'Ethical, upright' lawyer's cases may offer clues to his slaying

Jeffrey Tidus, shot in the head in his driveway last month, was known for taking pro bono cases and donating to charity. But his work angered some 'very nasty' people.

January 10, 2010|By Jeff Gottlieb

When Jeffrey Tidus and fellow lawyer David Lash met for breakfast downtown recently, instead of eating at an expensive hotel restaurant, they met at Homegirl Cafe, where breakfast goes for $6.95.

Tidus was in a great mood that morning. He was excited about a couple of cases he'd won and how well his daughter was doing in college.

The attorneys hadn't picked the restaurant because they were cheap, but because they wanted to support the organization that runs it, Homeboy Industries, which works to keep people from gangs.

"Jeff thought it was just a great idea, and that's where we hung out and left a big tip because it felt good and was important to him to do that," Lash said. "Jeff just loved it."

Two weeks later Tidus was dead at 53, shot once in the head in the driveway of his Rolling Hills Estates home when he went outside to retrieve his laptop computer from his Prius. Tidus and his wife had just returned from their Redondo Beach toy store. That day, Dec. 7, they had given a portion of their profits to charity.

In such a quiet community, the shooting was shocking, and Tidus' friends and colleagues had difficulty accepting that the peaceful family man they knew could have died so violently.

There was an immediate sense of mystery in the neighborhood, with police looking under bushes and trees, cordoning off streets with yellow tape, and -- initially -- refusing to rule out suicide. Officers urged neighbors to stay calm.

No gun was found. Investigators concluded that Tidus was not the victim of a random crime, but rather had been targeted.

Detectives now are leafing back through his court cases to see if anyone was angry enough to have the attorney killed.

"Sometimes when something like this happens, you say, 'It figures,' " said Steven Silver, rabbi at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, where Tidus was a member. "Not with this person. This is a shock because he was such a peaceful, kind and honorable person."

Tidus was a trial lawyer, who, along with a partner, had a boutique firm with 10 attorneys. His corporate clients included New Century Financial, Isuzu Motors, California Federal Savings, Hawthorne Savings and Tokai Bank.

Unlike attorneys who seldom see the inside of a courtroom, Tidus enjoyed going to trial.

"He just loved the action," Lash said. "It was the challenge, the excitement. He just enjoyed standing up and telling a story and representing somebody that he felt needed his help."

Last year, a jury awarded Tidus' client in a breach of contract and fraud case more than $18 million after a six-week trial. "Jeff's work on the case was brilliant, and it was a blast for me to work with him," said his partner, Mark Baute.

But his practice sometimes brought him close to angry opponents.

"Jeff won some very big cases against some very nasty people," Silver said. "He pissed off some really vindictive people."

Dave Parker, who hired Tidus out of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school, agreed. "It seemed to be his lot in life to have complex and contentious cases," he said.

Parker said another lawyer once assaulted Tidus during a deposition. In one case, Parker and Tidus' opponents were a mother and son who were representing themselves. "We'd win a motion and that afternoon would be a bomb threat at our building," he said. "When we'd appear in court, two armed bailiffs would be standing between this mother and son and us."

During a deposition in 2005 in a theft case, the defendant took a photo of Tidus and made what the lawyer considered a threat. Tidus was worried enough that he obtained a restraining order. Two years later, Tidus won an $11.2-million judgment for his client.

Silver said Tidus never expressed fear to his wife. "His wife asked me today why he wasn't more alarmed," the rabbi said. "I told her men and women have different thresholds about danger."

Tidus also represented some clients for free, not simple cases that could be resolved quickly, but complicated disputes that required time and energy.

One pro bono client was Irene Gut Opdyke. As a teenager in Poland during World War II, she saved at least 12 Jews by hiding them in a villa where she worked as a maid for a German officer. When he learned of her activities, she became his mistress in exchange for his silence.

Opdyke had signed a deal with a promoter giving him rights to her story. She sued, saying he had manipulated her into signing contracts she didn't understand because of her poor English.

Tidus had told Lash, then-executive director of Bet Tzedek legal services, to call him if he needed someone to try a case. "He especially liked to try cases where a righteous principle was involved," Lash said.

Tidus spent two months preparing for trial, and then at least a month trying the case, driving to an Orange County courtroom each day.

As the jury was about to deliver its verdict, the two sides reached a confidential settlement that restored Opdyke's rights to her story.

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