The Pit Bull

Photograph by Dilip Vishwanat

When Chet Pleban learned that Tim Russert had died, he stopped what he was doing.

Pleban never stops what he’s doing—unless it’s a calculated pause for a jury’s benefit. In 34 years he has tried at least 1,500 cases. Hotly controversial “cases of first impression,” in which a higher court has never decided the issue in question. Silly cases (he defended the Segway from high permit costs in Forest Park and sued eccentric school-board member Bill Haas “because he was annoying”). Big, splashy, politicized cases (special investigator for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and until recently into the governor’s email practices).

Pleban, 58, gets up at 5 a.m., works out, drinks coffee as breakfast, juggles three or four high-profile cases, does his daily handstand for the media. Asked when he’d have “an hour or so to relax and talk,” he flashes back, “You talking about this year?”

But ever since June 13, when Russert dropped dead at 58, Pleban’s been worrying that all that adrenaline will catch up with him, too.

In 1999 he watched his mother spend a hellish month dying of colon cancer. In 2006 his wife told him their 24-year-old marriage was dead; he’d thought they were happy. Last year his dad died; his sister’s still waiting for him to help her settle the estate. And he’s starting to feel the aches and inflammations of middle age, early twinges of mortality.

“I go 100 miles an hour,” he says, worry fraying a voice better known for relentless attack. “I don’t stop to smell the coffee, I drink it.”

Pleban doesn’t go out to lunch much, saying it takes too long to stop, order and wait for your food. When he does go, he favors places with Irish names, chicken wings on the menu and baseball on the bar TV. We meet at Mike Duffy’s. Guys in shirt sleeves hail him as he enters; one comes up to reminisce about coaching baseball with him. The waiter leans close to say our lunch has been paid for, and a sixtyish cop nods from the next table. He stops on his way out, practically doffing his cap, to thank Pleban for “that advice a couple months ago.”

He gets gratitude from his clients, a volatile mix of hostility and grudging admiration from his peers, who alternate labels of “pit bull” and “bulldog.” “He will take hold of your backside and hang on to it,” one man tells me, jaw clenching.

Pleban dismisses the acrimony. “People hate your guts when they are on the other side of the fence,” he says, “and then down the road they call you to represent them.” Has it happened? “Absolutely. More times than I care to count.”

C. John “Chet” Pleban is the son of Chester J. Pleban, an easygoing Polish-American who retired from the trust department of a bank, attended St. Aloysius Church and volunteered for the local ambulance association in Hanover Township, Pa. “Nothing bothered him,” Chet says. “My mother was the aggressive one.”

She loved the water, so every summer the family dragged blankets and beach umbrellas to Atlantic City. At night Chet went to Steel Pier and watched, breathless, as horses climbed 60 feet to a platform and dove straight down into a tank, female riders on their backs.

Fall’s schoolwork held little interest. He did just enough to do well at his Jesuit prep school, competed in sports, basked in family attention. His sister, Betsy Pleban Cannon, says his biggest act of childhood rebellion was hurling his clarinet across the room.

At Jesuit-run University of Scranton, Chet was vice president of his senior class and captain of the tennis team. “Academics didn’t excite me,” he says with a shrug. “We had the LSATs on a day we were traveling to play tennis, so I put B’s for every answer and said, ‘Gotta go.’”

I must look incredulous. “I didn’t just do this at random,” he informs me, drawing himself up like an earl who’s been mistaken for a shoe salesman. “I’d calculated the odds.”

Nonetheless, things were tense in the Pleban household that spring. And they ratcheted even tighter when Pleban drew No. 15 in the draft lottery for Vietnam. He slid into Saint Louis University’s law school and shopped for an ROTC program. (He’d signed first with the Marines, then went back and told them, “Frankly, I got a better deal with the Army.”)

By the time he finished law school, the war was over. “They were going to send me to field artillery the following winter,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not doing that. I want something in August.’”

The Army sent him to Fort Lee, Va., for 90 days—starting in August.

Pleban has defended mayors and police chiefs, a nun and a shock jock, two death-row inmates and a long list of cops charged with felony assault or manslaughter. He says he defends “underdogs.” But before you snort, redefine the word. They’re not clueless pups, they’re lone dogs the pack has turned on, dogs who’ve dug themselves into a hole, dogs who nipped a little too hard at the leader’s heels.

It’s said he made his bones with the Ferrario case, back in 1984. Former police officer Joseph Ferrario, white, was charged with manslaughter; the state claimed he’d shot at a fleeing subject and the bullet had ricocheted, killing a black woman who was sitting on her porch. “Ferrario had quite a few notches on his belt, other shootings,” Pleban says, “and the day of the victim’s funeral, [then-KSDK reporter] John Auble finds him sitting in his back yard in a lounge chair, sipping lemonade. I asked Ferrario, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’”

Pleban and his co-counsel, Norm London, won Ferrario an acquittal. Pleban also won acquittals for officers Michael Bowman and Joseph O’Brien, accused of beating up “this quasi–mentally challenged young man,” and for officers Michael Marshall and Ronald Oldani, accused of beating a guy up on Highway 40. He couldn’t quite manage to get officer Sal Cira off when Cira was charged with assaulting a guy he’d chased to a rooftop, though: “He thought he was up there with God and the birds, but three lawyers were watching from the Paul Brown Building.” Pleban had the alleged victim’s rap sheet printed—twice—and let the accordioned printout unfurl across the courtroom, bumping gently against the prosecutor’s head.

Cira was found guilty of felony assault and sentenced with a $100 fine, which was later set aside.

November 21, 1996. The TV cameras glided forward as Pleban patted the shoulder of his client, Evelyn Rice-Peebles, the city recreation commissioner fired during the “Midnite Basketball” financial scandal. With a flourish, Pleban introduced the examiner who’d given his client a polygraph and invited questions. At the end of the press conference (his eighth or so, all presenting Rice-Peebles as a whistle-blower hung out to dry by then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.), Pleban announced, “We’d now like the mayor to take a polygraph, and we’ll pay for it.”

Nervous chuckles, and then one of the reporters blurted, “Chet, aren’t you ever ashamed at how you use the media?” Pleban didn’t miss a beat. “The bigger question,” he replied, “is ‘Aren’t you ever ashamed at how you let me use you?’”

That quote was never reported.

Pleban’s detractors say he’ll do anything to keep the cameras focused on him. His supporters say it’s not about him; it’s advocacy.

Best bet? It’s both, in varying proportions. He’ll take a dry, dusty case, climb high and dive, splashing foam all over the applauding media.

“I wish every attorney was like Chet,” admits Kevin Horrigan, Post-Dispatch editorial writer. “He makes my life a lot easier.” Horrigan chuckles. “It’s ironic—after all these years and all these cases I’ve talked to Chet on, he’s finally got a client I want something on, and he won’t give it to me. All I need is five minutes and a Xerox machine, and I’m happy. But Chet says it’s not in the client’s best interests.”

Word is, if you hire Pleban, you get KSDK investigative reporter Mike Owens thrown in as a bonus. “If you don’t want to be tried in the media, go someplace where they don’t have an open court,” Owens tosses back. “What makes our court system good is its transparency.”

Richard Callow, local power broker and PR genius, says, “Sometimes, my clients need lawyers. Sometimes, they just need Chet Pleban.” In the court of public opinion, Callow says, Pleban’s not only adroit but brazen: “From a client’s point of view, the most important difference between Chet and other media-using lawyers in St. Louis is that Chet is willing to argue the most absurd contention with the same gravity that most other lawyers reserve for the U.S. Constitution.”

Pleban once used the Rodney King riots to claim a white officer couldn’t get a fair trial for allegedly pistol-whipping a white motorist. When a prison guard was badly beaten by a violent prisoner, Pleban sued the jail, claiming defects in the building’s design. After federal prosecutors cited evidence that bail bondman Virgil L. Jackson had plotted to blow up his rival—including three separate confession accounts, tapes of jailhouse phone calls and proof of prior attempts to do the same thing—Pleban said the evidence was weak.

As a young lawyer, he served on the city council in Manchester, where he proposed a leash law for cats and introduced a bill to ban handguns.

Just one year after winning a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity for client Lloyd “Pete” Grass, who admitted stabbing his wife to death during a psychotic episode, Pleban wangled Grass a conditional release to leave the psychiatric institution and visit his parents. When a judge revoked the pass, Pleban accused the court of unjustly questioning the findings of State Hospital psychiatrists who’d pronounced Grass “in remission.” “If I were a psychiatrist and read that opinion,” Pleban said at the time, “I’d be offended.”

“When Claire McCaskill was a prosecutor in Kansas City,” Pleban says, “I tried a case against her. At one point I said or did something she didn’t agree with—which is probably about 95 percent of what I said and did. She said, ‘Chet, you don’t know me very well.’ I said, ‘Claire, let me explain something to you. When we started this case, we weren’t friends. If you are not my friend when we finish, I won’t have lost anything.’”

Pleban’s utter indifference to collateral damage is, many say, his secret. In a town where people hold their tongue just to be nice, his presence is automatically intimidating.

“He’s got piercing eyes and a strong voice,” says defense lawyer Paul D’Agrosa, “and he can get in a witness’s face and break them down, because he knows exactly where he’s going.”

“He’s one of two people who sues St. Louis city on a regular basis and wins,” notes another lawyer.

“I don’t think he likes to lose anything, even a traffic ticket,” says Lynette Petruska, a lawyer who works for him. “Back when we were city attorney and prosecutor in Frontenac, he’d go after people, boom, boom, boom. I said, ‘I can’t stand to watch this. It’s like watching a prizefighter beating up on Grandma.’

“Once, Frontenac got sued,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Chet, this is a dead-dog loser for us, let’s just take a dive.’ He would not accept defeat. We went in and argued, and the other side went away, because it was going to be a fight every inch of the way.”

A deposition of lawyer Brad Lakin last fall lasted two minutes before U.S. Magistrate Judge Phil Frazier, supervising by phone, called a halt to the wrangling and sent Pleban and opposing counsel John Renick to another room to work out their differences. “Try not to kill each other,” the judge admonished.

In a recent case, defending a cop accused of child abuse, “flourishing” a weapon and assault in a messy divorce case, Pleban trod gently with the tearful 15-year-old daughter. Then a detective in the St. Louis Police Department’s child-abuse division took the stand, and Pleban opened fire: “Did you ask them [the defendant’s daughters] to describe the gun? Where does it say that in your report? It doesn’t. Why not?” The detective mentioned a Division of Family Services hotline report. “Well, did you investigate it? That’s all I’m asking you. Did you ever ask them if they told their mother he pointed a gun at the TV and pulled the trigger?”


“Why not?”

Pleban swears that in his “nonprofessional life” he’s “not that combative.” His eldest son, J.C. Pleban, just finishing law school, says, “He doesn’t like to admit defeat ever, even when I beat him at golf.” If his father got upset in the courtroom, J.C. says, he’d never let on: “It’s the stonewall exterior.”

Sure enough, Pleban didn’t bat an eye when a cop he was representing for assault showed up for court after dutifully trimming his mustache—by lopping off the ends until he resembled Hitler. Reporters and other lawyers chortled, convinced that tiny detail could blow the case.

It turned out to be his biggest win.

The cop was Robert Dodson, a St. Louis police officer charged with second-degree murder. Pleban listened to Dodson describe chasing the victim, Julius Thurman, onto the dark, rain-slicked roof of a South St. Louis pawnshop—where he lost consciousness, for reasons Dodson swore were a mystery.

St. Louis’ chief medical examiner, Dr. Michael Graham, did the autopsy on Thurman but sent the brain to the chief medical examiner for St. Louis County, Dr. Mary Case, to autopsy. “He couldn’t do that until the brain firmed up so they could slice it,” Pleban says. “So he told Dee Joyce-Hayes that after a cursory review, death was caused by a linear object.

“Hayes charged Dodson and another cop with murder—and later dismissed the case against the other cop,” Pleban says indignantly (he and Joyce-Hayes have a long and contentious history). “How you can charge a police officer with murder—for the first time in the history of St. Louis—before the autopsy is completed and then dismiss the case is beyond my wildest imagination.”

The government had seized Dodson’s flashlight—which Pleban figured was the likeliest “linear object”—as evidence. “There was no doubt this young man’s skull was fractured, massively,” he says. “The question was how it got that way.” Pleban bought up every similar flashlight he could find and hired forensic engineers from Washington University to test them. “I said, ‘I want to know what this flashlight would look like if it had caused this kind of massive skull fracture.’ So they’re in seventh heaven smashing all these flashlights, and their conclusion is, to have caused the kind of fracture he had, that flashlight would be in a thousand pieces.”

The engineers also told Pleban that in their opinion, no round flashlight could have caused Thurman’s injury, which was an L-shaped fracture. Ten months into the pretrial discovery, maybe eight weeks before the actual trial, Pleban started to form a theory of what had actually happened: When Dodson tackled Thurman on the slippery rooftop, he went down, and his head must have hit a cinder block. Pleban had seen cinder blocks scattered all over the rooftop when he revisited the crime scene, and the corner would be the right shape. In the dark, Dodson might never have known what happened.

Because Case and Graham had said the injury was caused by traumatic force from a blunt object, Pleban hired two other highly respected pathologists: Dr. Jay Dix, from the University of Missouri–Columbia, and Dr. Michael Baden, who’d performed autopsies on Nicole Brown Simpson, John F. Kennedy, Czar Nicholas II and John Belushi. The St. Louis Police Officers’ Association footed the bill.

Baden said that in his opinion, there could have been a bleed in the brain, consistent with what would happen if a moving head hit a stationary object and not vice versa.

Then Graham took the stand. Pleban says he demanded to know how many foot-pounds of pressure such a fracture would have required, then asked, “Are you even curious if that flashlight still works, after a blow like that?”

Until that moment, the actual flashlight had been out of his reach, state’s evidence. Before the trial he’d said to Dodson, “That flashlight has to work. Tell me now: Do I drop this line of defense?” Dodson had said to continue. So that morning, Pleban got C batteries from his investigator, threatening him with death if they weren’t fresh. He dropped the batteries into place, closed the compartment and handed the flashlight to Graham.

It lit right up.

Postscript: The jury found Dodson not guilty. But Graham says the flashlight Pleban handed him was never established as the murder weapon. Graham still believes Thurman was struck in the head multiple times with a blunt object, as does Case, who never bought the “falling head injury which was claimed by defense experts.”

“I have had several cases in which Mr. Pleban was in the position of opposing opinions that I held,” she emails. “While I felt very strongly that my opinion was the correct one, I came to greatly respect and admire Mr. Pleban as being one of the most thorough and observant attorneys I have encountered. That doesn’t mean I agree with his theories on some of these cases, only that he is very good at what he does.”

Pleban sucks up information, analyzes every angle and rehearses for every contingency. But what the public sees is the Perry Mason stuff.

Defending a police officer accused of tormenting a homeless man, Pleban led 12 other police officers into the courtroom. “They followed me in like ducks, and I lined them up and had the defendant stand with them. ‘Isn’t it true,’ I said, ‘that at one point or another, you identified all these officers as having assaulted you?’” The man admitted that he had.

In another case alleging police assault, the prosecutor put Ron Henderson, then police chief, on the stand, dripping with gold braid. Henderson had barely gotten out his name and rank when Pleban started objecting—his point being that the testimony was irrelevant because Henderson knew nothing about the case. The judge kept sustaining Pleban’s objections. Then Pleban leaned over to another lawyer and whispered, “Watch this.” When the next question came, Pleban remained silent. Henderson looked over at him, expecting an objection and not even bothering to listen to the question. He floundered, and the prosecutor had to repeat the question.

Then Pleban objected.

He likes playing with people, and he likes playing with the law, whether he’s testing it, invoking it or trying to change it.

He successfully argued the right of sex offenders to remain in their homes if they’d lived there before 2006 (when a new law barred offenders from moving within 1,000 feet of day-care centers and schools).

He challenged divorce-settlement laws in the Missouri Supreme Court, because his client claimed his ex-wife had tried to hire a hit man to kill him. Why should her potential victim have to pay her alimony; he might be funding his own death! Pleban argued that the alleged attempted murder rendered the original divorce settlement “unconscionable”—one of his favorite words. (He lost; the higher court refused to set a precedent for modifying a divorce settlement.)

Most recently, Pleban spent almost a year as special investigator in the inquiry into Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt’s email practices, only to be shut out of the case in July by a judge trying to mitigate against Attorney General Jay Nixon’s possible political motives. “I’m apolitical!” Pleban sputters. “I sued a Democratic governor!” (Mel Carnahan, after a minor fracas with a KTVI cameraman. The governor apologized.) “The only time I have ever spoken to Nixon was when I crashed one of his press conferences and challenged what he was saying about my client,” Pleban maintains, adding that he’d agreed to investigate only because Mel Fisher asked him to. (Fisher is the former superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol; Pleban says that when he investigated charges of illegal internal wiretapping there, he was struck by Fisher’s integrity.)

At press time Pleban is resisting the judge’s order to turn over his files: “Those files belong to my client, and I’m not sure who the client is!” He fumes a while, then insists he is glad to be out of the mess: “I told Fisher, ‘Do me a favor. Lose my number.’” Pleban loves arguing principle. But is he Don Quixote or Jerry Springer?

“On the continuum of idealism, I’d put Chet somewhere between the personal-injury guy in the TV commercial and your ex-wife’s divorce lawyer,” Callow says. “But I’d trust him to buy the next round when it was his turn or stop for a broken-down car on the side of the road.

“Chet skips the designer suits, flashy watches, expensive haircuts and law school vocabulary that most of these guys affect,” Callow adds. “He often looks like he slept in his suit and cut his hair with a vacuum cleaner attachment.” Pleban doesn’t even wear a watch; he says “it’s too cumbersome.” His movements are quick, agile as Houdini’s; he grabs his suits off the rack at the Brooks Brothers outlet in Osage Beach. His peers, he says, take themselves far too seriously.

Or maybe they take him too seriously.

“Prosecutors don’t like him. He’s a prick,” says a lawyer who’s known him for years. “It’s really difficult to deal with him, because there is no middle ground, and if some issue comes up, it’s a really nasty fight. He’s a scorched-earth attorney.”

“He particularly likes to grind the other side into the ground just for the sport,” says another lawyer. “He’s charming, but he’s mean—and not just in the courtroom.”

Pleban says his courtroom reputation simply carries over and tarnishes everything else. I arch one eyebrow. Finally he says, “I think I can be perceived to be mean. Whether perception is reality, I don’t know.”

On the flip side, what surprised Owens about Pleban was “his tenderness. My daughter died 17 years ago, and he was very helpful to me.”

“It’s not like he’s this crazy pit bull of a man 24/7,” son J.C. says cheerfully. “As a dad, he’s always there, no matter what’s happening. If I’m up at school having a tough time, at the drop of a dime he’s there to help, even if it’s something stupid.”

Years ago, when Judge Tom Frawley was practicing law, he got a call one day from a young woman: “She said Pleban had stopped her in the middle of taking her deposition and told her she should get a lawyer to represent her.” Pleban thought the woman was lying and should have her own lawyer for her protection. “He didn’t need to do it,” Frawley says. “Only three people ever knew that story—her, him and me—and I thought it was pretty impressive.”

D’Agrosa, who’s a part-time prosecutor in Arnold, battled Pleban on KFNS (on a show hosted by one of Pleban’s clients, Kevin Slaten). The topic was red-light cameras: Arnold’s the first Missouri community to install them, and Pleban claims they’re unconstitutional because they force drivers to prove their innocence. “It was an honest debate about the law, and of course he thinks he’s right,” D’Agrosa says. “He always thinks he’s right. But I accepted the invitation because I knew it would be so much fun.” D’Agrosa says Pleban launches personal attacks only when an opponent puffs up like a blowfish: “If you take yourself too seriously, he will push your buttons and get great enjoyment out of it.

“I just love Chet,” D’Agrosa admits suddenly. “Would I repeat that to somebody? Yeah, but a lot of people wouldn’t. It’s easier to hate him.”

So when does Pleban relax—on the golf course? He and his three kids play for $1 a hole. In the kitchen? His mom was “the master of the five-minute meal—turn up those gas jets,” but his entrées take two hours, minimum. Last Christmas, he made beef Wellington from scratch, complete with pâté and puff pastry. And even when he went to the lake with the Shrewsbury garage guys (a group of about 10 neighbors who watch football in each other’s garages), they wound up having a biscuits-and-gravy cook-off to see whose were the best.

The lake, now that was supposed to be the solution, the place where he could truly get away from it all. He climbs into his 2003 BMW, pulls out his iPhone and speeds toward peace, making calls the whole way, because he started accepting cases down there, too, and he’s fast becoming known at the Camden County courthouse. “Once I went down, did a deposition, came out in the dark, had to leave early the next morning in the dark,” he admits. “I don’t even know if the lake was there.” He shakes his head. “It’s not healthy. I mean, Tim Russert died.”

All it takes to distract Pleban from worrying about overwork, though, is a new case, especially if it’s borderline unwinnable, impolitic or too hot to handle. He sees other people’s red flags and charges.

“We all send him those cases,” confides a St. Louis lawyer, “because we don’t want them. A mayor or police chief under fire? We say, ‘Chet might take it.’ Then we’ll talk around the courthouse, say, ‘Did y’see what Chet came up with this time?’ It’s funny if you’re the one benefiting; it’s no fun if you’re on the other side.

“He isn’t friends with the rest of the bar,” the lawyer adds. “He’s turned on us all in the past. He’s not one of the gang.”

“Would you trust him?” I ask.

“Never.” Short pause. “If I was in trouble, though, I might call him.”

Pleban would probably take the case. The only cases he knows he doesn’t want are death-penalty cases.

He represented Gerald Smith, the second man to be executed in Missouri after the death penalty was reinstituted. Smith, by then, wanted to die. “We finally got a stay on his execution. Gerald didn’t like that.” Pleban sighs heavily. “He battled me from the start. We uncovered all this information, but by then they were tired of Gerald Smith.”

He recounts the execution in the dulled chronology people use to retell a nightmare. “It was his wife and myself. When you were walking into the penitentiary, the hearse was parked outside. I spent time with him. He had chicken for his last meal, and we talked about God. The media were seated in another section, shoulder to shoulder. I didn’t read any of the news accounts afterward; I turned off KMOX on the way home. It was one of the cruelest things I’ve ever seen. He was on a gurney facing the news media, because it was a ‘media event.’ He had to turn his head to see us.”

Smith received three injections. An account in the Post-Dispatch stated that Pleban walked out after the first, but Pleban remembers hearing somebody say, “Checkmate” and seeing the blinds lowered after the third. “Fortunately,” he adds, “I never had to interact with the media.”

After a nerve block for shoulder inflammation this spring, Pleban was determined to break the hospital rule and drive himself home. When his first two escape attempts failed, he casually informed the nurse he was “just going to have coffee with a doctor friend on another floor.”

“We have coffee on this floor,” she told him firmly. Thwarted, Pleban had to beg his secretary to come sign him out.

But he still drove himself home.

Intimations of mortality are hard for him, his sister says. “The divorce was rough for him, too; he didn’t tell me for months.”

However they feel about Chet, everybody loves his ex-wife, Sarah Pleban, a former public defender who’s now a guardian ad litem, representing the interests of children in divorces and other legal battles. Because she happens to be petite, blonde and pleasant, men call her “sweet” and then apologize instantly; she also has a sharp intelligence and, as one put it, “She can take care of herself.” When news of the divorce broke, nobody wanted to be anywhere near that courthouse.

It started out mild: “I didn’t even read the separation agreement, just signed it,” Chet says. “I was too emotional at the time, and I really didn’t want to deal with it. Then all of a sudden she calls and says, ‘What about this?’ and ‘You owe me this.’”

He reverted to form: “Additionally, and without waiver of the foregoing, Plaintiff cannot seek equitable relief simply by sitting on her legal rights. Therefore, the present action is also barred by the equitable doctrine of laches and must be dismissed … Plaintiff’s claim is barred by the doctrine of unclean hands.”

After that brief lawyerly clash, they reached an agreement, helped no doubt by a mutual adoration of their children. Even a prior coworker who despises Chet and says he’s “an absolute awful bear if he doesn’t get his ego stroked” softens with the observation, “He does love his kids.”

Marriage, not so much. Marriage was hard for him, harder than he realized. Callow calls him “one of those creatures that Noah would let on the Ark by himself.” Pleban himself says, “Never again.”

If not love, what about work? The logical next step would be to become a judge, but Petruska says he’ll never do that, either: “He has to have a side.” J.C. laughs at the very notion of his father as a judge: “He’s not patient enough!” Even at home, he adds, “My dad didn’t know reasonable punishments. He’d say, ‘All right, you’re grounded for the next 10 years.’”

Pleban says what he’d really like to do, eventually, is retire. I choke on my lemonade. “Hard to imagine that,” I say.

“Yeah, I think this job is going to kill me first,” he says. “But it’d be nice to slow down, appreciate things more.” He looks toward, but not really out, the restaurant window. “It’s kind of sad that I can recognize that and not do anything about it.” Two seconds later, he grins and shrugs.

“Moth to the flame.”

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