By Pete Kotz
By Michael Musto
By Michael Musto
By Capt. James Van Thach told to Jonathan Wei
By Kera Bolonik
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By Steve Weinstein
This didn't come out of nowhere. Between 1984 and 1997 Heller had been sanctioned five times by courts. Here are few episodes from his hellacious career:
In one case, a judge ordered in 1996 that he forfeit nearly $600,000 in attorney fees because he had refused to hand over a $1.7 million settlement to a client whose husband was killed in a plane crash until she ponied up $121,000 for a disputed real estate loan he claimed to have made.
In 1993, an ex-girlfriend accused him of rape, but the Manhattan D.A. didn't pursue it after Heller had been arrested and initially charged with sexual abuse, according to court records. Heller turned around and twice sued the woman and her sister for false arrest, slander, libel (because the sister sent a note on a returned box of candy Heller sent, stating, "Due to the fact that you raped my sister, my mother will not be accepting gifts from you") and "conspiracy to defame and destroy [Heller's] reputation as an attorney." The first lawsuit sought $60 million from the ex-girlfriend and $40 million from her sister. The second lawsuit sought $400 million. The ex-girlfriend's attorney claimed the lawsuits were "designed solely to harass" and produced a letter Heller wrote to her stating that he would halt all legal action against her if she would agree to speak to him again. Years later, the cases were dropped.
Then there were the three cases that directly led to Heller's undoing. In one, Heller purposely dragged out, from November 1997 until February 1999, a lawsuit filed against him by an interior decorator. She had to appear in court 11 times before she finally collected the $1,700 he owed her.
In another, dating back to 1990, Heller slipped and fell, fracturing his elbow, when he stepped off an elevator in a Manhattan parking garage he says was owned by gangster Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano's famiy. During jury selection in May 1996, it was alleged, Heller inappropriately entered the juror pool room and spoke and joked with some of the potential jurors. While testifying, he gratuitously mentioned his Brazilian wife's ethnicity and spoke in Spanish, trying to curry favor with Hispanic jurors. When the jury awarded Heller $2.25 million, Provenzano's attorneys accused him of having told the jurors during his visits what their maximum insurance limit was, because the verdict, they said, matched it "to the penny." Despite denials from the jurors that this happened, the Appellate Division threw out the verdict and ordered a new trial.
Such tactics don't necessarily doom a lawyer. Behavior, however, can do it. Ed Hayes, the model for tough-guy lawyer Tommy Killian in The Bonfire of the Vanities, says of Heller, "If he was a little bit more affable, he could have been a major power in this city. . . . But he's not affable."
And that was proven in the aftermath of a 1971 helicopter crash during a Uruguayan air show. Eight people were killed, and many others were maimed. And that disaster caused numerous other collisions 30 years later in New York when Heller started defending victims and their relatives during depositions in what was known as the Stajano case. From the start, Heller was so pugnacioushe constantly objected, refused to allow his clients to answer questions, or answered them himself that Judge Martin Schoenfeld eventually ordered him, "Keep quiet. I know it's difficult for you, but keep quiet. Walk out of the room, for Pete's sake." It didn't work. At the next deposition, Heller called the opposing attorney an "imbecile."
When Paul Nassar, a forensic psychiatrist hired by the opposition, tried to examine Heller's clients who were claiming post-traumatic stress disorder, Heller really lost it. Nassar says that at the first examination, he took Heller aside, as he does all attorneys, and told him, "You have the right to observe but I'd appreciate it if you'd be a fly on the wall."
He was more like a boil on Nassar's butt. Maybe it was Nassar's size (he's a big, burly exrugby pro), maybe Heller thought the shrink was an Arab, or maybe it was an act, but Heller went on the offensive. As Nassar recalls, "He said, 'You're not such a tough guy,' and he started to threaten me as if I challenged him . . . He said, 'Listen, I'm a tough Jew. I've taken bigger guys than you.' "
At subsequent examination dates, it only got worse. Heller called Nassar a "charlatan" six times in one session and then began calling him "Abdul Gamal," perhaps after former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The judge was forced to appoint a referee, Leslie Lowenstein, to oversee the remainder of the depositions. But Lowenstein could do little to control Heller. At one point, according to Lowenstein's own account, Heller picked up a chair and slammed it to the ground, causing a frightened Lowenstein to call for a court officer.
"It was just the most inappropriate behavior from an attorney that I ever experienced," says Nassar. "It's not even close."
In August 2001, with the depositions still ongoing, Lowenstein issued a report charging that Heller was intentionally trying to "delay and obfuscate discovery" and recommended that Schoenfeld sanction him for contempt and fine him $10,000. The judge agreed and advised Heller, "Put a handkerchief in your mouth."
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