BETHESDA, Md. -- Roy Cohn, the inquisitor who as Sen. Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel led the 'witch hunts' for communists in the 1950s and later was a high-priced New York lawyer, died Saturday from complications brought on by AIDS. He was 59.
Cohn, who learned he had liver cancer last year, was undergoing treatment at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, one of the nation's premier research facilities for cancer and acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
NIH spokeswoman Irene Haske said Cohn died at 6 a.m. EDT of a heart attack. She said the secondary cause of death was the effects of the HTLV-3 virus -- which NIH researches discovered two years ago was the chief agent of AIDS.
The always-fatal AIDS destroys the body's immune system, leaving a victim open to a variety of diseases -- primarily cancer, infectious diseases and heart problems.
Since 1981, AIDS has afflicted 17,000 nationwide with 250 new cases diagnosed each week. More than 8,800 victims have died.
White House spokesman Mark Weinberg said, 'The Reagans are saddened and extend their sympathy to his family.'
Cohn, born in the Bronx on Feb. 20, 1927, was disbarred June 23 on the recommendations of a lawyer's disciplinary committee, which said he mishandling disputed fees, loans or accounts involving two of his law firm's clients.
But Cohn's name was indelibly linked with that of McCarthy and the Wisconsin senator's investigations of alleged communist infiltation in government in the heat of the 'Red Scare' of the early 1950s.
Cohn, at 27, was the chief counsel for McCarthy's Senate subcommittee. He badgered witnesses, railed against 'Fifth Amendment communists' and unveiled for millions who watched the televised hearings the ruthless brilliance that became his trademark.
Cohn was asked to resign in 1954 and Robert F. Kennedy replaced him as McCarthy's chief counsel. Once, Cohn lunged at Kennedy outside a hearing room.
Sidney Zion, who was helping Cohn write his autobiography, said Saturday his friend 'doesn't apologize for anything in his life.'
'I think the message on his life was that he didn't follow the leader,' said Zion, an attorney and a former reporter for The New York Times. 'He was a kind of a gunslinger in that way.'
Cohn's public life began in 1951 when he helped in the successful prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted and later executed for selling U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets.
For the next three decades Cohn, a lifelong bachelor, was a high-powered, high-priced lawyer vilified as arrogant and unscrupulous. Influential politicians, judges, religious leaders and society figures called him confidant and friend.
He was confidant to two New York cardinals, Francis Spellman and Terence Cooke. At the same time, he was the defense lawyer of Anthony 'Fat Tony' Salerno, Carmine Galante and other reputed mobsters.
Cohn had his own legal problems throughout his career. Between 1964 and 1971, he was indicted three times on charges of fraud, blackmail and perjury. He was acquitted each time.
In the 1970s, he was a frequent defendant and usual loser in tax-evasion proceedings.
In April, Cohn was charged with owing the Internal Revenue Service nearly $7 million in back taxes and penalties. The case was pending on his death.
Cohn, author of the 1968 book 'McCarthy' and several other works, never wavered in his respect for the senator. In a December 1985 interview with The Washington Post, Cohn reaffirmed his loyalty.
'I think McCarthy performed a substantial service to the country by alerting the country to the menace of communism when most people in this country were not tuned in to how deadly it was,' he said.
Under Reagan, Cohn enjoyed broad influence. He was co-host of one of the best-attended Inauguration Day receptions following Reagan's 1980 election.
The disciplinary committee's recommendations for disbarment came in October 1985, by which time Cohn was known to be suffering from liver cancer. Friends including New York Times columnist William Safire and Barbara Walters of ABC News rallied to his defense.
But the New York State Bar agreed with the recommendation, saying it found ample evidence to support the charges.
Cohn was the only child of state Supreme Court Justice Albert Cohn. He breezed through Columbia Law School, graduating at 20, and worked as a clerk in the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York until he was old enough to be admitted to the state bar in May 1948.
He became an assistant U.S. attorney that month.