Home > The Racketeer(6)

The Racketeer(6)
Author: John Grisham


When both were good and buried, the attention quickly returned to the investigation. The FBI would not say a word in public, primarily because it had nothing to say at all. A week after the bodies were found, the only evidence on the table was the ballistics reports. Four bullets, hollow points, fired from a .38-caliber handgun, one of a million on the streets and now probably at the bottom of a large lake somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia.

Other motives were being analyzed. In 1979 Judge John Wood was gunned down outside his home in San Antonio. His killer was a contract hit man hired by a powerful drug dealer who was about to be sentenced by Judge Wood, who hated the drug trade and those who worked it. With a nickname like Maximum John the motive was fairly obvious. In Roanoke, the FBI teams looked at every case, criminal and civil, on Judge Fawcett's docket and made a short list of potential suspects, virtually all of whom were involved in the narcotics trade.

In 1988 Judge Richard Daronco was shot and killed while doing yard work around his home in Pelham, New York. The killer was the angry father of a woman who had just lost a case in the judge's courtroom. The father shot the judge, then committed suicide. In Roanoke, the FBI team scoured Judge Fawcett's files and interviewed his clerks. There are always a few whack jobs filing crap in federal court and making outrageous demands, and a list slowly came together. Names but no real suspects.

In 1989 Judge Robert Smith Vance was killed in his home in Mountain Brook, Alabama, when he opened a package that contained a bomb. They found his killer and eventually sent him to death row, but his motive was never clear. The prosecutors speculated he was angry over a recent decision by Judge Vance. In Roanoke the FBI interviewed hundreds of lawyers with cases presently before Judge Fawcett, or in the recent past. Every lawyer has clients who are either crazy or mean enough to seek revenge, and a few of these had passed through Judge Fawcett's courtroom. They were tracked down, interviewed, and eliminated.

In January 2011, a month before the Fawcett murder, Judge John Roll was gunned down near Tucson in the same mass killing that wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Judge Roll was in the wrong place at the wrong time and not the target. His death was of no help to the FBI in Roanoke.

With each passing day, the trail grew colder. With no witnesses, no real crime scene evidence, no mistake by the killer, only a handful of useless tips, and very few suspects from the judge's dockets, the investigation hit dead ends at every turn.

The big announcement of a $100,000 reward did little to spark activity on the FBI hotlines.

Chapter 4

Because Frostburg is a camp and light on security, we have more contact with the outside world than most prisoners. Our mail is always subject to being opened and read, but this is rare. We have limited access to e-mail but not the Internet. There are dozens of phones and plenty of rules that govern their use, but we can generally make all the collect calls we want. Cell phones are strictly prohibited. We are allowed to buy subscriptions to dozens of magazines on an approved list. Several newspapers arrive promptly each morning, and they are always available in a corner of the chow hall known as the coffee room.

It is there, early one morning, that I see the headline in the Washington Post: FEDERAL JUDGE MURDERED NEAR ROANOKE.

I cannot hide a smile. This is the moment.

For the past three years, I have been obsessed with Raymond Fawcett. I never met him, never entered his courtroom, never filed a lawsuit in his domain - the Southern District of Virginia. Virtually all of my practice was in state court. I rarely ventured into the federal arena, and when I did, it was always in the Northern District of Virginia, which includes everything from Richmond north. The Southern District covers Roanoke, Lynchburg, and the massive sprawl of the Virginia Beach - Norfolk metro area. Before Fawcett's passing, there were twelve federal judges working in the Southern District, and thirteen in the Northern.

I have met several inmates here at Frostburg who were sentenced by Fawcett, and without seeming too curious, I quizzed them about him. I did this under the guise of actually knowing the judge, of having tried lawsuits in his court. Without exception, these inmates loathed the man and felt as though he had gone overboard with their sentences. He seemed to especially enjoy lecturing the white-collar guys as he passed judgment and sent them away. Their sentencing hearings generally attracted more press, and Fawcett had a massive ego.

He went to Duke as an undergrad and Columbia for law school, then worked at a Wall Street firm for a few years. His wife and her money were from Roanoke, and they settled there when he was in his early thirties. He joined the biggest law firm in town and quickly clawed his way to the top. His father-in-law was a longtime benefactor to Democratic politics, and in 1993 President Clinton appointed Fawcett to a lifetime position on the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Virginia.

In the world of American law, such an appointment carries tremendous prestige but not a lot of money. At the time, his new salary was $125,000 a year, about a $300,000 cut in pay from what he was earning as a hardworking partner in a thriving law firm. At forty-eight, he became one of the youngest federal judges in the country and, with five kids, one of the most cash-strapped. His father-in-law soon began supplementing his income, and the pressure eased.

He once described his early years on the bench in a long interview in one of those legal periodicals that few people read. I found it by chance in the prison library, in a stack of magazines about to be discarded. There are not too many books and magazines that escape my curious eyes. Often, I'll read five or six hours a day. The computers here are desktops, a few years out-of-date, and because of demand they take a beating. However, since I am the librarian and the computers are under my control, I have plenty of access. We have subscriptions to two digital legal research sites, and I have used these to read every opinion published by the late Honorable Raymond Fawcett.

Something happened to him around the turn of the century, the year 2000. During his first seven years on the bench, he was a left-leaning protector of individual rights, compassionate with the poor and troubled, quick to slap the hands of law enforcement, skeptical of big business, and seemingly eager to chastise a wayward litigant with an extremely sharp pen. Within a year, though, something was changing. His opinions were shorter, not as well reasoned, even nasty at times, and he was definitely moving to the right.

In 2000 he was nominated by President Clinton to fill a vacancy on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. Such a move is the logical promotion for a talented district court judge, or one with the right connections. On the Fourth Circuit, he would have been one of fifteen judges who considered nothing but cases on appeal. The only rung higher than that is the U.S. Supreme Court, and it is not clear if Fawcett had that ambition. Most federal judges do, at one time or another. Bill Clinton, though, was leaving office, and under something of a cloud. His nominations were stalled in the Senate, and when George W. Bush was elected, Fawcett's future remained in Roanoke.

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