Super Lawyer Joe Varon Remembered


Joe Varon was cursed as a mobsters’ mouthpiece, a shyster, defender of the guilty, protector of the criminal.

When I asked him about it in the mid 1980s, he just laughed.

“If these self-righteous people were in trouble, if the police were knocking down their door, they would come to me begging for help,” insisted Varon.

Varon died Wednesday, according to JAAblog.  He had been sick for a long time.

With his death goes part of Broward’s legal history. 

His office was an incubator for some of the finest legal talent in Broward.  JAAblog names them: David Bogenschutz, Harry Gulkin, Dohn Williams, Steadman Stahl and “Fast” Eddie Kay.

 One of A Kind

Varon was one of South Florida’s and the nation’s pre- eminent defense attorneys. His career was written in two- inch-high headlines plastered in yellowing scrapbooks he once kept in his office desk.

He offered me a peak at those books 25 years ago.

Words like, “Kill,” “Shoot,”and “Stab” leaped out. Wild-eyed psychos stared from fading photographs. Mobsters with black fedoras, wide ties and funny nicknames marched across the pages. A forgotten politician, a fat cigar poking out of his mouth, sweated under a grilling by an investigating committee.

“My clients are notorious,” conceded Varon, then 72.

Notorious like underworld financier Meyer Lansky. Or desperado Bobby Wilcoxson, the FBI’s Most Wanted Man during a sensational string of bank robberies and murders in the early 1960s. Or “Catch Me Killer” Robert Erler, who called police to talk about his three murders.

“I’ve never lost a client to the chair, ” said Varon proudly.

Staying out of the chair, or jail, costs money.

Legal Talent Is Expensive

Varon got a $25,000 retainer and $1,000-a-day fee in the mid-1980s to tackle a routine case.

“The client can’t afford it,” said Varon. “So he gets a public defender. And who’s the public defender? Nice young aggressive kids, but they don’t have the savvy, they don’t have the experience.”

“If you’re going to get a lawyer that experienced, you’re going to have to pay through the nose.”

Those who paid got their money’s worth.

Elizabeth Hill pulled a pistol out of her shorts and shot her wealthy husband in front of two horrified police officers. The verdict: Not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

James Washer killed a 14-year-old stealing his car, shooting the fleeing boy in the back after chasing him for miles in a second vehicle. The verdict: innocent, the jury buying Varon’s argument that Washer was only defending his property.

Hundreds of murder cases, hundreds of humans beaten, strangled, shot or knifed. Varon preferred to think about the hundreds of murder defendants he saved from execution.

“Everybody is entitled to the best defense and a fair, impartial American trial. Everybody wants a lawyer invoking constitutional benefits for themselves, but they resent it for somebody else,” he said.

Varon claimed that more than 90 percent of his murder clients were found innocent. I never checked that figure.

He never cared whether they were guilty or not. The point is, Varon said, the prosecutors could not prove the guilt.

How Joe Became Mobster’s Mouthpiece

Varon met the racketeers he admitted they were probably guilty — when he was Hallandale’s city attorney in 1948. Hallandale was a wide-open city with thriving mob-owned casinos, like Green Acres and La Boheme.  Mobsters quickly came to know Varon.

They saw him at City Council meetings and, he said, were impressed by his professionalism.

Soft-spoken Meyer Lansky and his hulking brother, Jake Lansky, along with New York City mobsters Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo and Joseph “Joe Adonis” Doto, among others, became Varon clients.

“They are honorable, strangely enough,” he said. “They have never lied to me.”

“A real pro will not lie to his lawyer or to his bondsman. Those are his two gods.”

In 1966, Varon was Broward’s Democratic candidate for Congress. He had a  business deal involving ownership of a hotel with Lansky which surfaced in the last days of the campaign, released to the press by an investigator working for Republican candidate J. Herbert Burke.

Varon lost the race, although today he blames it on the GOP landslide of that year, which saw Floridians elect Claude Kirk, their only Republican governor since the Reconstruction era.

(Burke, renamed Congressman David Dilbeck, later became the thinly-veiled character in Carl Hiaasen’s book and movie Strip Tease.  Burke lost his 1978 re-election after his arrest for drunkenness and resisting arrest at the Centerfold Club, a strip club in Dania.)

After the election loss, Varon never again entered politics.

Jurors Are Liars

After years of standing before jurors, Varon had little good to say about them during my interview with him almost three decades ago:

“The biggest liars in the world are jurors. They want to get on a jury and they’ll say anything they think you want to hear,” said Varon. “They’re liars.”

I talked to him in a hole-in-the-wall office in downtown Hollywood, modest for a man once named one of the 10 best trial attorneys by the American Trial Lawyers Assocation.

“I could have made a fortune,” he told me. “I was here when real estate was booming. I could have been independently wealthy beyond belief.

“I tell you I got so excited when I heard the police knocking down the door of some poor guy that I’d handle a case for a $25 fee in those days when I could have been making thousands.

“But I always just wanted to handle criminal cases, which is stupid as I look back at it.”

8 Responses to “Super Lawyer Joe Varon Remembered”

  1. Beth Gosnell says:

    Nice nice job, Buddy!!

    Thanks a lot, Beth. I appreciate it.

  2. History Lesson says:


    I always enjoy your blog because you have been here for decades which enables you to write from a historical perspective. To appecaite and understand the present and future one must study the past. Sadly this face is lost on Bill Gelin and Bob Norman

  3. knowledge says:

    you remember Buddy when he handled the John Lomelo case against Councilmen Bradshaw,I was there during that case,That was a three ring circus

  4. Thunder says:

    Wasn’t Leroy Moe part of that group at one time?


    I believe so. It was a long time ago. Moe became a judge in 1972.

  5. Judge Roy Bean says:

    From a former cop. Joe Varon was a tough hard nose lawyer, who was well respected by both sides of the table. He taught is Jr partners well. In the 70’s Varon and Stahl were where you went when you had trouble. THE BEST.

  6. G.B. says:

    Nicely written piece on a historic individual. May he rest in peace.

  7. bud says:

    In addition to his courtroom skill, Joe was the kind of lawyer that Judges appreciated. He had a great respect for the legal system, was always knowledgeable about the law of his case, would never mislead the court, and, above all, was always a gentleman.

  8. Glenn Roderman says:

    Hi Buddy, I was with Joe Varon, my idol and mentor for five years after leaving the Broward County State Attorneys office and after 2 years I became Joe’s partner.. Looking back over my almost 40 year career the days I remember most and cherish are the days with Joe, Steadman Stahl and Eddie Kay… Trying several cases with Joe as co-counsel and representing co-defendants with Joe was an awesome experience. I will never forget the “silver fox”..

    Everybody who has been here for awhile knows you, Glenn. Roderman has been involved in some of South Florida’s most notable cases over the years. Like many who came out of Joe Varon’s firm, Roderman had a distinguished career and still does, don’t you Glenn? I might have even covered some of your cases over the years.

    I haven’t heard from Eddie, but he is the greatest. I know him from politics and the courts for over three decades. I think he may have even gone to high school with my sister.

    Glenn, thanks for reading and commenting on