Attorneys for the accused

Attorneys for the accused

URBANA — When an ex-Champaign police officer was accused of sex crimes, he called the Bruno Law Offices to represent him.

A former University of Illinois student accused of suffocating her infant son in a dormitory bathroom called on the same law firm.

So have several disgraced UI athletes who stunned their fans when they were arrested for such crimes as domestic battery and robbery.

Meet the defenders of people who end up in the public eye in connection with some seemingly incomprehensible acts — attorney Tom Bruno and his attorney sons, Anthony and Evan Bruno.

The latest high-profile case for the father-son Urbana law practice is defending Brendt Christensen, the accused kidnapper of missing UI Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang. The bizarre details of this case have captured national attention and there was a swarm of spectators and journalists at both of Christensen's appearances in federal court this past Monday and Wednesday.

It's been a very busy few weeks, Tom Bruno said.

"Evan got married 10 days ago," he said. "We knew this was weighing over his wedding."

Christensen called their law offices even before he was arrested, after authorities seized his car, Bruno said.

Bruno doesn't know how Christensen came to choose him and his sons to represent him. People generally search for lawyers online, he said.

Unless it's a serious criminal case or a serious traffic case, people wanting to hire the Brunos will be out of luck, because these are the only kinds of cases they're taking these days.

"People call us with a speeding ticket," Tom Bruno said. "We don't do them anymore."

He and his sons have become more selective with cases as demand for their services has grown, he said. There are only so many hours in a day, and they prefer to maintain a workload they can handle and still give their clients their personal attention.

Father and sons confer on all cases and eat lunch together five days a week, talking shop, Tom Bruno said. And it's typical for all three of them to be in working on Saturday and Sunday mornings, too.

Busy times like the past few weeks impact all three of their personal lives and families, Bruno said.

"It's not pleasant at times," he added.

'Like a priest in confession'

Tom Bruno declined to discuss the firm's fee for representing Christensen, but said he and his sons anticipate there will be thousands of pages of reports and hundreds to thousands of hours of interviews involved.

"That represents a massive pile of work" he said.

Attorneys also take into consideration in the fee such factors as whether there's a potential life sentence or death penalty involved for their clients, Bruno said.

"That weighs on a person," he said. "There's a reason brain surgeons charge more than podiatrists."

Christensen faces up to a life sentence if he's convicted of kidnapping. And in a kidnapping involving a death, both mandatory life in prison or death are possible sentences.

A lot of legal business for the Brunos has come from UI students who have made "some horrific mistakes in judgment," Tom Bruno said.

A father of three, he said he gives young adults in his office the same advice he'd hand to his own kids if they were ever in trouble.

"You'd better share this with your parents," he tells those clients. "They will love you unconditionally, and you will need their support."

He's nobody's judge, Bruno said, and he's never uncomfortable representing any of his clients.

"When I've got people in my office that have told me they made a horrible mistake, I feel like a priest in confession," he said.

What he offers to them, he said, is comfort, advice and "vigorous representation."

That defense is everyone's right, he said, and "I'm not only comfortable with what I do, but I'm proud of it."

In the Christensen case, there remain things the three defense lawyers don't know yet and things their client hasn't talked to them about, Bruno said.

He also said what matters is whether there will be evidence to support the charge.

"We'll wait and see what exists," Bruno said.

All in the family

Tom Bruno grew up in the Chicago suburb of Westmont, did his undergraduate work at the University of Illinois, met his wife, Beth, in college and they married right after graduation. He left the state for his first year of law school, but missed Champaign-Urbana, so they returned here for him to finish his law degree.

He opened his own office in 1980 and the community has been home ever since.

Also a Champaign city council member since 1997, Tom Bruno is an avid traveler and a member of Arcola's World Famous Lawn Rangers.

Anthony Bruno, a Habitat for Humanity volunteer, an emergency medical technician and chairman of the Champaign Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, was the first son to join his dad in the law firm.

Evan Bruno worked in the research office of the Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield and then clerked for Appellate Court Justice Robert Steigmann in Urbana before joining the family law firm. He's also a columnist for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

All three are active in the Illinois State Bar Association.

They're a close family, Tom Bruno said.

"It's really rewarding to work with your children," he said. "I'm very proud of them."

Familiar faces, cases

A sampling of past and current high-profile clients represented by Bruno Law Offices:

THOMAS BOITNOTT: The story of 6-month-old “Baby Karma” — abandoned by her father in a bean field and rescued by Champaign County sheriff’s Deputy Chad Beasley — was one of the area’s biggest in 2015. A year later, Boitnott was found by a judge to be mentally ill, but the St. Joseph man was still convicted of attempted murder and child abduction.
➜ Now: Boitnott is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

‘D.J.’ DUNN: A paramedic, firefighter and Savoy resident, Dunn was charged in April in connection with the drugging and rape of a young Urbana man who was attending a going-away party for Dunn. The arrest happened while Dunn was packing; he was due to leave town the next day for Alaska, where he’d accepted a fire chief job.
➜ Now: The case is ongoing.

JERAD GALE: The former Champaign police officer cut a deal with authorities, pleading guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse in two Champaign County cases after one count of the same offense involving a former girlfriend in Piatt County. He was due to begin an 11-month, eight-day jail sentence in Piatt County on June 3, 2016.
➜ Now: No longer a CPD employee — Gale was terminated two weeks before his pleas — he will remain on probation for another seven years.

LINDSAY JOHNSON: In April, the former UI agricultural communications major pleaded guilty to endangering the life or health of a child in connection with the 2016 suffocation of her newborn son at Bousfield Hall. In exchange for her plea — which netted a 10-year prison sentence — charges of first-degree murder and concealment of a homicidal death were dismissed.
➜ Now: With credit for good behavior, Johnson should be eligible for parole in five years.

JAYLON TATE: Hours after the Illini point guard was charged with misdemeanor domestic battery for allegedly striking his girlfriend in the face, Tom Bruno went on WDWS-AM to proclaim Tate’s innocence. Two months later, in May 2016, State’s Attorney Julia Rietz dropped the charges, calling the case against him unwinnable.
➜ Now: Tate finished his college basketball career, in which he averaged 2.6 points per game, in March.

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Khristine wrote on July 09, 2017 at 10:07 am
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OMG! News-Gazette how and why did you think you needed to print the bio of the attorneys currently representing a defendant in a huge case with internatinal implications? I have nothing against the Brunos, but the timing of this article was in poor taste to say the least. Shame. 

shortgirl wrote on July 09, 2017 at 10:07 am

I completely disagree. The Brunos are representing a very high profile case garnering  international attention; people are interested in all aspects of this case, including who is representing the defendant. This article is both appropriate and timely. 

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on July 09, 2017 at 12:07 pm
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Although I know Jaylon Tate would strongly prefer the N-G stop referring to his case, especially when the quote they keep using makes it seem like he got away with something.

He didn't do it. Full stop.

I suppose the N-G wanted to reference an example of Bruno clients whose outcomes were free and clear of sanctions.

sweet caroline wrote on July 09, 2017 at 10:07 am

News-Gazette, please proofread your stories before publishing them.  RE: Lindsay Johnson's paragraph, "the 2016 suffering of her newborn son at Bousfield Hall."  The baby boy DID suffer, but the verdict was "the 2016 suffocating..."

At least you got it right in the initial paragraph:  "A former University of Illinois student accused of suffocating her infant son in a dormitory bathroom called on the same law firm."



Niko Dugan wrote on July 10, 2017 at 5:07 pm
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Sweet Caroline,

Thanks for your comment. That passage has been fixed.

Niko Dugan
online editor

Pointblank wrote on July 09, 2017 at 11:07 am
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The best Bruno can do for Christensen is natural life in prison. Bruno has the advantage that the FBI doesn't want this case going to trial and expose to the public how the FBI followed Christensen around and tape recorded him.

Otherwise the article is mostly an unpaid advertisement for the law firm to position ahead of Steve Beckett's office as the go-to firm when you're in trouble. 

rsp wrote on July 10, 2017 at 8:07 am

The FBI's own charging documents state that they followed him and recorded him. The public already knows this.

Pointblank wrote on July 10, 2017 at 11:07 am
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The public doesn't know how they followed him nor what with what devices and techniques they recorded him. If it goes to trial, the public would have to learn what techniques were used to admit this evidence as evidence.

KlaatuSansGort wrote on July 09, 2017 at 11:07 am

There is absolutely nothing offensive or inappropriate in this article. The case is HUGE and it is understandable that any news medium would want to address various facets of it. Ms. Pressey is in equal measures earnest and sincere, as illustrated by the article. While there is much among various news media to criticize, this article is a target-free environment and a breath of fresh air.

Khristine wrote on July 13, 2017 at 1:07 am
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Yes, it is a huge case, but we don't need to advertise the Brunos' skill at great outcomes for the defendants they represent. This type of hype is an attempt at swaying the jury pool. Did they really need to list their past clients and the outcomes of those cases? Those cases have absolutely nothing to do with this case. 

K.D. wrote on July 09, 2017 at 11:07 am

Christensen hired the firm after his vehicle was seized, but prior to being arrested. The best thing his attorneys could have done was put a muzzle on him, and locked him in his apartment. wrote on July 09, 2017 at 1:07 pm

Ironic that this case hinges initally on survelliance cameras.  Something as a Council Member, Tom is opposed to..............


makes it harder for him to defend  his clients when there  is video of their misbehavior.