Charles Salvagio, a longtime and well-known criminal lawyer in Birmingham, died unexpectedly at his Vestavia Hills home.
Salvagio, 66, died Friday after feeling sick for a few weeks. His wife Gina found him unavailable and was given CPR coaching by a Vestavia Hills police force until paramedics arrived, but it was too late. In addition to his wife, his 13-year-old son Sal and 16-year-old daughter Gabriela survive.
“It’s devastating,” said lawyer and best friend Greg Cox. “He will be sorely missed.”
Salvagio represented many notorious clients throughout his decades of career. Among his notable cases is the trial of Charleston Wells, a then-juvenile defendant who was charged with the January 2016 murder of Iraqi war veteran Mike Gilotti outside his Hoover home. Wells, who prosecutors claimed was the trigger, was acquitted of murder. Wells, well-known attorney Tom Mesereau from Los Angeles, also represented Wells with Salvagio. Mesereau also represented pop star Michael Jackson and asked Salvagio to join him on the case, but Salvagio didn’t want to be away from his wife and children for the five month case.
Salvagio also once represented Erron Brown, who was accused of shooting a teenager at the Riverchase Galleria on Thanksgiving night of 2018. Authorities said after Brown fired the shot, Hoover Emantic “EJ” Bradford police fatally shot and mistakenly believed he was the one who shot the other teenager at the mall. Bradford’s death sparked months of protests in the cities of Birmingham and Hoover. Salvagio later withdrew from the case.
Another notable case of the late attorney was that of Patrick Johnson, who was convicted of the gunshot death of an off-duty Birmingham police officer and eventually sentenced to life in prison.
Newspaper clippings from these and other cases lined the walls of the law firm in downtown Birmingham by Salvagio.
Salvagio’s life was a story from rags to riches. He grew up in west Birmingham and was eventually kicked out of high school. He worked as a bag boy in Bruno’s supermarket, as a vacuum cleaner salesman and as a disc jockey. Ultimately, he would get his GED and then go to college. He took the SAT and was accepted into Harvard. He said, ‘Gina, look at my (acceptance) letter, but I can’t go. I have to work and support myself. I have no family, ”said his wife. “He grew up poor in his words.”
Salvagio worked and paid his own way through Birmingham-Southern College where he earned a degree in economics and finance. He also worked as a computer systems analyst for Jefferson County. In the early 90s, Salvagio decided to become a lawyer.
“When we met he said,” I think I want to go into law “and I said,” Well, you have the gift of Gab, “said Gina.” He was a reader in our church. I knew him then not, but he was a great speaker. “
The couple married in 1991 and Salvagio began taking night lessons at the Birmingham School of Law. “He said a lot of prominent judges went through there,” she said.
Cox met Salvagio in 1992 at the Birmingham School of Law. “I considered him my best friend. We went to law school together, ”said Cox. “He had a passion for criminal defense early on, even before he even took the bar exam. He wanted to do that. “
Gina said that passion comes from his background. He said, ‘I think my strength will be criminal law’ and I said, ‘Are you sure?’ I didn’t know what that paid for or anything, ”she said. He said, ‘Trust me. I can relate. I grew up on the street, my family is poor, I can relate to my customers and that’s what I want to do. ” ‘
Salvagio quit his job as the county government and delved into the law. “He said,” I can get my name out and I’ll jump in with both feet, “said his wife,” and that’s exactly what he did. “
In his spare time, he attended court hearings and watched how it was done. During the rare breaks he was allowed to take for the bar exam while studying, he closely watched the OJ Simpson trial. “He thought the team was different and that really pushed him,” said his wife. “He says that to everyone. That drove him even more into criminal work. “
Salvagio graduated from law school and passed the bar in 1996. Cox said Salvagio kicked the bar exam out of the park and scored at least 30 points more than he had to pass. “Charlie was incredibly smart, book-wise and street-wise,” said Cox.
Early in his career, he decided to put his picture on a billboard on Interstate 59/20 near Arkadelphia Road. “That was a time when nobody had billboards or commercials for the law. He had to get it approved by the bar, ”Gina said. “I can’t remember what it said, but he could have quoted it word for word today.”
“If I could brag about him, I think he would be the pioneer who started all these commercials and billboards,” she said. “He kept it simple because he said he didn’t want to cause wrecks on the freeway.”
Both Gina and Cox said Salvagio was excited about his work. “He would fight for you,” said Gina. “He said, ‘I’ll go to jail for my clients when I know I’m right.’ And you know he went to jail for something that was very worrying and inappropriate. ”
In 2017, Salvagio was despised in court after speaking to multiple witnesses whom he was not supposed to contact. He was one of the attorneys who represented Steven Petric during the murder trial that led to his conviction and death sentence. Petric filed a Rule 32 motion for post-conviction relief pleading an ineffective legal counsel. In 2018, the Court of Appeal’s ruling overturned Salvagio’s charges of contempt and ordered a new trial with a new judge. This new process never happened.
“He wanted to tell his story about it, but his legal advisers told him to leave it alone to see that it was taken care of,” his wife said.
Salvagio, said his wife, was dedicated to his customers. “If he believed in you, he would represent you,” she said. “If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t take the case. He was very open with his customers. “
“He had a heart of gold, but he was also a bulldog. It was, “Don’t mess with me, don’t mess with my family, don’t mess with someone I know.”
Salvagio was an animal lover. “He would not accept any child or animal abuse,” said his wife. In fact, he turned down the case where Chamomile “Cupcake” McKinney was kidnapped and murdered.
He loved major league baseball, even more than college football. He had a close-knit group of friends and a list he scheduled to call almost every night. “He had a bigger heart than the Frank Nelson Building,” said Cox. “He was generous and kind.”
“He was successful,” said Cox. “I think some people turned it down, but most who knew Charlie liked him – 99 percent.” There were some who disliked its success. “
Salvagio was a devout Catholic, so much so that he always made the sign of the cross when he passed a church or an ambulance with the lights on. He wanted to write a book about his career and a reality show about him was at one point in the works.
Mesereau said he and Salvagio had worked together for more than 20 years. “We became best friends straight away,” he said. “We’ve been working on murder cases in the deep south for over 22 years.”
“I am absolutely devastated. I’ve lost my best friend, ”said Mesereau. “He was a great father, a great husband, a great person, a great friend, and a great litigator. I am totally shocked. “
“He was a very unique person. He came from very humble beginnings and reached greatness in many different ways. He was clever and wise enough to appreciate all of his blessings, ”Mesereau said. “He loved his family more than anything and felt that God had blessed him all his life. There will never be anyone like him. “
Gina said her husband hasn’t felt well in several weeks. He had been tested for COVID-19 and it was negative. Still, she said, he refused to go to the doctor and said he just needed some rest. She and her daughter left home on Friday to do a job and returned to find him passed out. An autopsy will be done to determine why he died.
“The silver lining is that he was at home in the room he liked to settle in,” she said. “We lived a colorful life in a colorful world. I wouldn’t take anything for it or do anything else. “
AL.com journalists Ivana Hrynkiw and Howard Koplowitz contributed to this report.