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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Baby Ryan’ case puts lawyer Russell Van Camp back in spotlight

J. Todd Foster The Spokesman-Review
Lawyer Russell Van Camp surveys the Spokane skyline and howls from his hilltop home. “Thank God for America.” Van Camp, a top dog among media hounds, is back in the spotlight. Fate has thrown him a bone in the form of Baby Ryan, 8 pounds of public-relations joy. The infant considered too sick to live by Sacred Heart Medical Center is in Portland now, off a breathing machine and high-tech surrogate kidneys. ABC’s “20/20” is coming. “A Current Affair” just called. The New York Times just left. After years of low-profile cases, Van Camp is back. And Spokane’s legal community is trying to hold down its lunch. “It’s enough to make you puke,” says one attorney, who like a dozen others interviewed wasn’t willing to put his name behind his contempt. The last time Van Camp hit the headlines this big was in the mid-1980s for his crusades against abortion, gays and pornography. “Some doctors think it’s OK to kill babies inside the womb. Now it’s after they’re born,” the admitted rightwinger says. If Baby Ryan had been born to South Hill parents, he never would have made news, his attorney says from his Glass Street home, a rancher overlooking his pool and the city below. Nghia and Darla Nguyen knew having a second child was risky. Darla is diabetic. They expected a premature birth but not dead kidneys, a blocked bowel, possible brain damage, a weak heartbeat and poor circulation. Sacred Heart Medical Center, a Catholic hospital with a pro-life mission, was torn over what to do with Ryan, who was born Oct. 27. Spokane’s biggest medical institution does not perform around-the-clock kidney dialysis on newborns. Even if it could, Ryan was doomed, doctors predicted. When Sacred Heart tried to withhold lifesaving dialysis and talk the family into letting the baby die a peaceful, inevitable death, the Nguyens found Van Camp. A plaintiffs’ attorney who specializes in personal injury and medical malpractice cases, Van Camp, 47, immediately got a temporary restraining order against the hospital. Baby Ryan became the focus of medical and legal battles and eventually was moved to Portland, where doctors forecast a 75 percent chance of survival. Van Camp, a longtime nemesis of Spokane’s medical establishment, has the floor again. “They tried to kill Baby Ryan just because he didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes, didn’t have a perfect IQ and didn’t have a lot of money,” he says. Nghia Nguyen (pronounced “Win”) fled Saigon 19 years ago. Darla is a Native American. Welfare pays their medical bills. But more than half the babies born at Sacred Heart are on welfare. Many are members of minorities, the hospital says. Sacred Heart swallows $7.5 million a year in charity care. Most of Van Camp’s diatribes have gone unanswered by the hospital, however. Public relations experts say Sacred Heart was mum too long, repeatedly citing patient confidentiality laws when the baby’s medical condition was anything but a secret. Van Camp was fighting an unarmed enemy. Walter Russell Van Camp, a New Mexico native, landed at Spokane’s Gonzaga University Law School 25 years ago, the ambitious son of a soil scientist and a physical therapist. He inherited the will of his father, a World War II prisoner of war, but admittedly maybe not his booksmarts. The C student graduated in 1973 and began practicing law. “A students make wonderful professors. B students do OK as attorneys, but they become judges. The C students make all the money,” he says. His left hand flashes a 5-carat diamond, his right an amethyst the size of a Little Leaguer’s wad of grape bubble gum. Twice a year, Van Camp rolls dice in Vegas. His bathroom at home is marked “Lawyers Only.” The wall is lined with a picture of a dice table and two license plates: “TORTS” and “CRAPS.” His other interests are roses, beekeeping and food. At 400 pounds, Van Camp is bigger than life. “I got too fat for my Corvette,” he says. He now drives a $45,000 Lincoln Mark VIII. The license plate reads “TORTS.” Van Camp is proud of his annual income, pegging it in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” It’s the only question he won’t answer with specifics. Van Camp says he doesn’t want the Internal Revenue Service to know all of his business. The agency has dogged him for 10 years for allegedly underpaying his taxes and says he owes several hundred thousand dollars. Van Camp sued the IRS, and now they’re at an impasse. In 1988, IRS officials repossessed his red Corvette, towing it from the county courthouse at lunchtime. He bought it back. “If they had taken my diamond rings, that would’ve made me mad,” he quipped at the time. To thumb his nose at the IRS and anyone else “who can’t take a joke,” Van Camp formed a meaningless company with a Spanish name: Besame Management Trust Inc. Besame means “kiss me.” Van Camp enjoys a good laugh, even at his own expense. Not known in Spokane legal circles for his brilliant mind, Van Camp relies on his people skills. His histrionics play well to juries. “I have maximized the average intelligence I have,” he says. “A good trial lawyer’s an actor upon the stage. I’m just a glorified vacuum cleaner salesman.” Several Spokane attorneys term Van Camp’s antics “buffoonery,” but, they warn, never underestimate the lawyer. “Sometimes he has jury appeal on a case. Sometimes, he hits it,” says one courtroom adversary. Van Camp took the Baby Ryan case for no money. Sacred Heart lawyers expect he’ll eventually file a malpractice suit. The attorney claims the hospital botched the birth by delaying delivery for several minutes when doctors knew from ultrasound the baby was in fetal distress. If no lawsuit, then the publicity from the Nguyen case will draw paying clients like moths to a lamp, other attorneys say. “He appears to be a self-promoter,” says Seattle lawyer Frank Shoichet, who once squared off with Van Camp in an abortion case. Van Camp’s motto, according to insiders: The only bad publicity is no publicity. One of his daughters, who claims the Baby Ryan case is nothing more than a “publicity stunt,” says her father frequently speaks of the media like children speak of Santa. “He says, `The only reporters I don’t want to see in my office are from `60 Minutes,”’ she says. But another daughter says, despite her father’s reputation, his Baby Ryan crusade is genuine and born strictly from a love of children and a hatred of injustice. Van Camp notes that reporters called him on the Baby Ryan story. Regardless, seeing Van Camp on the TV news or in the newspaper turns Diane Pratt’s stomach. She sued him for malpractice in the late 1980s, claiming Van Camp took a 40 percent cut from a $20,000 insurance settlement he didn’t even negotiate. After Pratt retained an attorney, Van Camp agreed to pay back some of the money. “He severely victimized me,” Pratt says. “It’s atrocious.” Several other clients have sued Van Camp for malpractice and excessive fees. But with 250 personal injury cases a year and up to 10,000 clients in his career, a few less-than-satisfied customers fall within the “statistical norm” of any law practice, Van Camp says. The Washington State Bar Association censured Van Camp in 1985 for overcharging by $29,000 a woman rendered an invalid in a car accident. He still collected $97,000 for representing her. “Your actions in this matter bring discredit upon yourself and the legal profession and show a disregard for the high traditions of honor expected from members of this profession,” wrote bar President F. Lee Campbell. Van Camp scoffs. The bar association and other attorneys are cliquish, jealous of his practice and bitter about frequently losing to him, he says. “I make no apologies for the person I am. I yam what I yam,” Van Camp says in a bad Popeye impression. “I’m winning and making money.” Van Camp, a Pat Robertson delegate to the 1988 Republican National Convention, also believes he’s unpopular because he’s one of the country’s few Christians who have made lawyering a success. Successful attorneys make more than $40,000 a year and generally are godless, the teetotaler says, adding that many lawyers are alcoholics. But even Van Camp has stumbled while walking the high moral ground. The breakup of his first marriage is legendary among the legal community. It took nearly five years to finalize the divorce. First wife Cheryl Van Camp, an Oregon Mennonite, caught him in bed with a client, well-known anti-abortion protester Teri Lindley. Van Camp married her last year. “She slashed all eight tires on both of our cars,” Van Camp says. “I was making so much money and having success but totally miserable at home. It was awful. I did not have the love of a woman at home. “I have made mistakes. I hope I don’t make any more.” Teri Van Camp said she couldn’t help falling in love with Van Camp, a self-described pit bull in the courtroom but a teddy bear in the living room. “For myself, my (first) husband never deserved what I did to him,” Teri Van Camp says. “He was a good man. There’s no way to rationalize it. Christ does not require you to be perfect. “But Russ and I are happy.” Indeed, Van Camp enjoys life, ambling and blustering through it, he says, like his little bulldog, Sugar Ray Leonard. “He’s gross. Everyone thinks Leonard is so ugly he’s cute. He just lays around and slobbers, slimes and passes gas, just does what he wants to do. “He doesn’t hurt anybody. But when he wants something, he will not quit.”