Horse Sense

Outside the office, Equels is an accomplished equestrian.

Published in 2007 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2007

Thomas Equels is a defender of civil rights, an equestrian, a steward of the environment and a highly esteemed trial attorney. And—based on testimony from the bishop of Orlando—he’s a very good pilot as well.

The flying expertise dates from the Vietnam War, when Equels flew more than 300 combat missions in a Cobra helicopter gunship. When he returned to the States—bringing home a pair of Distinguished Flying Crosses, 15 Air Medals, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart—Equels was sent to Fort Rucker, near Troy State University in Alabama. He took night courses, got his undergraduate degree in 1975, and went on to earn his juris doctor with high honors at Florida State University College of Law.

In the late 1980s, Equels helped the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—for which he worked pro bono as general counsel—successfully sue the federal government to allow church services for Haitians at Krome Detention Center in Miami.

“They were denied access to lawyers, the press, churches. SCLC leader Ray Fauntroy was really worked [up] about it, and so was I,” he says. Equels’ work at Krome introduced him to Father Thomas Wenski—now bishop of Orlando—who was then a spiritual leader for Miami’s Haitian community.

In a later pro bono case, Equels and Wenski flew together to Raiford State Prison to visit a death row inmate who was eventually freed. It was on this trip that Wenski came to appreciate Equels’ piloting skills.

“We landed on a grass landing strip,” Wenski recalls. “After the visit, we were taking off, and Equels detected a problem and had to bring the plane back down. He was the pilot and I was doing the praying.”

They got down safely.

Equels, 55, concentrates on civil litigation and personal injury cases. In 1993, he obtained a $44 million judgment against Manuel Noriega for funds taken from the Panama treasury. He also helped track down some of the misappropriated funds.

When not representing clients or volunteering for civil-rights causes, Equels pursues two other passions: horses and nature.

About 10 years ago, before he married his wife, Laura, Equels bought a 23-acre farm near Ocala, where he raises Paso Finos, of Latin American lineage, and Tennessee Walkers. Since Equels Law Firm has offices in Orlando and Tallahassee as well as Miami, the central Ocala location works well.

Equels once competed in dressage, racing and jumping events, but these days time constraints limit him to pleasure rides on the trails.

His farm is close to Ocala National Forest and on the Cross Florida Greenway, a 200-mile-long trail that runs from the Gulf of Mexico to near Jacksonville. The trail is only for hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders.

Equels volunteers to help maintain the Greenway, replacing trail markings and removing obstacles. He says his involvement in activities outside the legal arena stems from advice once given him by former American Bar Association president Chesterfield Smith. Smith said the big mistake young lawyers make is doing nothing but being lawyers, instead of making sure their talents, families and interests are all part of their lives.

“I’ve never forgotten that,” he says. “That’s why, when out checking those trails, chances are one of my three daughters will probably be with me.”

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