Walter Gerash, famed Denver criminal defense attorney, dies at 96

Walter Gerash, a larger-than-life defense lawyer who earned national headlines by taking on some of Colorado’s most notorious criminal cases in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, died Sunday. He was 96.

Gerash’s clients included the ex-cop accused of killing four Denver bank security guards in the infamous “Father’s Day Massacre,” a heavyweight boxer charged with murder, the singer John Denver in his Aspen DUI case, and a Littleton 19-year-old with multiple personality disorder who was accused of executing his parents.

Known for a booming voice in the courtroom and for sometimes wearing a cape and a beret, Gerash believed the government needed to be challenged and that people’s civil rights deserved to be protected to the fullest extent, his son and several colleagues said Tuesday.

“If he felt that someone’s rights were being violated by the government or the government was overreaching, Walter was the first one to step in and fight back on it,” said Anthony DiVirgilio, a private investigator who worked on cases with Gerash. “He was a fighter.”

Gerash died of natural causes after suffering for years from dementia, his son, Dan Gerash, said.

He is survived by his sons Dan and Doug Gerash; two grandchildren, Halle Gerash, 26, and Will Gerash, 21; and a brother, Jerry Gerash, who was a well-known activist for gay and lesbian rights in the 1970s in Denver. A memorial service will be planned for later in the summer.

“Most wonderful teacher and mentor”

Gerash was born and raised in the Bronx in New York. His parents were Russian Jews, who immigrated to the United States to avoid persecution. They raised a son who admired the philosopher Karl Marx, author of the Communist Manifesto, and who applied Marx’s principles of standing up for the working class to his legal practice.

Dan Gerash said his father enlisted in the Army when he was 17 because he needed the G.I. Bill to pay for college. The senior Gerash earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago.

He began law school at UCLA but left under circumstances that remain unclear to this day, Dan Gerash said. His father was under investigation for his communist ideas or his grades were poor.

Either way, Walter Gerash and his first wife came to Denver, where she had been accepted to medical school, and he enrolled at the University of Denver’s School of Law, from which he would eventually graduate, Dan Gerash said.

He quickly earned a reputation as a skilled defense attorney.

David Savitz, a Denver lawyer, remembered attending a lecture in the early 1970s that was given by Gerash and his friend, Melvin Belli, a famous personal injury lawyer who defended Jack Ruby, who shot Lee Harvey Oswald — President John F. Kennedy’s killer.

“He was the most wonderful teacher and mentor a young lawyer could imagine,” Savitz said of Gerash.

Savitz and Gerash later represented co-defendants in a Jefferson County drug case in which Savitz successfully challenged law enforcement’s use of wiretaps. Gerash was impressed, and the two lawyers began collaborating on cases.

“Very much a zealous advocate”

Their most famous case together involved 19-year-old Ross Carlson, who was charged with murder in the Aug. 18, 1983, killings of his parents, Rod and Marilyn Carlson. The Carlsons were found shot in the back of the head beside a rural road in Douglas County.

The lawyers argued for an insanity defense because Carlson had multiple personality disorder, displaying 10 different characters, including a dark and menacing man named “Black,” Savitz said. Carlson also developed a personality while inside a state mental hospital named “Holden,” which stood for “holding it together.”

“It was a personality he created to look competent to get the hell out of the hospital,” Savitz said.

During one sanity hearing, the “Black” character emerged while Gerash was examining a doctor on the stand. Carlson looked at Savitz and aggressively said that Gerash needed to be shut down.

“That is not Walter. That is a cyborg. You need to shut him down,” Savitz recalled “Black” saying.

The two defense attorneys asked for a recess, and Gerash left, since he realized Carlson could not be reasoned with. He returned once “Black” left and a more rational personality emerged, Savitz said.

“Walter was very much a zealous advocate for Ross,” he said.

Carlson died of leukemia on Thanksgiving Day 1989, before the case went to trial.

In the courtroom, Gerash could be loud and demonstrative — often raising the ire of prosecutors and judges.

“He would bellow and he would have everyone’s attention,” DiVirgilio said.

But his style and legal strategy won acquittals for his clients.

“A rush to judgment”

Gerash represented John Denver in a 1993 DUI case in Aspen and helped the singer receive a downgraded charge of driving while abilities were impaired. The musician’s punishment was to perform a benefit concert.

In the summer of 1992, Denver was gripped by the trial of James King, a former Denver police sergeant and bank security guard who was accused of killing four unarmed guards in a basement money-counting room at the United Bank of Denver and then stealing almost $200,000 in cash.

All of the bank’s former guards became suspects and Denver police honed in on King because he fit the suspect’s description and had shaved off his mustache a couple of days after the robbery. The robber had used bullets that were only distributed to Denver police officers, and King would have had access to them before he retired, DiVirgilio said.

“Walter’s position on that was to poke holes in Denver’s case,” DiVirgilio said. “There was kind of a rush to judgment. They didn’t have the evidence.”

The jury acquitted King of all charges. He died in 2013.

In 1978, Gerash represented Ron Lyle, a heavyweight boxer who once fought Muhammad Ali, after the fighter was accused of killing his trainer. Lyle was acquitted in that case, which gained national attention, after Gerash helped him successfully make a self-defense argument.

In 1979, during the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, Gerash took on the case of Afshin Shariati, an Iranian foreign exchange student who said he shot three teenagers who were harassing him because of his nationality. A 15-year-old was killed.

Gerash once again earned an acquittal in a case receiving national attention.

“I would have to call him a champion for his client,” DiVirgilio said. “Walter, when he took on a case, that was it. He would do anything for his client. He was really a powerful advocate.”

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