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For ‘Lawyer,’ Road to Justice Has Many Detours

When Joseph Robert Lopez was handcuffed and hauled off to jail this week, his bogus law degree went with him as evidence, frame and all. It was a fitting finale to his six years of playing pretend lawyer in Orange County.

The big mystery is: Why did it take so long to nab the former shoe salesman, disco owner, political candidate and ex-convict? His customers had sued him, threatened him, complained to police, staked out his offices and chased him all over town. But nobody seemed able to stop him from ripping off the people he purported to help.

Don’t think he wasn’t warned not to hold himself out as a practicing abogado, the legal amigo of the immigrant community he preyed upon. He was not only warned in scorching terms by a bankruptcy judge, he was fined twice in two years for overcharging clients and for misrepresenting his legal credentials.

“I think you’re a reprehensible character, sir, and I think you’re dangerous to the community,” said Judge Lynne Riddle during a hearing more than a year ago.

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But Lopez thumbed his nose at her, too. To this day, he has paid just a fraction of the $24,500 in court sanctions imposed since 1996. You or I would be wearing orange suits and picking up trash along the freeways.

Not Lopez. He’s a gambling man. He knew how much he could get away with, or thought he did. The court can’t make him pay if he doesn’t have the money, he told me in December during one of several conversations we had about his troubled chain of storefront legal clinics.

So he sent a check for $250, half of the refund owed to a bankruptcy client whose case earned him the sanction from Judge Riddle. He also informed the court he was closing his shop at Fourth and French in Santa Ana, the last one left standing after the relentless onslaught of angry customers demanding refunds and frustrated landlords demanding their long overdue rents.

He gave no forwarding address and the fines just fell through the cracks. That’s how Lopez operated. He ignored all consequences and kept right on working, doing business as usual.

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He popped up again at a location on North Main Street near the Santa Ana Freeway. Pretty bold, very visible. That’s where he was arrested Wednesday by DA investigator Dina Mauger, who painstakingly documented seven felony counts of grand theft against Lopez and one misdemeanor count of practicing law without a license.

Inside, investigators found the phony law degree he just couldn’t part with. It was a cheap fake, doctored to confer upon himself a juris doctor he had never earned. Lopez had clumsily superimposed the doctoral title over the lesser certificate he had actually earned--legal assistant/paralegal--from a correspondence course completed while serving an earlier prison term for grand theft.

It’s such an incompetent counterfeit that the scissor lines and white-out smudges give away his paste-up job.

Mauger’s persistence produced a rare success in the fight against scams in the immigrant community. What made the big difference this time was the willingness--nay, the insistence--of victims to come forward. More than 30 had filed small claims suits against Lopez, risking exposure as undocumented immigrants.

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People were just too angry to sit back and take it anymore. Their losses, never more than a couple grand, may seem small in the annals of bunko schemes. But for the cooks and factory workers and single moms who paid Lopez their hard-earned cash, the losses really hurt. Not to mention the incalculable damage done to their neglected legal cases.

Maybe it’s just a misdemeanor to pretend you’re a lawyer. But this man’s cynical justification has got to rank as a capital lapse in personal ethics.

“I don’t know if it’s wrong,” he said last year after conceding to me that his diploma was a fake. “But it’s good for business.”

Besides, his clients never bothered to ask if his degree was legitimate.

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“They assumed it. That’s their problem,” he said, as if that’s fair play. “There’s a joke in the Mexican community: Put a tie on a Mexican and they think he’s a lawyer,” he told me.

I think there should be a sentencing enhancement for adding insult to injury.

The attitude is a radical shift for a man who championed community causes in the 1960s, worked as a political activist and served as publisher of the Borinquen East Los Angeles News. In 1968, Lopez ran for state Assembly in Los Angeles and campaigned with Robert Kennedy in the days before the presidential candidate was killed. He finished a distant fifth in the Democratic primary, and the defeat plunged him into a yearlong depression.

“It just sickened him and he just dropped out of everything,” said Marie Y. Hernandez, his ex-wife. “The person that Bob became afterward is not the person that I knew. He became just so corrupt, when before he was integrity itself.”

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In the early 1980s, after his disco business and his marriage collapsed, Lopez and a live-in girlfriend were arrested for a scheme to cash blank money orders provided by Western Union to his Torrance collection agency. He pleaded guilty to three counts of forgery and was sentenced to probation.

“I plan to lead a very straight and honest life in the future,” he told the court at the time.

Before the decade was out, though, he was back in jail on an even bigger collections rip-off. Lopez had gotten good at collecting money for his clients, but not so good at turning it over. In 1990, a jury convicted him of grand theft and he got six years for pocketing his customers’ cash.

He didn’t waste time in Tehachapi State Prison, quickly enrolling in that paralegal course from Blackstone School of Law in Dallas. I guess he advanced his education there, but didn’t learn his lesson.

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As soon as he was paroled in 1993, he set up shop in Orange County. Clean slate; new opportunities. He had arrived at an ideal time, just as the great wave of citizenship petitions began to swell within the immigrant community.

“When I came here, it was virgin territory,” he said.

Right. Virgin and vulnerable. Soon, his network of storefront legal clinics had mushroomed to at least eight locations scattered throughout Anaheim and Santa Ana. He advertised in Spanish as Su Amigo, and immigrants flocked to him for help with citizenship petitions, divorces, evictions and bankruptcies. His clients were primarily the working poor who often paid in cash for services many later claim he never performed.

Everywhere, Lopez handed out business cards on which he replicated his legal charade, calling himself “Dr. J. Roberto Lopez, Ph.D.--Juris Doctor.” The Ph.D., by the way, is another mail-order diploma from the Universal Life Church in Modesto.

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I first met Lopez last summer at his Fourth Street office, decorated with portraits of civil rights leaders and revolutionaries, like Cesar Chavez, John F. Kennedy and even Emiliano Zapata in 3-D. It was the day after his appearance before Judge Riddle, though I was unaware then of the judge’s scolding. Lopez acted as if nothing had happened, and he even had the nerve to brag to me about the fake diploma.

With a certain touch of sincerity, Lopez said he believed he was providing “affordable law” for people who can’t afford real lawyers. He wasn’t cheating people, he said, he was helping them.

Judge Riddle wasn’t buying it.

“You’re a disgrace, sir, to our community,” she said. “It just saddens me to look at you. It saddens me to think that you have sons you train to do the same sort of flimflam in the open marketplace.”

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At the time, Lopez was already under orders not to do any more bankruptcies. So he prepared them using the identities of two of his sons, including Joseph Robert Lopez Jr., the eldest of his eight children by his first wife. He testified in Judge Riddle’s court under oath the boys worked for him. That’s why, ostensibly, Joseph Jr.'s Social Security number appeared on some of the bankruptcy documents.

Nobody in that courtroom could have guessed how egregiously Lopez was lying. Because nobody knew that his eldest son had been dead for five years.

Lopez had stooped to exploiting the ghost of his firstborn for his own profit. When I discovered the lie and confronted him, he admitted it and offered another practical rationalization.

“I don’t see anything really wrong with it, if it’s good for the living and it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

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That’s the trouble. I think Lopez truly sees nothing wrong with what he’s done to people like Sylvia Ayala, a Salvadoran woman who made her living as a cook on a hot, cramped lunch truck. She had to borrow $500 to pay Lopez to represent her brother in court, which he never did. That’s two weeks’ wages for Ayala, working 10-hour shifts.

She sued in small claims court and won a default judgment because, as in all the other cases, Lopez never showed up to face the music. While on her route, Ayala used to get the driver to circle the phony lawyer’s office at different times--vain attempts to corner him and get her refund. She never did.

“I support my children with the sweat of my brow so this old wretch can come and take advantage of me!” she said. “You can imagine how this hurts.”

Agustin Gurza’s column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or agustin.gurza@latimes.com.

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