Gordon Rhea


When Albert Bryan Jr., the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, asked the islands’ legal community who he should nominate as attorney general, the consensus responded with, “You ought to get Gordon.”

Lawyers and judges were referring to Mount Pleasant resident Gordon Rhea, who leads a double life as a Civil War and Reconstruction-ear historian and a member of the islands’ bar.

After consulting with his family, Rhea recently accepted Bryan’s offer and now he’s the chief legal officer for the cluster of three islands — St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John — that makes up the U.S. territory west of Puerto Rico.

In his new role, Rhea supervises a staff of 150 people, mostly lawyers, who handle criminal prosecutions and lawsuits brought by and against the V.I. government. He also oversees agencies that protect people from sexual and child abuse.

Bryan nominated Rhea in April. He’s currently serving as the acting attorney general until he’s confirmed by the V.I. legislature.

Rhea got his first taste of the Virgin Islands lifestyle during training in 1968 as a Peace Corps volunteer before a two-year assignment to Ethiopia. Five years later, he returned to St. Croix as a law firm clerk, a job that connected him with many V.I. lawyers before he enrolled in law school.

In 1976, Rhea became an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., but then a prosecutor’s position opened in V.I., and he volunteered for it.

In an exclusive interview with the Charleston City Paper, Rhea said that he represented one of two joint executors who managed the estate of the late uber-connected financier Jeffery Epstein, a convicted child predator. In lawsuits against Epstein, some of the under-aged victims said they were forced to have sex with Epstein at his private island off St. Thomas

“When the lawsuit was brought against the estate for Epstine’s wrongdoings, I was in a position to get about $130 million to the women who were victimized by him, and the taxes owed to the Virgin Islands government through his fraud,” Rhea said.

The aftermath of Hurricane Hugo

Before Hurricane Hugo caused significant damage in the Charleston area in September 1989, the storm passed over the Virgin Islands and nearly destroyed Rhea’s home on St. Thomas.

Rhea and his wife, Catherine, soon relocated to the mainland United States with their infant son and, in 1996, they settled in Mount Pleasant. Although Rhea maintained a state-side residence, he continued to work as a lawyer in the islands.

Then in 2003, he joined the Charleston plaintiff’s law firm of Richardson, Patrick, Westbrook and Brickman, which brought class-action lawsuits against tobacco and pharmaceutical companies and the makers of asbestos.

Amid the travel and trials, Rhea also has managed to write eight books, including his latest, the biography of Black Civil War hero and South Carolina legislator Stephen Swails, Stephen A. Swails: Black Freedom Fighter in the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“I’ve been working on a book, and I am going to keep working on it,” he said with a laugh. His next book is the story of Allan Pinkerton, founder of the nation’s first detective agency in Chicago. He established the U.S. Secret Service during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

At 79 years-old, Rhea said he plans to serve until the governor’s term ends in two and half years. During that time, he and his wife plan to live full-time in St. Croix.

“I love getting stuff done that has a positive public impact,” Rhea said. As attorney general, he said, “I think I can really make a difference. I can really help law enforcement, but I am also interested in putting in programs to help first offenders and nonviolent offenders who need drug and alcohol and treatment and anger management counseling. I look at this as a way to help an entire community [and] I am excited about.”