Lawyer's career ends in crime

Johnny Gaskins once defended criminals. After a federal conviction, he is one too.

Staff WriterOctober 18, 2009 

— Johnny Gaskins was a keeper of the law who built his career defending those who disregarded it.

But a jury decided Oct. 9 that Gaskins had gone from being an officer of the court to being a criminal.

Gaskins, a Raleigh criminal defense lawyer, was convicted of dividing large sums of money into small deposits so that his bank would not fulfill an Internal Revenue Service requirement to report cash transactions of more than $10,000. The rule is intended to flag large sums of cash that might be tied to illegal activity.

A federal district court judge will decide in February whether to send him to prison.

Gaskins' rise and fall offers a window into a world steeped in danger.

He had received death threats and had been harassed for more than a decade after he persuaded a jury to spare the life of a client convicted of killing a popular Raleigh police detective. Some of Gaskins' clients were robbed and tortured, targeted because they carried large amounts of cash, court filings show.

Such experiences eventually played tricks on Gaskins, his attorney said, making him worry that his own life was in peril.

"If anybody had a legitimate reason to believe he'd be robbed or killed, it was Johnny Gaskins," attorney Dan Boyce told jurors. "He represented the worst of the worst."

Gaskins was a former agent with the State Bureau of Investigation who built a legalcareer on a reputation for asking the right questions and paying attention to detail. He won his first jury trial as a third-year law student while attending Campbell University Law School.

Over the years, Gaskins would represent more than 20clients facing the death penalty, nearly all too poor to afford their own lawyers. In recent years, though, Gaskins carved a niche representing clients in massive federal drug conspiracy cases. His clients stretched across this state and into others.

Associates of Gaskins said in interviews that many of his fees were paid in cash, often offered by clients who didn't trust banks enough to open checking accounts.

Gaskins kept the money in a safe in his home's upstairs closet. By September 2005, he had amassed more than $200,000 in cash.

That month, Gaskins hired a crew to work at his house. One evening, he noticed a set of muddy footprints on the carpet leading to his safe, even though he had locked his house. Gaskins was sure he would be robbed. He began moving that cash, one chunk at a time, to a personal account at RBC bank, careful to not alert any particular teller about his supply of cash.

"I was concerned about any single bank teller having information that I had so much cash," Gaskins testified during his trial.

Each deposit was just below $10,000, the threshold to report to the IRS so that federal authorities can track cash that might be tied to criminal activity. Purposely structuring cash deposits to cause a bank to evade reporting requirements is against the law.

Gaskins filed forms to the IRS accounting for more than $450,000 in cash payments, according to evidence at trial. Prosecutors agreed that he had filed and paid his taxes.

He didn't dispute that he intentionally divided his money, but he testified that it was for innocent reasons. His habits, he said, were born of an exposure to a criminal world that most people only see on television dramas.

Prosecutors did not offer evidence of any other motive for Gaskins' behavior. They said at trial that Gaskins should have known better.

"The point of the law is to make sure we don't have people who try to fool the bank," federal prosecutor Randall Galyon told jurors last week. "The fact that he was trying is against the law."

Gaskins, 60, could spend 35years in prison and will likely lose his license to practice law. The jury voted not to seize $355,000 that prosecutors said he had structured to avoid bank reports.

Escaping Hatteras

Gaskins is the son of a commercial fisherman who grew up on Hatteras Island before a beach road connected the community to the mainland. Whatever cash his father earned landing flounder and puppy drums, the family tucked under a mattress. If there was a bank on the island, Gaskins said, his family didn't use it

He left the island for N.C. State University in 1967, eager to escape a career in commercial fishing. He joined the SBI soon after graduating, investigating serious murders, robberies and rapes in Wake County.

It was in this job that Gaskins mastered crime scene analysis and became skilled at interviewing witnesses. Later, as a lawyer, he would use those skills to find holes in cases against his clients.

"He was very good at looking at evidence and breaking the case down to see where the government was vulnerable," said Robert Hurley, a lawyer who worked with Gaskins in 1998 to defendKawame Mays, who was convicted of killing Raleigh police officer Paul Hale.

Mays was one of hundreds of clients whom Gaskins defended over 30 years. The effects of this case, though, lingered well after jurors voted to spare Mays execution.

Gaskins, who was appointed by the state to represent Mays, began receiving anonymous death threats during the trial. Some began calling Gaskins a "cop killer."

Hurley remembers Gaskins telling the judge of the threats and asking him to heighten courthouse security during the trial.

"I have never felt that kind of tension before," Hurley said. "It was me, Johnny and Kawame against the world. Some people never got over that verdict."

That harassment continued over the years, Boyce said.

Meanwhile, Gaskins' practice thrived. He juggled a healthy load of malpractice cases and accepted a large share of state appointments to represent poor clients. Some criminal defendants hired him, too.

Time and again, a client's misdeeds allowed Gaskins to encounter a world in which the wronged seek their own revenge. He saw that criminals penetrate every circle of society, from playgrounds to police departments, barbecues to banks, according to testimony at trial and Gaskins' court filings.

For years, Gaskins heard from former clients who said they were robbed and beaten by police, according to court filings. Gaskins said in court filings that some had come to him hoping he could help them get their money back. Gaskins turned them away, advising them that they couldn't recover money earned through drugs or other illegal activity, according to court filings.

Some of Gaskins' clients had, in fact, been attacked by police.

A state and federal investigation starting in 2003 discovered that deputies at the Robeson County Sheriff's Department had been kidnapping and beating drug dealers, some of whom were Gaskins' clients, to rob them of their drug money. The deputies had set some on fire, shot one man and threatened to hold another over a bridge until he confessed to where he hid his money. More than a dozen deputies and their conspirators have since been sent to prison.

A search for meaning

Federal investigators have never said publicly what led them to begin examining Gaskins in 2005. They interviewed his clients and lawyer associates.

As the scrutiny heightened, Gaskins scaled back his work. He hasn't practiced law since last summer, when he began experiencing health problems. Now, both his law license and his freedom are in jeopardy.

"It's just a strange place for him to find himself," said Rosemary Godwin, Gaskins' wife and an assistant federal public defender based in Raleigh. "The damage to Johnny personally, emotionally and financially has been devastating. We're still searching for some sort of meaning in all this." or 919-829-8927

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