The story line suggests the imagination of John Grisham. It stars two antagonistic lawyers. Plot details include a fake beard, a how-to book on homemade pistol silencers and $18,000 in unpaid federal taxes.
But the crime itself is as real and as grisly as the brain tissue that splattered inside one lawyer's white Lexus on Nov. 3.
William R. Joice, 50, a former Air Force fighter pilot, a former local prosecutor and a struggling defense attorney in this carefully groomed bedroom community north of Seattle, had a nagging problem that was hurting his reputation and costing him money. The opposing counsel in a drawn-out lawsuit kept accusing him of "ignorance."
That lawyer, Kevin Y. Jung, asserted in court papers that Joice had "failed miserably" to do his job. "You and your client's failure to comply with court rules and unprofessional conduct on your part are just incomprehensible," Jung wrote.
What made the words sting was a contempt fine imposed against Joice in October by a judge who agreed with Jung. On the morning after President Bush was reelected, Joice was again due in court, where he faced another contempt fine that was the result of a complaint by Jung.
Jung never made it to court. About 45 minutes before the hearing, he was shot in the head as he sat in his Lexus in a parking lot. The bullet entered through the rear of his skull and exited through the forehead, causing severe brain damage. Jung, 44, who is married and has two children, remains hospitalized in critical condition.
Joice, too, missed the hearing. The King County prosecutor says Joice was in the parking lot at the same time. There, the prosecutor says, Joice shot Jung and then fled the crime scene in a rented car, part of an elaborately planned attempt to murder "his opposing counsel . . . over a current court case."
In the trunk of Joice's car (also a white Lexus), police said they later found a "murder kit." It contained a dagger, a fake beard and mustache, neoprene gloves, a Browning 9mm semiautomatic pistol and a homemade silencer, they said.
State records show that Joice owns four semiautomatic pistols (not counting the Browning). Investigators say he sometimes practiced shooting with members of the Mill Creek Police Department, where he was a founding member of the police advisory board.
The lawyer-shoots-lawyer charges have occasioned astonishment in the Snohomish County prosecutor's office, where Joice worked from 1991 to 2000 as a deputy prosecutor, specializing in property cases. He never handled a murder or attempted-murder case.
"He is the quintessential mild-mannered man," said Mark Roe, chief criminal deputy prosecutor in the office and a longtime acquaintance of Joice's. "He is literally the last person on earth I thought would be charged with something like this."
There was astonishment, too, at the Mill Creek Police Department, where Joice sometimes stopped by and gave free advice to cops preparing criminal charges.
"He is like Mister Rogers," said Becky Erk, a department spokeswoman who has known Joice for about 15 years. "He is a person who is gentle, kind, soft-spoken and caring. He does not come across as aggressive -- ever."
A lawyer who shared office space with Joice for two years in Mill Creek said he is bewildered by the charges. "This is deep psychological conundrum stuff," Robert P. Williamson said.
Joice's attorney did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
There are signs that Joice's new career as a sole practitioner was not going well. According to court documents, two liens had been placed on the $300,000 house he bought here two years ago. The Internal Revenue Service filed one last year for $18,552 in unpaid taxes. The other was for $245 in unpaid dues to his neighborhood homeowners association.
"He was taking any case he could get," said Chuck Wright, a retired probation officer who serves with Joice on the citizen advisory board for the Mill Creek Police. "Coming from the prosecutor's office and going to private practice, I assume he was struggling."
Then there was the long, contentious and increasingly costly lawsuit that put him opposite Jung, a prominent suburban lawyer with a reputation for competence and aggressiveness. Jung specializes in real estate, business and immigration law. Jung, who is of Korean descent, has large corporate clients in Seoul, contributes legal affairs columns to local Korean-language newspapers and hosts a weekly legal program on a local Korean television channel.
The civil case pitted two Korean families against each other in a dispute over franchise rights to a suburban gift shop. Jung represented the plaintiffs and Joice the defendants. Time and again, in court documents, faxes and letters, Jung accused Joice of willfully missing court dates, ignoring court orders and offering obviously false excuses for "egregious" behavior.
Jung repeatedly picked apart the excuses Joice offered for his and his clients' failure to follow court rules. When Joice told the court that his clients missed a hearing last December because one of them was having "pregnancy difficulties," Jung wrote in court papers that Joice and his clients "could not be trusted."
It "is very difficult to believe" the pregnancy excuse, Jung wrote, because on the day after Joice said his client was struggling with her pregnancy, she participated in a long meeting on the case. Jung said she "never left her seat" for seven straight hours and never once complained about her pregnancy.
Jung also accused Joice of not responding to at least 15 requests to produce documents that the plaintiffs were entitled to, and of devising flimsy excuses for missing court hearings.
Court officials consistently found Jung's arguments persuasive. On the day Jung was shot, according to police, a judge was planning to fine Joice for not following court orders. It would have been the second such fine for contempt. Joice paid the first fine on Oct. 14, writing Jung a check for $2,000.
Two days after writing that check, according to a police affidavit, Joice rented a gun locker at Sam's Gun Shop in nearby Everett. The store has a public shooting range. Seven days later, according to a videotape from a hardware store obtained by police, Joice bought the makings for homemade pistol silencers. In his house, police said they found a how-to book for fashioning silencers.
A police detective, in an affidavit, said Joice had "an excellent grasp" of firearms and had engaged in "methodical preparation and planning for the attempted murder." But during the shooting, it seems that everything that could go wrong did.
Someone heard and saw the shooting in the parking lot, wrote down the license plate number of the shooter's car and called 911. Police quickly traced the car to a cut-rate rental agency, where records showed that Joice had rented it in his name. The lawyer dropped off the rental car about half an hour after the shooting and was picked up by police a few minutes later.
In a police station after his arrest, according to court papers, Joice asked a detective, "What do you want to talk about?"
The detective said he wanted to talk about the shooting.
"I don't think I want to talk," Joice replied.
Bail in the case has been set at $5 million. Joice remains in custody.