In the go-go 1980s, reality in Miami was more strange and intense than a fiction writer could conjure up. It was the age of “Miami Vice,” the Cocaine Cowboys and the River Cops. The FBI deemed Miami the most-crime ridden city in the United States.
This beautiful city made the Nov. 23, 1981, cover of Time magazine as “Paradise Lost.” The article estimated 70 percent of all marijuana and cocaine imported into the United States passed through South Florida. People all over America were getting high, so it was a lot of dope.
From 1982 to 1986, Bill Turnoff presided over the major crimes unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida — the busiest section in the busiest office in the country. Every day, full-tilt boogie.
In 1984, after few years as an associate at a big firm, I decided I needed more adventure and more experience — after all, that’s why I’d come to Miami in the first place despite dire warnings from classmates and others that Miami was a dangerous place. U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, then just Kathy Williams, and I started at “The Office” in June 1984.
After a mandatory stint in appeals, I went to major crimes. My chief, Bill Turnoff, was from Philadelphia. You only need to hear one sentence out of his mouth to pick up the accent. A Cornell law school grad, he sat in a smallish corner office on the seventh floor. Mr. Potato Head sat on his desk. The air was redolent of pipe tobacco, and his door was always open.
BT ran his crew with military precision. He had to — every day brought new waves of events and new waves of arrests. There weren’t many of us, and the Department of Justice had to send extra pairs of hands, known as “Bucket Brigaders.”
Despite the chaos outside our doors, major crimes was run as a quality operation, with standards as exacting as any white-shoe law firm. Bill worked long hours, reading our indictments, affidavits for search warrants, pleadings, sentencing memos — most pieces of paper that were filed with the court. He was exacting. No editor at a national newspaper or magazine could have had higher standards than Bill. If he found a comma out of place, a typo or a grammatical error, he circled it in red and brought it back to the assistant U.S. attorney who had presented the defective document to him. No comment, just handed back to the person for as many drafts as necessary for perfection. I was a former newspaper reporter used to editors and editing, but because I so adored the guy and didn’t want to disappoint him, I proofed everything multiple times before presenting it to Bill.
Federal prosecutors go to court. In those days, pretty much every day we made the trek from 155 S. Miami Ave. to the federal courthouse. It was a bitch to do that in the summer, especially in a suit and panty hose. Bill expected his prosecutors, even rookies, to be TV-quality lawyers. It was up to the more senior AUSAs to keep an eye on the newbies. That being said, with so many cases, there was only so much time to babysit junior AUSAs. There was a strong on-the-job-training element to learning how to try a case. We were supposed to have a senior person with us for our first two trials. I got through my first one thanks to Mark Schnapp, But an hour into my second trial, the senior AUSA had to leave to go to another courtroom. I have come to believe that “training” is no substitute for “doing.”
Bill kept a watchful eye on all of us, senior or junior. He went to court every afternoon and make the rounds of magistrate court, trials and hearings. Sometimes I’d turn around when I was in court and there he would be. He’d give me a grin and a thumb’s up and then be on his way. I seem to recall some sort of reward system. If you had done something well in court, Mr. Potato Head was on your desk when you came back.
The first day I went to court by myself without a handler, I was thrilled. A woman was getting ready to take a plea. She must have been in her 40s. She looked like someone who had once been attractive but life had beaten her down. She was alone, which at that point in my career I found to be sad. She had pilfered money from her job at a postal outlet in a drugstore because her son was in law school. Because she stole money from what was considered a post office, it was considered a federal crime. This seemed like nonsense to me, so I magnanimously announced the government was reducing the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. Her federal public defender and the judge looked astonished. I felt proud.
I made my way back to 155 S. Miami Ave. to explain my good deed and good judgment to Bill. He looked at me over his glasses and explained in the nicest possible way that while he appreciated my sentiments I was never to reduce a felony to a misdemeanor without prior approval. I look back on it now and realize that I was a moron and he was a prince. He could have yelled at me, put a handler on me for more time, but he did neither.
We were mostly young. Bill was in his 30s when he was the chief of major crimes. It’s shocking to think how much power and responsibility we had. Bill schooled us to exercise our authority wisely, and there was often room for compassion.
Bill ran interference for his people with the front office, with the various law enforcement agencies, with the judges and with defense attorneys. If anyone was going to have a word with one of us, it was going to be him.
Once, while I was still relatively inexperienced, I had a huge case that was getting front-page coverage in The Miami Herald. A 19- year-old woman was selling weapons that she had gotten from dirty Metro-Dade cops to dopers, who were then going to use them against law enforcement. The front office people told Bill that a more senior person should be assigned to the case and, if not, another person needed to be assigned to help me with the case. He asked me if I wanted help. Being somewhat of a cowboy myself by then I emphatically said no. He lightened my load and told me to make sure I came to him if things got out of hand. Thank you again Bill for your confidence in me.
Bill built an esprit de corps with his lawyers. There was camaraderie and teamwork that was largely the result of his leadership. If a person was underwater and needed coverage, we were expected to jump in and help. He made outrageous puns, told hysterical jokes and kept us all in good humor despite us often working seven days a week. We had a mission, and he was our fearless leader.
I resisted all efforts to be moved to a more specialized trial unit like narcotics or economic crimes. I didn’t want to leave our legal MASH unit headed by “Hawkeye” Turnoff.
He left to become a federal magistrate judge in 1986. By that time I was also ready to move on to a unit.
Despite his affection for his AUSAs and his pride in us, once he was on the bench he called balls and strikes as he saw them. He is nothing if not a fair man. Defendants in a huge narcotics case made death threats against me. We learned this through an informant. I really wasn’t that concerned, and frankly I was pretty happy about the threat because it meant I got to park in the building (now there is 24-hour a day U.S. marshal protection, but I guess we were less valuable then) instead of expensive, far-away outdoor parking.
Something had to be done about this death threat, so a motion was filed to revoke the defendants’ bond. An AUSA who was not someone Bill trained, a person from a sleepier time at “The Office,” handled the hearing. I must say it was a pretty pitiful performance. I wanted to argue the motion myself but, since I was the intended victim, that was a “no go.” Judge Turnoff denied the government’s motion. While I agreed with the ruling based on the evidence and the presentation, I admit to being a trifle hurt. After all, it was me whose life was threatened. I was one of his people! I know he felt bad, but he ruled properly. Obviously I lived to tell the tale.
I left “The Office” and went into private practice. Whenever I worked with associates with promise, I took them to visit Judge BT. He had magnificent chambers, filled with old radios, movie memorabilia and pictures of his AUSAs and law clerks. We would shoot the breeze about major crimes. Trying to explain to young lawyers what it was like during those Major Crimes days is still almost impossible. It’s like telling fairy tales or an intense dream.
Those of us who worked for BT owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. He taught us to be good lawyers, and he let us learn from our victories and mistakes how to be better lawyers. Some of the finest attorneys I know are my colleagues from those days.
After 32 years as a federal magistrate, Bill Turnoff is taking his leave from the bench Feb. 23.
Bill, to throw your favorite quote back at you, you are a great American!
Lee Stapleton is a partner with K&L Gates in Miami. She was at the U.S. attorney’s office from June 1984 to December 2000.