Courtroom contretemps: Client says former mayor throttled him
The case has been continued to December 13 at 9:05am as Buck's deep ties to the legal community have led Charlottesville District Court Judge Bob Downer to consider recusing himself. Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman says he has requested that a special prosecutor be appointed in the case.
–Updated Friday, November 19 at 1:56pm
Lots of people have imagined throttling someone. Attorney and former Charlottesville mayor Frank Buck may have acted on the impulse.
Buck was arrested on Thursday, November 11, and charged with misdemeanor assault for his role in a day-earlier incident that his legal client and alleged victim, Milton Leo John, calls "outrageous."
According to John, a 53-year-old airline pilot, the judge and bailiffs had stepped out of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on a recess when his attorney, Buck, began to discuss a week-earlier hearing. The topic was an old domestic abuse charge that, John says, was dismissed shortly after it was lodged and which should have already been expunged. John says he was calmly expressing his frustration over Buck's alleged failure to press his case and presented a letter he'd sent Buck showing that he'd made the expungement request several years earlier.
John, who stands 5'7" and weighs 160 pounds, says he began reading from the letter when his 6-foot-tall, 230-pound attorney suddenly and unexpectedly went berzerk.
"Mr. Buck became agitated and verbally abusive towards me," John writes in the criminal complaint. "He then abruptly stood up, and physically grabbed me around my neck with both hands and squeezed."
Buck admits to touching his client's neck–- but disputes much of the rest of John's account.
"He starts claiming I haven't done anything for him, that I'm taking advantage of him," says Buck, adding that his three- or four-year representation of John has been marked by unpaid bills and a litany of unfounded complaints.
Buck says he'd explained prior to the hearing that state statute would prevent the judge from approving expungement, although he offered John the chance to appeal. Buck says that when John started excoriating his legal acumen, Buck (a $225-per-hour lawyer who practices with Delegate David Toscano) felt his temper rising and recoiled from John's allegedly unsavory language.
"I turned away from him, and he kept cursing," says Buck. "I said, 'Just shut up,' and he said, 'Make me be quiet.'"
"I snapped," Buck admits. "I did put my hands to his neck, then immediately realized what a stupid thing that was for me to do, so I stepped away from him."
John says a security video of the 5:20pm incident–- which he has seen but not yet obtained–- supports his account of the events leading up to the alleged assault.
"Mr. Buck and I are sitting there talking," says John, who claims the video shows his ex-wife and her attorney sitting nearby and registering no reaction to suggest an argument is occurring in the courtroom before the assault. Neither the other attorney, Annie Lee Jacobs, nor John's ex-wife, Vanessa John, returned a reporter's calls.
Attorney Deborah Wyatt expresses shock about the incident, particularly since she says it seems out of character for Buck, who served as mayor from 1980-88. Buck's tenure included both the coffer-sweetening Revenue Sharing Agreement as well as the coffer-draining Omni hotel development; but in a 2006 Hook article on Charlottesville's mayors, the notoriously press-shy Buck declined all comment.
"The legal profession certainly is stressful," says Wyatt, noting, "We're all personally responsible for how we respond to such stress."
If convicted of assault, Buck could face up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. And attorney David Heilberg says a conviction might also trigger an additional sanction from the Virginia State Bar.
"It could be anything," says Heilberg, who says the Bar would likely take into account Buck's "long and distinguished career."
Buck points out that John was uninjured, and he expresses a mixture of defense and chagrin.
"I certainly was provoked," he says, "but I'm disappointed that I let him get under my skin so I did in fact react."
Buck is scheduled to appear in Charlottesville General District Court on Thursday, November 18, which is also his 65th birthday.