It was November 2003. Mark Geragos was earning a worldwide rep for defending the most reviled man in America inside a courtroom in Modesto, Calif., when his beeper started screaming.
The business at hand was serious enough without digital distractions.
That April, the murdered remains of a missing 27-year-old pregnant woman named Laci Peterson splashed ashore on San Francisco Bay. Police charged the victim’s husband, Scott Peterson, a philandering fertilizer salesman who authorities said killed his wife and unborn son. Most legal experts and TV pundits said the evidence stacked against Peterson made an acquittal a long shot — an opinion echoed by Geragos on cable TV, until the mustachioed and media-savvy Los Angeles attorney decided to represent him.
But as he was in court with Peterson, his pager kept going off. The calls were to alert the attorney that another client, pop star Michael Jackson, had just been served search warrants at his Neverland Ranch. Two days later, Geragos walked Jackson into a police station in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he was charged with child molestation.
Geragos was suddenly thrust front and center in the country’s two most high-profile criminal cases. And his beeper did not shut up. Over a 24-hour period that week, his pager buzzed 700 times, Geragos told the New York Times.
“At one point, I thought of throwing it in the ocean,” the attorney explained to the Times. “To some degree it is embarrassing. I suppose because I don’t think any of this is about me. It is about the client. Hopefully it passes and passes quickly.”
Geragos, however, never slipped back below the radar.
Over the past two decades, he’s become the go-to attorney for the rich and famous. His client list evokes a tabloid rundown of celebrity mug shots: actor Robert Downey Jr.; actress Winona Ryder; rapper Nate Dogg; presidential sibling Roger Clinton; pop star Chris Brown. Just in the last year, Geragos secured a settlement for Colin Kaepernick in his lawsuit against the NFL and also stepped in to defend “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett against charges he faked a hate crime. The Rolodex of big-name clients, combined with regular cable news appearances, have made Geragos one of the most recognized figures in American law.
“If I’m going to represent somebody, I think at the very least they deserve someone who can find the good in them,” Geragos told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. “I don’t think most people are evil. I think sometimes people are demonized unfairly.”
But Geragos is now in his own surprising legal jam.
On Monday, federal authorities arrested attorney Michael Avenatti, the former lawyer for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. As The Washington Post reported, one indictment against the attorney accuses Avenatti of trying to extort millions of dollars from Nike. Citing sources close to the investigation, The Post reported Geragos is the unnamed “co-conspirator” alleged to have worked the scheme with Avenatti. Following the news, CNN announced it was dropping Geragos as an on-air contributor.
Avenatti has denied the charges. Geragos, who has not been charged, did not respond to an email for comment.
But the link between Avenatti and Geragos goes beyond Monday’s allegations. Both are on-camera naturals fueled by an underdog ethos. And Geragos first landed in the national spotlight in the 1990s by walking into a political firestorm that led right to the White House — circumstances not unlike those that catapulted Avenatti into national recognition over the last year.
Law was in Geragos’s blood. His family were members of Los Angeles’s close Armenian American community. His father worked as a district attorney before entering private practice.
“My father was sworn in as a D.A. in January 1957, the same month I was conceived,” Geragos told Super Lawyers in 2009. As a kid, Geragos would sit in courtrooms and watch as his father’s cases unfold, an experience that fixed his own trajectory toward the courthouse.
“You could get paid for shooting your mouth off and not much else,” he told Super Lawyers.
Geragos studied anthropology and sociology at Haverford College, then after graduation entered Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. While studying law, he worked up a side business as a rock concert promoter in Pasadena, booking shows for acts such as the Ramones, the Pretenders, and the Go-Go’s, according to Super Lawyers. In 1983, he began working at his father’s firm.
“He was always a very public kind of person,” Stanley A. Goldman, a friend and former law professor, told the New York Times in 2003. “[H]e claims he rarely showed up for class because he was organizing rock concerts. I like Mark Geragos. A lot of people don’t. He can be extremely pushy.”
Geragos’s first splash into mainstream news came more than a decade later, when he began representing a woman at the center of a presidential scandal then dominating national headlines.
Susan McDougal was a former business partner of President Bill Clinton on the failed Whitewater real estate deal. When McDougal refused to testify before a grand jury called by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, she was sentenced to 18 months in prison for civil contempt beginning in 1996.
Upon release, McDougal was charged again for criminal contempt and obstruction of justice. At the suggestion of his father, Geragos stepped in to her defense. As he explained to the New York Times, Geragos took the case pro bono, explaining to McDougal that because of his Armenian background, he “had a special appreciation for victims of government oppression.”
When McDougal went to trial in Little Rock in 1999, the cornerstone of Geragos’s case was that his client had been railroaded in retaliation for not cooperating in Starr’s “vendetta” against the Clintons. The proceedings started less than a month after Clinton was acquitted at his impeachment trial in the Senate.
“I fully intend to put Kenneth W. Starr on trial,” Geragos told reporters at the start of the case, The Post reported at the time.
The attorney made more headlines by grilling Starr deputy W. Hickman Ewing Jr. on the witness stand. Under Geragos’s questioning, Ewing admitted he had drafted an indictment against Hillary Clinton during the Starr investigation.
“I didn’t like that she was evasive,” Ewing testified, according to Super Lawyers.
“Sort of like you right now?,” Geragos snapped back.
The jury acquitted McDougal on the obstruction of justice charge and deadlocked on the criminal contempt charge. Geragos was defiant on the steps of the courthouse. “They don’t have the guts to retry it,” he said, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2003. He eventually worked to get McDougal a full pardon in the last hours of Clinton’s presidency.
As Avenatti’s representation of Daniels in her lawsuit against President Trump over an alleged affair punched the attorney’s ticket into cable news green rooms, Geragos’s work for McDougal elevated his career to a new level.
“I always tease him about my case launching him into the limelight,” McDougal told the New York Times in 2003. “He was just absolutely perfect.”
Unlike Avenatti, Geragos spun the attention into a busy practice — too busy, some critics said. In 2003, when he was shuttling up and down California defending both Jackson and Peterson, the pop star eventually replaced him. He continued leading Peterson’s defense, but lost the case; the husband was sentenced to death row.
But those setbacks have not kept his phone from buzzing whenever a high-profile personality is in trouble — including Avenatti. According to the Hollywood Reporter, when Avenatti was arrested over an alleged domestic violence situation last November, he consulted with Geragos about the charges. (Prosecutors declined to file any charges related to the incident.)
But if the recent indictment is correct, the two attorneys’ relationship continued last week, when Avenatti and Geragos allegedly approached Nike, threatening to expose employees for funneling payments to top high school basketball players and their families.
The indictment alleges the attorneys demanded the company to hire them both to conduct an internal investigation into the issue for $15 million to $25 million. Should the case move forward, both attorneys will likely seek representation cut from the same mold — a vociferous, TV-ready advocate.
“I do take seriously the idea that you’re not supposed to turn down a case just because of its notoriety,”Geragos once told the Los Angeles Times.
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