The Rielle Deal

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).

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman