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

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

"And I said, 'Hell, you're not going to shoot me. In the first place, there are too many witnesses here. That's one reason that you're not going to shoot me. The second reason that you're not going to shoot me is there are too many goddamn Cooks in this county. If you shot me, they'd hunt you down like a goddamn rabbit.'

"And he shot.

"I'm standing here, and he shoots over there. He obviously wasn't shooting at me.

"But I just sort of waded into him and popped him a time or two.

"Later on, I got a call. My old friend, the district attorney, Earl Self, called, and he said: 'Why don't you get a warrant for the son of a bitch for shooting at another?'

"And I said, 'No, I don't want to do that, Earl.' I said, 'I wouldn't be able to take an oath that he was shooting at another. In fact, if you asked me, I'd have to swear, by God, that he wasn't shooting at another, because if he had been shooting at me, he would have hit me.' "

Bobby Lee would settle his score otherwise. And not long afterward, he got his chance.

It came during a trial in another liquor case. Bobby Lee had the sheriff on the witness stand. And Bobby Lee was cross-examining him.

"I got him hemmed up in a tight spot. The jury's in the box. There was an old wooden Coca-Cola crate, you know, with glass bottles, sitting down by the witness stand. And I had him hemmed up pretty well. I was working on him, and he just reached down and threw two goddamn Coca-Cola bottles at me.

"One after the other. And, hell, one came that close to my head.

'Pretty Good Whipping'

"I walked up to the stand and took him and put him down on the floor and got down on top of him and whipped up on him a little bit, and I gave him a pretty good whipping. Judge Clovis Rivers was on the bench, and Judge Rivers knew he was a tyrant. And Judge Rivers sat up there, and he cleared his throat. After a while, he cleared his throat again.

" 'You can let him up now,' he said. 'He's had enough.'

"And hell, I let him up, and he got back on the damn stand, and the case continued.

"Damn jury went out and turned my client loose."

Bobby Lee Cook was born 10 miles down the road near Chattoogaville, where his father farmed cotton during the Depression for 8 or 9 cents a pound. The family lived on bottomland along the Chattooga River, which was so clear that Bobby Lee could swim in it and fish. Cotton gave way to cattle and then to the general store. Bobby Lee's father sold overalls, horse collars and loaf bread. He had a potbelly stove and penny candy. He did not charge a deposit on Coke bottles. He simply trusted people to be fair and bring them back. They did.

That left an impression on Bobby Lee. So did what happened over in Marietta, where Leo Frank, a Jewish manufacturer, went on trial charged with killing a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan. Frank was accused of asking her for sex when she picked up her pay at his pencil factory--and then strangling her when she refused. His accuser said he helped Frank dispose of her body. A mob, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, gathered outside the court and chanted: "Kill the Jew!" Frank got the death sentence. The governor commuted it to life. But a mob broke Frank out of jail and lynched him. Eventually, a witness came forward and testified that Frank had been, in fact, innocent--and that the accuser had done the killing. Bobby Lee sat on the front porch with his grandfather, and his grandfather said: "Frank wasn't treated right. He didn't get a fair trial."

Sent to Military School

Basic training in fairness, however, did not keep Bobby Lee from being a red-haired hell raiser. It was hill-country hell raising, but sometimes Bobby Lee got pretty wild. For taming, he was sent to Gordon, a military school. Then came two years in the Navy. After that he went to three universities, took all the chemistry they offered and attended law school for a year. He ran for the Georgia House of Representatives from Chattooga County. He won. He was 21.

He got an apartment in Atlanta and showed up at the Georgia Statehouse in plaid jackets, striped shirts and bow ties--some of them red, others bright green and still others with polka dots. During his first legislative session, he took a law review course and passed the Bar. These were lean years. He got into trouble for writing bad checks. One was for $50, the other for $20.

But he made a mark as a freshman legislator. A textile mill was dumping raw dye and hot sulfuric acid into the Chattooga River. By God, he thought, that ought to be stopped. An environmentalist before his time, he challenged the textile interests and their supporters. They had no notion what was in store.

Bobby Lee called for an investigation. He got a promise of support from state Sen. Claude Pittman, whose district included Chattooga County. But then came what Bobby Lee perceived to be a double cross. When Pittman found out that Bobby Lee's demand for a probe had been reported out of a Senate committee, he moved to send it back.

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