EDGE Being Bill Killian: Former U.S. Attorney talks about sports, and life and how they're sometimes the same thing

EDGE Being Bill Killian: Former U.S. Attorney talks about sports, and life and how they're sometimes the same thing

April 1st, 2016 by Alex Green in EDGE

Bill Killian, a Marion County native, handled the July 16 shooting in Chattanooga. Killian is former United States attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

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About Bill Killian

Age: 67

Job: Attorney, shareholder at Polsinelli

Career: Most recently U.S. Attorney for East Tennessee, Killian is a former city attorney for Monteagle, Tenn., and was sole practitioner of his own law firm, based in Jasper, Tenn. Killian is also a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Twelfth Judicial District in Tennessee. He has also taught at colleges and universities in east Tennessee, including the University of Tennessee’s College of Law.

Killian served in the United States Army and Tennessee National Guard from December 1970 to January 1973.

Civic, business groups: Former member of the Tennessee Bar Association House of Delegates and board of directors at the American Red Cross Chattanooga Chapter

Personal: Married, with two children and four grandchildren

"A good friend of mine used to say, 'This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.' Think about that for a while."

— Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, "Bull Durham," (1988)


Why "Bull Durham"?

Despite all the great films about the law and lawyers, Bill Killian says his favorite movie of all time is "Bull Durham."

"I've seen that movie 14 times, probably," says Killian, a former U.S. prosecutor who joined the national law firm Polsinelli at its Chattanooga office last year.

"Bull Durham," is a 1988 film about minor league baseball. The cult classic portrays lives made and broken playing for the minor league Durham Bulls in North Carolina.

"It is a movie about life, told through baseball," says Killian.

"Bull Durham" is also a movie about fighting your way up, about the scrappy pursuit of greatness, and relevance. It's a movie about the personalities of players, and of the South itself — about touching greatness and the unfairness of talent, and about the Game.

The parallels to the life of Killian, a Marion County native who was drafted into the highest levels of law by the President of the United States himself, are obvious.

Killian's story is reflected in the deeply Southern soliloquies of Annie Savoy, the success of Nuke Laloosh and the perseverance and self-awareness of Crash Davis.

It's an example of life imitating art.


It's 10 a.m., and Killian is sitting at a conference table on the ninth floor of Liberty Tower, near a wall of windows at the Chattanooga office of his new employer, Polsinelli. It's a national firm headquartered in Kansas City, which is now the fastest-growing firm in the country, and which opened a Chattanooga office in 2013.

Less than four months ago, Killian was justice over 41 counties in the eastern part of the Volunteer State. For five years and two months, he served as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee.

There were 2.6 million people in his jurisdiction, and many sites of national importance — or, large potential terrorist targets — including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and several TVA power plants, including two nuclear facilities.

During his stint as U.S. Attorney here, Killian saw his brother, former mayor of South Pittsburg Mike Killian, arrested for running a 25-year-long gambling operation, while holding public office. In 2014, Mike Killian said his brother had nothing to do with the operation, and that the brothers were "not that close."

The Eastern District office recused itself from all involvement with the case, which was handled by the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section.

Bill Killian's most high-profile assignment came after the fatal shooting of five U.S. servicemen in Chattanooga during an ISIS-inspired attack on military recruiting centers here. On July 16, 2015, Killian stood before reporters and TV cameras in the gymnasium of a Chattanooga emergency training facility on Amnicola Highway. He said plainly that the crimes of Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a 24-year-old Kuwaiti-born Chattanooga man, were being investigated as an act of domestic terrorism.

Ed Reinhold, FBI special agent in charge, immediately followed Killian and refused to label the shooting an act of terrorism, or say the FBI would investigate it as such.

Five months later, on Dec. 16, 2015 — and 12 days after Killian resigned his U.S. Attorney position — the director of the FBI held a news conference and confirmed what Killian had said way back on day one: that the July 16 shooter had been inspired by terrorist propaganda.

Killian still doesn't say much about July 16, only that it magnified one of the frustrating aspects of the job: "not getting everybody to understand what the facts are."

"You're just prohibited from talking about things," he says.

As U.S. Attorney, Killian was privy to high-level investigations and threats involving public safety: a privilege and a burden. For instance, Killian's watch called for the careful monitoring of foreign national scientists going through secure locations such as Oak Ridge in an era when America must be on guard against enemies all over the globe.

It was Killian, and his staff, who acted as the federal government's hands extended in court in east Tennessee, cracking down on pill mills and healthcare fraud.

"There are not enough hours in the day to do all you would like to do as the U.S. Attorney," he says.

Under Killian's supervision, federal prosecutors in the eastern district of Tennessee enjoyed a 90-plus percent conviction rate.

"You just do the right thing, and everything else will work out," Killian says.

He doesn't have to worry about those things anymore.

"I think the stress wears on you," he says of being U.S. Attorney. "If you do the job conscientiously, as I tried to do, it wears on you.

Killian said you would have to be "an extremely unusual person" to hold the job for many years.

"When you're in the position, you honestly don't realize how much stress you're absorbing and dealing with — that when you get out, you can appreciate how much you were under," he says.


"The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness."

— Annie Savoy, "Bull Durham," (1988)


William C. Killian was born in Jasper, Tenn., 67 years ago, and was raised in South Pittsburg. His father, H.B. "Yap" Killian, was a sessions and circuit clerk in South Pittsburg throughout Bill's childhood. As a boy, Killian was familiar with the trappings of the courthouse.

"I grew up with his influence," Killian says.

Killian came up through the public school system, and he went to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to study political science. It was at the University of Tennessee that Killian sat under one of the greatest influences in his life: Otis Stephens, a blind professor of undergraduate constitutional law studies.

"Best professor I ever had," says Killian. "He motivated me to go to law school."

After getting his undergraduate degree, Killian borrowed money to put himself through law school. It was there that he discovered a knack for representing people in the courtroom.

Killian remembers always having a passion for fairness.

"Ever since I was a little kid, it bothered me to see injustice," he says.

Uneven playground sports teams, the disproportionate divvying up of a candy bar — he remembers things like that troubling him.

"That's just me," says Killian. "I've been afflicted, I guess."

Sometimes, the game is flawed.

Killian loves Rosa Parks for that. Here is an icon on the American civil rights movement, a non-violent protester who moved a nation by standing up to injustice rooted in the unfair segregation of black and white in the same 1960s American South that framed Killian's childhood.

"I cannot imagine the courage and conviction it took for her to do what she did," Killian says. "And I have the utmost respect for her for it."

Also among Killian's favorites list: Federal Judge Frank Wilson, who tried the Jimmy Hoffa case in Chattanooga in the mid-1960s. Killian admires that Wilson, under the threat of violence from Hoffa's Teamsters Union, ruled against the high-profile labor leader.

"He ruled as the law should be," says Killian.

That's how the law should always work in Killian's world. The law, he says, is blind, and fair, and just and shows no favor.

"It transcends politics, and it transcends party and age," he says. "Because that's the way it's supposed to be.

"Confidence in government is only achieved by government exercising the principles on which it's built," Killian says. "Today's environment is not necessarily good for the country, and for the political arena, in my view.

" We should continue to educate people about our governmental system," he continues. "The solution to a lot of problems is education. When we abandon these principles, we're going to be in trouble."


"Yeah, I was in the Show. I was in the Show for 21 days once — 21 greatest days of my life."

— Crash Davis, "Bull Durham," (1988)


Killian was sworn in as U.S. Attorney on Oct. 4, 2010, two years after Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States. Prior to 2010, Killian was sole practitioner of his own law firm, based in Jasper, and he served as city attorney for Monteagle, Tennessee, for a combined 21 years. Killian has held numerous positions on local and state attorney boards and organizations. He has also held teaching positions at colleges in Tennessee, and at the University of Tennessee College of Law.

Killian also served in the U.S. Army, Tennessee National Guard between December 1970 and January 1973.

Since 1976, he has practiced law.

Killian is tall. His thick, dark hair is uncharacteristic of a 67-year-old. He also laughs easily and enjoys exploring light-hearted rabbit trails, like the life and professional antics of figures such as former Raiders/Oilers/Saints quarterback Ken Stabler, former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath and surprisingly-still-rocking Rolling Stones frontman Keith Richards.

After agonizing over what his favorite book is, he settles on "Trinity," a 1976 book by Leon Uris.

"'Trinity' is a very good book, and is about the struggle of the Irish people," Killian says.

He speaks as a purist when he talks about the law, saying that the American legal system is about equality under the law: a belief exhibited in one of Killian's favorite court cases, Gideon v. Wainwright. It is an early 1960s case involving a minimally-educated Florida man who was denied a court-appointed attorney at the local level, and who then fought his way all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States, where he represented himself, to argue that he had a right to representation.

The high court agreed with Gideon, the defendant.

"That exhibits the bedrock principle of the Constitution," Killian says.

His other favorite court case is Brown v. Board of Education, "because you're never going to have an equal society without equal opportunity."

And "conversely, if you provide equal opportunities, you will always have an equal society," Killian says.

Back in 2008, Killian watched the polls closely as then-upstart U.S. Senator Barack Obama maneuvered his way toward the White House. Killian knew what it meant, that there would be a new U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee soon, and he considered it for himself, but didn't hope.

"I thought I might have a good enough resume for that," he remembers. "I just went into it thinking, 'They don't have to pick me, but they have to pick somebody.' So I gave it my best shot."

There were stacks of pages of documents, and an extensive, laborious background check by the FBI.

"They interviewed a supervisor of a summer job I had when I was in college," he says. "I tell people, you can't retroactively build a good reputation, so you do it as you go."

Killian doesn't say much about retirement. Retirement, he says, would be working three days a week.

And he still enjoys the rush of the courtroom.

"You still get a little jolt, I guess," he says. "You get a little adrenaline flow. If you don't get that anymore, you need to quit doing it."

When the opportunity to join Polsinelli came along last year, Killian faced a hard decision, whether to stay or go as U.S. Attorney for East Tennessee. President Obama's second term expires this year. A new U.S. Attorney General will likely be appointed under the next presidential regime.

And Killian's run was a success, he thinks.

So here he was, faced with the opportunity to go out on his own terms, and with good feelings about what he had done.

"You're on top, and you've accomplished things. You've got your health and your abilities," he says.

Killian felt like he needed to take advantage of the new opportunity before him.

"Life doesn't hold enough opportunities," he says. "You need to take advantage of the ones you get."

The view from the Polsinelli conference room is second to none in downtown Chattanooga. From the window, you can see the river, and the ridge and the corner offices and the white walls of the federal courthouse, Chattanooga's impressive little cathedral where every day, the American justice system is preached, and in a way, put on trial itself by players on both sides of the game.

Killian exits the Polsinelli conference room through one of two swinging glass doors and stands in the lobby near the elevators, which take their time arriving. He has paperwork to do.

Annie Savoy, female lead and love interest of a pair of minor league baseball players in "Bull Durham," was right.

"Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time," she says, "but it's also a job."