Special to the Chronicle by investigative reporter Clarence Walker, firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the 7th installment of Walker's series on prosecutorial misconduct in the war on drugs.
A Northern California attorney plunged into a full-blown methamphetamine addiction, then made a storybook recovery, running successfully for county prosecutor on a "Death to Meth" platform just a few years later. But now that attorney, Del Norte County District Attorney Jon Alexander, is on the ropes again, and it's not the drug itself but a different aspect of his meth mania that's doing him in.
Alexander fought back like Rocky Balboa, only to be defeated by himself.
Inspired by a burning passion to fight the meth industry in the county and to help meth users who reminded him of himself, Alexander ran as a big underdog on a "Death to Meth" platform. On the road to victory with Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" booming in the background, Alexander won strong support from law-abiding citizens, sheriff's deputies, judges, and even families of drug dealers and drug users that Alexander previously represented either as a solo defense attorney or public defender. And in a strange way many drug dealers he sent to prison as a former prosecutor threw their support behind him as well.
"With meth, it's personal to me. I've been there. I know meth is a horrendously powerful drug. I've been to hell and back," a triumphant Alexander declaimed after winning the prosecutor's job. A former New Jersey resident, Alexander graduated in 1987 from Western State University College of Law in Orange County, California.
Like a former smoker turned anti-smoking zealot, Alexander turned his personal campaign against meth into a crusade. For nearly three years, he participated in "Meth Elimination" raids carried out by the sheriff's office and hammered meth dealers as the DA.
But now, the 63-year-old lawyer's enthusiasm has gotten the best of him, and the Northern California DA finds himself in trouble with the law again. It just another turn of the page in the real-life legal thriller that is the career of Jon Alexander.
Back in April, the State Bar of California recommended that Alexander, who had previously been disciplined for prosecutorial misconduct, be disbarred for interfering in a drug case. Although the judge in the case issued an order recommending Alexander's "right to practice" law be transferred to involuntary inactive status, the final decision to disbar the DA is up to the California Supreme Court.
To add insult to injury, the "miracle comeback lawyer" was served with a letter from the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors ordering him suspended without pay as a sheriff's sergeant unceremoniously escorted him from his office. He has been replaced temporarily by assistant prosecutor Katherine Micks as he exhausts his appeals.
Alexander went down over his interference in a meth case involving a female defendant, 24-year-old Michelle Taylor. Taylor met with Alexander in his office and told him that meth seized in a recent bust belonged to her and not her boyfriend, Damion Van Parks, who had been arrested with her and charged as a codefendant. The bar found that he had questioned her without her attorney present, that he failed to provide exculpatory evidence in a related case, and that he lied to his fellow prosecutors.
"Jon Alexander, reportedly the state's first sitting prosecutor to face removal from office, abused his prosecutorial power by communicating with Michelle Taylor, charged at the time, with methamphetamine possession," State Bar Court Judge Lucy Armendariz ruled. But there's more: "After Alexander learned from Taylor that she, not her co-defendant Van Parks, owned the illegal drugs, Alexander failed to disclosed the exculpatory evidence to the defendant's lawyer."
And still more. Judge Armendariz found that Alexander had lied to Assistant DA Micks, who was in charge of prosecuting the case, by telling her he had not spoken with the female defendant. But it gets worse.
When the accusations against him emerged, Alexander fired back, claiming he recalled that Taylor's attorney had given him permission to speak to her about seeking drug treatment. But, unknown to Alexander, Taylor had been wearing a wire, and on the recording of their meeting, there is no mention of her going to rehab.
Judge Lucy Armendariz (tjsl.edu)
"Michelle Taylor was denied basic protections under the Sixth Amendment when Alexander elicited information from her without her counsel," Judge Armendariz found.
Taylor refused to testify at Alexander's October 2012 State Bar trial unless she was granted immunity in her pending meth case. That didn't happen. Instead, she was eventually convicted and sentenced to a year in prison while the case against Van Parks was dropped.
Alexander had support during his State Bar trial, with numerous members of Del Norte County legal and law enforcement communities testifying to his good reputation as an elected DA. While he may have had shortcoming and might have committed some errors, they said, none of his misdeeds warranted criminal actions. But not everyone rallied to Alexander's support.
"I do not believe for a second that Alexander should be DA because I think his mental abilities continue to be adversely affected by his long-time meth use, even though he appears sober now," argued State Bar Deputy trial counselor Cydney Batchelor,
Although he has been recommended for disbarment by the State Bar for misconduct and at least temporarily removed from office, Alexander hasn't given up the fight. In addition to appealing the State Bar decision, he is also challenging the county Board of Supervisors' decision to suspend him without pay.
"I am the elected District Attorney of this county; I still believe I am," Alexander said in August.
He has hired Sacramento attorney Rudy Nolen, who has filed an appeal of the State Bar Court's decision to disbar him. Nolen is also challenging the county supervisors' decision to suspend Alexander, arguing that the board "acted out of its scope of jurisdiction on a number of grounds" when it suspended the befallen prosecutor, and violated his rights in the process.
"It did not have authority to fire Alexander because a sitting District Attorney is subject to removal only by Attorney General Office or by way of recall election or a grand jury accusation," Nolen argued. "The board did not provide Mr. Alexander with prior notice of planned actions and the board failed to provide Alexander with an open hearing or an opportunity to defend himself against the allegations."
"I continue to believe that the actions taken by the board were outside of their authority, which was, to me, an illegal attempt to remove Jon from his position," he told the Chronicle.
In his October 2012 lawsuit against the State Bar, Alexander's attorney claimed that "the accusations against him were not only politically motivated by fellow lawyers and DAs, whom he called enemies, but the accusations also were driven by incorrect factual allegations and bias against a former meth addict."
"My opponents are subjecting me to additional scrutiny and criticism because of my former drug addiction," Alexander argued.
It wasn't Alexander's recovery status, but his prosecutorial misconduct that did him in, though, Judge Armendariz held.
"Jon Alexander knew or should have known, as an experienced prosecutor, that there's no excuse for conversing with a defendant in the absence of retained counsel, regardless of whether she barged into his office and voluntarily made several incriminating statements during their conversation," she wrote in her decision to disbar him.
One disgruntled attorney is former Del Norte Prosecutor Michael Riese, who gave Alexander a chance to work as a prosecutor in his office based on his excellent skillls as a trial lawyer. Alexander was fired from the DA office by Riese for improper behavior. But Alexander later rebounded to defeat Riese for the top spot. Riese filed a lawsuit against Alexander in July 2012, accusing him of malicious prosecution for allegedly trying to frame him for child endangerment and DUI. Both charges against Riese were later dismissed.
The Downward Spiral
Before Alexander won election as Del Norte County District Attorney, his dalliance with methamphetamine almost killed him. Burdened with emotional strain over the declining health of his parents and running a busy law practice, Alexander first used cocaine and then switched to snorting meth.
"I was doing meth to keep my practice going. I did meth while cranking out a bunch of work, then did some more to stay up. Then after a couple of days straight I took Ambien to sleep," he recalled in an interview with California Lawyer magazine. "Around 2000, I graduated to smoking meth," Alexander recounted. "If you think snorting meth gets its claws in you, then smoking it completely puts your head in the dragon's throat."
After losing a beautiful oceanfront home in 2002, expensive sports car, a loving girlfriend, and a thriving law practice due to a long-term suspension over fees owed to a client, police threw him in jail for driving while his license was suspended. Out of jail, but now broke and homeless, Alexander continued to find solace in meth.
He lived out of his car or in shelters before eventually winding up crashing beneath the crawl space of a friend's house in Laguna Beach, where he slept on a stained, filthy mattress. In a sad reminder of his lost career, Alexander kept his Italian suits wrapped in garbage bags hanging from a rusty pipe in the crawl space. As the world around him spun out of control, Alexander became so despondent that he jammed a .32 pistol in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger to end his brutal dependency on meth.
"I can still remember the metallic taste of the gun in my mouth," Alexander said.
What stopped him from committing suicide was his mother's dog, Prince, whom he kept as companion. Slowly he put the gun down, feeling obligated to fulfill the promise he made to his ailing mother to take care of Prince.
Then Alexander had a close brush with death at the hands of others. On a mission to score more meth, he was attacked at a motel, struck in the head and knocked unconscious. Alexander suffered a broken neck, requiring a steel rod and transplanted disc to hold him together.
"I didn't have the good sense to die," Alexander told the Sacramento Bee.
This violent episode convinced Alexander to make a decision: live or die. Never a quitter, and with the heart of a prizefighter, Jon Alexander dusted himself off, prayed hard, and regained the right to practice law again in December 2004 -- after completing the State Bar substance abuse program. To stay sober and busy, Alexander sponsored a Little League Team, led a weekly 12-step drug program and served as keynote speaker at the County Drug Summit. Serving as mentor for recovering addicts at Jordan's Recovery Center in nearby Crescent City, the residents there adored him as the "comeback lawyer" and a true friend.
"When these guys come to Jon, no matter how beat down they are, he always finds a way to build them up," Sandra Morrison, the facility administrator, told California Law.
Bouncing Back, Breaking Bad
In January 2005, then Del Norte County District Attorney Mike Riese hired Alexander as Assistant DA to give the former meth addict another shot at redemption as a public servant. It wasn't long before Alexander got into hot water, though. In June 2005, Alexander wrote a personal letter to a judge urging him to give a stiff prison term to a meth dealer who, ironically, had been previously represented by Alexander when he worked as a public defender for the county. The judge reported Alexander's improper behavior not only to the defendant's lawyer, but also his boss, DA Riese.
"I'm guilty of bad judgment, arrogance and overstepping my bounds," a contrite Alexander wrote in a letter of apology to DA Riese.
Unimpressed, Riese fired Alexander, and he found himself suspended once again by the State Bar, this time for three months. Reinstated to practice after 90 days, like the Energizer bunny, Alexander bounced back with a vengeance, running against Riese for the DA's post in 2006. He lost the race, but not his mission.
In 2010, Alexander tried again, accusing Riese of corruption and investing his life savings of nearly $100,000 in his "Death to Meth" campaign. He won, by 196 votes out of 10,000 cast.
And now, thanks to his misconduct, he's out again, but he's still vowing war on meth.
"Meth is ravaging this country and I intend to fulfill and deliver on those campaign promises, and I look forward to returning to those duties," he said.
Joe Alexander, a former meth addict, turned his life around, becoming the county's top prosecutor on a "Death to Meth" platform. But while he managed to kick the drug, he hasn't been able to kick his need to bend the rules to go after it.
Although Alexander's saga appears to be winding to a close, it's not quite over yet. In July, Del Norte County rejected his petition to reinstate his salary while his appeals conclude. And next week, he has a hearing on his request that the State Bar consider reversing Judge Armendariz's recommendation that he be disbarred. But for the time being, at least, the "Death to Meth" prosecutor is on the outside looking in.