Against all odds

Defense attorney girds for battle against U.S. Attorney Coggins

Scrappy, self-assured, and quick with a quip, Dallas defense attorney Tom Mills has spent the better part of his 23-year career defending people charged with wire fraud, money laundering, bankruptcy and insurance fraud, and other white-collar federal crimes. Generally, the guy likes the thrill of a good courtroom fight.

On a particular day last month, Mills was feeling a lot like a sacrificial lamb It was after Mills accepted an indigent defendant's case from the federal magistrate's office that he had picked up the first scent of a slaughter. That's when Mills learned his adversary in the case of "U.S. vs. Mark Linnear Hayes"--making his first courtroom appearance in three years--will be Paul Coggins, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas.

"When I heard Coggins was going to try it, I'm thinking, 'What the hell? What kind of a slam-dunk is this going to be? The U.S. attorney never tries a case,'" Mills says.

That's just about right. Coggins, an experienced criminal-defense attorney whom President Clinton appointed in 1993, has never tried a case himself since taking the job. Two previous cases he'd hoped to litigate--a drug case and a fraud case--were pled out.

Historically, when U.S attorneys go to court, they pick trials that are high-profile and fueled for maximum political mileage--like the prosecution of Jack Ruby for the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald, or the trial of the kidnappers of Amanda Dealey, daughter-in-law of late Dallas Morning News executive Joe Dealey.

Coggins fervently denies any media motives.
"I hate to tee this up too much in the press," Coggins said last week. "I'd really like to slip in there quietly and just try the case. I'd like to get in the courtroom at least once a year. It's a good thing, sort of like the police chief who gets out and walks the beat.

"After the last case was pled out, I asked my staff to start looking for a case that's relatively short and that's relatively certain not to plead out."

Not to mention relatively easy to win--which "Hayes" almost certainly will be. The case features a mountain of seemingly rock-solid evidence for the prosecution, a defendant with a nasty habit of fleeing prosecution, and a codefendant in the crime who's already been convicted and imprisoned and is likely to testify against Hayes.

Beyond that, the case carries added political weight for the U.S. attorney. It's quite possible that Mark Linnear Hayes--suspected in a string of well-publicized armed robberies stretching over two years from California to Georgia--will be the first person on Coggins' turf tried under the new "three strikes and you're out" federal statute--a pet piece of President Clinton's 1994 crime bill. Hayes, 39, of Los Angeles, has already been convicted and served prison sentences in California for a 1980 residential burglary and a 1981 armed robbery.

In August 1993, a Norwalk, Calif., jury convicted Hayes of armed robbery, but when the panel returned with its guilty verdict, it learned what the judge and attorneys had discovered during deliberations: Hayes, who was out on bail, had fled. As a result, he was never sentenced, says David Finn, the assistant U.S. attorney who will serve as second chair to Coggins in the May 13 trial.

Hayes remained a fugitive for more than two years, and a suspect in several armed robberies across the country--including a heist at an East Dallas Eckerd Drug store on April 24, 1995, for which he was indicted on February 6. Authorities finally caught up with him late last year in Atlanta after acting on a tip from a viewer of the television series America's Most Wanted.

The show featured a typically melodramatic re-enactment depicting robberies Hayes is alleged to have committed. Dubbed the "Ninja Bandit," for his totally black ensemble, including a ski mask with eye holes, Hayes is suspected of staking out drug and grocery stores, cutting a hole in each roof, then rappelling down a rope to the stores just after the managers have arrived to open the businesses. In some cases employees were pistol-whipped and the suspect made off with thousands of dollars.

California police and FBI agents feel sure that Hayes is part of a highly organized, sophisticated robbery ring active in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas for 15 years, says Pasadena, Calif., Police Sgt. Gary Capuano. Hayes' father, Charles Lee Hayes Sr., was charged along with his son in an Escondido, Calif., armed robbery in 1981 and convicted. Mark Hayes was eventually tried and convicted as well.

Court documents show that Hayes' connection to Dallas surfaced on the morning of the Eckerd robbery, when police followed a tracking device on a stash of stolen cash to a Holiday Inn at 1935 Market Center Boul-evard. There, a police helicopter and 30 squad cars chased down Keith Marvell Walton, 25, who had scaled a fence behind the hotel. Inside one of the hotel rooms, officers found a scanner tuned to the Dallas police channel, a pile of black clothing, and a green laundry bag stuffed with $9,000 in cash and a handgun.

According to court records, Walton told police that Hayes, whom he had known briefly in California and had accompanied by plane to Denver, then Dallas, had robbed a drug store and fired a gun at an employee. Hayes got away from the hotel that morning. Walton went to trial and was convicted in federal court last May on three counts: conspiracy to commit robbery; aiding and abetting a robbery; and using a firearm in the commission of a crime. Hayes now faces trial on the same counts as well as two others: traveling across state lines with the intent to commit robbery and interstate transport of a firearm to commit robbery.

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