By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Michael H. Metzger, the controversial California defense lawyer who mounted a nationwide campaign to discredit the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, shot himself in the head with his .357 Magnum at his home in rural Napa County on March 1. His death was the most recent bizarre twist to the notorious Bangkok Six case, in which Miami animal dealer Matthew Block pleaded guilty to charges that he conspired to smuggle six endangered orangutans out of Indonesia in early 1990. The case has been the subject of several New Times stories.
The silver-haired Metzger, 56, called himself Mad Dog and was as famous for his practical jokes and putdowns of adversaries as he was for his legal brilliance. "He...practices law with all the subtlety and restraint of a wounded Cape buffalo," noted writer Michael Checchio in a 1992 article for California Lawyer magazine. Working out of a houseboat on San Francisco Bay and a converted barn at his St. Helena home, Metzger won fame by taking on high-profile, complex cases, most often in defense of accused drug traffickers. (He once defended members of the Grateful Dead, who had been busted on drug charges.)
He also struggled with his own drug abuse and alcoholism. The night he died, Metzger had been drinking; earlier that evening local police had confiscated an Uzi from the trunk of his car and a handgun he had been brandishing in a pizza restaurant (Metzger had a permit to carry concealed weapons and owned dozens of guns, according to the Napa County Sheriff's Department).
Before turning his weapon on himself, Metzger wounded his wife Kyle with a round of birdshot, possibly accidentally. She was not seriously injured.
"Michael was a genius and an extreme man with a range of emotions wildly beyond the norm," says long-time friend Ivan Fisher, a well-known New York defense attorney. "He was filled with demons."
And he was the advocate for the Devil himself, at least as far as animal protectionists were concerned. Matthew Block, a Miami native and the owner of Worldwide Primates, headquartered near Miami International Airport, has become a symbol of the eternal antagonism that conservationists feel toward animal dealers. Like Metzger, Block is accustomed to arousing extreme reactions; during the past four years he has become a magnet for negative public sentiment.
But Block's case held more significance for Metzger than bad publicity. A University of Michigan Law School graduate who began his career as a U.S. prosecutor, Metzger felt that in its handling of the Bangkok Six case, the government trampled his client's constitutional rights.
"This case has made me lose faith in the system," Metzger declared recently, pacing before the bench of U.S. District Judge James Kehoe during a January hearing in Miami. "This case has made me want to take my bar card out and tear it up." Metzger assumed Block's defense a year ago, just before the animal trader was to be sentenced for his participation in the scheme to smuggle the half-dozen orangutans from the jungles of Borneo to a Moscow zoo. Pleading guilty in hopes of receiving a more lenient sentence, Block also agreed to act as an undercover informant for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in two smuggling sting operations that resulted in several arrests.
Maintaining that Block had not cooperated as fully as promised, Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, the government's lead prosecutor in the case, refused to formally recommend leniency, and Judge Kehoe sentenced him to thirteen months in prison and levied a fine of $30,000.
Unsuccessful in his petition to have Block's guilty plea thrown out, Metzger spent thousands of dollars to place full-page ads in several legal publications. Headlined "Scent of a Prosecutor," the ads lambasted the local U.S. Attorney's Office for turning Block into a "snitch" and then reneging on its agreement; Metzger also decried broader Justice Department policies that encourage defendants to become informants in exchange for money and freedom. Featured in the ads was a copy of a letter Metzger wrote to Roberto Martinez, who at the time was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, in which he vowed "to alert every criminal defense lawyer in this nation that your office should not be trusted."
The war spilled over to nonlawyers. Last spring Metzger mailed a series of postcards to Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the South Carolina-based International Primate Protection League and a staunch Block adversary. One card was an explicit photograph of two zebras mating, with the notation, "Thinking of you." McGreal filed a complaint with the California Bar Association.
Her protestation, however, paled beside Metzger's other legal problems. In March 1992 the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California convened an evidentiary hearing after Metzger played a series of pranks and jokes on federal prosecutors, including bizarre telephone messages and challenges to fistfights. U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong suspended Metzger from practicing in the Northern District for one year, and ordered him to undergo psychological counseling. The ruling was stayed while Metzger appealed it to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, whose decision was pending when he killed himself.
"He wasn't particularly upset about that case," says William Osterhoudt, a friend and fellow attorney who represented Metzger in the matter. "But he felt [the judge and prosecutors] were wrong to attack his professionalism, that their emphasis on civility was at the expense of freedom of speech as well as the enthusiasm any advocate should have."
Metzger also was under investigation by U.S. Customs in connection with a large West Coast hashish smuggling operation. Customs officials decline to comment about Metzger's alleged involvement. But friends tend to agree that it probably wasn't professional troubles that prompted Metzger to take his life; most place the blame on problems related to substance abuse.
Matthew Block's appeal of his sentence to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta will be delayed until he hires a new lawyer. "Metzger was a brilliant attorney," Block says. "He treated his clients more like family. He wasn't your typical defense lawyer who crawls into bed with prosecutors and is more concerned about his relationship with the prosecution than with his clients.