Lawyer in the White Hat
Whether he's prosecuting terrorists or defending executives, Patrick M. Ryan keeps things classy
Published in 2008 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
on October 27, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
On April 19, 1995, minutes after Timothy McVeigh walked away from a bomb-laden Ryder truck parked in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, the sunny spring morning went dark. Less than three weeks after what was then the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in American history, Patrick M. Ryan was sworn in as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma.
Even before taking office, Ryan knew the bombing would be the defining event of his tenure. Though U.S. attorneys for the most part don’t prosecute cases themselves, he fully intended to personally grab this bull by the horns. “I grieve for the victims. The chance to try [Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols] was something that I wanted to do, and I spent most of my administration doing it.”
Throughout the lengthy trials in Denver, the victims were always at the front of Ryan’s mind. He made a point of wearing a white cowboy hat so Oklahomans—especially the victims—could easily identify him among the team of prosecuting attorneys and say, “That’s our guy. He’s our U.S. attorney. He’s up there fighting for us.”
“You have the weight of all those people who are looking up to you and the other prosecutors,” he explains. “You feel a real obligation to not let them down. Every day, every night that I prepared—I don’t mean to sound altruistic, but I thought, ‘I’ve got to do my very best tomorrow, because there are a lot of people counting on me.'”
His work on the bombing trials left a lasting impression on those who were in the trenches with him.
“The McVeigh case gave us the opportunity to see a lot of lawyers from around the country, not just Oklahoma,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Vicki Behenna, who worked with Ryan in Denver and considers him one of the best lawyers in the nation. “He is the most thorough, most prepared trial lawyer I know. And when he gets in the courtroom, he’s very skilled. His style is so nice and genteel and respectful that I think jurors really respect that.” Pointing up Ryan’s well-known intensity, she adds, “I mean, the man didn’t sleep.”
Counterbalancing his intensity, Ryan has an easy, well-worn laugh, and often uses the word “fun” when referring to cases he’s tried. But the bombing trials were different, taking over the lives of everyone involved—physically, psychologically and emotionally. To this day, he has trouble talking about certain aspects of the case, particularly victims’ stories.
At times, he was accused of being too emotionally involved in court. With a rueful laugh, he admits, “They were right. I wish I wasn’t, but that’s me. It’s hard for me to get up in any kind of a case where there is tremendous emotional hurt on the parties without some emotion coming out. I just have a difficult time doing it.”
The bombing trials thrust Ryan onto the national stage and into history books. But by then, his law career had already carried him over some interesting terrain. For starters, following law school he fulfilled his military commitment by serving as a U.S. Air Force JAG officer. Remarkably, this included two years as chief military justice for Southeast Asia when he was only in his mid-20s.
With many of Ryan’s contemporaries joining big civilian law firms at this time, he thought, “God, they’re going to be so much more ahead of me, because they’ll have four years of working in these firms. I’m going to come along and not know anything about what private lawyers do.”
He needn’t have worried. After four years, most of Ryan’s contemporaries still had little courtroom experience—but he had tried some 150 courts martial cases while in the JAG Corps. Because of that experience, when he left the Air Force and joined the Crowe & Dunlevy law firm, he found himself handling about 80 criminal cases a year.
Ryan launched his own civil litigation firm in 1981. After 14 successful years, he took a break and moved his family to Switzerland for 10 months. There, he indulged his passions for biking, running, rock climbing, reading books, traveling around Europe, “and basically didn’t work at all.”
But idleness—even the high-velocity idleness of a Patrick Ryan-style respite—had to come to an end. The Murrah Federal Building bombing turned him back into a prosecutor on May 9, 1995, as he was sworn in as U.S. attorney.
When he finally stepped down from that office in 1999, Ryan re-established the firm of Ryan & Whaley with his former partner, Phillip G. Whaley. Now boasting 20 attorneys, the firm’s name has grown to Ryan, Whaley, Coldiron & Shandy.
But Patrick Ryan’s days in the spotlight were hardly over. In 2003, Tulsan William Bartmann, co-founder of Commercial Financial Services, went on trial, battling 57 federal counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. If convicted, Bartmann would spend the rest of his life in prison.
As Bartmann’s defense attorney, Ryan faced a formidable challenge. “Everybody thought he was guilty. The entire city of Tulsa—every [newspaper] article—every person you talked to felt like Bartmann was guilty.”
Ryan shifted into “trial mode.” According to co-counsel Daniel G. Webber Jr., “Trying a case with Pat is partly like an Iron Man contest. He puts himself so physically and mentally into the effort.”
As the long trial wore on, their schedule became grueling. “I’d work until about midnight,” Ryan recalls. Webber and Barbara E. Ryan (Ryan’s wife, herself a former assistant U.S. attorney) “would stay up until 3 in the morning getting the papers and materials and exhibits ready for the next day. I’d get up at 5:30 to start studying it, and then go to court and try the case” while the co-counsels slept in.
By all accounts, Ryan is extremely competitive, whether at work or on the golf course. “He hates to lose,” says Webber, “but he wants to win fair.” In the courtroom, “he can be incredibly disciplined and focused for a sustained amount of time. I’d never seen anything like it, so I learned a lot from watching him.”
During the Bartmann trial, the prosecution called more than 80 witnesses. Ryan’s cross-examinations were called masterful. When the prosecution rested, Ryan called no witnesses for the defense. After four days of deliberation, in a stunning reversal of earlier expectations, the jury found the defendant not guilty on all counts.
The dust from the Bartmann trial had barely settled when Ryan switched sides again. This time, he was named special prosecutor for the Court on the Judiciary to investigate the removal petition against Judge Donald D. Thompson, infamously accused of operating a penis pump in the courtroom.
Ryan didn’t flinch at the job, however distasteful. “What Judge Thompson did is a disgrace,” he says. “It reflected poorly upon Oklahoma. It was embarrassing, I’m sure, to every lawyer and every judge—especially judges—in the state. But the system does work. We got him off the bench.”
To Patrick Ryan, issues of ethics are no-brainers, according to Barbara Ryan. “Pat has the utmost respect for the bench, for the system.”