Dennis Hartley reigned as a top attorney in Colorado Springs for years, defending Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and homegrown murderers including Timothy Nicholls, who killed his three children for an insurance payoff.
But this week, the long legal career of Hartley, 77, ends without fanfare, the result of a rare disbarment after a laundry list of misdeeds.
“Over the course of several client representations, Hartley failed to diligently pursue clients’ interests, neglected to safeguard their retainers, shared legal fees with a nonlawyer, disobeyed a disciplinary suspension order, misrepresented to a client that he was authorized to practice law during his suspension, and knowingly converted client funds,” according to a disbarment notice by the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel.
The claim that Hartley disobeyed a prior suspension order relates to a 2014 sanction that landed him a six-month license suspension, during which he continued to work, he later acknowledged.
Hartley admitted the bad acts as part of a negotiated settlement with state regulators, including that he failed to report his two convictions for drunken driving and a third for impaired driving.
“Dennis at one time was a very well-respected criminal defense lawyer,” said attorney Pat Mika of Colorado Springs, who knew him from the El Paso County legal community. “He was very gutsy and hard-charging. I’m sad to hear that his life has taken such a downward spiral.
“This is a sad day for Dennis and a sad day for the criminal defense bar.”
Under the deal, Hartley agreed to surrender his law license, sidestepping a disciplinary hearing before a three-judge panel.
His disbarment takes effect Thursday. Hartley did not return a phone message requesting comment.
Disbarment is a relatively rare sanction in Colorado, imposed only 10 times in 2018, according to the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. Because Hartley admitted the infractions, there is no opportunity for appeal.
The move comes five years after previous complaints against Hartley led to action against him.
Three clients said Hartley pocketed their money — up to $25,000 — without showing how he earned it. His 2014 suspension was for one year and one day, with six months later converted to probation. His license was reinstated in 2015.
Among cases that vaulted Hartley into the limelight was that of Nicholls, a Colorado Springs man who was convicted with his wife, Deborah Nicholls, for killing their three children in 2003 as part of a meth-addled scheme to torch their Village Seven home for the insurance money.
Nicholls, now serving a life sentence, later accused Hartley of making critical errors during his 2007 trial — allegations the veteran litigator successfully disputed on the stand.
“I was extremely effective — it’s just that the outcome was adverse,” Hartley told The Gazette in 2013. He said the emotional nature of the case was “too much to overcome. ... I don’t blame the guy for taking a shot. He’s doing life without parole.”
After Timothy McVeigh’s conviction in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, Hartley was tapped to argue his appeal, until McVeigh told a federal judge in Denver that he no longer wished to contest the execution.
“I will continue to advise against it, but I don’t imagine that he’ll change his mind, and I don’t think anybody’s going to try to persuade him to change his mind,” Hartley told the L.A. Times. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection in 2001.
Despite Hartley’s troubles in Colorado, defendants in need of high-power representation still sought him out.
In December, for example, Hartley was one of two attorneys who won an acquittal in a federal courtroom in Missouri for Raul Gonzales, a veteran accused of bilking the federal government out of recovery dollars in the wake of the deadly 2011 Joplin tornado, which killed more than 150 people.
Facing up to 55 years in prison, Gonzales instead was found not guilty of all 10 counts, the Kansas City Star reported.
Hartley drew on his past as a Marine in defending his former Marine client, playing a key role in convincing jurors that Gonzalez had good intentions and didn’t intend to commit crimes, said Hartley’s co-counsel, attorney William Fleischaker of Joplin, Mo.
“It was a contributing factor in our success,” Fleischaker said.
He said he had no concerns about Hartley’s honesty but acknowledged he is “probably showing signs of age.”
“We all do,” he added. “All of us get up in age, and I think most of us recognize if we’re going to try cases we should probably have co-counsel. I’m 72, and I’m at the point where I won’t try a case without my co-counsel.”
Mika pointed to the stress of the profession.
“It puts a lot pressure on winning,” he said. “If you lose, the consequences are grave to our clients. I think that pressure really weighs heavily on a lot of people.”
This story has been amended to the death tally from the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo.