The LAPD’s worst nightmare is taking on the Feds. Will lawyer Stephen Yagman’s bombast blow up in his face?
By Jessica Seigel
Padding along in white tennis shoes, khakis, and a polo shirt, the Brooklyn-bred bad boychik of the California bar moseys down the marble lobby of a tony Los Angeles law firm. Stephen Yagman may look like an office clerk on a coffee run, but today is a big day: He will depose the mayor of Los Angeles as part of his lawsuit accusing a secretive police unit of “murdering” robbery suspects.
Delayed by a dentist’s appointment, Mayor Richard Riordan finally shows up for his second drilling of the day, but his team bars reporters from the questioning. Crestfallen, Yagman retreats into a conference room with the mayoral entourage.
An hour and 20 minutes later, the posse emerges. Relaxed and smiling, the millionaire mayor pronounces Yagman a “tough, relentless questioner.” All in all, Riordan jokes, “I haven’t had so much fun since my dog died.” Not quite so magnanimous, Yagman, remembering the deposition, calls the mayor “a doofus.”
His rhetoric may be low camp, but the stakes are high. Yagman is a notorious cop buster and guerrilla-style litigator known as much for winning long-shot police-brutality cases as for his ethical breaches and battles with the legal establishment. By Yagman’s own tally, he’s pulled down $50 million in jury awards and settlements against Southern California police for fatal shootings, beatings, illegal searches, and run-of-the mill humiliations. He claims, but does not substantiate, an unusually high success rate of 65 to 75 percent of his cases—Los Angeles city lawyers rebut that estimate, placing his wins closer to 34 percent. In two groundbreaking victories, Yagman convinced juries to hold former Los Angeles police chief Daryl F. Gates personally liable for the fatal and abusive actions of his officers.
Now, Yagman plans to take on the Feds. He has been sworn in as a special prosecutor in the Ruby Ridge case, representing Idaho’s tiny Boundary County. The prosecution will pursue involuntary manslaughter charges against Lon Horiuchi, the FBI sharpshooter who killed white separatist Randy Weaver’s wife during the 1992 government siege. As the case approaches trial in Idaho (at press time, the date was not yet set), Yagman faces trials of his own in California: He is fighting his second bar suspension in ten years, for allegedly mistreating clients. If Yagman loses his appeal, he stands to lose the Ruby Ridge job.
Though his detractors accuse him of being money hungry, Yagman insists that his ultimate goal is to hold politicians personally liable for police abuses, particularly those by the Special Investigations Section of the Los Angeles Police Department. SIS officers trail robbers, gather evidence, watch without intervening as suspects commit crimes, then make the arrest, which Yagman claims regularly involves excessive force. One of his famous battles against the unit dates from February 12, 1990. That day, SIS officers— whom Yagman has dubbed the “death squad”—trailed four suspected members of a robbery ring to a suburban McDonald’s, then canceled the local precinct’s response to the terrified manager’s 911 call. Though SIS officers had probable cause to intervene, they watched for 30 minutes as the robbers held the manager at gunpoint, taped her eyes, tied her hands, and tried to open the safe. When the robbers fled, the SIS opened fire, killing three of the men with shotgun and handgun blasts—some in the back.
The FBI had previously investigated the SIS without finding fault. But Yagman proved fault in federal court, convincing a jury in 1992 to award damages to four of the suspected robber's surviving kin and to the lone surviving perpetrator. The police, Yagman argued, acted like “assassins with badges.”
A compulsive anti-authoritarian, the 53-year-old Yagman can sound like a precocious adolescent who reads too much Ayn Rand. His insults are legendary: The LAPD is a “Frankenstein monster.” Gates is “the Devil.” The ACLU is a “bunch of full-of-shit liberals.” Yagman also fought penalties for calling a federal judge “a substandard human,” a “right-wing fanatic,” and “one of the worst judges in the United States.” In 1995, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned his two-year suspensions or the remarks, creating a lawyers’ free-speech precedent.
That ruling helped attorney Johnnie Cochran avoid sanctions for insulting Judge Lance Ito during the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. “I have to give him credit for taking cases other lawyers won’t,” Cochran says of Yagman. “Defending robbers is very tough, and he’s done some pretty good work.” But on learning that Yagman called him a “functionally illiterate jive-ass turkey,” Cochran turns condescending toward his old courtroom foe: “He’s a tragic figure. He wants to be a respected lawyer, but he’s a caricature of what he wants to become. It’s pitiful, pitiful.”
Supporters, including several federal judges, describe a different Yagman. To them, he is “courageous,” “a moral leader,” even “a great gourmet cook.” Academy Award-winning screenwriter Abby Mann plans to turn Yagman’s life story into a movie. Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general, praises his friend and frequent co-counsel for taking unpopular cases. “Real courage is not grace under pressure. It’s doing the right thing when it’s frightening and hurts,” Clark says of Yagman. “He feels the ostracism.”
Like the late attorney William Kunstler, Yagman incites outrage wherever he goes and seems to love it. His most recent lawsuits to capture national attention is a case in point. On February 28, 1997, two men carrying assault weapons held up a Bank of America in North Hollywood. Dressed in full body armor, they fled, strafing the surrounding neighborhood with more than 1,100 rounds of military-style ammo as television cameras broadcast the shoot-out live. The sight of more than 60 cops prevailing against the Rambo-style robbers finally made Angelenos proud of the LAPD.
Six weeks after the gunfight, Yagman filed a lawsuits on behalf of dead robber Emil Matasareanu’s two young children, accusing police of “cold-bloodedly” murdering the suspect, who bled to death from 29 bullet wounds during the 70 to 80 minutes before medical care arrived. Police officials attributed the delay to combat conditions that left 11 police officers and six civilians injured. But during the trial, set for October, Yagman will argue that police were imposing “street justice.”
Angelenos were so incensed by Yagman’s lawsuit that one resident organized a protest in the bullet-pocked neighborhood next to the Bank of America. “He is a hateful man,” Mary Lou Holte said of Yagman during the rally. “He’s just like the bank robbers, but with a briefcase.”
Stephen Yagman attributes his behavior to childhood poverty and “inadequate” parents. His denture-maker father was an “authoritarian”; his mother was “annoying.” Yagman recalls one incident with striking immediacy: He is eight and a half months old, crying in his crib. His “ugly old Aunt Pearl” is telling his mother not to run to him every time he cries. “My mother didn’t come in time, and I went in my diaper,” Yagman says. “I was a smart little kid, so I pulled my diaper off, pushed the poop to the side of the crib, and put the diaper back on, because I never liked shit.”
He never forgave his aunt and tells the story as a personal parable. “I have an ironclad rule that I live by professionally. Everybody gets one shot with me,” he says with studied nonchalance. Then his voice suddenly grows steely. “After someone fucks with me once, there can be no redemption for them. Ever.”
Though a child’s rage drives him still, Yagman believes that he is a self-created man, an existentialist like his hero Albert Camus. After earning his juris doctor from Fordham University in 1974, he migrated west to Los Angeles with his lawyer wife, Marion, and they opened the firm Yagman & Yagman. They have worked together despite a separation in 1984 and a divorce in 1994. Declining to comment on the arrangement, Marion says, “I don’t need my 15 minutes of fame.”
But Yagman loves his, and the courtroom is his stage. At a recent trial in Riverside, California, his clients are the parents of a 17-year-old boy who was shot to death after leading police on a two-hour high-speed chase. With his boyish and Brillo-pad hair, Yagman looks deceptively like the actor Albert Brooks. Though the tension in the courtroom is palpable, he sits relaxed, tilting back so far in his adjustable chair that he could be sunning on a floating chaise longue. But by day’s end, large patches of sweat will stain his custom-made suit, state bar. Yagman rises to cross-examine Ron McCarthy, a retired LAPD sergeant and expert witness who testifies that the officers opened fire because they “reasonably” believed the youth was reaching for a gun in his belt. (There proved to be no weapon.) The expert explains that the police believed the teen flexing his hands as if itching for a gunfight, “like in a movie western.”
Approaching the witness stand, Yagman asks, “Do you know the names of any movies where you saw that?”
“I can’t say specifically,” McCarthy
“How about The Magnificent Seven Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?” Yagman presses in closer.
“I can’t say, but anyone who’s watched a western movie...,” the witness fumbles, his eyes roaming the room as if searching for Siskel Ebert. Yagman is having a ball. The jury has heard what Yagman calls his “arts and leisure” line of questioning. During jury selection, Yagman favors fans of the movie Apocalypse Now and the singer Jimmy Buffett. After testimony wraps for the day, he explains his theory while lying flat on the courthouse’s hallway floor—his back is acting up. “People who like Buffet are probably drunks who’ve been pulled over by the cops,” he expounds, as quizzical passers-by look down at the supine lawyer.
Several days later, Yagman’s back feels better. He is tromping around in khaki shorts in his cluttered Venice, California, office. “I’m like Martha Stewart,” he says. “Fun is work and work is fun. This is my religion, making sure that the people who have been given power don’t abuse it.” Yet Yagman himself stands accused of abusing power. In 1992, a federal jury in the McDonald’s robbery case awarded $44,000 in damages to Yagman’s clients. In what the California bar says is an unethical collection of fees, Yagman deducted costs and a contingency fee, which is clients found out about in the newspaper.
“He got the truth out, but with the money he was unfair,” says Elizabeth Arrango Fernandez, whose brother and husband were both killed in the shooting. Herfamily is so poor, she says, that they had to bury the two men stacked on top of one another in a single grave. Fernandez’s family complained to the state bar. In late 1995, the bar, while acknowledging Yagman’s “superlative performance” in the case, cited his “moral turpitude” for allegedly charging unconscionable fees, misappropriating funds, paying clients late, and committing other offenses. Yagman, who calls the charges a witch-hunt, is appealing the one-year suspension to the California Supreme Court, which rarely overturns such decisions. In the meantime, he can practice law in California. But if Yagman loses the appeal, he will not be allowed to try the Ruby Ridge case, says Boundary County prosecutor Denise Woodbury.
In another incident, in 1989, Yagman held a city law clerk “under citizen’s arrest for trespassing” after the gofer, delivering documents, stepped into Yagman’s office without permission. “I thought I was going to faint,” recalls the former clerk, who sued Yagmanfor false imprisonment and false arrest. They settled out of court. In a different ethics case, which resulted in a six-month suspension, the state bar suggested that Yagman get counseling for his hostile behavior toward a client.
Yagman says he never got the therapy—and he didn’t let the ethics charges dampen his zeal. After the Los Angeles City Council voted, in 1992, to pay off the $44,000 penalty in the McDonald’s case, Yagman turned around and named every city council member in a second suit, charging that they had fostered abuse by protecting the officers from having to pay punitive damages personally. Despite an initial loss, Yagman continues to pursue the city council and the municipal attorneys who defend the LAPD.
That take-no-prisoners approach is just the kind of background that Boundary County had in mind for the person who would prosecute Lon Horiuchi, the FBI sharpshooter at Ruby Ridge. The timber and farming community employs only one part-time prosecutor, Woodbury, who had no budget to hire an outside attorney. Though Yagman denies making the contact, Woodbury says he mailed her his curruculum vitae last summer, volunteering to take on the case for one dollar. Odds against the prosecution were “ten to one before I brought him on board,” she says.
Just as he reveled in deposing L.A.’s top politician, Yagman is exultant about scrapping with the nation’s top cops. This time, he promises to scrutinize the FBI, bureau director Louis Freeh, and Attorney General Janet Reno for issuing what Boundary County believes were illegal orders that the FBI could and should shoot on sight any armed adult males at the raid.
The last time Yagman butted heads with the bureau -- in the McDonald’s case – he convinced the federal judge to hold a special agent in contempt for refusing to testify about his investigation of the SIS. “That agent’s dead now,” Yagman notes with glee. “He choked on a chicken bone.”