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Last modified at 12:34 a.m. on Sunday, February 13, 2000

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 Defense attorney William Rork explained to the jury in the Thomas A. Berberich murder trial why his client should be acquitted. Rork's difficult early years is one reason why he is so passionate in defending clients.

David Eulitt/The Capital-Journal

Rork's law: Gotta have heart
Criminal defense attorney walked often rocky road.

The Capital-Journal

Billy Rork accepted his diploma from law school the day before 12-year-old John F. "Jack" Hanrahan disappeared in Topeka on May 20, 1979.

More than 20 years later, Rork defended the man accused of Jack's slaying.

William "Billy" Rork has been a common sight on defense teams since he began a private practice in Topeka in 1980. In 1999, Rork's name entered the local vernacular as Shawnee County Sheriff Dave Meneley and former sheriff's Cpl. Timothy P. Oblander fought to retain his services amid charges of drug abuse and perjury.

But Rork's self-styled defense has been well-known for years among battle-weary attorneys in Shawnee County and beyond. In his office Friday, Rork said he was willing to take on any case ranging from speeding tickets to murder, but there is one requirement.

"I won't take the case if I can't put enough time in to do it the way I would want it done if I was in their shoes," he said. "You've got to put your heart and soul in the case."

Rork's feelings about a good defense run deep, he said, because he was in those shoes when he was a teenager. In 1966, at the age of 12, Rork said he was locked away for three weeks without the representation of a lawyer. Although today there are procedures for helping what now would be known as a "child in need of care," Rork said he spent much of his time between the ages of 12 and 18 in institutions for various reasons that he doesn't want to discuss today.

Those memories of feeling helpless, however, have helped fuel Rork's passion for defending the accused.

"You don't know what it's like to be locked up for something you didn't do," he said. "I've never forgotten that."

Rork said he was first kicked out of school in the sixth grade, only weeks before graduation. Although he attended a public junior high and Topeka High School, he graduated from neither.

He said a General Educational Development diploma and a liberal admissions policy were all that got him into Washburn University in 1972. At age 18, he knew it was time to settle down, but his lack of a formal education hadn't prepared him for the rigors of higher education.

"When I turned 18, I knew if I got into trouble it would affect me as an adult," he said. "But when I went to college it was hard because I didn't know how to study."

During his years in and out of state-mandated living quarters, Rork was introduced to a lawyer through mutual friends. John Humpage, a semi-retired Topeka defense attorney, said once he met the young man, he had no doubt Rork would make something of himself.

"If I didn't like him I wouldn't have taken him in," Humpage said. "He was a good boy. He was aggressive and had the twinkle in his eye that showed me that. I hung onto him and got him through school."

With the help of Humpage, Rork also got a job working in the attorney general's office. The experience not only gave him valuable experience for his future vocation, it also earned him the respect of lawyers who met him through the attorney general's office.

Rork applied for law school with a 2.0 grade-point average and lower-than-average entrance exam scores, but he came armed with letters of recommendation from established lawyers who had faith in his ability.

"I got in because a lot of attorneys knew me and went to bat for me," he said. "They thought I had the potential, but once you get in you have to get out."

Rork said he struggled through required courses that forced him to memorize information about legal areas in which he had no interest. Again, he graduated with a marginal GPA -- but he graduated.

"All I ever wanted to do was criminal law," he said.

Beginning in 1979, Rork worked for a year in the anti-trust and consumer trust divisions of the attorney general's office.

Since 1980, he has been defending the innocent and guilty in a private practice in Topeka.

Although he said it often makes his clients nervous, Rork's goal isn't to free every person he represents. His desire is to present all the evidence to allow a jury to decide.

In his defense of Thomas Berberich, the man accused of killing Jack Hanrahan, Rork said he won because he worked without an agenda.

"I wasn't on a mission," he said. "In this particular case, I didn't get blinded by tunnel vision and a cause. I stuck to the facts, and the facts won the case. There was no evidence."

Topeka defense attorney John Ambrosio said all criminal defense lawyers have a style, although Rork's might be a little more pronounced than some.

Ambrosio said perhaps the quirkiness and devotion was a result of Rork's empathy for the people who need his services.

"He's a very aggressive criminal defense lawyer who cares very deeply for his client," he said. "They come from the same place he came from and don't think Rork's forgotten that. I think his theory is, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "

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