Heavy Traffic

Border drug lords get rich while attorney Mike Barclay gets worn out defending the poor smugglers

"My thinking at the time was that I'd keep my license and maybe help draw up a will or two now and then," he says as he sits in his small office behind the home he shares with artist wife Barbara. Originally the Alpine hospital, built in 1907, it was remodeled into a bed-and-breakfast during World War II. "Now," Barclay says with his baritone laugh, "I'm the only lawyer in Alpine with 14 rooms and seven baths."

It's that lighthearted approach that helps him so well in the courtroom today. Judge Furgeson says he has Barclay's voir dire questioning to potential jurors memorized: "He'll smile at everyone and then tell them how he'd moved out here years ago from Dallas. He'll say that after he'd been here awhile he phoned his mother to tell her how friendly everyone in this part of the country was. He tells them she just laughed and said, 'Honey, they're not friendly; they're just lonely...'"

More than once Barclay has even resorted to writing his own poetry in an attempt to deflect a judge's anger over the fact a client has unexpectedly skipped a court date. Like the time defendant Hernando Felix-Yague (pronounced "yah-gee") failed to appear:

Mike Barclay came to the Tex-Mex border to retire but instead has found new passion in defending "mules" and "coyotes."
Gail Diane Yovanovich
Mike Barclay came to the Tex-Mex border to retire but instead has found new passion in defending "mules" and "coyotes."
Seventeen immigrants were found in this poorly painted Ryder truck about nine miles west of Pecos.
Jon Fulbright/ Pecos Enterprise
Seventeen immigrants were found in this poorly painted Ryder truck about nine miles west of Pecos.

Hernando Felix Yague

Has a mind that's now become foggy.

On a search for his person

Pre-trial is still cursin'.

But I just learned this day

He's down Mexico way.

"I can't tell you how many times I've thought I ought to charge him with contempt or at least reprimand him," Furgeson says, "but I knew if I opened my mouth, I'd start laughing."

Despite the free spirit Barclay brings to his work, it is obvious that he is held in high regard by his peers. Fellow defense lawyers, and an occasional prosecutor, routinely seek his advice. Even law enforcement officials begrudgingly applaud his encyclopedic knowledge of the law.

"He came out here," Sheriff Dodson says, "and taught us how to do our jobs." Dodson, a member of the Alpine police force when he first became acquainted with Barclay, admits that the day-to-day details of matters such as showing just cause for a search warrant were often overlooked. "The first half-dozen cases Mike defended were dismissed because he was able to easily show that law enforcement hadn't done everything by the book. Thanks to him, we learned quickly to dot the i's and cross the t's."

Dodson laughs when Barclay insists on retelling a story he heard about the sheriff shortly after settling in Alpine. Dodson, it seems, was sworn in as an Alpine patrolman almost a year before his 21st birthday. "He was issued a badge and a gun," Barclay says, "but, by law, he was too young to purchase ammunition. So, for the first year of his law enforcement career, he had to take his wife with him down to Morrison's True Value so she could buy him bullets."

A recent Barclay client had made it through the border checkpoint, only to be stopped by a state trooper north of Alpine for a defective taillight on his truck. The frightened driver immediately jumped from the cab, his hands stretched into the air, and yelled out, "You've got me, don't shoot." Stunned by the quick admission, the trooper investigated and found 750 pounds of marijuana and a drunk woman in the trailer the man was pulling.

Then there was the smuggler whose pickup engine heated up after he'd reached the American side of the border. While pulled over to allow it to cool down, an off-duty Border Patrol agent stopped to lend a hand. During casual conversation as they tinkered with the engine, the Good Samaritan asked what the driver was hauling. When the man openly boasted that he had a 1,400-pound load of marijuana he was taking to Dallas, he was arrested.

Which is to say there are a lot of cases Barclay doesn't have much chance of winning. "But what impresses me about him," Judge Furgeson says, "is the fact that once he's in the courtroom there is no way to tell if his client is court-appointed or one who's able to pay for counsel. Mike works equally hard for them all."

When the compliment is passed along, Barclay only shrugs. "My role is that of any other defense attorney. If my client is innocent, I've got to do everything I can to prove it. If his arrest or the investigation wasn't conducted properly, I'm going to raise hell about it."

His actions suggest it is those young, ignorant, out-of-work men caught in their first, desperate smuggling attempts that Barclay wishes most to help. After 45 years of practice, he holds to a belief that one illegal act does not make a person forever evil.

"These people's lives," he says, "are bad enough already."

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