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.

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.

When the police found her -- "How they found her, I have no idea," Leonard deadpans -- they brought the body to Palm Beach International Airport, where the county coroner set it on a gurney behind a jet engine. The body stunk so bad, Leonard recounts, that the coroner wanted to make sure the smell would be forced downwind when he examined it for the crime report.

Additionally Mounts told Leonard about a man who had raped a chicken. He had pictures of the chicken. "So I asked him, 'How did you know the guy did it?'" Leonard says with a laugh. And Mounts responded, "'He had chicken feathers in his pubic hair.'"

From this Leonard hatched an idea: "I thought, 'Gee, he's a wonderful source. Why don't I do [write about] a judge -- but not a nice judge. It's got to be a judge with attitude. I want a judge who will take the sentencing guidelines all the way -- someone who refers to the electric chair as Old Sparky but is also a womanizer. So I made up a character."

Several times a week, Mounts heads to a local bar situated on the bottom floor of the Helen Wilkes Hotel in West Palm Beach. In Maximum Bob Leonard describes the bar and hotel this way: "The big kidney-shaped bar at the Helen Wilkes was a hangout for judges and lawyers, both sides, and some of the newspaper people."

The bar is, in fact, kidney-shaped, and most of the people seated there and at the nearby tables are lawyers, judges, and city employees. Mounts has been a regular happy-hour customer there for years, reports the diminutive, gray-haired lady who scurries around busing trays and ringing up lunch customers as they leave the dim lighting of the hotel for the sunshine of Banyan Avenue. Usually, she adds, the judge comes in after work and drinks gallons of iced tea. Then he goes home to his wife.

In Leonard's book Bob Gibbs also hangs out at the Helen Wilkes. But Gibbs doesn't worry about running home to meet his wife, nor does he harbor any guilt about inviting a plucky young probation officer to meet him there for drinks. And this Palm Beach County judge prefers Jim Beam.

"Elmore Leonard takes things from reality and fictionalizes them," explains Gregg Sutter, a former Hollywood, Florida, resident who, as Leonard's research assistant, has logged hundreds of hours in Mounts' courtroom. "The reality becomes a structure for his story."

So if you're Elmore Leonard and you want to write a novel about a judge, you need a model, or at the very least you need someone with a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Mounts certainly can provide a solid stream of stories concerning bizarre cases -- the chicken raper, the car with the buried wife, and on and on -- but he's not exactly, you know, colorful himself.

For starters the fictional judge would need to be a lot tougher and a lot less romantic than Mounts. You'd have to lose, for instance, the real story of how Mounts met his wife Polly of 38 years. That would be in his final year of law school at the University of Florida, when the then-27-year-old Mounts met his bride-to-be at a picnic down upon the Suwannee River. He read her e.e. cummings, and they talked about their favorite classical composers. He proposed later that afternoon.

Maybe that's all right for some E.M. Forster story about life in the English countryside or perhaps a Robert James Waller tale that waxes lyrical about the Iowa corn fields. But this is supposed to be the saga of a gruff judge who faces swarthy characters and oily con artists every working day.

Which means that this judge can't be bothered with something like compassion each time he hands down a sentence. But Mounts, according to local defense and prosecuting attorneys, does just that -- thinking long and hard about the details of a case before announcing a sentence.

"He's got people on death row," notes Debra Price, an assistant public defender in Palm Beach County. "He is not afraid to impose the death penalty, although he puts a lot of thought and consideration into it. He certainly does not do it willy-nilly."

In August 1995 Mounts decided the fate of 22-year-old Kirby Chastine, who came before him for sentencing after he had been convicted in another court of armed robbery and murder. Chastine killed a Canadian tourist by shooting him twice -- in full view of the tourist's father and five-year-old son -- in front of a Lake Worth convenience store in 1992. He also shot the victim's father once in the back. The father survived.

Instead of giving Kirby Chastine the death penalty, however, Mounts sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences for the murder, and tacked on an additional 30 years for the armed robbery conviction. Mounts cited Chastine's intellectual incapacity to make moral decisions as his rationale for foregoing capital punishment. "I gave him as much as I could without killing him," Mounts says now. "That's sort of a crude way to put it."

Mounts experienced a personal brush with the judicial system in August 1993 when his son Gregory, then 26 years old, was arrested along with two accomplices. The trio was accused of entering a West Palm Beach home dressed as policemen and stealing $7000 in cash. One accomplice pointed a 9mm handgun at a resident of the home, according to police reports. Another resident, Jacqueline Hogue, arrived midheist and was handcuffed inside the house. She was pregnant.

"We are devastated by the enormity of the accusation," the elder Mounts wrote in a press release at the time of the incident. "Our son must now endure the rigors and scrutiny of the criminal justice system. We trust he will be treated no differently than anyone else."

Gregory pleaded no contest to grand theft as well as to prior charges of possession and sale of marijuana. He received five years probation for all charges.

When asked about this case now and how it might have changed his judicial convictions, Mounts becomes philosophic. "Everything we do is the product of who we are," he answers rather cryptically. Then he lets the subject pass.

Not surprisingly, especially given his longevity on the bench, Mounts has received his share of criticism. One complaint: He can be full of himself and strict in the courtroom. Donnie Murrell has been a criminal defense attorney in West Palm Beach for more than fifteen years. In the mid-Eighties, as an attorney in the county's public defender's office, he was assigned to the circuit court's criminal division. That meant he'd have to deal with Mounts. "It was the saddest day of my life," he now says.

He's not joking. According to Murrell, Mounts has this way of hazing young lawyers -- of discouraging them, of breaking them in. "There's no doubt about it," Murrell sighs, "he has a way of going about things that makes him appear very pompous and distant."

Now a seasoned lawyer in private practice, Murrell adds that he has become accustomed to the judge's unusual ways and has learned to respect him. "A judge who doesn't get caught up in hysteria and a judge who is consistent is a damn good judge in my book," Murrell declares.

To his credit Mounts controls his courtroom better than most, observes Price, and he does so without resorting to screaming and yelling and holding people in contempt. The only time Price can remember a chaotic Mounts courtroom was more than six years ago, on November 6, 1991, when a jury acquitted West Palm Beach police officers Stephen Lee Rollins and Glen Thurlow of murdering a hitchhiker named Robert Jewett. At the announcement of the verdict, the crowd cheered and some even cried, prompting Mounts to command nine armed deputies and three bailiffs to clear the courtroom. Even outside in the hallway, West Palm Beach police officers continued to celebrate, slapping high-fives and giving the thumbs-up sign.

"It did get out of control, and I warned them," Mounts recalls. "I was dealing with police and they should have known better. I was greatly hurt by that."

Although a recent Palm Beach Post article revealed that Mounts' sentences for felons regularly come in under the state's guidelines, he can be as tough a sentencer as any judge in the county -- at least from Price's perspective. "He just slammed one of my clients," Price points out. "I was not at all expecting the twenty years he got. Nor was my client."

That same day a woman convicted of child abuse was accused of contacting her child, in violation of her probation. The state requested treatment. Mounts gave her 90 days instead.

"He didn't explain," Price shrugs.
He rarely does when it comes to sentencing.
"If you say it's terribly hard, then you're puffing," Mounts maintains. "You're saying look at all this responsibility I have to burden. You ought not to think about it much."

So instead of talking about sentencing, he consults a reference book he keeps on a shelf in his office, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, situated among the "Far Side" comic strip books and the autographed Elmore Leonard novels. He pages through Bartlett's looking for his favorite Nietzsche quotation. Some of the pages are marked already, and he stops at them. "Wordsworth," he reads to himself. "Ahh, Hegel," he says. "I love Hegel."

Finally Mounts arrives at the Nietzsche quotation he is looking for. "'Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful,'" he reads aloud. "Every judge," he admonishes, "ought to be thinking about that."

Not including, of course, fictional judges.

Judge Bob Gibbs' wife, Leanne, is a former Weeki Wachee Spring mermaid who believes she has psychic powers that she can channel through a twelve-year-old girl named Wanda Grace, a slave on a Georgia plantation who died in 1855.

Polly Mounts is not her inspiration. "The wife in the book is insane," exclaims Polly, a retired Palm Beach County elementary schoolteacher who worked with gifted children. "And I mean really insane. People ask me how I feel about it. I love it."

And to be sure, Marvin Mounts is merely the inspiration -- not the model -- for Bob Gibbs. But like his wife, the judge is amused by all the attention Leonard's novel has brought. Mounts, after all, is just a judge, one eager to share a few oddball stories about his career as a jurist, but modest, if not reluctant, to discuss his personal background.

A devout Episcopalian, Mounts thought as a grade-school student that he might become a priest. Born in West Palm Beach in 1932, he attended the now-defunct Palm Beach High School, where he played on the football team with Harry Johnston, who would later become a congressman, and a man named Deese -- but that name wouldn't mean much to Mounts until years later, when his former teammate's daughter found herself nailed to an oak tree.

Mounts' father, known as Red, moved to West Palm Beach in the early Twenties after failing to earn a living in the Oklahoma dust bowl. In 1925 he became the assistant agricultural agent for what was then a largely agrarian Palm Beach County. He later ascended to the post of agricultural agent, an appointment he would hold for more than 36 years. His appreciation for natural resources was so respected that the county honored him in the Sixties by naming a West Palm Beach botanical garden after him.

Mounts' mother, Juanita Tillman Mounts, worked as a substitute teacher and served as a member of the West Palm Beach city library board. She helped young Marvin, an eighth grader at the time, to secure a part-time job at the library, where he made 50 cents an hour. "It was there," he remembers fondly, "where I learned a love for books." That love ultimately led him to attend the University of the South, located in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he realized that his passion and temperament were better suited for the study of history than for a career in the church.

But history, like faith, became merely a critical diversion for Mounts, who decided to pursue a career in law instead. As his undergraduate years concluded, the Korean War was also rapidly drawing to an end. The G.I. Bill would soon do likewise, warned a friend of the Mounts family, and if Marvin wanted to go to graduate school, he'd better enlist quickly. Heeding this counsel Mounts joined the Air Force, serving at a California base between 1954 and 1956, where he studied bombing-run photos. When he was discharged, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill's provisions to pay for tuition and enrolled in the University of Florida's law school.

His grades were poor at the University of Florida, he admits, but he muddled through, met the woman he would marry, married her in June 1959 after graduation, and began a job search in his native West Palm Beach. "When I got out of law school," he recollects, "the only job available was working in the [Palm Beach County] prosecutor's office," then known as the solicitor's office. He quickly discovered he had a knack for this calling, especially after winning the case concerning the woman who was strangled and buried underground in a car. In doing so he defeated Sidney Catts, a prominent defense attorney at the time and the son of a former Florida governor.

When the solicitor's office was abolished in 1972, Mounts needed to determine if he would run for the newly created state attorney position or seek a vacant circuit court judgeship. Judges, he thought, could be more autonomous and help people more easily: "I thought maybe I could do a better job than some judges that I didn't think much of."

First there was Marvin Mounts. Then there was Elmore Leonard's Bob Isom Gibbs. Now there's veteran big-screen star Beau Bridges' (Norma Rae, Heart Like a Wheel, The Fabulous Baker Boys) Bob Gibbs. Maximum Bob has morphed from novel into TV show.

"He [Gibbs] is very similar to the judge in the book," comments Amy Colonna Robinson, a location specialist with the Palm Beach County Film Commission. Robinson helped coordinate production for Maximum Bob, which wrapped shooting in downtown Lake Worth, Jupiter, and inside the courthouse in Okeechobee City in November.

"He's a little perverted, very Southern," adds Robinson. "I guess he's pretty mean, but he's got a sense of humor. He doesn't come off being crooked. I guess you could say he's pretty likable. But then some of the things he says you're like, 'Oh man.'"

Before fashioning television's newest fictional judge, screenwriter Alex Gansa consulted with Mounts several times and contends that he will continue to use the judge as a resource -- if the series gets picked up for broadcast, that is. Mounts told Gansa, for example, the story of a thief who packed himself inside a shipping crate addressed to a West Palm Beach bank. The would-be thief, a law student at the University of Miami, was arrested before he could steal any of the treasures in the bank's safe-deposit boxes. The student skipped bond and is probably still at large.

Gansa is no TV newcomer. For two years he helped write for The X-Files, the enormously popular Fox Network show about extraterrestrials, UFOs, government cover-ups, and conspiracy theories. Before that he performed a similar task on a number of other shows, including the Emmy Award-winning Eighties medical drama St. Elsewhere. Maximum Bob, he hopes, will be funny in an offbeat way but also dramatic enough to capture viewers' imaginations for an entire hour.

Past TV judge characters have included the protagonist of the show Judge Roy Bean, a half-hour 1956 series that was turned into a feature-length film starring Paul Newman in 1972, and Judge Harry T. Stone (played by Harry Anderson), the jocular justice on the popular mid-Eighties series Night Court. But probably the best-known TV judge is Judge Joseph Wapner, the moralistic, paternal jurist on the long-running but now canceled People's Court, a syndicated program that paid nominal sums to both parties in small-claims suits. A new version of People's Court, currently in syndication, features former New York City Mayor Ed Koch as the judge.

Maximum Bob Gibbs will be a bit different. He will say all the things a real judge would love to say but can't. "But this guy's got the balls to say them," explains Gansa from his home in Los Angeles. "Gibbs takes it one step too far, and that's what makes it funny."

During the show's recent production period in Palm Beach County, Mounts showed Bridges around his house, including a peek at his orchid collection. One need not have been there to know what Bridges saw. Leonard's Maximum Bob gives a fair rendering of an abbreviated tour of Mounts' property:

She walked past the attached garage to the north end of the house, looking at a scrub growth and a line of Australian pines in the distance. The canal curved off in that direction toward the lake.... Another few steps would take her around the corner to the screened porch and the backyard, the judge's gardens, his orchids hanging in trees.

(A painting depicting Mounts wading through a swamp looking for orchids faces the judge's office desk. It is not a very good painting, but it does represent one of Mounts' true passions. Just like the character Bob Gibbs, Mounts has an extensive orchid collection at his home. The word orchid comes from the Greek orkhis, which means testicle, Mounts explains, apropos of nothing in particular, adding that in English an orchidectomy is surgery on one or both of the testes.)

The TV show's producers found Mounts' place so picturesque that they wanted to use it as Gibbs' house. But when it proved too small for filming, they instead used a stately brick mansion in Jupiter with two-story pillars, a feature that lends a suitably Southern feel.

In fact the whole show has a distinctly Southern motif, which explains why Gansa shifted the locale from West Palm Beach to a fictional Florida town he called Deep Water. At least for the pilot episode of Maximum Bob, Deep Water is really downtown Lake Worth, with that town's City Hall exterior standing in for Gibbs' courthouse.

Meanwhile, TV series or no TV series, Marvin Mounts continues to perform his judicial responsibilities. When he first decided to run for that vacant circuit court judgeship 25 years ago, he thought it was an opportunity to exercise power, he now admits. It was also, he believed, an opportunity to help people. Had he chosen instead to run for the state attorney's office that became available around the same time, he understood that he would be responsible for a staff that would succeed or fail based on their merits in the courtroom. As a judge, however, he knew that he alone would be held accountable. "If you're a judge," he remarks, "you're sort of off on your own.

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