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Stetson law prof's hard ascent

In Colombia, she lost faith in the law after attempts on her life. In America, she regained it.

Published December 20, 2004

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Luz Nagle, middle, waits with daughters Natalie, left, and Luz before becoming a full professor, the first person of Hispanic descent to reach that stature at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. As a judge in Colombia, Nagle survived three assassination attempts, including one in which she shot the gunman.

GULFPORT - Luz Nagle reached the pinnacle of her law career last week when Judge E. J. Salcines slipped a black robe onto her shoulders.

The ceremony celebrated Nagle's ascension to full professor, the first person of Hispanic descent to reach that stature at Stetson University College of Law. She received a standing ovation from students and faculty.

In terms of drama, however, the achievement doesn't come close to the events that led to it.

Nagle was a judge in her native Colombia during the 1980s, a time when drug lords ruled much of the country. She survived three assassination attempts. During the second one, she rolled onto the floor of her office like the cops on television, pulled a .38-caliber pistol from her purse and shot a drug cartel's bodyguard in the leg.

She had never fired a gun before. The man she shot was trying to pull an Uzi machine gun from a holster when it got stuck, Nagle said, giving her time to out-hustle him. He and another bodyguard fled.

"I get goose bumps just thinking about it," Nagle said. That and other challenging acts have prompted colleagues to call her "petite, pretty but tough."

Professors admire her courage and her academic strength.

"She has had the experience of being a judge in extraordinary circumstances that would have tested the mettle of anyone," said Robert Batey, who teaches criminal law at Stetson.

Nagle told her story from her Pinellas County home, a painting of her family's Colombian farm peeking over her shoulder. She left Colombia in 1986, when she married her husband, Jerry. The two had met in February 1982, when she came to the United States to visit her sister who lived in Santa Barbara.

Nagle said she decided to leave Colombia because she could no longer live in a country transformed by narco-terrorism. Just before she left, a rebel attack on the Colombian supreme court building killed 15 of the 24 justices, including a few of Nagle's friends.

Nagle and others say the attack was connected to the drug trade.

She lived in fear for two years after moving to the United States.

She didn't tell anyone she was from Colombia and never mentioned her maiden name. The attempts on her life had pushed her away from the law, draining her faith in the legal system.

The law was supposed to protect citizens, she said, and in Colombia that didn't happen.

It was her husband who finally persuaded her to give the legal system another chance.

Nagle received a law degree from William & Mary School of Law in 1995.

Since then, she has racked up dozens of accolades, from serving as a law clerk for the Supreme Court of Virginia to writing several law review articles.

She has been at Stetson since 1998, where she focuses on international law, drug trafficking, human trafficking and Latin American business law.

Becoming the first full professor of Hispanic descent will be added to her resume, but that distinction makes her chuckle. "It's 2004, it's the 21st century, it's a university in a state that is so diverse," she said.

Nagle's friends and colleagues say she deserves the honor. She is a prolific writer, publishing many law review articles during her time at Stetson.

"If she's not at the top, she's close," said Batey, who has read most of her articles.

Salcines, who became one of the first Hispanic federal prosecutors in the Tampa area and is now a state appeals court judge, said he was honored to help Nagle put on a robe.

Her Colombian law degree held little value when she came to the United States, forcing Nagle to start all over. She earned two master's degrees from UCLA: one in Latin American studies; the other, a master of laws.

"You're talking about at least five additional years of study, and then she embarks on a professorial career at Stetson," Salcines said. "It's certainly a role model for others to follow. It certainly encourages Hispanic Americans that the American dream is still very much alive."

Nagle said she hopes her ascension will help the college with its diversity efforts. And she is not bitter about the events that forced her to flee her country.

"I wouldn't change anything," Nagle said. "The assassination attempts made me appreciate life and real democracy."

-- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 20, 2004, 08:28:44]

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