In the long and entertaining annals of scandal that help define South Florida, attorney William Richey’s name has come attached to so many of the stories.
Not because he was a source of dirty business. He was a well-known attorney — in prosecution and defense — that placed him in the courtroom on so many of the cases that captured the public’s imagination.
He was on the case of the commissioner, the hooker and the crack house. He was the low-key lawyer for the infamous lawyer who created the novel nymphomaniac defense for the Broward couple charged with running a $2,000-a-week brothel out of their home. He was a prosecutor in the Gold Plumbing Caper that flushed the career of a former Miami-Dade Schools superintendent.
William Richey would be bemused, maybe horrified, to be attached publicly to any of those shenanigans.
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But Richey, who died at 73 in Palm City on Aug. 22 after a car crash, was a quiet, strong-willed man who just happened to be in demand and adept at his practice.
“He was not a professional braggart. He didn’t go around blowing his own horn,” said his wife, Linda Richey. “Where he grew up, the ethos of a South Texan was to be laconic and self-deprecating. This was all a function of place. He never lost his pride in being a Texan.”
Reporters remember the Harvard law-educated Richey as someone who never grandstanded in court no matter how notorious the case.
“I first met him as a reporter in Miami covering the Gold Plumbing Caper in Miami and quickly came to admire him as a savvy, soft-spoken prosecutor with a keen sense of fairness,” former Miami Herald staff writer Tom Dubocq wrote on the guest book of Richey’s obituary.
Richey avoided discussing cases with reporters. He felt he had a job to do without calling attention to himself, even when the cases made that near impossible.
He had a skill for distilling complex issues into simple concepts that people could latch on to and digest.
Linda Richey on attorney husband William Richey
Richey, for instance, initially defended former Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Gersten who was fingered by a convicted killer, two prostitutes and a crack addict who claimed to have robbed him of his car after he smoked cocaine in a Miami crack house and had sex with one of the prostitutes in 1992. Gersten fled to Australia in 1993 after his lawyers were unable to quash an arrest order against him on civil contempt charges. He reportedly remains in Australia.
The late high-profile attorney Ellis Rubin needed Richey to represent him after he was held in contempt for ignoring a judge’s court order to turn over a videotape of Kathy Willets having sex with a former Fort Lauderdale vice mayor.
Rubin, who crafted Jeff and Kathy Willets’ novel nymphomaniac defense, said he’d rather sit in jail than hand over a tape that could incriminate him and his clients. “We’re stepping through a mine field,” Richey opined in a 1991 Herald article.
Richey was also one of the late Johnny Jones’ prosecutors after the superintendent was convicted in 1980 of using school funds to buy gold plumbing fixtures for his vacation home and accepting money from a vendor.
The community, already a tinderbox after the acquittal of four white Miami-Dade police officers in the beating death of black businessman Arthur McDuffie, reacted against Jones’ critics, including Richey, who lived in Miami Beach.
“Those were profound days,” Linda Richey said. “People would call and threaten to firebomb our house. Was very rough.”
Born in Harlingen, Texas, on May 3, 1943, the grandson of a sharecropper, Richey, a former city manager of Crystal City, Texas, was recruited to Miami by then-Assistant State Attorney Janet Reno after his graduation from Harvard Law School.
Among his legal roles: Chief of the Public Corruption and Organized Crime Division of the Office of the State Attorney for the 11th Judicial Circuit, Chief Assistant Attorney for the Office of the State Attorney, a pioneer in international asset recovery, and founding member of the law firm Richey & Munroe. At the time of his death, he was in private practice in Palm City, his home of 17 years.
“One of the things he was most proud of professionally is that he established a whole branch of the law, international asset recovery, and for a lawyer that is huge,” his wife said. “He had a skill for distilling complex issues into simple concepts that people could latch on to and digest.”
Richey is also survived by his daughters Leeana Richey Hupfer and Lynnet Richey. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 3 at Forest Hills Funeral Home, 2001 SW Murphy Rd., Palm City, Florida. Contributions in his name can be made to the Salvation Army, Women’s and Children’s Services, Stuart.