Forget Shorty, Get Marvin!

How novelist Elmore Leonard's friendship with Palm Beach County criminal judge Marvin Mounts led to a popular book and a new TV show

Some time ago the editors at Newsweek magazine saw fit to put a picture of Bob Isom Gibbs on the cover of their magazine. They became interested in Gibbs, a judge on the circuit court of Palm Beach County's criminal division, because of the court's war on drugs in general and Gibbs' method of handling his courtroom in particular.

Gibbs first came to Newsweek's attention when a Palm Beach County state attorney requested that a recently convicted drug dealer receive merely probation for his crime. Instead of complying with that request, however, Gibbs sentenced the crook to an outrageous 30 years in the state penitentiary. He also tacked on a $25,000 fine. Such acts prompted Newsweek to emblazon its Gibbs cover with the line, "In Florida Maximum Bob Throws the Book."

"What is the book for if you don't go by it and, yes, occasionally throw it at a criminal offender," Gibbs is quoted as saying in the accompanying article.

Later accounts would reveal the Honorable Judge Bob Isom Gibbs to be a bigot and a philanderer -- he once received an official reprimand for inviting a young public defender into his chambers and asking her to "show me your goodies." He is also renowned within the state's close-knit law-enforcement community for placing more criminals on death row than any other judge in Florida.

"When I sentence a man to death by electrocution, it's because I think he deserves the shock of his life," Gibbs has been quoted as telling a woman he was trying to impress. The woman's name was Leanne Lancaster. She later became Mrs. Bob Isom Gibbs.

With no disrespect meant to Gibbs, his family, or the state judicial system, it is safe to say that Gibbs is a complete and utter sham. To put it more bluntly, Bob Isom Gibbs, a man known as "Big" to his friends, does not exist.

The judge -- and the Newsweek article about him -- are a fiction from the mind of Elmore Leonard, a very real author who has to date written 34 novels whose subject matter has veered from the Wild West to crime in Detroit and Palm Beach County. Leonard's 30th book, published in 1991, centers on Gibbs, a Palm Beach County judge with a penchant for young women, a passion for orchids, and a propensity for handing out the maximum sentence to convicts in his courtroom. Leonard titled the novel Maximum Bob, using as inspiration some of the real-life recollections of his friend, Palm Beach County Judge Marvin U. Mounts, Jr.

More recently Bob Gibbs entered the imagination of veteran TV writer Alex Gansa, who has been working with director Barry Sonnenfeld, the man who turned Elmore Leonard's 1990 novel Get Shorty into a popular 1995 motion picture starring John Travolta. Along with producer Barry Josephson, Gansa and Sonnenfeld recently completed shooting the pilot episode for a TV show called Maximum Bob, an hourlong dramedy based on Leonard's quirky novel, produced under the aegis of Warner Bros. Television. Veteran actor Beau Bridges plays Gibbs. With any luck Gansa and Bridges' version of Gibbs will engage the American public in the form of an ABC TV series. With any luck they'll make Bob Gibbs a household name.

Marvin U. Mounts, Jr., is not a household name. Except, perhaps, in the big house. Mounts is the senior judge on the fifteenth judicial circuit court of Palm Beach County, criminal division. While most circuit court judges get moved around to serve on the criminal, civil, and juvenile divisions, Mounts has stayed in criminal since he was first elected in 1972. "Subtle politicking," he once explained.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, the 65-year-old West Palm Beach resident is not the harshest sentencer in town. Nor is he known for bigotry or adultery. (He's been married for 38 years, and has two grown sons, Matthew and Gregory.) But in his 25 years as a judge and more than 10 years as a prosecuting attorney, Mounts has come across his share of low-level cons and big-time sociopaths. And it's not hard to imagine how some of the oddball cases he's overseen -- matched with Mounts' own eccentricities and his curious sense of humor -- might have inspired a crime novel or a TV series.

Take the following case, which occurred recently in Mounts' West Palm Beach courtroom. This guy Fan Fan is claiming that this other guy Dily shot him twice last Christmas night. One shot landed in Fan Fan's leg; the other may or may not have grazed the top of his head, depending on who was standing where when the bullets started flying.

Fan Fan squirms on the witness stand as a brassy young defense attorney pokes holes in his story. It seems Fan Fan can't remember if he was moving toward Dily or away from him when Dily pulled a gun out of his waistband and shot Fan Fan outside of his Delray Beach apartment.

The Boca Raton defense attorney, Antony Ryan, questions Fan Fan through an interpreter -- Fan Fan speaks only Creole -- but Ryan's not getting anywhere because Fan Fan just wants a chance to explain.

You're a witness. You don't get a chance to explain, Ryan tells him. Just answer the questions. Meanwhile Dily sits behind the defendant's table, looking cool and sharp in his dark suit and tasseled burgundy loafers.

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