Public Safety

From intern to longest-serving: Prosecutor caps eclectic career in Iowa's Northern District

Assistant U.S. Atty Richard Murphy retires this month after prosecuting cases for over 35 years in the Northern District
Assistant U.S. Atty Richard Murphy retires this month after prosecuting cases for over 35 years in the Northern District of Iowa. Photographed at the US District Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — He didn’t think there ever was a good time to walk away after nearly 37 years of prosecuting some of the toughest cases, or that he would turn out to be the longest serving in the district.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy, 63, has handled some distinctive cases over his tenure — like busting up large drug trafficking rings and a motorcycle gang’s racketeering, discovering a dark past of genocide for a Rwandan man nabbed for immigration fraud and unraveling a gun smuggling operation from Cedar Rapids to Lebanon.

“There’s always something brewing — another case to chase down,” Murphy said.

But over the last two years he had been contemplating retirement. He acknowledged uncertainty of how long the pandemic will continue may have played a role in his decision to leave at the end of December.

It has caused delays in court pleadings and sentencings and many of the bigger trials have been pushed into the spring.

Murphy, who was recently recognized by the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys with the Lifetime of Exceptional Service Director’s Award, said he couldn’t put his retirement plans on hold indefinitely.

U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan said Murphy is “truly irreplaceable” and he couldn’t overstate the impact he has had on the office and the federal court system.

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“For more than 36 years, he has served with an unyielding commitment to justice and the rule of law,” Deegan said. “Mr. Murphy has served as an outstanding example for generations of government attorneys. We will miss him terribly, but we wish him the best in his well-deserved retirement.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Berry, who has served many years with Murphy, said the Justice Department is losing “one of its best.”

“Rich’s legal knowledge, litigation skills and dedication to justice are unsurpassed,” Berry said. “Rich will be greatly missed in the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a colleague, an adviser and a friend.”

The lifetime award recognized his many years of service to the Justice Department and the Northern District of Iowa, where not only has he prosecuted many high profile and complex cases, but also held numerous leadership positions, including first assistant U.S. attorney, criminal chief, senior litigation counsel and counsel to the U.S. attorney.

How career started

Murphy, a Dubuque native who went to St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and then the University of Iowa College of Law, started as an intern in 1981 with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The internship followed his stint as a law clerk for a well-known U.S. District Judge Edward McManus, who died in 2017 after more than 50 years on the bench.

He didn’t come from a family of lawyers. His father, Charles J. Murphy, was appointed as postmaster by President John F. Kennedy, serving 27 years in Dubuque.

Murphy’s grandfather and great-grandfather were both in journalism. His great-grandfather was the editor of the Telegraph-Herald and when he died, Murphy’s grandfather, also a former senator, became the editor.

Murphy became an assistant U.S. attorney in 1984, starting out in the Sioux City office. Only he and another attorney were in that office. In 1986, he joined two other prosecutors in the Cedar Rapids office.

Looking back, there were no career federal prosecutors. There now are 29 assistant attorneys in the district.

Early drug cases

In 1988, Murphy led a two-year investigation, working with federal agents and local authorities, that resulted in 65 arrests, seizure of cocaine worth $1.5 million, $800,000 worth of marijuana and more than $300,000 in cash and other assets.

Murphy said several successful businessmen in Cedar Rapids were involved in the trafficking.

“Some would have these cocaine parties in their homes, so many of those were forfeited (as crime proceeds) and many of the over 65 defendants went to prison.”

That investigation led to a marijuana trafficking case. The ring leader, already in jail pending trial, made phone calls from jail, saying he had $60,000 in cash buried under the concrete steps at his house.

Authorities jackhammered into the concrete and found it. They decided to keeping going, and unearthed a total of about $385,000 in cash that the trafficker had stored in a plastic container.

Murphy also was honored with a national award in 1996 for his prosecution of 11 members of the Sons of Silence Outlaw Motorcycle Club, who were convicted on racketeering crimes, involving drug trafficking, stolen motorcycles and parts, prostitution and assaults.

It was the first time wiretaps were used during an investigation in the district, Murphy said.

The convictions helped dismantle both the Iowa chapter — primarily in Waterloo and Boone — and the national chapter.

Rewarding cases

Murphy has prosecuted some of the most serious cases in the district, but he said the most rewarding ones were those that helped victims and got justice for them.

One case with a lasting impact for Murphy was the prosecution of Gervais “Ken” Ngombwa, 60, who was convicted in a 2016 trial on naturalization and immigration fraud charges.

Evidence at trial showed Ngombwa lied to authorities about family relationships in an attempt to get his application approved for relocation as a refugee in 1998 and to later obtain citizenship. Testimony indicated he falsely claimed to be the brother of a former prime minister of Rwanda, who lives in exile in Belgium.

According to testimony, Ngombwa was a leader of MDR-Power — an extremist political party responsible for killing an estimated 800,000 Tutsi people in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

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Murphy, who received the Anti-Defamation League’s Shield Award for his work, said that was an emotional prosecution because it involved ethnically motivated violence, and it took many hours of investigation because U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigators had to travel to Rwanda to track down and interview witnesses and victims or their families to identify Ngombwa.

Ngombwa was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. His U.S. citizenship was revoked and his naturalization certificate was canceled by the judge at sentencing. He will be deported to Rwanda upon release.

Memorable crimes

Murphy said some of the cases he was involved in are memorable to him because of the crime or the odd “characters” involved.

He once prosecuted a professional rodeo clown for cocaine distribution. Later the man was prosecuted again for marijuana trafficking and sentenced to 20 years.

Also in the 1990s, there was a cocaine trafficker who stole planes for a drug cartel to transport drugs back to Eastern Iowa, he said.

In recent times, Murphy prosecuted four family members who had legally obtained weapons and ammunition from dealers in Eastern Iowa, buying an estimated 252 firearms in 17 months, according to testimony. But they concealed them within skid loaders that were hauled in shipping containers from Cedar Rapids to Lebanon in 2014 and 2015.

Last big ones

The last big cases Murphy has to leave for his colleagues involve three defendants charged with killing James Booher, 51, of Marion, during a drug robbery. Booher went missing in 2014 after selling drugs, authorities say.

Matthew Robbins, 46, of Ely, Danielle Busch, 30, and William L. Yancey, 43, both of Cedar Rapids, were charged in May 2019. The three are accused of robbing Booher of methamphetamine and money by force on May 31, 2014, according to the indictments. They also are accused of having a firearm during the robbery and fatally shooting Booher.

Robbins’ trial was bumped to April 19 and Yancey’s is June 7. Busch already pleaded.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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