SAN ANGELO, TX — The defense called John Young to testify of his own innocence Friday. Monday, Young spent most of the day under scrutiny from the prosecution who appeared to be hunting and pecking at case issues to frame Young, or entice Young to hang himself on the stand.
Young is accused of forgery, theft and money laundering related to the late John Sullivan’s estate. Young was Sullivan’s criminal defense attorney at the time of his death. The State wants to prove that Ray Zapata conspired with Young and forged a handwritten will that gave all of Sullivan’s $8 million estate to Young. Zapata was found guilty of forging Sullivan’s will in May. He was sentenced to serve six months in jail. Zapata is appealing his conviction.
Zapata took center stage at the opening of today’s hearings of the Young trial. Defense attorney Frank Sellers approached Judge Brock Jones about calling Ray Zapata to the stand. Zapata had limited immunity this morning that Zapata’s attorney Mark Snodgrass said was too narrow for him to allow his client to testify.
That immunity was gone by 10 a.m., however.
Prosecutors agreed to withdraw their motion for offering immunity. The judge approved the motion.
With no immunity, it is even less likely Zapata will take the stand now, but the defense must believe his testimony is a critical component of their case. The fact that Zapata wasn’t given full immunity to testify may weigh in with the defense’s closing argument. We will see.
Young was humble and polite on the stand. But he was able to assert his point-of-view as prosecutor and Assistant Attorney General Jonathan White led him through a maze of various subjects related to Sullivan’s money and the will.
White began his cross-examination by suggesting Young should thank him for not riddling his testimony for the defense with objections. “I only objected once because I wanted you to be able to tell your story. Do you believe you had a chance to tell your story?” White asked with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
Young didn’t take the bait.
“Please clarify what ‘tell my story’ means?” Young, who is also an attorney, responded.
White went over the timeline the day Sullivan was found dead, June 4, 2014, with Young. The exercise was seemingly to show Young was conspiring with Zapata and probate attorney Chris Hartman from the time Zapata and his bail bondsman partner Armando Martinez found the body. White, using cell phone records, correlated all three on a call together and called it a conference call. Young politely told White there were no conference calls.
“You see no reason for a pow-wow [conference call between alleged co-conspirators Hartman, Zapata and Young] after Sullivan’s body was found?” White asked.
“I do not believe we did, no. No, sir,” Young responded.
White traced the money with Young next.
Right after the will was probated, White reminded Young that he transferred $167,500 to Hartman. Hartman then disbursed $65,312,50 through Dallas attorney Juan A. Marquez’s IOTA account. That money eventually ended up in Zapata’s hands.
Young told White he did not know some of the money he expensed to Hartman was going to Zapata.
“I was disappointed, shocked. I thought it was bad business,” Young said of Hartman’s use of Marquez to funnel money to Zapata. White pressed, asking Young if he approved the deal. Young didn’t relent. “It was unnatural,” Young said. “It looked like bad business to me.”
Young gave the impression that he didn’t micromanage the duties of Hartman but had he known what came out in discovery earlier this year, he would have disapproved of the way Hartman and Zapata transferred Sullivan’s estate funds to Zapata for payment.
On the other hand, Young said he thought it would have been improper for him to write Zapata a check himself, since Young knew by then that Zapata had found the will and was a witness to it.
White approached the amount of the funds transferred to Zapata, that was suggested to be the accumulation of the payments for the $100 per hour Young promised Zapata to keep a close eye on Sullivan.
White asked Young if Zapata requested a 20 percent “finder’s fee” cut of the $916,000 contingency fee agreement Young made with Sullivan. The large fee was to be paid to Young if he could get Sullivan’s money back from the State in a forfeiture case. The deal Young had with Sullivan, when Sullivan was still alive, was a payment of 27 percent of the funds seized and recovered.
Young told White he was “shocked” that Zapata would ask for a cut. It wasn’t proper or ethical, and it was illegal, Young told White.
White performed math in public and determined that Zapata was asking for about $180,000. But, White argued, if Young paid Zapata $100 per hour full time, it was the annual salary equivalent of $200,000 per year.
Why did you agree to pay Zapata $100 per hour to do a job he had to do anyway, White asked.
Zapata was holding a $2 million bond on Sullivan and had to watch him anyway to prevent the rich old man from fleeing the country. Sullivan had the money to effect his own disappearance.
Young argued that his interests were unique and different to the interests of the bail bond financing joint venture between Zapata and Martinez. Young wanted Zapata to look after his interests, too. So he paid him.
Those interests were to keep Sullivan away from the victims and out of places where children are, like schools. Sullivan was facing charges related to sex crimes against children. If Sullivan was caught violating these terms, he would definitely forfeit the assets already seized, and with it, Young’s contingency fee.
White then displayed the checkbook ledger from an account Young managed with Sullivan’s money in it after the will was probated. On the ledger were hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks written to Young himself, his children, and his wife. There was a donation to the University of Texas Exes local chapter in San Angelo.
“I made a donation to the local club at the request of fellow attorney Max Parker,” Young said.
After detailing many of the personal expenses Young made out of the account, White asked, “Do you think Sullivan would approve?”
Young politely responded, “At the time, I had legal authority according to [probate court Judge Ben] Nolen, my counsel, and a variety of attorneys who were my acquaintances.”
Young also explained that he was attempting to spend down that account for death tax reasons. Some of the expenses listed on the ledger were for settling the affairs of the Sullivan estate.
The jury was attentive, but towards the end of the morning's testimony, seemed restless. Many were folding their arms as they tried to follow the questioning. Young survived cross-examination on the stand with no major breakthroughs in the trial. Young appeared humble, polite and respectful the entire time.
In the afternoon, Chris Hartman, the attorney Young hired to probate Sullivan’s will, took the stand for the defense. The defense line of questioning brought out the question of why would an experienced attorney like Young conspire with Zapata to handwrite the will?
Young, like all attorneys do, has access to online services that will print a standard last will and testament with a couple keystrokes of a computer keyboard. But the State proved Zapata handwrote and forged an entire will. Why would an attorney be a part of a conspiracy that included handwriting a will?
Testimony continues at 8:30 a.m. in Judge Brock Jones’ courtroom A Tuesday morning.