Milan Simonich: Late F. Lee Bailey notched big win in New Mexico prison break

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Jun. 6—Charles Bella, 76 years old and receiving kidney dialysis treatments, has known bleaker times.

He still owns the bullet-scarred helicopter that Santa Fe prosecutors claimed he flew to carry out a daring prison break in 1988.

Each time Bella looks at the worn Aérospatiale Gazelle in his yard, the chopper stirs two memories.

One is of all the turmoil in his life. The other is of F. Lee Bailey, the famous defense attorney who helped Bella survive it.

Bailey, who died last week at 87, pursued high-profile cases across the country almost from the moment he hung out his shingle in 1960 in Boston.

Oddly enough, Bailey initially declined to represent Bella, though the crime he was charged with made thick, dark headlines everywhere.

Chet Walter, who was the district attorney of Santa Fe, claimed without much evidence that Bella received $30,000 to fly his helicopter into the recreation yard of the state penitentiary and spirit away three prisoners.

Bella told a different story. A glib 250-pound Canadian named Beverly Shoemaker hired him on the pretext of making an aerial tour of a ranch for a real estate company. Once in the air, Shoemaker pointed a .357-caliber Magnum pistol at Bella's head and ordered him to fly to the penitentiary for the great escape she'd planned.

Shoemaker's motive was as personal as it gets. She wanted her boyfriend, inmate Daniel Mahoney, airlifted to freedom.

Bella landed his chopper in the prison yard. Mahoney and two other inmates scrambled aboard. With bullets flying from guard towers and the helicopter sagging under the weight of its human cargo, Bella flew south.

The sluggish getaway was a bad sign for the escapees. Police officers captured all three within a day.

Prosecutors charged the inmates, Shoemaker and Bella with conspiring in the prison break.

Bella says authorities ignored the evidence to falsely claim he was a willing participant in the crime.

"They just tried to clean up the stinky mess of a prison break happening on their watch," Bella said in a phone interview from his home in El Paso.

"The state of New Mexico is so [expletive] corrupt. The police and the prosecutors knew I was innocent but tried me anyway."

Bella decided he needed a knowledgeable aviator and smart defense attorney to counter the government's charges. Bailey was both.

A pilot who once owned a helicopter company, Bailey had won acquittals for many famous defendants.

They included Dr. Sam Sheppard, a surgeon accused of murdering his wife in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, and Army Capt. Ernest L. Medina, commanding officer of the unit that attacked civilians in the My Lai Massacre.

After being turned down by Bailey, Bella grew more worried. The worst moment was when prosecutors moved him to jail until his trial. His reputation was in ruins and he was going broke.

Bella called Bailey again and asked him to reconsider. Always wary of the government's immense power, Bailey finally agreed to defend Bella.

Bailey was a fan of lie-detector tests, and he hoped to use them to win Bella's case without a trial.

Bella passed several polygraph tests, but prosecutors wouldn't drop the charges against him. Bailey then introduced Bella's polygraph results at trial. New Mexico was one of the few states to allow lie-detector evidence in criminal cases.

Outmaneuvered on the polygraph, prosecutors thought the prisoners who'd escaped might help convict Bella. Bailey couldn't wait to cross-examine the inmates, being that two were convicted murderers and the other was a thief.

Escapee Randy Mack Lackey, already sentenced to nine years for larceny, agreed to testify that Bella was paid to help in the escape.

Bailey said Lackey was an unbelievable witness, and the defense lawyer didn't mean it as a compliment.

Recycling a favorite quote, Bailey called Lackey "a man who would shoot you between the eyes and eat spaghetti off your forehead without losing a night's sleep."

The judge didn't find Lackey credible, so jurors never heard his testimony.

Bailey had an unlikely but strong witness in Shoemaker. She described Bella as an innocent pawn in her plot.

Shoemaker told of Bella trying to yank away her handgun while they were airborne.

"He let go of the wheel and told me we were going to crash," Shoemaker testified. "I said, 'Crash.' "

Bella relented and turned his attention to flying the helicopter.

Prosecutors tried to dismiss her account. They said Bella, a man so rough he wrestled bears, could have disarmed pudgy, diabetic Shoemaker.

Shoemaker stuck to her story. She remembered her threat to Bella: "I want my boyfriend out of there, and I have nothing to lose."

Her account inspired a memorable headline in the old Albuquerque Tribune. It read, "Chopper woman: I did it for love."

Jurors swiftly acquitted Bella. He says Bailey served him well, but his world crashed anyway.

"It ruined my life," Bella said. "The debt. The government contracts it cost me."

Bailey in 1995 returned to national prominence by helping represent football legend O.J. Simpson. Simpson was acquitted in the murders of his second wife and a 25-year-old waiter who was returning a pair of glasses to her home.

Bailey once wrote a book called The Defense Never Rests, but it always does.

His career as an attorney crumbled in 2001. The Florida Supreme Court disbarred him for mishandling almost $6 million in stock owned by one of his clients, a drug dealer.

Bella is still trying to write his own book. If he finishes, it would tell the story of a brash lawyer saving an innocent man.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.