For years, Charger Hall of Famer Ron Mix and his wife Patti have been prominent on the San Diego social scene; a “decorative couple,” one observer said. They appeared together on the cover of the Christmas issue of San Diego Magazine in 1981. They were known for their work raising money for charities and public service organizations — the Heart Fund, KPBS radio, the United Jewish Appeal, child abuse organizations, and more. Mix was a football hero, a partner at the prestigious law firm Schall Boudreau and Gore, a frequent subject in Tom Blair’s column in the Union, a mainstream San Diego Republican. He was the kind of guy who “went out of his way to make friends and be part of the community,” as one acquaintance put it, and his reputation was pristine.
Then something went wrong. Mix, who had been a friend of Richard McKee, a local builder who was convicted of fraud last year and is now in prison, found himself facing serious allegations in a civil lawsuit. An investor in several of Richard McKee’s failed building projects named Mix on a complaint in October of 1982, accusing Mix of fraud, attorney malpractice, breach of contract and of fiduciary duty, and securities violations. To many people the allegations seemed incredible, and Mix, who vehemently denied them all, fought back this past summer in a nine-week trial.
Mix ended up paying dearly for his association with Richard McKee. “He was very successful,” says Mix. “He had all the trappings of wealth — a Porsche, a Cadillac, an airplane, a beautiful suite of offices — and an impressive history as a builder.” Between 1977 and 1980, many of those trappings were paid for by later investors in what amounted to a Ponzi scheme. “Up to that point in his life, no one had ever questioned his integrity,” says Mix. “He lived fifty-three of his fifty-five years as a responsible man of integrity. I’m not embarrassed that I trusted the man.”
In 1960, after four years at USC, Ron Mix was the first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Colts and the Los Angeles Chargers. Assured that playing in the fledgling AFL would not hurt him financially, Mix signed on with the Chargers, who moved to San Diego in 1961. At six foot four, 245 pounds, Mix was one of the best offensive tackles ever to play football. He had tremendous speed and agility and was once called the least penalized offensive lineman in the history of the game. Newsweek published a story about him in 1963, writing that “he’s got enough dash to draw one eye of the spectator away from the glamour of the backfield.” Newsweek also spoke of his “sensitive intelligence.” If Mix was the best lineman in the AFL, he was also the best writer. At USC he’d minored in English, and several times during his career Mix wrote articles for Sports Illustrated. One of them explained why Mix chose to sit out the 1964 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans, which was boycotted by the black players, several of whom had been poorly treated by the residents of the city. Mix wrote: “I felt . . .it was important for at least one white player — if the game had to be played in New Orleans — to join the Negroes, to say we’re with you. Dammit, I thought again, this time you’re wrong. But your cause is just and we’re with you.”
Mix, the unanimous choice for captain of the Chargers, had numerous confrontations with Charger management during his ten years with the team. He was an aggressive players’ union advocate, pushing for higher salaries and benefits. Mix went to the University of San Diego School of Law in the off-season, and he received his degree in 1971. When he retired from football in 1972, after two seasons with the Oakland Raiders, Mix worked several jobs: as contract negotiator for the Charger front office, as general manager of the Portland Storm in the ill-fated World Football League, and as a real-estate syndicator. Then he became a practicing attorney, first at a personal injury firm in Oakland, and, in 1977, with Schall Boudreau and Gore, where he became a partner in four years. He was one of the founders of Sun Savings and Loan Association, as well as Olympian Bancorp, the holding company for Landmark Thrift and Loan. In February of 1979, Mix received pro football’s greatest prize; along with Johnny Unitas, Dick Butkus, and Yale Lary, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Canton, Ohio. Only 128 players in football history share this honor.
Those who know Mix find it hard to believe he is capable of wrongdoing; one attorney who worked with him says, “He’s known for paying attention to the little guy. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him.” Another said, “He’s a sweet guy.” After meeting with him, you’d only be more inclined to agree. Ron Mix is a polite, sincere man. He likes to talk football and family. He looks you right in the eye and tells you the whole affair was a big mistake and that he’s as innocent as the day he was born. You leave the table marveling at the incongruity between the man and the deeds that led to his fall from grace. Although Mix has declined to discuss any details about the lawsuit, he does say, “You’re talking about events that happened in my first two years as a business attorney. I hadn’t seen the ugly side of life enough to know not to trust people.”
If you believe squandering other people’s life savings is wrong, then Richard McKee is a pretty ugly guy. Even before his conviction for fraud, McKee’s ethics had been questionable. (Mix says he was unaware of McKee’s past.) Back in the early Seventies, McKee testified at the trial of Angelo Alessio, former part-owner of the Hotel Del Coronado. McKee’s firm, McKee Construction, had supplied phony invoices to help Alessio avoid paying taxes. An IRS investigator who worked on the Alessio case calls McKee quite unequivocally “a crook.”
Mix’s problems started in January of 1982 when Francis Jackson filed a civil suit against McKee. In late 1979, Jackson, a carpentry supply contractor from Spring Valley, had placed a total of $440,000 in three McKee projects to build 195 condominiums and thirty-six houses in Escondido and the South Bay. None of them was ever built. A year after he invested, Jackson learned that McKee had diverted his money, and he hired an attorney, who in May of 1981 negotiated a settlement with McKee to pay it back. Though McKee reimbursed Jackson $100,000 and promised to pay back the rest, Jackson never saw another dime; so in January of 1982 Jackson’s attorney, Michael Aguirre, filed suit against McKee.
Aguirre is a thirty-six-year-old troublemaker attorney known for his aggressiveness, his thoroughness, and his Manichaean vision of the universe. In order to find out where Jackson’s money was, he subpoenaed documents from McKee Construction. Among the documents were McKee’s banking records, including all checks the company had written. Analysis of these checks revealed that McKee had commingled his investors’ funds. Jackson’s money had been used to pay for overhead at McKee Construction, for a Piper airplane purchased by McKee, and for jewels purchased by Ramona Suter, vice president of McKee Construction and McKee’s girlfriend. It had also been used to pay returns to earlier investors in McKee’s building projects, which confirmed suspicions that McKee was operating a Ponzi scheme (i.e., paying off initial investors with money from later investors).
Aguirre also discovered that McKee had placed dozens of ads in the Union and the Tribune seeking investors in limited and general partnerships; those who responded were promised extraordinary — and unrealistic — returns of between forty and one hundred percent annually. These public offerings, which were securities [i.e., passive investments, in which the investor plays no active role in the project’s development], were not registered with the California Department of Corporations and were therefore illegal. The district attorney’s office requested all documents from Aguirre’s investigation, and on November 3, 1983 indicted McKee on seventy-three criminal counts of grand theft and fraud; he is now serving a thirty-two-month sentence in Chino State Prison.
Aguirre says that when he began examining McKee’s “paper trail” — bank records, documents on early investors, telephone message slips, notes on phone calls, and so on — he had no suspicion whatsoever that Ron Mix was involved in McKee’s schemes. Aguirre’s first indication of Mix’s deeper involvement came while reviewing the bank records. One check was a $13,100 payment to the Valparaiso Development Corporation. It was endorsed on the back by “Ron Mix, President.” Valparaiso was a corporation in name only that had no real business activity, and though Mix insisted the payment was legitimate (McKee’s partial payment for the option to buy a condominium from Mix), it looked to Aguirre like a device to hide the money Mix received from McKee. Several other checks to Mix seemed suspicious, particularly since some of them were written out the day after an investment had been made in McKee Construction. For example, on April 27, 1978, Mix’s client Hewette Stone placed $13,500 in the McKee Construction Company account, and the next day McKee wrote a check to Mix for $6500. To the attorney it looked as if Mix was receiving a “finder’s fee” for bringing in investors. (Aguirre argued that Mix, being a famous football player, used his reputation to bring in money. Mix countered that the $6500 was a personal loan and was recorded as such.) This suspicion was deepened by a letter written by McKee to Mix in June of 1977. In it the developer referred to the returns Mix’s investor would receive in a certain building project and told Mix that “your share will be in addition to this; whatever amount we decide upon.” At best, it looked like the blueprint for a “finder’s fee” agreement; at worst, it looked like the genesis of a McKee/Mix conspiracy.
Further research showed that in 1966 McKee and Mix had signed a real-estate partnership agreement to build a condominium project in Mission Beach. (Mix had no contact with McKee after that until 1977, when the two former partners were reunited by a mutual friend.) Aguirre also discovered that Mix and McKee were both fifty-percent owners of McKee Realty, a company created in December of 1978. The firm, located in the same Mission Valley office as McKee Construction Company, was to receive two percent of the selling price on each unit sold in the McKee projects. In Wintergreen Village, a large condominium project in the South Bay, Mix was asked to help McKee find investors. For this service. Mix would receive five percent of McKee Realty’s commissions. If the deal had been a complete success (it was not), Mix stood to make more than $200,000.
Aguirre’s investigation continued to turn up evidence of Mix’s involvement in McKee Construction. Over a three-year period, the former Charger had left 150 telephone messages at McKee’s office. For weeks at a time, the evidence showed that Mix had almost daily contact with McKee and Ramona Suter. In depositions from investors who had responded to the ads in the Union and the Tribune, Aguirre discovered that when they agreed to invest, several were referred to Mix, who wrote up the partnership agreements. Mix, a lawyer with knowledge of securities law and ample experience in real-estate investment, contends that he never knew these investors had responded to ads in the newspaper nor believed that the agreements he drafted constituted securities.
A key issue in the case was whether or not Mix was actually acting as legal counsel for Jackson. Mix has consistently denied being Jackson’s attorney, that he never billed Jackson nor had any file opened in Jackson’s name. But Jackson claimed he thought Mix was acting as his attorney, that Mix was drawing up documents for him, and that he was giving him what he believed was legal advice. Aguirre’s task was to demonstrate that Mix knew far more about McKee than ho let on and thus deceived Jackson. Only Mix knows whether he was aware of McKee’s Ponzi scheme; McKee has made conflicting statements in public regarding Mix's involvement with him. In a letter to the San Diego Daily Transcript in 1983, McKee said he acted alone and that Mix was completely innocent. But some months earlier he’d told Daily Transcript reporter Larry Keller that he was unhappy with the way Mix represented him. When asked whether or not Mix should have been able to advise him as to what constitutes a security, McKee replied, “I suppose he should have.”
At issue in the lawsuit was the conflict of interest. Was Mix acting as counsel for a group of investors regarding projects in which he stood personally to gain? To what extent was Mix withholding information from people who thought he was acting in their best interest? Jackson had invested $290,000 as a general partner with Mix in the Wintergreen project in the South Bay. In a general partnership, all partners are bound by law to disclose all “material facts.” Failure to do so is called “breach of fiduciary duty.” To put it in nonlegal terms, Aguirre was alleging that Mix was liable because if he had told Jackson everything he knew about McKee, which an attorney or a general partner is bound by law to do, Jackson would never have entrusted his money to the McKee projects.
One of the more damaging documents Aguirre obtained was a memo written by McKee and distributed at a meeting of prospective investors on April 22, 1978, well before Jackson put up his money. The memo, signed by Richard McKee, said, “For the legal answers, we have with us Ron Mix, an attorney who will be the attorney representing the project for all concerned.” This was fairly strong evidence that Mix was representing both McKee and investors in McKee projects, in which case he was clearly in a conflict of interest. Mix argued that the memo was meaningless. He didn’t even know that McKee had written it until he arrived at the meeting. None of those at the meeting actually invested, and he never represented any of them.
Aguirre obtained the handwritten notes of one person who attended this meeting. They show that McKee told all those present that he could not become a general partner in the proposed project himself because he was ineligible to obtain further construction loans. According to the notes, McKee said he was “saturated.” Though Mix insists that he had no access to the company’s records and never knew McKee was in trouble, he was at this meeting and learned at least one thing about McKee — that in April of 1978, the developer had exhausted his ability to obtain construction loans. This information, however, did not seem unusual to Mix; when a developer runs out of loan money, partners routinely are sought in order to raise capital for new projects.
And yet, in December of the same year, he wrote a letter to investor Hewette Stone, whom Mix represented as an attorney, in which he discouraged Stone from demanding a detailed personal financial statement from McKee. Stone, acting on his accountant’s advice, had requested and received a financial statement from McKee Construction, but because he was concerned about his investment, he wanted to know more about McKee’s personal finances. McKee refused. Instead McKee provided a simple declaration that his personal worth was in excess of one million dollars. (This later proved to be false.) Mix wrote to Stone, recommending that he back off on his request and resign himself to the simple declaration because “the agreement we squeezed from him [McKee] far exceeded what he has made available to others.” This letter, in which Mix essentially told Stone not to follow his accountant’s advice, was doubly damaging. First of all it seemed to suggest that Mix was trying to protect McKee from Stone’s probing, which could have revealed that McKee Construction was in deep trouble. Secondly it could be interpreted as evidence that Mix wasn’t acting in Stone’s best interest and that he had a very loose standard of discretion. Securities laws, after all, require the seller to make “full disclosure” to investors, including financial statements and an explanation of the risk involved.
In October of 1982 Mix was added to Jackson’s civil suit against McKee, though not without reluctance. “I was scared to bring this case to trial,” Aguirre says. “You’re dealing with a football player! I mean, I watched the Chargers and I didn’t think the man was corrupt. Besides, they’d have come after me for everything I have if we’d lost. They would have accused me of malicious prosecution.”
Though Mix’s statements indicated he dismissed the seriousness of the lawsuit at first, he gradually discovered that the lawsuit just wouldn’t go away. Its effect on his life became readily apparent. In early May of 1983, just weeks after news of the suit appeared in the Daily Transcript, Mix resigned from his position as chairman of the board at Olympian Bancorp. His family was touched as well; one day a friend of his daughter asked, “Is your dad out of jail yet?” Since early 1983, Larry Keller of the Daily Transcript had been writing articles about the McKee/Mix case. Possibly out of deference to Ron Mix, neither the Union nor the Tribune had covered the lawsuit. If reputations are sacred, Keller was extremely irreverent, aggressively reporting the key details of the lawsuit. Mix, the football star and charity crusader about whom nary a foul word had ever been said in the press, was smarting from Keller’s candor. The reporter had been using Aguirre as a source, which may have seemed conspiratorial to Mix and his attorneys. Perhaps the most damaging article was the one Keller published on November 4, 1983, the day after McKee was indicted by a grand jury. To Mix, it seemed that Keller was being more editorial than reportorial when he wrote that Mix was “conspicuously absent” from the criminal indictment. “Deputy District Attorney Charles Wickersham said there was no evidence that linked Mix with any criminal activity in connection with the Wintergreen case,” Keller wrote, “but another source suggested that the statute of limitations for prosecuting Mix [on securities violations] had expired, and this was why he was not named in the complaint.” Keller further angered Mix by suggesting that he had a history of dealing with “controversial characters” such as Angelo Alessio (convicted of tax evasion) and La Jollan Allen Glick, a wealthy businessman who has been described as an unwilling front for organized crime. (Mix served as an intermediary in bringing together for business purposes Glick and A1 Davis, then a general partner in the Oakland Raiders.)
Mix vented his fury in a long letter published by the Daily Transcript on November 23, 1983. “I am deeply offended by your November 4 article,” he wrote. “It seems to me that you have violated every concept of fairness in a studied effort to do violence to my reputation in the community.”
Compounding Mix’s anger was the fact that UPI had picked up Keller’s November 4 story and gotten the facts wrong. USA Today printed an article, based on the UPI release, falsely implying that Ron Mix had been indicted on criminal charges, rather than merely being named in a civil suit. Mix was so concerned about the effect of Keller’s articles on his reputation that he and his attorney asked to meet with the reporter at the Daily Transcript office downtown. Keller, now with the Long Beach Press Telegraph, recalls that their stated reason for the meeting was “to get their point of view across. They thought my coverage of Mix was unfair.” Their unstated reason, says Keller, was to discourage Keller from writing further stories. “Mix had always been treated with kid gloves by the Union,“ says Keller. “He wasn’t used to seeing critical press on himself. He thought what I was writing was an attack on him. He was used to Burl Stiff puff pieces in the Union and here I was, talking about how he was accused of bilking people through phony investments.”
Mix counterattacked with a campaign to clear his name. On November 28, 1983, he sent about one hundred letters “To my friends” in which he said that the allegations against him were a “pure joke, but the attendant publicity certainly has not been funny.” He chastised the Daily Transcript and insisted that his association in the matter could “withstand microscopic scrutiny,” and that “if a conspiracy existed, someone forgot to invite me.” He enclosed a copy of a letter from Deputy D.A. Charles Wickersham confirming that the district attorney’s investigation of Mix failed to suggest criminal wrongdoing on his part and that their decision had nothing to do with the statute of limitations.
The trial began on May 6 this year and ended in mid-July. It was an exhausting trial, longer and more voluminous than Mayor Hedgecock’s. Although both Richard McKee and Ramona Suter were named as defendants in the lawsuit, along with Mix, Aguirre chose to concentrate his efforts on Mix alone. Aguirre brought more than 900 exhibits before Judge Alpha Montgomery, while Mix’s attorneys Rogers Sc Wells introduced about 200. The trial was, according to all who attended it, a volatile and bitterly contested event, “an exercise in acrimony,” according to Ren wick Thompson, a legal consultant who assisted Aguirre in the trial. Aguirre calls it “a once in a lifetime thing. It was war every day.” Certain pages of the trial transcript seem to palpitate with emotion, particularly those involving lawyerly clashes between Aguirre and the defense team of Kimball Lane and Mitchell Lathrop.
Both Lane and Lathrop are associated with the local office of Rogers & Wells, an international firm based in New York City and with branches in Paris and London. Lathrop is the chief partner at the prestigious firm (the “Rogers” is William Rogers, former secretary of state and attorney general; William Casey, current director of the CIA, was also with the firm). Mitchell Lathrop had many reasons for disliking Michael Aguirre, not the least of which is the fact that Aguirre currently represents thirty-five J. David Company investors who are seeking restitution of more than six million dollars from Rogers & Wells,which had represented the J. David Company in its heyday. In a separate action stemming from the J. David case, Aguirre is also suing Lathrop for malpractice. And here they were face to face in the courtroom again, Lathrop defending Ron Mix for malpractice in a suit brought by a client of Michael Aguirre.
On May 21, the first of about seven days Mix spent on the witness stand, the former Charger became extremely upset during his cross-examination by Aguirre. Aguirre, with characteristic bluntness, accused Mix of writing a “cover-up” letter back in 1980, an effort to buy time for McKee. “You knew in April of 1980 that he had diverted funds, didn’t you?”
“Get out of here, not a chance,” replied Mix.
Aguirre repeated the accusation and Mix, obviously furious, addressed the judge: “Your Honor, may I ask that he not come close to me. I resent his accusations, and I resent it when he’s near me; and I think he can conduct his examination, when he’s accusatory like this, from a distance.”
“This is advocacy at its hardest . . ..” replied Judge Montgomery. “Just answer the questions.” Aguirre then asked that the record show he was six to eight feet away from Mix. Later in the day, tempers flared again in a discussion about one of Mix’s eleven days of pretrial interrogation. During one deposition, held in Aguirre’s office, Aguirre had entered the room with a big grin on his face; “Hi, I’m Mike Aguirre,” he said, extending his hand. Mix, angry at Aguirre for having doubted his word in a phone conversation several months earlier, snubbed the gesture. “I’m not going to shake hands with you,” he said. “Don’t you ever call me a liar again.” During the deposition, Aguirre seemed to be doing just that, and Mix, who became extremely upset, got out of his chair and made a move toward the young lawyer.
On July 8 Aguirre brought to the witness stand Deputy District Attorney Charles Wickersham (who recently obtained a guilty verdict against Roger Hedgecock). Lathrop and Lane had stated before the court that the district attorney’s office had cleared Mix of criminal charges after an investigation back in 1983. However, in his examination by Aguirre, Wickersham admitted that his investigation had been limited; he had only investigated Mix’s involvement with McKee after July of 1980. The complaint filed by Jackson alleged wrongdoing by Mix before that time. Therefore, Wickersham’s purported exoneration of Mix was irrelevant to the Jackson case.
The most dramatic events in the trial were sparked by Aguirre’s contention that Lane and Lathrop had deliberately suppressed trial evidence. Judge Montgomery had ordered that Aguirre be provided with all of Mix’s documents in Rogers & Wells’s possession, but Aguirre discovered that he’d seen only 675 of the 5800 documents. The scene in the courtroom the next day was enlivened by shouts, insults, and confusion. At one point in the verbal scuffle Lathrop referred to Aguirre as “the most ridiculous man I have ever known,” and later he said to the judge, “Can your honor please keep Mr. Aguirre from interrupting, perhaps gag him?” On June 24 Judge Montgomery granted Aguirre’s motion to argue in his closing statement that evidence had deliberately been suppressed.
Things were not going well for Mix at this point. Montgomery was denying, at a surprising rate, his attorneys’ attempts to introduce evidence. A glance at the index of trial exhibits reveals that on July 10 the defense attempted to enter into evidence dozens of documents regarding settlement negotiations and plaintiff Jackson’s prior investment history. Through pages upon pages of proposed exhibits, the word “denied” appears next to almost every document description.
As the defense faltered, Aguirre became all the more tenacious. He raised objections continually, and with consistent success. Perhaps nowhere in the trial was Aguirre’s hardhitting style more apparent than when Kimball Lane was examining witnesses. Over several pages of transcripts from July 2, Aguirre objects to nearly every question Lane addresses to Mix on the witness stand. The judge sustains nearly every one, agreeing that Lane is “leading” the witness. A couple of times Judge Montgomery instructed Lane how to ask the question properly. Other times he told her, “There is a way to rephrase [your questions] so you can get around that type of objection .... Change your semantics a little bit.” A week later Amalia Meza, an associate at Rogers & Wells, was examining a witness but had the same problem Lane did, and Aguirre objected continually. Lane took over for Meza but was again unable to avoid “leading” questions, and the judge admonished her. Sometime later, Lane, apparently out of frustration at her inability to interrogate the witness, broke down and cried.
The next day Aguirre stole one of the defense team’s prize witnesses. Mitchell Lathrop called malpractice and securities expert Charles W. Froehlich, a former judge who had graduated first in his class at Boalt Hall, the law school of UC Berkeley. Under questioning by Lathrop, Froehlich told the court that Mix had acted properly in the McKee projects. But then Aguirre cross-examined him. He asked Froelich to consider a “hypothetical” situation: What if Mix had drawn up a partnership agreement for Jackson knowing that the partnership into which he was investing owned only half the land upon which the projects were to be built? What if the limited partnership had deeded half the land to someone else? Froehlich reluctantly stated that if Mix prepared partnership papers without disclosing that information, “I would conclude Mr. Jackson is being defrauded, and that Mix was a party to the fraud.” The situation Aguirre described was in fact not hypothetical, but Mix contended that he was retained by McKee simply to draw up a partnership agreement for Jackson. Mix says he assumed Jackson was making an informed decision.
By the time Aguirre delivered his closing statement on July 15, he knew his case was based mostly on circumstantial evidence. No one had testified that Mix knew he was doing anything wrong, and Mix wasn’t admitting it. As one of Aguirre’s staff put it, “This was a ‘documents’ case. It involved Mix’s testimony versus the documents. And the documents won.”
On July 16, the trial’s last day, the defense team executed a valiant final stand. Kimball Lane delivered a 150-page closing statement defending Mix against Aguirre’s “wild and unfounded accusations.” Lane, whose presentation impressed even Aguirre, emphasized McKee’s exoneration of Mix: “If Mix was guilty, wouldn’t McKee have trumpeted it to the world?” Since Mix had testified against McKee in his criminal trial, McKee had every reason for “sweet revenge.” All factual witnesses, Lane claimed, had stated that Mix was unaware of the true financial condition of McKee Construction Company. “Dick McKee fooled everyone,” she said, including Ramona Suter, his bookkeepers, and Mix. The former Charger had never acted as Jackson’s lawyer; Jackson never paid him any fees. Jackson’s investments were general partnership agreements, not securities, Lane said, and therefore Mix was not bound by strict disclosure laws.
A significant portion of the closing statement discussed Jackson’s and Aguirre’s “deep pocket” motive. “In an obscene sort of way, it was really quite clever” she said. “It made great press. . . . Ron Mix, a celebrity in San Diego whose comings and goings often do make the press, is accused of fraud, of operating an investment scam, a Ponzi scheme, pyramiding sales — use any of those words and link them up with a celebrity and you’re going to get a lot of press. The main focus was to bring it to the attention of the press, get Ron’s name in the papers, link him up with a convicted felon, and it would be easy to bring pressure to bear on him through family and through his firm and try for a quick and dirty conclusion.”
Near the end of her statement, Lane claimed that Francis Jackson was a sophisticated businessman with decades of experience as an investor and that he lost his money due to his own “unrelenting greed.” Not content with McKee’s promise to pay back the money, Jackson and his attorneys “set about sifting through all the names, all the people that Jackson had met with and all the papers. . . . And so they found their victim: Ron Mix.”
Aguirre, livid at what he saw as a crass attack on a man who had lost his $440,000, bounded to his feet the moment Lane finished and delivered a heated rebuttal. “How much money has Kim Lane made off this case?” he exclaimed. “How much money because they have been unable to tell their client some facts of life and some reality. . . . How many times has Kim Lane said, ‘I am so glad I’m getting paid on an hourly basis’?” (Aguirre estimates that Rogers & Wells charged Mix’s insurance company more than one million dollars in this case.) Aguirre criticized Lane for “laughing and giggling” during his closing statement. He lambasted Mix for “hoodwinking” the district attorney into keeping him out of the McKee criminal indictment back in 1983.
Five weeks after the trial ended, Judge Alpha Montgomery presented his tentative ruling. The carefully constructed thirty-nine-page document drew two important conclusions. First, that the numerous partnership agreements Mix drafted were indeed for unregistered securities, and second, that Mix had an attorney-client relationship with Francis Jackson. Based on these decisions, the remainder of Montgomery’s conclusions were predictable. Mix was an “aider and abettor” and was liable on all counts. “It stretches the imagination to accept as fact that Mix, a sophisticated attorney and investor, believed the truth about McKee’s projections to investors, knowing of the poor financial condition of the construction company. . . .Mix acted with recklessness when he failed to investigate the facts that should arouse suspicion.”
Though the ruling was intractable concerning Mix’s actions, Montgomery was indulgent toward Mix as a man. “It wrenches the depths of any being in ruling against Mix and Suter,” he wrote. “In a sense, Mix and Suter are victims of McKee. It would not be fair or reasonable to characterize either of them as corrupt or a criminally-inclined person. This Court does not believe that they are any of those things. However, it is fair to conclude that they undoubtedly had the ‘glitter of big money in their eyes’ when McKee expounded on visions of construction of the residential projects and the money-raising efforts with potential investors. Mix and Suter were hanging on the moneymaking coattails of McKee; unfortunately, those coattails were dirty.” Court documents indicate that a pretrial settlement offer of $575,000 was turned down by Mix. The terms of last month’s final settlement are confidential, but Montgomery’s judgment against Mix awarded Jackson $1.3 million, including $225,000 in punitive damages and $400,000 in legal fees to Michael Aguirre, whose staff worked 5000 hours on the case. Shortly after the decision, Mix resigned from his position at Schall Boudreau and Gore. Several attorneys interviewed in this story expressed their certainty that a quiet settlement out of court two years ago would not have led to Mix’s resignation. “Settlements are kept secret,” explained one attorney, who says ninety-five percent of his clients settle out of court. “There’s no publicity, so your reputation stays intact. Most of our clients are scared to death to go to trial because attorneys realize they are held in low esteem by the public and because they fear disciplinary action from the state bar.”
The day after the ruling, the San Diego Union ran an article about the ruling with the following headline: “McKee, Mix, Suter, Are Ordered to Repay Investors.” The Daily Transcript was, characteristically, less delicate; its headline read “Ron Mix ‘Reckless,’ Ordered to Share $1.4 Million Penalty.” Mitchell Lathrop was quoted in the Daily Transcript as saying that Judge Montgomery “came to an incorrect conclusion” in the trial. “We believe the judge’s decision is not supported by the overwhelming evidence or the law,” he said, adding that his client intended to appeal the case. It never happened. The ruling came on Friday; by the following Monday morning Mix had hired a new attorney, William Ward. A month later Ward and Aguirre had settled the case for an undisclosed amount of money, and Judge Montgomery’s decision was vacated.
Mix, who immediately set up a private practice in personal injury law after leaving Schall Boudreau and Gore last month, still denies all wrongdoing. “I obviously was not pleased with the way the trial went, but I cannot be critical of Judge Montgomery or our system,” he says. “Our system does not work perfectly because people are not perfect.” Mix sees his misfortune as a conspiracy of circumstances beyond his control. “I was in a dangerous area where it was possible to be found liable without wrongdoing or negligence as we commonly know it,” he says. “I was not an expert in securities laws. I was unaware of the fine nuances under which a court might conclude that an attorney-client relationship could be created. In other words, there was a minefield out there of potential liability for an attorney and danger that facts, events, and relationships could be misconstrued. I did not make it through the minefield.”