Colleagues remember a gru≠ and tough prosecutor’s skill and dedication
On June 26, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Rich stood up in court and made one of the last of many jokes.
The case reminded him of “infamous bank robber” Willie Sutton, he told a jury. The criminal supposedly had a simple answer when asked why he robbed banks: “That’s where the money is.”
The gun store burglary trial, Rich said, would yield a similarly “easy answer.”
The verdict came back guilty. Eleven days later, Rich was dead. Only a few close friends knew that about a year earlier, the 77-year-old prosecutor and Vietnam veteran had been diagnosed with leukemia and given little time to live. He chose to spend that time in court.
“I am confident that he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” said Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “Mike Rich was a patriot and a warrior, in the true sense of both words.”
Rich, who died July 14, was considered by many colleagues the brightest and hardest-working person in the office. He retired from the Marines on a Friday in 1990, having over three decades risen to the top of the service’s legal system as a brigadier general and director of the Judge Advocate Division. The next Monday, he started in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and stayed there for 27 years.
He brought to the office the high standards and salty language of his previous profession.
“More than once I heard him dress down an agent or a prosecutor as if he was a general dressing down a private,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James Gillis said. “He really suffered no fools; he really demanded excellence.”
Despite Rich’s gruff tendencies, young prosecutors considered it an honor to be taken under his wing.
“You had to earn his trust, but once you did he would do anything for you,” said Zachary Terwilliger, acting chief of staff in the Justice Department. “He had this really loud bark, but behind it was a heart of gold.”
Chuck Rosenberg, now head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said that when he left his post as U.S. attorney in the Eastern District in 2008 he wanted to appear in court one last time. He knew he wanted to partner with Rich.
“I just figured if I never tried a case again, I wanted to do my last one with Mike,” he said.
Rich always preferred tackling major crimes: murders, robberies, gun violence. He prosecuted the 19-year-old “Cell Phone Bandit” and members of MS-13. He loved going to trial and did more often than most prosecutors. His experience in the armed forces helped him put one former Marine on death row for strangling a fellow service member and another in prison for life for killing his wife and hiding her body so well it was never found.
But he also handled complex fraud cases, including a $55 million scheme involving the country’s largest hotel broker.
Rich took on that case and other white-collar crimes largely because of loyalty to the FBI agent involved, Charlie Price.
Price, now a consultant, met Rich just after the Sept. 11 attacks on a case with suspected terrorism ties. The arrest happened on a Friday; Rich gave Price his home phone number and said to call if he needed anything over the weekend.
In 15 years, Price said, he’d never gotten such an offer from a prosecutor he’d just met.
“I said something to the effect of, ‘Will you marry me?’ ” Price recalled. “I never took a case to another prosecutor again.”
Rich was known for his wicked sense of humor and his hatred of new technology, as well as his humility. When co-workers cleaned his office, two major Justice Department awards were found stuffed in his file cabinet. He never talked unless asked about his service in Vietnam, which earned him a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
He managed to take his law school entrance exam from Da Nang, Vietnam, in the middle of the war. He was called up from the infantry to a field command after one superior officer was killed and another severely wounded.
“When I heard that a lawyer was coming up to take over the company, I was a little worried,” recalled Dennis Zoerb, who became Rich’s platoon leader in 1967. “But he became a good infantry commander.”
In the Judge Advocate Division, Rich helped reorganize the Marine Corps’ rapid response elements to be better prepared for crises across the globe.
“I don’t know that there’s a single individual, including superior officers . . . that didn’t believe he was the smartest guy in the room,” said Stephen Columbia, who served with Rich. “He had the capacity to read incredible volumes of information, assimilate it almost instantaneously, and never forget it.”
His stamina and efficiency were also unmatched. Once, after hitting a curb and cracking several ribs on his daily 4:30 a.m. run, Rich showed up to the office the next day.
He rarely took vacations, and he told the few who knew of his illness that prosecuting criminals was what he most wanted to do with his remaining time. Terwilliger remembered Rich telling him that he had once gone on a cruise with his wife, Queta Rich. At dinner, he looked around and saw other older passengers popping open bottles of pills.
They left the cruise early and took a flight home.
“He had the fire,” Terwilliger said. “If you looked up ‘tough SOB’ in the dictionary, there would be Mike.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Rich died July 14 after a leukemia diagnosis.