This Prosecutor Never Rests
|“The government is fortunate to have someone of his abilities doing these cases, because
not everybody can do them … He’s a hard-driving guy.”” — Jonathan Barr, a Justice Department attorney on John Michelich, shown above
To handle its toughest cases, the Justice Department calls in top legal gun John Michelich
By David Brown ’96
Portrait photos by Hilary Schwab
Since John Michelich graduated from Illinois Wesleyan in 1974, he’s spent his entire
career surrounded by sex offenders, drug dealers, burglars, frauds, embezzlers, and
Luckily for the general public, once these dubious characters cross Michelich’s path,
they tend to end up behind bars.
Michelich, 50, is a federal prosecutor with the Justice Department’s Criminal Division
in Washington, D.C. As a traveling troubleshooter for the department since 1988, Michelich
has spent a career parachuting into complex situations and making sense out of mountains
of documents that local legal officials don’t have the manpower or expertise to tackle.
That career includes the prosecution of several headline cases. In 1993, he was assigned
to “Iraq-gate,” an investigation of $5.5 billion in loans made by the Atlanta branch
of an Italian bank to Saddam Hussein prior to the first Persian Gulf War. Five years
later, he worked as a prosecutor for the International War Crimes Tribunal in the
Hague, going after the masterminds behind the torture, rape and mass murder of Bosnians
during the years of conflict there.
“The government is fortunate to have someone of his abilities doing these cases, because
not everybody can do them,” said Jonathan Barr, a Justice Department attorney who
has worked with Michelich (pronounced MICK-uh-LICH). “A lot of times, you’re up against
some really top-shelf lawyers on the other side, and you have to have enough confidence
in yourself and be able to defeat them in court. He’s a hard-driving guy.”
Michelich’s skills have brought him to the attention of his boss. Last July, Attorney
General John Ashcroft gave Michelich his award for distinguished service, the attorney
general’s second-highest honor.
Sitting in his office in the Bond Building, two blocks from the White House, Michelich
points toward a plaque on the wall. It’s a photo of Ashcroft with Michelich and his
wife, Barbara. The plaque is one of the very few decorations he displays in an office
kept immaculately tidy, probably due to the fact that its occupant spends so little
“Attorneys in the Criminal Division in Washington don’t have cases to prosecute here,”
he explains, “so we must travel to the location where our cases are — and that can
be anywhere in the country ... So, we get on an airplane and go to court, in any federal
district court where our cases happen to be.
“[Ashcroft] told my wife that she really deserved the award,” Michelich adds, “because
I’m gone all the time.”
Even as a child growing up in Auburn, Ill. — a small town about 20 miles from the
state capital in Springfield — John Michelich admired lawyers and knew he wanted to
He was attracted to Illinois Wesleyan because he thought it would provide a great
preparation for law school. “Having a good, broad liberal arts education is very important
for a lawyer,” he says, “because it teaches you how to think analytically.”
“I think I could have majored in just about anything,” he says, but decided on economics.
The choice was fortuitous, providing knowledge of stocks, bonds, and financial transactions
that he has used in prosecuting white-collar criminals.
Law school at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, helped Michelich determine that
he had the right stuff to be a trial lawyer. In 1976, a year before his graduation,
he won “best oral advocate” after arguing a mock case before the Iowa Supreme Court.
From that point on, he was certain that “I wanted to be in the courtroom,” he reflects.
“I’ve always been more oriented toward using communication skills, and I’ve always
been comfortable speaking in public.”
His friend, Jonathan Barr, confirms that Michelich is “amazing in the courtroom. He
has a strong, deep voice. It really projects. When he gets up, you can just see the
gleam in his eye. He’s just a completely different person,” says Barr, adding, “There’s
a little bit of ham in every good trial lawyer.”
Michelich’s formidable courtroom persona did not arise overnight, nor were his early
cases the stuff of headlines. After passing both Iowa and Illinois bar exams, Michelich
got a job back home as an assistant state’s attorney for Sangamon County in Springfield,
where he tried misdemeanor cases such as traffic violations, shoplifting, battery,
It was the perfect place for him to start, he says. “I knew it would be the absolute
best way to try cases in a courtroom, and that’s what I did. You have more cases than
you can possibly handle thrown at
you, and you can try however many cases you want to, because they’re there.”
As the conveyor belt of available cases whizzed by, Michelich started grabbing. “There
were drunk-driving cases galore,” he recalls. “You can have jury trials in drunk-driving
cases every day if you want, the volume is so large.”
In fact, his very first case was a drunk-driving charge. He got the conviction, but
the victory was balanced with pressure that Michelich’s classroom experiences couldn’t
really prepare him for. “You don’t want to try a case and then lose it for something
that you did wrong,” he says, “and that’s where the real pressure is.”
Attorney General John Ashcroft (above left) gave Michelich a distinguished service
award for prosecuting the Keystone Bank fraud, which was the costliest bank failure
since the Great Depression.
He moved on to felony cases, such as burglary, armed robbery, aggravated battery,
and even murder, but his specialty became sexual assault — what he describes as the
“very serious, more violent rape cases.”
“I did one difficult case, and it was successful, then I got an assignment for another
one, then another one after that. Once you learn how to do a particular type of case,
it’s easier to repeat the same type of cases,” he explains.
One “particularly brutal” episode that stands out in his mind is a gang-rape case
in which one woman and two men broke into a couple’s house. While the woman made off
with their stereo equipment, the men raped the female victim in her bed. One of the
defendants confessed and was identified by the victim. But the woman was so traumatized
that she couldn’t remember her other attacker’s face.
Michelich tried a novel approach: he had the woman hypnotized so that she could “relive”
the attack. Afterward, she identified the second man, who was convicted and was sentenced
to 45 years in prison.
In 1986, then State’s Attorney Bill Roberts ’64 moved up to U.S. attorney for central
Illinois. His vacancy started a process that promoted Michelich to the job of first
assistant state’s attorney — the first of many times in which the fellow IWU graduates
would overlap. A second big break occurred when Michelich attended a conference in
Washington, D.C., and struck up a conversation with a friend of a friend who worked
at the Justice Department. Urging him to send in a resume, the acquaintance told Michelich
“you’re the kind of guy we’re looking for.”
In early 1988, Michelich relocated to D.C. when he was hired to work in the Justice
Department’s Obscenity Section of the Criminal Division, a group formed to prosecute
cases involving child pornography and the transporting of obscene materials. If one
of the 93 federal districts did not have the resources, expertise, or personnel to
tackle such cases, Michelich was among the attorneys flown in to help.
Although his efforts sent one of the world’s largest distributors of pornographic
material to federal prison, three years of work in the Obscenity Section also burned
him out. “You can’t do it really long,” he says. “It’s horrible stuff and a really
difficult area, but it’s an area that needs to be prosecuted.”
Michelich found a new vice to prosecute in the Narcotics Section, reeling in a big
case in 1992. He spent the entire year in Puerto Rico going after people who worked
the hub of narcotics trafficking on the island.
At the time, smugglers would fly bales of cocaine wrapped in plastic from South America
and drop them in the water. Accomplices nabbed them offshore using high-speed boats
and transferred the bales to rubber rafts. At night, the bales were delivered to beachside
locations and then hauled by truck to concealed safe houses with the goal of eventually
delivering the cocaine via commercial airlines into the continental U.S.
Michelich and others broke up the links in this drug chain, indicting over 30 people
and sending several to jail for long prison terms. He says he enjoyed the experience.
“The narcotics penalties are so severe that you really feel you can do some good,”
he told IWU Magazine in a 1993 interview.
Not long afterward, he became involved in an even bigger case. Bill Roberts had been
appointed by then Attorney General William Barr to direct a Justice Department task
force investigating $5.5 billion in loans made by an Italian bank (Banca Nazionale
Lavoro, or BNL) to Iraq prior to the Persian Gulf War. It promised to be an incredibly
complex case, and Roberts knew just who to call for assistance.
Michelich’s office is in Washington, D.C., near the White House, but don’t expect
to find him there. “I’m always on the road,” he says.
Known in the news media as “Iraq-gate,” the investigation focused on Christopher Drogoul,
manager of BNL’s Atlanta branch, who made the loan by financing exports of various
agricultural and industrial commodities. It was later claimed that Saddam Hussein
used this money to buy military hardware used against U.S. troops during Operation
Desert Storm. When Iraq defaulted on the loans, fraud and conspiracy charges were
filed against Drogoul. The banker pleaded innocent, claiming he made the loans with
the knowledge of top U. S. officials, and that it was part of then-President George
H.W. Bush’s foreign policy to secretly build up Saddam’s defenses for an Iran–Iraq
war, so that Iran would not win.
As part of Roberts’ trial team, Michelich spent two months poring over hundreds of
thousands of documents in search of information that could actually assist Drogoul’s
case. Under the Constitution, if the government has any information that could help
the defense, it has to produce it, Michelich explains.
“It’s an absolute duty. It must be done,” he says. “If we had material in our possession
that could have been helpful and didn’t disclose it, the case could be reversed on
What promised to be a long, arduous trial ended before it began when Drogoul pleaded
guilty to the lesser fraud charges in a 1993 plea agreement.
Meanwhile, Michelich remained in the Fraud Section, prosecuting a gamut of complicated
cases, including the fast-growing criminal activity of health-care fraud, involving
the likes of physicians who received illegal kickbacks and hospitals that doctored
“The Fraud Section gave him a much wider scope of the potential for cases,” says Roberts,
who retired from the Justice Department and is now a managing partner for Hinshaw
& Culbertson in Springfield. “I think the BNL task force [investigating the Iraq loan]
was probably a good opportunity to showcase his talents,” he adds.
Those talents were spotlighted again a few years later in another high-profile case
that remains one of Michelich’s most memorable.
In 1997, he saw an announcement spread throughout the Criminal Division that the Justice
Department was looking for experienced prosecutors to send to the War Crimes Tribunal
in the Hague. It was a year-long detail, and a prospect Michelich thought would be
“I had been a state prosecutor and a federal prosecutor,” he says. “Now I was going
to be an international prosecutor.”
Michelich joined a team of prosecutors who sought indictments for alleged war criminals
of the Bosnian war. Each team was assigned a geographical area to investigate alleged
crimes. His section was in the Bosanski Samac region in northern Bosnia, along the
border with Croatia, where several men had been accused of persecuting non-Serbs,
with charges such as murder, torture, and other crimes against them.
While mostly working in the Hague, Michelich and his team twice traveled to the remote
village of Orasje, which was the Bosanski Samac region’s equivalent of a county seat.
There, he would question witnesses who had been convinced to come forward with their
stories. Working through a translator, Michelich would briskly type their translated
words into a laptop computer, then ask the witnesses to read a re-translated version
and sign off on the testimony.
His work helped lead to the indictments of three major ringleaders of that area: Milan
Simic, Miroslav Tadic, and Simo Zaric. Michelich later appeared at the tribunal, wearing
translator’s headsets as he closely followed proceedings against the three men.
His time in Bosnia — driving among shelled-out buildings, staying in rat-infested
hotels with intermittent electricity and undrinkable water, and meeting people who
had been tortured in unspeakable ways — left an indelible impression.
“Here we have these people who are fighting for no reason other than they hate each
other and they don’t know why they hate each other,” Michelich said, his voice rising
as he remembers what he saw.
Returning to Washington, Michelich continued his work with the Fraud Section. Although
not allowed to discuss any of his current cases, he did share details of one that
The fraud occurred in Keystone, W.Va., where a woman running a bank in one of the
poorest areas of Appalachia was accused of stealing more than $60 million from her
depositors. The twist was: once she got wind that the bank was being examined by the
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, she boxed up all her records and buried them
in a 100-foot-long, 30-foot-wide and 10-foot-deep hole in her ranch that had been
bulldozed by her ranch hands.
Michelich and others went through the dug-up documents and found out what had caused
the bank to fail. Pleading guilty and convicted, the bank owner faced the same lesson
learned over the years by dozens of other criminals: you can’t run far enough or dig
a hole deep enough to hide from John Michelich’s relentless search for justice.