Guilt-Edged

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

In 1976, while driving drunk, Fabbri slammed his 1965 Mustang convertible into a bridge in the Central West End. He broke more than a dozen bones, including his ankles, and would never fully recover. In 1978, drunk after celebrating a win at a murder trial, he fell down a flight of stairs and shattered another twenty bones.

On October 1, 1980, Fabbri quit drinking.

"I had a client named Ed," he says. "He'd raped his babysitter, and he was drunk as shit when he'd done it. I got him into AA and saw his whole life change. I thought: How can I counsel this guy and get him going to AA and not do it myself? So he became my sponsor."

"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.

Sober now for 27 years, Fabbri says his therapy comes from lecturing clients. Crime is indicative of another problem, often drugs or alcohol, he tells them. "I say: 'You are who you are by you. All you have to do is help yourself, and everybody will love you.'"

"One more day."

Fabbri usually leaves home for the office feeling optimistic, but these days he returns with dread. To the right of his front door is an iron mailbox. He takes a deep breath before peeking inside.

Today the box is empty. "Thank God," he says, exhaling. "One more day."

Sooner or later, of course, a thin envelope from the Federal Bureau of Prisons will be waiting for him. The letter will inform him which facility he must report to, and the date his incarceration will begin.

Fabbri's house, a three-story pile of brown brick a block east of Tower Grove Park, is decorated with works by Cuban artists and appointed with fixtures its owner either researched ad nauseam or fashioned himself: a fiberglass-composite kitchen sink, a high-tech Japanese toilet, sconces crafted from Venetian Murano glass. Every Super Bowl Sunday, Fabbri throws a "chili party" for two dozen of his friends and shows off his latest gadget.

"He's a voracious reader, he's got a photographic memory and he's extremely generous with everything," says a close friend, Mike Devereaux, the jury supervisor for St. Louis Circuit Court. "He's so unbelievable sometimes – I don't even know if you see characters like him in movies."

At one time in his life, Fabbri was a specialist in cabinetmaking. In another era it was fountain pens. He has raced BMWs, toured the classic-Jaguar circuit and once completely refurbished a 1938 candy-apple-red Chevrolet coupe formerly owned by a convicted drug dealer (a client), which he purchased at a U.S. Marshals Service auction.

"God love Tony," observes Dan Stewart, the retired cop. "But he's a guy of excesses."

Fabbri's younger brother, Terry, brands him restless, irritable and discontent. "I've never seen him relaxed and happy," he says. "It was always about the next thing."

Fabbri formed a partnership with fellow attorney Nick Zotos in 1982. Despite the occasional high-profile client – like William Guthrie, a St. Louis boxer cleared for the Olympic trials after testing positive for cocaine, or Tom Cummins, an initial suspect in the infamous 1991 rape and murder of his cousins at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge – Fabbri & Zotos was anything but a silk-stocking practice. The partners, in Fabbri's words, did "guns and drugs" – street crime – and earned their pinstripe suits one stitch at a time.

Zotos handled the jury trials; they made Fabbri sick to his stomach. Instead he carved his niche by building a reputation for super-zealous representation.

"He pushed and pushed and pushed, trying to get the best deals for his clients," asserts U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw, a former assistant federal prosecutor and circuit court judge. "It was to the point of aggravation. Finally you'd give up and say, 'Oh my God, fine already!' – just to get him out of there."

Recalls Larry Borowiak, the former criminal docket controller for St. Louis Circuit Court: "I always said that Frank could drive the Devil out of Hell on a good day."

St. Louis attorney Douglas Forsyth puts it another way: "I think he actually believes the stuff we [attorneys] are supposed to believe."

Fabbri has been a vocal opponent of federal mandatory sentencing for crack-cocaine possession since the day the controversial guidelines were introduced in 1987. (Recently, the argument that the stringent requirements unfairly target African Americans has gained new currency; three bills pending in Congress would reduce or remove mandatory minimums for drug-possession charges. In the meantime, the U.S. Sentencing Commission changed its policy so that as of November 1, the average crack case will draw a sentence of eight years, down from ten.)

St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Jack Garvey, a former defense attorney, recalls Fabbri testifying on the issue before the Eighth Circuit, sporting African cowrie-shell beads in an effort to attract the attention of Judge Theodore McMillian, an African-American.

"Frank opened up his argument about the disparate treatment of blacks, and Judge McMillian said, 'We don't want to hear about this. Move on.' And Fabbri said, 'No, I want to talk about this. I put a lot of work into this argument, and I want to talk about it now.' So Judge McMillian turned his back on him – turned his chair around – during the whole speech." (McMillian died in 2006.)

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