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Famous and Plain Folks : Country Boy Loves Law, a Good Fight

July 30, 1986|RICHARD E. MEYER | Times Staff Writer

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — When Bobby Lee Cook was 6 years old, his cousin Gus would come by each morning and holler for him to come out. They would walk up the road to school together. It was not easy.

Gus was a couple of years older. He weighed more. He was tougher. He had a longer reach. And every day, after half a mile, Gus would whip Bobby Lee. For no good reason, he would whack the feathers out of him. It did not take long for Bobby Lee to figure out that this had to stop.

He pulled a box of Wheaties down off the shelf in his daddy's store, which did not have much more than $500 worth of stock. He set aside a quart of milk, which was easier since the family had its own cow. And he got up in the morning and ate all the Wheaties and drank all the milk and left with Gus and got whipped again. Clearly, this did not work.

So that evening, he took the old No. 2 aluminum washtub that his mamma used because there was no indoor plumbing, and he borrowed a hammer and a chisel, and he chiseled the handles off the washtub. When Gus hollered for him the next morning, he shoved one handle down into the left pocket of his overalls and the other handle down into the right pocket. And when they got up the road, Bobby Lee took out the handles and thumped the tar out of Gus.

Distinguished Career

It was the beginning of a remarkable career. Today, Bobby Lee Cook is one of the premier trial lawyers in America. Among those who have never been in trouble or needed help, his name is not household talk. But otherwise, and among attorneys especially, he comes up when people speak of James Neal in Tennessee; Edward Bennett Williams in Washington; F. Lee Bailey in Massachusetts, and Racehorse Haynes in Texas. Cousin Gus gets mentioned along with a bunch of badly beaten prosecutors. When Bobby Lee Cook takes a case, it is usually for the defense. He has tried 300 murder cases, and he has won 90% of them.

From this north Georgia mountain town, he has built an international law practice that has taken him to 37 of the United States and to seven foreign nations. Tall, bearded and a country gentleman, he is smooth as corn silk, tough as a pine knot and smarter than two foxes. He has the eloquence of a preacher who could make "son of a bitch" sound Shakespearean. He rides in a Rolls-Royce and employs a chauffeur. At 59, he can name among those to whom he has lent his talent the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, Tongsun Park, Bert Lance and a large number of country folks from the nearby hills of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

Bobby Lee does it for money, sure. But his own country people have made him neither rich nor famous. He defends them as a matter of principle. And the biggest principle to Bobby Lee Cook is fairness. Everyone, everyone, he insists, is entitled to the same breath of fresh air. The rich, the poor. The strong, the weak. The state, those it prosecutes. It matters not a whit their circumstances, the nature of their trouble or who they happen to be.

There is another reason he does what he does: He likes a good fight--like the one with the sheriff of Chattooga County.

Represents Moonshiners

Bobby Lee's early clients were moonshiners and bootleggers. Back then liquor was probably the biggest industry in the hill country. Trouble was the government considered it illegal. One Sunday, the sheriff of Chattooga County and some revenuers sent undercover agents back into the hills, and they made an unusually large number of arrests. Among the apprehended was a client of Bobby Lee's by the name of Earl Tucker.

A few years before, Bobby Lee had been in the Legislature, where he had tried to do away with what he figured, even in Georgia, was a conflict of interest: Sheriffs got fees from the fines paid by those they arrested. The sheriff of Chattooga County certainly had not favored Bobby Lee's efforts to put a stop to that, nor had he much appreciated his attempts to put an end to unlawful searches and seizures--to give to the state what Bobby Lee liked to call "a little breath of the Fourth Amendment." So the sheriff was waiting when Bobby Lee arrived to bail Earl Tucker out of jail.

To hear Bobby Lee tell it, this is what happened. "I went around to the sheriff's office, and there were a lot of people there--must have been some 50 people out there between the jail and the sheriff's office. And I said:

" 'I want to get Earl Tucker's bail set.'

"And the sheriff said, 'You can't get him out of jail.'

"I said, 'Oh, yeah? I can get him out. I want his damn bail set.'

"And there were 30 or 40 people in the area; they were bringing in the bootleggers, you know, and throwing them in jail. And he pulled out his pistol, and he said, 'Well, I'll just shoot you.'

'Too Many Witnesses'

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