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COVER STORY

Spoiling for a Fight

For almost 30 years, Stephen Yagman has butted heads with authority. In some circles, he's a pariah; others see him as the last hope against bullies with badges.

June 28, 1998|HECTOR TOBAR | Hector Tobar is a Times staff writer. His first novel, "The Tattooed Soldier," was published by Delphinium Books last week

In some circles, it's hard to imagine a more frightening, or at least disorienting, thought: Stephen Yagman with a badge. Yet there it was. Last November, at the request of a county prosecutor in Idaho, a Los Angeles federal judge deputized the man many see as the Anti-Cop. Now, after three decades of suing law enforcement officers, Yagman had a shiny brass shield of his own--and the chance to put a lawman behind bars.

A few weeks after his unlikely swearing in as a "special deputy prosecutor," the veteran civil-rights attorney traveled from Los Angeles' urban madness to bucolic Bonners Ferry, population 2,360. From there it was a 30-minute drive to the ruins of a shack on a bluff overlooking the wind-swept panorama of a mountain valley. This is Ruby Ridge, where white separatist Randy Weaver took on a small army of federal agents in a 1992 siege that became, for some, a symbol of law enforcement run rampant.

Yagman wanted to see the site before winter buried it under snow. Denise Woodbury, the Boundary County prosecutor who gave him his badge, spent about an hour playing forensic tour guide, pointing out where Weaver's friend, Kevin Harris, was said to have shot and killed a federal marshal (Harris was acquitted) and the spot where, in turn, federal agents shot and killed Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sammy. She led Yagman on a climb to the pine tree behind which FBI sharpshooter Lon Horiuchi hid as he fired the bullet that took the life of Weaver's wife, Vicki. As they walked, Yagman talked to Woodbury about hiring a ballistics expert and perhaps bringing out the jury for a tour of the shooting scene. But his interest in the case extended beyond such nuts-and-bolts legalities. An FBI commander at the site had issued shoot-on-sight orders, authorizing the sniper to fire at any adult carrying a gun. A Justice Department probe concluded that the orders were unconstitutional. "This was about the honor of the insane federal bureaucracy more than anything else," Yagman said. "This was war games for morons."

Yagman has built his reputation with his mouth but has often stuck his foot in it as well. More than once, his biting comments have nearly sidetracked his successful and lucrative career of litigating against law enforcement. But for a moment, as we slipped down the muddy gravel road, heading back to town, it seemed as if he was adjusting to his new role. "My responsibility as a prosecutor is to not discuss this case with the press," he said. "My duty . . . is to the people of the state of Idaho. Both the prosecutor and the people win when there's a fair trial, no matter what the verdict is."

About a month later, when Horiuchi's preliminary hearing got under way in Bonners Ferry, Yagman entered the small two-story courthouse without answering any questions from the throng of reporters gathered outside. But at a press conference after the hearing, he said: "I see no difference between this and a drive-by shooting in the 'hood." Later, he threw the case into turmoil by suggesting in open court that Horiuchi was lucky he'd been charged only with manslaughter, not first-degree murder.

So much for his self-imposed silence.

*

"I'm not interested," Yagman said from his car phone when I first called for an interview. "I won't be the instrument of my own demise." And yet, a few days later, he sent me an inch-thick stack of documents, including a dozen or so newspaper clippings about himself, with headlines such as "Attorney Tops Cops' Most Unwanted List," and "Lawyer Sits One Out After Stepping on Many a Toe."

I called him back, thanked him for the material and asked about the interview again. "No," he said.

Not long afterward, he phoned from the federal courthouse and left a message on my voicemail: "Hector, where the hell are you?"

I went to court, saw the tall, Brillo-haired Brooklynite cross-examine some cops and witnessed his famously articulate and belligerent courtroom demeanor. When it was over, I asked him about the interview again.

"The answer is still no."

Suffice it to say that long before Stephen Yagman had officially agreed to talk, long before our first formal interview, he was updating me on his travel plans, telling me about the movies he'd seen, sending me a list of his friends (complete with phone numbers) and leaving more messages on my voicemail. "Esto es Esteban Yagman," he said on the tape once, speaking in a thick accent, part Brooklyn, part gringo tourist. It seemed he was trying to endear himself to me--which struck me as strange. This is the same man, after all, who will simply shrug if you tell him a lot of people think he's a jerk--who will say that it's his job to be the nails scratching the chalkboard, the annoying noise that makes you stand up and notice that something is wrong.

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