Former prosecutor, himself now facing prosecution, is a puzzle to his friends

May 24, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

LEONARDTOWN -- For months it was a local mystery: Where is Charles A. Norris? The gregarious former state's attorney had vanished in the fall, leaving behind his law practice, his wife and a trail of debt.

He was not around in March when the St. Mary's County grand jury returned indictments against him for felony theft, alleging that he had embezzled $42,000 from two clients and an insurance company.

Rumors placed him in California, possibly Florida, and the Sheriff's Department had warrants for his arrest.

Early this month, after six months on the road, Mr. Norris gave himself up, telling the Sheriff's Department through his lawyer that he had checked into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Havre de Grace.

The warrants for his arrest were rescinded by his old friend, Circuit Judge John H. Briscoe, and he was released on $10,000 bond.

Now that Mr. Norris is back, people who know him wonder about a deeper mystery: Whatever happened to Charles A. Norris, the man who seemed so full of promise decades ago?

"He was an up-and-comer, absolutely," when he was elected state's attorney in 1962, said an old friend of the Norris family who declined to be identified.

She described Mr. Norris as "a charming, personable guy. He was hard not to like. . . . He always had some big deal on the back burner that never turned out to be a big deal. He's been waiting all his life for his ship to come in."

"He could have been, God, whatever he wanted," said J. Frank Raley, a former state senator who now runs an insurance agency in Lexington Park.

It was Mr. Raley who recruited Mr. Norris to run in 1962 with him and Mr. Briscoe on a slate of candidates that promised a new, improved county government, an alternative to the government that had been dominated for years by the political organization of Philip H. Dorsey. The ticket won.

At 29 years of age, Mr. Norris seemed on his way to a solid career in law and politics.

"I just had such a tremendous, positive view of him at one time," said Mr. Raley, who said he had been impressed by the Georgetown University Law School graduate's intellect, energy and idealism.

"That all changed after he got elected," Mr. Raley said.

After one term during which he was tried and acquitted of malfeasance in office, he was voted out. Later he pleaded "no contest" to federal tax evasion and was sentenced to prison.

At 58, Mr. Norris now faces an August trial date and complaints about his conduct before the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland.

He also owes $5,300 in back state unemployment insurance taxes and has liens against him for unpaid federal income taxes. A spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service said that, because of privacy rules, he could not confirm the amount Mr. Norris owes.

Married with two grown children, Mr. Norris lived in the Breton Bay subdivision before he disappeared, and could often be found playing golf at the Breton Bay Golf and Country Club.

It's not clear if Mr. Norris has returned home from Havre de Grace. A receptionist at the only drug and rehabilitation center in Havre de Grace -- Father Martin's Ashley -- would say only that he was not there last week. Because of privacy rules, she would not confirm that Mr. Norris was ever a client there. Several telephone calls to his home went unanswered.

Two of his clients charge that Mr. Norris skipped town with their money.

The March felony theft indictments charge that Mr. Norris settled an automobile accident case for a Leonardtown woman and accepted $20,000 from State Farm Insurance on her behalf, without telling her the case had been settled and without turning over the money.

The indictments also charge that Mr. Norris emptied the $22,000 bank account of William Burns, a veteran who received the Silver Star, Bronze Star and the Purple Heart in World War II.

Declared incompetent in 1958, William Burns now lives in a Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington. Mr. Norris was appointed his guardian in 1963.

The veteran's nephew, Michael Burns of Mechanicsville, said he had been trying to reach Mr. Norris for months to inquire about his uncle's affairs. Mr. Norris never seemed to be at his office and never returned calls, Mr. Burns said. That continued for weeks. Finally, Mr. Burns visited Mr. Norris' Leonardtown office in November and found it had been closed.

After hearing rumors from other lawyers that alleged certain escrow accounts Mr. Norris controlled had been emptied, Mr. Burns reported the information to the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Department, which launched the investigation that led to the March indictment. In April, Mr. Burns had the court remove Mr. Norris as guardian. He has also made a complaint to the Attorney Grievance Commission, an independent agency that investigates allegations of lawyers' misconduct.

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