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Perry Sanders Jr., a 60-year-old attorney with deep-set hazel eyes, is stretched out on a black couch near the front window of the Springs Orleans restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs. Sanders, dressed in a black tracksuit, chats with two men wearing ties. After a few minutes, he wraps their conversation with a round of handshakes and then shifts his focus my way. For the past three years, this man has been the personal lawyer for Katherine Jackson—mother of the late pop music icon Michael Jackson—and has handled the business of Michael’s estate as the family has navigated one of the highest-profile celebrity legal disputes in recent years. Sanders, whom a writer once likened to “an actor hired to play Lex Luthor as a protagonist,” ambles across the restaurant. He sits down. It is as if a stagehand has switched on a klieg light and turned it in our direction.
Sanders spends the next two and a half hours charging through his accomplishments, usually downplaying their significance. (“All I’m doing is walking around, having kind of a small party all the time; I’m not that complicated a person.”) Members of the waitstaff often interrupt and hand him pieces of paper, which he surveys and then approves with a nod. Occasionally his phone rings and he takes the call, or he’ll pop up to greet a familiar face in the restaurant.
In 2010, Katherine’s trial attorneys filed a multibillion-dollar wrongful-death suit against AEG Live, claiming the promoter of Michael Jackson’s tragically aborted shows at the O2 arena in London was responsible for hiring the doctor who provided Jackson with the sleep medication he overdosed on. Sanders isn’t the lead attorney on the case—the lawsuit was filed before Katherine hired him. However, he says the trial attorneys did ask him to consult on the lawsuit, and he has argued before the judge on Katherine’s behalf. He’s also quick to add that he has no grudge against Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz, who owns AEG.
Despite his role in all kinds of big cases, Sanders’ work involving two famous musicians is perhaps more recognizable. There’s the Jackson case, but before that, Sanders became involved in a battle over the death of celebrated rapper the Notorious B.I.G. (born Christopher Wallace), who was murdered mysteriously in Los Angeles in ’97. In 2001, an attorney for the late rapper’s family called Sanders and suggested he read a recent Rolling Stone piece outlining a conspiracy: It suggested the city had covered up details about police involvement in the murder.
In 2002, Sanders and Colorado Springs attorney Rob Frank (Frank has since moved to West Virginia) sued Los Angeles on behalf of Wallace’s family. “There were so many layers to get through—you could ask somebody a direct question, and they’d say they wouldn’t know, and you’d ask the next person and he’d say the guy who didn’t know was the guy who would know,” Frank recalls. “It shocked me. Perry, less so.” The judge received an anonymous tip that Los Angeles police had withheld information about their involvement, declared a mistrial in 2005, and ordered the LAPD to pay more than $1 million in sanctions. Five years later, the family agreed to dismiss the suit, though it could be refiled at any time. After all these years, the murder has still not been solved.
Family Ties: Katherine Jackson (far right) with Michael’s three children (front left) and Justin Bieber in 2012 at the King of Pop’s memorial.
Sanders’ experience on the Wallace case served him well with his next high-profile client—the matriarch of the famous Jackson family. Late last year, a jury in Superior Court in Los Angeles County ruled for AEG, but some of the jurors said they found the verdict form confusing. One question asked whether Dr. Conrad Murray was unfit to perform his duties, and when the jurors responded “no,” the judge instructed them to stop deliberations. “I had no way of voting in favor of the plaintiffs because of the way the verdict form was worded,” one juror said in a declaration, according to the Los Angeles Times. A California appeals court ruled against Katherine in January, and as of press time her attorneys were considering appealing the case to the Supreme Court of California. If Katherine wins, the case would likely be presented to a new jury. If she loses, AEG pays nothing.
Growing up in the Deep South, Sanders never imagined he would land in Colorado. He was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1954, and when he was five years old, he moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, with his father, Perry Sanders Sr., who took over as pastor at the local First Baptist Church. Sanders Sr. stayed with the church for 47 years, and during that time, his congregation grew by thousands. Sanders Jr. remembers his father as a conservative man with a disdain for fundamentalism in any religion and a deep sense of the importance of social justice. The pastor once granted church membership to a black parishioner in the segregated South, even though white members of the church threatened to leave. “Discrimination is nothing but the devil’s game,” Sanders recalls his father telling him. “Anybody who wanted to quit [the church] could quit.”
Surrounded by Cajun culture, gospel, and the blues—particularly in nearby New Orleans—Sanders fell in love with music as a kid. At 14, he taught himself guitar and played in the church’s youth choir, and as a freshman he played trumpet in the prestigious Lafayette High School band.
After graduating high school, Sanders spent a decade traveling the South, singing in a duo with a friend he’d met at a wedding. While still performing, he went to the University of Arkansas for a year, transferred to Louisiana State University and dabbled in pre-med, and then decided to try law school. “I goofed off way too much to have been anything resembling a good student,” he says. He did manage to get a law degree from LSU, but after graduating, he channeled his energy toward his passion for music. He co-founded Disk Productions, which produced commercial jingles for companies such as Paul Mitchell, Hilton, and Honda. Sanders eventually sold the studio, and after brief stints in Nashville and Los Angeles returned to Louisiana and opened a legal practice specializing in criminal defense and civil rights.
Driven partly by his father’s sense of social justice, Sanders began to pride himself on representing the little guy. He helped Louisiana singer John Fred, who had a 1968 hit with the Beatles parody “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses),” and other musicians win back the rights to their songs. “Most of the people who had been taken advantage of didn’t have the wherewithal to be paying the hourly rate to justify this stuff,” he says. “If I liked the catalog, I would take the case on contingency—and if I won, I would wind up with a percentage of the copyrights.”
By the end of the ’80s, Sanders had made enough money in law and music to be able to open a few restaurants. He also began to work criminal cases. The first one he took was defending the owners of a pet shop in Sulphur, Louisiana, who had been charged with drug possession. He won after persuading a judge to toss dubious police search-and-seizure evidence. The case kicked off his criminal practice and continued to shape his worldview. “It absolutely cemented my conviction,” he says. “I’ve always had a passion for trying to help keep authority in check.”
What started with small-time drug cases quickly evolved into murder cases, and Sanders’ reputation began to spread around the state. A man approached Sanders to explain that his daughter lived in Mossville, Louisiana, where contaminated groundwater was damaging residents’ health. Sanders filed a class-action suit on behalf of the residents in 1995 and bet everything he had on the case. “If it could be double-mortgaged,” Sanders says, “it was double-mortgaged.” The gamble paid off; the judge awarded a settlement of more than $50 million. After that, Sanders says, “I was kind of bankrolled.”
The Mossville groundwater case, however, proved to be more than just a payday—it was one of a number of environmental cases that marked the beginning of Sanders’ shift toward Colorado. In 2000, Rob Frank, who was then a managing partner at a local firm, represented 3,000 homeowners from Security—a small town outside Colorado Springs—in a lawsuit against local manufacturing company Schlage Lock. The residents believed the Schlage plant had dumped tetrachloroethylene, a chemical the Environmental Protection Agency classified a “likely human carcinogen,” onto its property. According to residents, this poisoned the groundwater, which seeped into an aquifer and infected the local water supply. Frank had a case, but he needed cash and firepower. A nationwide search for attorneys who’d taken on similar battles and had a record of success steered him toward Sanders’ Louisiana firm. Sanders agreed to help with the case, which was complicated, requiring months of examining crawl spaces and basements. Sanders traveled from Lake Charles to the Antlers Hilton hotel in Colorado Springs and went to work.
Sanders interviewed residents and found a deep throat source. He conducted in-house air monitoring in basements. He tested water from private wells. He held public meetings to discuss the case with local residents. “When he came to town, you certainly could tell he was going to round up what needed to be done,” says Craig Lewis, one of the homeowners in the class-action suit. “You could feel that confidence.” In January 2007, Schlage settled, paying residents $5.9 million in legal fees, funding environmental testing of homes in the area, and agreeing to pay to remedy any additional problems that might be found.
It was while poring over sludge in 55-gallon drums that Sanders noticed something else about Colorado Springs: its beauty. He now refers to the city as “one of the most beautiful places on Earth.” What’s more, for a town of 430,000 people, Sanders thought the downtown area was surprisingly bereft of boutique hotels. There was the Antlers, but it was mostly for business travelers, and there was the Broadmoor, four miles southwest. Sanders viewed this landscape as a business opportunity. Then, in 2005, Hurricane Rita leveled his home and tore the roof off his Lake Charles office. He decided to move to Colorado full time. “I was kind of planning on staying anyway,” says Sanders, who recalls thinking after the storm, I’m definitely staying now.
As Sanders worked on the Schlage case, he began to pursue real estate opportunities around Colorado Springs. In 2006, he and a partner, John McSween, bought a 127,000-square-foot building downtown thinking they’d turn the place into condos or maybe a hotel. He stuck with the project even as the U.S. economy crashed. After a reported $34 million renovation that took place mostly over three years, the Mining Exchange opened as a Wyndham Grand hotel in May 2012. Sanders’ Southern personality is all over it. The on-site restaurant, Springs Orleans, serves po’ boys and gumbo, and Sanders often wanders through the dining room playfully interrupting meetings to sample sauces and recommend the blackened popcorn chicken. “If you don’t like the food, it’s my fault,” he says. Next door to the hotel, Sanders recently opened an entertainment venue called the Open-Minded Gold Room, where he has been known to play a few of his own songs as an opening act.
Some have suggested that even for Sanders, this latest Jackson suit was a big gamble. While AEG did hire Murray—who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2011 and sentenced to four years in prison—proving the promoter was responsible for Jackson’s death makes for an uphill legal climb, particularly in light of the recent appeals court defeat. Nevertheless, Sanders has made a career of cases that are in many ways similar to the fight over Jackson’s death: representing families against big corporations. “He ran that case by me, and I told him, ‘You’re going to lose,’?” says Vince Linden, a Colorado Springs attorney who has worked frequently with Sanders. “But if he believes in a cause, he’s going to champion that cause at all costs. It doesn’t matter if he wins or loses—he’s going to have his day.”