Richard Gerstein Watergate prosecutor

April 27, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MIAMI -- Richard Gerstein, 68, one of Florida's most colorful and influential prosecutors, died of an apparent heart attack early yesterday.

The towering, imposing prosecutor gained national prominence in 1973 by winning the first conviction in the Watergate scandal that would eventually force the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

His conviction of Bernard Barker on money-laundering charges in Miami linked the White House directly with the 1972 burglary at the Democratic Party's headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington.

And as a lawyer in private practice last year, Mr. Gerstein briefly saw the spotlight again while representing comedian Paul Reubens -- television's Pee-wee Herman -- against public indecency charges in Sarasota, Fla.

"He had a fierce feeling for justice," said Martin Dardis, Mr. Gerstein's chief investigator for many years.

"He was concerned as much for getting justice for a janitor's wife as he would for a bank president."

Mr. Gerstein's often stormy career in the Dade County state attorney's office spanned much of the turbulent 1960s and '70s and was marked by highly publicized battles against South Florida mobsters, gamblers and corrupt politicians, as well as his own personal crusades against what he viewed as vice, pornography and perversion.

"This thing gets in your blood," he told an interviewer in 1967. "The excitement of something new each day, the challenge of holding so large an office together. Call it ego if you like, but it's exciting."

In 1979, he received the legal profession's coveted Rockefeller Public Service Award for his work in drafting legislation to curb the powers of grand juries against individuals.

And in 1981, he headed an American Bar Association task force on crime.

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