published Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

Federal attorney’s boots leave impression

Gary Humble, assistant U.S. attorney, sits in his office at Warehouse Row in Chattanooga. Humble retired on Friday after 30 years.  He said that he looks forward to working for himself and plans on spending time fixing up his house.
Staff Photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Gary Humble, assistant U.S. attorney, sits in his office at Warehouse Row in Chattanooga. Humble retired on Friday after 30 years. He said that he looks forward to working for himself and plans on spending time fixing up his house. Staff Photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Federal prosecutor Gary Humble drove his truck to his last day of work at the U.S. attorney’s office in Chattanooga, though he would have preferred his motorcycle.

The 31-year veteran of federal courts retired Friday, so he had to haul home boxes filled with stacks of photos of his three children, baseball hats he’s collected over the years and even a Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial cartoon about one of his most famous cases.

He couldn’t ride his red-and-cream 1998 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic off into the proverbial sunset. And with the wet weather lately, he’s been tromping around in woolen socks and hiking boots under his khaki pants rather than the signature cowboy boots he often sported during trials.

Those trademarks left an impression on those around him.

Asked to describe Humble, U.S. Magistrate Bill Carter laughed.

“I always think of cowboy boots and motorcycles,” Carter said.

In Humble’s early days as an assistant U.S. attorney, Carter was in private practice and often sat across the courtroom from him as opposing counsel.

“He had a knack for taking a very complex case and simplifying it so that a jury could understand it,” Carter said.

Tall with a shock of white hair and a mustache, Humble is a congenial Southern gentleman — molasses-smooth voice, ruddy complexion, the kind of guy who’ll pat you on the shoulder when he talks to you.

In federal court, he always stands up when addressing the judge, but when he’s not needed, he’ll sit at the prosecutor’s table, lean back in his chair and cross his legs casually.

Along the way Humble prosecuted some high-profile local cases, the most recent being the 2008 trial of former Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long on drug conspiracy, firearms, money laundering and extortion charges. Long had taken office in 2006, and the charges came down about 17 months later.

“It was stunning in the beginning to think the newly elected sheriff of Hamilton County was shaking down convenience stores,” Humble said.

Throughout the case and eventual prosecution, Humble said he was proudest of how well investigators guarded information. Though perhaps four people knew about the case being built against the sheriff, “there were no leaks,” he said.

Humble won recognition for his work on that case in his third U.S. Attorney’s Director’s Award — a superior performance honor from the Justice Department.

His adversary in the Long case, local attorney Jerry Summers, said that over Humble’s career, he has represented the government well.

“It was really pretty simple with Gary — you either beat him or he beat you,” Summers said.

Early years

Humble graduated from law school in Memphis and worked in the Justice Department’s antitrust division in Washington, D.C., for seven years in the early 1980s.

He joined the Chattanooga office of the U.S. attorney in 1987, a job he applied for and wanted, not only because it was a good career move but because he wanted to come back to the South.

Once here, he worked mostly on white-collar cases, including a case against U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr., D-Tenn., who in 1987 was accused of conspiracy, bank and mail fraud but was acquitted on all counts.

He also was prosecutor in U.S. v. Frost, a 1990 case in which professors at the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics at the University of Tennessee Space Institute in Tullahoma, Tenn., were convicted of helping students cheat on their graduate theses. In turn, the students would land government jobs and would then funnel federal contracts to the institute.

In 1995, he argued for the prosecution in U.S. v. Sherlin, an arson case in a fire that burned down a dormitory at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., while more than 70 students slept. Seventeen were injured, including three who were severely burned.

But as crack cocaine and methamphetamine began flooding the streets, drug and gun cases began to flood the office.

Humble recalled a late-1980s methamphetamine case in which the defendant owned a 6-inch-thick manual on how to make the drug. Now meth cookers can whip up a batch with hardware store supplies and a 2-liter bottle in a short time, he said.

Outside the office, he and his wife, Deborah, became the parents of triplets — Jennifer, Jessica and Jordan. The children were just 4 when Deborah died suddenly of an aneurysm. He and his wife were divorced at the time, and Humble had to step in to take over full-time parenting duties.

“She did most of the work all those four years, but I changed my fair share of diapers with triplets,” he said. “By the time I got finished changing the third one, it was time to change the first one again.”

Still, the full-time single parent role was hard and, if it weren’t for his mother, Lorraine Humble, he says he doesn’t know how he could have managed. The children are 20 now and all are in college, he said.

Retirement

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Neff, a longtime colleague, laughed that Humble has been threatening to retire for a few years now, and most of the office staff wasn’t sure he was serious until recently.

“I’ve been around a lot of good prosecutors in my career, and I put Gary right there at the top,” Neff said.

Neff said Humble has a minimalist style, selecting only the crucial proof to win the case.

“He’s not going to put on any extra fluff; he’s very businesslike and gets the job done quickly,” Neff said.

Humble said the time is right for retirement. At age 56, he’s young enough to start a second career and still have time for other things.

Now that the Warehouse Row office is behind him, Humble said he’ll visit his kids more at the University of Tennessee and do some neglected housework.

The New Orleans native reconnected with an old friend at his 30th high school reunion in 2002 and said he’ll be spending more time with his now-girlfriend Chrissie O’Quinn, who lives outside Baton Rouge, La.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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