Karen Unger comes across as fearless and flamboyant — a lioness seated beside her defendant.
But of course there is more to this woman than meets the eye.
Unger is a New Yorker who loves Port Angeles. A mother who adores her four children. And a friend who believes one’s personal relationships, not a profession, are the definition of success in life.
This month, Unger is feeling freshly grateful for her adopted home town. She’s involved in a multi-defendant mortgage fraud case in Florida, and in recent weeks has had to fly back and forth to Tampa as the case veered toward a trial.
“You have no idea how glad I am to live here,” she said on a recent sunny Friday.
Seated on the purple sofa in her office, Unger explained that Paula Hornberger, a defendant in the Florida case, is the daughter of two of her oldest friends.
Already Unger has caught the attention of the local media: the Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune ran a cover story on her in January titled “Rabble Rouser.”
The article quotes Linda Montgomery, a Seattle private investigator who has worked with Unger for a couple of decades.
“She knows the law, and she’s fearless. A lot of lawyers don’t want to go to trial because it’s too scary. But she’ll go in a heartbeat,” Montgomery told the Herald-Tribune. “There are only a couple of attorneys who win more cases than she does.”
Unger is no stranger to high-profile cases, as anyone who’s looked at a local newspaper in recent years can attest. She has represented defendants including Robert Covarrubias, Lance Hering and, most recently, Kendell Huether, who is accused of criminal assistance in the in the October murder of Jennifer Pimentel. That trial is set for April.
With cases in opposite corners of the country, Unger’s hands are more than full.
“When you get out of court down there [in Florida], you still have four hours left in the day” back on West Coast, she said, adding that she makes use of Skype as well as “the best staff on the planet” in her Port Angeles law office. This staff includes legal assistants Laurie Hayes and Daysha Campbell, who have worked with Unger for 15 years and 11 years, respectively.
Sit down for a first conversation with this attorney, though, and she makes it clear right away that she’s not about talking shop.
Instead, she lists the lights of her life.
Madison, 18, is a student at Westminster College in Salt Lake City; Brendan, 22, is pursuing a career in music in Nashville; Ariel, 25, lives in Seattle and plans to go to nursing school next year, and Jonna, 28, works in a University of Utah laboratory.
Brendan, it turns out, went to Nashville with his friend Mark Fredson of the Lonely H, the Port Angeles-born rock band. Unger and Fredson’s mother, Debbie, have been close friends for about 14 years now.
“We got single at the same time, and we raised our kids together,” Unger said.
Port Angeles has been good to her family. When her kids were very young, she found “Grandma Doris and Papa Adrian” Ehlke, who ran a child care center — and were like family to Unger’s children.
“They’re the reason my kids aren’t criminals,” she joked.
The fact that all four children went on to college — and all have graduated except Madison, who’s on her way — is what makes Unger most proud. When she is asked about her own background — and how is it she has so much energy, anyway — Unger shrugs, tilts her head and answers at high speed.
“I come from a very energetic background,” including her mother, Shirley Unger. Shirley moved from Long Island, N.Y., to Boca Raton, Fla., after retirement, and still travels the world. Her next trip is this month, to Israel.
The younger Unger went to college at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and then to the New England School of Law.
Right after graduation in 1978, she and her then-husband took off for San Francisco. They loved the city, but it got so expensive there that they took off again, and moved to Port Angeles in 1981.
Since this is the county seat, it made sense for Unger to live here, where she would work at the Clallam County Courthouse — and be free of long commutes, traffic and other big-city time consumers.
“I love the fact that I could work full time and raise my kids and be involved in their lives,” she said.
Another benefit of living in a town this size: You know your kids’ teachers, and you know their friends and their friends’ families. Trips to the grocery store are chances to check in with them all.
After 31 years here, it can take Unger a long time to get out of Safeway.
Sometimes, naturally, people ask her about a case she’s involved in. If she doesn’t feel like talking about it, she says so. Over all, Unger likes the fact that a shopping trip means running into a slew of people she knows.
When it comes to answering reporters’ questions about her profession, however, Unger is blunt.
For example: To defend a client at trial, is it necessary that Unger believe the accused is innocent?
“That is not the issue,” she said. Ensuring a fair trial is.
“I believe in the system,” the legal system in which the state must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond the shadow of a doubt. In other words, what matters to the attorney is due process of law and the defendant’s right to legal counsel.
Yet “you get emotionally involved in every case,” Unger acknowledged.
Certainly she is not afraid of courtroom confrontation.
“I would much rather go to trial than file motions,” she added, “and I’m not afraid to say what needs to be said” in court.
“She works hard,” said Judge Brian Coughenour, who has known Unger since she moved here.
In addition to her busy practice in Port Angeles — and now the Florida case, which went to trial last Monday — Unger is a Criminal Justice Act attorney who represents defendants in federal court in Tacoma.
Amidst all this, doesn’t she ever get tired, and if so, how does she take care of herself?
“I can’t afford to get weary,” is Unger’s rapid response. She’s still mom to four kids.
As for the re-energizing, Unger loves to take trips with her boyfriend, Dan Blood. They have gone to Europe, to Florida to visit her mom and to California to visit his family.
Blood is another topic Unger addresses with gusto. He is a landscape designer — and “the most talented artist,” she began. He builds ponds and waterfalls, and his own yard, Unger added, looks like the Land of Oz.
Unger, who is twice divorced, has been with Blood for almost 10 years now. They met when he came to give her a bid on redesigning the landscaping around her home.
“My yard was a wreck” due to her dogs, she recalled.
Blood proceeded to beautify the place and dazzle Unger.
“We’ve been together ever since . . . We live separately, which is probably why we’re still together,” she said with a smile.
Meantime, Unger’s appreciation of Port Angeles coexists with her delight in getting out of town now and again.
If Port Angeles has a down side, it’s that “it’s not multicultural,” Unger said.
“But my kids have traveled a lot,” to New York City and to Florida to visit family, to Canada and Europe and South America. One year, Ariel saved her money and explored southern Europe — with another young woman from Port Angeles.
At 58, Unger is where she wants to be. Port Angeles is home, she said, because of the lifelong friendships she has made.
Coughenour is one of these. She rented office space from him soon after arriving here. Then he lent her funds to help buy her own building.
Now Unger’s office is on East Fifth Street, and she has as one of her tenants Rep. Norm Dicks, the Democrat who represents the North Olympic Peninsula in Congress.
“Brian is the most generous person,” Unger said of Coughenhour. “He is like family.”
Friends such as Coughenour and Fredson are “what make living here worth it.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Karen has been a great friend to me,” Coughenour said. “Just this last year, I had a crisis. She was right there.
“People are intimidated by her,” he said. “When you really know her, you know that she is compassionate and will do anything for a friend.”
Coughenour added he admires the way Unger has brought up her children, encouraging them to go off to college and supporting them through all manner of personal trials.
Madison, Unger’s youngest, was in a serious car accident back in 2005; she suffered many injuries and was left blind in one eye.
“She has not let that terrible accident change her. She has bounced back to be a wonderful person,” Coughenour said.
“That is the kind of spirit Karen has lent to her kids.”
Unger, for her part, expresses pure gratitude for the people in her life.
“My job isn’t who I am,” she said. Instead, her love for her family and her friends are the sum of this woman.“I just think I am really lucky,” Unger said.