Wednesday, Aug. 19, 1998 | 9:30 a.m.
When Oscar Goodman rode into Las Vegas in 1964, he had $87 in his pocket and a family in Philadelphia wondering what he could possibly be thinking.
"My wife said, 'Where have you taken me?' " says Goodman, a criminal defense lawyer for more than 25 years and the subject of a new documentary, whose list of clients reads like the FBI's most wanted list -- Meyer Lansky, Tony Spilotro, Joey Cusumano -- as well as former FBI agents who came to Goodman for help.
But he got lucky when he arrived in town. A well-connected family in trouble with the law placed a call to a pit boss at the Hacienda. "Las Vegans are amazing because they always have an answer," Goodman says. "Even when they don't have an answer, they make up an answer."
The family needed a local lawyer, quick. Luckily for Goodman, the pit boss remembered him as having a law background and being a "decent guy." "So he gets back on the phone and says 'Oscar Goodman is the best criminal lawyer in Las Vegas,' " Goodman says. "Then I got a phone call." It was his first case.
"I went over to a fella's home and he hands me an envelope and says 'Here are three dimes.' I was scared to death. I went around the corner and looked inside -- it was $3,000. It was giant, it was huge."
And it triggered a career that would make Goodman the man to call when associates of the underworld crossed the law, or the law crossed them. "I got lucky -- I got sick first, I threw up I was so nervous -- but I got lucky and the jury came back with a not guilty."
But it's more than just luck. It's his conviction that the American adversarial system of justice is the best in the world. Upholding that, he says, is his life's work, much to the chagrin of the FBI.
The documentary of his life defending mobsters, entitled "Mob Law," will hit video stores Tuesday. It will also open the week-long Las Vegas Film Festival on Sept. 16 and will air on the Learning Channel in the fall.
In the film, Goodman openly discusses why he defends alleged murderers, his relationship with the mob and more than two decades of battling the FBI. It is, Goodman says, a tale of good and evil, and the good guys aren't always on the up-and-up.
"I wanted the message to go out there, but I had to be careful I wasn't going to compromise myself or my clients," Goodman says. "I'm dealing with a rough group of clientele most of the time."
The documentary's director, Paul Wilmshurst, spent two years convincing Goodman that he could be trusted.
"We started this film for two things, one was Las Vegas and the other was Goodman -- he is who he is and has worked with these extraordinary people and survived, flourished," Wilmshurst says.
The film crew from Britain's Channel 4 was overwhelmed by the richness of Las Vegas, he says, and the access they had to "these extraordinary, big characters" that made Las Vegas history.
"Where else can you go to a party for a judge in a topless bar and there's lawyers, their clients, politicians all mingling with girls and they don't have a problem with a film crew showing up?" Wilmshurst says.
Goodman says he saw it as an opportunity to not only tell his story, but to create a tool for law students to understand the role of the criminal defense lawyer and that of the FBI -- and their sometimes adversarial relationship.
"They see me as the devil incarnate," he says. "I represent all that is bad. I see them as the obstructers, the nefarious group, the princes of darkness. I was willing to stand up for what I believe in against what they believe in and let the public make up their mind."
In the movie's final heated scene, Goodman confronts Rick Baken, the undercover FBI agent who accused Goodman of obstructing the law, but was unable to link him to any wrong-doing. Goodman had waited more than 20 years for Baken to apologize and thought the time had come.
Their unrehearsed discussion takes place in the desert overlooking Las Vegas: Two men hash out an argument of good and evil, right and wrong, and choices. To Baken, Goodman chose to look the other way when it came to his clients. To Goodman, he had done his job truthfully and without regret.
"He feels I am the master of evil and I feel I am the doer of good," Goodman says. And it may come down to how you see it. The law, Goodman says, is semantics, and the FBI deals dirty.
Retired FBI agents contacted for this story declined to comment.
Goodman has lived and worked in Las Vegas for more than 30 years with his wife, Carolyn. They raised their four children in what he remembers as a different Las Vegas, professionally and otherwise.
"When I first started to practice, everything was done with a handshake, our word was our bond," Goodman says, adding that it's not the case anymore, as the court system has grown and the old familiarity between judges and lawyers has faded.
He also preferred the style of the old Las Vegas. "It was electric, it was exciting," Goodman says, noting that a local could go to the Vegas Village supermarket in the Commercial Center and see entertainers, senators and mobsters. "Now," he says, "it is like being in El Paso with casinos."
He also misses the camaraderie of the old days. A popular hangout at the time was the Leaning Tower of Pizza, owned and operated by Jasper Speciale, a client of Goodman's.
"We used to hang out there, with Bobby 'The Hunchback' Brent, Jasper, those were the good days," Goodman says. "All the characters used to come in there." Then, Goodman says, the hangout switched to the Stardust, where Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal was a regular. "There were all these places that people were always able to find in Las Vegas and now there aren't," Goodman says.
When Speciale's daughter, Christine Fenton, was targeted by police, she called Goodman, without her father's knowledge.
"We were under surveillance," Fenton says, adding that her husband had been called in for questioning. Their car was impounded and Fenton's lawyer said there was nothing he could do, even though no charges had been made against Fenton and her husband.
"Oscar made one phone call and we had the car back that afternoon," Fenton says. And her father was not informed of the incident -- until he came to trial years later for racketeering and there was fear it would come up in the proceedings.
"Dad was very upset with me," Fenton says.
Goodman travels the country in what he considers his capacity as advocate for the underdog and is passionate about his conviction that defending those who appear guilty in the eye of the public is his fate.
"I represent people in the in-between land," he says. "They are not in society's mainstream. They are on the brink of teetering either way and they look at me to survive. In a sense, I am almost like a clergyman, psychologist, counselor, therapist, priest, all those things to my clients.
"It makes for a worthwhile life."