Criminal Attorney Barry Levin, 54, Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Barry Levin, a Vietnam war hero and former LAPD officer who became one of the city's best-known criminal lawyers, with clients that included officers involved in the Rampart scandal, convicted parent killer Erik Menendez and, most recently, actor Robert Blake, was found dead Saturday at a veterans cemetery in Westwood.

Levin, 54, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to his law partner and brother-in-law, Ron Dorfman. He was found during the early afternoon in his car at the Los Angeles National Cemetery, officials said. The FBI is investigating the death because the cemetery is federal property.

Dorfman said Levin, a Vietnam veteran who received a Bronze Star, had suffered from a rare blood disorder, known as Gaucher's disease, for about four years. Though Levin hid the disease from most of his friends, appearing healthy most of the time, Dorfman said that in the past several days Levin had grown weak and that on Saturday morning he could barely lift his briefcase.

"He had been ill for a good long time," he said. "He was in extreme pain. I guess it just became too much."

As an attorney, Levin had a broad and varied client list and worked on some of the area's most notorious criminal trials.

He was a longtime legal counsel to the Los Angeles Police Department's Command Officers Assn. and took on a number of high-profile police cases, most recently as lead defense attorney in the Rampart Division corruption trial. A decade earlier, Levin defended one of the three officers accused of destroying apartments on Dalton Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles as they searched for narcotics.

In 1995, he teamed up with noted attorney Leslie Abramson to defend Erik Menendez, who, with his brother, Lyle, shot their parents to death in their Beverly Hills home. Toward the end of the trial, with Abramson's blessing, Levin took the lead position for the defense team and helped spare Erik the death penalty. It was Levin's 10th capital case, and none of his clients ever ended up on death row.

"He was fearless, tenacious and funny," Abramson said. "He relished a good fight--a serious soldier type, but he was never an ideologue."

Added Superior Court Judge Michael Hoff: "He was quite a man. He was a very good attorney and he was a war hero. He was a very forceful lawyer, but he was always polite." Hoff had known Levin since they served together on the LAPD. The Van Nuys jurist said he has a copy of a book Levin wrote on Vietnam veterans and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Levin represented Sgt. Edward Ortiz in the first criminal trial to arise from the Rampart police corruption probe. At the trial, he gave a stirring and controversial closing argument, calling the defendants "heroes" and their accusers liars. He described the trial as an "Alice in Wonderland" experience, in which prosecutors used the testimony of gang members to convict police officers.

"I've been listening to these prosecutors trying to convince you that bad guys are good guys and good guys are bad guys," Levin said, "that those who are evil are trustworthy and those who dedicate their lives to protect and serve are not to be believed."

When the jury convicted his client, Levin was hard on himself. But, a few weeks later, the judge overturned the conviction. At the time, Levin's co-counsel, Harland W. Braun, said Levin's detailed knowledge of police procedures helped win the reversal. Prosecutors are appealing.

Levin was an imposing presence in court, with his disciplined police officer's bearing, thick gray hair and steel-rim glasses. He appeared to be fit, and never hinted that he was ill as he joked with reporters in the courthouse corridors, always willing to engage in a little spinning on his client's behalf.

"He always looked like he just came out of the gym," Hoff said.

It was Braun who brought Levin onto Blake's legal team as police investigated the May 4 shooting death of Blake's wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. Braun said at the time that Levin was respected by LAPD officers and would keep the investigation honest.

While Levin worked for Blake he also represented the LAPD's command officers, a situation that could have proved sticky because the union president is Capt. Jim Tatreau, head of the agency's elite Robbery-Homicide division.

With Tatreau responsible for looking into Blake's possible involvement in the death of his wife and Levin committed to helping set the course for a potential defense of the actor, the two simply agreed not to talk about the matter, even though they saw one another on occasion.

"He was completely professional during all of this," Tatreau said. "That's why we wanted him representing us, because he was one of the best, most principled people."

Tatreau recalled a conversation he had with LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks after hearing that Levin was going to represent the actor, reassuring the chief:"He won't distort the truth just to get a win."

Dorfman said that over the last few days, Levin's physical condition had deteriorated badly. He had lost significant weight, hardly had enough energy to walk a flight of stairs and struggled to breathe.

Gaucher's disease is an inherited enzyme-deficiency disorder whose victims bleed and bruise easily.

On Saturday morning Levin had his wife take him to his office in Brentwood, Dorfman said. There, he put the finishing touches on his latest work. He returned home and later left the house in his car.

Levin's wife, Debbie, became worried and called police. Officers from the West Los Angeles Division began a search for Levin's car. Officers also fanned out through the tough Newton Division, the area in South-Central Los Angeles where Levin had cut his teeth as a young police officer in the 1970s. Levin had a strong emotional bond to the community and frequently spoke of his days there, said his colleagues and friends.

His car was found shortly after 2 p.m. at the cemetery, said Capt. Richard Wemmer, head of the West Division. Like many LAPD officers, Wemmer had known Levin for years.

"This hits so close," Wemmer said. "It's devastating." In the 1970s Wemmer was a sergeant in the Newton Division, with Levin working as one of his young officers. "As a cop, he was prolific. One night he'd get a burglar, next day he'd collar a car thief, the next day a robber . . . unbelievable."

Wemmer noted that Levin was extremely patriotic and proud of his military service. Whenever he drove by the veterans cemetery he saluted, Wemmer said.

Levin, who was born in Chicago, served two tours of duty in Vietnam in the infantry with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was seriously wounded during the Tet offensive, shot three times in the side and hip.

Levin served a dozen years on the force. He proudly pointed out that he never had to fire his weapon on duty.

He continued his education while on force. He graduated from Cal State Northridge, and the San Fernando College of Law, then took a job in the district attorney's office. He didn't stay long, joining a private firm briefly and then launching his own practice specializing in defending police officers accused of crimes or misconduct. He also specialized in defending Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

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Times staff writers Jean Merl and Noaki Schwartz contributed to this story.

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