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Newsmaker: William H. Difenderfer / Baumhammers' attorney boasts impressive win list

Monday, May 08, 2000

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

William H. Difenderfer, a Downtown criminal defense lawyer, is used to being in the hot seat in the courtroom of public opinion.

 
Attorney William H. Difenderfer is representing shooting suspect Richard Baumhammers. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

In recent years, Difenderfer has kept some unsavory characters away from death row and life sentences. One of his most controversial successes involved Vaughn Mathis, the Wilkinsburg man who killed 14-month-old Ryan Hacke of West Mifflin when the boy was struck by stray bullets in 1997.

Difenderfer convinced a jury to convict Mathis of involuntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder in the death of the toddler who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The verdict brought shrieks of disbelief from the victim's family and so infuriated the prosecutor, Kim Berkeley Clark, that she yelled "I quit" as she left the courtroom. Clark later became a judge.

Now Difenderfer is representing Richard Baumhammers, a 34-year-old Mt. Lebanon man whose violent rampage, apparently racially motivated, on April 28 left five people dead and one critically wounded.

Thus far, Difenderfer has told the public only that he is Baumhammers' attorney, that his client has a history of mental problems, and Andrejs and Inese Baumhammers, both dentists from Mt. Lebanon, are a "wonderful" couple who are devastated by the events involving their son.

 
  William H. Difenderfer

Date of birth: Oct. 23, 1956

Place of birth: Pittsburgh

In the news: Difenderfer has been retained to represent Richard Baumhammers, the Mt. Lebanon man charged with killing five people and wounding one during a shooting rampage April 28.

Quote: "Lawyers are so bad-mouthed until you need one."

Education: Chartiers Valley High School, 1974; bachelor's degree in political science, Westminster College in New Wilmington, 1978; Juris Doctor, Ohio Northern University, Ada, Ohio, 1983.

Family: Married to Anita for 13 years; three children, ages 10, 8 and 6.

   
 

Although the court theatrics haven't yet begun, Difenderfer already is hearing some derogatory comments about his decision to represent Baumhammers, a defendant who appears to be full of racial animus.

Difenderfer said his wife, Anita, was at a luncheon in Mt. Lebanon, where people wanted to know how her husband could sleep at night.

"Very well," Difenderfer said.

Difenderfer said every criminal defendant is entitled to a defense and every case deserves to be weighed according to the laws of the land, not the emotions of the public. He said the Baumhammerses are wonderful people who contacted him to represent their son.

"It is what I do. In this case, I have compassion for the parents and their grief," Difenderfer said.

He said his wife was livid when he agreed to represent Mathis in the death of the Hacke boy. He said he turned the case down twice, but finally agreed to do it because of the pleas of Mathis' parents, a nice couple who needed a lawyer.

He said the public doesn't understand the role of a criminal defense lawyer "unless you need one."

"I got threats and hate mail during the Vaughn Mathis case," he said. "I guess that is part of the job."

Difenderfer, 43, was raised in Brookline and Scott and graduated from Chartiers Valley High School. He started Westminster College as a music major, planning to try to find a career with his trumpet. But he soon was intrigued by university politics. He changed his major to political science and focused on speech and business as minor fields of study.

By his senior year, Difenderfer was elected president of student government and decided that he wanted to be a lawyer.

At graduation, he was immediately diverted by an intriguing job offer from Proctor & Gamble, a Cincinnati-based company, which hired him in sales and sent him to Flint, Mich., to learn how to do sales presentations.

Difenderfer only stayed a year, but he said the experience was "the best education I could have gotten" for criminal defense work. He made sales presentations that were critiqued and taped. He got plenty of experience speaking to audiences.

"In many respects, we are salesmen as attorneys," Difenderfer said.

Returning to Pittsburgh, Difenderfer spent the next year earning money to go to law school by doing refractory work in local steel mills and power plants.

He enrolled in Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, and continued to work in the mills summers, weekends and holidays.

After he graduated from law school in 1983, he began clerking for the Pittsburgh law firm of Ploughman & Spiegel. From there, he worked in a general practice with South Hills lawyer William Murray.

A turning point in his life was when he met James Wymard, a veteran Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer.

"We became friends and he became my mentor," Difenderfer said. "He taught me everything I know" about criminal law.

In 1992, Difenderfer represented George Vargo, a North Side man who was convicted of shooting his former girlfriend and murdering her new boyfriend. Vargo was convicted of first-degree murder but spared the death penalty.

Vargo, who continues to claim his innocence, was not happy with the verdict or with Difenderfer. Last year, Vargo tried to get a new trial, claiming that Difenderfer was ineffective and that he and co-counsel Patrick Thomassey were in cahoots with Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning. At a hearing in October, Manning denied the claim and told Vargo he was lucky he got life instead of death.

The Vargo case was the beginning of a string of high-profile homicide cases for Difenderfer who has racked up his share of wins against county prosecutors.

In 1996, Difenderfer won a verdict of voluntary manslaughter for Tyrek Booker, 17, who shot city police Sgt. James "Rip" Taylor to death after an argument in Lincoln-Lemington over gang graffiti painted on Taylor's property. The prosecutor, W. Christopher Conrad, was seeking first-degree murder.

"That verdict really opened the floodgate of business for me," said Difenderfer.

By convincing a jury that the government's key witness was a liar, he won an acquittal for Dorian Moorefield, then 27, of Hazelwood, in 1996, in the murder of Verna Robinson, a Hazelwood woman who was getting ready to testify against members of the Hazelwood gang.

Difenderfer also represented James E. Mitchell Jr., who dragged city police Officer John Wilbur down Fifth Avenue in 1996. Mitchell was convicted of aggravated assault, a firearms violation and charges related to a stolen car but was acquitted of attempted homicide.

Last year, Difenderfer won acquittals for two other defendants charged with murder, Robert Bledsoe and Brandon Cercone.

Today, Difenderfer has his own law firm, Difenderfer, Rothman & Haber, P.C., on Grant Street, Downtown. His partners are Lee Rothman and Ken Haber, two former county prosecutors. Their office above the Brown Bag Deli is spacious, but not luxurious.

Difenderfer's office is filled with photos of his three children, ages 10, 8 and 6.

He said they and his wife of 13 years are the most important part of his life.

The family skis together and Difenderfer coaches his daughter's softball team and manages his sons' Pinto baseball team in Mt. Lebanon.



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