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Three Strikes

Another DA down in Del Norte

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The office had just emerged from what Del Norte County Assistant District Attorney Katherine Micks describes as "a very dark time," and there was, she says, a genuine sense of optimism when Dale Trigg was elected in 2014.

Over the ensuing three years, Micks says, Trigg emerged as the "competent, ethical leader that we hoped he would be."

"He was an attorney we had worked with for a while and knew to be a very good attorney, and ethical, and someone that we could really get behind and be confident in," Micks says.

For a time, it seemed, the office could let out a collective sigh of relief.

Just one year before Trigg's arrival, the previous district attorney, Jon Alexander, had been stripped of his law license for prosecutorial misconduct and escorted from the premises.

His predecessor Michael Riese had faced his own issues with prescription drug use and at one point county officials urged him to take a leave of absence due to erratic behavior at work.

But the new hope that Trigg offered proved short-lived. Earlier this month, he suddenly pulled up stakes over a salary dispute, dropping off a letter of resignation and moving out of town almost overnight.

Within a week, he was 2,000 miles away at a new job in a new city.

Now uncertainty surrounding the future of the office's leadership has returned. Soon, the county will begin taking applications to fill the district attorney post until the next election cycle in 2018.

Micks, a Eureka High School graduate who grew up in Freshwater, finds herself back in familiar territory, once again charged with keeping the office of three deputy prosecutors on track in the interim.

Micks took the helm after Alexander's ouster and developed a reputation for being a steady hand in a time of turmoil. Trigg, members of the board of supervisors, attorneys and the sheriff all voiced confidence in her ability to do the job.

She says the office is set up to carry on despite changes in management — expected or unexpected — and that's what she and the staff will do, respecting whatever decision the board of supervisors makes.

"Realistically," she says, "the office functions regardless of who is in the district attorney's chair."

To understand the calm that Trigg initially brought to the office, one needs to understand the chaos that had come before.

Internal conflicts and controversy were common threads tying together the administrations of Riese and Alexander, whose bitter rivalry is on par with that of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

While their proverbial feud has been dueled out along the campaign trail and in newspaper pages rather than a clearing in the woods, the two men continue to accuse one another of orchestrating plots to bring the other down.

The latest chapter in their simmering dispute landed before an appellate court panel in November. Neither emerged unscathed.

Riese brought the civil action against Alexander and other county officials after he was charged with driving under the influence, public intoxication and child endangerment following an incident in 2011, when he was found disorientated and acting erratically in a Crescent City grocery store. A store employee called 911.

A court summary of the events states that a "Safeway employee told the officers that Riese appeared confused and disoriented and 'had difficulty standing in place and was unable to slide his credit card through the card machine.'"

Riese was also, apparently, unable to use a cellphone, so an officer called his girlfriend to take him home.

His attorney labeled the case (which was prosecuted by an attorney from the California Office of the Attorney General due to conflicts of interest) a "small town vendetta."

Riese was acquitted by a jury after representing himself but the appellate justices upheld a lower court decision that found he failed to show malicious prosecution in the civil matter.

At least one judge, however, agreed there was an appearance of retaliation, describing Alexander's actions as "reprehensible," especially given that he considered "taking another crack" at Riese in a separate incident, despite being advised that was "crazy."

"I guess what I'm saying is, it suggests your client really did have a vendetta against the man and this case never should have been brought," Ninth Circuit Judge Paul Watford told Alexander's attorney.

Watford's colleague Judge Richard Clifton, meanwhile, noted "it's very hard for me to see how there was not probable cause for the arrest and the charges" given the evidence about Riese's behavior in the store, some of which was caught on tape.

"Seems to me this kind of screams out for saying, 'Well, there may not be enough for a conviction." But probable cause? That didn't seem very hard to me given the facts," he said.

Riese says he brought the lawsuit as a "proactive measure to protect me from continuous filings by Jon," but blames his courtroom loss on ineffective counsel.

"It was reprehensible what he did, and I carry the burden," he says.

The bitter rivalry between the men started soon after Riese fired Alexander, who had been serving as his deputy district attorney, back in 2005.

Alexander would unsuccessfully challenge Riese for election the next year only to mount a successful bid in 2010, when his former boss was narrowly knocked out of contention in the primary election.

The end of Riese's second term — and by extension his reelection campaign — had been dogged by news reports of bizarre behavior that included removing his shirt while at work, as well being pulled over by police on suspicion of driving under the influence, although he was never charged.

The leaking of the county's letter and an anonymous tip that led to at least one of his traffic stops were politically-motivated, he says.

In a recent phone interview with the Journal, Riese says he was simply pushing himself too hard at work despite suffering from medical issues — including a bout of pneumonia and pleurisy — that he had been upfront about at the time.

He says he was also an "open book" about his use of fentanyl — the same powerful painkiller that killed Prince and Michael Jackson — while he put off knee surgery to avoid leaving the district attorney's office short staffed.

"Just because you become the DA doesn't make you perfect and impervious to life," he says.

Riese also makes it clear that he doesn't see the point of dredging up the past.

"I don't feel like defending myself eight years later and tying it to the integrity of the district attorney's office," Riese says. "It's not fair to the office."

Alexander's own victory in 2010, meanwhile, was fleeting.

The recovering addict whose ascension to top prosecutor on a "Death to Meth" campaign had been heralded as the ultimate redemption story would soon find himself with a new dubious distinction: Alexander is the only sitting district attorney in the history of California to be disbarred while in office.

Alexander ties his own troubles back to a conspiracy against him, an argument found to have no merit by a panel of State Bar of California Judges.

While the panel acknowledged that more than 200 people either testified on his behalf or signed petitions "attesting to his integrity and good character and expressing their hope that he will be able to continue his service as their district attorney," the judges found his long history of discipline and the immediate circumstances made disbarment warranted.

At the heart of the case was a discussion Alexander had with a criminal defendant — without her attorney's consent in violation of court rules meant to protect the rights of the accused — without passing along information she provided that might have exonerated another defendant in the meth case.

Unknown to Alexander, the conversation was taped.

"Alexander has shown no insight into the seriousness of his wrongdoing and instead views his misconduct as a 'momentary error of judgment,'" the opinion states. "He is wrong."

Alexander says in an email to the Journal that he "made a mistake" in talking with the woman who had burst into his office but he'd never "intentionally buried, hidden or deprived a defendant of exculpatory evidence and I did not in that case."

Still, Alexander says he kept his campaign promise to "wage war on that demon that once took me down" and stands by the work accomplished during his time in office.

"During those two years, we took more cases to trial than at any other similar time during recorded court history," he writes. "We sent more felons to state prison as well as getting more people into recovery during that time and I am proud of the job we did during that time."

Micks, however, describes Alexander's tenure as "probably the darkest time that we've had here."

"It was lot of things, not the least of which was his ethics, and his methods, dealing with cases and dealing with employees," she says.

For his part, Alexander publically criticized the office's operations under her leadership.

Micks, who was hired and later promoted to assistant district attorney by Riese, says she thought he was a good attorney and didn't have any issues working for him in the beginning. But, things changed.

"Some personal issues started to affect him and the office during the last part of his term," she says.

Riese says he's proud of his time as district attorney and credits the prosecutors in his office and the efforts of local law enforcement for his successes, saying he "sure didn't do it by myself."

"I was district attorney a long time ago," he says. "If people want to say I was a good DA or a bad DA, they have their First Amendment right to do so."

While he might have miscalculated his ability to "nurse himself" while waiting to get knee surgery, Riese says he fulfilled his term in office, which is more than can be said for Trigg.

"Whether he ran the office well or not, I have my frustrations when people don't understand they are public servants," he says.

Trigg had only lived in Del Norte County for about two years when he launched his successful bid to become district attorney on a platform touting his "fresh perspective" and promises to run a principled, drama-free office.

The son of a Los Angeles sheriff's deputy and a school teacher, Trigg mingled details of his professional and personal life on his campaign website — including a 1999 letter of reference from former senator and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, whom he'd worked for during a break from his law studies.

There was a black and white photo of his father in uniform along with images of Trigg and his wife cuddling their young daughters or out enjoying the region's scenic beauty with their two yellow Labrador retrievers — Duke and Daisy — fetching sticks on the beach.

The campaign painted a portrait of a family man with a law and order background who had set down new roots with his young family, ready to settle in for the long haul.

"Joanna and I are very pleased that Elizabeth and Catherine will grow up in such a beautiful place with so many wonderful people," he wrote in his introduction to voters.

It's not hard to see how this would prove a winning strategy in the context of a small, rural community that had just weathered back-to-back district attorneys whose personal issues overshadowed their tenures.

While Trigg may have garnered his shared of critics over the ensuring years, the headlines he received were about the cases before his office, not his own troubles.

"We knew that Dale would back us up," Micks says. "He wasn't ever out there trying to make his staff look bad, which was a large difference from the prior administration."

But that era came to an end this month when Trigg penned a very different letter to county officials and his constituents. Unlike the optimistic words of his campaign message three years earlier, this one was edged in frustration and announced he was stepping down from office effective immediately.

Trigg laid the blame at the feet of county officials who he says failed to make good on promises to improve his pay — which was $17,000 a year less than the office's long-standing second in command.

"I don't know a prosecutor anywhere who is in it for the money. That is certainly not what motivated me to run for DA," Trigg wrote in his resignation. "That said, fair is fair. I know for a fact that I am the only DA in the state of California, probably in the country, who makes less than his/her ADA."

County officials say the situation is more complicated than Trigg makes it out to be, with the district attorney's salary negotiations tied directly to those of other elected county officials.

Efforts were under way, they say, to level the playing field across the board.

"I guess his patience wasn't as well structured as I had hoped," says Supervisor Chris Howard.

Supervisor Roger Gitlin, who called Trigg an excellent district attorney, expressed similar sentiments.

"He chose not to fulfill his four-year commitment and I'm a little disturbed by that, but it's water under the bridge now," Gitlin says.

Within a week of leaving his elected post, Trigg was more than 2,000 miles away, sitting behind a different desk at a civil law firm in Springfield, Missouri.

Reached recently at Wallace Saunders Attorneys at Law, Trigg says he has great respect for the office and Micks, but county officials dragged their feet too long on rectifying the pay discrepancy.

"For $30,000, they would have been able to keep a district attorney who has never been on the front page for personal reasons, which to me seems like a small price to pay to have that continuity and stability there," Trigg says.

He says the "chaotic" 12 years before he took over left Del Norte County residents with little confidence in the office, which Trigg says became "a kind of laughing stock of the state."

"I had a drama-free workplace," Trigg says. "I didn't have any personnel issues to speak of and I didn't have any personal issues that affected my ability to do my job."

Defense attorney James Fallman, who worked as a Del Norte County prosecutor for 14 years, including time under Riese, says he believes the main issue with the office's leadership over the years boils down to an eight-letter word: politics.

While he gave Trigg's tenure a lukewarm review at best, saying he was "shocked when he left but not sorry," Fallman says the district attorney's pay rate does pose a hurdle in attracting well-qualified candidates.

"If they raise the salary up quite a bit, it might be attractive," he says.

While, like many of those interviewed for this story, Fallman declined to delve into the controversies surrounding Riese and Alexander, he calls Trigg's performance in office just "one step above" that of his predecessors.

"I have never in 43 years of practicing law in three states seen a more unprofessional act of just walking away as an elected official," he says.

Alexander, meanwhile, has been facing a new set of struggles. His says losing the ability to practice law was like losing a part of himself, but almost dying in a car wreck and now battling cancer has allowed him "time for contemplative reflection."

Yet that reflection hasn't changed Alexander's mind that Riese was a principal source of his past professional troubles, even as he looks toward the future.

"That said, I try not to be bitter (and) pray that I am once again allowed to practice in a career I devoted my life and heart to," Alexander writes in his email.

Regardless of the opinions here on the North Coast, Trigg has returned back to his roots, in a way, practicing law in the same town where he first started his career nearly 20 years ago.

While he knew leaving with no warning would likely stir controversy, Trigg says he felt it was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

Giving notice, Trigg says, would leave the office in limbo with a lame duck DA at the helm. Instead, he says, he worked to get the office in order and prepared for a smooth transition when the time came for him to exit.

"I feel like I did a good job and, when I left, I feel that the people on my staff were sad to see me go," Trigg says. "They liked working with me and liked the leadership I brought to my office."

As for what's next for Del Norte's top law enforcement position, perhaps the block-type message on the county's district attorney's office website says it best: "THIS PAGE IS CURRENTLY BEING UPDATED, PLEASE CHECK BACK SOON."

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor and a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 441-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.


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