Say It Loud
Anne Sulton's ride looks like a gangsta Rolls-Royce: gleaming silver with flared fenders, spoked wheels and a long, snout-like hood. The car is a "Phantom," a radically modified Pontiac Firebird, and Sulton, the controversial civil-rights attorney who defended cop killer Gil Webb II last summer, doesn't look like she should be driving it.
With her mountain-woman getup--hiking boots, unzipped vest, T-shirt and beige pants--she would appear more at home in a Jeep Cherokee, or maybe an old Volvo.
Here, outside the northeast Denver office of the NAACP, there's no sign of the lawyer who angrily accused Denver police of a coverup in the case of Webb, the teenager whose stolen car collided with a police cruiser last spring, injuring training officer Victor Baca and causing the death of rookie officer Ron DeHerrera.
Sulton is a woman of contradictions: a civil-rights firebrand who was reared in a decidedly unmilitant household in a mostly white Wisconsin town; an attorney who entered law school because she wanted to make more money, not save the world; a woman who insists that she'd really rather be left alone but isn't shy about seizing the spotlight when it suits her.
Sulton takes pleasure in asking a visitor to guess which of the cars parked on the street in front of the NAACP office is hers, and she laughs at the startled reaction when it turns out to be the Phantom. But later, over a lunch of catfish and collard greens, she turns serious, talking about how the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development might begin a new program to provide money for inner-city business development.
This is what Sulton would like to talk about. Forget the Gil Webb case. Forget her. Let's talk about economic development--the heart of the civil-rights movement of the 1990s, she says. Or affirmative action. Or institutional racism. In short, The Issues. Ask her what her own purpose is, what's she's really fighting for, and she says it's about eradicating "legitimate anger" in the black community by eradicating the conditions that cause it.
And what about her own anger?
"I ain't angry about nothing," she says. "I think I've grown out of that quirk."
Anne Sulton has never been afraid of a good fight. When other lawyers run for cover, she rushes into the fray. In the last twelve months alone, she's handled the Webb trial, filed defamation suits against an attorney and a television talk-show guest who had the audacity to criticize her handling of the Webb case, filed a sexual-harassment suit against Denver Bronco Tyrone Braxton on behalf of four women who claim he exposed himself to them at a Denver nightclub, and filed a discrimination suit on behalf of black Hertz employees at Denver International Airport.
But she's different from, say, Denver Yber-barrister Walter Gerash, who in the defense of controversial clients such as German artist Peter Schmitz has turned media manipulation into a form of self-expression. Sulton is equally adept at latching on to major cases; as for media manipulation, the jury is still out. In Madison, Wisconsin, where she used to practice, she was frequently on TV or in the headlines pushing her clients or her causes. But though she tried that with a vengeance in the Webb case--Sulton even got face time on Geraldo Rivera's cable show--her efforts to control the spin in Denver blew up in her face.
In going to bat for Webb last summer, Sulton at times seemed to take on the whole city. In her opening trial arguments, she claimed that Webb wasn't driving the stolen Ford Mustang and that Denver police had hidden evidence unfavorable to officers Baca and DeHerrera.
She did eventually establish that the cops got some of their facts wrong. Webb's car was traveling much slower than the 80 to 90 miles per hour tossed about early on. The police officers themselves were speeding (they actually collided with Webb, not the other way around). And Webb's prints weren't found in the car, though he didn't deny being in it. But faced with overwhelming evidence that Webb was the driver, Sulton lost the case. Webb was convicted of vehicular homicide, assault and motor-vehicle theft and is now serving a nine-year sentence at the Fremont Correctional Facility in Canon City.
In the meantime, Sulton's sweeping allegations about a racist conspiracy have earned her not only death threats and hate mail, but the wrath of lawyers, police officers and talk-show pundits across the city.
"What do you say about a woman who stands up in court during the Gil Webb trial, says there's a second driver, then never produces that person?" asks KHOW host Jay Marvin, who has made a habit of ripping Sulton on the air, though he's never invited her to appear on his show. "It's clear to anyone who reads the newspaper that this woman is a grandstander and an ambulance-chaser and doesn't have any credibility."
"It was outrageous, some of the comments she was trying to force down people's throats through the media," adds Lieutenant Dennis Cribari, formerly the head of the Denver Latino Police Officers Association. "She tried to turn it into a racial issue, which is destructive and divisive. If you look at her background, she does this in every community she is in.
"It's always high-profile cases," Cribari adds. "Always a racial motive--bigotry and hate--always accusing the city and law enforcement of ineptness and brutality with no basis."
Sulton has, in fact, been involved in cases before where police misconduct was an issue. But she insists that race was never an issue in the Webb trial--even though a social tinderbox ignited after TV stations aired video of Webb's rough treatment at the hands of white paramedics. "I'm passionate, but I don't think I'm overzealous," says Sulton. "Most would agree I fight hard, but I fight by the rules."
The truth is that most of her critics don't really know anything about her, Sulton says. Her friend the Reverend Gill Ford, a Baptist minister, NAACP activist and former member of Denver's Public Safety Review Commission, says Sulton is no media hound. "I know she doesn't like it," he says. "If we were endeavoring for the spotlight, you could call a press conference for the NAACP four or five times a week. Every time they deal with an issue, whether it has substance or not, it's in the press. It's not a point of looking for media coverage."
Yet Sulton continually seems to wind up at center stage. "She has a real need to have some impact," says Vernetta Young, an old friend who's now a sociology professor at Howard University. "A lot of her cases have been about racial discrimination, age discrimination, issues of inequity, people who may not have access to legal resources."
"She's a 1960s militant stuck in the '80s and '90s," adds a Madison attorney who clashed with Sulton when she brought her brand of race-based politics to that city. "She set race relations back in Madison several years."
Sulton was raised poor in a Wisconsin factory town of 80,000. It was a comfortable place, but also "the kind of place where racism would subtly remind black people that, 'you're not eligible for all the things your hometown has to offer,'" says Sulton's cousin, Julian Thomas, now a college administrator in Racine.
For Sulton, that perceived tightrope of near-acceptance made it easy to develop what Thomas sees in his cousin as "controlled anger. She can smile and rip you to shreds."
Sulton's family was close: Father William Thomas would punish all of his nine children if any one of them messed up, so they all kept an eye out for each other. At bedtime their mother, Esther, read ghost stories in order to make the kids grateful they had to share rooms with each other.
William, a World War II vet with limited education, worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet, mostly as a carpenter and handyman. "He pushed himself all the time," recalls Sulton's uncle, George Thomas, a Madison minister. "He painted houses, washed walls with a sponge in each hand."
Esther took cleaning jobs as well; Sulton's first trip to a law office came at age seven, when she went along to help her mother dust law books.
For a woman who would later be accused of race-baiting, race was curiously absent in Sulton's day-to-day life as a child in the 1960s. "I went to school with Italians--spaghetti and pasta," she says. "I think I was like most kids--I didn't identify myself as white, black, Hispanic. Race wasn't an issue."
She and her siblings went to Catholic school, and "at church we were the only black family," says her sister, Alice Tisdale, now a newspaper publisher in Jackson, Mississippi. "We didn't know about slavery until the ninth grade."
But Sulton's introduction to the struggle of being black didn't come in the classroom. One day in 1967, when she was fifteen, she accompanied her father on a search for a new home.
They rang the doorbell of a house with a for-sale sign--a home about as big as Sulton's present garage in the Denver suburbs. A white woman answered.
"What do you want?" the woman asked.
"We want to see about buying the house," Sulton's father responded.
"I'll never let a dirty nigger look at my house," she responded and slammed the door on them.
Her father gently led Sulton away. "It was a remarkable experience," she says, "in every sense of the word."
William was hurt, but he wasn't one to pick a fight. "He felt like he was accepted in town, then realized he'll always be black," says Tisdale. "He hated always being different. He never pushed black history."
According to Tisdale, the family traditionally wasn't involved in civil-rights causes. Even though Sulton's uncle was a longtime head of the Kenosha NAACP, William and Esther were too busy raising nine children to take part in the movement.
Their parents' reluctance to get involved had a boomerang effect on Sulton and Tisdale when they became adults. They began to work toward what William and Esther hadn't--and plunged head-first into activism.
Tisdale moved to Mississippi eighteen years ago to work at the Jackson Advocate, a black newspaper. Just two months ago the paper's offices were firebombed. There have been no arrests. The offices were destroyed, and the staff has been working temporarily in a space reserved for a new pool hall. Once the pool tables arrive, says Tisdale, the paper will have to move again.
While Tisdale describes herself as a "peacemaker" in the civil-rights struggle, her sister grew to be an in-your-face activist. "She is a member of the militencia," adds Sulton's cousin, Julian Thomas.
But Sulton took an indirect route to the front lines. A scholarly interest in crime belatedly led her to the law. She attended the University of Wisconsin for a year, then got a scholarship to attend Washington State. After completing a bachelor's degree in psychology there, she added a master's in criminal justice from the State University of New York at Albany in 1975. Upon graduation, she accepted a job teaching criminology at Spelman College, a black school in Atlanta.
At Spelman, surrounded by African-Americans for the first time in her life, she discovered the "black side" that had been neglected in Wisconsin. "I thought, 'Whoa, this is really neat,'" says Sulton. "If you could be anything in the world--a white female who lives in Britain or a Moroccan male in Tangiers, I would pick to be an African-American female. It's a wonderful way to go through life."
After Spelman, Sulton began work on her doctorate in criminology at the University of Maryland; in 1980 she began teaching at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she met her husband, James, a graduate student. They married in 1981.
While finishing her dissertation at Maryland and teaching at Howard, Sulton began taking law classes at Georgetown University, convinced that law professors got paid better than criminology professors. By then, she had two children to support (she now has three, all teenagers). But even though she'd taken out student loans and was holding down a job while attending law school, the tuition at Georgetown was too tough to handle. In 1984, a year after she finished her doctorate, she left James and the two kids behind and transferred to the University of Wisconsin law school, where she lucked into a scholarship earmarked for an absentee student. Sulton earned her law degree in 1985. Her family moved out to be with her that year, and when she couldn't find a better-paying job as a teacher, she decided to practice law.
Ironically, Sulton's first mentor was a conservative white Republican lawyer named Ralph Kalal, who offered her a job as a law clerk and then gave her free office space to set up her own practice. Like Kalal, Sulton shrugs off the odd-couple aspect of their relationship. "He's thin and tall and male and white and Republican, and I'm the opposite of those particular demographic characteristics," she acknowledges. But despite her image as a radical liberal, she says she's more conservative at heart than people might think. "Though I'm a lifelong Democrat, I voted for Bush," she adds. "I think he was a tremendous American."
Sulton covered a variety of civil and criminal cases in her private practice. But when she reflects on her work in Wisconsin, where she served as legal chair of the NAACP in Madison, two cases stand out. Both, she insists, mean more than anything she's done in Denver.
In the first case, she successfully represented black parents in a fight over the nation's first school-voucher bill, teaming up in another odd-couple partnership with an ultraconservative think tank. Sulton fought in favor of the voucher system even though she generally opposes vouchers as a threat to the NAACP's goal of school integration. "Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the nation," she says. "Literally, all the blacks are concentrated in one area, and because of that, you didn't have to worry about the resegregation of schools, because the schools are already segregated."
Most notable in Madison, though, was the 1990 case of Cheryl Robinson, a black mother whose five children were killed in an apartment fire in the town of Madison, a small municipality that borders the city of Madison. The fire erupted in the Somerset Circle apartment complex, home to lower-income families, most of them black.
The case heated up when allegations surfaced that Robinson had left her children home alone while she went drinking at a local tavern. And it had racial overtones from the start. According to a grand jury investigation, an officer responding to the scene sang "Somerset Circle is burning down" to the tune of "London Bridge" over the police radio. Worse, just one hundred yards from the complex, within the boundaries of the city of Madison, was a fully staffed fire station. But the call was routed to the town of Madison's volunteer staff, two miles away, causing a delay that Sulton later argued may have cost the children their lives.
Media reports, however, hammered away at Robinson's possible culpability, and Sulton was a lonely, if vehement, defender. "You looked at her--there were no other attorneys who came to help her," says Betty Franklin-Hammonds, editor of the Madison Times, a black newspaper.
Sulton launched her own media blitz, says one person close to the case, and in the resulting smoke and mirrors was able to relocate Robinson to Chicago and stave off the filing of criminal charges against her.
Not unlike the Webb case, the Robinson case spawned a series of follow-up suits. With Sulton's help, Robinson sued the town of Madison for defamation over the allegations that she'd been drinking and in 1991 won a $6,000 settlement and an apology from the town. Sulton then filed a wrongful-death suit against the town, the county, the smoke-detector manufacturer and the apartment owner. Those defendants settled for $185,000.
Her old friend Kalal says Sulton worked the case masterfully, playing off the guilt of white liberals in Madison. "She's capable of predicting that response and using that to her advantage," he says. "She's a very astute politician. She's able to play things in a way that they will receive maximum attention."
But not everyone shares that appreciative view. "There's no doubt this woman likes to see her name in headlines," says one Madison attorney who requests anonymity. "I've seen her on the evening news in Robinson and other cases. There was very little critical thought given to what she was doing. She got a lot of leeway; the media played into it. It provided great headlines."
Sulton arrived in Denver in 1992, after James accepted a job with the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. At first she kept a low profile, starting up a legal practice and again volunteering as legal counsel for the NAACP. (Despite her ties to the NAACP, Sulton points out that all of her high-profile cases have come from her private practice--including her defense of Webb, her case against Tyrone Braxton and even a restraining order she recently was able to secure against KOA talk-show host Desi Cortez for ridiculing local NAACP president Menola Upshaw over the air. In all of those cases, she was paid for her services, though she declines to discuss amounts.)
When the Webb case hit, it may have seemed like Cheryl Robinson all over again. But this time around, Sulton couldn't control public sentiment--or the outcome.
On March 26, 1997, a stolen Ford Mustang and a police squad car collided near the intersection of 19th Avenue and Federal Boulevard. Inside the squad car were training officer Victor Baca and his partner, rookie cop Ron DeHerrera, who was on his second day on the job.
On television-news videotape filmed at the scene, it looked as though Webb had been manhandled by police and paramedics (Baca and DeHerrera had already been taken to the hospital). One officer appeared to kick Webb in the head, and paramedics dropped him twice onto the gurney. Webb was treated for a broken neck, which fueled accusations that the paramedics had caused the injury. However, doctors later concluded the injury was sustained in the car crash.
Within a week, DeHerrera died, his shattered body having wasted away in a coma. Two days later Webb was charged with vehicular homicide. The videotape of the incident was released. Pundits screamed about Rodney King, Denver-style.
Sulton initially shied away from the case. When Gil Webb's parents first contacted her about taking it, she turned them down. "I told them how, like many people, I believed the initial report published in the newspaper," she says. "I thought about it, got pieces of information that the police were not being honest, looked at it again, told them no again." Ten days later she got some more information and decided that something wasn't right. She didn't believe any car could reach 80 miles per hour heading uphill on that stretch of 19th Avenue, and she says she felt the cops' story was "too pat."
Her belief that Webb might be as much a victim as DeHerrera gave her motivation. "People call me three or four times a week on drug cases, rape cases," she says. "I don't want to spend my time arguing for people who have violated the rights of other people. I'm a victim's advocate."
"From an academic point, she found it extremely intriguing," adds James Sulton. "From a personal point of view, absolutely captivating. You can identify with that person. He's about to fight a grizzly bear with a switch. This kid is about to get chewed up and spit out."
Sulton wasted little time in going to bat for Webb. Twice in April she appeared on Geraldo Rivera Live, the cable talk show on which Rivera briefly seemed to scratch his itch for all things Denver. "At the moment, it served a purpose," says Sulton. "I knew [Denver police spokesman John] Wyckoff would be on making allegations that were not true." (Wyckoff declines to comment for this article.)
Sulton says she was trying to counteract what she calls "adverse publicity" about the case. "We weren't trying to be necessarily provocative," she says, "but to get people to say, 'We'll get to trial and let people decide.'"
But while her comments to Rivera were fairly measured, her comments in the courtroom were anything but.
In her opening arguments, Sulton claimed that Webb wasn't driving the car at all. More contentiously, she accused police of a coverup. Police lied about the speed of the Mustang, she said. They lied when they claimed the Mustang hit the police car, not the other way around. They lied, she said, to save the job of Victor Baca.
Sulton also told the jury that Webb's prints were not in the car and that the case was really about "the blue wall of silence." But even as the media was having a field day shooting down her conspiracy theories, she was firing blanks in court. All Sulton offered to support her theory was a 7-Eleven coffee cup that appeared in some crime-scene photographs and didn't appear in others.
"A lot of the things Sulton was doing were self-serving," says Lieutenant Cribari. "At the same time, she was taking whatever tactics she could come up with in the defense of her client. I know this happens, but she stepped over the line."
DeHerrera's widow, Patti Steffes-DeHerrera, says she was offended by Sulton's defense. "Things would be very different if Webb hadn't been represented by her," she says. "I think she's used him as a forum for her issues with racism and police brutality."
Steffes-DeHerrera recalls Sulton rudely bumping into her in the hall outside the courtroom. "She exuded so much hate and racism," Steffes-DeHerrera adds. "It's difficult to sit in the same room as her."
Sulton, by contrast, assesses her performance analytically. "The Webb case was one where there was a tremendous amount of adverse publicity before I got involved," she says. "In an effort to counter that, I asked people to look at the facts. Let's look at the facts so this man can have a fair trial."
In fact, Sulton says she's still upset that she wasn't allowed to introduce more evidence challenging the police version of events. A judge prohibited her, for instance, from presenting information about whether the injured officers were wearing their seatbelts, or about whether one of the officers who responded to the scene lied about which side of the stolen Mustang he took Webb out of.
"Nobody can point to the record and see where I have alleged a massive conspiracy," Sulton says. "What I alleged was that the police lied about basic facts of the case. I did say that, and I stand by that. The fact that people disagreed is their right, but that doesn't mean they know more about the case than me."
In the days following Webb's conviction and sentencing, Sulton took her share of hits. The Denver Post called Sulton's case the "spectacle of a desperate defense attorney presenting a dishonest defense."
She was a regular target on talk shows hosted by Jay Marvin and Peter Boyles. During a television commentary on KBDI-TV/Channel 12, former gubernatorial candidate John Andrews referred to Sulton as "unscrupulous" and a "demagogue."
While Andrews's comments may have sent Sulton to the edge, remarks by public defender Lisa Wayne sent her over. Wayne was originally slated to handle Webb's defense until Sulton was retained. The usually reserved Sulton shows a flash of fire when she says that Wayne visited Webb in jail after he had become Sulton's client.
"She went in and saw my client without my knowledge or consent and said I shouldn't be on his case," Sulton says. "Let her know how mad as hell I was about that."
Wayne declined to comment for this story. But following the conclusion of the criminal trial, she shared her view of Sulton's performance with the press. "She had her own agenda, and it hurt this kid in the long run," Wayne was quoted as saying after Webb's sentencing. "She rode two horses. When you represent a criminal case, your goal is different than winning money in a civil case. Money doesn't count when your son is doing time."
In October, in a highly unusual action, Sulton sued both Wayne and Andrews for defamation in Arapahoe County District Court. "If she had said, 'Anne Sulton is a sorry-ass nigger,' I don't care," Sulton says. "That doesn't bother me."
What bothered her, she says, was that her client might believe Wayne's charges against her. Her pleadings, though, make no mention of Gil Webb. In them, Sulton claims that the public defender's comments "caused claimant to be held up to ridicule...to be shunned and avoided. They injured her reputation."
"The reason I filed it was that she said I sold out my client," Sulton says. "That statement I couldn't let stand. That's the worst thing a person can say about a lawyer. When she said that, I asked for an apology. She refused. I had no choice but to fight that."
Though Sulton's suits against Wayne and Andrews are widely viewed as legal long shots, they've already served a purpose: Local attorneys now shy away from talking about her openly. Many laugh when approached--as if they may be next on the lawsuit list if they dare to criticize Sulton.
"Certainly the press very quickly took her to task when she floated the thin blue line," says one local lawyer. "I never saw any evidence to support that conspiracy theory. It's a difficult theory to float when you have a dead police officer."
Andrews's attorney, Todd Welch, says he has filed a motion stating that Sulton doesn't have a cause of action. "The Ninth Circuit has held that you can't defame someone by talking about their trial tactics," he says. "I don't know that she did a lot of research into it before deciding to jump into the middle," Welch adds. "She is a good lawyer, but I think she reacted a little quicker than she should."
Today Sulton talks of retiring to teach again, of hiking and watching the sun set over the Rockies. "If it was just her, she'd be in a log cabin in the mountains somewhere," says her sister, Alice Tisdale.
True enough, says Sulton, who's still a practicing Catholic. But for now, she believes "service is the rent you pay to live on this earth" and says she's not done paying her dues.
Sulton recently filed a class-action suit on behalf of black employees of Hertz at DIA. That suit alleges that Hertz discriminated against black employees and customers and that when black employees complained, some were singled out for suspensions and others were fired. (Hertz vice president for corporate affairs Joe Russo says the company "categorically asserts that there has been no racial discrimination at our Denver facility.") Sulton is also embroiled in the Tyrone Braxton suit, which shows signs of turning into another PR debacle for her. The Denver DA's office declined to file criminal charges in the matter, citing insufficient evidence, and Assistant Denver District Attorney Chuck Lepley, who handled the investigation, challenges Sulton's claim that he never interviewed the four women.
"When he said this was the most thorough sexual-harassment investigation he's ever done, it sent chills down my spine," Sulton says. But Lepley says he took two statements from each woman that ranged from nine to twenty pages.
The Hertz and Braxton cases pale, though, under the shadow of the Webb case. That volatile confrontation has given birth to its own series of civil suits. First Sulton filed a federal suit on Webb's behalf against the police department, alleging brutality. Baca and Steffes-DeHerrera have filed wrongful-death civil suits against Webb and his family. "I think suing the city is outrageous," Steffes-DeHerrera says of Sulton's action against the police department. "It's like they dance on [Ron's] grave. They can't admit they had anything to do with it."
But Sulton says she has nothing to apologize for in her handling of the Webb case. "I didn't misrepresent the facts," she says. "I told them the facts. Why get mad at me?"
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