Guilt-Edged

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

For Fabbri, issues of race were personal as well.

"We were the first interracial couple in south city and it was holy hell," he says, recalling the early days of his twenty-odd-year marriage to Helen Fabbri. "We had to sit at the bank for three hours just to sign our names on the house papers. We'd drive around in the convertible and police would pull us over just to fuck with us. We'd go to the Chase for a drink and guys would come up to us thinking she was a prostitute."

The marriage, Fabbri's second, dissolved in 2003. He got to keep the house.

"I am not a thief."
"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.

In the weeks following his sentencing, the thought keeps Fabbri awake at night. He tries to counter the bad juju with his morning tai chi.

"I am not a thief. I want people to know that I have never stolen anything, from anyone. We had people die – one year we lost nine clients. Nine. We gave back every dollar we had."

Adds Fabbri: "The most irritating part of this whole thing is the inference that I ever took, or hid, a penny from anyone."

The feds arrested and jailed Edward Trober, Fabbri's fateful client, in June 2004. A career marijuana dealer, Trober faced at least 30 years in prison on charges of conspiracy and other felonies in southern Illinois. He was also charged in federal court in St. Louis for money laundering.

According to Fabbri, a well-known St. Louis defense attorney quoted Trober a price of $100,000 to take on both cases. Fabbri told Trober he'd do the job for $61,000.

Fabbri was well aware that Trober had a reputation for hiring numerous and various attorneys. He also knew that in 1997 a St. Louis lawyer had been sentenced to three years in federal prison after flying to Panama and Switzerland with $3.2 million in small bills linked to Trober's conspiracy and attempting to deposit the money in a bank.

In July 2004 Fabbri collected from Trober's family a down payment of $25,000. Three months later Fabbri and prosecutors agreed to let Trober provide investigators with information about his drug-dealing associates in exchange for less prison time. Specifics would be contingent upon Trober's truthfulness.

But the talks quickly broke down. The IRS and Drug Enforcement Administration agents on Trober's case wanted to know where Trober was hiding the $20 million in drug money that was subject to forfeiture. Trober said everything had already been seized, and Fabbri backed him up.

In the meantime Trober had asked relatives to pay Fabbri the remaining $36,000 he was owed. On November 10, 2004, the attorney got a call from Trober's sister. His payment was ready, Fabbri recalls her saying; could he pick it up in Collinsville?

That evening Fabbri and Angela Turin rendezvoused at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant, where Turin drew Fabbri a map to her mother's house three miles down the road. The money awaited him there, she said, in the trunk of a car whose key was sitting atop its back left tire. As Fabbri tells it, Turin then ripped the map to shreds. Fabbri drove to the house, found the key and popped the trunk.

Inside sat two plastic grocery bags from Shop 'n Save. The smaller bag was his, Turin had said. The larger bag the Trober family wanted nothing to do with.

Angela Turin did not return several calls requesting comment for this story.

Defense attorneys are quick to explain that in their profession, getting paid can be a minefield. Firms like Fabbri & Zotos typically take on four cases in order to be sure of compensation for two. But hitting pay dirt with a $60,000 case is no cakewalk, either.

"I'm not legally allowed to collect money I know comes from illegal activity," explains prominent local defense attorney Richard Sindel, who is among the many who wrote to Judge Stiehl on Fabbri's behalf. "So I ain't gonna ask that question. No lawyer is."

Of course, the government has its ways of policing the area. Since 1985, if more than $10,000 in cash trades hands between client and attorney within a single calendar year, the attorney is required to supply the payer's name, address and Social Security number, as well as the amount, date and reason for the transaction, on IRS Form 8300. Sindel himself was accused of violating the regulation back in 1994 and was hauled into federal court for not supplying all the information called for on the form. He eventually prevailed, but the ruling was narrow and the federal government continues to require the IRS form to be filled out in its entirety.

"From one standpoint [the law is] not tricky at all," says local defense attorney Paul D'Agrosa. "If you're paid $10,000 or more in cash, you report it. What becomes tricky is the way clients try to get around that. You have to be ever vigilant."

If Fabbri could rewind the night of November 10, 2004, he never would have pulled into the Trober driveway on Illinois Route 157. In retrospect, he says, "I should've talked to somebody."

But at the time, the end of the year was approaching and Trober's two cases required a substantial amount of work.

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