It was one of those little things that mean a lot. A postcard from a distant country. "Thinking of you!" it read. "See you soon!" When Shirley McGreal found the Kenya-postmarked card in her mail about a month ago, she wasn't sure exactly what it meant, but she did know the message was not the least bit affectionate. Something about the photo on the front: two zebras, in a very graphic carnal embrace. And the signature: "Mad Dog Metzger." The nom de guerre of a man she'd never met personally, nor ever cared to meet, but who could only be considered an enemy.
The man: Michael H. Metzger, a defense lawyer. Not just any defense lawyer, but a successful and controversial one. Metzger, from his offices in northern California, represents Miami animal dealer Matthew Block in a long-running federal wildlife-smuggling case. Block, himself a well- known figure in the animal trade, has pleaded guilty to being involved in a notorious attempt to illegally transport eight endangered primates from Indonesia to Moscow in 1990. (The case has been chronicled in several New Times stories dating back to November 1991.) He was sentenced last April in Miami to thirteen months in prison, but that wasn't the end of it. He is free, pending an appeal of his sentence, and Metzger has mounted a vociferous campaign to discredit the government prosecutors who he argues betrayed his client after Block cooperated with them. Prosecutor Guy Lewis, who failed in March to have Metzger removed from the case on the grounds that a disciplinary ruling was pending against him in California, contends the government's conduct was justified because Block has not cooperated fully and because he altered a case document. (Block denies both contentions.)
But if there's anyone Matthew Block and Michael Metzger hate more than the feds, it is Shirley McGreal. The government might never have indicted Block in 1992 if it hadn't been for McGreal and her South Carolina-based International Primate Protection League (IPPL). McGreal keeps in touch with a global network of animal conservationists (she's more accustomed to postcards from Britain's Prince Philip and prominent primatologist Jane Goodall) and was the first to make public several documents relating to the ape smuggling scheme. She and her supporters pressured the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for months to investigate Block in connection with the incident. She even testified about the matter before Congress, complaining that the government was dragging its feet.
At every turn, McGreal and her allied activists worked to make sure Block received the most stringent penalty possible. They lobbied against a proposed misdemeanor plea, which U.S. District Judge James Kehoe eventually rejected. When Block agreed to plead guilty to a felony, the IPPL hired its own sentencing expert to analyze the case and compute (under the complex federal sentencing guidelines) the maximum jail time and fine. McGreal has personally written numerous letters to Kehoe, U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez, and federal officials.
Metzger accuses "McGreal and her crazy people" of going still further: altering key documents in the case that are damning to Block. He offers no proof connecting McGreal or the IPPL to any forgeries; she denies his charges. Metzger remains convinced, however, that "all the lies in this case are coming out of South Carolina."
And then along came the copulation salutation. "You feel you're going to look like an idiot if you protest, but I'm protesting anyway," McGreal says, explaining that she immediately sent a copy of the postcard to an attorney, Philip Byler, and another to Judge Kehoe for placement in the case file.
Metzger hasn't responded to a May 24 letter from Byler, politely inquiring whether Metzger indeed sent McGreal the card. If so, Byler's letter continues, "I must ask you to put in plain English what you are attempting to communicate."
Metzger, reached by phone at his office, was in no mood for tactful talk. He acknowledged sending the card, because "I thought it was funny." Not just a little offensive, especially when directed at a woman? "Offensive!" he scoffs. "I think Shirley is offensive. I think her activities have been offensive."
Propriety aside, Byler argues that the card is not merely another salvo in the legal war surrounding Matthew Block, nor a simple exercise by Metzger of his constitutionally protected free speech. "This was not some communication in or outside litigation on behalf of his client," says Byler. "It was a private communication through the mails and it has a very ambiguous message, which quite frankly has a threatening overtone to it. This is not what an attorney should be sending." He says he is willing to give Metzger another few weeks to answer his request for clarification; depending on the response (if there is one), he might recommend that McGreal file a complaint with the California Bar or, perhaps, a civil harassment suit.
"This is an invasion of my privacy," asserts McGreal, "not to mention that of the zebras."
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"Fuck 'em," Metzger responds. "I'm a prankster. I still say fuck the world if it can't take a joke."
Something about Metzger's impatient tone suggests that he's been through this before. And he has. In the past few years he has left a trail of clever and insulting letters to, and verbal attacks on, opposing attorneys; he once sent a client (a nonlawyer) who had just pleaded guilty on a cocaine charge to represent another client in an unrelated case before a U.S. magistrate; he responded to a female prosecutor's routine request for a handwriting sample from one of his clients with a request of his own A that the prosecutor furnish him blood or hair samples "to see what species you are."
Last October, after formal complaints by the U.S. Attorney's Office, U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong found that Metzger's pranks constituted "a pattern of misconduct" and suspended him from practicing before the federal court in the northern district of California for one year. The judge also ordered Metzger to undergo psychological counseling "to assist [him] in finding more acceptable and appropriate means of accommodating and expressing anger, frustration, and the myriad other emotions attendant to the practice of law...." The suspension has been stayed while Metzger appeals.
Judge Armstrong is being kept abreast of the attorney's exploits: now in the case file in her San Francisco chambers are copies of at least two postcards A McGreal's zebras and a shot of a pair of lions in similar flagrante delicto-sity. A clerk for the judge confirms that the photo of feline fornication, addressed to U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California John Mendez, is inscribed with the message, "Thinking of you" (it contains no "See you soon"), and is signed "M. Metzger.