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Defending criminals and chimps


There is no glamour in the work of Bobby and Laura Guttridge.

Bobby Guttridge defends alleged criminals; Laura Guttridge defends abused animals. 

But if Vero Beach needed a poster couple for hometown celebrity, they might be in the running, he with his swarthy looks and fit physique, and she, a swimsuit model with a degree in philosophy. Not that they act like they know it. The Guttridges are as down-to-earth as their charges are down on their luck.

These days, each has a cause célèbre:  attorney Bobby Guttridge successfully defended County Administrator Joe Baird on DUI charges last year. Laura Guttridge is auction co-chair for Nov.3’s Save the Chimps benefit at the Vero Beach Hotel and Club, raising funds for the 300 chimpanzees living in a sanctuary in Fort Pierce. The internationally recognized facility is the largest in the world, according to the organization.

The Guttridges saw the normally off- limits sanctuary for the first time in a fitting way. They rode in on a truck full of coconuts, invited by a local tree trimmer who regularly ferried the fallen fruit to the chimps.

They have been working for the chimps ever since.

Lower life forms also get the Guttridges’ attention. For Laura, that includes frogs; she regularly protests the Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival.

As for Bobby, that phrase may be how the hard-line anti-crime contingent would refer to his law practice’s clientele, whose alleged crimes span misdemeanors to murder. 

A year ago this month, Guttridge successfully defended a man on child molestation charges. That client, Michael Gore, was the son of the notorious local serial killer and rapist David Gore, now sitting on Florida’s death row.

“I realize this sounds pretty horrible,” says Laura. “But I really think the son, who was found not guilty after a jury trial, was getting railroaded because of the sins of his father.”

Bobby Guttridge is also eager to pounce on the city of Vero Beach’s controversial policy of letting police get a warrant to draw blood if a DUI suspect refuses a Breathalyzer test.

Last fall, Guttridge represented a Vero woman facing trial on her second DUI, after her blood was drawn with such a warrant. But in March, she changed her plea to no contest before the judge could rule on  Guttridge’s motion to suppress the blood evidence.

“We need a case with good facts that we can push to the appellate level,” Guttridge says.

 In September, Guttridge  made a presentation to the local Criminal Defense Lawyers Association on the questionable practice, as well as strategies  to mount an effective challenge on appeal.  

So far no appellate court in Florida has ruled on the policy, he points out.  SThis is certainly not a dead issue,T he says. 

While such a stand may not make him friends in M.A.D.D. circles, his successful Baird DUI defense has prompted many anxious revelers to enter his name and number on their cell phone’s speed-dial.

“I hear that all the time,” says Guttridge.

The Guttridges are a social couple. Their Friday night “date nights,” when they hire a sitter for their 2-year-old daughter, typically find them out at the island’s  hotel bars and restaurants. But their favorite evenings are in their own backyard.

The annual Guttridge Christmas party draws hoards, they say, to the second-story deck and bar. Downstairs, a couples-size pool and hot tub are tucked among the lush landscape, if anyone dares undress for a dip alongside their hostess.

 Laura’s career modeling swimsuits is more for fun than income these days.  Only five years ago, she was featured in a spread in More magazine, a respected monthly aimed at middle age working women. She was chosen for the shoot in a contest involving 20,000 entries, she says.

It was only the most recent of many such spreads.

In a hallway in the Guttridge home is a framed shot of Laura posing in a string bikini as Miss Budweiser of the Treasure Coast in 1998. She happily shares a scrapbook of clippings from dozens of calendars and contests.

In one, taken just last year, she stands next to game show host Bob Barker, dressed in a two-piece get-up she calls the “Lettuce Lady;”  it was meant to draw attention to the benefits of a vegetarian diet – both Bobby and Laura have been vegetarians for 20 years. The shot was from an Animal Rights Foundation of Florida banquet in Fort Lauderdale. Laura Guttridge is on the group’s board of directors.

Bobby shrugs off any concern for his wife’s figure’s exposure. What bothers him much more is the attendant process. “You have to listen to all the girl stuff, figuring out makeup and all that.”

“It’s nice to get a $1,000 check in the mail,” says Laura. She still looks nothing short of spectacular after giving birth to their first child, Celeste, at the age of 45.

Bobby Guttridge, two years younger than Laura, thought nothing of letting Laura run out the clock before starting a family. But at 39, conception proved a challenge. Five tries at in vitro fertilization and $100,000 later, Celeste was born. Now 2-and-a-half, she is exceptionally bright, even studious, reeling off consonants, colors and shapes, and speaking in compound sentences. 

Mid-interview, Laura went into Celeste’s room after an unusually  long silence. She found her in her pink-lit loft bed (also built by Bobby) reviewing her vocabulary blocks. “I’m fine, Mom,” she said. “I’m just up here relaxing.” 

Twenty years from now, it may be clearer that their remarkable daughter is the product of genetics.  Meanwhile, she is a testament to nurture: her parents are calmly ever-attentive, particularly Laura, a stay-at-home mom who stores toys in every room, including the “man cave,” Bobby’s  home office. 

Then again, those keen maternal instincts could be Laura’s sixth sense kicking in; Bobby has always called Laura an animal whisperer.

Take the pet possum, just around the corner from the pool, lounging in a spacious multi-level cage Bobby built for him. Possums are not known for their solicitous company, yet this one dotes on Laura, following her around the yard as she gardens.

Her empathy for animals began in childhood; she was the sort who rescued bugs from swimming pools.  She has found tortoises deep within their tunnels on tracts slated for development, and calmed pelicans entangled in fishing lines.

In the case of the chimp sanctuary that is the Guttridges’ chief charitable concern these days, freedom is sadly not an option. Fortunately, neither are cages – the chimps have all been sprung from them, mostly  from science laboratories. 

Their paradise is now the 14 man-made three-acre islands in a swampy area west of Fort Pierce that form the Save the Chimp sanctuary. Hurricane-proof buildings serve as feeding stations, and another wing is used to introduce the soon-to-be-families of new chimps, arriving regularly in what the group calls “the great chimp migration” from a facility in New Mexico, shut down for animal welfare violations and purchased eight years ago by Save The Chimps.

Next month, for the second year, the local Save the Chimps annual fundraiser takes place at the Vero Beach Hotel and Club. Laura Guttridge is serving as auction co-chair, alongside local artist Barbara Sharp.

If the benefit goes anything like last year’s, it will draw an unusually young and vibrant mix of supporters. And as the drinks are freshened up, there will no doubt be joking asides to Bobby Guttridge, who last year successfully defended County Adminstrator Baird in a DUI jury trial, claiming among other points that vertigo caused him to flub his roadside sobriety test.

“He really does have vertigo,” says Guttridge. “But now, everybody else does too.”

Authentic, unassuming and accepting, both Guttridges met while living in the rural, horse-centric region of north central Florida, a three-hour drive from Vero and a world apart from either coasts’ transplant contingent. There, Spanish moss hangs from sweeping live oaks and post-and-rail fences follow the contours of rolling hills. Local watering holes are fed with natural springs, that overflow into icy runs;  a day’s entertainment is sitting in an inner tube, drifting with the current downstream.

Laura was waiting tables, having just moved to town from a suburb of Chicago. She had grown up working in her parents’ restaurant and bar.

Bobby, who was adopted along with two siblings, lived on 13 acres, surrounded by hundreds more of woods and pasture land. His father was a large-animal vet, working with Ocala’s famed race horses – one patient was the Triple Crown winner Affirm. Though money wasn’t scarce, he believed his son should pay his way through college. Bobby found a job in construction – “which taught me I didn’t want to work in that field,” he says. He also started a kiosk business in the local mall, selling sports paraphernalia.

When Bobby’s mother died in his sophomore year at FSU, he came home to keep his father company and went to work selling subscriptions door-to-door to an environmental newsletter.

“I’d get in a van and it would take you to a neighborhood and drop you off. I absolutely hated knocking on doors. “

He found a sympathetic ear in Laura, who by then had lost all shyness honing her animal activist skills. Three years older than Bobby, she was a magnet for the lens of the local press – and on more than one occasion, the long arm of the law -- as she publicly demonstrated for animal rights.

She began working with the rural area’s huge abandoned pet population, volunteering in shelters and rescuing wounded animals. She made the front page of the local paper as a big burly police officer hauled her off for getting too close to a state-sponsored deer hunt for children.

The two started dating, though Laura’s parents nearly wouldn’t let her go when Bobby showed up for their first date “with a headlight hanging out of his car.”

“They looked out the window and said, ‘You’re not going out with that guy,’ and I said, ‘Oh yes I am,’“ recalls Laura with a laugh.

Together they conspired to make a life together. Laura thought of teaming up to teach ballroom dancing, and signed them up for lessons. That stint recently prompted Laura to volunteer Bobby for this year’s Dancing with Vero’s Stars, to Bobby’s evident discomfort.

“I wasn’t training to become a ballroom dance instructor,” clarifies a clearly annoyed Bobby. “I was training to date someone who was trying to be a ballroom dance instructor. It didn’t get very far.”

“He hated every step of it,” says Laura.

The couple continued dating when Bobby transferred to the University of Florida, finishing a degree in finance before moving on to San Diego for law school.

Laura went along, and continued working in animal rights.

In San Diego,  when she was arrested for wearing what looked like a blood-spattered fur coat  into a store to protest the sale of furs, authorities meted out  a ruthless punishment: they banned her from the mall.

“She called me up to tell me, and I told her, ‘You? Not go to the mall? I don’t think you’ll be able to do it.’ ”

By then, Bobby’s father had passed away.  Laura missed her parents, and after law school, they decided to move back to Florida. Bobby began sending his resume to public defenders’ offices, knowing criminal defense was his field of interest. He got a job in Public Defender Diamond Litty’s office in 1995, making $21,000 a year. Two years later, he went into practice on his own. Today he shares an office across from the courthouse with Charlie Sullivan and his son Chuck.

“It’s an interesting thing,” he says about his specialty, criminal defense. “I really believe I’m doing the right thing. I think I’m the guy with the white hat. If you do a lot of other stuff, like divorces, it’s not an either-or situation.  Either one can be the good one or the bad one, or both can be good. You’re just a gun for hire. I believe in advocacy. I take a side.

“I completely disagree with the notion that a great lawyer can argue both sides,” Guttridge says. “I think to be able to win an argument before a jury trying to find the truth, you are a lot more persuasive if you believe what you are doing. I think it’s directly related to how much passion you have in your position.”

 If Guttridge has a passion for the underdogs of the justice system, Laura has a passion for dogs and everything else. Among local animal control officers and shelter workers, she is known for extending herself – literally. She once fell through an attic floor looking for a nest of baby raccoons, an effort that left her with 16 staples in her scalp, and the Humanitarian of the Year award from the local Humane Society.

 On the rare cold night in Vero, she unabashedly approaches theater-goers at Riverside who pull a fur out of storage for a special night out. “I don’t say anything usually, I just hand them a card and walk away,” she says.

Though Bobby also backs the cause, he is clearly uncomfortable with his wife’s intrusiveness. “I’m always looking for an exit strategy,” he says.

If by chance Laura’s target wants to start a conversation, Laura can hold her own. She cites the book “Animal Liberation” by Princeton professor of philosophy Peter Singer as having inspired her at age 18 to join the movement. But his writing prompted more. Eight years ago, she earned a BA in philosophy from UCF.

Those studies, she says, taught her how to back up heart with thought.

“I believe it’s really important to give back to the chimps, and try to make up in part for what we have done to them,” she says. “It’s a way of restoring our humanity.”