The knock on the door interrupted us. A knock on the conference door in a law office on the 34th floor of the TC Energy Center in Houston. Five lawyers sitting around an oval-shaped conference table while I deposed the oil company’s safety director. A safety director who literally knew nothing about safety. Following the knock, the receptionist popped her head in the room.
“Mr. Dickson, you have an emergency telephone call. You can take it in Mr. Albers’ office. Follow me.”
We adjourned for a few minutes and I followed her to Mr. Albers’ office.
“Hello, this is Tom.”
“Tom, this is Al Wolf. When are you coming home?”
“When are you coming home? We’ve got a situation here.”
“I should be home tomorrow. What’s going on?”
“My client is charged with murdering his wife. He’s innocent, but we have to get started.”
“Has he talked to the police?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t let him talk to the police. I think I’m home tomorrow afternoon.”
“Come to my office when you get here.”
Click. The phone went dead.
So began our defense of Matthias Zimprich, a 76-year-old retired businessman. Matthias escaped from occupied Europe during WWII. He immigrated to Emmons County, N.D., where he became a truck driver. Over the years, he built a successful trucking company, which he later sold upon retirement.
Al Wolf grew up in Emmons County. The son of Adam and Magdalena Wolf, he was the youngest of 11 children. He either knew everyone in Emmons County, or he was related to them. English was Al’s second language. He spoke German until the first grade.
It was a difficult case. Mrs. Zimprich had been bludgeoned to death as she sat at the kitchen table late one Sunday night. Matthias had recently been diagnosed with cancer. He was undergoing chemotherapy and the treatments left him weak, fatigued, and disoriented. He had retired early that evening after watching “Dancing with the Stars” with his wife.
At 2 a.m., someone called 911 and said, “My wife is dead. We need an ambulance.”
That someone was Matthias Zimprich.
Our Friend: Al WolfAl WolfThe facts of the case were pretty muddled. The 911 call was problematic, but the four-hour-long videotaped interrogation at the police station was less so. As we gathered evidence, I came to agree with Al. Mr. Zimprich was innocent. However, rather than fight over bail and the bond conditions, Mr. Zimprich remained incarcerated in the Burleigh County jail while we prepared his defense.
They called it the Contact Room. The room where lawyers met their clients. It was a 10-foot x 10-foot windowless box constructed of bland, bleached cinder blocks. No windows, no air, no hope, and no escape. It was the dreariest place on the planet. I hated that room.
A couple of dingy blinking florescent bulbs hung over two plastic institutional chairs separated by a single metal table. The Burleigh County Contact Room – testament to man’s inhumanity to man.
It had one door. One way in, and one way out.
On a wall near the door was a white control box with two black buttons. One button marked “Call.” The second marked “Private.”
The “Private” button meant no listening in by the County. No one believed that. The “Call” button actually worked. It summoned a deputy to unlock the door and escort you out. Visitations on Friday afternoons were the most worrisome. Our fear was being ignored. No one wanted to be left in the Contact Room over the weekend.
This was where we met our clients being detained in Burleigh County.
Al cared deeply for Matthias Zimprich. He visited him often in the Contact Room – sometimes every day. I met them there every Friday afternoon to give them an update on what we had, or had not, accomplished that week.
Late one Friday afternoon, I came to the Contact Room with good news, promising news, which was not often the case.
Al was there before me. He was always there before me. His innate decency and humanity carried over into his professional life. Al actually made the attorney/client relationship into what it was supposed to be: a trusted and productive working relationship.
That late Friday afternoon, I finished my weekly briefing and was packing my notes to leave. Not paying particular attention, I vaguely picked up a distinctive verse recited in a low, guttural German accent.
“Unser Vater im dem Himmel, dein Name werde geheiligt. Dein Reich komme . . .”
I looked up. What is that? What are they doing? And then I saw that Al had taken hold of Matthias’ hands.
“. . . ein Wille geschehe, auf Erden, wie im Himmel.”
What is that? What are they saying? Oh my God, that’s the Lord’s Prayer. They are reciting the Lord’s Prayer . . . in German.
I was trapped and reached for the “Call” button.
“Unser täglich Brot gib uns heute . . .”
Now, nearing panic mode, I leaned with my elbow on the “Call” button. And I thought, “This is worse than being locked up.”*
I was stunned. This was a lawyer, meeting with his client, and they were praying. I really started leaning into the “Call” button.
“Please, please, do not leave me in here.”
And then, slowly and deliberately, a hand reached out to me. It was Al’s hand. He was extending his hand in prayer. And then even more slowly, without missing a beat, he whispered, “Tom, it wouldn’t hurt you to join in.”
I backed away from the “Call” button and I took his hand. I was too ashamed not to.
“And forgive us our trespasses,As we forgive those who trespass against us.And lead us not into temptation,But deliver us from evil.”
In a place where darkness covers all, men like Al Wolf, a man of deep faith, can always see the light.
Matthias Zimprich was later acquitted and returned home to live with his two sons.
Al Wolf is the senior lawyer in North Dakota. He is first on our register of licensed attorneys. He has practiced law for 63 years. He comes from a time when lawyers were active in every civic endeavor. They were involved in our churches, in our political system, in our professional organizations, and in our community. Al was involved in everything, like the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Board of Directors, on which he has served for many years.
One evening, Senator Kent Conrad and I were meeting Al for dinner in Bismarck. Senator Conrad was always punctual. Al, not so much. Senator Conrad and I were sitting at our table. Al was late. The Symphony Board meeting had run late. We looked up as Al came in and watched him greet every person in the restaurant.
Senator Conrad chuckled and said, “Tom, do you know why Al Wolf was never governor of North Dakota?”
“Because he was too busy.”
Al is first on the list of licensed lawyers in North Dakota for a reason. He has earned it.
*This language has been tempered to allow for publication in The Gavel.
Thomas A. Dickson has extensive experience in a variety of areas including criminal defense, plaintiff’s personal injury, and oil field personal injury. He has tried more than 100 cases to jury verdict in North Dakota courts over the past 30 years. Since 1992, Dickson has been listed in The Best Lawyers in America. He has also been listed in Super Lawyers. In 2017, he received the Light of Justice Award from the NDAJ. Dickson is a member or officer in many organizations and is also active in the community.
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