By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Allie Conti
By Chris Joseph
By Kyle Swenson
Rielle Hunter, who was born in Fort Lauderdale 44 years ago, has had an alarmingly eventful life.
As a teenager, she was an accomplished equestrienne who rode a champion jumping horse until the animal was electrocuted in its stable by a hit man from Chicago, part of one of the biggest scandals to ever hit Florida's blueblood horse set.
As a blond and pretty young woman, her voracious appetite for cocaine and men caught the attention of novelist Jay McInerney, who based a lead character on her in a bestselling book about the excesses of the 1980s.
Now in middle-age, she's become a notorious national media celebrity as the femme fatale in the scandal that has all but destroyed the political career of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
It's been a wild, wandering, and wanton life for Hunter, who spent her childhood in Tamarac as Lisa Jo Druck, her given name. And to understand Hunter (she married, divorced, and kept her ex-husband's name), it's instructive to look back at those years in Fort Lauderdale, specifically at the untold story of her father, James Druck, who was a powerful attorney in downtown Fort Lauderdale for nearly two decades.
James Druck was himself no stranger to controversy. He was, after all, literally run out of town in the late 1970s by his law partners, including heavyweight attorney William Scherer, after they discovered he'd cheated a wealthy client out of a substantial sum of money.
"We discovered he'd done something improper with a client and a client's money, and we asked him to leave," Scherer recalled last week. "He never admitted he did anything wrong, but he left town for Ocala."
The incident, a secret in the legal community until now, seems to have helped set the stage for his daughter's rootlessness. Once the family was transplanted to Ocala, things only got worse. In a particularly nasty turn of events, Druck hired an assassin named Tommy "The Sandman" Burns to kill his daughter's horse, Henry the Hawk, for the insurance money. The event deeply traumatized his daughter, who was near the stable when the horse was electrocuted.
Burns later admitted to federal investigators that he had killed about 20 horses. One of those sentenced to prison in the case was George Lindemann Jr., a Palm Beach scion to a billion-dollar fortune. Like Druck, he also had Burns kill a show horse for the insurance money.
While notoriety had a way of following both the father and daughter, it wasn't always that way. Certainly not when James Druck first came to town in 1960 with his bride, a stunningly beautiful former Miss Minnesota pageant winner, in tow.
He seemed destined, in fact, to become a legal titan in Broward County.
Raised in St. Paul and educated at Stetson University, Druck was quickly hired as an associate at what was then the top law firm in town, McCune Hiaasen Kelly & Crum (yes, the father of bestselling novelist and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen was a partner).
A handsome man with thinning blond hair, he specialized in defending insurance companies against personal injury cases, and he was very good at it, earning a reputation in the club-like courthouse community as being a tough and brilliant negotiator.
"He was bright and very personable," recalls Paul Hodge, a lawyer who has been practicing in Broward County since 1957. "Fort Lauderdale was absolutely different then. We used to say that if a Fort Lauderdale lawyer gave you his word, all you needed was a handshake. But if it comes from somebody from Miami, you have to get it in writing."
Other veteran local lawyers, however, had less rosy things to say about Druck. Hugh Maloney, who squared off against Druck on a case or two, would occasionally have drinks with him at Jimmy Fazio's House of Ribs on North Federal Highway, a popular hangout for both lawyers and gangsters in those days.
"He was sarcastic and caustic," Maloney says of Druck. "Basically he was unfriendly."
Maloney's only fond memory involving his fellow attorney was dancing at Fazio's with Druck's wife, Gwen, whom everyone seems to have liked — and not just because she was a statuesque and striking blond. "I found her to be charming," said Maloney.
While Druck climbed the legal ladder, Gwen gave birth to Lisa Jo on March 20, 1964. Three more daughters would follow.
It was about that time that Druck left the McCune Hiaasen firm and partnered with Richard Kirsch, who was the first Jewish lawyer to practice in Fort Lauderdale, a place with a history of blatant anti-Semitism (Jewish lawyers back then generally worked in Hollywood).
Kirsch, who died in 2006 at the age of 82, was a noted civil attorney, serving as general counsel for the North Broward Hospital District, city attorney for Plantation, and the lawyer for the Fort Lauderdale Country Club (which, ironically, was plagued with allegations of racism).
Druck worked with Kirsch until the two men parted ways in the early 1970s. Their partnership involved more than just the firm; they also owned a floor of the Blackstone Building near the courthouse, where they shared a suite of offices.
Druck bought Kirsch out of his shares — and ripped him off in the process, says one former close associate, who spoke about the matter on condition of anonymity.
"Druck took advantage of Richard and got Richard's share of the building," said the source, also an accomplished local attorney.
While it may seem incomprehensible that a lawyer of Kirsch's caliber could be hoodwinked, the man had an all-too-apparent Achilles' heel: For years, he was an alcoholic who drank vodka martinis from noon to night, his former friends say.
"He didn't know what was going on," the source said. "And Druck, if you had to pick a word, was amoral. He didn't have professional standards. I flat didn't like him."
Professional standards or not, Druck acquired all the trappings of success: a big house in the Woodlands in Tamarac, nice cars, and membership in the local country club.
The marriage, however, tottered on the brink of destruction for years. The source says that at one point Druck left his family and took up with a young, beautiful receptionist in an apartment near the courthouse. Eventually, that relationship soured, and he returned to his family.
Another former partner, Jim Norman, who is now with Holland & Knight, confirmed that the marriage had its difficulties, but hastened to add that Druck was far from alone on that score.
"Was he absolutely faithful to his wife? No, but that didn't put him in a small category at the time," Norman said. "That was the morality of the time and of the Fort Lauderdale community."
As the Kirsch split indicated, though, Druck's cheating at times extended to his professional life. After he split with Kirsch, Druck stayed in the Blackstone Building and built a large firm with new partners. One of them was William Scherer, a young lawyer from Indiana.
Druck also began dabbling with horses in Ocala, where he did some legal work. The firm had an airplane, and Druck took flying lessons to quicken the traveling time to Ocala.
Scherer says he looked up to Druck as an older role model — until he and another partner, Thomas Grimmett, discovered that Druck had cheated a client.
Druck represented businessman Bob Williamson in a real estate purchase, but improperly maintained secret ties with the seller, Scherer said. Scherer said he didn't remember the exact amount of money that Druck had swindled, but that it was in the $20,000 range.
The firm's partners confronted Druck and told him to leave town, Scherer said. Druck tried to pay Williamson back on the pretense that it was all a mistake, Scherer added, but Williamson, who died last year, threw Druck out of his office. (Scherer says that the firm subsequently reimbursed Williamson). The confidential source says the partner actually gave Druck a choice that sounds like something out of the Old West: Either Druck left town for good or they would turn him over to State Attorney Michael Satz for prosecution.
Scherer says he doesn't recall the part about the state attorney, but he confirmed the rest of the story. He said that once Druck was gone, there was no veteran attorney in the firm. Scherer says he called Rex Conrad and asked him to be the "gray-hair" in the firm. That's how Conrad & Scherer, now one of the largest law firms in Broward County, was born.
Druck, meanwhile, uprooted his family to Ocala. He bought a horse farm, and Hunter attended high school in Ocala. Her senior year culminated in two personal tragedies — the killing of her horse and the divorce of her parents.
Burns, the horse hit man, testified that it was Druck who personally instructed him on how to electrocute the horse with a split extension cord and alligator clips, one attached to the horse's nose, the other to his anus. Burns told federal investigators that when the cord was plugged in, the horse dropped immediately.
Hunter, who was with a boyfriend when Burns killed the animal, saw the horse dead on the stable floor. McInerney fictionalized the account in his 1988 book, The Story Of My Life. The character based on Hunter, named Allison Poole, recounts that she was so distraught by the killing of the horse (named "Dangerous Dan" in the book) that she had to be kept on tranquilizers for a week.
"A few months later," Poole says in the book, "Dad came into my room one night. I was like, uh-oh, not this again. He buried his face in my shoulder. His cheek was wet and he smelled of booze. I'm sorry about Dangerous Dan, he said. Tell me you forgive me. He muttered something about the business."
The book was published before the Edwards scandal broke (and the Poole character would also be included in American Psycho, a bestselling novel by Bret Easton Ellis). James Druck died in 1990 of lung cancer before he could be brought to justice on the insurance fraud charge.
The rest of the story, quite literally, is history.