"The law is a jealous mistress."

Those words, scribbled on the chalkboard by a professor on Paul Ryan's first day at Gonzaga University School of Law, have stuck with him.

At the time, he didn't understand the phrase or how it would relate to his legal career, which would, in time, thrust him into the spotlight. But the 49-year-old criminal defense and personal injury attorney now says he has repeated the sentence over and over again because it's come to be true. 

"People, they don't come into my office when they are not in some sort of emotional turmoil and distress," he explained recently. "And so you almost become part attorney, part psychologist, part friend – you wear a lot of hats. With that comes a lot of stress and it's taken a toll on lots of parts of my life.  

"I love it, but there's a cost of it," he added. "It's 24/7/365. I'm always thinking about cases." 

His most recent 24/7 case in the Missoula spotlight involved three University of Montana football players who were arrested after a Halloween party and booked on felony burglary charges. Four days later, the Missoula County Attorney's Office charged them with misdemeanor trespassing.

Ryan represented Kendrick Van Ackeren, who with his mother had just left Ryan's office smiling and obviously relieved.

The football players were given six-month suspended sentences, which will be up for deferral after one year after many conditions are met. Among the conditions: The football players are to collectively pay more than $16,000 in restitution and listen to the 911 call from the family whose house they entered. 

"I've been representing Griz football players since 1995," Ryan said. "I've learned a lot from these players. They have been praised and have been applauded their whole lives. And this may have been the first time something bad has happened to them publicly like this. And it's very challenging for them."


Ryan left the King County prosecutor's office in Washington in 1995 to move back to Missoula – his hometown – and work with Milt Datsopoulos, who offered him a job on the recommendation of his former employer.  

It was with Datsopoulus that Ryan started representing football players. Over the past 20 years, he has represented more 40 Griz football players, he said.

He said he realizes they oftentimes receive negative publicity and it's their own fault, but their humility during such times of stress strikes him as genuine.   

"They recognize that they've made an error and they want to deal with it quickly," he said. "And in this particular case with Kendrick, it was an easy decision to represent him. He is a really, really good kid. I know what he did was wrong and he knows that, but I can tell you this community and the university and his family and everyone else should be really proud of the way he and the other guys handled it."

Ryan says highly public cases are the worst types of cases, because everyone – from the judge to the prosecutors – acts differently in the public eye.

The publicity also creates more work for him. There's the media to contend with and the public scrutiny that – in a small town like Missoula – makes it tough to maintain some level of privacy and normalcy. 

That's not to say Ryan shies away from cases that attract such a high level of attention. 


Ryan was the lead defense attorney for Markus Kaarma, a 29-year-old seasonal firefighter who murdered 17-year-old German exchange student Diren Dede in April 2014. 

By December, Kaarma was on trial in Missoula, despite Ryan's attempts to move the trial out of the county to get a more favorable jury. 

"The Kaarma case was the most difficult certainly that I've ever experienced," he said. "Everyone seemed to have an opinion on it one way or the other, and there was certainly a lot of negative opinion about Markus and what had occurred and the unfortunate death of an individual. And it was a difficult time in my life, for sure."

The three-week trial didn't go well for Ryan and his team of attorneys, who flanked either side of the seemingly stoic Kaarma during the proceedings.

Ryan made the call not to put on the stand the young teens he claimed colluded with Dede and other teenagers to burglarize neighborhood garages. He said the teenagers were well-spoken and well-dressed, and the jury would have been sympathetic to them. Another factor, he said, was the court's ruling not to allow specific testimony about Kaarma's psychological condition. 

But as far as preparation for the case goes, he has no regrets. 

"Sometimes, you just can't change the facts," he said. "And the facts were what they were in the case. No matter how much we investigate, do research, you just can't change certain things. 

"Fundamentally, when you have a young guy who dies that was well-liked and there was no indication that he was going to directly harm this family, but more like he was in a garage taking things – you combine that with the fact that Markus had numerous statements – that was just hard to overcome."

Kaarma was sentenced to 70 years in the Montana State Prison on Feb. 12. 

The trial left Ryan physically, mentally and emotionally drained, but a few hours after Kaarma was sentenced, Ryan left for Hawaii with his longtime girlfriend, Danielle Ford, and proposed.

"I care about my clients," Ryan said, adding that Kaarma still calls him from prison. "I get emotionally invested. I go through the process with them. It can be a strength and a weakness. It can be really draining at times." 


Since the Kaarma case, Ryan said, things have started to return to normal for him. He said he coached his daughter Zoe's fast-pitch softball team last summer and brags that they were 17-0. 

He attends hot yoga classes on occasion and enjoys paddleboarding with his dog and his daughter. He frequently visits his fiance in Las Vegas and has gotten back into his routine of working out in the mornings before work.

In the year since the Kaarma case, things have become relatively calm and Ryan appreciates it. 

He said he also appreciates the friendly, open ambiance of Missoula – especially when he manages to get the law off his mind.