Pin It
Favorite

The Badge and Their Shield 

When cops find themselves on the wrong side of the law, one man will step up to defend them

click to enlarge Rob Cossey spent his first year out of law school working as a local prosecutor, and there he developed friendships with police. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Rob Cossey spent his first year out of law school working as a local prosecutor, and there he developed friendships with police.

Rob Cossey springs off the curb in front of his corner law office on a recent sunny afternoon, with two men by his side. He strides into the shadow of the Spokane County Superior Courthouse as a white pickup rolls past. The truck's grizzled driver shouts out his window: "Hey, Rob Cossey! On your way to get the cops off?"

Cossey chuckles but pays little mind. He hurries across the street, nearly leaping onto the next curb. The two men in tow are his clients, and they pepper him with questions about their cases. Cossey tells each of them what's about to happen. Be sure to address the judge as, "Yes sir, no sir. Yes ma'am, no ma'am."

As the three approach the Public Safety Building — headquarters for Spokane's two law enforcement agencies — a man with a badge and a gun on his hip walks in the opposite direction.

"Hey, Rob. How's it going?"

"Hey! How are you?" Cossey says without breaking stride. "Good to see ya."

As a defense attorney, Cossey's job is to stand up for people accused of doing some truly heinous shit. A short list of his clients includes a man who shot an unarmed pregnant woman; another who fired five times at a man fleeing for his life; and a third accused of kicking a handcuffed man in the mouth.

Other than their attorney, these men have two things in common: They all wear a gun and a badge, and they all got off.

And so Cossey's legend has grown, and for the past two decades, cops who found themselves in handcuffs or other sticky situations have turned to him for counsel.

In August, Cossey takes up the cause of a former Spokane police sergeant accused of raping a female officer, who was passed out at a party. The female officer awoke with Sgt. Gordon Ennis' hand down her pants, according to court records.

But Cossey says Ennis never should have faced criminal charges. His best defense?

"He didn't do it," Cossey says, adding, "But you're talking to his attorney."

Over his 30-year career, Cossey has defended dozens of cops, and he says he's won all but one case.

"All the police officers, when they get in trouble, they talk to Rob," says Jim Sweetser, the former elected prosecutor in Spokane County, who's known Cossey since their law school days in the mid-1980s. "I think it's a recognition that he's a good defense attorney, because he's been successful in getting police officers off at trial where the evidence appears to be stacked against them."

Generally, people don't like lawyers, but somehow Cossey pulls it off. Despite his swagger, cockiness and a winning record to be jealous of, Cossey comes off as affable, even charming. Many respect him. Others love to hate him. Irritatingly, the rules don't seem to apply to him. He's happily wedded to the job; married once previously, he's dating a former client who now works in his office. And he has friends on both sides of the law — a defense attorney who is tight with the cops and doesn't get speeding tickets. ("But I don't speed either," he says.)

But before Cossey built a reputation as a badass trial attorney and as the cops' go-to lawyer, his career nearly imploded just as it got going.

click to enlarge Cossey's fees can vary, depending on the complexity of the case and whether it holds special interest for him. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Cossey's fees can vary, depending on the complexity of the case and whether it holds special interest for him.

In the late '80s, Cossey worked as a public defender under a contract with a private law firm. He handled mostly minor cases for people who couldn't afford a lawyer. It was a good way to drum up business for a recently minted attorney.

But in 1991, he was accused of fleecing some of those indigent clients. In at least four cases, prosecutors alleged that Cossey illegally charged people for his legal services they were entitled to for free or at a discount, according to court documents.

"Rob Cossey interviewed [Steven] Nicoll and related to him a story about one of his private clients who is a doctor," court documents state. "Nicoll was told by Cossey that the doctor had a large amount of money. Cossey continued on telling Nicoll that he was the head of the City Public Defenders system and the difference between a public defender and a private attorney is that a private attorney can do more because he is paid and a public defender is overworked. At this time, Nicoll was influenced to hire Cossey as his private attorney for $1,200."

Cossey was absolved of the felony charges at trial. A different outcome may have cost him his license. Today, he explains that the jury cleared him "very, very quickly." He says he was upfront with those clients, who signed separate contracts with him and agreed to pay.

"Some of the people who came in asked if, instead of the attorneys who were working for me, if I would do their case," Cossey says. "We had contracts. Everything was aboveboard."

He's long since put the issue behind him, but it nevertheless highlights a two-track justice system. One for people who have money — who can hire Cossey — and one for people who don't.

Today, Cossey is blunt about his role in that system.

"This is how I make my living, how I pay for everybody in my office," he says. "They all have a family, kids. For the most part, if I don't want to represent somebody, I charge enough that I'm saying, 'OK, I'll do it for that.'"

In other cases, the ones that tug at his heartstrings, he'll strike a deal. Edward Bushnell, for example, worked off some of his legal fees by painting Cossey's house. Bushnell was acquitted in May of murder in the shooting death of William Poindexter. The then-27-year-old had stepped in to stop Poindexter, 45, from assaulting his girlfriend on an East Central street in July 2015. The two men got into a fight, and Bushnell was hit in the face, according to court documents. As Poindexter walked away with his girlfriend, Bushnell retrieved a gun from his backpack and fired twice into Poindexter's back, killing him.

The acquittal sparked outrage among some in the community who viewed it as another example of a white man (Bushnell) getting away with killing a black man (Poindexter).

"I became very close to him and his family," Cossey says of Bushnell. "You'd like him. He thought he was doing the right thing. [Poindexter] was picking her up by her hair and throwing her on the ground. He thought he was doing the right thing protecting her."

click to enlarge Cossey playing ball with his son, Tyler, in an undated family photo.
  • Cossey playing ball with his son, Tyler, in an undated family photo.

Cossey's phone never stops ringing. The damn thing buzzes near 10 times before 9 am.

An accused child molester wants to meet with him at the jail. A pimp, also a former client, wants Cossey to get him out of jury duty. (He can't.) Another man wants to know the status of his child custody case. Cossey needs to make sure that Ennis, the former SPD sergeant, has signed some documents after he violated conditions of his release by attempting to contact a key witness.

And earlier in the week, an SPD officer shot and killed someone on Spokane's South Hill. Cossey hasn't gotten a call yet, but "they usually give me a couple days, and then I get a call on it," he says. (Cossey is also one of a handful of area attorneys who are approved by a legal defense fund that pays legal fees for officers nationwide accused of wrongdoing while on duty.)

Later on this day, a Spokane County prosecutor, who Cossey calls a friend, will to ask him to represent a friend of hers in a family law case.

"Today is actually a slow day," he says. He's not joking. Still, the phone rings nonstop and members of his staff pop into his office every couple of minutes with questions. He tells them that the reporter in the room works for Playgirl.

"They're doing a big spread on me," he says. "Sexiest attorney in Spokane."

He's joking.

Cossey is a wiry 6 feet, with a round face and a graying, two-day-old beard. In the courtroom, he chitchats with prosecutors, laughing casually. In front of the judge, Cossey projects a brazen charisma. He talks loud and fast. He's constantly moving.

Right out of law school, he spent his first year at the Spokane County Prosecutor's Office — forging relationships with police — then began building a name for himself by taking cases for cheap. He worked long hours and developed a reputation for taking anything to trial, which helped him score better plea deals. People, including police officers, took notice.

"Over the years, I've seen Cossey work a couple little magic tricks," says Dave Partovi, a local defense attorney. "I don't really know how he does it."

You probably can't point to just one reason why Cossey has become the guy who "gets cops off," but the trial of former Officer Jay Olsen didn't hurt, he says.

"In the paper, I took a lot of flak [for that case]," Cossey says now. "A lot of negative media."

A local radio station broadcast Cossey's closing argument in the Olsen case in 2009, he says — the first and only time that's happened.

Olsen was acquitted of assault and reckless endangerment charges in March 2009 after shooting a fleeing man in the head two years earlier. He was off duty and had been drinking at a bar downtown with a friend. Olsen claimed he was trying to stop a man named Shonto Pete from stealing his truck. (Pete was acquitted of those theft charges.) Olsen was drunk and chasing Pete down an embankment in Peaceful Valley when he fired five times from his personal "mini Glock" pistol.

Olsen says he feared for his life when Pete turned to face him. But a bullet hit Pete's head from behind. Cossey says it was a ricochet, but even he was surprised when the jury returned with a "not guilty" verdict — deciding that the drunk off-duty cop, who shot at a fleeing man, acted in self-defense. A month after the verdict, Olsen chose to resign from SPD, rather than being fired for various departmental violations, including conduct unbecoming an officer and making an untruthful statement during a criminal investigation.

After the Olsen trial, the list of people who Cossey helped to beat criminal charges or strike a favorable deal continued to grow, he says. Some of them are "monsters," violent or sexually perverted individuals, who have gone on to commit more crimes, Cossey acknowledges. Those clients are just a paycheck to him, even if some of those verdicts make him cringe.

Then there are the people who he believes are actually innocent, or who don't deserve the punishment that prosecutors are seeking. But in all cases, it's Cossey's job to make sure his clients get a fair shake, to explain their side of the story, to humanize them.

He says he doesn't try to hide his clients' scars, which provide explanations, even justification, for their actions. And he says he always puts his clients on the stand.

"I'm a firm believer in that," he says. "Ninety percent of lawyers will tell me I'm wrong, but if you're a juror and you're told he didn't do it, but he sits beside his lawyer and never takes the stand ... are you really not going to take that into consideration?"

Cossey believes the harsh truth always beats a whitewashed façade.

That, Cossey says, partly explains how he helped a hard-core gang member accused of murder go free.

click to enlarge Cossey's skills will be put to the test next month when he defends former SPD Sgt. Gordon Ennis from rape charges. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Cossey's skills will be put to the test next month when he defends former SPD Sgt. Gordon Ennis from rape charges.

Rob Cossey has to pee.

He's sitting in a courtroom in 2012 next to Stafone "Stix" Fuentes, a 27-year-old gang member on trial for murder whom Cossey believes is wrongfully accused.

Tattoos peek out of Fuentes' shirt collar, and his sleeves cover the list of names on his arms — fallen brothers. Across the hall, Fuentes' co-defendant is charged in the same killing. Attorneys there are trying like hell to hide from the jury the fact that he's a gang member, Cossey says.

But he has the opposite strategy. Cossey doesn't hide Fuentes' history. In fact, he puts his client on the stand, and he tells his life story to the jury.

The court takes a break, and Cossey walks to the bathroom. At the urinals, an older man stands next to him. Cossey has seen him sitting in the back of the courtroom and inquires.

The man says he's the father of the 21-year-old who was killed.

"I'm sorry for your loss," Cossey recalls saying. "I want you to know that while I'm doing my job, I feel for you, and understand your loss."

The man says "thank you" and adds that he doesn't hold any ill will against the lawyer. Together they walk back to the courtroom, where Fuentes would eventually be acquitted.

"He's one of the brightest clients I've ever had," Cossey tells a local reporter following the "not guilty" verdict. Justice was served. "I believe I've done a good thing here today. I don't always feel that way."

Today, that trial sticks in Cossey's mind for the talk at the urinal. His son was the same age as the victim; his daughter was even younger. Being a dad is one of the things he's most proud of.

"He is very persuasive and has a good heart," says Cossey's ex-wife, Stacy Cossey, who is still on good terms with him. "But he represents all of these people who people think should be guilty, and therefore, they paint him with the same brush. I think it's good for all of us to remember that Rob doesn't make the decisions. The judge or jury does. I think that's a misconception that needs to be righted."

Cossey walks past his 2005 Toyota Prius and into his palatial, 9,000-square-foot home with an indoor sauna and exercise room.

"Hello? Shirley?" he calls to his girlfriend. "I'm here. But don't talk dirty to me. Mitch is here."

He chuckles, and she scolds him for working so late on the day before the Fourth of July. He gave his entire staff the day off, but came into the office to get caught up on a few things.

"I used to work ungodly hours," Cossey says, carrying a worn black briefcase to his basement office. "It cost me a 30-year marriage."

Cossey's home office is tidy. Dark wood shelves wrap around the entire room, filled with basketball and World War II books. He also collects old basketball magazines, which sit next to scrapbooks of his playing days that his mother made for him.

Cossey could dunk as a 6-foot sophomore at Deer Park High School, and earned a scholarship to Whitman College, where he played for two years.

He continued playing basketball throughout law school at Gonzaga, dominating the city of Spokane's adult recreational league. He played in every Hoopfest — including winning the bracket in the family division — up until about five years ago. He shattered his pelvis when he accosted some Hell's Angels motorcycle gang members beating up an old lady — or at least that's the fable he tells everyone. (In reality, he fell off a horse.)

Now he can barely touch the rim.

Cossey suspects his tireless work ethic came from his childhood. He was raised on a farm with wheat, cattle and horses, which his family still runs. Even at law school, he juggled operating a painting company and managing an apartment complex with his courses. He says he was a bit of a misfit among his classmates, showing up in paint-stained clothes when others wore suits and ties.

In his mid-40s, Cossey had a heart attack. Doctors told him it was stress-induced. He's 57 now.

Those who know Cossey well call him "straightforward," "high energy" and "disarming," a likable guy, who's "eloquent" in his arguments. Several local attorneys and judges say that if they were in trouble, they'd hire Cossey.

"He's just nonstop," says Chris Bugbee, another former prosecutor-turned-criminal defense attorney, who used to work with Cossey. "He has more cases than I would ever dream of handling at one time. He likes running around with his hair on fire. I think he thrives off of it."

Those qualities make him an effective trial lawyer.

"I found that he was very disarming in his manner and could be quite charming," says retired Spokane County Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque, who has presided over several of Cossey's trials. "At the same time, if you took that charm for easygoing, you'd be making a mistake."

But others in the legal community — who acknowledge not knowing Cossey well — are quick to share concerns that he's too charming for his own good. They point to his girlfriend, Shirley Vanning, whom he met as a client going through a messy divorce.

Cossey and his wife of three decades, Stacy, were separating but hadn't filed for divorce when Vanning walked into Cossey's office in 2011.

She wanted him to handle her divorce. It was an ugly situation — with both sides lobbing accusations at each other — and Vanning's ex-husband would later complain to the state bar association that Cossey hooked up with his wife before the divorce case was settled. Both Cossey and Vanning deny it, and the bar association dismissed the complaint, Cossey says. (If the accusation were true, he could have been disbarred.)

Today, Shirley Vanning works as one of his lead investigators. She is also the target of a lawsuit filed last week. A former client of Cossey's, Terry Pudwill, claims he loaned Vanning more than $300,000 over a span of two months in 2013. She paid off her house (and then sold it) along with thousands of dollars in credit card debt and bills, but never paid him back.

Vanning, 44, says she never asked for the money and that Pudwill has thrown money at other women, too. "I told him I didn't want him to do it," she says. "I never signed anything. It wasn't a loan. I never signed any paperwork."

Vanning says that Cossey was unaware of the arrangement despite their close personal and professional relationship. Cossey says he only learned of the arrangement after the fact.

Gordon Ennis, the former Spokane cop accused of rape, clipped his fingernails. A fellow officer had alerted him to a criminal investigation and that sheriff's investigators would be coming to his house, "probably for your DNA."

The Spokane County Sheriff's Office then received a phone call from Vanning before the search warrant was even completed. Cossey would be representing Ennis, Vanning told detectives, and any warrants could be served at the office. She vehemently denies telling Ennis to trim his nails.

"Oh, hell no. No, no, no, no, no," she says. "I mean, he could have clipped them the day before that happened, and they still would have looked freshly trimmed. Being an officer, he would probably know that they were going to ask for some kind of DNA. That's just common sense. Whether he did or not, I don't think he did, but we didn't tell him to."

Ennis was scheduled to stand trial in June, but even before the lawyers could pick a jury, Superior Court Judge James Triplet declared a mistrial at Cossey's request. Cossey cited a Spokesman-Review article that ran the Friday before jury selection was to begin. The article described motions from prosecutors seeking to keep Cossey from calling the victim a "slut" or saying she got "what she deserved."

Cossey says those are standard "boilerplate" motions in sexual assault cases, but the news coverage insinuated that his strategy would be to attack the victim.

"Who would do that anyway?" he says. "Jurors have to like the attorney. I mean, if they don't like me, we're screwed. He's screwed."

Deputy Prosecutor Kelly Fitzgerald declined to comment for this article, citing the open criminal case.

Yet another issue in this case cropped up just last week. Police investigators caught Ennis trying to contact a key witness — Officer Doug Strosahl — through mutual friends. The alleged sexual assault happened at Strosahl's house party in October 2015. In late May and early June of 2017, Ennis contacted SPD Officer Cory Lyons and a police dispatcher named Trevor Berg. According to police records, he asked both of them to relay a message to Strosahl: Call Rob Cossey.

In court, Cossey denied that he instructed anyone to contact Strosahl.

In a recent interview with the Inlander, Cossey declines to say much about the case ahead of trial, rescheduled for August, except that he believes Ennis is innocent.

"There are going to be facts that come out, I hope, that will show that it was consensual," Cossey says. "There's things I can't talk about before the trial."

Back at his office, in the shadow of the courthouse, it's approaching 4 pm, and as the phone continues to ring, Cossey reflects on his three-decade career.

"I don't know that I've changed that much," he says. "I'm a little bit more aware of bills and what people owe. Didn't used to worry about that."

As for his views on police and why he represents them? In Cossey's eyes, the cops are the good guys whose reputation is spoiled by a few "bad apples."

"I represent a lot of people that maybe have had a tough time in life, and so their actions are not what you and I would want to do," he says. "But police officers — not only do I have a lot of respect for them, but the vast majority of them are trying to do the right thing and protect us."

Defending the police is a badge of honor, and for Cossey's counsel, Ennis is paying "a lot less than anybody else," he says.

Why?

"Because he's a cop." ♦

mitchr@inlander.com


click to enlarge mitchryals.jpg

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

MITCH RYALS covers criminal justice for the Inlander, and has previously written for publications in Missouri, his home state. He has covered confidential informants, bounty hunters and train hoppers. Contact Ryals at mitchr@inlander.com, or 509-325-0634 ext. 237.


Pin It
Favorite

Tags:

Latest in News

Readers also liked…

Comments


Comments are closed.

Today | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue | Wed | Thu
Titanoboa: Monster Snake

Titanoboa: Monster Snake @ Mobius Science Center

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Nov. 26

All of today's events | Staff Picks

More by Mitch Ryals

© 2017 Inlander
Website powered by Foundation