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KEEPING HIS OWN COUNSEL

DISBARRED AND IMPRISONED, NICK AVILA CAN'T STOP BEING A LAWYER.SPLIT VERDICT IF ATTORNEY NICK AVILA WAS SUCH A GREAT GUY, WHY IS HE IN JAIL?

How the drugs ended up in Avila's hands is undisputed. According to federal investigators, Phil Guerrero was driving in Louisiana on August 21, 1987, when he was pulled over by state troopers who observed him making an illegal lane change. The troopers noted that Guerrero was acting nervous, and asked if they could search his 1980 Monte Carlo. He agreed. It didn't take them long to discover the two kilos of cocaine in the trunk.

It also didn't take long for Guerrero to agree to cooperate with the police. He confided that he was working for a Denver attorney named Nick Avila, who had arranged for him to pick up the drugs in Miami. In fact, Guerrero said, he had done the same thing twice before.

Agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration quickly formulated a plan to snag Avila. Guerrero phoned Avila and told him the car had broken down. Avila, according to the taped telephone call, instructed him to get on a bus and return to Denver immediately. On August 23 Guerrero made another tapped phone call to Avila from the Denver bus station, saying that he'd arrived.

When Avila arrived at the station, Guerrero handed him the key to a station locker. Avila opened the locker, took out the duffel bag with the cocaine and walked with Guerrero back to his Ford Bronco. As he was getting in, a swarm of cops and DEA agents swooped in.

The case was prosecuted by Stephen Peters, an articulate and well-regarded assistant U.S. attorney who works from a wheelchair. Although the investigation of Avila's alleged drug dealings went relatively smoothly, people involved with the case say that Peters soon came to dislike Avila intensely. Peters declines to discuss his opinion of the case. But, he says in the even and metered tone of someone accustomed to reciting information before a jury, "These are the facts:

"Shortly before Nick Avila's trial date, I got in my car to go to work, and some sharp sounds went off. When I got to work I discovered that the primary witness in the case against Nick Avila, Phil Guerrero, had been shot twice at close range by an assailant with a sawed-off shotgun. The first shot Guerrero deflected with his wrist. The second shot, which was intended for his heart, went off his zipper.

"After I learned this news, the law enforcement authorities examined my vehicle, and they said it seemed as though an explosive device had been on my car, inside the engine area. A few days later Judge Carrigan [who presided over the case] heard the evidence of Phil Guerrero's homicide attempt and ordered Nick Avila held without bail pending his new trial date.

"On the morning of the rescheduled trial date, a fire was set in my apartment complex. Fortunately, I was awake, so I was able to escape. The elevators were shut down, so I was able to evacuate descending the stairs using crutches and braces. I tried that case living out of a hotel room."
None of those cases was ever solved. Avila denies any involvement in any of the three incidents.

The trial began on January 25, 1988. Avila, representing himself, argued that he had been set up--that Guerrero was acting on his own and had fingered him under pressure from police and in anticipation of saving his own hide. (Guerrero, who recovered to testify against Avila in court, was admitted into the federal witness protection program; it is unclear whether he is still in it.)

Today, Avila explains that in picking Guerrero up at the bus station, he merely was doing a favor for an old friend who was stranded and needed a ride. What appeared to be a drug pickup, he says, was him helping a friend with his luggage. Finally, he points out that DEA agents never found any money that would suggest he was dealing drugs ("I had $10 in my pocket at the time"), or anybody to testify that they'd ever bought cocaine from him.

"I really didn't think the jury would believe Phil Guerrero," Avila says today. "He was an admitted cocaine user and liar, and he told several different stories in court."
The jury was unconvinced. On January 28 Avila was found guilty of conspiracy and intent to distribute cocaine. Three months later, at his sentencing, Peters asked that the judge "impose the strongest possible sentence allowable in this case...the Defendant is an embarrassment to the City and County of Denver, the legal profession and to the judicial system."

The judge complied. On the morning of March 11, 1988, Avila was sentenced to ten years in federal prison. Later that same afternoon he was marched over to the City and County Building, where he was sentenced to eight more years in jail for violating the conditions of his state probation.

Nick Avila Sr. died in 1991, and Nick's mother, Stella Avila, now lives alone in a well-tended brick house in northwest Denver. She is barely five feet tall, with graying hair. Today she wears a red embroidered sweater, with a blue shirt and khaki-colored pants. A watch hangs around her neck, an accommodation to her poor eyesight.

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