By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
"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:
"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."
Fabbri repeatedly explores the metaphor in the weeks following his sentencing. "People know I've always been the guy that goes in and out the side door," he snarls. "They just never understood the depths of what I do."
Resolute one minute, Fabbri is resentful the next. He's upset that he went to court on October 5 with a $36,000 restitution payment – loaned to him by friends – and the judge didn't appear to take that into consideration. He's ticked that so many people stuck their necks out for him and it got him exactly nowhere.
"I got so many people in my corner," he says. "And I still got fucked."
The "side door" vitriol extends to bitterness about his profession: The long-coveted seat on the bench that never opened to him. The new breed of prosecutor, who counts cases rather than accounting for individuals. The old camaraderie between prosecutors and the defense bar, now endangered, if not extinct.
The general public lacks an understanding of criminal defense, he laments. "We work much harder, much longer, with severely different hours than any other practice of law. We sacrifice more of our lives than any other lawyers. Civil lawyers can get paid like rock stars. We never get paid. And we can't deduct our losses. I can't say, 'I worked a hundred hours and he only paid me for three.' I can't do it."
The tirade continues: "As you get older, you start categorizing the time you spent on people, on certain things. How many years have I spent in jail? I've spent YEARS IN JAIL! YEARS! ALL I DO is go to jails. Where does a criminal lawyer go to practice? JAIL! I'm going to fit fucking PERFECTLY in JAIL!
"And the judge gave me eighteen months."
Fabbri's tone softens: "It's unfair that people spit on us. It's unfair that we're considered the dirt of the profession. I had the option of the other route: The elite or the shit. I chose the shit.
"And I got eighteen months."
Tall and wiry, with ivory locks that contain a tint of maize, and ribbons of fist-fighting scars around both temples, in the right light Fabbri almost calls to mind late-period Paul Newman – right down to pale eyes that gleam like a hustler's. He's partial to jewelry, and is never without a gold ring fashioned from a 98 A.D. Roman coin that he bought years ago from a Los Angeles dealer while browsing alongside boxer Mike Tyson.
Fabbri grew up in Woodstock, Illinois, a pastoral pleasantville of 6,000 inhabitants 60 miles outside Chicago whose local celebrity was Chester Gould, creator of the Dick Tracy comic strip. The "Crimestopper" kids popularized by Gould's cartoon were a caricature of local kids enrolled in a real program started by the Woodstock Police Department. Fabbri likes to say he was "one of the originals." In fact, his picture hangs in the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum.
Frank Fabbri Jr. was an engineer bedeviled by health problems that stemmed from his military service in the Second World War. Frank III worked from age fourteen to help out. Later, an heir to the Sears, Roebuck and Co. fortune – "My grandfather was Mr. Sears' bodyguard," Fabbri explains – became his patron, helping get him through undergraduate studies at Northwestern University and Knox College.
In 1968 Fabbri came to St. Louis and enrolled in the Washington University School of Law. It was a tumultuous time on college campuses across the country, and Fabbri played a role in Wash. U.'s unrest. During the spring semester of 1970, when students twice torched the school's ROTC headquarters, Fabbri rose to the defense of a graduate student who'd been among those suspended for fomenting dissent and disobedience on campus. The American Association of University Professors took up the student's cause and got him reinstated, Fabbri recalls. "The chancellor [Thomas Eliot] wrote a letter inviting [the student] back," he says. "He replied: 'Dear Mr. Eliot, Fuck you.'"
Following graduation and two years in labor law, Fabbri joined the St. Louis Public Defender's Office.
"I watched a defendant jump through a two-foot-by-eight-foot window that was closed," Fabbri says of his first day on the job. "He didn't make it." (Meaning he lived.) "They brought him back in, bloody as hell," Fabbri goes on. "The same day I watched this guy who was cuffed, arms and legs, going like this" – he moves his hands as if steering a car – "and saying, 'The burr, the burr.' He was charged for rape and sodomy of at least two women and two young men. I thought: This is going to be something else. And I started a relatively brief but serious drinking episode that night."
In the defender's office, Fabbri rose to the No. 2 rank, with the title Chief Trial Attorney – a position he created for himself after noticing that the city prosecutor's office had done the same. He lasted nearly seven years in the office, thanks in part to hard partying with equally stressed-out friends.
"We were a rat pack," he says with obvious pride. "We had car chases, rammings. We carried dozens of eggs in our trunks and cared not for how long, because you didn't smell them when you threw them."
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."
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.)
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."
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.
And then there was the young woman Fabbri had secretly married in Havana two months earlier.
Cuba had become an obsession in the five years Fabbri had been visiting the island nation. He became an expert in cigars, salsa and las muchachas, as well as in the nation's history. The place fascinated him, and he idealized it.
"There's something to be said for the fact that two kids on opposite sides of the country open the very same math book to the very same page every day," he marvels. "There's something to be said for communism and the equalizing effect it has on life, or the fact, for example, that there is no racial discrimination.
"It's '50s life," he goes on. "You come home at five, the children are there, the wife is there, you eat dinner together, you help the kids with homework, and there're no distractions: no TV, no video games. I saw a guy once walking down the street with his thirteen-year-old son, and he kissed the son on the lips. He did that because he loved his son. I was moved. If he'd done that here, people would say, 'That's sick.' It's hard to explain, but thinking about all of that was very intriguing to me."
Belkis, Fabbri's new Cuban bride, and her extended family were constantly in need of things, from medical care to a new telephone, and Fabbri relished the role of provider. After they married in September 2004, Belkis wanted to move to the U.S. Getting her a green card would be yet another expense.
On that November night, Fabbri took the two bags of money from the car trunk and drove away. Two days later, after waiting out a federal holiday, the attorney brought the bigger bag to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"I honestly thought I was being a good soldier by bringing it in," he says today.
Upon being presented with the cash, a surprised federal prosecutor requested that an IRS agent, who happened to be working on the premises, join him to ask a few questions. Chief among them: How much money was in the sack, and where exactly had it come from?
Fabbri said he was not sure of the amount: $60,000 to $80,000, he estimated.
He then lied about how he'd come to possess the money. He told the federal officials that he'd gone to Trober's mother's house late at night, let himself in, gone to the basement and used a ladder to climb into the rafters, where, Edward Trober had told him, an ammunition box filled with cash was stowed. He said his client had supplied a map of the basement, showing where the money was hidden.
Later that day IRS agents called on Trober's mother, who told them that as far as she knew, no one had entered her house the previous two evenings. Prosecutors requested that Fabbri be removed from the Trober case. A judge granted their motion, and a federal investigation into Fabbri's activities was initiated.
IRS agents persuaded Trober, who was still awaiting sentencing, to wear a wire for a jailhouse conversation with Fabbri in January 2005. "Mr. Trober was in a position to help himself," says Kevin Stallard, who worked the case for the Illinois State Police.
During the conversation Fabbri referred to his $36,000 fee and urged Trober to stick with the ammunition-box story.
Fabbri: "Your family is important to you."
Trober: "Of course, they're important to me.'
"You want 'em? You want to give 'em up? Come on, Ed."
"...What I don't understand, what the fuck is the difference whether they brought it out or handed it to you, what the fuck's the difference? What I'm saying is the fucking story to begin with I told you is so lame."
In August 2005 Trober was sentenced to ten years in prison.
For two years, investigators probed into Fabbri's affairs. Fabbri & Zotos were asked to turn over the law firm's accounting ledgers, in which the fees Trober had paid had been entered.
The agents from the DEA and the IRS agents who investigated Trober and Fabbri declined to comment for this article, citing federal protocol. Illinois State Police investigator Kevin Stallard, who since has retired from the force, indicates that the probe was wide-reaching, but he won't comment beyond that. "I can't refer to [its nature] because there've been no charges filed," says Stallard.
In the end, the U.S. government charged Frank Fabbri with only one offense: Failure to file Form 8300.
"I almost feel like it was selective enforcement – that he pissed somebody off over there [in Illinois]," says Fabbri's ex-cop friend Dan Stewart. "Because, you know, Tony could piss off the pope."
"Judge, I never stole the money," Fabbri said at his sentencing, referring to his fee. "I received the money from his family. [Edward Trober] knew it. He knows it. I filed taxes on it. There was no deceit. Except me, when I said where I got it."
Why did the veteran attorney fail to jump through a bureaucratic hoop he knew was required by law? And why did he lie to investigators about how he acquired Trober's cash?
Fabbri supplies the same answer to both questions. He did it to spare Trober's family an investigation at the hands of law enforcement.
"I'm a co-dependent, but I'm a particular kind," Fabbri says. "Not only do I believe I need to help people, I believe I'm the only person that can help them. I have a messiah complex."
It's a rationale many who know Fabbri accept at face value. "I think Frank is much friendlier with his clients than a lot of us," explains fellow counselor Richard Fredman. "I don't think he's involved in anything nefarious. I just think he likes to talk to people and people to talk to him. And after a while you become an enabler. You start going the extra mile for the client. And it's all that effort that ends up in this."
Those in Fabbri's intimate circle say he was "spellbound" – "bewitched" by a femme fatale less than half his age.
Fabbri says that on August 2 Belkis emptied his bank account, took his grandfather's pocket watch and drove off in his car.
He hasn't heard from his Cuban bride since. He filed for divorce August 14.
"I think this woman was a money grubber," Roger Rosen, a Los Angeles attorney and friend of twenty years, says of Fabbri's Cuban romance. "I think she was very into material things and kept pushing him and pushing him, and I think he was afraid of losing her, and that's why he made a terrible mistake of judgment. The money wasn't for him. Frank never cared about money."
Some would say he should have known better: A few years earlier Fabbri's brother, Terry, got engaged to a Cuban woman, who vanished moments after her plane touched down at the Miami airport.
"You can't bring any piece of Cuba back here – whether it's an artwork, an individual or a recipe – and think that it's going to be the same," observes close friend Mark Neill, a judge in St. Louis Circuit Court. "I think his friends told him that. But Frank is a giver. He's a caretaker. He needs to be needed."
A week after his sentencing, Fabbri is in the middle of a story as he awaits lunch at Nadoz, a café near his Lindell Boulevard office in midtown. The tale concerns a sassy bumper sticker he and Nick Zotos commissioned back in the day. "This Car Protected By Fabbri & Zotos," it read.
It wasn't intended as advertising, Fabbri explains. "It was a spoof of TV Guide lawyers," he says – those knucklehead attorneys who pitch their services like carpet and car salesmen.
"Goodperson, your order is ready!" the Nadoz clerk repeats.
At any rate, it backfired, Fabbri continues. "The cops started pulling people over because of it!" One guy, he recalls, had marijuana in his car and got five years in jail.
A server appears at Fabbri's side with a tray of food. "Goodperson?" the young woman murmurs.
"Well, well," the attorney replies. "At last!"
"You go to Bread Co., you hear 'Goodperson' – that's me," says Fabbri. "You go to Nadoz, you hear 'Goodperson' – that's me. That way if I have bad day, at least somebody called me a good person."
Fabbri has a quick mind – "You really had to be on your toes to keep up with him," says St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Mike Calvin – and frequently expounds on a topic without being asked.
"When you start out as a public defender and you have to wash your pants every third day because you smell so bad because you're standing all day, every day, next to these people who've been held in jail for a week, and they stink, their breath stinks – oh, the halitosis! – it's just horrifying, and you're watching one after another after another get sent to jail, well, after a while you develop a strange sense of humor," says Fabbri. "Cynicism. Futile cynicism."
He pauses, then adds, "There's mean crimes and there's dumb crimes. Good people can do dumb things."
That's the very thought Fabbri's friends fixated on in the aftermath of his sentencing. "I know it's controversial to feel sad about someone who is convicted," notes St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Jack Garvey, "but he really is a good person. And though it takes a while to find that out about Frank, it's also part of his charm."
There was the time Fabbri dropped everything and drove to Florida to spend weeks closing up the practice of a former St. Louis prosecutor who died in a car accident. The marriage he helped to save by setting straight a friend with an alcohol problem. The children neglected by another alcohol-addicted colleague, whom he all but adopted.
"When heart disease set upon me," one local lawyer wrote in his plea to Judge Stiehl for leniency in Fabbri's case, "Frank was the first to come forward and run my office and practice while I recovered. A deed my own partners at the time did little to help facilitate."
Then there's the plaque Fabbri commissioned for the St. Louis Police Department, in memory of an officer who died in a helicopter crash.
"A lot of people think Fabbri is anti-cop, but he's not," offers fellow counselor Neil Bruntrager, who represents numerous police officers. "I ran into him recently, standing on the street corner downtown, after his car had been towed, and I took him to get it. Turns out the person running the lot is a retired police officer. He says, 'Sorry about the car,' and then he says, 'You know what, because it's you, Tony, I'm going to waive the fees.'"
Fabbri has spent countless pro bono hours lecturing at minority churches and youth-group functions as a board member of BASIC (Black Alcohol/Drug Service Information Center). He's famous for the ten-pound African slave cuff he passes around and likens to the heavy burdens created by drug and alcohol addictions.
In his letter to Judge Stiehl, BASIC director Oval Miller Sr. related how Fabbri had approached the group in 1997. "No other attorney, before or since, has expressed such a high level of curiosity and concern. We readily accepted him because we had already heard of his unique ability as a White man to 'connect' with minority youth and young adults and redirect them toward sobriety."
When the agency needed a shuttle for clients, Miller's letter continues, "Frank, on his own, found a 'one owner' 1972 Cadillac limousine and, working on it at night in his garage, totally rehabbed it. He surprised us with the gift of a virtually 'new' and clever transport car...."
During 25 years of service to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Fabbri helped launch a home-ownership assistance program, counseling the disadvantaged and ensuring that homebuilders fulfill their duties. "Frank would actually go to the homes and meet and critique the work of these contractors with the homeowner," Urban League president and CEO Jim Buford wrote in his letter to the judge. "Needless to say, meeting a lawyer in a suit at a job site remedied many problems!"
"For many of us in the African-American community, Frank has been a mentor," wrote former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White.
"I always found him to be an aggressive and honorable opponent when I prosecuted his clients," wrote former St. Louis Assistant Circuit Attorney Nels Moss Jr.
"There is no doubt that his mistake was a violation of the law," wrote U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw, "but it was a human failure, not one of the soul. As Archie Bunker once said, 'God don't make no mistakes. That's how he got to be God.'"
A former Tower Grove East neighbor shared with Stiehl one of the funnier stories related to Fabbri's go-to-the-mat mindset: "One night I returned to my abode intoxicated," the man wrote. "I called Tony and said I had been arrested and was being held at the Central District on the charge of DWI. Tony immediately said, 'Don't talk. I'll be there in fifteen minutes.' I laughed and went to bed. Tony not only went to Central District but all the other districts on the belief that the police were playing ping-pong. He did not get home until 5:00 a.m."
All who know him agree Fabbri is equally generous with his clients. "He was a 'soft touch,' to use an old expression," Zotos, his partner, wrote to Judge Stiehl. "Scores of clients never received a bill. Hundreds paid for a fraction of the services rendered." (To view a sampling of the letters written to U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl on Fabbri's behalf, click here.)
As Terry Fabbri, Frank's younger brother, puts it, "My brother has a huge heart, and the people who recognize that about him consider him a good guy. Those that don't, think he's a flamboyant asshole."
"I am a licensed attorney."
Salsa pulsing from the stereo of his plush Volkswagen Phaeton, Fabbri is chipper on the drive to the federal courthouse in St. Louis on November 2. Tanned though he appears, however, the lawyer has dropped sixteen pounds over the past three weeks.
"I am definitely not scared," he says. "I've had a lot of anxiety, but I've never been scared, and I'm not scared now.
"I did look up my [prison] register number, though: 07769-025," he adds. "That's what I am. Might as well accept it."
Two weeks later Fabbri will learn that he is to report to the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas on December 14. But for the time being he's a free man – and, as he says, a licensed attorney.
Also for the time being.
A week earlier the Missouri Bar Association filed a motion to disbar him. If the justices of the Missouri Supreme Court accept the bar association's recommendation, Fabbri will not be eligible to retake the bar exam for seven years after he leaves prison, by which time he'll be nearly 70.
Fabbri had worked until 9:30 p.m. the previous evening on a statement for the client he's meeting in court today, a 22-year-old woman who's to be sentenced for bank robbery. Pleased with the deal he secured for the woman, Fabbri takes a seat in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Sippel to await their turn. He pops a few scraps of paper in his mouth, a nervous habit he's had for as long as he can remember.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mehan is surprised Fabbri has come without his partner.
"You're not going to say anything, are you?" asks Mehan.
"Just a few words," replies Fabbri.
Mehan: "Are you kidding me?"
Fabbri: "Aw, Tom, you know me. It's my last gasp. Got to."
Judge Sippel, it turns out, is also perplexed. When Fabbri approaches the bench, the judge peppers the attorney from the bench with questions about the status of his disbarment proceedings.
"Your Honor, what I am sure of is I'm licensed to practice," Fabbri interrupts.
Sippel erupts. "I'm sorry, I'm speaking!" the judge bellows.
For the next ten minutes, Fabbri, Mehan and Sippel spar in the sparsely populated courtroom. Mehan asserts that the U.S. Attorney's Office doesn't want Fabbri flying solo on any cases, for fear his clients might later question his competence. Fabbri argues that his client is well aware of his situation and wants to stick with him.
"I'm a licensed attorney," he repeats. "I'm not here as a matter of convenience. I'm not here as a matter of pride – or, shall we say, unreflective concern. I have concern for my client."
Sippel postpones the sentencing. "I want to make sure that she has the best representation she can get," the judge concludes.
Fabbri walks back to his client. She presses her palm on his arm. "Are you all right?" she asks.
"Only if you are," he replies.
Not until November 20 will Fabbri learn that the Missouri Supreme Court has disbarred him. But he knows that his dismissal at the hands of Judge Sippel likely marked his last courtroom appearance as a practicing attorney.
"It wasn't a bang," he'll say more than once over the next few hours, as he replays what he knew would probably be his last formal appearance as a practicing lawyer.
"But it wasn't a whimper, either."