The week-long trial of Edward Starski, Esq, and his former client/father-in-law/co-conspirator and co-defendant, Larry Cornett, ended in guilty verdicts for both of them last Friday. They were charged with posing as a lawyer and attempting to defraud a local business, and Friday's verdict rang down the curtain on a week’s worth of high entertainment.
And oh what fun it was! With Starski dancing along the the jury box and around the evidence, it was all tons of fun for the other judges and lawyers who'd sat in on the show.
Some of the lawyers grew resentful, however, and their smiles turned to scowls as they watched Starski's lawyer imitations. At least one, who had worked her way through law school as a single mom at two shit jobs with an empty fridge and piles of unpaid bills at home, was deeply offended. This lawyer was counsel for Starski’s co-defendant, and she let him know just how she felt in her closing arguments.
It is of course against the law to pose as a lawyer, a felony no less. Starski knew this all along but seemed to think he was clever enough to get away with it. His defense — he represented himself, natch — was that he had outsmarted everyone on technicalities, and that nowhere in the evidence did he ever come right out and say, “I’m a lawyer.”
The main piece of evidence, People’s Exhibit One, was a demand letter crafted by Starski with a letterhead announcing himself as The Law Offices of Edward Starski as “representing Mr. Cornett” that was sent to the CEO of Mendo Mill demanding nearly $4,395 for an alleged accident at the Clearlake store.
Mendo Mill CEO Mike Mayfield had never seen anything like this before. He asked the store manager, Steve Bricker, if there’d been an accident on the premises. No, Bricker said. The surveillance videos showed no sign of an accident.
Mayfield turned the letter over to the District Attorney. The DA’s chief investigator, Kevin Bailey, a man you definitely don't want on your case, asked Mayfield to make a pretext call to Starski. The call went something like this:
“So, I’m speaking to the lawyer for Mr. Cornett, is that right?”
“Yes, our office is going to represent him.”
‘Well, I don’t want to turn this into the insurance company if I don’t have to…”
“I’m not a lawyer to make a threat, but perhaps you should seek legal counsel.”
The slippery wording was what Starski was counting on. He hadn’t actually come right out and said he was a lawyer. The Esq. he'd appended to his name had apparently been awarded in very private ceremonies by a Christian sect called The Universal Spirit.
Sure, Starski was skating on thin ice by suggesting that he was in credentialed fact an attorney, but he hadn’t fallen all the way through, at least not in his own mind. The guy makes his living, he said at one point in the trial, by filing lawsuits. He said his lawsuit business makes him over $50,000 a year. He seems to sue everyone he comes in contact with. If he rents a slide for his kid’s birthday party, he sues the people renting the slide. If he puts his kids in day care, he sues the day care. If he needs some lumber to build his new law offices (which he says is perfectly legal, as long as he doesn’t say he’s a lawyer), he sends his father-in-law (for whom he has been granted power of attorney, another of his slight-of-hand ruses) to pick up the lumber and sues the lumber store for an injury that the lumber store can’t prove didn’t happen. He’s suing the DA for prosecuting him. He’ll sue the AVA for printing this story.
If you google Ed Starski you'll find that the federal bankruptcy courts are in awe over his legal smarts, and that he has even obfuscated his military service records with legal shenanigans to the point it’s impossible to tell whether he served or not, and if he did serve, for how long and where. At one point he said he left the military because of seizures, and that his mother is his legally paid caregiver for this perhaps mythical medical condition. At another point in the defendant’s murky history, we have him leaving the service on a hardship discharge to support his mom.
Prosecutor Josh Rosenfeld, formerly of the US Navy, had a copy of Starski’s release from active duty and his DD 214 form, which indicated Starski had gotten out of the Navy in Charleston, South Carolina. But Starski said he’d legally had his DD 214 changed to a DD 215 and the information was incorrect.
There was no pinning him down on anything.
One day the judge and lawyers were discussing Starski’s plan to put his mom on the stand. Judge Behnke warned Starski that this move could result in his mother being charged as a party to the conspiracy.
“I can skate around that,” Starski blithely replied.
“Mr. Starski,” Judge Behnke said levelly, “there won’t be any skating around anything in this court.”
I did not watch the entirety of Mom’s stint on the stand. I heard it was among the most moving expressions of maternal love seen in the Courthouse since the day Ma Jorgenson slipped her killer son a gun.
Gloria Cornett was so proud of her clever son she fairly purred his praises to the jury. But everyone who could, fled before Oedipus got his clothes all the way off.
Straski: “How long have you known me?”
Cornett: “Oh, all your life, my dear.”
Starski: “And what is it about me you like?”
Cornett: “Well, everything about you, dear, but especially because you’re my firstborn and the smartest of all my children.”
Straski: “Why did you give me power of attorney?”
Cornett: “Because you’re so smart, dear!”
Starski: “What is my philosophy in life?”
Cornett: “I don’t know what you mean, dear.”
Starski: “My honesty — am I honorable?”
Behnke: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, statements made by the lawyers — and in Mr. Starski’s case, since he’s representing himself, this applies to him as well, his statements are not evidence; only the statements made by the witness are evidence.”
Starski: “Let me put it this way then, How did you raise me?”
Behnke: “We’re getting a little far afield here. Sustained.”
Starski also put his developmentally disabled brother and his 10-year-old sister on the stand. But not his wife. According to the investigator, Mrs. Starski was shocked to learn hubbykins wasn’t a lawyer.
Most of the proceedings were taken up by Starski talking to and about himself. Because Starski was acting as his own lawyer, there was no one to ask him questions so he cross-examined himself, concluding that everything he’d done was perfectly legal and that he was an honest and honorable man just trying to do what was right by his stepfather who, after all, had sustained a four thousand dollar injury when a load of lumber was dropped on his foot at Mendo Mill. And for all his work trying to get justice in the form of cold hard cash for dad-in-law whose mishap, unfortunately, went unwitnessed, the DA and Investigator Bailey had conspired to make his life miserable.
In the end, the prosecutor, Deputy DA Josh Rosenfeld made Starski’s defense sound as ludicrous as it was, punctuating each chapter and verse of the narrative with the mocking refrain, “because Mr. Starski is an honorable man.”
But first there was defense attorney (from the Public Defender’s office) Heidi Larson’s blistering cross-examination and closing argument.
“You’ve claimed to have gone to law school, but you’re no lawyer, are you?”
“Not in California, no,” replied the master of equivocation.
“Bah! You’re not a lawyer anywhere, in any state! Are you?”
“But you like playing lawyer, don’t you?”
“No, that’s not true.”
“Oh no? Well, what about all the lawsuits you’ve filed? Fair to say you’ve filed hundreds of lawsuits in the past few years?”
“Yes, that’s true. I have a right to do that.”
“Is that how you make your living?”
“As a paralegal.”
“Are you licensed as a paralegal?”
“Not in California.”
“You’re a paralegal in Colorado?”
“You are a paralegal in Colorado, but your address is in California?”
“It’s just a post office box, not a residence address.”
“But you live in Clearlake?”
“And you make your living as a paralegal?”
“And you enjoy playing an attorney?”
“I enjoy prosecuting my own cases.”
“So when you heard Larry had hurt his foot you rushed over there and took pictures and encouraged him to go to the hospital. Why?”
“You can’t file a lawsuit without that stuff.”
“You have actually filed lawsuits for both your parents that they knew nothing about, haven’t you?”
“No. My mother uses my computer and she put that stuff on there using forms I had.”
“She said on the stand she had no idea how to do that and that you handled all that for her because you’re so smart, remember?”
“And in this case my client, your stepfather, Larry Cornett, had no idea you were holding yourself out as an attorney at law, did he?”
Mr. Cornett had told investigator Bailey that he didn’t want “fuck-all” to do with it. And Starski's developmentally disabled brother had told Bailey much the same thing.
On cross-examination, Rosenfeld said, “You’re a licensed paralegal in Colorado?”
“There’s no licensing in Colorado for paralegals like there is in California.”
“But your address is in California?”
“It’s just a post office box in Clearlake.”
“How many of your lawsuits do you end up winning?”
“About 90 percent.”
“And how much do you make a year, between your paralegal work and the lawsuits?”
“How long have you been filing lawsuits?”
“Since 2012; in fact I was in the middle of some lawsuits when the investigators took my computers.”
In closing, Starski confidently informed the jury that there was nothing in the probate code that prevented him from calling himself a lawyer, and that the State’s case against him was a conspiracy by the DA and Investigator Bailey who Starski said were corrupt to the point that Bailey would even lie on the stand.
“And here’s another thing,” Starski proclaimed. “Even if there was no accident, did I reasonably believe there was an injury? We see somebody get millions of dollars for spilling hot coffee on themselves at a McDonald’s so it’s not unreasonable for me to get less than a measly $5,000 from Mendo Mill — and remember, I was very careful how I said things.”
Ms. Larson was unmoved. “We are here, all of us, and I want to thank you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, but we’re all here because of the actions of one person, Mr. Ed Starski. When he saw my client Larry’s toe, he saw dollar signs. Now Larry and Gloria are so proud of Ed that he’s so smart and successful at suing people and, by all accounts, he is a very effective litigator. But what we’re here to decide is whether Mr. Starski and Mr. Cornett conspired to get money from Mendo Mill through fraud; and when Mr. Starski poses as a lawyer, that’s fraud, and my hackles go up. Let me tell you why…”
Larson then related the story of the sacrifices and commitment it took her to get herself through law school and pass the state bar. It was a gripping, emotional tale, and she clearly had the jurors captivated. When Rosenfeld came on he seconded the indictment of wannabe lawyers, claiming that real lawyers, despite all the jokes to the contrary, are actually persons of integrity, for the most part, and believe in what they’re doing.
Ms. Larson maintained that her client, Starski's allegedly injured stepfather, had no idea what Starski was getting him into.
The jury didn’t buy it. Before the day was out the jury came back with guilty verdicts on all counts. But the fun and games may not be over yet. Starski is sure to sue everyone he encountered during the trial, and Steven Spielberg of DreamWorks may be tempted to make another movie, like Catch Me If You Can, featuring the courtroom adventures of Ed Starski.