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Defense attorney 'Big Mike' was well-known around Pinellas courthouse

Michael Barbetta, who once told a friend he weighed 650 pounds, auditioned for a TV weight-loss show but did not make the cut.

EDWARD LINSMIER | Times (2010)

Michael Barbetta, who once told a friend he weighed 650 pounds, auditioned for a TV weight-loss show but did not make the cut.

Michael Barbetta had gotten so heavy that a good friend told him "this is crazy, you've got to drop a good 50 pounds."

Mr. Barbetta agreed that he needed to lose weight, but the 50-pound comment made him laugh.

"I weigh 650 pounds, who are you kidding?" Mr. Barbetta told his friend, Ben DeBerg.

Mr. Barbetta was a criminal defense attorney, known to many people around the Pinellas Criminal Courts complex as "Big Mike."

He died Oct. 11 from what friends said were complications related to lap band surgery. The surgery was his latest of several attempts to lose weight.

Mr. Barbetta was 31.

Everybody at the courthouse seemed to know Mr. Barbetta, and not just because he outsized almost everyone else walking the halls. He was a friendly sort who always talked to courthouse deputies about how their children were doing and would "laugh at the judge's jokes even when they weren't funny," as Circuit Judge Philip J. Federico put it.

Others described Mr. Barbetta, who passed the Florida Bar in 2007, as an up-and-coming lawyer with a sharp mind who was good at cutting through the fog of confusing legal issues.

"He would organize and do a complicated case, no problem," said Brian Pingor, his supervisor at the Regional Office of Conflict Counsel, which represents people who cannot afford lawyers.

"He was the biggest man I've ever known, but he had a wonderful mind," said defense attorney Richard Watts.

Watts took Mr. Barbetta's place in a trial last week and won an acquittal, which he said was because of Mr. Barbetta's skilled questions during an earlier deposition. "I say the victory is Barbetta's," Watts said. It came a day after his death.

Mr. Barbetta grew up in New Hampshire and loved following the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots. He liked playing card games such as Texas hold'em, going to trivia nights at the Daiquiri Deck in Madeira Beach and swimming. He came to Florida for the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.

Mr. Barbetta was a student in a clinic when he met DeBerg, an experienced criminal defense attorney, and the two became close. DeBerg often brought his wife and their children, who are 11 and 6, over to Mr. Barbetta's house.

The kids loved visiting "Big Mike."

"One of their favorite things was when Mike would run and cannonball into the pool and make huge waves," DeBerg said.

Sometimes Mr. Barbetta acted like someone who didn't realize how heavy he was, such as the time he bounded up the ladder of a big water slide, or another time when he suggested he could slide under a bed he and DeBerg were setting up.

"The chances of him sliding under the bed were absolutely zero, but he didn't get it," DeBerg said.

But Mr. Barbetta knew he was overweight and was determined to do something about it. He tried Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Last year he even auditioned for an ABC reality TV weight-loss show.

In explaining some of his reasons to a St. Petersburg Times reporter at the time, he said: "I always hoped I would find somebody and see how that goes," trailing off. He was concerned he might not have too many more years to live.

And the article said: "He hates to think about bariatric surgery because the complications scare him."

Mr. Barbetta did not make it onto the TV show, and he eventually decided to have the surgery.

"He tried several different ways, and he felt that this was the next way to try," Pingor said.

He was nervous about the surgery, but also believed "if he maintained that weight he was probably not going to make it to 40," said Dave Molloy, a colleague and former roommate.

Mr. Barbetta's mother, father and brother stayed by his side for more than a week during his hospitalization, virtually without a break. According to friends, he got an infection after the surgery.

DeBerg said his children were distraught to learn their friend had died. After crying a good while, his 6-year-old son summed things up:

"Now he's not Big Mike anymore. He's Heaven Mike."


Michael C. Barbetta

Born: Dec. 25, 1979

Died: Oct. 11, 2011

Survivors: Parents Michael and Lillian Barbetta, brother and sister-in-law, Jason and Chrystal Barbetta.

Memorials: Community Law Program, 501 First Ave. N, Suite 519, St. Petersburg, FL 33701

Defense attorney 'Big Mike' was well-known around Pinellas courthouse 10/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 9:40pm]
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