Mild-mannered Jim Wooley takes on a real-life Tony Soprano
Published in 2004 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
on December 27, 2003
Updated on July 31, 2015
James Wooley trailed Anthony Liberatore Sr. up the courtroom aisle. As the two men reached the swinging half-door that led to the prosecution and defense tables, Liberatore stepped aside. Then the Cleveland mob boss held the door for the assistant U.S. attorney trying to send him to prison.
“You don’t have to do that, Mr. Liberatore,” Wooley said.
The aging capo smiled and winked. “Maybe one day you’ll open a door for me.”
Wooley smiled back. Such quick-draw charm had greased Liberatore’s rise to the top of the city’s underworld. So had a willingness to con, bully and — when subtler persuasion failed — blow up those who stood between him and whatever he wanted. In spring 1993, he wanted racketeering and moneylaundering charges to disappear. But if the mobster’s wit amused Wooley, his reputation for menace fazed the lawyer no more than if Anthony D. Liberatore were Alfred E. Neuman.
“I’m numb to that kind of stuff. Or maybe I’m shallow, I don’t know,” Wooley says, laughing. “But prosecutors rarely develop an ego to the point where they think someone’s going to do something to them. If something happens to me, someone else is going to prosecute Tony Liberatore.”
Mob ties had helped Liberatore lasso the job of business manager of the Laborers International Union’s local branch in 1965. Not long after the Mafia inducted him in 1976, he said grazie by plotting the car-bombing death of rival mobster Danny Greene, who had the doubly poor judgment to be both Irish and a suspected snitch.
The hit landed Liberatore in prison in 1982 — among other sins, he’d bribed an FBI clerk to obtain a list of informants. But besides a frayed mattress, the federal pen offered few hardships, as he continued directing the union’s illegal activities while behind bars. Nor did he go legit after his release in 1990, which explains why three years later he wound up back in court — and winking as he opened a door for Wooley.
Alas, for the 72-year-old Liberatore, the federal prosecutor didn’t return the wink or the favor. The convictions he won earned Liberatore a 10-year term that proved to be a life sentence — halfway through, he keeled of natural causes.And don’t think his death caused Wooley to hum The Godfather theme in requiem. Liberatore, he says, was simply another breed of dirty old man.
“People see romance in [the mob], but I’ve never been caught up in that.These are guys that got up every day who were gifted enough to do well in so many other ways. But instead, they thought about how to run scams, how to hurt people.”
Wooley suffers no more illusions about his own importance than he does about organized crime. He’s proud of his career, sure. He’s bagged convictions against dozens of mobsters, members of the Hell’s Angels in a landmark DNA case and 44 cops in the largest police corruption sting in FBI history. But he’s not too proud. Indeed, he frets that a framed sketch hanging in his office — it shows the spatula-thin Wooley in action during the Liberatore trial — makes him appear “chesty.” It’s not that the artist gave him the pecs of Vin Diesel; he’s just somehow convinced he looks puffed with ego.
So it falls to peers to brag up Wooley, 46, who left his prosecutor’s post in 2000 to helm the white-collar crimes and investigations group at Baker & Hostetler in Cleveland. What say they? He’s brawny of brain, sturdy of conscience — and owns titanium-tipped nerves.
“Jim’s not afraid to lose,” says Stephen Sozio, a partner with Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue and Wooley’s former cohort in the U.S. Attorney’s office. “He brings that certain edge where he’s not afraid of failure. But his tenacity is tempered by judgment. He’s not going to forget principles to win.”
“What makes him so effective is his ability to boil down complex issues,” adds federal prosecutor Craig Morford, who tried numerous cases with Wooley. “He’s able to help a jury understand the essence of something without talking down to them.”
Credit his years as a bartender — a job that ranks behind only hostage negotiator in the need to relate to all kinds.After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1979, Wooley enrolled in law school at Case Western Reserve University and, to cover tuition, manned the tap at Don’s Lighthouse. The job served as a sort of clerkship with martinis.The Cleveland grill attracts its share of attorneys, and they regaled the law student with tales of courtroom drama — explosions of anger, eruptions of grief.Wooley drank it all in.
“The criminal justice system is where the rubber hits the road in terms of human emotion,” he says. “It’s not about contracts. It’s about raw emotion.”
Seeking a role in that passion play, Wooley trained his ambitions on becoming a prosecutor. He graduated in 1982 and landed in the New York City office of Robert Morgenthau, already regarded as the Dalai Lama of district attorneys for his ability to lure young talent. Like his fellow rookies — including a pair of Juniors whose surnames preceded them, Robert Kennedy and Cyrus Vance — Wooley started on the midnight arraignment shift, combing through human detritus: pimps, dealers, stalkers, rapists. Or, as he quips, “People who commit a crime because they don’t know how not to.”
He loved every hour of it, and in time earned a daylight gig. Truth is, Wooley says, he’d still be working there, except that he and his wife, Deborah, realized that starting a family in New York would require a congressional bailout.The couple returned to the lower-rent environs of their native Cleveland in 1986 — today they have four kids — and Wooley joined Baker & Hostetler as an associate. But while handling civil cases stretched his intellect, his adrenal glands shriveled.
“There’s nowhere near the buzz like on the criminal side,” he admits. “That’s why you don’t see any prime-time shows about protecting intellectual property rights.”
Wooley would cross back in early 1990, beckoned by the U.S. Attorney’s office. He had no idea that within weeks he’d plunge headlong into what he calls “the big one” — a case that forever changed criminal law.
Three members of the Cleveland Hell’s Angels stood accused of killing David Hartlaub, a Sandusky record shop owner, in February 1988. Authorities claimed that the trio, mistaking Hartlaub for a rider with a rival biker gang, ventilated him 14 times with a machine gun while he sat in his van. FBI agents arrested John Bonds, Mark Verdi and Steven Yee a year after the murder. The case hinged on DNA analysis showing that blood detected in the van and in Yee’s car matched Bonds’ — a ricocheting bullet apparently had pierced him. The stakes were Homeric: It was the first-ever attempt to present genetic evidence in a federal trial.
As the new guy in the prosecutor’s office,Wooley rode shotgun on the case — until the lead attorney quit his job. Overnight, Wooley found himself battling a legal Dream Team long before that phrase emerged during O.J.’s brief stint as a glove model. The lineup featured William Kunstler, Ron Kuby, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. In what now seems like the Irony Project, Scheck and Neufeld already had succeeded in getting DNA evidence tossed — on grounds that it was unreliable — from a state case in New York. They hoped to give the feds the same kind of egg facial.
Meanwhile, Wooley says, “The only scientific background I had was mixing drinks. I was a mixologist — I knew how to make a Pink Lady.”
He crammed for the case by going back to school, visiting top geneticists at U.S. universities and speaking to James Watson, one of the two scientists who discovered the double helix. If he’d been a student, Wooley’s research probably could have reaped a Ph.D. He’d have to settle for a case precedent — a U.S. magistrate admitted the DNA evidence after a seven-week pretrial hearing.
United States v.Yee — and Wooley — entered history.
Yet no one could predict whether history would sway jurors any more than Kuby’s ponytail. As the defense assailed the merits of genetic testing, the courtroom resembled a giant tattoo, with Hell’s Angels jamming the gallery. Wooley countered with calmness. He left the mouth-foaming to his foes — call him the anti-Kunstler — as he argued that DNA doesn’t lie.The jury returned three convictions — and even the bikers tipped their skid helmets to him.
Wooley’s father attended the trial, and one day revealed to a couple of Hell’s Angels that his kid was the prosecutor. “He’s not so bad,” one replied. “He’s just on the wrong side.” Wooley laughs recalling the story. “I think they respected that we just presented things in a straightforward way. It sounds like an oxymoron — bragging about not grandstanding — but I think that’s what helped.”
Cleveland attorney Niki Schwartz, who has both sat alongside Wooley on cases and gone up against him, puts it this way: “Unlike a lot of lawyers, he understands the forensic value of understatement. He’s not just a pit bull.”
He’s no longer just a mixologist, either. The case put him on the lecture circuit and in the national media’s Rolodex.When “60 Minutes” or Koppel or The New York Times needs to untangle the legal aspects of polymers, Wooley’s phone rings. He and his old pal Scheck sit on a national blue-ribbon panel that’s exploring the future of DNA evidence, and he has testified before Congress and the Ohio Legislature on genetic analysis.The trial even stirred his muse: A few years ago, Wooley banged out a 500-page novel titled Unnatural Selection. The DNA thriller received a couple of nibbles from New York publishers before coming to rest in the bottom drawer of his desk — a reminder, perhaps, that he was wise to upgrade from a B.F.A. to a J.D.
Nonetheless, he says, “It’s the one case I was involved in where I can look back and say that we really made a difference for a lot of people.”
He has also reached people in smaller ways. In 1998, Wooley wrung guilty pleas out of 44 law officers on drug conspiracy charges. The crooked cops had served as the muscle for cocaine and pot dealers who, it turned out, were undercover FBI agents, and Wooley’s efforts won him honors as assistant U.S. attorney of the year. The plaque hangs on his office wall amid a dozen other awards — Home Depot should carry so much hardware — that he has received from the Justice Department, the FBI and other agencies. But what humbles him are the words a waiter spoke to him last summer as he ate lunch at a Cleveland restaurant. Wooley recognized him as one of the officers busted in the case. After he introduced himself, the man told Wooley that since his parole he’d found work, returned to school and stayed sober. Then he added: “You told me before I went in, ‘You can get through this if you work at it.’ I just want you to know, you were right.”
If he’s inspired his share of Atticus Finch moments, colleagues say, Wooley also injects a bit of Hawkeye Pierce into the courtroom. In the mid-’90s, he and co-prosecutor Morford were in the midst of a tense racketeering trial against Youngstown mob boss Lenny Strollo and some 50 of his goons. At one point, a defense attorney asked a witness to identify which prosecutor had deposed him — “the one with hair or the bald one.” Wooley, the bald one, yelled in mock outrage, “That wasn’t necessary!” He exacted his revenge on cross-examination, asking the witness if his attorney was “the one with four chins.” The room erupted. (The laughter later died — at least for the defendants — when the convictions rolled in.)
Holding forth in his 29th-floor office at Baker & Hostetler, Wooley peppers his comments with one-liners. Nodding toward a photo of him and Hillary Rodham Clinton shaking hands, he deadpans, “We used to date.” He returned to the firm in 2000, intrigued by the chance to open its corporate crime unit. He’s enjoying private practice, though there’s little he can divulge about his cases — the people he represents these days want less than nothing to do with the press. One case that did make headlines last year involved his successful defense of The New York Times in a $15 million libel suit brought by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Francis Sweeney. The victory was all the more impressive given that jury selection began on the same day the Jayson Blair scandal broke.
Beyond his day job,Wooley has served as a special prosecutor a handful of times since leaving the U.S. attorney’s office. “I like to think that shows I’m not a zealot, that I’m a straight shooter,” he says. Sozio, who stepped down as a prosecutor on the same day as Wooley in 2000, seconds the opinion. He occasionally refers clients to his onetime co-worker, knowing that Wooley’s reputation for tact gleams as brightly as his pate. “Jim doesn’t rush headlong into the abyss,” Sozio says. “He thinks before he acts.”
Much as Wooley likes the view from his lofty perch in downtown Cleveland, however, there’s no doubt he’s still very much in touch with his inner prosecutor. When asked what would happen if his old flame Hillary ended up in the White House and nominated him for U.S. attorney, he smiles.
“That is,” he says, “the dream job.”