Attorney for Davidians well connected with Washington leadership

Waco Tribune-Herald, May 20, 2000
By Mark England

Mike Caddell's commute to work takes all of a couple of minutes, if the signal light is working.

He lives at the Four Seasons, one of Houston's premier hotels. His law firm across the street occupies a corner of the 10th floor at Park Shops Mall, with a luxury-suite view of Enron Field, the Astros' new ballpark, and sports a gallery for the art collection of Caddell and his wife, Cynthia Chapman, a partner in Caddell & Chapman.

A portrait of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore hugs a wall outside his office.

Caddell has been invited to the White House almost a dozen times in the '90s because of his status as a major donor to the Democratic Party. In 1996, for example, Caddell gave $111,000 to the Clinton-Gore ticket.

Lined up on a counter underneath the portrait are stacks of bound documents, part of the discovery for next month's wrongful-death lawsuit filed by surviving Branch Davidians. Evidence in the case is stored wherever space can be found. It's even on exhibit on the floor of the gallery.

Caddell, a rich insider, is the lead plaintiffs' attorney in the lawsuit against the federal government.

"One reason we've been successful so far is because we are different from most people pressing this issue," said Caddell, 45. "We are the establishment in many respects. We have credibility. We have resources. We're not on the fringe. We're not willing to pursue outrageous allegations. People have been willing to give this case a second look because we're involved. We're not cause lawyers running from one cause to the next."

He sees no conflict in suing the administration of a president he helped elect.

"Contrary to the popular belief of some people, I've never seen a shred of evidence that Bill Clinton had any significant involvement in what happened at Mount Carmel," Caddell said. "Everything we've seen clearly shows the decision-making centered in the FBI leadership and, ultimately, with Janet Reno. I don't have a problem going after Reno. I think history will show that she's one of the worst attorney generals the United States ever had."

Caddell, lean and with a frat boy's disarming confidence, strolled through an office of gleaming cherrywood paneling and granite countertops. He wore faded jeans, a longsleeve blue-striped shirt and black boots.

A month before trial, he sat behind his desk. He was relaxed and smiling.

"I didn't take this case to make a political statement," Caddell said. "Our goal is to win the lawsuit. If we win, that will be a political statement."

However, he rejected the notion that the $675 million lawsuit is about money.

"This has never been a case about money," Caddell said. "It's a case about justice. Everyone will tell you that if you were in it for the money, the last thing you would do is take this case. That either makes me incredibly stupid, which I'm not, or principled about why we took the case."

Not many attorneys wanted much to do with the Davidians' lawsuit, said Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represented David Koresh during the 1993 siege.

"It was like the tar baby," DeGuerin said.

DeGuerin and Jack Zimmerman, the Houston attorney who represented Koresh's top lieutenant, Steve Schneider, urged Caddell to take the case after 76 bodies were pulled from the ashes of Mount Carmel.

"He was up and coming," DeGuerin said. "His vigor impressed me. Suing for damages is unpopular. You can't just be looking for money. You've got to be willing to fight and to stay with it despite setbacks."

Caddell said his impression of what happened at Mount Carmel hasn't changed since he watched on TV as government tanks poked holes in Mount Carmel, supposedly to create escape routes for Davidians, then a deadly fire broke out.

"I said to myself, 'This didn't have to happen this way,'" Caddell said. "I've done close to 200 depositions, looked at hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, hired a ton of experts and spent millions of dollars in time and money. I'm still at the same place. People died who didn't have to die, and the government has some responsibility for that."

A prominent Houston attorney said Caddell is a natural to try the case.

"He's not a Republican power broker you can say is trying to embarrass the president," said the attorney, who asked not to be named. "Had he not filed this lawsuit, he may have been in line for some sort of political appointment. His political donations have been generous. The point is he's independent. He took this case because he thought the government screwed up. And, frankly, I can't think of many other lawyers who could afford to take on the government."

His out-of-pocket expenses in the case are now more than $1 million, Caddell said. He laughs at the notion he's kept pace with the government's spending, noting it brought nine attorneys to Waco in April for a hearing on his request that the government be sanctioned for allegedly tampering with evidence.

"This is not Microsoft versus the Justice Department," Caddell said.

North Carolina attorney Kirk Lyons nonetheless credits Caddell for "putting his pocket book where his principles are."

"I was there when the government dumped 100,000 documents on them," Lyons said. "By now, I'm sure his firm has got everything catalogued and stored where they can retrieve it. In my office, there would be eight inches of dust on it. He's been able to keep up with the government on what so far has been a pleadings war."

Lyons works for the Southern Legal Resource Center, a right-wing civil liberties group criticized in the past for defending Klan members. He also represents several Davidians, such as Misty Ferguson, who was badly burned in the Mount Carmel fire. Caddell will argue on behalf of Lyons' clients at the June 19 trial in Waco.

"He may be uncomfortable with some of the things said about us, but he's never been anything but professional," Lyons said. "He makes the call but we're not left out of the consultation. It's a smart thing to do. We all have to share responsibility for the decisions made."

Lyons said he's had to defend Caddell to many of his friends, who are uncomfortable with Caddell's slick image.

One is Davidian Clive Doyle. Doyle, earnest in a ready-made suit, confronted Caddell, cool in a bomber jacket and shades, after the Mount Carmel re-creation in March. Doyle accused Caddell of selling out the Davidians by agreeing to the re-creation and by stating the Davidians must share part of the blame for what happened at Mount Carmel.

"I think his interests are with Clinton, the government," Doyle said last week. "I hear all these things about how much he's given Clinton and the Democratic Party. I feel he is compromised.... I feel his interest is not in the survivors or the families who lost loved ones. He is interested in serving his own ends, more or less."

Lyons believes people misunderstand Caddell's approach to the case.

"A lot of people disagree with Mike," Lyons said. "They say there is no bottom line. We've got to find out what happened. But if the government scoots out of this without paying a dime, they've won. That's what Mike means. People can pick on my background, too. Mike might be an unlikely choice to lead this team, but thank God he is there."

Some of Caddell's critics — at least his southern-fried ones — have more in common with him than they realize. Caddell, born in Del Rio, Texas, grew up primarily in Alabama and Florida.

"When I get tired or have had too much to drink, like a lot of people I slip into old habits," Caddell said. "That's when you can hear my Alabama accent."

His Southern Baptist roots initially pulled him toward a career in preaching.

"His mom (Joyce) said he was the smoothest talker she ever met," said his wife, Chapman, co-counsel on the Davidian case. "She said he had a silver tongue and could pretty much talk them into anything."

At the University of Virginia, however, Caddell decided his calling was the law. And Houston was the altar where he wanted to practice it.

"Beginning attorneys in New York and Los Angeles carried briefcases for someone else," Caddell said.

Houston in 1979 was a mecca for trial attorneys. Leon Jaworski (a Baylor Law School graduate) was only a few years removed from being the Watergate prosecutor. Percy Foreman had retired but was still around. Racehorse Haynes was dominating national headlines, first with the John Hill murder trial, then the Cullen Davis murder trial.

"Houston was and is a great place for trial lawyers," Caddell said. "It's a place where trying cases is considered an art. People have great respect for trial lawyers."

Caddell tried or settled 30 cases in his first five years in Houston. His conviction was for civil law.

"I want to represent the good guys," Caddell said. "I can't represent a client I don't believe in. I can't convince a judge or jury of something I'm not convinced of."

He opened his own firm in 1985 and subsequently won a series of high-profile, big-money cases.

In 1994, Caddell led a group of attorneys who won the largest property damage class-action settlement in U.S. history. They sued Shell Oil Co. and two other corporations for producing polybutylene pipes that sprang leaks when exposed to tap water chemicals such as chlorine. The settlement was for $1 billion.Last year, a month after Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. of Waco refused to grant the government a summary judgment and set a trial date for the Branch Davidian's wrongful-death lawsuit, Caddell's firm won a $30 million settlement against a New York apparel maker. A van driven by a company employee crashed in Mexico and killed 14 employees.

"I don't make any apologies at being good at what I do," Caddell said. "We work extremely hard here. We're honest. Ethical. Smart. We take on cases we believe in. By and large, we're successful."

For the last few months, Caddell estimates he's averaged working 12 hours a day. Every day.

"Yesterday, I got on a flight from Houston at 7 a.m.," Caddell said. "I got back to Houston at midnight."

Chapman stuck her head in the door to tell Caddell a mutual friend was leaving a Houston law office to start his own firm.

Caddell suggested his wife call and invite him to lunch.

"How about Thursday?" Caddell asked.

"I'm in San Antonio," Chapman said. "How about Friday?"

"I'm in Mexico," Caddell said.

They finally picked a day the following week.

"That's the only day we'll be in town," Chapman said, leaving.

That's part of the reason he and his family live in a hotel, Caddell said.

"We're probably out of town 50 percent of the time," he said. "This way, it's easy to come and go. I like living downtown. It's a short commute to work. Cynthia and I love to go to the opera, the ballet, the theater, the symphony. Plus, it's great for our little boy (John Chapman). He comes and visits us every afternoon. I've walked over to the new stadium with him on my shoulders a couple of times. That was great fun."

Photographs of his son, 2, take top billing over photos of people like former governor Ann Richards in Caddell's office. Like many people, Caddell finds the kids at Mount Carmel the most sympathetic victims in the wrongful-death lawsuit.

"You can't call a 2-year-old a Davidian," Caddell said. "No 2-year-old carried a weapon on Feb. 28. No 2-year-old converted a semi-automatic to a fully automatic weapon. And no 2-year-old helped start a fire on April 19. I don't see how the government can say it's not partly responsible for the death of those children."

He talked while skimming legal documents, scribbling notes on Post-its and giving directions to his staff.

"It helps to be able to dual-process," he said.

Chapman said her husband is unflappable.

"I'm not saying he's the best briefer or the best researcher, but there's no one like him in the courtroom," she said. "No one is as good on their feet. He loves that. He loves being tossed things that he's not expecting. I've never seen anyone as accurately impeach a witness — in a nice way, of course."

His love of challenges has been tested. Judge Smith recently denied Caddell's request for sanctions against the government, and a company retained by the court stated it believes the flashes in the infrared tape taken at Mount Carmel are not gunfire. Plaintiffs argue that government gunfire kept many Davidians from fleeing their burning building.

Caddell shrugged off the turn of events.

"I like where we are," Caddell said. "The two issues I felt most strongly about that day I watched the fire, the failure to have firefighting equipment available and knocking the building down, we have better evidence on than I could have hoped for. We have a smoking-gun document where (Jeffrey) Jamar and (Dick) Rogers said there would be no plan to fight a fire. That's inconceivable. We've also got the medal commendations (for tank drivers) submitted by Jamar and Rogers. It says in mid-morning the tank drivers were instructed to begin the systematic demolition of the building."

Caddell paused to smile.

"That's about as good as it gets," he said.

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