A Life Less Ordinary
Robert Brewer has had more than one case of a lifetime
Published in 2009 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine
on June 14, 2009
Updated on May 4, 2021
Hijacking! Espionage! Hitmen! Bank robberies!
Most of us see action like that only in a Hollywood blockbuster, but for Robert Brewer it’s all in a day’s work. “I tried more than just one case that I could have called ‘the case of a lifetime,'” Brewer says about his time as an assistant United States attorney in Los Angeles.
Brewster is perhaps best known for his 1981 prosecution of Marian Zacharski, a Polish intelligence officer arrested for stealing secrets of the Stealth Bomber. Zacharski’s prowess in espionage is legendary; his case is still studied at the FBI academy as a textbook example of how a resourceful spy plies his trade. Once in the courtroom, however, the spy was no match for Brewer’s sharp prosecutorial skills. Zacharski was sentenced to life in prison, and the attorney was lauded for a deft conviction in what was the first espionage case against a non-Soviet spy since the end of World War II.
These days, Brewer focuses on white collar criminal defense, commercial contracts, civil fraud, and securities and employment class actions at Jones Day. He’s been a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers since 1999, and he’s ranked by Chambers USA 2008 as one of the leading white-collar crime attorneys in California. A fixture of the San Diego legal community, Brewer was honored with the 2009 Daniel T. Broderick III Award in recognition of his “civility, professionalism and integrity.”
Another testament to Brewer’s standing in the San Diego legal community: They come to him when they need help. He’s been called several times to represent San Diego Superior Court judges who found themselves the focus of alleged improprieties. And when the ex-mayor of Del Mar, Nancy Hoover, was indicted, she turned to Brewer. He served as co-counsel for Hoover in a nine-month federal securities fraud trial, the longest federal criminal jury trial in San Diego history.
When he speaks of his 34-year legal career, Brewer’s demeanor is controlled and businesslike. He’ll crack the occasional smile, but for the most part his expression is impenetrable. “I’ve always been conservative, and interested in law enforcement,” he says.
Brewer cut his teeth in the Army. He attended St. Lawrence University in New York on an ROTC scholarship with a four-year service obligation upon graduation. “It was 1968, the Vietnam War, not the best time to owe the Army four years of your life,” he says. He attended infantry, Airborne and Ranger training at Fort Benning, Ga., before spending a year in Germany, and being sent to Vietnam in April 1970. For 15 months, Brewer served with the Vietnamese Airborne Division and the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Studies and Observation Group. The clandestine Special Operations Group was involved in cross-border operations. “I can’t go into too much detail because it was a highly classified assignment,” Brewer explains. What he can say, however, is that “Hollywood doesn’t come close to depicting real combat-the experience is horrifying.”
On his way home from Vietnam, Brewer stopped in San Diego. To the combat-weary solider, it was heaven. “It was on a beautiful Santa Ana day in the fall with 80-degree temperatures,” Brewer says. “I thought, ‘This is the place to live.'”
Before he resigned his commission and moved to San Diego, Brewer spent another year in the Army at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. During that time, he started thinking of a career in law. “I was doing a lot of briefing of senior officers. I enjoyed answering questions and thinking on my feet,” he says. It was often suggested that he attend law school and then transfer into Judge Advocate General’s Corps. But the young officer made up his mind. “If I was going to go to law school I was going to be a civilian,” he says. “If I was going to be in the Army, I was going to be in the infantry.”
Not one to waste time, Brewer left the Army in August 1972, and started law school at the University of San Diego in September of the same year. From the beginning, he was drawn to work as a prosecutor. “I was very victim-oriented,” he says. And with good reason—he was the victim of a robbery himself while a student at USD. He was working as a clerk at a liquor store in Linda Vista when a man entered with a gun and demanded that Brewer empty the cash register. “I didn’t look at him and just put the money in a bag,” he says. “It was terrifying.”
Brewer says the experience gave him insight into fear and compassion for victims of street crime. “I automatically have a tremendous desire to help the victims of street crime because I can relate.”
Brewer also knew he wanted to be in the courtroom, and after a summer clerkship at the district attorney’s office in Los Angeles, he was thoroughly convinced. “I graduated in May of 1975, took the July bar and worked at the D.A.’s office until the results came out in November,” he says. “I became a deputy district attorney the next month.” During his two years at the office, his wish for courtroom experience was granted tenfold. “It was great—I had about 25 jury trials and hundreds of preliminary hearings.”
In October 1977, he accepted a position as an assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division. “I wanted to deal with high-stakes federal cases,” he explains. Once again, Brewer’s wish was granted. This time, on a scale he never could have imagined.
From the moment he stepped through the U.S. Attorney’s door, Brewer worked on big-league cases. One of the most memorable was an aircraft hijacking case at LAX in which a man hid a .45 caliber pistol inside his ski boot and boarded a plane. While the plane sat on the runway, the hijacker proceeded to take a flight attendant hostage and demanded that the plane be flown to Cuba. The crew escaped by popping out the window of the cockpit, while an FBI agent dressed as a pilot boarded the plane and overpowered the hijacker. When the case went to trial, Brewer convinced the jury to reject the defendant’s insanity plea.
He later handled a good, old-fashioned bank burglary. He prosecuted fugitive Harry Barber, the last member of a gang to be apprehended for the multimillion-dollar burglary of a United California Bank in Laguna Niguel in 1972. Barber was living under an assumed name in Pennsylvania when he was apprehended and put on trial in 1980—much to the satisfaction of the bank’s clients who had lost their valuables in more than 450 breached safe-deposit boxes. Barber was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Almost immediately after the Barber case, he was in the courtroom again for yet another high-profile trial, this one involving murder for hire. A key witness in a drug conspiracy investigation was hunted down by a hitman and killed. The hitman was captured and pointed the finger at Harold Morton, the leader of the drug organization. Brewer managed to prosecute Morton for a civil rights violation. “The witness had a right to testify and Morton violated that right by having her killed.”
During his four-and-a-half year stint at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Brewer prosecuted numerous defendants accused of serious crimes, but he says Morton was perhaps the most dangerous. “I didn’t necessarily feel threatened by him, but during trial he would look at me and I could tell he was a very mean guy,” Brewer says.
Most of the people that Brewer has prosecuted, however, don’t inspire that level of aversion. In fact, Brewer keeps in contact with a man he once put away for life, Marian Zacharski. The Polish spy was the last man Brewer prosecuted as assistant U.S. attorney. “I absolutely hated what Zacharski did, but he was an intelligent, reasonable man. He was just doing his job and I was doing mine.”
Ultimately, Zacharski didn’t stay long in prison—he was released just three years after the trial as part of a trade for 25 U.S. agents being held in Eastern bloc countries. Nevertheless, Brewer has asked the former spy if he feels resentment toward the prosecutor about the sentence. “Zacharski says that he feels the same way I feel—that we were just doing our jobs.”
Brewer occasionally misses life at the U.S. Attorney’s office, but he’s still making sure his government does its job, just from the opposite side of the courtroom. “I can cross-examine an FBI agent very aggressively because that’s part of my job, and that’s part of his job, but afterwards I will shake his hand and say, ‘I really respect you,’ because I genuinely do.”
Brewer’s belief in the workings of the government is unshakable. “Ninety-nine percent of the police officers I’ve worked with have been honest, law-abiding, and hardworking, and 99 percent of the judges I’ve worked with have been dedicated to a level playing field.
“I absolutely believe that the system works.”