Glen Campbell, AZSCAM, Winnie Ruth Judd, Miranda… Larry Debus is no stranger to high-profile cases. His favorites, though, involve Sheriff Joe. As you’ll see, he loves suing the sheriff, a man he considers audacious and unworthy of his ongoing popularity.
For the past three decades in Phoenix, when you’ve really, really screwed up – from drunk-driving superstar Glen Campbell to “trunk murderess” Winnie Ruth Judd – you’ve called Larry Debus.
He’s the “go-to-guy” – the fearless, the savvy, the smart. And, if history isn’t proof enough, it’s a well-known fact that several prominent attorneys and journalists in town have his number memorized – just in case.
In a long and illustrious career – a career that’s still flourishing – he’s been front and center on so many famous and infamous cases in Arizona that there’s this overwhelming urge to buy him a drink at Durant’s and let him tell his tales.
It doesn’t hurt that Debus – the-flamboyant defense attorney – comes from central casting. He is tall and handsome and cool. He’s so laid back, it’s disarming. Never doubt, however, that he can pounce like a tiger, and nobody orchestrates a better fake-out. In addition, he’s got a Hollywood smile that’s charmed three wives, countless ladies and dozens of juries.
His friends call him “Debo.” They also label him tenacious, a master in front of juries, a quick mind, and a guy’s guy. You’d expect that. However, you probably would not expect to hear him described as warm, loyal, playful and a consummate gentleman. Or learn that his idea of a really good time is climbing in his boat with his college-aged son and a case of rum, and listening to jazz saxophonist Gato Barbari.
To sum it up, as Debus instructed one of his friends to repeat: “He’s simply the most wonderful human being to inhabit the earth.”
Well… maybe, maybe not, but a look behind the scenes in the life of Larry Debus unveils some fascinating corners of Arizona’s seamy side.
“Melvin Belli is on the telephone,” the receptionist announced as a 32-year-old Larry Debus with a brand-new law degree sat in his first office in the Luhrs Building in Downtown Phoenix.
“Sure he is,” Debus answered with a swagger, knowing full well that one of his nutty pals was playing an absurd joke. Because it was outrageous to think that America’s most famous and flamboyant attorney – a man who’s name was a household word in 1969 – would be calling an unknown Phoenix attorney who did not have one lucrative client to his name. (Among other famous cases, Belli represented Jack Ruby in the shooting death of Lee Harvey Oswald.)
“Mel you old [expletive],” Debus sang into the phone as he propped his feet on his wooden desk. He almost broke his ankle as his feet hit the floor at full attention when he realized it really was Belli on the line, and “The Big Guy” wanted to team up with this Arizona nobody.
By the time he got the phone call that would change his life, Debus had already made a wild run at life.
Debus was born in Kansas City, growing up with a doting mother and a bootlegging father who pulled a disappearing act rather than face an indictment. He ran with the 31st and Trust Gang, and got thrown out of Paseo High School his sophomore year for a gang fight. By 16, he was married, and soon after had two children. The young family moved to Phoenix because Debus had an uncle in Arizona – Debus supported his family on $265 a month, which he earned by working for the post office. And then one day a friend challenged him to test for the Phoenix Police Department. “I did not like cops,” Debus remembers, “but we bet $10 I could pass the test. I had no intention of ever being a cop.” His rough days as a juvenile were hardly the background of a law enforcement officer.
Three months later, he was notified that he’d passed the test, and he jumped at the $345 a month salary. “Whatever I did as a juvenile, there was no record,” he says now, with a slight smile.
Debus was No. 520 in the Phoenix Police Department, and he started out in the basement, riding the paddy wagon on Skid Row. But fate would soon push him up the line. Chief Charles Thomas went to a conference Back East and learned that the officer of the future would be college-educated. So, he came back and looked at his force. Only four guys had spent any time in college. Debus had nine hours of college credit, although it’s unclear whether the chief ever realized that this high-school dropout was simply taking bonehead classes at Phoenix College to get his GED – the high school equivalent diploma.
No matter, college was college, and within a year of graduating from the academy, Debus was made a detective – a jump that usually takes 10 to 12 years on the beat. He and his partner, John Tabor, were put in charge of rapes, armed robberies and homicides. Both were in their early 20s – so young that some of the kids they encountered didn’t believe they were really detectives.
One of their first cases was a double homicide, and these rookies had no idea how to write up the report. They went to the Identity Bureau to look up old reports and mimicked their style. It caught the eye of the cop shop reporter at the time, who told the chief he had never read a better report. “And we became stars,” Debus says with a laugh.
“We did not know anything, and the other guys wanted us to fail, to show you can’t advance kids like this,” he recalls. “To be honest, we were just trying to survive.”
Debus and his partner quickly got a reputation for over-the-line interrogations. He remembers a guy who murdered his wife and shot himself in his side to claim an intruder was responsible.
“He confessed to us in the emergency room of Good Sam, where we tried to help him with pain management,” Debus says, as he pokes his finger into his side. As it turned out, this instance of police brutality didn’t go unpunished: “His conviction got reversed because of our interrogation,” Debus admits.
Debus also was involved in one of the most important Phoenix cases ever, the one that led to the “Miranda ruling” – the declaration of rights that every cop must read to every person arrested in this country.
“Miranda was just another punk on the street,” Debus recalls. He was arrested for assaulting a woman, and was brought in for an interrogation, which was conducted by a variety of detectives, including Larry Debus.
The case would go all the way to the Supreme Court, ultimately declaring that a suspect has a right to an attorney and the right to remain silent when accused of a crime. “Miranda used to sell the ‘Miranda Cards’ [the cards that cops carry] to people on the street to raise a few bucks,” Debus remembers.
All this time, Debus was continuing with his classwork at Phoenix College. He eventually got his GED, and then started taking criminal justice courses. “All the cops got A’s,” he remembers, so he had a 4.0 grade point average when he applied for law school at ASU in 1964. He graduated in 1967, and while studying for the bar, worked for County Attorney Bob Corbin as his legal assistant. (Corbin would later go on to become Arizona’s attorney general.) After two-and-a-half years on the prosecutor’s side of the fence, Debus jumped at the chance to team up with attorney Jerry Busby in his office in the Luhrs Building. That’s where he was, in his 10-foot-by-10-foot office, when the famous Melvin Belli called and asked him to be Arizona council in the most famous case in America at that moment – the “Trunk Murderess” case involving Winnie Ruth Judd.
It’s ironic that Debus wouldn’t get his first big case because he had prowess as an attorney, but because he’d been a good cop. Specifically, a cop who had helped a woman regain her property from a dishonest evangelist. This woman turned out to be a friend of Melvin Belli’s, and as the acclaimed San Francisco attorney took on the Judd case, he needed an Arizona-licensed attorney to help him. The woman told him to hire this nice cop who’d just become a lawyer.
“To this day, that case still is as famous as any murder case,” Debus says. “Stories about it ran in Rome, Tokyo, Paris… my picture was on front pages all over the world. I was instantly famous. I was instantly powerful. Judges’ secretaries wanted to talk to me.”
He says it all with a wonder and a laugh that shows how much he loved the ride, and how it ushered in his new life. Looking back on it, it was his perfect storm.
Winnie Ruth Judd was charged with one of the most heinous crimes in American history – killing her two girlfriends in a jealous rage, and then cutting up the bodies and packing them in trunks, which Judd took with her on a train to Los Angeles. By the time the trunks arrived – in October of 1931 – the seeping blood gave away Judd’s secret. Winnie Ruth Judd – a 26-year-old beauty who claimed she’d killed in self defense – was tried and convicted in Arizona and sent to Death Row, where, at the last minute, she was judged insane and sent to the asylum at 24th Street and Van Buren.
And that’s where she stayed, except for six infamous escapes that at first terrified, and then amused the city. By the time Debus got his call in 1969, Judd had been missing for more than six years, and had recently been captured while working at a mansion in Oakland. She was being extradited to Arizona, where furious and embarrassed officials declared they were going to carry out the punishment of a woman who now was in her mid-60s.
Larry Debus knew all about Winnie Ruth Judd. In fact, the entire country knew all about her. Her name and picture had been a fixture on front pages and movie newsreels for more than 30 years. And while it looked like an open-and-shut case at the start, many doubted that this woman was really guilty of the crimes, and there was heavy suspicion that she was covering up for a famous man. (The suspicions, it turned out, were right, but that’s another story.)
It was irrelevant to Debus whether she was guilty of the crime or not. His job was to get her a pardon, because, by now, Winnie Ruth Judd had more than served her time. While the average sentence then for first-degree murder was 10 to 12 years, Judd had been incarcerated for 38 years.
But Debus couldn’t even hope for a pardon unless Mrs. Judd was in prison, and since she still was officially declared insane, she wasn’t going to prison – she was going to the nut house.
“The first thing I did is something defense lawyers never do – I got her into prison,” he says with sly pride. What he did was get her declared sane so that she could be housed in Florence, the state’s only adult prison at the time. And the minute she entered that cell, he petitioned for a commutation of her sentence from a parole board that was meeting in 60 days.
That act led to the best part of Larry Debus’ favorite story: How he fired the famous Melvin Belli.
Belli flew in for the parole board hearing in Florence – Debus remembers it was a stifling day in October, and, as usual, the board began its deliberations with a prayer. Belli told the board how touched he was that they sought divine guidance for their deliberations, and then presented a parade of witnesses to plead for Winnie Ruth Judd.
Four days later, the board denied her parole, forcing Mrs. Judd to spend a year in prison before she could even ask for another hearing.
From his California office, Belli bellowed his outrage and then announced that his Arizona associate was filing a lawsuit against the board for its unconstitutional behavior of beginning a public meeting with a prayer. Debus was astonished to hear that news, and assured the local press that he intended no such lawsuit. He also was furious with his famous partner, knowing that Belli’s grandstanding was only entrenching the stubborn and conservative board. He waited the mandatory year, and then filed for another hearing.
In the meantime, he milked his friends in the media – giving a reporter friend an exclusive with Judd in exchange for a positive editorial from the powerful Arizona Republic, which pleaded for leniency with “enough is enough.”
By the time of her second parole hearing on February 16, 1971, public opinion was on Winnie Ruth Judd’s side. Debus handled this hearing alone – keeping Belli at bay – and this time, he got the right vote. At that point all they needed was for Governor Jack Williams to sign the commutation. “We waited and waited and waited,” Debus remembers.
Unbeknownst to Debus, Belli had sneak-ed into town and had a secret meeting with the governor, getting a promise of commutation, but also agreeing never to reveal the meeting had occurred. But when he got back to San Francisco, Belli called a press conference announcing Judd’s pending freedom – Governor Williams immediately cancelled everything.
The months dragged on, seven, eight, nine, 10. Then, finally… “I got a call to report to the governor’s office,” Debus remembers. “I was told, ‘As long as Belli is her lawyer, I’ll never sign.’ I went back to the office and typed a letter for Ruth. Then I went down to Florence and told her what happened. ‘What’s your pleasure?’ I asked her, and she told me, ‘Fire him.’ So, she signed the letter firing Belli, I delivered a copy to the governor, and the next day, he signed the commutation.”
Winnie Ruth Judd left prison at 2 a.m. on December 22, 1971 – 245 days after the parole board had recommended her freedom.
Larry Debus would remain friends with Winnie Ruth Judd until her death in 1998. It was a thrilling case, and through the years, he’s spent that thrill. It was all he had to spend. He never got paid for the Winnie Ruth Judd case.
But, he was off and running. “‘I’ve got Winnie Ruth Judd’s lawyer,’ people would say, and it was a big deal,” Debus remembers. “When you’re pressed into that reputation, you work harder, dress better, you don’t want to be embarrassed by it. We got everything after that. To this day, if there’s a significant case in Phoenix, we’re considered. And we should be.”
In the beginning, a lot of murder cases came his way, and Debus started collecting mementos from his cases. He still has the .38-caliber of accused murderer Dorothy Kelm, who shot her soldier husband at Fort Huachuca in the mid-1970s.
The colonel was having an affair, and went so far as to take his young children on a picnic with his girlfriend. When he got home, Dorothy was pointing his service revolver at him. “You don’t have the guts” were the last words he ever spoke, as she shot him once in the chest, and then again as he stumbled into the kitchen, and then again as he tumbled outside. After that, she put three bullets in him as he lay at her feet. She called his mother and reported, “I finally shot the cheating son of a bitch.”
Debus’ defense in the case was simple: “The son of a bitch deserved to die.” The jury acquitted her.
After Debus won 10 first-degree murder cases, he was inducted into the American Board of Criminal Lawyers – to date, only a handful of Arizona attorneys have made that grade.
“It’s the most difficult thing to do… to sit in judgment of another,” Debus says. “We all want to believe in the goodness of our fellow man. If I can make defendants sympathetic, make a jury like them, or like their lawyer, they’ll give it to you.”
However, sometimes a win does not result in a victory. Debus was part of the Phoenix legal team that won a new trial for Max Dunlap, the man convicted of conspiring to blow up Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles in 1976. Dunlap got his new trial, but was convicted yet again, and to this day sits in prison. Many, however, are convinced of his innocence.
Later, in the famous AZSCAM case – where legislators and state officials were caught taking bribes from a “Mafia-type” hood who was really an undercover talk-show host posing as a lobbyist for legalized gambling – Debus represented bail bondsman Ron Tapp, who ended up in prison.
“It takes a passion to be a good defense attorney,” Debus says. “You have to have that fire in the belly – be willing to go to war for unpopular cases. Nobody can understand what we do until one of their loved ones needs our services. Then it’s surprising how understanding they get.”
There’s a civil side to Larry Debus, too, and he’s raised havoc there as well. About five years ago, he expanded his practice into civil suits and had a rude awakening. “Compared to the civil bar, prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers are almost saints,” he says, noting that he goes into a civil case presuming the other side is “lying and cheating.”
He has won judgments for false arrest against the city of Phoenix, and twice against the city of Mesa. One of them landed him on Good Morning America, and it’s the perfect example, he says, of what’s wrong with law enforcement – “they’ll never admit they’re wrong.”
Aaron Markley was an ASU honor student and the father of two the night he was arrested by Mesa police in 1998, accused of selling methamphetamines to an undercover Mesa police officer from a trailer on Southern Avenue.
Officers had a warrant for the arrest of one Aaron Markey – no “L” – but when they went back to the trailer to serve it, he’d left. Neighbors explained that Markey had left and moved back to Ohio.
Police went to the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division hoping to find a new local address. They didn’t, nor did they find an Aaron Markey. They did find Aaron Markley, however, then living in Tempe. Records show that this honor student never lived in the trailer, had never been to Ohio, and had no criminal record, yet Mesa police insisted he was their man.
When Markley found out there was a warrant for his arrest, he turned himself in, thinking he could easily clear up the mess. He couldn’t. His first attorney – “one of the advertisers,” Debus sneers, obviously un-happy with attorneys who advertise their services on television – told this innocent man to accept a plea bargain that would have landed him in prison for two-and-a-half years.
Instead, he hired Larry Debus. By then, Markley was being forced to submit to drug tests twice a week, and check in weekly with the court in Downtown Phoenix. The strain made him drop out of college, and his mounting legal bills forced him to move his family in with his parents.
Debus hired a private investigator who didn’t even have to breathe hard to prove the mistaken identity, nor to find the real culprit in Ohio. “But when we absolutely proved they had the wrong man, the police and prosecutors said it wasn’t their duty to set this right,” Debus says with fury.
A police spokesman told The Arizona Republic: “We are a police department. We do know how to do an investigation, despite what Markley’s attorneys and his investigator say. We are not the incompetent boobs they think we are.” (To prove it, the spokes-man confirmed that the department was “strongly” considering a trip to Ohio to look at a man named Aaron Markey.)
Debus sued Mesa, getting a $550,000 judgment. “That was the second time I had gotten a half-million from the city of Mesa,” he says. “That’s a million of the taxpayer’s money for their incompetence.”
But his favorite moment in a civil courtroom was suing Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
“I love suing the sheriff,” he says with great pride. “It really amazes me that he is popular.”
What he sees when he looks at the popular sheriff is a man who runs a filthy, rat- and roach-infested “tent city,” a man who treats people awaiting court like animals, and who is so audacious that after refusing to feed them properly, he sells them vitamin pills at 60 cents a pop. He’s filed several “claim letters” against these conditions – the first step toward a lawsuit on behalf of the inmates.
To date, he’s actually sued Arpaio four times, getting the most glee from the case involving a mailman who sprayed an attacking dog in Scottsdale.
“The owner of the dog wanted the mailman arrested, but nobody wanted to prosecute him,” Debus recalls. “Scottsdale wouldn’t, no justice of the peace would, no county attorney wanted to, but the sheriff had just formed a pet posse, and he arrests the mailman.”
So, Debus sued the sheriff, flamboyantly announcing that “the county doesn’t have enough money to settle this suit.” But he was just bluffing, admitting that “the suit was only worth maybe $2,500.” But, obviously, the sheriff did not know that. “The sheriff confesses judgment of $35,000 – in a civil case, they name an amount they think will hold in trial – and the plaintiff can accept it or go to trial. The day they named it, we accepted it. We got more than 10 times what the case was worth. I hear Sheriff Joe went nuts!”
“He has a heart as big as Alaska,” says Larry Kazan, his partner of 27 years and former brother-in-law (the two were married to sisters, who they’ve both since divorced). “And he has an overabundance of energy – those are his two best qualities. But it also means he takes in every stray dog. He’s an extremely generous guy.”
“He is famous for getting you,” Kazan adds. “He’ll look at you with a straight face, and you swear he’s telling the truth, but he’s one of the greatest leg-pullers of all time.”
His ex-wife and former law partner, Leslie O’Hara, marvels at his skills. “Larry is not afraid to take cases, and he’s good at the bluff,” she says. The quintessential Debus moment that she remembers was a mediation hearing on a personal injury lawsuit, where the entire purpose was for each side to offer and counter-offer for a settlement. “Their initial offer was real low, and Larry just started packing it up,” she says. His decision to leave the meeting instantly captured the other side’s attention.
“He’s good at bluffing, but if push comes to shove, he’s ready to go to court and will fight the fight,” she adds.
“His courtroom skill surpasses most others,” says fellow defense attorney Tom Henze. “He has a very quick mind, and doesn’t miss much.”
Defense attorney Mike Kimerer calls him a “unique individual” who has “a talent you don’t see very often.” Besides, “he cares about his clients – that’s the most important thing. He has a zest for the challenge.”
Pat McGroder, one of the most famous personal injury attorneys in town, calls Debus “warm, ebullient, a charmer, mercurial – there’s not much in life he’s missed.” McGroder has been both a professional and personal friend of Debus (and all of his three wives) for the last three decades.
He remembers many years ago when they were trying a personal injury case together. “I was just killing myself getting prepared,” McGroder recalls. “I called Larry, and he said, yeah, he was killing himself, too. I drove over to his house, and he was sitting in his underwear in the living room, eating popcorn and watching a movie with his wife. He hadn’t spent two minutes on the case. He told me to relax, and you should have seen him in front of the jury. He walks in and melds with the jury. That’s why he’s been so enormously successful in the courtroom. He is and always will be the guy I’d go to if I got in trouble.”
Larry Debus and Glen Campbell, men who resemble one another and are about the same age, have been friends for a long time. They’ve golfed together, their families spend time together, and Debus has done some legal work on “family matters.”
“He is just a regular guy,” the famous attorney says of his famous friend. “There’s nothing pretentious about Glen Campbell. If you didn’t hear the name, you’d just assume he’s a guy who likes to watch football.”
Debus was throwing a party at his home in November of 2003 when he got Glen Campbell’s call (his one phone call) announcing that he was in jail and was being charged with “extreme drunk driving and hit and run.”
With a straight face, Debus says: “It’s never been determined which of us had had more to drink that night.”
Campbell waited for his attorney in a cell, yelling, “Do you know who I am? I’m Glen Campbell… I shouldn’t be locked up like this.” Some say he broke into song.
The way the story unfolded, Campbell had been golfing that afternoon, and apparently all of his shots weren’t with a club. On his way home, he struck a parked car and left the scene. The owner of the car followed him home to the Biltmore Estates, having no clue who he was following. Campbell was arrested on his front lawn, wearing a Diamondbacks polo shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, along with a baseball cap.
Everyone saw him tip that cap as he came out of his cell to meet his attorney – the movement left his hair disheveled and made him look even drunker than he was.
“He looked like a vagrant,” Debus says.
He bailed out his friend and told the press, “There’s a first time for everything,” which actually was true. Campbell had no prior convictions, and supposedly had given up booze years ago.
“Glen and his wife have a very strong faith,” Debus says. “Because of that, I doubt he’ll have another problem.” He says those words with the look of a man who knows there wouldn’t be enough hell to pay if it weren’t so.
Like Campbell, Debus doesn’t drink and drive. “I haven’t for a long time,” he says.
While he is approaching the age when retirement usually enters the mind, he doesn’t know what he’d do if he retired. He’s afraid he’d be bored. “But that doesn’t mean I have to work as hard,” he adds.
Back in 1980, with a fabulous career at his feet, he took a break with his wife, Leslie. “Practicing criminal law ceased to be enjoyable,” he remembers. So, they took off on a boat and spent months sailing around Mexico and crossing the Pacific. “I once went five months without having long pants or shoes on,” he remembers. “You can live on $500 a month on a boat, because there’s nothing to buy, except food.”
When he left, he gave his Rolex and his Mercedes to his partners and told them to sell them. Then, a year later, he came back and started practicing law all over again.
Time will tell how long he’ll work this time, but it won’t be a surprise if he takes another “sabbatical,” escaping on his boat. Meanwhile, there are those pending lawsuits against Sheriff Joe, and, before long, another stray dog will likely find its way to Larry Debus’ doorstep.