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Fame, but no fortune, for legal legend F. Lee Bailey

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Famed trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey in his Yarmouth, Maine, office.
Famed trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey in his Yarmouth, Maine, office.Jonathan Wiggs

YARMOUTH, Maine — F. Lee Bailey slowly knots a gold tie around his neck, a dark pinstripe suit hugging his fireplug frame as he waits to be photographed in a small office adorned with his younger image on the covers of Newsweek and Time.

Bailey has just turned 83, but the former Marine Corps pilot still projects the swagger that made him one of the most celebrated trial lawyers of the 20th century. The reminders aren't far away: There he is, inches from O.J. Simpson, in a famous 1995 photo taken at the instant of Simpson's acquittal on murder charges.

And there are memories of other famous clients, going back 50 years to the man who confessed to being the Boston Strangler.

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But on a gloomy day in this coastal town, there are other reminders — of where he is now. Bailey arrives in a Volvo with loaner plates, he has plenty of time to talk, and the latest news from his life isn't a sensational courtroom victory.

Bailey has filed for bankruptcy because he owes $5.2 million to the Internal Revenue Service, primarily due to his handling of assets seized by the federal government from a convicted drug smuggler two decades ago.

"I did all I can possibly do to avoid it," he said. "As Trump would say, bankruptcy is there to be used."

Documents filed at US Bankruptcy Court in Portland show a life stripped of the trappings one would expect of a legal superstar. Now, instead of riches, there is a 2001 Mercedes that's logged 170,000 miles, valued at $2,000; watches and jewelry worth $1,500; and less than $3,000 in household goods and furnishings.

Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey (left) looked on as O.J. Simpson reacted to the not-guilty verdict.
Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey (left) looked on as O.J. Simpson reacted to the not-guilty verdict.Myung J. Chun

There's also a modest condominium, valued at $399,000 with only a fraction in equity, where Bailey lives with his business partner, Deborah Elliott. According to the bankruptcy petition, Bailey's monthly income after expenses is $1,008.

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"I don't have a very lavish life," he said. "But I sleep well."

This is the former lawyer who rocketed to fame in 1966 when he won a retrial and acquittal for Dr. Sam Sheppard, an Ohio physician who had been convicted a dozen years earlier following the murder of his pregnant wife. The case is believed to have inspired "The Fugitive," a popular television series and later a 1993 movie.

"That fired me up for the rest of my career," Bailey said.

Army Captain Ernest Medina was another client, court-martialed after the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War. And he defended newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, charged with a string of armed bank robberies after her 1974 kidnapping by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army.

Then there was the sensational Simpson case. Bailey insists today that Simpson was innocent of murder. "I concluded early on that even if he were a homicidal maniac, he didn't have the opportunity," he said.

"I do miss the dynamics" of the courtroom, said Bailey, who has been disbarred in Florida and Massachusetts. Two years ago, the Maine high court denied him permission to practice law in his adopted state.

Bailey says he does miss the courtroom, but he’s kept busy by running a consulting firm that offers advice to small and medium-size companies.
Bailey says he does miss the courtroom, but he’s kept busy by running a consulting firm that offers advice to small and medium-size companies.Jonathan Wiggs

Those judgments stem from his role in the federal case against Claude Duboc, a Frenchman convicted in 1994 of international drug smuggling and money laundering.

In an unwritten deal with prosecutors, who seized millions of dollars of Duboc's assets, Bailey agreed to hold pharmaceutical shares that Duboc had owned. The celebrity lawyer was expected to sell some of the shares for expenses and fees.

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However, the government accused him of breaching their agreement by using some of the stock for personal gain.

Bailey was jailed in 1996 for 44 days for contempt of court but remains adamant today that he did nothing wrong.

"I made so much money for them. I think they are ungrateful," Bailey said, shaking his head. "I offered them what I thought was a handsome settlement, and they turned it down because I was a celebrity."

The IRS declined to comment. A meeting on his petition is scheduled for Aug. 5 in US Bankruptcy Court.

Bailey's attorney acknowledged that persuading the government to discharge the debt will be difficult. "The IRS is generally quite aggressive in trying to collect," said the bankruptcy lawyer, James Molleur of Biddeford. "But if a debt is generally more than 3 years old . . . income tax debt can be discharged through bankruptcy."

Bailey shrugged when asked about the process. "It's better than being in jail, and I've been there," he said.

Bailey downplayed the notion that he had lost a fortune on his way to bankruptcy. He has made only "several million dollars" in his career, Bailey said, and even lost money on the Simpson case.

Despite his tax woes, Bailey described life in Yarmouth as comfortable and comforting — "the prettiest place I've ever seen." His grandfather owned a small cottage in Yarmouth, which Bailey began visiting as an infant.

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Over time, the lure has not faded.

He works out in a gym twice a week, enjoys boating off the Maine coast when invited, and mingles with neighbors at restaurants and the annual clam festival.

Yarmouth businessman Steve Woods spoke warmly of Bailey, whom he joined in an unsuccessful bid to make Portland the new home of the USS John F. Kennedy, a decommissioned aircraft carrier.

"I don't look at 'F. Lee Bailey, famed attorney,' " Woods said. "I look at him as 'F. Lee Bailey, resident of Yarmouth,' whom I enjoy talking with."

Bailey scoffed when asked if he plans to retire.

"I don't want to say 'retire' — it's a bad word and a good way to die," he said. "I have a lot of work left to do."

He coauthored a 2013 book titled "Excellence in Cross-Examination" with Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Kenneth J. Fishman, and he occasionally makes public speaking appearances.

"If I don't have something to do, I'll find something to do," Bailey said.

That's never been an issue for Bailey, who grew up in Waltham, Mass.; left Harvard College to join the Marine Corps; and graduated from Boston University Law School before blazing a unique trail.

His current day job — Bailey & Elliott Consulting — is spent offering business advice to small and medium-size companies.

On this day, he has ample time to reflect on the incandescent arc of his career, and he's not shy about dropping a few names.

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There's William F. Buckley, the only sailor Bailey managed to beat in a 59-boat race from Marblehead to Halifax, Nova Scotia. There's Supreme Court Justice John Roberts Jr., who told Bailey his book might be a tough sell because trial lawyers are a dwindling breed.

There are Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, and, of course, O.J.

Still, Bailey said, "at the end of the day, the limelight is a very mixed bag." The perks of heady fame come with incessant demands, he said.

"If I had to do it over again, I'm not sure I would have practiced law," he said. "I had no intention to become a lawyer, but I went into the Marine Corps and they ran out of lawyers there."

Instead, he said with a smile, he once dreamed of becoming a journalist and later writing the great American novel.

"Isn't that what everyone wants?" he asked.

F. Lee Bailey with his dog, Brodie.
F. Lee Bailey with his dog, Brodie.Jonathan Wiggs

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.