Sunday, October 18, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lawyer's Death Not Open-And-Shut Case

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

KEY WEST, Fla. - When police found attorney Fred Butner's body at the bottom of the tallest building in town, the evidence of murder was pulp-novel plain.

Extortion, payoff money, a secret meeting and even an incriminating tape recording - including the thud of the fall - point to the same person: the dead man's former secretary, Susan Hanna.

Police, however, are close to wrapping up the case with a surprise conclusion: Butner committed suicide and did his best to frame Hanna.

Interviews with Hanna, Butner's family and friends and others help untangle the case.

Butner fell from The Top, the rooftop lounge atop the pink stucco La Concha Hotel, and landed on a concrete carport. His pockets were full of cash.

Also in his pocket was a photocopied extortion note with Hanna's signature. It threatened that she would squeal to the Florida Bar, the police and the Internal Revenue Service if he didn't pay her some hush money.

The note told Butner to meet her at The Top first thing Oct. 7. That was the day his body was found at 8:40 a.m.

Beside the corpse was a hand-held tape recorder. On the tape, Butner narrates his morning: He's at the hotel to meet Hanna; he greets Hanna - whose voice is never heard on the tape - and assures her he'll hand over what she wanted.

Then he gasps an objection.

The whoosh of descent. Thud.

As a lawyer, major Democratic Party organizer, radio host, civil-rights advocate, gay activist and leader in his church, Butner was at the center of Key West life.

Many of Butner's friends came forth immediately after his sensational death to proclaim that it could not be suicide. He was active, involved, busy, they said.

Another picture is emerging.

Butner's law practice was in trouble. The Florida Bar had five investigations under way. The most serious stemmed from Hanna, who wrote a detailed and incriminating letter to the Bar in March: "I am quitting the office of Fred Butner today because of his persistence in doing unethical and illegal acts. . . . He has falsified records, falsified documents, coerced clients and fraudulently taken trust funds."

The bar subpoenaed financial and legal records from Butner's cases and trusts he managed.

Hanna said last week she had had no recent contact with Butner. His death, she said, "was a total shock." And the "extortion plot" was crazy. "That was just totally ridiculous," Hanna said.

Hanna had reported her boss to the Bar months earlier, so she would have little to gain by threatening to expose him. It would be foolish to send signed extortion notes: Butner could have thwarted the "plot" by taking them to the police; almost certainly they would be discovered among his possessions if he were murdered.

Only photocopies of the notes - no originals - were found.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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