Is Randy Bodner the Bravest Lawyer in Boston?

After standing up to the Luchese organized crime family and the notoriously violent Medellin cocaine cartel, not much scares Randy Bodner these days

Published in 2004 Massachusetts Super Lawyers — November 2004

If one measure of Randy Bodner’s status is the panoramic view from his office window, he is riding high. The office is on the 41st floor of the cylindrical tower at One International Place, a soaring landmark in downtown Boston. The window provides a grand vista of sailboats in Boston Harbor, the runways at Logan Airport and a kaleidoscope of sparkling ocean.

But the mementos on the wall of Bodner’s office speak not of Boston but of New York. There are eight plaques commending him for his achievements as an assistant United States attorney in New York City during the early 1990s. There are two sketches by a courtroom artist depicting him as a young prosecutor pleading cases before federal judges.

Nowadays, Bodner’s work as a partner in the old-line Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray has him mostly defending corporate clients in civil matters. However, his past as a hard-driving federal prosecutor never seems far from his consciousness.

No wonder.

The four years that Bodner spent in the pressure cooker of the New York prosecutor’s job, he says, were unforgettable. He prosecuted a capo of the Luchese organized-crime family, who got life. He convicted a kingpin in the notoriously violent Medellin cocaine-smuggling cartel.

So fierce was his cross-examination of a money launderer who was in cahoots with the cartel that the witness broke down on the stand in tears. During a break in the trial, members of the money launderer’s family accosted Bodner in the courtroom.

Despite such sound and fury — or perhaps because of it — Bodner looks back wistfully at his time in New York. The prosecutor’s job, he recalls, was one of “real vibrancy” and “energy.” He adds, “And [there was] great stuff to work on. The one great thing about being a prosecutor in New York is that the best crime in the country is there.”

If Bodner’s words connote a swashbuckling attitude, his out-of-court manner is scarcely intimidating. Bald, 5 foot 9 inches tall and solidly built (he runs or works out with weights several times a week), he is 45 years old. He talks fast and laughs easily. When he laughs, his pewter-blue eyes shine, and the corners of his mouth turn sharply up to form a crescent suggestive of a smiley-face sticker.

In 1986, when he married a Massachusetts woman named Betsy Evans, the event made the New York Times wedding page. Bride and groom had impressive academic credentials, both having graduated with high honors from Dartmouth College and Bodner having graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. (Bodner’s wife later attended medical school and now works part-time as a pediatrician. The couple have three young children.)

As for pedigree, hers was more notable than his. Her father was a senior partner in the Boston law firm that is now known as Goodwin Procter. Her grandfather, George C. Sweeney, had been chief judge of the United States District Court in Boston. Bodner’s mother and father grew up on farms in the lush horse country of central Kentucky, and both became factory workers. “My side of the family was the sort of people who were more mucking the stalls as opposed to owning the horses,” Bodner says. His father, a union organizer, wound up as a manager at the Corning Glass Works.

Lacrosse, in which Bodner excelled, was his ticket to the St. James School, a prep school near Hagerstown, Md. Fast hand-eye coordination and a knack for strategy made him a natural at goalie. He played the position on the varsity lacrosse team at Dartmouth, and he also studied hard. “Sunday nights through Thursday nights, I’d close the library,” he says.

By the time he reached Harvard Law School, he was eager to do more than study. He parlayed a summer job at the now-defunct law firm of Lord Day & Lord in New York City into a six-month assignment during his second year of law school. Every week he commuted from Boston to New York for several days of labor on a protracted and complex breach-of-contract case.

When Bodner signed on as a Ropes & Gray associate in 1987, he was only the latest Harvard Law graduate in a long parade of them, many of whom came to head the firm. Ropes & Gray, which was established in 1865, is the largest Boston-based law firm. It employs about 580 lawyers in Boston and in satellite offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, 199 of them partners.

Ropes & Gray was long known as a roosting place for smart Boston bluebloods with Harvard law degrees, such as former U.S. attorney general Elliot Richardson. “In the old days,” quips Bodner, “[the firm] diversified by deciding to take some people from Yale.” The firm’s reputation as a mecca for Harvard graduates is much less deserved today, according to Bodner.

Bodner’s arrival at Ropes & Gray coincided with what he calls the “Wild West of the takeover days.” As a young lawyer in the firm’s litigation department, he helped defend such companies as Digital from hostile takeovers attempted by corporate raiders. “There was just a lot going on,” Bodner recounts. “I was able to get a lot of responsibility because things were moving so fast and furiously.”

Being a litigator in the “midst of a lot of firefights” suited Bodner well, he says, except that one big element was missing: like their counterparts at other large firms that represent mostly corporate clients, Ropes & Gray lawyers rarely try cases. In his first three years at Ropes & Gray, Bodner tried none, a fact that gnawed at him.

Bodner puts the point this way: “For litigators, trials, especially jury trials, are the name of the game. That’s what everybody practices for and prepares for.”

So Bodner snagged a job with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which is to a litigator what, say, the Tour de France is to a bicycle racer. He explains: “I went to try cases, and I wanted to try as many cases, especially complicated and hard cases, as I could get my hands on.”

Reporting to work at the U.S. attorney’s office in a drab red-brick building at One St. Andrews Plaza in Lower Manhattan, as Bodner did on a sunny day in 1990, was a shock. There were guns everywhere — guns worn by security guards, guns taped up for evidence and guns holstered on FBI agents’ belts. If Bodner had to copy a document, file papers or book an airline reservation, no Ropes & Gray assistant was around to help. He had to do it all himself.

For a year Bodner worked on lesser cases, honing his prosecutorial skills. His first major case, the investigation and trial of a former New York-based cocaine distributor for the Medellin cartel, consumed the next year, Bodner says. “I had a day and a half off, half of Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. It was seven days a week, 14 hours a day,” Bodner recalls.

The trial, which started in September 1991 and ended in March 1992, reached a climax in its closing days when Bodner was cross-examining the defendant, a Colombian national named Fernando Gill (pronounced “hill”). To camouflage his extensive cocaine-distribution network, Gill operated a horse farm in Manorville, Long Island. The government’s case relied heavily on FBI wiretaps, which had captured Gill’s underlings discussing their drug business in code. Their code name for Miami, for example, was “the beach.”

The wiretapped conversations, Gill insisted in his testimony, were about horses, not cocaine. Bodner’s cross-examination of Gill lasted four days. “Suffice it to say that he and I were not good friends during the course of it because it was a very aggressive, confrontational cross-examination,” recounts Bodner.

On the afternoon of the third day of Gill’s cross-examination, Bodner felt a severe attack of nausea and vertigo. The trial had to be recessed for a day and a half while Bodner recovered. According to an account later related to Bodner by a defense lawyer, Gill claimed responsibility for Bodner taking ill, saying he had placed the curse of Santaria, a South-American-style voodoo, on the prosecutor.

The Santaria “coincidence,” to use Bodner’s word, appears to linger in his mind as a rare moment of comic relief in the high-stakes criminal trial, which ended with Gill being convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

What happened next still causes Bodner distress. On the night of the jury’s guilty verdict, the husband and young son of Isabelle Gonzalez, who testified as a government witness at the Gill trial, were murdered in a bomb blast at their apartment in Medellin.

Bodner assumed that the late Pablo Escobar, who was then running the Medellin cartel, had ordered the hit. Bodner and an FBI agent had the task of informing Gonzalez that her husband and son had been murdered (“The toughest thing I ever did.”). Gonzalez had another son still in Colombia, who was quickly spirited out of the country and flown to New York at Bodner’s behest. She and the son were placed in the U.S. government’s witness-protection program.

In another complex case that Bodner tried in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, he obtained a life sentence against Joey “Bang Bang” Massaro, a capo in the Luchese organized-crime family. Massaro, whose nickname supposedly refers to the skill he displayed as a young boxer in delivering rapid punches, was convicted of a racketeering conspiracy for using arson and extortion in an attempt to control the topless-dancing industry on Long Island.

Massaro himself shot to death one of his chief lieutenants, Joey Fiorito, whom he believed had stolen a Rolex watch from another member of the Luchese organization, according to testimony that Bodner presented to the jury.

The details of the murder, which Bodner established as a predicate act in furtherance of the conspiracy, seem indelibly imprinted on his brain. With theatrical flourish, Bodner can still quote what Massaro said after he lured Fiorito to the basement of an unoccupied house in Hauppauge, Long Island, and shot him in the back of the head: “Hey, I wish we had a glass. [The spurting blood] looks like a fucking water fountain.”

The Massaro trial concluded in November 1993. Not long after, Bodner rejoined Ropes & Gray’s litigation department in Boston. A partner at the firm since 1995, Bodner now heads its securities and business litigation group, specializing in mergers-and-acquisitions disputes, corporate-governance matters and white-collar criminal defense. Among clients he has represented are Donald Chiofaro, the Boston real estate developer; directors of the Trump Hotels & Casinos Inc. and Demoulas Super Markets Inc.; PeopleSoft Corp., the business-software maker; and Harvard University.

Only a “fraction” of his time is spent trying cases, he says, and he quickly adds, “It is the most enjoyable fraction.”

Explaining why he so enjoys the work of a trial lawyer, Bodner waxes almost poetic: “It takes everything you’ve learned as a lawyer and really as a person, where your job is basically to convince people that your side of the case is right on the facts, on the law, on body language, on everything. You do it with an audience. It’s this sports contest, this play, this incredible intellectual challenge.”

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