Mi hermano, El Chapo: How a lawyer from Baltimore came to defend the world’s most notorious drug lord

On Wednesdays William Purpura boards a train in Baltimore and rides almost three hours north to a 12-story fortress bristling with razor wire and known as the Guantanamo of New York.

Inside, he’s searched three times. Then he climbs to an isolated wing near the top and arrives at a solitary cell. Here sleeps a man considered so dangerous Purpura’s not allowed to shake his hand.

On Monday, the world will be watching as the lawyer from Baltimore stands up in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn to represent Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, an infamous Mexican more commonly known as “El Chapo.”

It simply means “shorty.” He’s 5 feet 6.

Hunted by U.S. agents for years, the 61-year-old Guzman faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of international drug trafficking, gun charges and money laundering. He’s a billionaire alleged to rule the powerful Sinaloa Cartel and to have smuggled hoards of cocaine by plane, truck, even submarine; a folk hero celebrated in ballads who escaped prison on a motorbike in an underground tunnel; a field general who prosecutors say amassed an army of gunmen and assassins to protect and grow his empire.

Guzman has hired three trial lawyers, including Purpura, who has defended Baltimore drug bosses, a crooked politician from the Washington suburbs and one corrupt city cop from the Gun Trace Task Force. From a rowhouse office on East Mulberry Street, the 66-year-old lawyer also devoted decades to representing young men in gruesome death penalty cases. “The worst of the worst,” his son and law partner says.

At home in Lutherville-Timonium, Purpura’s a regular guy: golf, gym, yard work — someone who thrills over a new leaf blower. He’s bald and trim, and a grandfather. His sons are grown: one, his partner; the other, a chef in Maui. His third wife, Nancy Purpura, is a Baltimore County Circuit judge. They met when she, too, was among the dedicated band of defense lawyers working capital murder trials. They call them “death cases.”

Now William Purpura finds the end of his career has taken an unexpected turn. He’s become a cartel attorney, one immersed in the 330,000 pages of Guzman’s case.

“It’s difficult to get your arms around the enormity,” he says, still sounding surprised to be involved.

So how did he come to defend the world’s most notorious drug lord?

‘Knock on Any Door’

Purpura’s story begins on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel in 1960s Nutley, N.J., where the neighborhood boys would hop a bus to see Warren Spahn pitch for the New York Mets.

One day, he stands before a black-and-white screen, watching rapt as Humphrey Bogart tells a jury don’t blame the murder defendant; it was poverty, abuse and neglect that pulled the trigger.

For a young Bill Purpura, Bogart’s character in “Knock on Any Door” was heroic. Could he do that?

His early studies weren’t promising. An only child, he attended a military academy in Ocean City, N.J., but preferred to hitchhike to Yonkers and bet the trotters.

After four years, he left for nearby Seton Hall University. But there was Dave Brubeck at The Limelight and everything else that was 1970s New York. On graduation day, he was in neither the top nor the middle of his class. He headed west in his Datsun pickup to experience Southern California and race dirt bikes at Indian Dunes.

By then, federal prosecutors say, another young man was ascending to power in the rugged Sierra Madre mountains of northwest Mexico.

After law school outside Los Angeles, Purpura returned east with a wife and newborn son. He had sights on Washington, but settled in Baltimore with a $13,000-a-year job in the old Equitable Building. His boss was Fred Kolodner, described in The Sun as an “Alfred Hitchcock look-a-alike” with a diamond pinky ring. He defended the loan sharks and roustabouts of The Block. Not a white-glove firm.

The cases came like popcorn, Kolodner passing out folders: Go try this. Go try this.

“I was so green that when the judge was giving jury instructions I was taking notes,” Purpura said.

It was an 18-month crash course in criminal defense. In 1981, Purpura opened his own office downtown. He didn’t join the state or city bar associations. He didn’t take long lunches with other lawyers at Tio Pepe. He worked quietly, alone.

“His is not a name the average citizen would know, although he certainly has had cases that were in the limelight,” says his wife, the judge.

The biggest criminal cases went federal and Purpura did, too.

Federal court meant top-gun prosecutors, wiretap investigations and cross-examining FBI agents with law degrees. The feds don’t make paper mistakes, Purpura said. “I was in total fear.”

A world away, the young Mexican had learned to run cocaine into the United States faster than any other smuggler, prosecutors say, and he became a darling of the Colombian cartels. They called him “El Rapido.”

Back in Baltimore, in December 1990 Purpura had the case of the charismatic drug kingpin Linwood Rudy Williams, a man known to sign autographs and oversee a heroin pipeline stemming from Nigeria. Guilty, he got life.

Purpura shook off the loss.

“Defense attorneys are like golfers,” he says. “They have a very short memory.”

He developed the habits to sustain a legal career over the next three decades. Mornings, he would jog 6 miles. Exercise washed away the horrors he heard in court. He still allowed himself one Marlboro Light a day. During trial, with anxiety gripping his stomach, his lunch was a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich: white bread, Jif and Welch’s.

He showed a flair for theater. In one Bogart-like flourish, he scribbled the name of an absent federal witness on a slip of paper and taped it to the stand.

His first capital murder trial came in Hagerstown, September 1994. Purpura defended Michael Antonio Reese Sr., who stabbed his estranged wife to death then turned on their boys. Reese taped shut their mouths — he couldn’t stand their screams — and stabbed them, too. Prosecutors wanted death; Reese got two life sentences. Purpura had a grim win. There would be more.

His client David William Crist got 30 years — not death — for hiring a pair of hit men to gun down his younger brother for their inheritance. Michael Darryl Henry got an additional decade in prison — but not death — for fatally stabbing a fellow inmate.

The toughest cases, Purpura believed, deserve a tough defense.

Tokens from these cases came to fill his office: a boyhood photo of Patrick Byers Jr., who got four life sentences for the contract killing of a federal witness; a blanket crocheted in prison by the “Savage of Philadelphia,” a gang boss who ordered his underlings to firebomb a witness’ home, incinerating women and children. One Christmas, Purpura bought the “Savage” a subscription to The New Yorker. These men were starved for companionship, Purpura says of the bonds that formed.

He learned to embrace the evidence — a strategy to undermine the worst charges. OK, his client sold dope. But a killer? Never.

He put psychologists on the witness stand to explain the adolescent brain. He showed jurors a defendant’s childhood of poverty, abuse and neglect. The past shouldn’t excuse the crime, he believed, but should preclude a death sentence.

“He was relentless,” said John “Jack” Purcell, a retired assistant U.S. attorney who tried cases against Purpura. “It was like a boxing match: You hit him as hard as you can — he gets up.”

Many of his clients were imprisoned for life. But none was executed, not on his watch.

So when A. Eduardo Balarezo, a D.C. lawyer born in Ecuador, needed co-counsel in 2005 for his first capital murder trial, other attorneys suggested this Baltimore lawyer who had defended the indefensible.

Defending Colombians

Meanwhile, in Mexico, the Sinaloa smuggler was on the run.

He had muscled his way into Tijuana and provoked a cartel war. Captured, he had been sentenced to 20 years in a Mexican prison for drug trafficking. But he escaped, purportedly by bribing the guards and hiding in the laundry.

Now, he had a cadre of armed bodyguards, prosecutors say, a network of mountain hideaways and a diamond-studded pistol on his hip. He was rumored to be somewhere in the “Golden Triangle,” a remote region of marijuana farms and cartel poppy fields.

A Mexican national manhunt had entered a fifth year. The legend of El Chapo had emerged.

Back in D.C. federal court, Purpura and Balarezo tried their first case together.

They defended a gang foot soldier accused of murder and of peddling PCP around Washington. The drug charges stuck, but not the murder. Their client got 22 years.

Balarezo counted it a win. It was May 2006, and he had found a like mind in Purpura.

The next year, Balarezo won a rare acquittal for a Colombian accused of directing payments for an overseas cocaine syndicate. The lawyer’s name spread in the underworld. “Literally, people were calling me from Colombia,” Balarezo says.

The cases were tricky: shell companies, money laundering, foreign bank accounts. The evidence was enormous: kilos of cocaine packed into airplanes, shipping containers and speedboats that streaked toward U.S. shores. He turned to Purpura for help.

They fell into a routine: Purpura opening trial; Balarezo, a decade his junior, closing trial. Balarezo called his co-counsel el viejo, the old man. Purpura brought him a peanut butter and jelly.

With other lawyers, Purpura flew to Bogota and Medellin to interview accused narco-traffickers. He came to believe his cartel cases — like those capital murder trials — were at the heart of the justice system.

He neither condones nor condemns his clients’ behavior; not his job. He defends their rights. These are men charged with the worst crimes, amid overwhelming evidence. They’re most vulnerable to a shoddy defense. The integrity of a justice system, like a society, he believes, rests in how it treats the vulnerable.

He and Balarezo defended Alfredo Beltran Leyva, the youngest of three Mexican brothers alleged to run a billion-dollar cocaine cartel. He was known as “The Desert Ant” and wore a tactical vest laden with grenades, prosecutors say. Beltran Leyva eventually would get life in prison.

But as his trial drew near, a stunning announcement came. Mexican marines had stormed a Sinaloa safe house and chased El Chapo Guzman into the sewers. He climbed out and stole a car at gunpoint — nearly making off, officials said. But police stopped the car and arrested him. They whisked him into hiding. His hit men were reportedly en route to rescue him.

Guzman was flown to the U.S. to stand trial. He landed on Long Island in January 2017.

A motorcade brought him to the Manhattan prison, a fortress built on bedrock. There would be no tunnels, officials promised. Guards led him to the isolated wing. They locked him in the solitary cell.

One day, Balarezo’s phone rang.

El Chapo wanted to meet Beltran Leyva’s lawyers.

Pitching El Chapo

Inside the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Purpura noticed the visitors’ log. Other lawyers had come seeking the case of the celebrity prisoner. Purpura rehearsed his pitch.

He and Balarezo passed through three locked doors. They climbed to the 10th floor, where mob bosses and terrorists have been held. They came to a small cell with a window of steel mesh. El Chapo greeted them.

Some lawyers make lofty promises of freedom, but not them. Purpura and Balarezo pledged to work hard and listen. They promised a tough defense no matter what the feds would bring.

Guzman hired them. He also hired Jeffrey Lichtman, a Manhattan attorney famous for defending the alleged Gambino crime family boss. The lawyers dug in.

The evidence traces 30 years. In court records, prosecutors revealed that they have cartel ledgers, bank accounts, travel logs, photos of stash houses and drug seizures. They also have at least 78 videos, 25,000 pages of witness statements and nearly 140,000 intercepted phone calls and text messages. They plan to call as many as 132 witnesses.

The defense costs could soar to $5 million, Purpura says.

The trial itself won’t be cheap. Police have shut down the Brooklyn Bridge to shuttle Guzman to the courthouse. Crowds have taken photos of the armored motorcade. Meanwhile, Netflix filmed a crime drama based on El Chapo lore. Telemundo aired a fictional account of his life. Director Ridley Scott is shooting an adaptation for Hollywood.

But who is Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman really?

The son of a farmer, he’s believed to have had four wives — his current one a former beauty queen born in California — and more than a dozen children.

To prosecutors, he reigned over the Western Hemisphere’s cocaine supply from 1989 to 2014, moving nearly a half-million pounds into the U.S. He became staggeringly wealthy — making $14 billion, they say — and famously granted an interview to actor Sean Penn while in hiding. Forbes magazine ranked him among the world’s most rich and powerful. Mexicans extolled him as a modern-day Robin Hood.

Prosecutors say his assassins worked in a killing house with plastic sheets on the walls and drains in the floor to catch the blood.

To Purpura, Guzman is a man whose myth surpasses reality — a rabbit for authorities to chase. He’s intelligent despite a third-grade education, someone raised in a desolate village who hawked oranges as a boy and slept in a home with dirt floors. Mostly, he’s the product of generations before him who farmed marijuana and opium poppy to survive Mexico’s poor countryside. He enjoys his riches and fame.

“In his words, he was in the business,” Purpura says. “He got out a long, long time ago.”

Now he’s locked 23 hours a day in an 8-by-10-foot cell, his lawyers say. The one window has frosted glass; he can’t see out. A single light burns day and night; he can’t sleep. From the prison commissary, he bought a radio and bottled water. The guards took his clock without explanation.

Guzman has lost weight. He’s complained of vomiting, headaches and pain in his teeth. The stale air hurts his throat, he wrote a judge. He asked to see his wife, but prosecutors worry he will pass her coded messages.

“He’s desperate for human contact,” Purpura says.

Guzman’s men have turned on him and become government witnesses. He has few allies left.

On Wednesdays, the Baltimore lawyer and the prisoner pore over the case file. The two men don’t always seem so different to Purpura. In a way, they’re both grandfathers far from home at the end of a career. There’s too much work, too little time. Yet they share some small talk.

A bald Purpura admires Guzman’s thick, black hair. Guzman says he regrets he might not see his 95-year-old mother again. He asks what President Donald Trump has said.

Each visit brings the same small gesture: a greeting in the other’s language.

Purpura presses his palm to the steel mesh.

“Mi hermano,” he says. My brother.

El Chapo gives two thumbs up.

“My friend,” he replies.

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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