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George Hedges; stars' lawyer found ancient city

By Thomas H. Maugh II
Los Angeles Times / March 25, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - George Hedges, the Hollywood lawyer to celebrities such as Mel Gibson and Simon Cowell who became a celebrity himself for his discoveries of the fabled ancient city of Ubar and the frankincense trade route in Yemen, died March 10 at his home in South Pasadena. He was 57 and had been battling melanoma for seven months.

Mr. Hedges was "a true scholar" with the "organizational skill to be able to put together the interdisciplinary group" necessary to make the team's discoveries in the Middle East, said Jet Propulsion Laboratory geologist Ronald Blom, a member of that team. He had "a combination of energy, vision, ambition, and dedication" that made the research possible.

As a lawyer, Mr. Hedges was "a consummate professional . . . who represented every type of contributor - studios, talent, producers, and directors," said John Quinn, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges. "He was universally liked and respected. You can't say that about everybody in the industry. From time to time, egos have been known to get in the way, but never with George."

Trained in the classics, Mr. Hedges retained an interest in archeology throughout his law career. A 1984 luncheon conversation with filmmaker Nicholas Clapp brought the fabled city of Ubar to his attention.

An important center of the frankincense trade 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, Ubar had been unsuccessfully sought by a variety of archeologists and explorers, and many thought it was mythical.

Mr. Hedges and Clapp decided it was real and enlisted Blom and Charles Elachi, another scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who persuaded NASA astronauts to photograph the region of southern Oman where they believed the city would be found. Those photos revealed faint traces of ancient caravan paths packed firmly by the feet of thousands of camels. Several junctions where the routes converged were possible sites of Ubar.

The team enlisted archeologist Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University and descended on Oman. On New Year's Eve 1991, they found preliminary evidence that what is now known as the village of Shisr, in the barren Empty Quarter, was the site of Ubar.

Excavations revealed the presence of an octagonal fort with crenellated towers identical to those described in ancient documents. The fort had inadvertently been constructed over a massive limestone cavern and had collapsed into the cavern during an earthquake, triggering the legend that the city had been destroyed by God because of its greed.

Five years later, the team used similar space imagery of southern Yemen to discover a network of trade routes connecting more than 65 archeological sites, including a pair of fortresses virtually identical to that discovered at Ubar.

Mr. Hedges was equally successful as a lawyer, earning the title of "California super lawyer" from Los Angeles magazine and making the Hollywood Reporter's Top 100 Power Lawyers list.

Mr. Hedges often said that his proudest moments occurred during his 20-year pro bono effort to overturn the death sentence of convicted murderer Adam Miranda, who had received the sentence because he was convicted of two killings.

But Mr. Hedges successfully argued that the prosecution had withheld another man's confession to one of the killings. Last May, the California Supreme Court agreed, and Miranda's death sentence was changed to life in prison.

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