Lives & Times of Valley Folks: District Attorney David Eyster (Part 2)
by Steve Sparks, March 4, 2011
Having passed the bar exam earlier that year, in late 1984, the Mendocino County DA, Vivian Rackaukas, interviewed David and offered him the job. Although he had never even been to the County before, he accepted and on October 26th he started as the Deputy DA in the then-underachieving Family Support Division of the DA’s Office.
“As I tried to revitalize the County’s child support enforcement effort it meant lots of civil work, not much criminal, but I threw myself into it and got a lot done, getting the Family Support division out of disarray. We had an office in the courthouse annex and had a staff of women who were sensational. One of them Carmen Macias runs my office here today. I found myself working seven days a week — there hadn’t been an attorney in the department for several months. I lived on West Perkins St and walked to and from work. We had a huge caseload to catch up with but we both worked and played hard so it was a lot of fun... Also, the DA let me cherry-pick some criminal cases so that I could continue to work on my trial skills. Emily Valentine, a legal secretary, taught me the ropes at the DA office — she was my surrogate ‘butler.’ I am very appreciative of her efforts and will be a friend of hers until the day I die — ‘it’s good to have a guide in a foreign land’.”
In 1986, Susan Massini became the new DA and she transferred David to the Felony Trial Team. Meredith Lintott, who would later precede him as DA, replaced him at Family Support. During his tenure as a prosecutor, David rose through the ranks to become the office’s senior supervisor and the County’s lead criminal trial attorney. Many articles have been written of his courtroom successes over the year, as he personally handled Mendocino County’s serious and violent crimes. He is known for being an innovator; an attorney always on the cutting edge of law and technology. He was the first prosecutor in the state to obtain a conviction that resulted in a large-scale commercial abalone poacher being sent to prison. Using the Three Strikes law, he personally prosecuted the serial arsonist who had been setting random fires that endangered the town of Mendocino, obtaining convictions at trial that resulted in the arsonist being sent to prison for 105 years to life. On a less successful note, in 1992, David ran for judge against Henry Nelson. “He blew me out of the water.”
“I did very well as a prosecutor and went two years without losing a case. I became pretty cocky and forgot the adage that ‘if you haven’t lost, you haven’t tried enough cases’. It hit me one day. I then lost three in suc-cession, two because of poor jury selection by me. It brought me down to earth and helped me refine my trial skills. In 1990 I was promoted to the county’s first ever Deputy DA-4 — a super-level manager. We have eight of those now.”
In 1990, David married Gail and their son Dylan was born in 1993. “Ultimately things did not work out and we went through an acrimonious divorce — unfortunately Dylan was a victim of that. It was finally settled in 2006 and I remain friends with some of my former wife’s family.”
During his time in the DA’s office, David was responsible for reviving the Fort Bragg “cold case” that involved the brutal murders of a family of four by two Hell’s Angels, both now serving life sentences in prison. “That was a big success for me. I managed to put together a very difficult and complex case in the context of the Hell’s Angels code of silence. However, other attorneys finished the case as Susan Massini had fired me before it was concluded. I had complained publicly that I was not getting the necessary resources from her and I was the most visible and vocal attorney in the office on that issue. Meanwhile she was running for Judge against Ron Brown and I had a ‘Ron Brown for Judge’ sticker on my car. It was a matter of principal. On the day of the vote in her race, she came into my office at 1:30pm with an investigator, demanded my badge, and gave me two hours to get out. She was firing me after eleven and a half years. She left and told the investigator to stay at my door. He was wearing a gun and she instructed him to make sure I did not take any files or the hard drives from the computer. After she left, I told him I was leaving with my floppy discs as they were my private and personal files and if he tried to stop me he’d have to shoot me. When I left a little later he was no longer around. It was traumatic experience —I thought I had been doing the work of three attorneys and doing it well.”
“Massini and I had been at loggerheads from the fall of 1995 until the day I was fired — March 26th, 1996. I had been the number one applicant as a prosecutor for a job in Sacramento and she influenced the decision to not hire me. I really thought she’d let me go and get another job, but no. Then she fired me on the day of her possible election to Judge. It was on the local news that afternoon that the Deputy DA had been fired and yet the people were still going to the polls. It was a very poor emotional decision by her — somebody who was normally a very smart and a good politician, and Ron Brown won. It a miscue by her and turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
“I had been fired with two hours notice and had no career plan. I was offered and accepted a job with the Lake County DA for a few months that summer and it allowed me to ‘get back in the saddle’ again, and also time to reflect on whom my real friends were. Henry Nelson, who had been my opponent in the judicial race of 1992, was very supportive. The whole event changed my worldview quite a lot.”
David continued his career growth by working from late 1996 through 1998 as an attorney for the prestigious Sacramento law firm of Burger & Plavan. “The firm had a reputation for excellence and a track record of winning. I went from being in a rural DA’s office to an elite law firm — and without help from anyone in the car pool this time! There were about eighteen to twenty lawyers, a big staff, and big money — but we worked really, really hard. The partners were husband and wife — Frank Plavan and Trena Burger. She is now a judge in Sacramento and actually swore me in as DA last year. Because of my criminal law background, I played a major role in the California Department of Corrections’ successful multi-million dollar information technology lawsuit against a national defense contractor — TRW. I was the Second Chair Trial Attorney and briefed the government and its representatives. This was a big time case and TRW settled, paying significant funds to the State, in what was the first win for the State in such a case.”
In November 1998, with Frank Plavan in poor health, the firm was gradually closed down and David, one of the last to leave, found a job working for Miller and As-sociates, a Santa Monica criminal defense law firm, at its office in Roseville, near Sacramento. “I appeared in courts everywhere from Merced to Oregon and into Nevada — overall I have worked in thirty two of the State’s fifty eight counties. Such experience, seeing how other counties do it, has given me many interesting insights.” After nearly four years at Miller and Associates, in 2002 he went to work for a competing firm, the Chase Law Group for another four years before returning to Ukiah in 2006 and becoming the Northern California supervisor for two nationally known criminal defense law firms, one of which was the law office of Duncan James in Ukiah.
In December 2009, David decided to run for District Attorney. “I had Duncan’s blessing despite the fact that he would be losing someone who did lots of work for the firm. After a run-off with Meredith Lintott, the incumbent, David won the election by a significant margin, 53.5 to 46. “It was the largest victory in a DA election for 25 years, normally these elections are won by four points or less. I appreciate the work put in by so many people for that. The campaign was enjoyable, if at times tedious. I was still working at the law firm and it was tough to do both. I am not a very good politician and we did not have a strong campaign apparatus so we relied on word of mouth, reputation, lots of work at the grass roots level, and I shook lots of hands and I won the debates heard on radio. Our Facebook page was a success too, as was the ‘Eyster4DA.com website.”
Looking ahead, David is clear on the need to hit the ground running and leading by example. “I believe it is very important that the residents of Mendocino County be proud and supportive of their DA’s Office, a support that must be earned however. It is difficult to support an office that is wasting resources by prosecuting the wrong people and cases, and not acting in the interests of justice. I hope to change that.” He also believes low employee morale is negatively impacting the overall performance of the DA’s Office. “It is important that any staff believe that their boss has the right experience to know what he or she is talking about.” Moreover, he believes in what he calls “old school” priorities, meaning the main focus of prosecution efforts should be on the “thugs” who victimize others. “We live in a time of limited resources. As a result, the DA’s limited resources need to be first allocated to prosecuting crimes with direct victims. If you hurt or steal from your neighbor, you will see me in court and I will be firm and focused on seeking justice. I seek to be both a cost-effective manager and a courtroom advocate. I am not interested in pushing paper in my office while others are doing the important work, especially when that work involves standing up for victims of crime. I intend to lead by example, which may be a new experience for many of the staff at the DA’s Office.”
I next asked my guest for his opinions on a few of the issues that concern the residents of the Valley and beyond in the County.
The Wineries and their impact? “They are a promoter of tourism that is necessary in this county, keeping dollars in the coffers. Along with the ranchers and timber people they are the stewards of our land, and they are keeping it from being developed into housing.”
The AVA? “It has been a nemesis and a friend at different times and for different reasons. It is entertaining and not as mean-spirited as it used to be. It continues to provide a valuable service and do some good investigative work.”
Law and Order in Anderson Valley? “The Valley is blessed with having resident deputies who are generally taking care of business without bringing it over the hill. I believe it is imperative that the quality of life afforded by having them be continued. The Supervisors have to make very difficult decisions but we must maintain the core facilities — the Sheriff’s department and the DA’s office, the Fire department, and the roads and infrastructure. They are the core businesses of the County and need our support first and foremost.”
Finally, marijuana? “I’m trying to take it off the front page. I believe the previous DA allowed her office and the courts to become bogged down by marijuana.” He blames this on poor charging decisions, which flow from ill-advised policies and priorities. “The philosophical fight is over. The voters have made medicinal marijuana the law. It is legally and morally wrong to prosecute patients who are trying to comply with the letter and spirit of the law. If I am going to direct the prosecution of anybody for marijuana, let it be the able-bodied, illegal profiteers and trespassers who trash our lands, kill wildlife, divert water resources and make parts of Mendocino County a dangerous place to live.”
Turning from talk of his career, I asked David for a strong image he has of his father. “A funny guy; some-body you would want to have as a friend. He had a stroke in 1994 and didn’t talk much after that. His quality of life was not good after that until he died in 2004. Dr. Kevorkian would have pulled the switch much earlier.” And a reflection on his mother? “She is still in the family home in the East Bay. She had a stroke in 2001 but it was not as debilitating as my Dad’s. We have a care provider, Lotta, who does a wonderful job. She was a good mother, there for everything you needed. The stroke robbed her of her initiative and independence though.”
I posed a few questions to my guest from a questionnaire featured on television’s ‘Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton’ and the rest I came up with myself.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Nice people; good weather; a wonderful glass of red wine.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “People who don’t listen; mean-spirited people; bad red wine.”
Sound or noise you love? “All types of music.”
Sound or noise you hate? “Fingernails on a black-board.”
Favorite food or meal? “A really good steak or turkey dinner.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “My father. I’d love to sit down to dinner with my Dad once more.”
If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “A framed picture of my son; an external hard-drive with all of my music; the ashes of my dog Murphy, a very special dog indeed.”
Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “The movie would be ‘The Sound of Music’ and the song would be from that film ‘Edelweiss.’ I listen to lots of books on tape and one that I have enjoyed immensely of late is the autobiography of Mark Twain recently released, one hundred years after his death.”
Favorite hobby? “Genealogy and wine collecting.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “An inter-national airline pilot.”
Profession would you not like to do? “Sewer cleaner or perhaps someone who takes care of snakes.”
Something that you are really proud of and why? “Well it’s not so much feeling proud, more humbled, by the number of friends I have.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “The birth of my son, Dylan.”
Saddest day or period of your life? “My father’s pass-ing?
Favorite thing about yourself? “That I have a good laugh and smile, and hopefully some people think I have a good sense of humor.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well that remains to be seen of course, but what I’d like to hear him say is ‘Thank you for helping others’.”
To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewees from the Valley will be Bill and Gail Meyer.