Court TV’s new king of bling

Baltimore Sun

It’s a Friday, and Bucky Buchanan, dressed in a blue pinstriped suit and $5,000 pointy-toed alligator skin boots -- “kill most of my animal boots myself,” he wants you to know -- is about two hours late to court. Still, he strolls.

He throws open the door to the courtroom of a judge whom he openly refers to as “The Princess.” Judge Nancy Oesterle shakes her head at the sight of him. “You’re killing me today,” she says. Still, a smile sneaks across her lips.

This is the lucky Las Vegas world of James “Bucky” Buchanan -- Naval Academy graduate, former government weapon engineer and now high-powered criminal defense attorney leading the sort of lifestyle that includes Arabian horses in his backyard, a mahogany-paneled Bentley sedan and parties with “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” TV host Robin Leach. Even in this flashy town, Bucky Buchanan stands out.


Perhaps it was inevitable that he would one day have his own reality show. On Jan. 31, the spotlight on him will turn brighter with the debut of “Las Vegas Law,” a Court TV program featuring Buchanan as its star.

“There’s never been a show like this before. It deals with every part of the law,” he says. “Plus there are the little things I do in Las Vegas. How shall I put this? I’m a party animal.”

Many lifetimes ago, Buchanan, a Pittsburgh native, was a student at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Even at that early age, on that sober campus, he managed notoriety. On a warm, sunny afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay just before graduation, he sank a ship. More specifically, he and a friend drove a 32-foot schooner, taken as a war prize from a German academy, into a seawall. He was reprimanded but still graduated in 1958, in a class that included a future U.S. senator, John McCain.

“Seeing as how my naval career was foredoomed to disaster, I had to think about alternatives,” he says.

He took his commission with the Air Force and for a few years designed nuclear weapons at an Air Force special weapon center in Albuquerque. But he concluded that the real money was in defense procurement. Figuring he’d advance more quickly with a law degree, he headed for Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

While working during the summers at a nuclear test site in Nevada, he became enthralled with Las Vegas and later took a job with the district attorney’s office. After five years, he switched to the criminal defense work that has become his niche.

In his four decades as a Las Vegas criminal defense lawyer, Buchanan has developed a practice as gargantuan as his personality. He says he makes perhaps 5,000 court appearances and pulls in more than $1 million a year.

On this day, Buchanan, known for his foul mouth and expressive, scraggly eyebrows, is buzzing as usual through the courthouse hallways, where judges and janitors alike want to talk to him. Most public records list Buchanan’s age as 70, but he’s not about to confirm that. On the short side, with tight, pale skin and a bald head, he’s bedecked with sparkling rings and watches. It’s easy to understand why Court TV sees him as good material.

“He’s colorful and can make a quip, but if that’s all he was, we wouldn’t be interested in a show about him,” says Ed Hersh, executive vice president for current programming and specials at Court TV. “Bucky is passionate about his work. He’s truly an expert at what he does.”

Who are his clients? “Murderers. I mean, people accused of murder,” Buchanan says. And he does steady business representing the area’s many ladies of the evening. “Someone has to represent these poor girls,” he says. This is, after all, Sin City.

He has represented “Springfield Sam” Manarite, a well-known, 80ish former mob boss, and “Kenny Red” Wright, deemed pimp of the year in 2003 at the annual Pimp Ball in Chicago. Buchanan scored a plea deal that included a brief prison sentence for Manarite’s battery with a deadly weapon charge, and he helped Wright avoid an array of pandering and sex charges while pleading guilty to money laundering.

Buchanan scored a high-profile victory in 2000 when he defended David Mattsen, part of a group arrested in connection with the theft of $7 million in buried silver from gaming heir Ted Binion, whose mysterious death is suspected to be part of the theft scheme. After pulling about two dozen machine guns and rifles out of Mattsen’s house, authorities charged the convicted felon with illegal possession of firearms, Buchanan says. Despite that raid, Buchanan persuaded the jury to acquit Mattsen of the weapon violations and cut a deal in state court to keep him out of prison on the theft charge.

“I believe in God and Buchanan,” Mattsen told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Buchanan fared less well in representing Steven Gazlay, one in a group of wealthy teenagers called the 311 Boyz who were accused of beating a youth and filming their violent escapades. Gazlay was convicted in 2003.

“I never could overcome that tape,” Buchanan says of the loss. He claims, though, to have won 413 of his 509 jury trials.

Buchanan’s law office is a monument to his eccentricity. Buchanan bought the single-story steel-and-concrete structure, built as a prototype of high-roller suites at the high-style Bellagio casino and hotel, and hauled it off the Strip.

The interior is filled with trophies from his dozens of hunting expeditions. “Have I mentioned I like to hunt?” Buchanan asks, gesturing to a stuffed leopard perched above his desk.

“If the lion could’ve fit in here, he’d be here too,” says his longtime office assistant, Debbie Malone.

She’s referring to the 550-pound lion Buchanan shot in Zimbabwe. He had it stuffed in the attack position, and it is the focal point of his den at home, a sprawling room featuring about 50 other animals he’s hunted -- “harvested,” as he likes to say -- from around the world. There are live animals around the house too. Six Arabian horses prance around the backyard pool.

Gianna Orlandi, her long brown fur coat slung sloppily over the back of her chair, is sitting at the Courthouse Bar and Grill waiting for her husband this day. She’s a deputy state attorney general in the consumer protection unit, and, as Buchanan likes to point out, she is as young as his two daughters, who are in their 30s. Buchanan also has two grown sons.

The two eat lunch here every day at the same table, which has a view of an indoor mural featuring lawyers from the O.J. Simpson trial and, for no apparent reason, Buchanan.

In her native New York accent she chatters on about shopping, while she twists her dark hair around her finger. Across the table, Buchanan, a napkin tucked in his collar, rolls his eyes and eats his clam chowder in silence.

The two began dating because Gianna, by her own account, stalked Buchanan for three years after briefly meeting him at a party. “He has no recollection of this,” she says, “which is just as well because I cringe when I think about what I was wearing.”

In the fall of 1998, she asked someone who she says was friends with a friend of Buchanan to set them up on a blind date. She draws a diagram to illustrate these connections.

Buchanan picked her up in a “garish” white limo, she says, and they split a 30-pound spiny-back lobster at the Bellagio. It was love, they say. They married in the spring of 2001 in Africa.

And now she’s off to meet her decorator.

“Las Vegas Law” will be about Buchanan, but it’s not entirely Bucky.

Lighthearted Entertainment, the company behind the ABC hit “Extreme Makeover,” produced the six segments taped so far. Some Buckyisms didn’t quite make the cut: his constant talk about his wealth (“Said it made me look too much like a money grabber”) and hunting (a focus group was offended), he says.

Still, Buchanan is pleased with the way the show seems to have taken shape.

Cameras had total access to his meetings with clients, courtroom appearances and more. Two recent trials will be woven into the plot, he says.

“After I won -- as usual -- one of those, the jury foreman asked me for a card so that he could call if he ever got in trouble,” Buchanan says.

The lawyer says he turned to the cameraman: “Did you get that? That’s a ... million dollars in publicity!”