Before he became a crusading civil rights lawyer, singling out judges, mayors, cops and now the governor for their errant ways, Jerry Gonzalez was nothing more than a bully.
About 10 years ago, he was driving through a blue-collar neighborhood in Miami when a fire truck with sirens came up behind him. He quickly pulled over, but another motorist did nothing to move out of the way, forcing the fire truck to swerve into another lane. Gonzalez, meanwhile, cringed at the driver's behavior. A former officer in the U.S. Navy, Gonzalez had a strict sense of order and discipline. When he came to the next red light, Gonzalez saw the obstinate motorist and rolled down his window. He informed the driver that when a fire truck is rushing toward an emergency, motorists are supposed move out of the way.
"Fuck you," the man replied.
Gonzalez could have sighed and driven away. This was, after all, Miami. But he couldn't let that insult slide. Working at the time as a Secret Service agent who guarded presidents and dignitaries and investigated federal crimes, Gonzalez teemed with arrogance and testosterone. He made Don Rumsfeld look like a flower child.
After the motorist rejected his advice, Gonzalez reached for his blue lights and plugged them into the cigarette lighter of his unmarked Chrysler New Yorker. He put the lights on top of his car, flashed them and turned on his siren. The man, no doubt stunned, pulled over. Gonzalez asked for his license, kept him waiting and basically "scared the shit out of him," Gonzalez recalls. Onlookers poked fun at the humiliated motorist.
The man stammered out a series of apologies, and when Gonzalez let him go, the driver acted as if Gonzalez had spared his life, not violated his civil rights. "I told him, 'The next time you say fuck you to someone,' you're going to jail,' "
Clint Eastwood couldn't have said it any better.
Now, though, Gonzalez looks back at that confrontation with dismay. The motorist, though rude, probably had committed no crime and, besides, Gonzalez was a federal agent with no authority to do anything about it were it illegal. But Gonzalez had become swept up in the culture of the Secret Service, of law enforcement, of authorityand it was corrupting him. He was becoming, well, a jerk.
"I asked myself what was I doing. I had no authority to do that," the Hispanic lawyer remembers now, still shaken by his actions of nearly a decade ago. "When you're in that law enforcement culture, you don't think objectively. You think it's us against the bad guys. You don't see it as a job. You see it as a mandate from God to enforce the laws of this great country."
Gonzalez still enforces that mandate, but as a civil rights lawyer defending the little guy. Today, working out of a seventh-floor office overlooking Murfreesboro Road, Gonzalez scratches out a living litigating against a sprawling lineup of cocky, sometimes abusive, authority figures. Prison guards, sheriffs, judges and mayorsyou name itthey've all been targets of Gonzalez's litigiousness. Meanwhile, his never-ending litany of provocative cases has made him a favorite of local reporters, who turn to him whenever they need a little righteous indignation to liven up their stories.
Impassioned by an abiding distrust of authority, Gonzalez now serves as the lead lawyer in two of the most important cases in Tennessee. In August 2002, he filed the first of several lawsuits alleging that Wilson County prison guards were terrorizing inmates, breaking jaws and shooting them with stun guns. Already, four guards have pled guilty to felonies. Initially, Wilson County officials blithely dismissed Gonzalez's claims of a jail gone wild. But now the FBI is investigating the facility and may be preparing serious civil rights charges against one of the jail's former guards. Additional pleas are also expected. At the request of the U.S. Justice Department, a federal court has stayed all legal proceedings until the investigation is over. When it's all said and done, the Wilson County Jail will make Abu Ghraib look like the Opryland Hotel.
Meanwhile, in a case where the abuse is perhaps less obvious, but no less insidious, Gonzalez filed a challenge this week to Gov. Phil Bredesen's new law that restricts aliens, even legal ones, from obtaining driver's licenses. An avid spokesperson for Hispanic rights, Gonzalez believes Tennessee discriminates against aliens who are here legallyand these are mostly Latinofor no apparent reason.
"I think they're hypocrites, and they have a bug up their ass about illegal immigrants," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm not advocating illegal immigration. I'm advocating that the state of Tennessee should stay the heck out of the immigration business because they don't have a clue."
If you want to make money in law today, you help Wal-Mart overturn a city's zoning regulations so it can build a 200,000-square-foot store. Or write the fine print of a multi-billion-dollar merger of health care giants. You sue doctors, corporations and employers on trumped-up charges. You file lawsuits over spilled coffee. You don't represent immigrants, inmates and factory workers who might be out of a job by the time you win their case.
But Gonzalez is a throwback to when the practice of law was tougher, more meaningful and provocative. Still relatively inexperienced, Gonzalez has had his share of setbacks. He could stand to be a little less combative. If the CEO of General Electric is reading this, don't hire this guy as your corporate counsel. But if a vicious guard shot you with a stun gun, if a police officer or judge lashed out at you because you're not white, Gonzalez will take your call.
Gonzalez himself is an immigrant born in Santiago, Chile, on Aug. 17, 1962. His father served in the Chilean navy, and, when he retired, took the family to Lexington, Ky. They had a relative there who trained and sold horses. Gonzalez's father, meanwhile, attended the University of Kentucky, where he received an engineering degree.
Gonzalez studied engineering, too, at Michigan Tech. But that lasted only a year, and he hated every minute of it. He turned to biology instead and, when he graduated college in 1984, accepted a commission as an officer in the U.S. Navy.
Gonzalez aspired to be a pilot, but his imperfect eyesight meant he had to settle for flight officer instead. It was a challenging job, coordinating the navigation and communication of S-3B anti-submarine warfare aircraft and controlling weapon systems and missiles. He was even involved in a military exercise against Libya in which his jet tried to tweak President Moammar al-Ghadafi by testing Ghadifi's resolve in an elaborate decoy mission.
Still, while Gonzalez traveled around the world, he quickly grew bored of naval life. "You'd go to pizza night at the officer's club on Tuesday, and all the guys were talking about was flying," he recalls. "Everybody came out of college and had no life experiences. Everything was Navy, Navy, Navy."
A short stint in the Secret Service wasn't any more fulfilling. While Gonzalez investigated counterfeiters and protected Presidents George Bush (41) and Bill Clinton, along with other world leaders, he didn't feel particularly stimulated. "I'm standing outside President Bush's hotel door," he says. "It's a 12-hour shift and I'm thinking to myself, 'Gosh, a monkey could do this job. There has to be more to life than this.' "
It would be another year or so before Gonzalez left the agency, motivated by boredom and his disenchantment with the culture. He went to law school at Wayne State University in Detroit, but then shortly before he was scheduled to take the bar, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He endured two surgeries, chemotherapy and, of course, a brief loss of hair.
Jerry Gonzalez and his wife Denise wound up in Tennessee because of one of those random, spontaneous decisions that can redefine a life. Denise was working for a software developer in Michigan that had a client in Brentwood. The client needed someone to run the software, so Denise took the job. The Gonzalezes moved to LaVergne, then Lebanon, after they bought a 30-acre property they turned into a horse farm.
For five years now, Gonzalez has steadily built a varied and provocative caseload predicated on protecting minorities. He's also been the local president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Along with attorney Mario Ramos, Gonzalez sued a judge in Smyrna, claiming that he tossed a Mexican immigrant in jail after becoming frustrated that the defendant couldn't speak English. Currently, Gonzalez is suing the city of Brentwood for racial discrimination, claiming that city officials refused to take action after a black employee was called a "nigger." That same employee, who is in his 60s, was also called "boy," despite his protests.
In an about-face that atones for when he pulled over the swearing motorist, Gonzalez also sued a police officer after the officer arrested a man for calling him "an asshole." The cop settled out of court. Finally, last month, Gonzalez appeared on the Fox News program Hannity & Colmes to talk about his work representing a group of Somali taxi drivers who claimed a Metro Police lieutenant harassed them, even telling them to "go back to Africa."
Perhaps because of his own experience in law enforcement, Gonzalez seems to have a special passion for suing police officers. "While most people probably assume that police officers are good guys, with only a few bad apples, I assume they're all arrogant bastards until they show me differently," he says.
Gonzalez loves to offer such disparaging sound bites. It's why reporters love him. But his peers note that beneath the bluster is a very determined attorney who sees the law as a check on authority, if not majority rule.
"There are not enough lawyers like Jerry out there," says civil rights attorney and Vanderbilt law school graduate Joseph Johnston. "I wish there were more. You don't make a lot of money doing this kind of work. You have to have an ideological perspective, you have to have righteous indignation, you have to have fire in the belly and say, 'It's not for the money, it's for the principle.' "
That's exactly what Gonzalez has fought for in Wilson County. It started in early 2002, when a friend of Gonzalez introduced him to Sergio Martinez, a Lebanon factory worker who painted a horrific story of torture and humiliation at the Wilson County Jail. Soon after, other accountseach one worse than the one before ittrickled into Gonzalez's office. Since then, Gonzalez has pestered county officials, stinging them in the press while helping expose a vicious culture of abuse by ill-trained guards.
Martinez's story goes like this: In October 2001, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Four white Wilson County deputies took him to the county jail and made him strip down to his boxer shorts and T-shirt. In his early-to-mid 20s, standing at around 5-foot-3, Martinez hardly cuts an imposing figure. So when the guards shoved him into his cell, he says he volleyed into the far wall like a tennis ball. Martinez staggered back, and says an officer punched him above his left eyebrow. After he fell to the floor, four officers kicked him and broke his jaw.
The officers then closed the door to his cell. It was cold and unheated. A bloodied Martinez shivered, wearing only his boxers and T-shirt. Later, the officers brought in a white inmate, who Martinez says was allowed to remain fully dressed, except for his shoes. Periodically, guards dropped by Martinez's cell. He says he asked them when he'd be released. "When you stop bleeding," he was told.
After his bond was set at $1,000, Martinez's brother picked him up. When Martinez had trouble breathing, his brother took him to University Medical Center in Lebanon. An oral surgeon recommended that he have his jaw wired shut. For two months, Martinez says he couldn't eat solid food.
Gonzalez never doubted Martinez's account. He told the same story each time. Then Gonzalez went to Lebanon, where Martinez lived, and, like any good lawyer, asked around about his client. He was not a violent guy, nor could he have possibly provoked a guard to shatter his jaw, he was told.
Martinez's wife had also spent time in the Wilson County Jail. She told Gonzalez that she witnessed guards abuse another Puerto Rican man, William Santiago Serrano. Gonzalez visited Serrano, who was still incarcerated, and heard another horrific tale of abuse. Serrano says that after he repeatedly asked for medical help for a pre-existing condition, guards threw him on the floor, shoved a dirty pair of underwear in his mouth and punched him. Then after he repeatedly asked guards if he could use the phone, they told him that if he kept on pestering them, they'd have a "surprise" for him. But Serrano says he asked the guard to use the phone one more time, triggering a brutal act of rage. He says guards ordered him to remove his clothes and sprayed a chemical in his face, before slamming shut the cell door. When Serrano cried that he couldn't breathe, he says the guards warned him not to knock on the door again. Then he says one of the guards opened the door and threw a container of water on Serrano, who was still naked. The guard then allegedly shot Serrano with a stun gun.
In late August 2002, Gonzalez filed lawsuits against Wilson County and the guards who allegedly subjected these men to such abuse. After the ensuing press attention, Gonzalez heard from other former inmates who had also been terrorized during their stints at the Wilson County Jail. They talked of being kicked and sprayed with chemicals. He took on those cases. Two other inmates died after failing to receive prompt medical care from the facility, their families alleged. Gonzalez sued Wilson County officials on their behalf too.
Gonzalez also contacted officials at the Justice Department, urging them to investigate the litany of allegations against the jail. Shortly after, they sent a letter that Gonzalez has saved stating that they couldn't corroborate any accounts of abuse. Then, in January 2003, nearly six months after Gonzalez filed his first suits against the Wilson County facility, a 43-year-old man named Walter Kuntz lapsed into a coma after a seven-hour stint in the jail. He later died, and an autopsy ruled his death a homicide. The report said that he was most likely beaten in the head and torso.
Represented by attorney Bart Durhamof epic television ad famethe victim's family filed a federal lawsuit against the Lebanon Police Department and then the county and sheriff's office for $80 million. They settled for $400,000.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department had a call to make. They got Gonzalez on the phone and asked him if the FBI could talk to his clients again about what they endured at the jail.
"I told them it's a real shame that someone had to die before they took this seriously," Gonzalez recalls.
The court has stayed all legal proceedings until the FBI finishes its investigation. Gonzalez has several cases now pending. Already, four guards have pled guilty to charges stemming from the proceedings. One of those guards, William Westmoreland, admitted to punching an inmate in the head. Another guard, Patrick Marlowe, has yet to enter a plea. But it's a safe bet that he is at the center of the federal investigation, as both guards and inmates have told federal agents that Marlowe assaulted inmates. He is also a defendant in many of Gonzalez's suits.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Terry Ashe, who oversees the troubled jail, downplays the role Gonzalez has had in exposing its many problems. At first, he declined to discuss the relentless attorney. "My mother used to say, 'If you can't say something good about someone, don't say it at all,' " he says. But the sheriff couldn't stay mum for long. "He's piling on in order to receive the publicity, and apparently it's working," he cracks.
Not including the lawsuits still pending, most of Gonzalez's cases have been settled for around $20,000 each, pocket change in the world of civil litigation, Ashe points out. "You sue me for millions and get all this publicity, then you don't see that it's settled for next to nothing."
Actually, Gonzalez hasn't specified a monetary amount in any of his lawsuits against the city. He acknowledges the settlement amount in many of his cases is small, but notes that taking these cases to a jury is a risky proposition since his clients are often unsympathetic characters. Finally, he notes, he did convince a judge to issue an order restricting the use of stun guns on inmates. Considering how they were allegedly used, that's a significant accomplishment.
Joseph Johnston, a civil rights attorney who is working on a case with Gonzalez, says that it's dicey filing lawsuits on behalf of inmates. Once, he represented an inmate who was stabbed eight times by his fellow prisoners while a guard failed to intervene. "The jury found that the guard should have done something, but they didn't want to give him any money, so they awarded him a dollar."
Amazingly, Ashe tries to take credit for the investigation being led by the FBI. He then claims that he asked for the federal inquiry after Kuntz's homicide. The lead agent for the investigation, however, testified in a plea hearing that he looked into what was happening at the jail fully a year before Kuntz was killed. Finally, Ashe says that Gonzalez amended his complaints to add the guards who have pled guilty to abuse charges. In fact, the record does not support that. The now-disgraced guards were named as defendants from the start. And while none of the guards has admitted yet to the allegations in Gonzalez's lawsuit, their pleas on other abuse charges clearly lend credibility, if not proof, to the lawyer's allegations.
"He deserves a great deal of credit for bringing the problems of the jail to light," says Clint Brewer, managing editor of The Lebanon Democrat. "If you look at the timeline of when he filed the lawsuits and the guards he named in the lawsuits, you can see that Jerry was way ahead of the curve."
Brewer adds that, after researching and publishing close to 100 stories about the case, his paper hasn't found any of Gonzalez's allegations to be unfounded.
A sad footnote to this scandal: William Serrano, one of the first inmates Gonzalez represented against the jail, was charged with murder shortly after he settled against the county for nearly $20,000. Apparently, the stun gun didn't rehabilitate him.
"There were so many times for him to get counseling when he was in jail, and all they did was throw him around or forget about him," Gonzalez says. "I'm not trying to defend him, but there was an opportunity to help him."
These days, Gonzalez splits his indignation between the Wilson County Jail and the state of Tennessee. This week, Gonzalez filed a class-action federal lawsuit against Gov. Phil Bredesen. At issue is the recently passed legislation that prevents many legal immigrants from receiving driver's licenses.
Under the bill that the Bredesen administration authored, some legal and all illegal immigrants are eligible only for "driver's certificates" that say on their face "not valid for identification." Gonzalez says this measure discriminates against legal immigrants, who are protected by the Constitution. What it amounts to is a way to deny legitimacy to illegal immigrants, he claims. As proof, he notes in his lawsuit a quote from Rep. Donna Rowland, a sponsor of similar legislation: "I don't want to legitimize an illegal," she says.
Gonzalez replies that, Rowland's not-so-subtle concerns notwithstanding, the state has no authority regulating immigration. "The remedy for them is to petition the federal government to enforce the immigration laws. But it's a national issue. They can't say, 'Hey, we don't like the way the federal government is prosecuting the war on Iraq so we're going to do it for them,' " he says.
Late last month, Geraldine Gurdian presented her Nicaraguan passport, her Florida driver's license and her permanent resident card to a clerk at the Hart Lane driver's license station. She had highlighted her hair, which distinguished her only slightly from her photo ID. Gurdian, who is a plaintiff in Gonzalez's suit, claims that a clerk accused her of trying to change identities, confiscated all her identification and mocked her for not being able to speak English. Gurdian had to cancel a trip to Mexico, because she didn't have any ID.
Gonzalez says that the unintended consequence of Bredesen's bill is that it turns low-paying clerks into immigration agents. This only fosters more discrimination.
"They are deliberately making it difficult for legal aliens to drive a car, rent a car and get on an airplane," says Gonzalez, his voice escalating in anger with every word.
This week, Gonzalez was asked to challenge Kentucky's driver's license law as wellanother case that won't buy him a home on Jackson Boulevard. For him, a lawsuit is not a capital ventureit's a battle for principle. That makes him stubborn, brash, obnoxious, occasionally insufferable and, more often than not, right.
"I think he has an enormous sense of justice, and that's what drives him," says attorney Mario Ramos, who, like Gonzalez, has served as an officer in the League of United Latin American Citizens. "He's not beholden to anyone, so he'll speak his mind very quickly."
Because of his willingness to take on anyone, Gonzalez admits that people rely on him to challenge people others don't want to confront. He doesn't seem to mind, though. "When someone wants the governor sued, and they don't want to do it themselves, who do they call?" he laughs. "That asshole Jerry Gonzalez."
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