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Promising Lawyer Now a Defendant

Accused of embezzling from an estate, Angela Wallace also is a suspect in two slayings. Her family insists she will be cleared when the truth comes out.

October 14, 2002|Richard Fausset and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

Angela Wallace started humbly enough, the daughter of a postal worker. She applied herself in school, and achieved.

Wallace worked her way through law school and then paid her dues as a struggling young attorney in solo practice, taking her share of routine work, from drug cases to personal injury.

She was bright, hard-working and personable. Those qualities helped Wallace drive hard and rise high, counting among her friends and clients such celebrities as basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson, rap star Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, entertainment executives and judges.

But after years in the circles of some of the city's premier athletes, entertainers and politicians, Wallace, 41, finds herself down again, stripped of her law license, facing a possible eight years in prison if convicted of embezzlement, and a suspect in a double homicide.

Wallace's short but promising legal career is now seen as a cautionary tale on the perils of ambition, Hollywood celebrity and greed.

"She's the stuff that movies are made of," said former state bar examiner Teresa M. Garcia, who successfully prosecuted Wallace for professional misconduct in 1998. "Her appearance was totally deceiving. She looks so prim and proper."

Wallace grew up as the middle child of seven in a tight-knit family, according to an older sister, Leah Wallace. She was an honor student who served as ninth-grade class president and drill team captain at Palisades High School. A high school teacher inspired her to become a lawyer.

Wallace graduated from USC Law School in 1985 and passed the bar exam three years later, according to court documents.

"Angie liked the American dream [but] she's not corporate America," said Deputy Alternate Public Defender Michael-Loren Miller, who has known Wallace since they were high school students. "We both kind of dance to our own tune. We both wanted to be rich.... She was going to make her mark."

Wallace moved easily in the worlds of pop music and sports, attracting celebrity cases and clients.

She defended Aaron Hall, a singer with the platinum-selling R&B group Guy, in 1996; represented the family of Kevin Williams, a former professional football player killed in a 1996 train derailment; and won a confidential settlement for a pregnant former girlfriend of New York Knicks forward Larry Johnson in 1998.

While hosting events for the Black Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles and the John M. Langston Bar Assn., Wallace entertained state Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown at her Hancock Park home.

As is true for most lawyers in private practice, there were disputes with clients, and some setbacks. Several clients complained to the State Bar of California, the agency that regulates and licenses lawyers, that Wallace failed to return calls.

Another contended that he lost $124,000 when Wallace failed to show up for a court hearing.

But Wallace's real problems began when she took the job of representing the estate of a Santa Monica retiree, Max Wolf.

Days after Wolf died, Wallace moved $206,000 of his money into a trust account that she controlled, using checks with forged signatures, according to state bar records and a civil lawsuit. She then wrote 16 checks on the account, most of them payable to cash, those records show. At her disciplinary hearing, Wallace said she had not known Wolf was dead when she was duped into authorizing the payments by someone who impersonated him.

Wallace pleaded no contest in State Bar Court in 1998 to seven counts of professional misconduct, including mishandling the money. She was suspended from the bar for two years.

Her troubles mounted that year. Wallace was ordered to spend five days in jail and was fined $1,000 for perpetual tardiness in court. And an adversary alleged in court documents that a Wallace associate threatened to kill him if he didn't end a protracted dispute with her over referral fees.

In June 2000, Wallace met Howard Byrdsong at his mother's funeral and offered to help him settle her estate, according to court documents.

Byrdsong's mother, Shiree Arrant, was a Los Angeles police officer who died of a brain tumor. A single parent, she left her estate to Howard Byrdsong, her oldest son; it included a $380,000 life insurance policy and her house.

In August 2000, Wallace received the insurance check and opened an account in Byrdsong's name using a forged power of attorney, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald E. Goudy of the office's organized crime division.

Prosecutors allege that Wallace then wrote a number of unauthorized checks on the account, making them out to herself, cash, her law firm and others, including New York attorneys Edward Panzer and Bruce Cutler.

Cutler, who gained fame representing New York Mafia boss John Gotti, said Wallace's $40,000 check helped pay for the defense of Wallace's friend, Darron Bennett, a Los Angeles-area resident who was acquitted on cocaine charges in New York.

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