ORLANDO — Damon Chase is one of the most prominent lawyers in Seminole County. His clients include Jim Greer, ousted chairman of the Florida GOP, and Rep. Chris Dorworth, the man slated to become Florida's House speaker in 2014.
But before Damon Chase became a lawyer with an office overlooking a golf course and a 37-foot yacht docked on the coast, he was a man with a different name and a long history of arrests — including armed robbery and fraud — that began when he was only 7.
When he was 24, he was arrested in Orlando for hitting his girlfriend. At 31, he beat up a man in a Gainesville bar during a fight over a World Series game.
His life story, said longtime friend Circuit Judge Nancy Alley, is one of redemption and hope.
"I'm quite ashamed of where I came from," said Chase, 44, of Winter Springs. "However, I am extremely proud of where I am."
For the first 31 years of his life, he was Floyd Lee Downs. He legally changed that in 1997, swearing to a Gainesville judge that he was not trying to hide his criminal past.
"I hated my name," Chase explained. He chose Damon Chase because it was unique and easy to spell.
By then, he had cleaned up his life, mostly. He was a full-time student at the University of Florida, working toward degrees in recreation and business and — his real goal — law school.
He disclosed to the UF college of law and the Florida Board of Bar Examiners — the group that decides whether one gets to be a lawyer — his whole life story.
For the bar examiners, it was not an easy sell. They treated him, for a time, like a criminal who could not be reformed. That's largely because of two criminal cases: Chase was arrested in Fort Lauderdale when he was 28, accused of using another man's Social Security card to try to get a fake driver's license.
And there was that Gainesville bar fight that left the other guy with a broken rib and a tooth knocked out.
In both instances, prosecutors decided there had been no crime.
Bar examiners reviewed copies of his arrest and court records, including those that showed he owed $20,000 in back child support and that during one six-year stretch, he hadn't filed federal tax returns.
Chase paid off the child support, filed his back taxes and, because the board demanded it, underwent a psychological evaluation and treatment. In 2003, one year after he passed the Bar exam, he was admitted to the Florida Bar at age 37.
He has not been arrested since nor disciplined by the Bar.
As a boy, he bounced between Louisville, Ky., where his mother lived, and South Florida, his father's home. He and his older brother had little adult supervision, he said.
He was first arrested at age 7, he says, for burglary, sneaking into and trashing a school on a Saturday.
He was arrested again at age 11, this time for armed robbery. He had tucked a crowbar inside his jacket and gone into a Louisville gas station with two older boys, according to Bar examiner records. He demanded money from the clerk and then snatched more than $200 from the cash drawer.
His arrests sent him to foster homes, a juvenile-detention center, group homes and a work camp. At age 19, he married a woman who was expecting his child. They had a girl but separated a few months later. He was an ironworker at the time, drifting from job to job, state to state.
"I spent a lot of time in my early 20s just being homeless," he said.
He held a variety of jobs, mostly ironwork and bartender, he said, but he also tried to make it as lead guitarist in a heavy-metal band.
That last gig didn't work out, he joked, because although he had long, flowing hair — great heavy-metal hair — and looked really good dancing with a guitar, he has a lousy sense of rhythm.
He had scrapes with the law but was never convicted of a felony. One of his arrests came in Orange County in 1990, when he went to jail for hitting his girlfriend. He pleaded no contest and served a year of probation.
At age 29, living in a pay-by-the-week hotel in South Florida, he decided to turn his life around.
"I wanted to make money. I wanted to be a white-collar guy," he said.
His big break came from his grandmother, with whom he was not close, and Santa Fe Community College — now Santa Fe College — both in Gainesville.
She needed someone to take care of household chores and offered him a bedroom and an $8,500 college loan. The community college agreed to admit him, an eighth-grade dropout who had passed the GED test.
His next big break came on the first day of law school, Jan. 3, 2000. That's the day he met and fell for another midlife law-school student, Melanie Freeman Carter, daughter of then-Circuit Judge Thomas G. Freeman, a politically powerful judge in Sanford.
"She's absolutely the best reward for changing my life," he said.
The following December, just after finals, they wed in a tiny ceremony at her family church, St. Mark's Presbyterian in Altamonte Springs.
Melanie Freeman Chase, 40, is his partner at the family firm, Chase Freeman in Lake Mary, which specializes in business law.
She has been his biggest advocate.
"In January, I watched him, in the pouring rain and wearing a suit and tie, stop to change a tire for an elderly couple on I-95," she wrote in a letter in 2003, urging the board to admit him to the Bar. "The truth is, the board would be hard pressed to find someone who has worked harder to overcome the mistakes of his or her youth."
To Martha Faircloth, a 76-year-old widow, Chase is a hero. One day six years ago she was pacing in her yard, upset because Seminole County wanted to condemn a 50-foot swath of land to widen a ditch that runs alongside her property west of Sanford. Bulldozers were going to destroy a dozen stately oak trees on her 4-acre lot, including one scientists said was 400 years old.
"This big black car pulled up in my yard, and a man stepped out in a black suit and white shirt," she said. It was Chase. He asked whether she had an attorney. "I said, 'No sir. I can't afford one.' He said, 'How'd you like to have a free one?' "
Chase then did something that's nearly unheard-of: He beat the government in an eminent-domain case. He saved her trees.
Chase's most prominent client is Greer, the ousted chairman of the Florida GOP who awaits trial on grand theft and conspiracy charges.
On June 2, the day Greer was arrested, Chase was the lawyer who ran the gantlet of reporters and TV cameras outside the Seminole County Jail, helped post bail and then loaded Greer and his wife into his Range Rover and drove them away.
Two months earlier, Chase had sued the state party on Greer's behalf, accusing it of cheating Greer out of a $123,000 severance package. The suit has since been dismissed. Both men say they will refile once the criminal case is over.
Chase has a reputation for being generous and doing community work. He is president of the Seminole County Bar Association and a board member of an affiliated group, the Seminole County Legal Aid Society. In December, the society honored him for his pro bono work.
At that ceremony, he talked about having lived on the wrong side of the law. He did not go into detail.
Said friend and Altamonte Springs lawyer James DeKleva, "I don't know what he went through, but I can tell you, it's a remarkable change."
DeKleva called Chase a good lawyer, a good guy — a man who has transformed himself "like the phoenix rising from the ashes."