As a prosecutor, George Cholakis put away violent robbers and one of Miami’s most notorious drug gangs. When he became a defense lawyer, he argued compassionately for clients facing tough prison time.
Away from the court, Cholakis was known for his acts of charity, love of Miami Dolphins football and passion for South Florida’s Greek community.
Cholakis died Sunday after collapsing of an apparent heart attack at the Dolphins game at Hard Rock Stadium. He was 58. His death stunned the South Florida criminal-justice community, which knew him for his affable nature and thoroughness as a lawyer.
“He liked helping people,” said Miami Beach lawyer Sean Ellsworth, a longtime friend who was with him at the game and accompanied him to the hospital. “People would come to him with the biggest problem of their lives, and he liked being the one who be able to guide them through it.”
Cholakis was born on Sept. 22, 1959, in Troy, N.Y. His father, Con G. Cholakis, was a renowned federal district judge in New York. His brother, Gregory Cholakis, is a public defender in New York. His sister, Catherine Cholakis, is a New York state court judge.
“We were raised by parents with a very strong belief system about right and wrong. Fairness and justice were everywhere growing up,’ Gregory Cholakis said.
It was almost as if George Cholakis was destined to come to Miami. As a child in the 1970s, he shunned the New York Giants and rooted for the Dolphins. He later graduated from South Florida’s St. Thomas University School of Law in 1989, and immediately joined the State Attorney’s Office.
He earned his stripes successfully prosecuting a string of tourist robberies that made Miami notorious around the world in the 1990s. Among them: two men who held up a busload of Norwegian tourists by announcing “Welcome to Miami, this is a robbery!”
He was also always available to help draft search and arrest warrants, recalled retired Miami-Dade Detective Jeff Lewis. “The robberies were a big deal. It was worldwide news and George was our go-to guy,” Lewis said. “He always had time for us.”
Cholakis was also part of the team who convicted Recondall Wiggins, who murdered a German tourist. “He was dogged in his approach to make sure justice was going to get done,” recalled Michael Band, the former head of major crimes prosecutions for the State Attorney’s Office.
He was also part of the team that prosecuted the “John Does” drug gang that terrorized Liberty City in the 1990s, committing a string of murders that led their leader to be sentenced to death.
Cholakis’ career as a prosecutor, however, ended in 2007 when he was arrested for a drunk-driving accident on the Venetian Causeway that sent two California tourists to the hospital. He pleaded guilty, paid restitution, served probation and was suspended briefly from practicing law.
His attorney, Richard Baron, recalled the courtroom at sentencing was packed with lawyers and cops. “The support he was got was really amazing,” Baron said. “I don’t think he realized how appreciated he was.”
Cholakis never shied away from taking responsibility for the accident. “He got through it and he got through it with friends,” said Lewis. “He appreciated what he had to look forward to. It gave him an inner strength.”
He rebounded as a criminal defense attorney, representing an array of clients, including a Miami Beach businessman who falsified paperwork on chocolate exports, a former Miami cop who downloaded child pornography and even Mark Duper, the former Dolphins great who was accused of abuse by his own 17-year-old son. Prosecutors in Duval County later dropped the charges, which Cholakis argued was based on an inaccurate description of the altercation by the son.
Outside of court, he was known for his work organizing the Greek festival at Miami’s St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, helping raise funds for fallen police officers and even ordering food for the family of a prosecutor who had just been released from the hospital after cancer treatment.
“It just meant the world to me that someone would care enough to care for my family while they were caring for me,” said the Miami prosecutor, Christine Zahralban.
Cholakis is survived by his wife, Linda Cholakis, his siblings and his mother, Dassie Cholakis, 84. Funeral services are pending.