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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 16, 2004 15 years ago

Russ Stahl is Different

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The 61-year-old Tampa attorney seems unfazed by the child-sex charges facing him. He recently won an $18 million jury award for an injured client. 'I am not a normal person,' he says.

Russ Stahl is Different

The 61-year-old Tampa attorney seems unfazed by the child-sex charges facing him. He recently won an $18 million jury award for an injured client. 'I am not a normal person,' he says.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Geraldine Wilson recalls a strange admonition from a colleague about two months after she went to work for Tampa personal-injury lawyer David Russell Stahl in 1999.

"Have you, have you seen any of his goings on in this office yet?" the colleague asked. Wilson says she had yet to notice the frequency with which teenage girls came to visit Stahl's law office.

"Well, you're gonna hear and see a lot," the colleague replied. "Be careful."

Wilson didn't have to wait until Stahl's arrest, on charges of committing lewd and lascivious acts on a child and unlawful sexual activity with a minor, to find out what her friend meant.

Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives asked Wilson if she'd ever seen Stahl have sex with girls. "No, I saw just the aftermath," she answered. While cleaning his office on Saturdays, Wilson says she'd find used condoms.

Sheriff's files present Stahl's alleged double life in queasy detail: Successful trial lawyer by day, strip-joint carouser and sugar daddy for high school-aged sex partners by night. State Attorney Mark Ober will use that and other evidence to try to put the 61-year-old Odessa resident away for the rest of his life.

The kind of publicity that Stahl has endured since his arrest more than three years ago would make even the most bombastic trial lawyer wince in embarrassment. But Stahl and his legal practice show few obvious ill effects.

"Everything in my life has been magic," says Stahl, a Berkeley philosophy major who took his law degree at the University of Kentucky. "I am not a normal person. The things that happen to me are not normal things."

One good thing recently happened to Stahl. He won a $17.9 million jury verdict for Ramiro G. Companioni Jr., who was severely injured when his motorbike crashed into the back of a Tampa city water truck in 1996.

Stahl says the Companioni award is indicative of how his professional career has been going. "I function wonderfully," he says. "I've never functioned better."

Making a rare allusion to his upcoming, oft-delayed criminal trial, Stahl adds: "Maybe everybody needs this."

He smiled.

Was Stahl kidding? "I'm just a real joker," Stahl says later.

Frustrated poet

Russ Stahl's law office is on one of the seedier blocks of West Kennedy Boulevard. Conveniently for a PI lawyer, chiropractors work next door.

Automobiles speed by, a reminder of what keeps Stahl in the chips. Trucks whip up a particularly forceful whoosh. The back draft momentarily sucks open the front door, just a crack. Then, the glass entrance gently closes again.

Stahl greeted visitors in a tie on a recent casual Friday. Immediately, he directed their attention to paintings hung on the walls. Besides a few of his originals, Stahl attempts to duplicate Pablo Picasso - poorly, by his own admission. He panned his own rendition of "Head of a Woman with Green Curls," pulling out an art book photograph of the 1946 Picasso to contrast with his crude imitation.

His true calling is writing verse. "I was born to be a lyric poet," Stahl proclaims. But law school and the need to make a living destroyed his muse.

"I believed then, as I believe now, that I am the greatest American poet," says Stahl. "And I assumed that the world would embrace me and I would never have to work. I had no desire to work whatsoever."

Reality intruded and, after law school, he settled in the Tampa Bay area. He toiled for three employers in two years during the early 1970s.

At Carlton Fields PA, Stahl says he helped the late Bern Laxer avoid paying overtime to waiters at Bern's, his client's famed Hyde Park steakhouse.

But Stahl wasn't cut out for a big firm. "Constitutionally, I just am not able to work for somebody," says Stahl. "Imagine, Lord Byron up there at Carlton Fields. Imagine somebody telling Lord Byron what to do. Unimaginable, OK?"

Out on his own in 1973, Stahl took up the cause of an operating engineer whose labor union leaders turned a goon on his client for opposing their chosen candidate in the union local's election. Stahl took a $13,000 fee from his client's $25,000 award for a broken nose.

"This is wonderful," Stahl recalls thinking at the time. "I just earned a fee that is equal to my last year's income. And it was fun. So that made me a plaintiff's injury lawyer."

Another pursuit

As Stahl built up his practice, however, sheriff's investigators believe his attention was diverted. Through clients, office hires and frequent forays into Tampa strip clubs, Stahl pursued another passion, they say.

Tiffany M. Bledsoe, now 25, was one of the young women hired by Stahl to staff his office. Bledsoe came to work for Stahl as a legal assistant in 2000, after a stint at Morgan, Colling & Gilbert PA's Tampa office.

Bledsoe told Assistant State Attorney Michael Sinacore during a 2001 deposition that Stahl, married with children, was attracted to young girls. Stahl employed a paralegal named Shawn Robert Martin, whom Bledsoe portrayed as an office incompetent.

But investigators say Martin performed another duty for Stahl: Rounding up young runaways and strippers that the lawyer could eye for bedmate potential. "Shawn is basically a pimp," another former Stahl employee, Brooke D. Delcastillo, stated in a 2000 deposition.

Unfortunately for Stahl, Martin began cooperating with the sheriff's office about a year after he and the lawyer were arrested. Facing up to 85 years in prison, Martin, now 27, pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old, taking nude photographs of her, and uploading the images to a Web site that advertised her services for prostitution.

Martin gave authorities a list of the underage assignations that he claims to have arranged for Stahl and other Bay area professionals.

The list and other evidence name doctors, lawyers, clergy and an accountant. Martin told his mother during a jailhouse telephone call monitored by sheriff's detectives that there could be "judges" caught up in the Stahl probe, too.

Bledsoe says she never dated Stahl. But she also did a little matchmaking for him.

For a few months while she worked at the law office, Bledsoe says she danced at a topless bar on the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Stahl sometimes stopped by. Stahl liked one of the other dancers and Bledsoe agreed to introduce him to the woman. Bledsoe estimated the dancer to be in her early 20s.

"I just told her: 'My boss is over there and he's real stupid. You can go over there and just take his money,' " Bledsoe told Sinacore. "Just pretend you're 18 and act stupid and he'll take you shopping and all that stuff."

Underage girlfriend

One of Stahl's alleged girlfriends was a prostitute named Jessica P. Cortes. Born in Argentina 22 years ago, Cortes came to the United States at age nine. Cortes was 14 when she started taking her clothes off for tips at Ybor Strip, using her older sister's identification. Through Martin, she met Stahl at the Ybor City adult nightclub when she was about 16. Cortes had already given birth to two children by then.

Cortes says she had a four-year relationship with Stahl. After her mother died, Cortes told investigators, she became addicted to heroin. She got so strung out that she was fired from Ybor Strip. She moved to the Mons Venus and Stahl followed her.

When Stahl offered to put her up in an apartment in 1998, Cortes eagerly accepted. "I didn't have a place to go," she told Assistant State Attorney Sinacore. "I was bad on heroin."

Stahl shared his young conquests with doctors he'd befriended through his personal-injury practice, according to Cortes. "Eventually after he's done [having sex with] them, he would pass them on," she says.

Cortes kept turning tricks herself. She told investigators about a limousine trip that she and another Mons dancer, Shawna M. Douglas, took to the Fort Lauderdale area in 1999. From there, Cortes says they sailed to Key West on a yacht owned by then-major league baseball outfielder Derek Bell, a Tampa native who allegedly paid them $1,500 for sex on the boat.

The women say a Stahl associate, a video jockey with the nickname of Wiz, set up the trip. There was plenty of alcohol and Ecstasy onboard, but Cortes says she was craving heroin. After Bell tried to get the women to have sex with his shipmates, Cortes and Douglas say they refused and hitched an automobile ride home with another partier.

Back in the Bay area, Douglas, now 24, says she also regularly had sex with Stahl for money. "I mean, we slept together, it was at least once a month, when I ran out of money and he knew I was on drugs so he knew it was easy for me to be with him," Douglas told sheriff's detectives. "I spent all my money on heroin and I needed money for rent and, you know, he knew it was easy for him."

Starting in 1996, when Douglas was 17, she says she and another girl were paid $300 each time they had sex with two doctor friends of Stahl's. When the mother of the other girl found out, Douglas says a lawsuit was threatened. Douglas says Stahl paid her $3,000 to keep quiet.

His defense

In an interview with GCBR, Stahl spoke only briefly about his criminal case. "My attorneys won't let me talk about it," he says.

Buddy Gissendanner represents Stahl. His previous lawyers, Norman S. Cannella and John Cuesta, withdrew from the case after Stahl stopped taking their calls.

"I'm the only one who's been prosecuted," says Stahl. The state attorney's office has dropped the related cases against the other professionals, according to Stahl. He wonders why Ober hasn't done the same for him. Assistant State Attorney Sinacore couldn't be contacted by GCBR.

"They learned from the people involved that I knew nothing about what was going on," says Stahl. "They found that out very soon on in the case. They found out I did not know that my paralegal and the 13-year-old had gone into business together and they worked out of this apartment that I had co-signed on. Both of them told the police this."

Shawn Martin has vouched for him, Stahl claims. "He testified that the girl denied having sex with me," he says.

When does he expect his trial? "Never," says Stahl. "I don't think there's anything to try."

If Stahl is wrong, he unwittingly furnished the state with a preview of his defense a month after his 2001 arrest.

A sheriff's informer, unidentified in state records but apparently a young woman, called Stahl's office as a tape recorder ran. The informer asked Stahl if he was worried about a phone tap.

"Well, no, no and no, listen," a transcript quotes Stahl saying. "It's perfectly legal for you [to] hook me up with legal girls. Girls that are 18 or older, OK?"

"OK," says the informer.

"Nothing wrong with that," Stahl assures her.

"Yeah, OK."

"Nothing wrong with that," Stahl says. "I mean it's not like, I mean, have you ever heard of me buying a prostitute ever in your life? I have never bought a prostitute, right? I mean, you introduce me to a girl and I take the girl out. You know, I date her¦ You know what I mean?"

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