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Court TV's new king of bling

Las Vegas criminal lawyer Bucky Buchanan is so outrageously flashy that the only possible next step was his own reality show.

January 20, 2006|Julie Bykowicz | Baltimore Sun

LAS VEGAS — It's a Friday, and Bucky Buchanan, dressed in a blue pinstriped suit and $5,000 pointy-toed alligator skin boots -- "kill most of my animal boots myself," he wants you to know -- is about two hours late to court. Still, he strolls.

He throws open the door to the courtroom of a judge whom he openly refers to as "The Princess." Judge Nancy Oesterle shakes her head at the sight of him. "You're killing me today," she says. Still, a smile sneaks across her lips.

This is the lucky Las Vegas world of James "Bucky" Buchanan -- Naval Academy graduate, former government weapon engineer and now high-powered criminal defense attorney leading the sort of lifestyle that includes Arabian horses in his backyard, a mahogany-paneled Bentley sedan and parties with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" TV host Robin Leach. Even in this flashy town, Bucky Buchanan stands out.

Perhaps it was inevitable that he would one day have his own reality show. On Jan. 31, the spotlight on him will turn brighter with the debut of "Las Vegas Law," a Court TV program featuring Buchanan as its star.

"There's never been a show like this before. It deals with every part of the law," he says. "Plus there are the little things I do in Las Vegas. How shall I put this? I'm a party animal."

Many lifetimes ago, Buchanan, a Pittsburgh native, was a student at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Even at that early age, on that sober campus, he managed notoriety. On a warm, sunny afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay just before graduation, he sank a ship. More specifically, he and a friend drove a 32-foot schooner, taken as a war prize from a German academy, into a seawall. He was reprimanded but still graduated in 1958, in a class that included a future U.S. senator, John McCain.

"Seeing as how my naval career was foredoomed to disaster, I had to think about alternatives," he says.

He took his commission with the Air Force and for a few years designed nuclear weapons at an Air Force special weapon center in Albuquerque. But he concluded that the real money was in defense procurement. Figuring he'd advance more quickly with a law degree, he headed for Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

While working during the summers at a nuclear test site in Nevada, he became enthralled with Las Vegas and later took a job with the district attorney's office. After five years, he switched to the criminal defense work that has become his niche.

In his four decades as a Las Vegas criminal defense lawyer, Buchanan has developed a practice as gargantuan as his personality. He says he makes perhaps 5,000 court appearances and pulls in more than $1 million a year.

On this day, Buchanan, known for his foul mouth and expressive, scraggly eyebrows, is buzzing as usual through the courthouse hallways, where judges and janitors alike want to talk to him. Most public records list Buchanan's age as 70, but he's not about to confirm that. On the short side, with tight, pale skin and a bald head, he's bedecked with sparkling rings and watches. It's easy to understand why Court TV sees him as good material.

"He's colorful and can make a quip, but if that's all he was, we wouldn't be interested in a show about him," says Ed Hersh, executive vice president for current programming and specials at Court TV. "Bucky is passionate about his work. He's truly an expert at what he does."

Who are his clients? "Murderers. I mean, people accused of murder," Buchanan says. And he does steady business representing the area's many ladies of the evening. "Someone has to represent these poor girls," he says. This is, after all, Sin City.

He has represented "Springfield Sam" Manarite, a well-known, 80ish former mob boss, and "Kenny Red" Wright, deemed pimp of the year in 2003 at the annual Pimp Ball in Chicago. Buchanan scored a plea deal that included a brief prison sentence for Manarite's battery with a deadly weapon charge, and he helped Wright avoid an array of pandering and sex charges while pleading guilty to money laundering.

Buchanan scored a high-profile victory in 2000 when he defended David Mattsen, part of a group arrested in connection with the theft of $7 million in buried silver from gaming heir Ted Binion, whose mysterious death is suspected to be part of the theft scheme. After pulling about two dozen machine guns and rifles out of Mattsen's house, authorities charged the convicted felon with illegal possession of firearms, Buchanan says. Despite that raid, Buchanan persuaded the jury to acquit Mattsen of the weapon violations and cut a deal in state court to keep him out of prison on the theft charge.

"I believe in God and Buchanan," Mattsen told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Buchanan fared less well in representing Steven Gazlay, one in a group of wealthy teenagers called the 311 Boyz who were accused of beating a youth and filming their violent escapades. Gazlay was convicted in 2003.

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