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Abalos leaves historic mark - Odessa American: Courts

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Abalos leaves historic mark

Protégé of Warren Burnett continues career as Permian Basin’s first Hispanic attorney

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Posted: Sunday, September 11, 2016 5:30 am

Richard Covarubio Abalos had no idea, heading to the Regional Golden Gloves Tournament in 1962 in Odessa, that boxing would lead to his becoming an attorney and earning prominence in Ector County history.

Upton County Judge Allen Moore Sr. told Odessa lawyer Warren Burnett about the Rankin High School junior who was a straight-A student, and Burnett was already familiar with the family of 14 children from having represented Abalos’ father Lasaro in a worker’s compensation case.

Burnett and Moore saw Abalos win the 135-pound lightweight championship and after speaking with him concurred that he had lots of potential. Offered a job as Burnett’s janitor, Abalos moved into a garage apartment next to the 310 N. Lincoln Ave., law office and began watching the famed attorney work throughout the Southwest.

Eventually becoming one of Burnett’s investigators, he earned an associate’s degree in education and pre-law studies at Odessa College, got 90 hours credit at the University of Texas in Austin and graduated from St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio.

Serving two years in the Army, Abalos was an attorney with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps at Fort Bliss and Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he was in the same barracks with future U.S. Sen. and Vice President Al Gore, an information officer. “I wrote a letter to Warren and told him I had met a young man who would be president of the United States,” Abalos said.

“I was impressed by the way Warren treated people of all kinds. He was from a poor family in Virginia. He saw people, not color, and wherever he was in the courthouse, I was right there. That’s how he liked to teach. He always told me we needed more bilingual teachers and lawyers. He helped a lot of people become doctors, lawyers, teachers, whatever they wanted.

“He was brilliant. Lawyers would go to the courtrooms to listen to him.”

Burnett died in 2002 at age 75, and Abalos’ memories of him are warm. “Warren once told me that he was not a good man, but he was not a bad man, either,” he said.

“For him to admit that was something else.”

Abalos’ health has been good other than the effects of a fall with a horse that almost killed him in 2009. He lost a kidney and was on a ventilator in Medical Center Hospital’s intensive care unit, but he never thought he wouldn’t recover. “That horse was a stout 2-year-old,” said Abalos, 73.

“He had the wrong bridle on him and took it out on me.”

He would still like to keep horses and ride, but his wife Delma is understandably opposed. They have three children and one grandchild.

Born on Independence Day in 1943, his workload quickly grew after he opened his practice in 1971. “There was a time when I was trying more murder cases than any lawyer in the area,” he said.

“I did encounter prejudice but nothing to discourage me from being a good lawyer. It seemed the jury panels weren’t fully accepting me as a lawyer, so I had trouble picking the best juries I could get for those particular clients. Sometimes I stayed here (at his 520 N. Lee Ave. office) all night, researching law and looking at old files to see what I had done in similar cases. I went from here to the courtroom.”

One defense was of James Paul Burns, who got the death penalty after his conviction in the 1973 death of a robbery victim. Assisted with the appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans by Burnett associates Richard Clarkson and Timothy Ann Sloan, Abalos won a 1980 reversal and the commutation of Burns’ sentence to a life term.

Referring to the period when the state still used the electric chair, Abalos said, “He didn’t burn.

“The judge had cut off my cross-examination of a prospective juror. He’d said, ‘That’s enough. You have questioned him enough.’ Burns did 10 or 12 years.”

A member of the Odessa College Board of Trustees since 2002, Abalos has also been active in the Ector County Democratic Party, Tejano Democrats and League of United Latin-American Citizens. Appointed by Gov. Mark White, from 1983-89 he was a member of the Texas Youth Commission Governing Board, setting policy for the state’s juvenile detention system.

“I think OC is in good shape,” he said. “We have a beautiful campus, and we’re getting the best professors and personnel we can get. We have low tuition and 51 percent minority enrollment.

“I learned at TYC that a lot of kids out there need help. They’re from low-income families, and we need to help them get a break. It’s a good program.”

Asked if local race relations could be improved, Abalos said, “I think it’s going to be that way for a long, long time.

“It’s human nature. I believe that the more college-educated people we have, the less racism we will have. We want a college-educated community.”

Confirming that he has been a role model for young Hispanic attorneys, he said, “I always told them, ‘The best advice I can give you is to fight like hell.’”

Odessa attorney Bob Garcia Jr. said Abalos “was well-known for being a hard fighter who wouldn’t let any little thing go by.

“Richard’s cross-examinations were tenacious,” Garcia said. “He was a dog that grabbed a hold of your pantleg and wouldn’t let go. He could do no wrong in Reeves County because he had represented several people charged with murder at the Pecos Rodeo, and he got them acquitted. If you tried a case in Pecos, having Richard sitting next to you was a big advantage.”

Garcia said Abalos’ fisticuffs didn’t entirely cease after he went to work for Burnett. “He had other fights in the courtroom and outside the courtroom,” said Garcia.

“Size and reputation didn’t matter. He was a real scrapper. He once had a fistfight with a lawyer in court and really got the better of him. The other lawyer was in jail, and Richard came to my office and said, ‘We need to get him out.’ He felt bad about it. We made arrangements to get him out, and they remained friends.

“The accident with the horse set him back quite a bit,” Garcia said. “He is still very sharp, but he’s not as gregarious and loud as he used to be. He knows how to figure people out when they need help. He knows what needs to be done and is more than happy to do it. We all still love him, and we always will.”

Vickie Gomez, coordinator of the UTPB Retention Office, said Abalos “was one of my staunchest supporters” when she was on the ECISD School Board from 1976-88.

“Once you’re a friend of Richard’s, you’re a friend for life,” Gomez said. “If you need help, he is the go-to person. He’s from an extremely large family that took care of one another, so I think the caring comes from the way he was raised.”

Gomez likens Abalos’ importance to Odessa’s Hispanic community to the late Dr. Wheatley Stewart’s place in the history of the city’s black community. “My dad didn’t have a will when he was dying, so Richard came to our house and made one,” she said.

“His caring goes beyond being a civil rights activist. He cares about people, period. There is not one millimeter of pretension in him. A Mexicano from Rankin, no less, he is the pride of the community. Once he was in Odessa, we stopped regarding him as a Rankin kid. He is ours.”

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