The Best Lawyer Money Could Not Buy
by Tom Hine, October 30, 2013
Bert Schlosser’s noisy, crazy, woozy, boozy days are gone, and so is Bert. The wildest man and the best lawyer in Mendocino County’s pond of criminal defense practitioners leaves a legacy unmatched and unmatchable. He was the out-sized giant who strode through the courthouse and through life leaving behind a trail of dazzled onlookers, many of whom admired him.
Local bars will miss him; china shops will at long last be safe. Inmates at the Mendocino County jail should all be wearing black armbands for the rest of the week because their fiercest champion, their biggest dog and their best shot for getting out from under whatever criminal charges were pending against them is no more.
Bert was the best damn lawyer money couldn’t buy. He was a Public Defender by trade and by calling. He loved the give-and-take shoving matches that his trials so often resembled. He was tough and he was sharp and he was always the smartest person in a courtroom full of people who think they’re awfully smart.
Over the years he lost some cases, but his victories far outnumbered them. He didn’t have the luxury of choosing his clients as they rolled off the legal system assembly line and collapsed onto his desk. He took them all. He represented people accused of murdering spouses, raping neighbors and holding cockfights in their backyards… (For that case he wore a plastic rooster mask in court.)
Bert and his wife Wally (aka Deborah) stormed the town in the late 1980s, Bert holding a faded yellow plastic bubba cup full of bourbon and Wally holding on for dear life. A tall, striking, movie star-like blonde, Wally seemed an uneasy fit with the loud, rotund, profane Bert, but the match was in the details. One such detail was undoubtedly that Wally not spend too much time worrying about her husband’s behavior. She attained the status of “long-suffering wife” while they were still on their honeymoon. They had a pair of adorable children, William and Eve, both of whom have emerged as admirable adults despite having been raised, if that’s the right word, by Bert Schlosser.
An earlier paragraph mentioned that Bert was always the smartest person in any courtroom I ever saw him in, but it’s also true he was the smartest person in any room, period. No matter the topic, hardly anyone knew more about it than Bert.
Renaissance art? Unless there was a UC professor in the room who specialized in the subject I guarantee no one knew more about Renaissance art than Bert. Marlin fishing? Bert not only knew about it, he’d done it. Ditto for breeding and raising tortoises. Same with tile setting, engine rebuilding and growing orchids. Bert knew at least something about everything and was a master of plenty. Is there anyone else in the room who can field dress a deer, frame a house and knows which All Clad pan is best for sautéing pancetta?
All this leaves aside his vast attorney skills, which at bottom were people skills. Bert knew people and how to communicate with them. He could read potential jurors as if they had their biases printed on their foreheads. He could cajole prosecutors with intimate, merry familiarity and minutes later, when trial resumed, be pointing a stubby index finger inches from their face while accusing them of ghastly mischief.
Cross-examining a police officer on the stand in a trial involving drugs, Bert asked the cop how much cocaine had been confiscated. “Sixth-tenths of one gram,” said the officer. Bert sighed, turned, and shook his head. “Sixth-tenths of a gram?” he muttered loudly. “Hmmph. I spilled more coke than that on my shoes last night.”
Deep into a jury trial of a young man accused of murdering his infant son, Bert saw a crack of light while presenting a defense to the charges. He suddenly realized the defendant, who had admitted to his family he’d killed the boy, and who had helped the police video a re-enactment of the crime, and had gone to church with his wife to confess to the pastor was in fact innocent. And he simultaneously realized that the wife on the witness stand who was now testifying against her husband about the horrible crime was in fact the perpetrator.
Bert heaved to his feet and took over questioning her. The earth moved. Tiny fissures became cracks, and insignificant inconsistencies became treacherous lies, and three days later the jury returned a Not Guilty verdict. Bert saved that man’s life.
As a criminal defense investigator I worked a quarter century on cases with Bert. It quickly became part of my introductory greeting to new, beleaguered defendants that I visited in jail to say the only good thing to happen to them since being arrested was that Bert was now their lawyer. No matter the charges, with Bert they now had a fighting chance, and a reason for hope.
The fact that this optimism came in a great big unkempt sweating package of red-faced bluster made for curious reactions among those who neither knew of Bert nor his reputation.
Yes, he was a rough and rowdy character, but he also collected first edition books, rare and exotic marbles, scale model war planes, pelts, old pocket watches, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, and roadkill skulls. Most were on display in his law office. And if you hung around long enough you might even spot an old law book or a briefcase.
He was recently preceded in death by his friends Alice and Speed, owners and residents at the now-shuttered Harold’s Club, and his famous former lawyer-in-arms, old pal Richard Petersen.
He was an unpretentious man who hadn’t a vain bone in his body. At Harold’s Club he drank and wagered and gave free advice. He also gave free advice down at the courthouse, startling successive generations of young Public Defenders and District Attorneys with his cannonball personality and monstrous talents.
No one could match him. It was always enough to simply stand back and gaze, in shock and in awe.
William Bert Schlosser was 59.