Donald Lykkebak’s High-Flying Career

If you're an astronaut accused of hunting down a romantic rival, he is the lawyer to call. Oh, did we mention the diapers?

Published in 2008 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

By G.K. Sharman on June 16, 2008


Feb. 4, 2007. Astronaut Lisa Nowak gets in her car in Houston.

Her destination: Orlando, 900 miles away. Her intent: to confront a fellow astronaut she perceives as a romantic rival for the affections of another member of the astronaut corps.

The next day, she finds her quarry, Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, in an airport parking lot and accosts her, following her to her car, pounding on the window and pleading for a ride. Shipman tries to drive away, and Nowak pepper-sprays her through the slightly opened window. Shipman manages to drive to a parking-lot tollbooth, where the toll-taker calls Orlando police, who place Nowak under arrest.

This is when an already tabloid—worthy story—as laid out in police reports-jets straight into the stratosphere–though her attorney, Orlando’s Donald Lykkebak, begs to differ on the details. Investigators search Nowak and her car and find, among other items, latex gloves, a BB pistol, a trench coat, a folding knife—and diapers. According to police and media reports, she used them so she wouldn’t have to make bathroom stops.

The diaper debacle became grist for late-night stand-up routines and Law & Order episodes, and the Web was awash in squeamish blog posts wondering why she would drive around with used diapers in her car.

Thing is, according to Lykkebak, it’s a preposterous lie. He says the media made a big deal of something that was a misunderstanding.

“I knew as soon as I saw the arrest affidavit that this had the potential to be spun out of control,” he says, adding that Nowak has been held up to ridicule and her chance of getting a fair jury jeopardized.

The truth, according to Lykkebak: Nowak, a married mother of three young children, had several toddler-size diapers—unused—in her trunk that had been there since the family evacuated Houston in advance of Hurricane Rita two years before.

“It’s not a big deal,” he says. “It’s a simple matter.”


The detail man

That the amorous astronaut hired Lykkebak is no surprise to the Sunshine State legal community. If you’re accused of a serious crime, Lykkebak is a good man to have at your table. Smart and aggressive, he is considered one of the best criminal-defense attorneys in the region.

He’s also famously thorough, spending days in court and nights at the office preparing his case.

“He would call me from the office at 10 or 11 at night to bounce stuff off me,” says Orlando attorney Mark Blechman, who co-counseled a major drug case with Lykkebak.

His clients’ well-being is his No. 1 priority. On one occasion, colleagues recall, Lykkebak filed a habeas motion and persuaded a judge to peek at verdicts delivered on a Friday afternoon so his clients didn’t have to spend another weekend in jail.

Lykkebak loves to go to court, says Cheney Mason, his law-school buddy, former landlord and longtime friend. Frequent co-counsels on cases, they also share an office suite in downtown Orlando. And back in the 1970s, Mason was Lykkebak’s campaign manager during a run for state attorney of Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit. (Lykkebak lost.)

At docket calls, where attorneys say whether they’re ready to proceed to trial, Lykkebak and Mason always have their hands up, eager to mix it up in court.

“It’s almost perverted how much fun it is for him to go to trial,” Mason says.

Nothing is more enjoyable for Lykkebak than catching some cop in an inconsistency or pounding an unprepared prosecutor.

The Nowak case is the epitome of fun, says Mason, who is assisting on the case. At a hearing to consider letting Nowak remove her ankle monitor, Shipman claimed she was afraid to leave Brevard County and feared that Nowak would come after her if the monitor were removed. Except Lykkebak knew something no one else did: that Shipman had actually traveled to Houston, where Nowak was living, several times in the previous weeks.

He spent the whole hearing suppressing a grin, Mason recalls, until he could get Shipman on the stand and make her admit it.

“He holds his cards close to the vest until he can play ’em when it counts,” Mason says, adding, “Don is a trial lawyer. Don’s identity is being a trial lawyer. Don’s life is being a trial lawyer.”

Just don’t ever make him look bad in court. A cop did that once, Blechman says. The officer’s reports reflected one set of facts, but he told the prosecution something different. Lykkebak found out after he had already used the information in front of the jury.

Lykkebak got the cop on the stand and blasted him for causing him to misrepresent facts to the jury.

“Don was so offended by that,” Blechman says. “He was outraged and mortified.”


Military mindset

His aeronautical aspirations dashed by an eye exam, young Capt. Lykkebak began his nearly four-decade legal career as a judge advocate in the Marine Corps, both defending and prosecuting Marines facing special and general courts martial.

His approach to law is still very military, notes attorney Alan Ross of Miami, who has tried three big federal cases with Lykkebak and won all of them.

He sums up Lykkebak’s logic this way: “How do I get from Point A to Point B with my legs still on?”

A graduate of the University of Illinois and University of Florida School of Law, Lykkebak was an assistant state attorney in Orlando, where he was a felony division chief. After four years—in 1977—he started a defense practice.

He still operates a one-man shop, handling everything from depositions to high-profile courtroom arguments.

“Criminal cases are a commitment,” he says. “You can’t share responsibility for the case with someone else. People hire you for your experience and reputation. Personal representation is a matter of great importance to a client.”

His client list is a who’s-who of headline-grabbers: a German doctor accused of plotting to sell missiles to Middle Eastern countries. The wife of a Disney exec accused of stealing $1 million. A 540-pound man who claimed that his obesity drove him to traffic cocaine. A Colombian cartel member who made the cover of Newsweek.

Most of his high-profile cases are as simple as the Nowak affair, he maintains. When you strip away the salacious tabloid hoopla, what you have left are the facts. Working the facts and uncovering the real issues—or as he calls it, “lawyering the case”—means you win in court.

Lykkebak has “lawyered” cases that are the stuff of Florida legend.

He defended Ed Humphrey, the original suspect in a series of gruesome murders in the university town of Gainesville. But Humphrey was just a slightly strange 19-year-old kid who made a convenient scapegoat for the police and the media. (The real killer turned out to be Danny Rolling, who was executed in 2006.)

Lykkebak also represented a woman charged with aggravated manslaughter, felony murder and child abuse in the drowning deaths of her child and another toddler. What boosted that case into the public consciousness was her occupation: exotic dancer. The facts: The drownings were ruled accidental, and her line of work had nothing to do with the incident.


Taking on the drug war

Big-time cases are the ones he’s known for, but his bread and butter stems from defending clients accused of possessing marijuana and other drug offenses. About half his practice involves defending people against drug charges.

Society spends a lot of effort and money fighting the use of a substance that is less harmful than alcohol, claims Lykkebak, who has been on the national legal committee for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which advocates that the drug be decriminalized.

“I believe strongly in the principle of drug reform,” he says, “even though reform would take from me some of my means of making a living.”

The problem he sees is that drug use—specifically, marijuana use—is a health issue that has been incorrectly dumped on the legal system.

“We’ve gotten nowhere in the great drug war by addressing it [marijuana use] with arrest, prosecution and incarceration,” he says. Using the criminal justice system to control social behavior, argues Lykkebak, just creates a black market.

“It’s foolish to think that by making a commodity illegal—to prohibit the use of it—hat people are going to respond by not using it.”

But just because he thinks pot is less harmful than booze doesn’t mean he advises toking up, from a legal perspective.

Come over here, he tells nervous young potheads in his office. Look out the window at that building going up over there. You could get a job over there, he says in his hypnotic, once-upon-a-time voice. All they care about is whether you show up to work on time. You could spend your life hanging drywall. But if you want to be a doctor or lawyer or maybe run for public office one day, a drug conviction can stand in the way of your goals and prevent you from reaching your potential.

The message often hits home, Lykkebak says, and he feels that he makes a difference in the lives of his clients.

“Not every criminal client is a recidivist,” he says.

In Lykkebak’s world, defendants are innocent until proven guilty and cops are not their friends. Nor is subtlety his forte. His Web site explains exactly what to do if the police ask to search your car during a traffic stop (hint: don’t let them) and how to respond if drugs are involved (keep your mouth shut, except to ask for a lawyer).

With views like those, you might think Lykkebak is persona non grata with police and prosecutors. Not so, he says.

Of cops, he says, “I like to think I have their respect.” When they get in trouble, they call him, too, knowing that he’ll be as vigilant on their behalf as he was for the people they arrested. “I consider some policemen my friends.”


Respectfully yours

According to colleagues, Lykkebak also has the respect of judges and juries, as well as opposing attorneys, who are part of the legal fellowship that Lykkebak treasures. He speaks fondly of the “collegiality of the Bar and the ethics of the practitioners of criminal law” and reminisces about times when defense attorneys and prosecutors—and in one memorable instance, even members of the jury—used to socialize after the end of a trial. These days, he says, things have become more adversarial and he’s sorry that young lawyers won’t get to have the same kind of fun he and his colleagues did.

Though Lykkebak keeps prosecutors on their toes, some acknowledge that is a good thing.

Practicing against good lawyers just makes you better, says Rick Jancha, and Lykkebak is one of the most capable defense attorneys he faced in nearly 20 years of prosecuting drug cases for the federal government.

“It was always a pleasure” to face Lykkebak in court, says Jancha, who recently switched to defense work. “He was always professional, always a gentleman.”

Lykkebak’s other “fraternity” is the Marine Corps. The military was a defining experience for him, he says, instilling confidence in a young man from the Midwest and making him feel part of something bigger than himself. He calls his military service “the single most significant thing I did in my entire life.”

Once a Marine, always a Marine—even after 35 years in non-military life—as a chance encounter in his office illustrates. Heading into the conference room to show off a print of his legal hero, Clarence Darrow, he encounters an expert witness borrowing the room to work on a report for another attorney.

The two shake hands and the expert says, “Semper fi.” Lykkebak responds in kind. Was it the tiny Marine Corps pin in Lykkebak’s lapel that tipped him off? No, it was the handshake—it wasn’t wimpy, the expert witness explains.

Back in his office, Lykkebak talks about the happy endings he’s managed to bring about for clients. In the Humphrey case, he was able not only to exonerate his client of the charges, but to repair the man’s reputation. Humphrey went on to attend college, and Lykkebak was there when he graduated magna cum laude, and later for his wedding.

The exotic dancer changed careers. She works in an insurance office now and is also married and has another child.

The ending of the Nowak saga has yet to be written.

As of April, Nowak and Lykkebak were waiting for a decision from the 5th District Court of Appeal on whether her statements to police and evidence from her car would go before a jury. (The lower court granted pretrial motions to suppress them.)

One thing is certain: No one will forget the story of the astronaut and the diaper any time soon.

“Twenty years from now, they’ll be talking about that,” he says. “It will probably be on my tombstone.”

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