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Lyons' attorney a natural in court

"He's not afraid to tee it up and go to trial, and he wins more than he loses," a former prosecutor says.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 4, 1999


The biggest courtroom in Pinellas County was crawling with people. Television cameras lined the jury box and spectators filled the gallery to see the Rev. Henry J. Lyons arraigned on charges of grand theft and racketeering in March.

Lyons sat with his four attorneys. Three of them seemed stiff and ill at ease, but the fourth was as comfortable as if he were in his own living room.

He even cracked a joke with the judge.

The other attorneys had greater fame (F. Lee Bailey was part of O.J. Simpson's defense team) or greater experience (Anthony Battaglia, 70, has handled hundreds of federal cases) or greater rapport with the client (Grady Irvin attended Lyons' church).

But none of them was more at home in a Pinellas criminal courtroom than Denis de Vlaming, defender of mayors, police chiefs and professionals in trouble.

Look in the Yellow Pages for de Vlaming, and all you'll find among the big-print ads is a tiny listing. Yet the clients find him -- particularly the wealthy and the well-connected. They flock to his Clearwater office because when it comes to criminal defense in Pinellas, they know he's The Man.

Even his adversaries praise his abilities.

"If I was ever in trouble," said prosecutor Mary Handsel, "I'd hire de Vlaming as my attorney."

Lyons' trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 11, may raise the profile of the 51-year-old de Vlaming, now the senior attorney since Battaglia and Bailey bailed out.

De Vlaming calls the case one of the most challenging of his career. But his main mission -- getting someone out of trouble -- isn't much different from what he was doing 30 years ago.

Except now he's not wearing a bathing suit.

'Such smarmy people!'

Snapshot of nearly any summer day on Long Island in the late 1960s: New Yorkers have fled the city to crowd Jones Beach. Suddenly someone is too far out, going under. A lean and hawk-nosed lifeguard dives in, fights the current and pulls the swimmer to safety

De Vlaming spent seven summers as a lifeguard. One Fourth of July weekend he rescued 25 people.

"There was an exhilaration about that -- they were being swept out to sea, and you could see them," de Vlaming said. "I've always liked that tremendous excitement where you had to depend on yourself."

This, he said, is the only hint he would someday make a living getting people out of trouble -- the Baywatch Theory of Legal Training.

De Vlaming and his older brother, Douglas, grew up on Long Island, sons of a fuel oil salesman. The family was not well off, but they did live on the water. Swimming became the boys' obsession. Both competed on the high school swim team. Both went to Ohio State on swimming scholarships. They joined the same fraternity and shared an apartment.

"Denny kind of followed me along as we went," Douglas de Vlaming said.

They parted over Vietnam. Douglas joined the Air Force and flew fighter jets. His little brother had no taste for war but drew a low draft number.

Hoping for a deferment, de Vlaming applied to a graduate school to study psychology, without success. His father urged him to try law school. He remembers thinking: "I don't want to go to law school. Lawyers! God! They're such smarmy people!"

But when the Army told him he had 30 days to get his deferment or report to boot camp, de Vlaming scouted for a law school near the water. Stetson University in Gulfport accepted him.

There he fell in love with the intellectual combat of the courtroom. He became his own man, no longer little "Denny" tagging along after his brother.

After graduation, de Vlaming was hired as a prosecutor. Old opponents such as Clearwater lawyer Pat Doherty say he was as good at putting people in jail as he is now at keeping them out.

Beavis and Butthead defense

He still approaches every case like a prosecutor

"I try to think how to beat me," de Vlaming said.

Some lawyers excel at working out plea deals. De Vlaming can do that, too, but "he's not afraid to tee it up and go to trial," said former prosecutor Mike Pieri. "And he wins more than he loses."

His high-wire tactics are not foolproof. He went up against Pieri in a murder case in which police could not find the body. De Vlaming argued that the victim, a cross-dresser, had had a sex-change operation and disappeared voluntarily. The jury didn't buy it.

But risk-taking has paid off for other clients.

Teacher Larry Allison was accused of exposing himself. De Vlaming discovered police had charged him with the wrong crime. Most attorneys would have quickly pointed out the mistake, giving prosecutors the opportunity to file the right charge.

Not de Vlaming. He waited to play that trump card until after the prosecutor had presented the state's case to the jury. Despite the prosecutor's sputtered objections, the judge dismissed the case and ruled Allison could not be charged or tried again.

Some say de Vlaming put on his greatest defense for Richard Traylor, a teacher charged with molesting several girls at a Palm Harbor elementary school. During a deposition, de Vlaming's careful questions led one accuser to recant, casting doubt on the others' credibility.

At the trial, De Vlaming's closing argument was studded with pop culture references and steeped in outrage at the downward spiral of American values. At one point, he knelt on the courtroom floor to show how Traylor gave pupils a comforting hug.

"Is that wicked?" he demanded. "Is that lustful?"

Society is so degraded, he said, that shows like Leave It to Beaver are no longer on television, replaced by Beavis and Butthead, where they're setting fires and talking back to their teachers."

His client, he said, is as out of place as a dinosaur, "a Jurassic Park character, a throwback to the times when teachers cared. We've gone a long way since the days of Ozzie and Harriet. Maybe we deserve Beavis and Butthead. Maybe we don't deserve men like him. I don't know. But it's sad."

The jury acquitted Traylor, who later got the court to seal his file. De Vlaming did such a good job there is no longer any record of his greatest defense.

The House That Crime Built

Despite his aversion to paid advertising, de Vlaming likes publicity. When a client is cleared, he alerts the media to make sure it is reported.

"Denis is good at promoting Denis," Handsel said. "People read that and remember Denis representing somebody and representing him well."

De Vlaming's help is not cheap: $250 an hour. He jokes that he could not become a judge because he couldn't stand the pay cut.

When Largo police found trace amounts of cocaine in two cars owned by a Clearwater man, they confiscated them. De Vlaming got both cars back and kept one, an $80,000 Acura NSX, as his fee. He decorated it with a vanity plate that said: ACQUIT 1.

Last year he traded the Acura for a Nissan Pathfinder with more room for him and his wife, Voncele, to ferry their daughters Lacey, 14, and Kali, 10, to soccer and cheerleading practice.

De Vlaming lives in Clearwater's Island Estates. He runs his boat at full throttle on weekends. He works in a restored 71-year-old house dubbed "The House That Crime Built."

For five years de Vlaming left the upstairs vacant. When his big brother retired from the Air Force, de Vlaming persuaded him to get a law degree. In 1991, Douglas de Vlaming opened an office upstairs. Now Douglas is in his brother's shadow.

"It's a nice shadow to be in," he said.

The singing jury

One of de Vlaming's duties on the Lyons case will be picking the jury -- a job at which his fellow lawyers say he is an expert

De Vlaming writes poetry for fun and is usually decked out in double-breasted suits and elegant silk ties. But he has a down-to-earth manner that connects with jurors. Where he leads, they often follow.

Take the case of Robert Merkle, former U.S. attorney and onetime U.S. Senate candidate. In 1993 Merkle was charged with battery for punching George Gusler, an ex-convict who had been involved in several car crash-related lawsuits.

Merkle, who contended Gusler was the aggressor, hired de Vlaming. The jury not only acquitted him but at de Vlaming's suggestion they also declared Merkle was "fully justified" in punching Gusler.

Afterward all the exhausted Merkle wanted to do was go home and sleep. But before he had a chance to settle in, someone was knocking on his door.

It was de Vlaming, with the jurors. They serenaded Merkle with a song de Vlaming had written: "Ol' Bob Merkle had a right hook, eee-i, eee-i ooh . . . With a left-right here and a left-right there, here a left, there a right, everywhere a left-right . . ."

Gusler still contends he, not Merkle, was the victim. But he bears no grudge against de Vlaming.

"It's a shame the people who don't have the money can't afford someone like Denis de Vlaming," Gusler said. "He's the best I've ever seen."

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