Pugnacious defense attorney Frank "Tony" Fabbri never backed away from a fight. Then the lawyer ran afoul of the law.


"Worst of luck to you."

That was the first thing Frank Fabbri said to Assistant U.S. Attorney Hilary Frooman during the two years she oversaw a criminal investigation of him, and it came moments before his sentencing proceeding began in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis:

"God love Tony," one ex-cop observes of Fabbri. "But he's a guy of excesses."
jennifer silverberg
"God love Tony," one ex-cop observes of Fabbri. "But he's a guy of excesses."
Friends, colleagues and adversaries wrote to U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl on Fabbri's behalf. A PDF sampling of the letters is available online at here.
Friends, colleagues and adversaries wrote to U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl on Fabbri's behalf. A PDF sampling of the letters is available online at here.

"Hello, Ms. Frooman. We've never met before. Worst of luck to you."

It was vintage Fabbri: unadorned, unabashed, unsettling.

Frooman stared, speechless.

Sixty-two-year-old Frank Raphael "Tony" Fabbri III, a fixture in the St. Louis criminal-justice system for the past 36 years, is equally notorious for his unhinged tongue and for licking his lips upon spotting an adversary.

"He's a hell of an advocate – he gave prosecutors fits," observes Paul D'Agrosa, a fellow defense attorney. "But he did it in such a way that you appreciated his zeal and his personality."

Puffing on a cigar, espresso in hand, Fabbri, by all accounts, has always been one of a kind. "Hot-headed," "always pushing the envelope," he's the guy who, after presenting a hard-charging defense of his latest client in a parade of thieves, drug dealers and rapists, sits you down for a status report on your wife, your kid, your prostate, then proceeds to expound upon his latest obsession – a vintage car, a new girlfriend, Cuba – in encyclopedic detail.

Though everybody and his brother (that would be Fabbri's own brother) complains that Fabbri talks way too much, for many the man's word has always been the proverbial bond. Past and present observers and adversaries, prosecutors, police officers and judges alike, form his inner circle of friends.

"Some defense attorneys are under-zealous, others are overzealous," says Dan Stewart, a retired St. Louis cop. "But the one thing that always struck me about Tony – and I say this categorically – is that Tony had a real sense of justice: of truly what is right and wrong."

And so it was that Fabbri's own run-in with the law stunned many colleagues and confidants.

Fabbri always prided himself on exhausting every defense for his (literally) thousands of clients: hammering and yammering away at prosecutors and judges for months on end until certain the defendant on whose behalf he was bargaining would receive the lightest punishment possible.

But when it was his turn, Fabbri waived his right to an indictment and trial by jury. Alerted this past May of the federal felony charge he faced – Failure to File Internal Revenue Service Form 8300 – Fabbri agreed on the spot to plead guilty.

Over the years, in conversations with younger lawyers, Fabbri likened federal cases to funerals. At the arraignment, spectators view the body. The sentencing is the graveside service, featuring obligatory platitudes from the defense attorney before marshals escort the defendant out the rear and his wife/fiancée/girlfriend departs in the other direction – taking the jewelry and the house, almost never looking back.

Fabbri couldn't have known how much of that scenario awaited him after his plea this past May. He was merely relieved to dispense with the lone count the two-year probe uncovered. "I wanted to be punished," he says, though he knew he faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

At his sentencing on October 5, Fabbri looked dapper as ever in a black Hugo Boss suit and white Armani tie – if somewhat conservative for a man who claims he was the first person in St. Louis to wear Prada and who once traveled regularly to Los Angeles to buy jeans and to Philadelphia for shoes.

Frooman, the prosecutor, had sought the harshest sentence, alleging that Fabbri had attempted to thwart a conspiracy investigation and had inappropriately taken legal fees from his client's ill-gotten money.

Justin Kuehn, Fabbri's attorney, resorted to repeated attempts to steer the judge's focus back to the crime his client was accused of, as Fabbri buried half his face in his hand.

When summoned, Fabbri walked to the lectern with a limp – the vestige of a long-ago car accident – and for fifteen minutes (one of his friends timed the speech) delivered a rambling, tearful apology. When Kuehn's turn came, he begged U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl not to send his client to prison.

Stiehl took a twenty-minute recess to mull Fabbri's fate.

"It is not easy for me to sentence you, Mr. Fabbri," the judge said after returning to the bench. Fabbri had appeared before him many times as an attorney, Stiehl noted, and always with professionalism. Now the judge had received more than a hundred letters – from friends, fellow attorneys, even several judges – urging leniency.

"The sheer volume and the common themes have left an impression on me as I consider your sentence," Stiehl continued, before delivering the verdict: eighteen months in prison, plus $76,000 in fines and restitution.

In the gallery, whispering broke out among the twenty-odd attorneys who'd come to support Fabbri. Two walked out. At the front of the courtroom, Justin Kuehn was downcast in defeat. Fabbri, his stained reputation now officially in tatters, patted his lawyer consolingly on the back.

"The side door."

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