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Since he was a boy, Larry Barcella knew he wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer. He admired his uncles who were police officers, and he watched all the lawyer shows on television. In high school, he studied Latin, because he thought all attorneys needed to know Latin. He was a young man with a plan.
What he didn't plan on was being a federal prosecutor for 16 years, gaining an international reputation as a trial attorney and skilled investigator. Talking with Mr. Barcella, 59, it's clear that the investigating side is the most thrilling part of his job, in both private and public practice.
He joined the United States Attorney's office in Washington, DC, his hometown, a few weeks after graduating from Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1970. His mentor on the job was Harold Sullivan, who he says gave him an enormous amount of responsibility.
The secret to being a good attorney, Mr. Barcella says, is finding a legitimate way to say yes to your clients. Just a few weeks into his job, a police officer phoned him at 3 a.m. asking for a search warrant. An informant had told the police a group of known dealers was cutting some heroin in an apartment, and the officers want to search the place. Mr. Barcella told them they didn't have enough probable cause and that a magistrate would never approve the request. Instead he suggested they bang on the apartment door and shout police. When the dealers come to the door, most likely after flushing the heroin down the toilet, Mr. Barcella suggested the officers ask if they'd like to buy tickets to the police ball.
''They're going to flush $100,000 worth of heroin down the toilet, that's going to get them really pissed off,'' he said. ''And when you say, 'Do you want to buy tickets to the policemen's ball,' they're going to be pissed off and take a swing at you. Arrest them for assault on a police officer, and that I'll give you a warrant for.''
The police took his advice, and it worked like a charm. Mr. Barcella said his phone often rang in the middle of the night after that.
Mr. Barcella formed close relationships with the police and various agents he worked with: DEA, ATF, FBI, and CIA. Before he even passed his bar exam, Sullivan sent him out to watch drug busts at 3 a.m. to learn how they work. Mr. Barcella was hooked on the action.
''My plan had been to go to the U.S. Attorney's office for three or four years, try a bunch of cases, get a bunch of experience, and immediately go into practice and replace Edward Bennet Williams,'' he said of the legendary trial lawyer. ''That was the theory, but I ended up having such a good time and having so much responsibility and such phenomenal cases that I ended up staying 16 years.''
Mr. Barcella is arguably best known for prosecuting ex-CIA agent Edwin Wilson, who reportedly tried to have the attorney killed. Mr. Wilson was released in September. Mr. Wilson, who was known for his jet-setting and for entertaining Congressmen and Washington luminaries in grand style, was convicted in 1982 of gunrunning, selling C-4 plastic explosives to Libya, where he had one of his many homes, and of conspiring to kill Mr. Barcella. He was sentenced to 52 years in prison, but was released after a judge threw out the conviction on the C-4 explosives case.
Mr. Barcella says he was disappointed the conviction was overturned, but not worried.
''I wasn't particularly worried about him when he was 55 years old and worth $20 million, so I'm not particularly worried about him when he's 76 and broke,'' Mr. Barcella said. ''He may not be happy with me, but I don't think that he is foolish or insane enough at this point that he wants to spend the remaining years that he does have behind bars. I mean if I get a hangnail, they'll go looking for him.''
Besides, Mr. Barcella says death threats may as well be on the job description of a federal prosecutor.
''Wilson was hardly the first and not the only one,'' he said. ''I'd been threatened by the Chilean secret police. I'd been threatened by a wing of the PLO. I'd been threatened by various murderers and rapists over the years.''
He said his mentor, Harold Sullivan, was instrumental in creating a more investigative role for prosecutors in the 1960s. Before then, he says, police and agents would investigate alone and then bring their cases to the Attorney's office once they were ready to charge someone.
Mr. Barcella's career became more international in 1976, when a former Chilean ambassador to the United States was assassinated while driving in Washington's Sheridan Circle. A bomb planted in his car exploded, and he died from blood loss. Investigating that case led Mr. Barcella to various spots around the world.
''And then over the course of the next 10 years in the U.S. Attorney's office, I ended up doing most of the terrorism cases for the Justice Department because they didn't have a terrorism department then,'' he said.
His international reputation has paid off in private practice. He was hired by the government of Antigua to investigate how the country got caught in the middle of a weapons deal between the Israeli government and Colombian drug dealers.
And at home, he was hired by Congress in 1992 to investigate the so-called October Surprise conspiracy. The Democrat-controlled Congress wanted to know if the Republicans in 1980 had made a secret deal with Iranian mullahs to delay the release of U.S. Embassy hostages so that Jimmy Carter couldn't ''pull an October surprise'' by securing their release just before the presidential election against Ronald Reagan. In 1992, George Bush was about to run for a second term, so the Democrats launched the investigation with the thought that it could implicate the president if he was found to be involved in the conspiracy during the Reagan years.
Mr. Barcella spent almost a year, hiring staff and running around the world tracking down various Iranian intelligence officials, diplomats, and American spies throughout the investigation. His conclusion? ''They did a lot of funny things, but they didn't do that.''
In private practice, not having subpoena power can make investigations more difficult. But Mr. Barcella says the network of friends and contacts he has made around the world can often get the job done faster and with less bureaucracy--especially since many of his retired agent friends now run investigative agencies.
When he needed to track down a woman in the Netherlands, for example, he called a retired Scotland Yard detective who is a friend. He called a friend in Amsterdam that day, and within a few hours, Mr. Barcella knew where his potential witness lived and worked. That night he was on a flight to Amsterdam, and by 5 p.m. the next day he was waiting outside the woman's office suggesting they have a beer.
''There's no way working in the Justice Department I could have done that so quickly,'' he said. ''Since I was a government official, I would have had to go through the Dutch government to make sure that they were fully aware of what was going on.''
He says if he'd known how interesting his white-collar private practice would be, he may have left the US Attorney's office much sooner.
''You just have to be a little more imaginative if you don't have subpoena power or search warrant authority. You come up with other ways of getting the same stuff accomplished,'' he said. ''I remember the first time I got involved in civil litigation in private practice, I was shocked that discovery in a civil case is far more extensive than in a criminal case…where in a criminal case what's at stake is freedom, and in a civil case what's at stake is money.''
Mr. Barcella says to be a white-collar lawyer, you need a lot of trial experience, and he intends to get more. He has no intention of retiring quietly.
''There have been plenty of books written about cases I did, but I've never written one,'' he said. ''I don't really feel like retiring; I'm having too much fun. I'd rather do the fun things than reflect back and write on them.''
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