Col­leagues re­mem­ber a gru≠ and tough pros­e­cu­tor’s skill and ded­i­ca­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - VIR­GINIA BY RACHEL WEINER rachel.weiner@wash­post.com

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.”

U.S. AT­TOR­NEY’S OF­FICE FOR THE EAST­ERN DISTRICT OF VIR­GINIA

As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Michael Rich died July 14 af­ter a leukemia di­ag­no­sis.

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