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

During a recess Ryan raises an objection. He's tall and lean, wears a blue pinstripe suit, and struts back to his seat each time he finishes with a witness. He served in the county public defender's office for four and a half years and now works in private practice, but he has never been in Judge Mounts' courtroom before.

In the Fan Fan-Dily case, Ryan objects to one of a series of photos that the state -- represented by red-suited assistant state attorney Lisa Hanson -- wants to enter into evidence. One of the pictures shows Fan Fan in the hospital with a bullet wound in his leg; another shows his bloody head; a third, Ryan claims, shows nothing. It is, he points out, irrelevant.

It is also fairly intimate.
Mounts leans forward in his plush leather chair to look at the pictures. His thick, black-framed glasses contrast with his thinning gray hair, which he wears combed back on his head. From the bench of his eleventh-floor corner courtroom, Mounts faces south toward the three-panel window that overlooks the rooftops of Clematis Street and downtown West Palm Beach.

"You'd think the police would have a little more couth than that," Mounts says in a slow drawl that hints at, but does not quite duplicate, a Southern accent. But, he continues, the photograph reveals the way the bullet entered the leg. It is relevant.

"Which one?" asks Ryan.
"The one that reveals the unfortunate glimpse of his nether region," Mounts replies with a straight face.

This particular day in Mounts' courtroom boasts all the necessary characters for a true-crime paperback or TV drama: a swaggering young defense attorney, a blond prosecutor in a red suit, an alleged victim who claims he's been shot at but can't remember pertinent details, a nonplussed defendant, and -- most important -- a take-no-guff judge with a vaguely Southern accent, a wry sense of humor, and a backlog of more than 35 years of stories that border on the bizarre.

Stories like the crucifixion. That occurred in 1967, back when Mounts worked as a prosecutor in the city solicitor's office, the precursor to today's state attorney's office. Members of the notorious Outlaws biker gang had nailed Christine Deese, a tall redhead with freckles, to an oak tree for fifteen minutes in an upright position with her feet on the ground and her arms outstretched. The bikers disciplined her for holding out on $10 worth of a check that they'd told her to cash. After dispensing her punishment, they released her and took her to St. Mary's Hospital in West Palm Beach. Pictures reveal the holes in both of her hands, in the joint between the ring and middle fingers.

"As you can see, she was no beauty queen," Mounts comments now.
The case made national headlines. One-term Florida governor Claude Kirk waited at the West Palm Beach Airport with the county sheriff and two police lieutenants as the bikers believed to be responsible for the crucifixion were extradited from Michigan. That same week, by coincidence, a New York Times Magazine profile of the governor called him a "dizzying experience." According to the article, Kirk pledged during his governorship to fry every one of Florida's condemned convicts, debate Fidel Castro, and end the war in Vietnam if elected President. Kirk also said he planned to ban the motorcycle chains bikers wore as belts because they were "dangerous weapons."

Thirty years later Mounts keeps one of those chains in his courthouse office. Just for show. "If you got yourself in a fight in a bar," he says slowly, displaying it, "you've got yourself a pretty good weapon."

It's stories such as that one that attracted Elmore "Dutch" Leonard to Mounts. The two men first met in 1989, although they corresponded with each other off and on for four years before hooking up in person.

Every year Marvin Mounts gives a prison tour that has become fairly legendary in the annals of Palm Beach County law enforcement. He invites a group of attorneys, reporters, and VIP types to visit the state prison in Starke to see death row and ogle up close the notorious electric chair known as "Old Sparky."

A fan of Leonard's novels, Mounts invited the writer to come along on the 1985 tour because he thought Leonard might find the experience edifying. "He writes about cons, and I work with them," Mounts explains.

Based on the fairly detailed knowledge of Palm Beach County's grid system of roads that shows up in some of Leonard's novels, Mounts assumed Leonard lived somewhere in the county. When the judge tried to contact Leonard regarding the prison tour, however, he learned that the author lived in suburban Detroit. (Leonard has since bought a second home in North Palm Beach.)

Leonard couldn't make it at the time -- he was too busy with a promotional blitz for his novel Glitz -- but after that initial contact the two men started to correspond. A friendship developed, and in 1989, when Leonard came to West Palm Beach to speak at a library benefit, Mounts invited him to visit.

During his stay Leonard joined Marvin and Polly Mounts on the patio of their West Palm Beach home, where the judge showed him some photographs he had collected over the years, including one of a man with an ice pick sticking straight out of his head. As Leonard recalls now, speaking over the phone from his suburban Detroit home, the judge also related the tale of a man who had killed his wife, put her in the couple's car, and driven the vehicle into a giant pit he had dug just north of Gainesville. The man then abandoned the car and filled the pit with dirt.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest