NEWPORT BEACH — When the angry letters and calls started last year, Los Angeles lawyer J. Christopher Kennedy said he dismissed them as the misdirected problems of another lawyer who happened to share the same name.
But when the complaints kept coming--from desperate clients and indignant lawyers--Kennedy said he began fearing for his own reputation and for that of his law firm, Irell & Manella, which also has offices in Newport Beach.
He then called the State Bar of California and got some sobering news: There was just one J. Christopher Kennedy licensed to practice law--himself.
"It's like something out of a Hitchcock movie," Kennedy said of his yearlong ordeal. "It's one of the most bizarre experiences I've ever had."
Today, after months of investigation by the Orange County district attorney's office, the man accused of posing as Kennedy is to be arraigned in Municipal Court in Newport Beach. Jeffery Biddle Smith of Laguna Beach is accused of illegally impersonating a lawyer and of fleecing unsuspecting clients of thousands of dollars.
Smith, who is listed in court documents under nine other names that are believed by prosecutors to be aliases, did not respond to telephone messages and a letter from The Times, seeking his comment. Smith's most recent known defense attorney, who represented him during bail-reduction hearings after his arrest in May, declined Friday to speak on Smith's behalf.
Records show that Smith, 49, is no stranger to the criminal justice system. His longest stint in custody came in the 1970s, when he served five years at the state prison in Chino for passing bad checks.
But many of those who became acquainted with him in Orange County during the past two years said they knew nothing of that. The man they knew cited his name on letterhead stationery as "J. Christopher Kennedy, Esq." He was a charming, seemingly well-connected, prosperous lawyer from Newport Beach who possessed a literate legal vocabulary.
Whether people dealt with him in court or in a judge's chambers, "Chris Kennedy" was just as plausible as, well, Arnie Becker, a character on TV's "L.A. Law."
"He makes a good impression," said one county public defender who has worked with Smith.
"He was the opposing counsel in a post-domestic modification," recalled Santa Ana divorce lawyer Richard L. Dombrow, adding that he thought Smith handled himself competently last year during appearances in Superior Court.
But when Smith's client did not begin making increased child and spousal support payments, as Superior Court Commissioner Richard G. Vogel had ordered, Dombrow tried and failed to contact his legal adversary.
"I wrote a blistering, scathing letter to Mr. Kennedy," Dombrow recalled, "and got a stunned phone call back"--from the real J. Christopher Kennedy, of Los Angeles.
Kennedy and other lawyers complained anew to State Bar officials, who referred them to local law enforcement agencies. The State Bar's enforcement powers extend only to people licensed to practice law.
Officials with the State Bar and the American Bar Assn. said impersonations of lawyers are relatively rare.
"It's a problem that we don't like to see," said David J. Brent, counsel to the ABA's standing committee on lawyers' responsibility for client protection. "The appropriate thing is to get the victim in touch with (local prosecutors) as quickly as possible."
The most expensive crime that Smith stands charged with involves a couple formerly of Costa Mesa, Lester and Margaret Armstrong, who allege that they were swindled out of $30,000.
To them, it is a sad irony that they were introduced to Smith by another, undisputed lawyer: their son-in-law, Lewis W. Clapp.
"I end up being a fool," said Clapp, who for nine years has been an Orange County deputy public defender.
"He's very smooth," Clapp said of Smith. "He has a decent vocabulary. He's polite. He seemed sort of distinguished. I don't know how else to explain it. He's a bright guy."
Armstrong said he hired Smith in 1988 because a dispute was raging over who would have to pay for extensive corrosive-soil damage to his house in Costa Mesa. When a local contractor hired by his insurance company failed to fix his badly buckled foundation, Armstrong said, he saw no alternative to hiring a lawyer.
Based on his son-in-law's recommendation, Armstrong said, "Chris Kennedy" was the man for the job. Armstrong, Clapp and an insurance company attorney said they had regarded Smith as a lawyer.
"He had me believing he was a bona fide attorney," said Armstrong, 57, who manages a transmission shop in La Mirada. "When I found out he wasn't, it knocked the wind out of my sails. . . . I paid the man $30,000, I kid you not. He could charm a bulldog off a garbage truck."
A document faxed by Smith last July to an attorney involved with the soil dispute described the "expert/investigative/professional and legal fees" paid to him by Armstrong to be $29,787. A copy of the document was provided to The Times by a lawyer familiar with the case.