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July 12, 2014

'I’m going to take it easy for a while': Longtime Cambria defense attorney Gleason to retire

EBENSBURG — Robert Davis Gleason, the best-known defense attorney in Cambria County, is calling it quits.

For 53 years, Gleason, 78, has represented some of the most notorious individuals to pass through local courtrooms.

“I’m tired of the grind,” Gleason said from his Westmont home. “I’m going to take it easy for a while.”

Gleason – known to many as “Gunner,” a moniker he earned for his love of basketball and expertise on the court – planned to practice law for two or three more years.

But that course was interrupted in February when he suffered a stroke.

Gleason is leaving one of his favorite spots – “the pit,” the area in front of the judge’s bench, between the defense and prosecution tables, where the legal battles play out.

For more than five decades, Gleason has done his best work in that pit – negotiating, arguing, cajoling and charming.

“Right up to the day I had the stroke, I was practicing law,” he said. “I started in November 1961, and at one point I was doing 225 cases a year.”

‘Fight tooth and nail’

Gleason was born into a law family.

His father, Andrew Gleason, died in April 2012 at the age of 106, after retiring from his law practice only a decade earlier.

His brother, Andrew, is a lawyer.

Gleason’s son, Ryan, is Cambria County’s public defender.

Gleason’s setback came as a surprise to many, including himself. He said he took pride in being at the Cambria County Courthouse or a district judge’s office on a daily basis, walking his clients through the legal process.

He returned to the Cambria County Courthouse for a visit last week, a moment he admitted was bittersweet.

“It was the first time in five months and it was great,” he said. “I got a chance to see all of the members of the court and a lot of those who work in the court system.”

Gleason was brought to the courthouse by his wife, Linda – the mother of his sons, Scott, who works for the Department of Revenue in Pittsburgh, and Ryan.

“She’s the former Linda Thatcher from Richland Township, and she’s really helped me come back,” he said. “She’s much younger than me, and she’s a wonderful girl.”

The visit to the courthouse had folks recalling incidents from the many years Gleason ruled the county’s private defense market, a reputation that earned him the moniker “the F. Lee Bailey of Cambria County.”

Judge Patrick Kiniry was a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office from 1976 to 2009. Kiniry and Johnstown attorney and former assistant district attorney Dennis McGlynn formed a team that often faced off against

Gleason in the courtroom.

“It seemed like on every big case Bob Gleason would be on the other side,” Kiniry said. “We would fight tooth and nail in the courtroom, and afterward, we could stop and have a beer.”

One year, Kiniry recalled, he and Gleason battled it out in eight homicide trials.

Calling Gleason the king of plea bargains, Kiniry said his former nemesis was a formidable trial lawyer who was even better at making deals for his clients.

“To use a gambling analogy, he knew when to hold them and he knew when to fold them,” Kiniry said.

‘A wonderful feeling’

During the sentencing phase following a plea deal or a jury trial, Gleason relied heavily on others when he was trying to save a client.

“He’d bring in a minister to tell you how great some person’s parents were and somehow he would translate that into the accused was good, too,” Kiniry said.

Kiniry said Gleason is a man of integrity and he had control over his clients.

“If he didn’t have a good case, he’d tell you,” Kiniry said.

In one of the cases that he didn’t plead out, a jury took just 10 minutes to return a not-guilty verdict, Gleason said.

“That was a wonderful feeling,” he said.

Another case he quickly recalls includes the defense of a Dale woman charged in the 1980 shooting death of a Beaver County man at a motel in Upper Yoder Township.

Though convicted and sentenced to life, she maintained her innocence. Gleason was able to get her out of prison, allowing her to die at home, after becoming terminally ill.

“I think the hardest case I had was allegations of corruption against the late Johnstown Mayor Herb Pfuhl,” he said.

Pfuhl was charged with corruption, bribery and extortion, allegations brought by a dismissed city employee who said his contribution to Pfuhl’s campaign was coerced, not voluntary.

“We won,” Gleason said. “It also happened to be the day (President Richard) Nixon resigned.”

Gleason played a big role in the career of Judge Norman Krumenacker III.

Gleason’s dad and Krumenacker’s dad practiced law together.

“The thing that I remember most about Bobby Gleason was when I was a very young attorney,” Krumenacker said.

Krumenacker was defending the chief of police in Dysart, a man accused of shaking down tow-truck drivers for kickbacks.

Krumenacker convinced a jury that the man was innocent.

“When I went back to my office that night, on my desk was a magnum-size bottle of champagne with a note from Bob Gleason,” he said.

The note read: “Congratulations on your victory – welcome to the brethren.”

Krumenacker was 29 at the time, and such recognition from the highly respected trial attorney was a defining moment for him.

‘Into the deep end’

Echoing Kiniry, Krumenacker said Gleason knows when to try a case and when to take a plea.

Gleason has a keen sense of how a case will come across in the courtroom and what to expect from a jury, Krumenacker said.

And while he got along well with most of his clients, Gleason also has a reputation for treating judges, court staff and the prosecution with respect, Krumenacker said.

While judges speak highly of Gleason’s professionalism, he holds similar opinions of those on the Cambria County bench.

“I enjoyed all the years trying all the cases,” Gleason said. “We have in this county a good system where people respect each other. Politics doesn’t get involved.”

Marilyn Kleinstub has been Gleason’s paralegal for the past 34 years.

“He’s doing really well,” she said. “Bob’s just his usual stubborn self.”

It was 1980, after Kleinstub had earned a four-year degree in sociology, that she went back to school for a degree as a paralegal, when Gleason gave her a chance.

The U.S. Department of Labor says paralegals support lawyers by keeping and organizing files, conducting legal research and crafting documents.

“A paralegal, nobody had heard of that,” she said. “I was the first one around.”

Gleason agreed to allow her to do an internship in his practice and she turned that into a career.

“Nobody ever remembers hiring me, but he understood what I should be doing,” Kleinstub said.

It was working in the trenches beside Gleason that gave Kleinstub a wealth of knowledge beyond her training, she said.

“From the very beginning, I was in court,” she said. “Within weeks, I was helping pick a jury.

“He’d go to seminars, I’d go with him.”

Some of those seminars included an annual trip to the Harrisburg Criminal Law Symposium – continuing education for attorneys. Gleason was there to lecture on the art of the plea agreement.

“He taught me criminal law, he taught me accident work,” Kleinstub said. “I learned because he threw me into the deep end.”

‘Fight for the underdog’

Early in his career, Gleason appeared headed for a seat on the federal bench in Pittsburgh.

Politics got in the way, and instead, he served a short stint as assistant to the state attorney general looking into the public defender system.

“I didn’t want it,” he said. “I was going to take it for a little while then ...

“I like the action as a defense attorney.”

It was that enthusiasm for law and defending the accused that he passed on to partner Art McQuillan during their 28 years together.

“Bob viewed every case, whether big or small, as an important case, and Bob instilled in all of us who worked alongside him that it was a privilege to assist people in their time of need,” McQuillan said. “Bob really taught me how to fight for the little guy, how to fight for the underdog.”

Gleason’s decision to retire is leaving a large void to fill, many said.

“There’s definitely a gap, but we have a couple of people that are really good, and one of them is his son, Ryan,” Krumenacker said. “He’s doing a wonderful job.”

Kleinstub said watching Gleason put away the law books is difficult.

She recalls his kind heart and the way he has daily moved from district judge to district judge to the courthouse, defending his clients.

Gleason is a lifelong Republican with years of service on local, county and statewide GOP efforts.

One of his favorite days is election day – when he drives from polling place to polling place “to see people, to talk to people,” Kleinstub said.

“Bob is as blue-collar as you can get,” she said. “He knows this county and he  loves it.

“He has a huge heart, he truly cares about people - we’re good friends.”

Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @kathymellotttd.

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