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Celebrity hits improbable target in fountain vandal case in Italy

October 1, 1997

ROME (AP) _ Scratch Rome’s underbelly and surprising things emerge.

Case in point: Aldo Cecarrelli, attorney-at-law and instant, improbable celebrity.

Cecarrelli is everything a Roman lawyer is not supposed to be. He’s not slick, he’s not sleek. This self-styled champion of the underdog is stubby, chubby and toothless; he speaks in a Roman dialect as thick as minestrone.

In a world where lawyers know Latin and wear sober black robes, he stands out _ as Raymond Chandler once wrote _ like a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake.

Cecarrelli spends his days trolling the corridors of the criminal courthouse, bottom-fishing for clients among Rome’s hookers and hustlers, bums and barroom brawlers, derelicts and drunks.

His ``office″ is the hallway outside Courtroom No. 1. You’ll find him there every day, his sweaty, disheveled 240 pounds drooping over the bench. His shirt is untucked, half-buttoned and spotted with the remains of his latest meal. He doesn’t own a jacket.

For 44 years, he labored here in obscurity. Then, suddenly this summer, Cecarrelli hit pay dirt.

His windfall was the client from Hell _ or Heaven, depending on your point of view. A 43-year-old punk with a record who plunged into one of Rome’s most famous fountains and broke the tail of a marble dolphin fashioned by the Baroque master Bernini.

The stunt outraged the city. TV crews descended on the scene of the crime. And on the unrepentant vandal. And on his outrageous lawyer.

Cecarrelli didn’t miss a beat.

The fountain, he declared, was at fault _ not his client. The 350-year-old sculpture was too fragile. ``My client could have been hurt,″ Cecarrelli said indignantly, vowing to demand damages from the city.

A star was born.

Nowhere is it truer than in Italy that everyone gets to be famous for 15 minutes, and the media here has seized on Cecarrelli, portraying him as knight-eccentric of the needy.

But just as Cecarrelli’s 15 minutes should have run out, movie star/producer Carlo Verdone announced he wanted the lawyer in his next film. ``He’s mythic!″ Verdone enthused. Then maverick TV personality Gianni Ippoliti said he’d lined up Cecarrelli to host a show called ``Poor Devils’ Lawyer.″

It was all too much for the criminal bar association. President Oreste Flamminii Minuto fired off an angry letter to Parliament and complained to the state-run RAI television: Any show with Cecarrelli would give people entirely the wrong idea about lawyers.

``While I was here defending the poor, he was off at the beach getting a suntan!″ Cecarrelli spluttered.

Ippoliti rallied to Cecarrelli’s defense. ``He’s `simpatico.′ Picturesque. A good guy. But no fool,″ Ippoliti said. ``And certainly not your typical TV lawyer.″

Cecarrelli has responded to his sudden fame with gales of hot air _ his acknowledged specialty.

He’s claimed in interviews that he’s written 19 books, including a ``dictionary of eloquence″ and taught at Rome’s most prestigious university. He spun tales about his youth, comparing himself to Cicero, ancient Rome’s greatest orator.

``In the courtroom I am the best in Italy. I am a god,″ Cecarrelli said. ``I have a secret in court: Talk about everything except the facts.″

From the shabby desk outside Courtroom No. 1 where he spends his days, Cecarrelli is true to his word.

Today’s case is an assault. The client bashed someone in the head with a bottle. Cecarrelli dismisses the file with a wave of his pudgy hand. ``I never prepare,″ he says grandly. ``I never read the file.″

While the case was continued, Cecarrelli says he may use a three-pronged defense _ the client is (a) a good guy, (b) sorry, (c) never going to do it again _ but will wait for inspiration to strike once he’s in the courtroom.

That’s the way he operates. Wild improvisation. An avalanche of words.

Flinging grammar and syntax to the winds, he rolls out rhetoric like a bolt of cheap cloth in a street bazaar, machine-gunning the courtroom with adjectives and saliva, mopping his sweaty brow.

Cecarrelli loves to reminisce about ``big″ cases. Oddly, a favorite is that of Lalo the Lame, a short, one-legged killer of exceptional ruthlessness who got six life sentences. Maybe it’s because the case got publicity, and that is what Cecarrelli craves above all else.

The details of his TV show are still being worked out, but Rai Uno’s late-night programming director, Gabriele La Porta, says it will likely air this fall. Things have been smoothed over with the bar association, La Porta adds.

In the meantime, Italy’s new star basks in new-found glory at his perch outside Courtroom No. 1.

``I waited a long time to be discovered,″ exults Cecarrelli, who admits to being ``more or less″ 67. ``Now maybe I’ll finally make some dough.″

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