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Wheeler's Mother Fires Legal Team

Linda Will says she is putting things on hold in wrongful-death suit against Northwestern.

March 17, 2004|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

The mother of Rashidi Wheeler has fired her Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.-led legal team, drawing sharp criticism from the attorney for Wheeler's father and complicating the family's wrongful-death lawsuit against Northwestern University. The suit recently was moved from Illinois to federal bankruptcy court in New Jersey.

"I'm hands-on, you know that," Linda Will said Tuesday. "I thought we needed to put things on hold, to stop everything and understand what it entails as we go into this federal jurisdiction.

"I have not obtained other attorneys or attempted to retain other attorneys. I just don't think anybody on our side has a plan. That's why I've said, 'Stop, we need to talk.' It's my intention to investigate the legal case law."

Thomas Demetrio, a Chicago attorney representing Wheeler's father, George Wheeler Jr., said the legal process would not stop, however, and that Will's "embarrassing" decision was "all about Linda wanting to be the focus of this, and being damned if Johnnie Cochran was going to tell her what to do."

Added Demetrio: "I will not talk to this woman. She has done nothing but interfere in this litigation. Her presence has been a thorn in the side to everyone. I understand she's a grieving mom, God love her.

"But she is not following the very solid, competent guidance of her lawyers, and if she's able to find another firm that can handle this case more effectively, I'll be shocked."

Will previously fired Cochran and his Chicago-based partner, James Montgomery, in November 2001, reuniting with them in 2002.

Cochran and Montgomery did not return telephone messages left at their Los Angeles and Chicago offices Tuesday.

Will and George Wheeler Jr. are co-executors of Rashidi Wheeler's estate. Rashidi Wheeler, a graduate of La Verne Damien High, was a 22-year-old senior strong safety for the Wildcats' football team when he died Aug. 3, 2001, after collapsing on a Northwestern practice field.

Wheeler's family contends that the university was negligent. University attorneys disagree with the medical examiner's ruling that Wheeler died of severe bronchial asthma, arguing that he brought on his death by ingesting the since-banned supplement ephedra before the drill.

Northwestern named two ephedra-product makers as third-party defendants in the suit and U.S. District Judge Garrett E. Brown ordered that the case be consolidated in a Trenton, N.J., bankruptcy court with 52 other claims against Nutraquest Inc., maker of ephedra-containing Xenadrine RFA-1. Brown has scheduled a status conference call on the case March 24.

Demetrio, denying a previous claim by Will, said George Wheeler Jr. wanted to pursue a low-dollar settlement with Nutraquest and that Cochran and Montgomery had urged Will to agree to such a deal, "so we can get back to the court where we belong" in Cook County, Ill.

Will said she was considering that option but didn't want Northwestern to interpret that as the Wheeler family's acknowledging ephedra as a contributing factor in the player's death.

Said Demetrio: "Once the bankruptcy matter becomes moot, which it would with a settlement, the New Jersey court would have no jurisdiction in this case and the law makes it clear that a jury may not learn through a lawyer or judicial comment that one party has settled with another. From Day 1, George Wheeler has been in favor of settling."

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