I'll Probably Die in That Chair: Legendary St. Louis attorney Frank Anzalone can't envision a time when he'll no longer be practicing law

I'll Probably Die That Chair: Legendary St. Louis attorney Frank Anzalone can't envision time he'll no longer practicing law

The opera star with his face painted white is singing an Italian aria about heartbreak. "Laugh, clown, laugh at the sadness that is poisoning your heart," his voice booms.

Through thick-frame glasses, Frank Anzalone watches the performance on this January evening, rummaging through the pockets of his gray suit pants in search of a peppermint. The 61-year-old Clayton attorney is in attendance because he insists Pagliacci is the only decent opera the nineteenth-century Italian composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo ever produced.

The show at the Missouri History Museum, says Anzalone, is worth getting home late for, noting that he's got to catch an early-morning flight to Las Vegas, where he plans to watch the Super Bowl with his son. An opera aficionado, Anzalone says the singing was satisfactory, but the staging too sparse. Besides, he adds, Pagliacci — the clown looking for revenge — is not at all convincing.

"He looked like too much of a wimp," Anzalone says in a soft voice, slipping into a large black jacket and putting on his black Kangol hat.

Earlier in the day, Anzalone is in a St. Louis County courtroom for a sentencing hearing. Decades of hard time hang in the balance. It's almost 11 a.m. when he arrives from his Clayton office on Bonhomme Avenue.

"Where's Frank?" Judge Maura B. McShane asks just before Anzalone shuttles in aboard a red electric scooter, which he's been riding the past two years because he won't take the time to get surgery on his damaged ankle.

"The idea of being out of commission would drive him crazy," explains Elizabeth Gilpin, Anzalone's legal assistant of eleven years.

Today's client is Conrad Dominicus, a man charged with shooting his ex-girlfriend's boyfriend on a winter day in 2006. The defendant drove from Los Angeles to St. Louis to find the boyfriend. He tracked him down to his St. Louis County apartment, put on a ski mask and crouched behind the bushes. When the boyfriend arrived, Dominicus shot him multiple times and fled. The shooting victim survived.

"He was shot five times," says Patrick Monahan, an assistant prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County. "He was shot in the upper chest area. You have to take everything into account."

"Wait a minute," Anzalone counters. "You can't say he was trying to kill him. That's like saying if someone was driving drunk and hit someone and killed them, they intended to do it."

"You know what, Frank, he came from California to shoot," Judge McShane says, staring at him.

"I honestly think twenty is what should happen with the case," concludes Monahan, folding his arms across his chest.

"He came from California to shoot this guy," Judge McShane repeats.

Leaning on his cane, Anzalone says in his usual rapid-fire delivery, "There was no gain. This man was shot but wasn't seriously hurt. I've shown that the defendant is a working man. Obviously, he reacted irrationally and emotionally. I would ask the court to consider a sentence significantly less than twenty years."

Judge McShane nods. "I've listened to what you've had to say, but I think, overall, the sentence I'm going to give is the appropriate sentence."

"I'll contact your mother," Anzalone says, shaking his client's hand after the judge metes out the twenty-year sentence. It is the harshest sentence a client has received from a guilty plea in fifteen years.

"See you, Pat," he says to Monahan.

"See you, Frank," Monahan says to Anzalone.

As he prepares to leave, Anzalone mumbles in the direction of the victim's family, "I'm sorry for what happened." Before they can respond, he's already out the door.

In all of his 38 years of practicing law, Frank Anzalone has never advertised. The drunks, the drug users, the pyros and the trigger-happy dads find him through word of mouth. He compares himself to a doctor, saying his job is to treat the condition and not obsess about the cause. In short, if you have some money, Anzalone will offer a patient an ear, though he won't mince words.

"I don't care why you're sick; I just want to try and make you better," he says.

As a rule, Anzalone prefers not to represent juveniles. They're too young and impressionable, he says. Nor does he like to defend people who don't pay child support, saying there's no defense for that.

"I'm much more selective in the cases I take now," Anzalone explains. "I feel bad about taking money from people other than the ones who are charged."

But the scale of justice, he says, doesn't always weigh the truth: "We're too quick to judge whether people do something legal or illegal. It's much worse to break someone's heart than steal their car."

Anzalone has lived alone for more than fifteen years in a small condo in Brentwood. His mercurial marriage to a St. Louis prosecutor ended in divorce in 1979. Anzalone recalls how she hated to get client calls at their home, and that sometimes he'd arrive at the residence only to find dent marks caused by her flinging the phone into the walls.

A certain sense of cynicism pervades Anzalone's view of the legal profession. "The biggest lie is that we provide a noble purpose," he says, sitting in his Clayton office. "I've never had someone who asks me to protect their rights."

Anzalone has struggled with his weight his entire life. "It makes you identify with the underdog," he says. "Expectations are very low because the expectations are very low for fat people."

On a recent afternoon, he listens as a woman in her twenties asks him to review her boyfriend's case and get him an early release from jail. "If you're looking to get him out, it's not going to happen," Anzalone says.

Over his left shoulder, a black-and-white poster of Tony Montana smoking a cigar in a hot tub hangs on the wall, with the headline "The World Is Yours." Near the entrance, there's a display of medieval swords and two mini-statues of Michelangelo's David (one fat, one not).

To the side of his desk, a pink pig statue rests on a treadmill, a plate of fake donuts just below the snout. It is emblematic of his life philosophy, he says: "You have to keep moving or you get slaughtered."

The phone rings. "What? No," he says, cradling the receiver against his ear. "You can't just live somewhere for two years and then say they treated you badly." He chuckles softly. "If it made you sick, why would you live there? OK. Good luck, and tell your mom I said hi," he says.

He hangs up and turns back to the woman. "Anyway, I can't get him out. It would be a waste of my time and your money."

Anzalone has a passion for magazines, and his office waiting room is awash in them. Subscriptions range from Golf Digest to High Times, and he reads as many as 40 publications a month. Photographs of prize-winning horses, many of which he owned at one time, also line the walls.

Over the years he's traveled with his son, Anthony, 25, and Stormy White, a former public defender who now rents an office from Anzalone. "We went on lots of trips to Vegas," says White, smoking a cigarette in her office. "But Frank never went to places like Tahiti. Frank would never stay in a grass hut."

White is the mother of his son, but the two never married. Says Anzalone: "I liked Stormy too much to marry her."

Over the course of his legal career, Bill Shaw has hired hundreds of public defenders. "Frank was heads and shoulders the brightest attorney that I ever hired," says the retired 84-year-old St. Louis public defender.

Shaw still remembers the time some 30 years ago when Anzalone defended a man facing the death penalty for participating in a rape and murder. All of the others involved hired private lawyers — Anzalone was a public defender in those days.

"Frank got in there. He didn't shave the night before, and he talked about the burden that was on him to try and save someone's life from the gas chamber and how he couldn't sleep," Shaw recounts. "The jurors did not give him the death penalty in the case. They ended up feeling sorry for him."

Few people know Anzalone better than St. Louis County circuit judges Robert Cohen and Steven Goldman. The three men studied together at Saint Louis University's law school in the early '70s.

"He has the greatest oratorical skills of anyone I've ever known," Cohen says. "Some people can think on their feet very quickly, which is good for cross-examinations."

"He has the most tactically brilliant argument style," adds Goldman.

Recounting a case that is still talked about in judicial circles, Cohen remembers Anzalone once convinced a judge that his client didn't commit burglary because the "preponderance of the body" did not enter the home. "That Frank can concoct these things is believable. That he can get people to believe them is remarkable."

Cohen is particularly impressed by Anzalone's encyclopedic memory. During jury selection for a trial involving crack-cocaine possession, Anzalone memorized the last names of all of the 40 jurors. One approached him later for a business card.

Goldman, meanwhile, credits Anzalone's ability to empathize with people of all stripes as the key to his success. Anzalone spent years in law school working as a corrections officer talking to inmates, Goldman says. Another little-known fact is that the name on his business card "Fiser" refers to a talented St. Louis attorney named Mary Fiser who died decades ago of complications from alcoholism.

"He kept her name as a remembrance," Goldman says.

"Frank is a very private person. Getting to know him is like peeling away the layers of an onion," notes Cohen.

Anzalone acknowledges as much. He says one of his favorite movies is Shopgirl, a story about a lonely businessman played by Steve Martin. "This is the first time I haven't teared up watching this," Anzalone says, sitting in his office in front of a large television screen as he watches the end of the movie. Then Martin delivers the last line: "He cannot justify his actions except that, well, it was life."

Clifton Hyatt comes to the door of his Oakville home last month wearing a blue-striped bathrobe. He's six-foot, just over 70, with grayish-white hair that is combed and parted.

As he walks around the residence with towering ceilings, a place once owned by former St. Louis Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi, he talks about his favorite attorney. "Getting a bill from him is like pulling teeth," he says, shaking his head. "I would call and say, 'Give me the goddamn bill!'"

In a recent meeting with Anzalone, Hyatt took the matter into his own hands and pulled out $500 in cash and slapped it into the lawyer's palm.

Hyatt pays Anzalone to represent young men, often with criminal backgrounds, who occasionally perform odd jobs around his home. By his count he says he has steered at least eight or nine clients Anzalone's way.

A retiree at 40, Hyatt is the beneficiary of a trust fund set up by his grandmother. He also inherited money from his father, a vice president of plant operations for Anheuser-Busch. It is a pedigree his part-time employees take advantage of.

One man knocked him over and stole his wallet. Another guy stole his Escalade in the middle of the night and took the police on a high-speed chase before crashing the SUV into the side of a house.

"The police call them shit-bums," he notes.

Back in Anzalone's office, Hyatt prods him to investigate why the police haven't filed a full report about the Escalade being stolen.

"You keep dropping the charges!" Anzalone says.

"What am I gonna do, throw him out on the street?" Hyatt responds.

"I'll look into it. I'll talk to the prosecutor and have him get back to you," Anzalone says.

Legal representation aside, Hyatt says, "I worry about his weight, and he worries about my health," acknowledging his smoking habit despite a series of heart attacks.

The Beasley family is also good for business. "He's represented my grandfather, my dad and me, and now he's going to be representing one of my nephews," explains Raymond Beasley Jr., a retired professional lightweight boxer from St. Louis.

Beasley says his father, now deceased, avoided jail in 1987 after Anzalone convinced a jury he should not be imprisoned for shooting a man and paralyzing him. The man was in a gang of four men who were beating up a teenage Beasley Jr. at the time.

Beasley says Anzalone defended him against a charge of resisting police arrest. "Police were trying to Mace my wife who was pregnant at the time," he says.

"Frank is like a member of our family. He goes to funerals and other events," Beasley continues, adding that his father and Anzalone also attended several of his boxing matches, including a particularly bloody bout in Las Vegas.

"Queen me up, baby!"

Standing in front of the blackjack table, a man named Shaheem is smoking and drinking hot tea at the French Lick Resort and Casino in French Lick, Indiana.

Although there are plenty of casinos in St. Louis, Anzalone says French Lick is worth the three-hour drive. "It's just a nice, relaxing place," he says earlier, scooting down the quiet halls of the hotel.

"Ace or face! I take care of you!" Shaheem yells at the blackjack dealer, tossing $20 in chips in the dealer's direction. He introduces himself to Anzalone.

In the hours before Anzalone turned 50 — a milestone age, he says — he addressed a letter to his son with a list of thirteen "life principles" to live by. The principles are based on lessons from his father and grandfather.

No. 2: "No matter what profession you choose, there is no need to make money off your friends. There are eight billion strangers in the world to get rich off of."

No. 7: "Of all the world's emotions, embarrassment is the most wasteful and useless."

No. 9: "When your luck turns bad or tragedy strikes, always remember that the world is filled with people in worse situations than yours. Use your energy to be thankful that things aren't worse."

Shaheem stacks his chips higher and higher, and Anzalone says nothing. The chips at his elbow are clumped together in a puddle.

At 4:30 a.m. Anzalone will finish with an $1,800 profit. Shaheem quits playing an hour and a half earlier and says he has lost at least $15,000. "You should watch Frank bet on horses," marvels Joe Hogan, a St. Louis criminal defense attorney who worked for Anzalone in the late '90s.

Hogan is sitting at Kilkenny's Irish Pub in Clayton next to his partner, Steven Sokolik. Both men say the year that Anzalone won big, really big, was 1999. The St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl, and Anzalone won $50,000 on a preseason $250 bet.

Sokolik, a former prosecutor, says when he decided to work for Anzalone, many people in the prosecutor's office warned him against it.

"'Why do you want to work for him? Are you crazy?'" Sokolik recalls them saying. "He's a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants person. Everyone said, 'You'll be working 70 hours a week.' But where else can you go out to eat with your boss at midnight?"

Despite good standing with the Missouri Bar Association, Anzalone did receive a written admonishment in November 2007. It seems he failed to mail a file requested by a former client to the proper location, according to the chief disciplinary counsel.

"That's the first I've heard of it," Anzalone says, when notified last month. He intends to contest the relatively minor charge. "I had no idea I received an admonishment. If that's correct, it's the first I've received in 38 years."

It's one for the history books, or at least the Frank Anzalone history book, a work that is in progress every day in his Clayton office and without any foreseeable deadline. The ending, though, has been writ.

"I'll probably die in that chair."

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