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Thompson vs. the moonshine scofflaws

DEFINING MOMENTS | One in a series of articles on events that shaped the candidates.

October 28, 2007|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

WOODBURY, TENN — . -- The case appeared to be open and shut.

The county sheriff had been caught selling an illegal whiskey still from the back of the county jail. The buyers were a federal informant and an undercover federal investigator. The sheriff, to elude honest police, had even escorted the illegal still out of town.

But for Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Thompson, few cases would prove easy.

Today, as a Republican candidate for president, Thompson is cultivating an image as a tough prosecutor who, like the character he played on TV's "Law & Order," battled powerful criminals during his three-year stint as a prosecutor.

He was "attacking crime and public corruption," boasts a video played at his campaign events. During a candidate debate this month, Thompson said he spent those years "prosecuting most of the major federal crimes in middle Tennessee -- most of the major ones."

But a review of the 88 criminal cases Thompson handled at the U.S. attorney's office in Nashville, from 1969 to 1972, reveals a different and more human portrait -- that of a young lawyer learning the ropes on routine cases involving gambling, mail theft and, in one instance, talking dirty on CB radio.

There were a few bank robbers and counterfeiters. But more than anything, Thompson took on the state's moonshiners and a local culture, rooted in Tennessee's hills and hollows, that celebrated the independent whiskey maker's battle against the government's revenue agents.

Twenty-seven of his cases involved moonshining -- more than any other crime.

"Hell, I made whiskey and was violating the law, but I didn't do nothing wrong," said one of Thompson's many moonshining defendants, Kenneth Whitehead. "I would do it again if I had a still. I can't afford a still now."

Thompson had just turned 27 when he became a prosecutor. The public stage of the courtroom became a place where he learned to develop the strengths -- and to navigate around his weaknesses -- that would later boost him to the U.S. Senate and, now, to a top slot in the GOP presidential field.

The candidate who today shows an uncertain command of current events -- he flubbed questions last month about the death penalty -- was prone as a younger man to getting dates wrong in indictments.

The candidate who ended his first, unsteady debate appearance with a one-liner ("It was getting a little boring without me," he said of his decision to join the presidential race) would disarm tense situations with an offhand joke after he committed a mistake.

And there were plenty of mistakes.

"I've seen a lot better lawyers," said Burton Moulder, the former sheriff whom Thompson prosecuted for selling a still from the county jail. "But he was very charming. He had a nice, clear voice."

Thompson is better known for his two later stints in public service: as lead Republican counsel for the Senate Watergate committee and as a U.S. senator representing Tennessee for eight years. Thompson's campaign declined to make him available for an interview.

Thompson got the prosecutor's job through politics. He had been handling divorces and other small cases in his hometown of Lawrenceburg when Republican Richard Nixon won the White House. Soon after, the new U.S. attorney for middle Tennessee began replacing the Democratic legal staff with Republicans, as was customary at the time.

Thompson was only two years out of law school, but he had managed a Republican congressional campaign (albeit a losing one). "That gave me, I guess, some Republican credentials," he said in a 2003 interview.

U.S. Attorney Charles Hill Anderson granted his prosecutors wide latitude in choosing which cases to handle, old colleagues say. In his early months, Thompson indicted a company for selling medication that turned out to be castor oil. He later prosecuted a man who tried to board an airplane while carrying a loaded revolver. James Howard "Daddy Jim" Gipson pleaded no contest to obscenity charges that Thompson brought because of Gibson's habit of saying obscene things over a CB radio while drunk.

"We didn't get any coaching, really," says W. Buford Bates, who prosecuted cases with Thompson. "We did pretty much what we wanted to do."

Trials of his own

In his most publicized case, Thompson successfully prosecuted Johnny Pace, a bank robber who had escaped from the federal tank inside the Nashville jail. "Mr. Thompson was a true gentleman," said John Blalock, the sheriff's deputy who captured Pace in Los Angeles County. "I've never been treated with more courtesy by a prosecutor."

But Thompson's charm did not work on U.S. District Judge Frank Gray Jr., who presided over nearly all of his cases. A liberal Democrat who had worked on presidential campaigns from Al Smith's to Estes Kefauver's, Gray had little patience for fools, and even less for Republicans.

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