A Las Vegas police detective wants members of the public to pursue criminal charges if they suspect they have been victimized by their attorneys.
"They think their only recourse is to file complaints with the Nevada State Bar," Detective James Downing said.
Downing, who is assigned to the criminal intelligence section, investigated suspended Las Vegas lawyer Jeanne Winkler for two years before her arrest last month on theft and embezzlement charges.
Of 52 potential victims in the case, only 11 filed police reports, he said.
Downing said people might be confused about the separate roles of the State Bar of Nevada, which investigates ethics violations, and the Metropolitan Police Department, which handles crimes.
The detective said the two entities can conduct parallel investigations.
If a victim waits for the bar to complete its investigation before filing a police report, he said, the statute of limitations could prevent police from proceeding with a criminal case.
"The public really needs to come forward and file complaints with both of us if they feel there's something criminal in nature," Downing said.
The detective said he thinks many victims in the Winkler case opted against pursuing criminal charges because they were compensated for their losses and wanted to put the matter behind them.
Assistant Bar Counsel Phil Pattee said the Clients' Security Fund has paid about $160,000 to 21 claimants in the Winkler case.
Downing, part of a squad that investigates matters involving public integrity, said victims of lawyers should let police decide whether the lawyers' conduct was criminal.
He said people often place their faith in lawyers during their darkest days and should hold them accountable when they cause harm.
Former client Juanita Thompson filed the first police report against Winkler in February 2008, the same month Thompson sued Winkler. Thompson had retained Winkler for her divorce and claimed Winkler owed her $30,000.
"She was really the only victim who came forward at the beginning," Downing said.
He said Thompson's complaint originally was considered a civil matter, but it was assigned to him for criminal investigation in March 2009. He then began reaching out to other potential victims.
"If any victims still want to come forward, they can still contact us," Downing said.
Washoe County sheriff's deputies arrested Winkler, 43, on Feb. 22.
"Jeanne Winkler swore to an oath as an attorney and was entrusted by her clients to uphold that oath," Downing wrote in support of the warrant. "Winkler was entrusted by her clients to protect their money which by her own testimony she used for her own personal use."
According to the document, the victims who filed complaints against Winkler with Las Vegas police suffered a total loss of about $143,000.
A criminal complaint charges Winkler with seven counts of theft. It also charges her with two counts of embezzlement involving a victim who is 60 or older.
The defendant, who is out on bail, made her first court appearance in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Justice of the Peace Deborah Lippis scheduled a preliminary hearing for July 25.
Winkler was licensed to practice law in Nevada in 1999. The Nevada Supreme Court temporarily suspended her in March 2008.
In March 2010, a disciplinary panel recommended Winkler be disbarred for life. The recommendation is pending before the state Supreme Court.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at email@example.com or 702-384-8710.