He kind of
spell in the
Superior Court judge
James Keppel says.
“I think jurors really
like him; I know
judges like him. And I
think most opposing
counsel like him.”
But by 1980, Debus, an avid sailor, was ready to take an
indefinite break from the courtroom.
“On all the other trips, I always had a particular period of time that
I was going to take off,” says Debus, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo.,
yearning for the sea, yet settled in the Arizona desert. “But the South
Pacific trip had no end. I didn’t want there to be an end.”
The Debuses spent all of 1981 carefree and shoeless aboard the
Vagabond, enjoying the simpler life. For a while, Debus says he
considered ditching the rat race entirely for some kind of free-
floating freelance consultancy that would net the few hundred
dollars a month the couple needed to make ends meet on the sea.
Eventually, however, he did return to land, and to law, and to
Phoenix’s most high-profile cases. In 1987, Debus represented
Phoenix Suns center James Edwards in a sweeping cocaine bust
that roped nine people, including other members of the team. In
1991, Debus was a defender in the AzScam case, a $1.4 million
sting operation by the Phoenix police and the Maricopa County
attorney’s office that caught seven legislators, five lobbyists and
five others accepting $370,000 in bribes from an undercover
agent posing as a casino gambling lobbyist.
In recent years, Debus has continued to make headlines by
defending a man falsely linked to the city’s highly publicized
“Desert Divas” prostitution ring; an antique store owner accused
of shooting to death an unarmed homeless man who haunted his
shop; and a former Miss Arizona accused of conspiring to murder
her husband using Viagra.
“I do more consulting now, but I still go into the office every
day,” says Debus, who helms Debus, Kazan & Westerhausen
in downtown Phoenix, not far from the Central Avenue
neighborhood where he lives. “And I probably will as long as I
can, because I enjoy it.”
Every so often, though, Debus still takes off on his sailboat, most
recently a Beneteau 46-6.
“It lets you clear your head and gives you a different
perspective on life, really,” says the septuagenarian (“Let’s
say I’m 69,” he says with a laugh, “sounds better!”), who
occasionally sails with his 25-year-old son, the youngest of his
three children, or his girlfriend, a restaurateur.
Mostly, though, what Debus likes about the open seas are its
immutable laws—a bracing change from the erratically shifting
currents of the legal realm.
“When you’re in open ocean, problems are either immediately
solvable or they’re not solvable at all,” says the defender, who’s
shown a knack for captaining retrials at opportune moments when
he’s on land. “That’s the main thing I’ve found sailing.”
HIS COURTROOM STYLE BECAME LEGENDARY IN THE MID-’70S
when he won a jury acquittal for a Fort Huachuca woman accused
of shooting her abusive military colonel husband, with the
audacious defense: “The son of a bitch deserved to die.”
Debus represented his friend, country singer Glen Campbell,
after a headline-grabbing DUI arrest in which the crooner left the
scene of a two-car collision and allegedly assaulted a police officer