.
Lisa had never mentioned Herb Dahl to me, a dear enough friend and “benefactor” that he was willing to drop 200K on a bond. This, and the fact that she hadn’t tapped his largesse to pay for her defense, did not surprise me. Her barging in all bluster and business, ready to be part of the team, didn’t either. I believed that with strangers Lisa was very skilled at keeping her personal and emotional issues beneath the surface. She could charm the stripes off a tiger and I wondered if Herb Dahl knew what he was getting into. I assumed he was working an angle, but he might not understand that he was being worked as well.
“Lisa,” I said, “can we step back here into Lorna’s office and speak privately for a moment?”
“I think Herb should hear whatever it is you have to say. He’s going to be documenting the case.”
“Well, he’s not going to document our conversations because communications between you and your attorney are private and privileged. He can be compelled to testify in court about anything he hears or sees.”
“Oh… well, isn’t there a way of deputizing him or something to make him part of the legal team?”
“Lisa, just come back here for a few minutes.”
I pointed toward the den and Lisa finally started moving in that direction.
“Lorna, why don’t you get Mr. Dahl something to drink?”
I followed Lisa into the den and closed the door. There were two desks. One for Lorna and one for Cisco. I pulled a side chair over in front of Lorna’s and told Lisa to sit down. I then went behind the desk and sat down to face her.
“This is a strange law office,” she said. “It feels like somebody’s home or something.”
“It’s temporary. Let’s talk about your hero out there, Lisa. How long have you known him?”
“Just a couple months or so.”
“How did you meet him?”
“On the courthouse steps. He came to one of the FLAG protests. He said he was interested in us from a filmmaker’s perspective.”
“Really? So he’s a filmmaker? Where’s his camera?”
“Well, he actually puts things together. He’s very successful. He does, like, book deals and movies. He’s going to handle all of that. This case is going to get massive attention, Mickey. At the jail they told me I had interview requests from thirty-six reporters. Of course they didn’t let me speak to them, only Herb.”
“Herb got to you in the jail, did he? He must be relentless.”
“He said that when he sees a story he stops at nothing. Remember that little girl who lived for a week on the side of the mountain with her dead father after he crashed off the road? He got her a TV movie.”
“I know. He’s very successful.”
“Yes, you said that. So did you make some sort of agreement with him?”
“Yes. He’ll put all the deals together and we split everything fifty-fifty after his expenses and he gets the bail money back. I mean, that’s only fair. But he’s talking about a lot of money. I might be able to save my house, Mickey!”
“Did you sign something? A contract or any sort of agreement?”
“Oh, yes, it’s all legal and binding. He has to give me my share.”
“You know that because you showed it to your lawyer?”
“Uh… no, but Herb said it was standard boilerplate. You know, legal mumbo-jumbo. But I read it.”
Sure she did. Just like when she signed the contracts with me.
“Can I see the contract, Lisa?”
“Herb kept it. You can ask him.”
“I will. Now did you happen to tell him about our agreements?”
“Yes, you signed contracts with me yesterday at the police station, remember? One was for me to represent you criminally and the others granted me power of attorney to represent you and negotiate any sale of story rights so that we can fund your defense. You remember that you signed a lien?”
She didn’t answer.
“Did you see I have three people out there, Lisa? We’re all working on your case. And you haven’t paid us a penny so far. So that means I have to come up with all their salaries, all their expenses. Every week. That’s why in the agreements you signed yesterday you were giving me the authority to make book and film deals.”
“Oh… I didn’t read that part.”
“Let me ask you something. Which is more important to you, Lisa, that you have the best defense possible and try to defy the odds and win this case, or that you have a book or movie deal?”
Lisa put a pouting look on her face, and then promptly deflected the question.
“But you don’t understand. I’m innocent. I didn’t—”
“No, you don’t understand. Whether you’re innocent or not has nothing to do with this equation. It’s what we can prove or disprove in court. And when I say ‘we’ I really mean ‘me,’ Lisa. Me. I’m your hero, not Herb Dahl out there in the leather jacket and Hollywood piece sign. And I mean that as in piece of the pie.”
She paused for a long moment before responding.
“I can’t, Mickey. He just bailed me out. It cost him two hundred thousand dollars. He has to make that back.”
“While your defense team goes hungry.”
“No, you’re going to get paid, Mickey. I promise. I get half of everything. I’ll pay you.”
“After he gets his two hundred grand back, plus expenses. Expenses that could be anything, it sounds like.”
“He said he got a half a million for one of Michael Jackson’s doctors. And that was just for a tabloid story. We might get a movie!”
I was on the verge of losing it with her. Lorna had a stress-release squeeze toy on the desk. It was a small judge’s gavel, a sample of a giveaway she was considering for marketing and promotional purposes. The name and number of the firm could be printed on the side. I grabbed it and squeezed hard on the barrel, thinking of it as Herb Dahl’s windpipe. After a few moments the anger eased. The thing actually worked. I made a mental note to tell Lorna to go ahead with the purchase. We’d give them out at bail bond offices and street fairs.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll talk about this later. We’re going to go back out there now. You are still going to send Herb home because we are going to talk about your case and we do not do that in front of people who are not in the circle of privilege. Later, you are going to call him and tell him he is not to make any deal or move without my approval. Do you understand, Lisa?”
She sounded chastised and meek.
“Do you want me to tell him to leave or do you want to handle it?”
“Can you handle it, Mickey?”
“No problem. I think we’re done here.”
We stepped back into the living room and caught Dahl as he was finishing a story.
“… and that was before he made Titanic!”
He laughed at the kicker but the others in the room failed to show the same sense of Hollywood humor.
“Okay, Herb, we’re going to get back to work on the case and we need to talk with Lisa,” I said. “I’m going to walk you out now.”
“But how will she get home?”
“I have a driver. We can handle that.”
He hesitated and looked to Lisa to save him.
“It’s okay, Herb,” she said. “We need to talk about the case. I’ll call you as soon as I get home.”
“Mick, I can walk him out,” Lorna offered.
“No, that’s okay. I have to go to the car anyway.”
Everyone said goodbye to the man with the peace sign, and Dahl and I left the condo. Each unit in the building had an exterior exit. We walked down a pathway to the front gate on Kings Road. I saw a delivery of phone books underneath the mailbox and used one stack to prop the gate open so I could get back in.
We walked out to my car, which was parked against a red curb in front. Rojas was leaning on the front fender, smoking a cigarette. I had left my remote in the cup holder, so I called to him.
“Rojas, the trunk.”
He pulled his keys and popped the rear lid. I told Dahl there was something I wanted to give him and he followed me over.
“You’re not going to stuff me in there, are you?”
“Not quite, Herb. I just want to give you something.”
We went behind the car and I pushed the trunk all the way open.
“Jeez, you got it all set up back here,” he said when he saw the file boxes.
I didn’t respond. I grabbed the contracts file and pulled out the agreements Lisa had signed the day before. I moved around the car and copied it on the multipurpose machine on the front seat. I handed the copies to Dahl and kept the originals.
“There, read that stuff when you have a few minutes.”
“What is it?”
“It is my representation contract with Lisa. Standard boilerplate. There’s also a power of attorney and a lien on any and all income derived from her case. You’ll notice that she signed and dated them all yesterday. That means they supersede your contract, Herb. Check the small print. It gives me control of all story rights—books, movies, TV, everything.”
I saw his eyes harden.
“Wait just a—”
“No, Herb, you wait a minute. I know you just shelled out two hundred big ones on the bond, plus whatever you paid to get to her in the jail. I get it, you’ve got a huge investment riding on this. I’ll see that you get it back. Eventually. But you’re in second position here, buddy. Accept it and step the fuck back. You make no moves or deals without talking to me first.”
I tapped the contract he was staring at.
“You don’t listen to me and you’re going to need a lawyer. A good one. I’ll tie you up for two years and you won’t ever see a dime of that two hundred back.”
I slammed the car door to punctuate the point.
“Have a nice day.”
I left him there and went to the trunk to return the originals to the file. When I closed the lid I noticed that I could still see the shadow of the graffiti. The spray paint had been removed but it had permanently marred the gloss of the car’s finish. The Florencia 13 still had its mark on me. I looked down at the license plate on the bumper.
That was going to be easier said than done this time. I passed by Dahl, who was still standing on the sidewalk looking at the contracts. Back at the condo gate, I picked a phone book off the stack that was propping it open. I thumbed the corner back on a random page. My ad was there. My smiling face on the corner.
SAVE YOUR HOME!
DON’T LET THEM FORECLOSE WITHOUT A FIGHT
Michael Haller & Associates, Attorneys-at-Law
Se Habla Español
Excerpted from The Fifth Witness by Connelly, Michael Copyright © 2012 by Connelly, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
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