Judge has seen law from badge to bench

Wednesday, April 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:29 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

HALLSVILLE — Municipal Judge Lee Koury bought the bench he sits behind for $1 from the city of Springfield. That was a good deal. But his courtroom is so small he had to saw two feet off the end of the bench just to make it fit.

Koury has been the municipal judge in this northern Boone County town — population 1,200 — since 1993. He holds court once a month and handles 12 to 15 cases.

In the seven times he’s sought election to the post, he’s been opposed only once. He passed out campaign fliers that year to ensure a victory.

On Tuesday, Koury won election to his seventh and last term.

“I enjoy the people that are a part of the city, not just the people who work with the city, but the citizens here,” Koury said.

Koury’s workload hasn’t always been so light. His background includes a 23-year stint at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, where he served a city of more than 3.5 million and as a detective handled as many as six homicide cases at a time. He’s also been a U.S. marshal for Missouri and a private investigator in Boone County.

Koury, 72, spent the first half of his life in Los Angeles. His experience there included working homicide and major investigations for 15 years. He was even part of the team that investigated the Manson family when it tried to break its leader, Charles Manson, out of prison.

“In L.A., there is always something to do,” Koury said. “At that time we had 65 investigators doing nothing but homicides, and sometimes that wasn’t enough.”

Koury recalled arriving home one night after work, ready to get in bed. He received a phone call telling him that the department needed him to come back because the day shift was unable to handle the six homicides that had occurred since that morning.

Koury’s frenetic schedule also involved taking classes at San Fernando Valley College, UCLA and the University of Southern California. And he taught on the side through a program called “Students in the Law” that sent law enforcement officers into schools to teach kids about their rights and responsibilities.

In 1978, Koury came to Hallsville to visit family members. After taking in the trees, blue skies and friendly people, he wondered what he was still doing in Los Angeles.

Koury decided to move to Hallsville and soon was teaching law enforcement at MU.

Hallsville Mayor Carl South conceded the obvious, saying he can imagine that a small-town municipal court would be quite a change from detective work in Los Angeles.

“No matter where you’re from, if you’re a good person, you can adapt to any atmosphere,” he said.

In 1981, President Reagan appointed Koury a U.S. marshal for the Western District in Missouri, one of the

top law enforcement positions in the federal government.

He has collected stories from his travels around the world as one of the 95 U.S. marshals in the country. Some of his destinations included England, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia.

U.S. marshals make more arrests than all other federal agents put together and deal largely with war fugitives, Koury said. He told the story of a fugitive who had worked in German concentration camps.

Koury was responsible for getting the man safely out of a Los Angeles courtroom and to the airport, which proved difficult, given the mobs of people outside the building who wanted the man dead.

Police had to block the road so Koury could get on the highway. The plan went smoothly. Once on their way to the airport, the fugitive turned to Koury and said, “Hitler couldn’t have done it any better.”

He retired from his position as U.S. marshal in 1991 and moved back to Hallsville. Before the chapter in his life as a detective closed, however, Koury got involved in one final case: the 1992 murder of Tammie Forsythe and her unborn child during a break-in at her home south of Columbia.

Koury said Forsythe’s family contacted him and another investigator, Tim Oliver, after the official investigation had gone on for several months and reached a dead end. Koury promised authorities that he would forward to them any information he found on the case. Three weeks later, he and Oliver provided police the link that eventually led them to the main suspect: a pair of shoes that left a bloody footprint at the crime scene.

Koury soon retired from detective work for good and became a municipal judge in 1993. Most of the cases he handles now are traffic violations. Others include assault, misdemeanor possession of narcotics and driving while intoxicated.

Nothing too unusual happens in the Hallsville courtroom.

“We haven’t had any disturbances in the court,” Koury said. “The police officer acts as a bailiff.”

Hallsville has three full-time police officers.

“As a judge, he is firm but fair,” South said. “Law enforcement is a very serious thing for him; he takes it at heart and tries to do the right thing.”

Koury also volunteers at Hallsville High School, serving as the judge in mock trials for the advanced debate class, Superintendent Tom Baugh said.

As a judge sitting on the other side of the bench, Koury said he sees things differently. He talked about the day former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ann Covington came to dedicate the new Hallsville court bench, the one he bought for $1. She said that many people’s only contact with court law likely is in the municipal court. While they don’t face serious charges, they’re looking for justice and deserve it, Koury said.

No matter where he has found himself — sitting behind the court bench, standing before it or acting as an investigator in the field — Koury has always enjoyed his work.

“It doesn’t matter what you are, as far as a career, but when you learn to work, you figure you’re going to spend a third of each day working; you might as well do something you enjoy,” he said.

“I never in my 34 years of law enforcement have not wanted to get up and go to work. You go to work, and you never know what your day is going to be like.”

Koury now spends most days with his wife, whom he met in Columbia after retiring as U.S. marshal. He has four daughters and expects his youngest, who now lives with her Marine husband in Okinawa, to give birth soon to his seventh grandchild.

“They’re just good, solid people,” South said, referring to Koury and his family. “We’re proud to have him.”

Because 75 is the maximum age for municipal judges, this will be Koury’s last term. He plans to retire and travel with his wife, probably to Okinawa.

“I’ve retired three times, and that’s enough.”

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