June 29, 2003

John H. Brooke keeps his bags packed and his calendar clear from May to July.

“I can be on a plane tomorrow and be in court tomorrow afternoon,” said Brooke, a Muncie attorney and Cowan native. “For many of my clients, their whole year is wrapped up into 2 or 3 weeks, and time is precious to them.”

About 15 years ago, Richard Shields offered Brooke, then a deputy prosecutor, an assignment chasing down writers of bad checks after the Fourth of July. Brooke did a good job, and Shields, owner of North Central Industries, hired him to represent the Muncie-based company – one of the 10 largest fireworks distributors in the country.

At conventions and at other events, Shields introduced Brooke to others in the business. Now Brooke, partner Douglas K. Mawhorr, attorneys Leslie M. Horn and Dylan A. Vigh, two law clerks and seven other staff members spend about 70 percent of the firm’s time working on firework-related issues year round.

They have clients in 45 states and seven countries, including China, where some of the companies have been in business for centuries.

They are considering opening a second office in Missouri.

Brooke’s specialty a local secret

“To anybody on either side of this business, John is a well-known commodity,” Shields said. “He’s the F. Lee Bailey of the fireworks industry, even though the scope of his business is a secret in town.”

For example, Brooke-Mawhorr represents the manufacturer and distributors of fireworks that were used by the band Great White at the fatal fire at The Station, a Rhode Island nightclub.

“That’s about as ugly as it gets,” Brooke said. “It was set up wrong in a bad location, and the sound-deadening foam that had been sprayed on the walls was not fire-retardant.

“More than 100 people died, and lawsuits are being filed every day now.”

Brooke has taken the same training required to become an agent for the federal government’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents.

He’s licensed to manufacture fireworks and trigger displays. He’s a member of the American Pyrotechnical Association.

“When I started, the clients all had a common complaint: They had to spend half their time educating attorneys about the fireworks industry,” Brooke said.

‘He never loses’

“Candidly, he’s the best; he’s 15 years (of cases) and zero against issues in court,” Shields said. “He never loses. If he won’t take the case, he’s telling people upfront that they are violation.”

Brooke has been in L.A. courtrooms several times. After California authorities accused a Needles, Calif., manufacturer of being a terrorist after Sept. 11, Brooke defended his client against 27 felony charges.

The client was found guilty of one misdemeanor.

“Out in L.A., they see that I am from Muncie, and they automatically underestimate me,” said the mustachioed Brooke. “Then, afterward they always ask, ‘Why Muncie?'”

It’s a great place to raise a family, Brooke tells them, plus the rush hour is closer to 5 minutes.

The job fits Brooke’s partner as well, though neither man intended to specialize in the arcane field.

“I’m a closet pyromaniac,” Mawhorr said, laughing. “So, when my mom found out about this job, she thought it was just perfect.”

A partner since 2001, Mawhorr, started out by attending a Pyrotechnic Guild’s International Convention to learn about safety, permits, storage, setting up shows and more.

‘Jails would explode’

The firm defends clients in criminal and civil cases, testifies before legislative committees, prepares bills, lobbies, and keeps track of relevant legislation in most states. It deals in trademark law, property rights disputes, land use, building codes and interstate commerce.

They successfully defended an Oregon man who made and shot off his own fireworks without charging admission, claiming it was his civil right to do so.

The firm does not, however, see many cases involving buyers of fireworks in Indiana who do not take the stuff out of state or to a designated launch area, as state law requires. Until the law changed in the mid-1980s, Brooke said Indiana was typical of states north of the Mason-Dixon Line, reluctant to loosen up laws because of dense populations. Southern states had had liberal laws for decades.

“The jails would explode, so the police do not feel compelled to enforce the law except in the case of an absolute nuisance shooting fireworks off at 4 in the morning,” Brooke said.

He’s like Paladin, Shields said, Richard Boone’s character in an old television western: Have law book, will travel.

“He won’t be intimidated by federal prosecutors, and he is not hesitant to embarrass the state fire marshal on the stand,” Shields said. “He knows how to ask the tough questions, and he has the knowledge to back up what he says.”

From The Star Press