Spoiling for a Fight

Hector Tobar is a Times staff writer. His first novel, "The Tattooed Soldier," was published by Delphinium Books last week

In some circles, it's hard to imagine a more frightening, or at least disorienting, thought: Stephen Yagman with a badge. Yet there it was. Last November, at the request of a county prosecutor in Idaho, a Los Angeles federal judge deputized the man many see as the Anti-Cop. Now, after three decades of suing law enforcement officers, Yagman had a shiny brass shield of his own--and the chance to put a lawman behind bars.

A few weeks after his unlikely swearing in as a "special deputy prosecutor," the veteran civil-rights attorney traveled from Los Angeles' urban madness to bucolic Bonners Ferry, population 2,360. From there it was a 30-minute drive to the ruins of a shack on a bluff overlooking the wind-swept panorama of a mountain valley. This is Ruby Ridge, where white separatist Randy Weaver took on a small army of federal agents in a 1992 siege that became, for some, a symbol of law enforcement run rampant.

Yagman wanted to see the site before winter buried it under snow. Denise Woodbury, the Boundary County prosecutor who gave him his badge, spent about an hour playing forensic tour guide, pointing out where Weaver's friend, Kevin Harris, was said to have shot and killed a federal marshal (Harris was acquitted) and the spot where, in turn, federal agents shot and killed Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sammy. She led Yagman on a climb to the pine tree behind which FBI sharpshooter Lon Horiuchi hid as he fired the bullet that took the life of Weaver's wife, Vicki. As they walked, Yagman talked to Woodbury about hiring a ballistics expert and perhaps bringing out the jury for a tour of the shooting scene. But his interest in the case extended beyond such nuts-and-bolts legalities. An FBI commander at the site had issued shoot-on-sight orders, authorizing the sniper to fire at any adult carrying a gun. A Justice Department probe concluded that the orders were unconstitutional. "This was about the honor of the insane federal bureaucracy more than anything else," Yagman said. "This was war games for morons."

Yagman has built his reputation with his mouth but has often stuck his foot in it as well. More than once, his biting comments have nearly sidetracked his successful and lucrative career of litigating against law enforcement. But for a moment, as we slipped down the muddy gravel road, heading back to town, it seemed as if he was adjusting to his new role. "My responsibility as a prosecutor is to not discuss this case with the press," he said. "My duty . . . is to the people of the state of Idaho. Both the prosecutor and the people win when there's a fair trial, no matter what the verdict is."

About a month later, when Horiuchi's preliminary hearing got under way in Bonners Ferry, Yagman entered the small two-story courthouse without answering any questions from the throng of reporters gathered outside. But at a press conference after the hearing, he said: "I see no difference between this and a drive-by shooting in the 'hood." Later, he threw the case into turmoil by suggesting in open court that Horiuchi was lucky he'd been charged only with manslaughter, not first-degree murder.

So much for his self-imposed silence.

*

"I'm not interested," Yagman said from his car phone when I first called for an interview. "I won't be the instrument of my own demise." And yet, a few days later, he sent me an inch-thick stack of documents, including a dozen or so newspaper clippings about himself, with headlines such as "Attorney Tops Cops' Most Unwanted List," and "Lawyer Sits One Out After Stepping on Many a Toe."

I called him back, thanked him for the material and asked about the interview again. "No," he said.

Not long afterward, he phoned from the federal courthouse and left a message on my voicemail: "Hector, where the hell are you?"

I went to court, saw the tall, Brillo-haired Brooklynite cross-examine some cops and witnessed his famously articulate and belligerent courtroom demeanor. When it was over, I asked him about the interview again.

"The answer is still no."

Suffice it to say that long before Stephen Yagman had officially agreed to talk, long before our first formal interview, he was updating me on his travel plans, telling me about the movies he'd seen, sending me a list of his friends (complete with phone numbers) and leaving more messages on my voicemail. "Esto es Esteban Yagman," he said on the tape once, speaking in a thick accent, part Brooklyn, part gringo tourist. It seemed he was trying to endear himself to me--which struck me as strange. This is the same man, after all, who will simply shrug if you tell him a lot of people think he's a jerk--who will say that it's his job to be the nails scratching the chalkboard, the annoying noise that makes you stand up and notice that something is wrong.

"My job is not to be popular; it is to do justice," he says in the quiet of his Venice Beach law office, where the walls are covered with mementos of his legal battles, including stark photos of clients showing off police-inflicted cuts and bruises. "Often, popularity and justice are at loggerheads."

*

A handful of stunning victories have made Stephen Yagman 53, a legal legend. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1976, he represented ACLU clients in several cases involving alleged police misconduct. Then he did an about face in 1982 and represented Signal Hill police officer Jerry Lee Brown, once a suspect in the jail-cell death of Cal State Long Beach football star Ron Settles. There Yagman butted heads with a young Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who was representing the Settles family and also rising in controversial prominence in Los Angeles. Yagman said he took that case "because I basically represent people who are underdogs."

From that point on, though, Yagman's reputation was tied to his skill at suing law officers accused of abusing their authority and similar misconduct. An erudite pit bull of the federal bar, Yagman developed a flair for the dramatic courtroom moment. Halfway through his 1990 lawsuit against five San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies, for example, he surprised the defense with a four-minute video, among the first instances of police brutality caught on tape. The videotape showed the deputies in all their baton- and fist-wielding splendor, beating a group of Mexican nationals who came to be known as the "Victorville Five." Yagman won a $1-million judgment and added a notch to his growing notoriety.

In 1992, he won a suit against the LAPD's secretive Special Investigations Section after officers shot and killed three men who had just held up a McDonald's in Sunland. Recently, he made himself the center of controversy again. Who but Yagman would find a worthy cause in Emil Matasareanu, the North Hollywood bank robber who bled to death after putting on body armor and peppering an entire neighborhood with gunfire on Feb. 28, 1997? Even Yagman's ex-wife and law partner, Marion, asked not to be a part of the case in which Yagman is suing the LAPD on behalf of Matasareanu's two young sons. As one lawyer put it in a letter to The Times: ". . . how can anyone possibly think this psychopath was a victim?"

"The potential penalty for the crimes that were committed wasn't death," Yagman says. "Therefore, the police had no right to decree the death sentence for the man they let bleed to death . . . . I dare say, there isn't another attorney in L.A. who would advocate [this] cause. I can't think of a better reason to take the case."

In filing that suit, Yagman named former Police Chief Daryl Gates as a defendant, even though Gates had retired almost five years before the shootout. Yagman now says that naming Gates in that case was a "mistake." But for Gates, it was emblematic of the "harassment" Yagman has inflicted on a legion of LAPD officers. "He purports to be a guy on a crusade who is holding the police to a very high standard," Gates says. "In my opinion, he is trying to make a buck. I don't think he gives a damn about his clients."

There are respected attorneys and judges, however, who call Yagman a hero, a guardian of the 14th Amendment, which protects us from the abuses of our own government. "This city can be divided, as far as civil rights, into two distinct divisions: pre-Yagman and post-Yagman," says retired federal magistrate Joseph Reichmann. "Before he came along, civil-rights lawyers in this city were fighting a real uphill battle."

Whether one views Yagman's fights as righteous or wrongheaded, however, there's no disputing his knack for attracting criticism. He is currently appealing a State Bar panel's recommendation that he be suspended from practice for one year because of the way he handled fees in the Sunland shootout lawsuit. In 1989, the State Bar handed him a six-month suspension for being "aggressive, hostile and forceful" with his clients. The same three adjectives could be used to describe his conduct during two widely publicized disputes with federal judges. In 1984, after Judge Manuel Real slapped him with a $250,000 fine for his courtroom behavior, Yagman told The Times that the judge suffered from "mental disorders" and compared him to the head of the Spanish Inquisition. (The fine, widely considered excessive, was overturned by an appeals court in 1986).

Then, in a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Daily Journal, Yagman said that U.S. District Judge William D. Keller had a penchant for anti-Semitism. A rarely convened disciplinary panel of the District Court suspended Yagman for two years. The case became something of a cause celebre in the legal community, with 150 lawyers signing a friend-of-the-court brief on Yagman's behalf. After the suspension was ruled unconstitutional by an appeals court, Yagman apologized to the judge for the nastiness of the comment. According to The Times, he said, "I shall temper my speech in the future."

That promise proved hard to keep.

When I asked him about one former client, Yagman said: "She is a scum-[expletive] piece of [expletive]. As is her mother-in-law. These are really bad, really bad people. They're also really stupid. They're dumb. I don't mean uneducated. They're unable to think logically. They're ignorant, dumb-ass people."

More than a few people who've faced off against Yagman in a legal battle talk about the experience as if they'd been through a real war, with all the resulting trauma. They come away stunned, battle weary. Deputy City Atty. Cory Brente, for instance, is at first reluctant to describe his encounters with Yagman because his foe is "very litigious." But soon he shares a litany of complaints. He accuses Yagman of playing the legalistic mind games and petty manipulations of the judicial system that attorneys call "sharp practice": He has refused to give the city attorney's office his fax number, often won't accept mail from his legal adversaries and "plays games" with the scheduling of depositions, Brente says. "The rules with him are that it's warfare. If litigation were terrorism, Yagman would be Hamas. He's one of the meanest, most vindictive people I've ever met. He's an evil person."

*

Despite Yagman's public image, most of his cases are mundane. And he's hardly batting a thousand. In following him for a year, in fact, I never witnessed an outright victory.

Last fall, Yagman represented a black former L.A. police officer who was suing the LAPD for civil-rights violations alleged to have occurred before his conviction for burglary and subsequent firing. Federal Judge Edward Rafeedie irked Yagman by throwing out as irrelevant large chunks of his case.

"It never goes well having a civil-rights case in front of a fascist judge," Yagman said during a recess in the proceedings. "It's a phantasmagoric experience. It's surreal." On the way to the courthouse, Yagman's car had pulled up behind the judge's. He had noticed Rafeedie's "weird-shaped head. It looked like a Martian. I guess there's something to be said for phrenology."

Martians? Phrenology? This sounded over the top, even for Yagman.

I reminded him: "You're talking to a reporter."

"Everything I say is on the record," he shot back.

Yagman seemed even more incensed by the racial composition of the defense team. The two white LAPD defendants, now both retired, were being represented by a black deputy city attorney. The two LAPD investigators helping out on the case were black women. Yagman saw this as a bald-faced attempt to portray the defendants in a sympathetic light. In open court, he told the judge that he objected to the two white defendants sitting between the African Americans and forming "a turkey and pumpernickel sandwich."

One of the investigators stared at Yagman for a long time when he said that. She looked deeply insulted. But Yagman was only getting started. He had his own race card to play. "I've finally done something really racist to fight back," he told me. There were "three Latinos from the 'hood on the jury," Yagman said. So he had asked a Latino attorney, Edward Figaredo, to join him on the case. "I'll have a Latino sitting next to me for the Latinos on the jury."

What would Figaredo do on the case? "Maybe he'll just sit there and be my bud," Yagman said.

None of this got Yagman very far with the jury. He lost the case. When he talked to me on his car phone, he was unrepentant: "How do you function morally in an amoral world? At the end of the day, is it appropriate to be able to say, 'I always played by the rules, even though the other side didn't? And I lost every time?' The answer is no. You fight fire with fire."

Thus, his legal split personality. At one moment, he might deliver a closing argument that is true oratory, an impassioned invocation of the Bill of Rights. And then, outside the courtroom, he might spew a vulgar tirade at his enemies. Imagine, if you can, Patrick Henry and Andrew Dice Clay rolled into one.

*

People who've known Stephen Yagman since his college days say he was always smart, confident and, above all, verbal. Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld remembers him from their time as undergraduates at Long Island University in Brooklyn in the 1960s.

"He was a high-energy, intense guy who always had a feeling of what was right and wrong," Rosenfeld says. And yet, he wasn't your typical campus radical. In an age dominated by the spirit of collective action, "Steve wasn't one to follow a crowd. He didn't have long hair. He pretty much did his own thing."

Yagman says he has been obsessed with the law for almost as long as he can remember. At an age when most kids want to be firemen or doctors or (gasp!) policemen, young Stephen wanted to be a lawyer. The idea formed when, as a 7-year-old resident of a rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood, he picked up a newspaper and learned that Vice President-elect Richard Nixon didn't want to sell his Bel-Air home to blacks or Jews. Young Stephen asked his Jewish mother if that meant they couldn't buy Nixon's home. His mother said yes. He asked if anyone could stop such bigotry. She said maybe a lawyer could. "I'm going to be a lawyer," young Stephen answered. From that day forward, he says, "I never considered any other job."

Yagman says he identifies strongly with his favorite author, Albert Camus. The French author and philosopher's autobiographical novel, "The First Man," details his difficult childhood. The title refers to Camus himself, a man who, deprived of his father, was forced to make his own way.

Yagman says that he once watched his father, "a very timid man," get beaten up on the street in front of his home. "It was a shattering experience." He was about 6 1/2 at the time. "I don't know if 'humiliated' is the right word. I felt so desperate that my father was there on his back and didn't do anything."

The elder Yagman, a dental technician, had a learning disability. Young Stephen had trouble, too, he says, and couldn't read until he was 12 or 13. Like Camus, he was rescued by caring educators. After graduating from Fordham University Law School in 1974, he soon drifted toward progressive causes, developing an affinity for the underdog.

In Los Angeles, he represented his friend Rosenfeld against a medical board that was trying to revoke his license. Rosenfeld, an obstetrician and gynecologist, had blown the whistle on one of the great scandals of 1970s Los Angeles: the sterilization, without informed consent, of poor Latina women at County General Hospital. Rosenfeld kept his license.

Yagman went on to his ACLU work, then started his own practice and was soon joined by his wife, Marion (the two are divorced but continue as law partners). Eventually, the interest of Yagman and wife drifted toward police abuse because, he says, "it's the most abundant form of government misconduct." Along the way, he's made a fairly good living. By his own estimate, he and his firm have collected about $50 million in fees and awards, much of it paid by the City of Los Angeles.

He first sued City Council members as individuals in 1992 when they voted to pay a judgment against police officers in connection with the McDonald's shooting. Yagman believed that the officers themselves should be forced to pay. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1994 upheld Yagman's right to sue the council.

One day, he invited me to follow along as he served summonses at City Hall. We soon found ourselves in the council chambers. Several members greeted Yagman like an old friend and didn't seem to mind much when he served them with his lawsuit. Councilman Nate Holden took a look at Yagman's dark-blue suit and reached over to touch the fine material. "He's got city money all over his back."

Yagman didn't seem amused.

*

Stephen Yagman tries to travel to France's Cote d'Azur at least once a year and to the Caribbean island of St.-Barthelemy as often as possible. Domestically, he prefers New York to Los Angeles, which he considers a cultural backwater. In Manhattan, he has an apartment with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge and easy access to his great passion: "I'm really enthralled by classical ballet and a little bit less enthralled by modern ballet," he says. "I think I've seen all of George Balanchine's ballets once."

His other love is rock 'n' roll. He says he prepares for closing arguments by listening to the raucous saxophone bridges in Little Richard's "Keep A Knockin' " in his car on the way into work or in one of the attorneys' rooms in the federal courthouse. It gets him in the right mood.

Yagman has a home in Venice and an office there, on Ocean Front Walk, that is filled with photographs, a certificate from the U.S. Supreme Court and, most conspicuously, watercolors and sketches, each capturing a dramatic moment in federal court: Yagman questioning Mayor Tom Bradley, Yagman with Chief Gates on the witness stand.

These men and their institutions, Yagman contends, are all part of a "permanent government" that supports the rich. The Times, he contends, is also part of the permanent government. He sued this newspaper in 1987 but didn't pursue the case after The Times printed a correction. He still contends that the paper buries news of his legal doings in back pages or its suburban editions--although I found three stories about Yagman's cases on the front page of The Times in the first months of this year alone.

In almost everything he does, Yagman says, he's up against powerful insiders who will trample all over the Constitution if you let them. But Yagman won't let them, he says, even if the insider happens to be a federal judge.

"Judges frequently try to put their thumbs on the scales of justice to make sure that people who work for the government win," he says. "I learned the only way to deal with that is to take on those judges. That's what I do."

Judges aren't likely to risk being disqualified from cases by criticizing attorneys in public. But retired Judge Reichmann says Yagman is privately "hated" by several members of the federal bench. "They think that he's dishonest," Reichmann says. "They think that he's unethical, a loudmouth. I don't think there's any lawyer in the U.S. District Court who has as many enemies as Stephen Yagman."

*

For a while, Boundary County, Idaho, was getting a steady dose of Yagman. FBI sniper Horiuchi's defense attorneys were particularly annoyed at Yagman's characterization in open court of their client's actions as "arguably . . . depraved."

In May, however, a federal judge dismissed the charges. Boundary County is appealing the decision. But for the moment, prosecutor Yagman has no one to prosecute.

Given Yagman's image as the consummate legal outsider, people might struggle to envision why he wanted to work for the government anyway--much less as a prosecutor. In a sense, though, Ruby Ridge was a dream assignment, a chance for the attorney to test his skills on a national stage.

FBI officials in Washington, Yagman explains, had little control of their men in the field at Ruby Ridge. "It's a structure that's frightening because there is, in effect, no adult in charge. It's like having the students run the school."

If allowed to proceed, Yagman says, the case may well put on trial the FBI and its director, Louis J. Freeh--perhaps even Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

Back in California, meanwhile, Yagman faces tribulations of his own. Earlier this year, a State Bar panel found he had collected "an unconscionable fee" from his clients in the 1992 lawsuit against the LAPD stemming from the Sunland shootout. The trial court had awarded Yagman $378,175 in attorney fees. But he also deducted, without informing the court, a contingency fee of $19,800 from the $44,000 that a jury awarded the lone survivor of the shootout and the families of three robbers killed by police. (After all was said and done, each of Yagman's clients received $810). The review panel called Yagman's performance in that case "superlative." But it said he mishandled the financial aspects, and ordered him suspended for 12 months.

Yagman continues to practice while his attorneys appeal the decision. If he's worried, it doesn't show.

In a rare sedentary moment, he sits in his Venice office and reflects. "I couldn't be happier," he says. "No matter what happens to me, there's nobody luckier. I came from a poor family and was able to get a decent education and find a job that is very satisfying. If I die tomorrow, I'll die happily. If get disbarred tomorrow, I'll be disbarred happily."

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