by KEITH EASTHOUSE
At home. Day is just breaking when we ring the bell. Muffled barks, an opening door, then Joan Gallegos, clad in a bathrobe with a towel on her head. She barely has time to say, "Good morning," before two dogs come charging past her. "That's Ginger," Joan says of the small white one, a lively if somewhat aged bichon frisé mix, "and that's Hunter." A heavy-set retriever of some sort, a golden retriever mix, maybe, about four times the size of his comrade.
Beautiful wood floors inside. Joan [photo below left], with a slightly amused, slightly resigned air, asks if we want some orange juice, and we all head for the kitchen. There we meet Kjellen, who's 7 and in second grade, and Sophia, a kindergartner who turns 5 this Sunday. "What do you think of all the signs with your dad's name on them?" "It's kind of weird," Kjellen says, looking down, "but the other kids say it's cool." Sophia, who looks amazingly -- eerily -- like her father, is in a more mischievous mood. "Now I think I'm going to kick you," she says, and a red shoe flashes in Kjellen's direction.
The grown-up, male version of Sophia soon emerges from the home's nether regions. Fresh from a shower, damp hair brushed back, Paul Gallegos, too, is wearing a bathrobe, a white one, with a black brush protruding from a pocket. In bare feet, he's got child number three up on his shoulders, a solid-looking toddler named Kai, pacifier planted firmly in his mouth, hair combed just like his dad's. We walk into the living room, dominated at one end by a plastic jungle gym set, and at the other by two sofas and a TV. "Kjellen, get your socks and shoes on," says his mother, now dressed, in dark slacks and a red top. Dad, meantime, with Kai still aboard, is carefully leaning over an elaborate electronic keyboard, playing it. As he straightens up, Kai's head bops against a light fixture suspended from the ceiling. It seems a serious collision, but Kai is unfazed. The kid, like his old man, can take a punch. [photo above right: Kjellen, left, and Sophia in the kitchen]
To what extent are the children aware of what's going on? "We don't make a big deal of it," Gallegos, 41, says. "It's just one part of life. It doesn't seem a big deal to them." The kids, he adds, sometimes hang out in the office while he's working, and now and then he'll break free from work in the afternoons and trade in his identity as Humboldt County's beleaguered district attorney for that of a normal family man. (And you thought he went surfing.) "Yesterday," he says, "I took Kjellen to basketball practice."
For some reason, maybe his youthful appearance, or because his visitors have never seen him in a domestic setting, Gallegos as a family man seems incongruous. But he's natural and relaxed in the role, and watching him stroll down the street to the neighborhood basketball hoop in the early morning light, fully dressed now, with Kjellen at his side, he appears perfectly suited to the suburban scene around him. Attractive, newish homes comprise this Cutten neighborhood, and many sport red, white and blue "Gallegos" signs on their well-kept front lawns. Larry Debeni wanders out of his house to chat with Gallegos while Kjellen shoots hoops. A developer, he and Gallegos have coached kids' soccer and basketball teams together. "He's a well-rounded family man, definitely good with his kids and others," Debeni says. When asked how he feels about the recall, Debeni -- who has no political signs on his property -- says he stays "out of that whole mix." But he adds: "What's going on is a rough deal."
Back at the house we get the Hunter story. Gallegos found him seven years ago, an abandoned puppy out in the woods on the Hoopa reservation. He barely had fur; his body was covered with open wounds due to repeated attacks from other dogs, and he was starving. Gallegos carried him to his truck and wrapped a sweater around him. "I thought, `At least he can die warm,'" Gallegos recalled. On the way to the coast Gallegos called a vet on his cell phone, took him there directly, and, lo and behold, the dog made it, although there was a protracted recovery period. "He was so emaciated his head looked huge, he had catastrophic mange and he had worms. We quarantined him in the kitchen for a month and a half." A lasting effect of Hunter's ordeal is some arthritis, but otherwise he appears healthy, fat and happy, even. "My dad saved him," Kjellen says, adding, "When I was a little kid I played with Hunter a lot." [Hunter, photo above right]
Joan is in the kitchen seasoning a chicken, which she then places in a crock-pot -- tonight's dinner. (The Gallegos' are having guests.) An attorney like her husband, she's going to be in court this morning. "I've got five cases," she says. Gallegos, who says he has a "super mellow" schedule today, puts on a tie, using a mirror in the living room. Kai's baby-sitter arrives, and the Gallegos crew, minus its youngest member, leaves the house and piles into two vehicles -- Joan and Sophia in a white mini-van with an "I Don't Recall" sticker on the back, Gallegos and Kjellen in a black pickup. "Adios," says Gallegos to his wife and daughter as they drive off.
We start driving even though the window is fogged, then slow down. "You get in an accident, it's an accident. If I do, it's a sign of bad judgment," he says with a rueful laugh. After a few blocks he pulls into the parking lot of Kjellen's elementary school, walks his son into the building, ducking playfully along the way through a large plywood zero -- part of the numeral 100 on display to mark the hundredth day of the school year.
When he returns, he's asked about family. "It's what's important. Everything else is white noise."
LEFT TO RIGHT: Sophia Gallegos. The DA with Kjellen at school. Kjellen and Kai Gallegos.
Heading in. As we wend our way down off the Cutten plateau, Gallegos starts talking about his family when he was a kid. He grew up outside Washington, D.C., in a home next to the Bull Run battlefield. His father, Orlando Gallegos, a cryptologist during World War II, worked for the National Security Agency, part of the Defense Department. "My dad was a bonafide spook," Gallegos says with a laugh. His mom, Leneale, owned a Montessori school, and his grandmother was one of the first Montessori teachers in the country. The ninth child in a family of 11 children, Gallegos is at home, so to speak, in a chaotic, complex, shifting environment. Maybe that explains why he seems so unfazed by the situation he finds himself in today, a district attorney facing a fierce, well-funded recall effort. Put another way, he's used to a scrap. "A large family is its own experience, it's like a clan," he says. "There are subgroups within it. We fought on a regular basis."
We pass plenty of "Gallegos" signs, but the number of maroon "Dikeman" signs is not insignificant. Family matters suddenly fade, replaced by the weight of what's going on. "My campaign wasn't that long ago," he says. "A lot of people just dusted off the signs they had before." As for the Dikeman signs, he notes, "They're the same color as Terry Farmer's signs were. They're on the same lawns. [Worth] is saying the same things in debates. It's a replay of the election."
Traffic slows as we go down a gully and come up the other side. The thought occurs that Gallegos has never really been given the chance to be DA. He was elected two years ago, waited 10 months before taking office, and then became the target of a recall less than three months into the job. There has been no "normal" time for him, no period when he could learn how to be DA free of intense scrutiny by the media and his enemies, be they Pacific Lumber or the Terry Farmer loyalists who used the flap over the fraud lawsuit against the company to jump on the recall bandwagon. Farmer may have moved out of the area, but his supporters remain -- not to mention his wife, county Supervisor Bonnie Neely, in whose home, it is widely rumored, the first meeting of the fledgling recall movement was held last spring.
As we near downtown, Gallegos says the fact that Farmer's campaign had barely demobilized worked to the advantage of the main beneficiary of a change in leadership at the DA's office: PL. "They were able to totally benefit from the recency of the past election," Gallegos says. He points to another logistical advantage held by those leading the recall: Most of the money supporting the effort has come from one place. "My base is people, 700 people have contributed to my campaign, but [raising money from so many sources] takes time and effort.
"It's not like I'm PL," he went on, "where I can pony up $70,000. It's a little easier if you get money from just two or three people."
We swing into the parking garage beneath the Humboldt County Courthouse. Gallegos gets out and we head toward the elevator. Alluding to the fact that he and his wife came to Humboldt cold 10 years ago and built a successful law practice, he says he understands people's fears about jobs and the economy. "I know how tough it is," he says. But, he adds, just because Pacific Lumber is a large employer is neither here nor there. "To me they're just another defendant, one of 7,900 cases we filed last year, an "X" in the box called defendant. What people are saying is that Pacific Lumber should never be an "X." Why should they be exempt? They can't be."
Does he ever have bodyguards? The elevator doors separate and we walk in. "I'm a member of this community, I have no more protections than anyone else." The doors close. It's silent a moment, then he deadpans, "Maybe less." The reference to his strained relationship with the law enforcement community, which generally backs the recall, is perfectly timed and we both break into laughter. Sardonic, and with flair, no less.
On the fourth floor. Gallegos heads into his office, while we stick our heads into Tim Stoen's [photo at right] . The assistant district attorney is in an upbeat mood. An identity theft case he successfully prosecuted when he was with the Mendocino District Attorney's Office has just been upheld on appeal. He chats briefly about the PL suit, which he is handling for Gallegos, and says, as he has many times before, that it's "rock solid."
"If they thought we had a deficient case, they would never have put $70,000 into the recall. Why would they tarnish their name? The reason is because they know they can't win the case."
He decries the sparse political support offered Gallegos during the past several months. He says Rep. Mike Thompson's involvement in the Headwaters deal has clouded his judgment on the PL suit. "He wants a trophy [the Headwaters deal], not the truth." As for state Sen. Wes Chesbro: "He won't help Paul because he's too busy seeing which way the wind blows." (A few days later Chesbro announced that he would not vote for the recall, but he refused to endorse Gallegos or any of the replacement candidates.)
In Stoen's view, Gallegos is a great DA in the making. "He's got three things I've never seen before in a DA: Courage, integrity and humility. All he needs is experience."
Stoen met Gallegos in January 2002, two months before Gallegos' upset victory over Farmer. It was at a Republican women's luncheon at the Eureka Inn. "We just shook hands," Stoen says, "I was a Terry Farmer supporter." He says he "never lifted a finger" to get the job he has now. Instead, the job was offered to him after Gallegos visited Mendocino District Attorney Norm Vroman 11 months later, in December 2002, to get advice about running a DA's office.
Speaking of a DA's office, Humboldt County's has a heck of a view, a sweeping vista of the Eureka waterfront and the bay beyond. Sitting behind his desk, in between attending to paperwork and answering the telephone, Gallegos riffs on a couple of different topics, most notably Terry Farmer. "He still won't even shake my hand," the district attorney says, not bitter, just matter of fact. But then he jabs: "Sometimes elected officials get to the point where they think they own the office."
Gallegos says Farmer met with him only once during the protracted transition period, for five minutes in the office's law library -- "not," Gallegos emphasizes, "in here." Gallegos says Farmer was "very curt," and told him to "be careful what you wish for -- this is a politically divisive community." There was no going over the budget, no introduction to the troops. "It was set up to create an implosion," Gallegos says, adding that the deputy DAs who wished to get to know their future boss could only do so on their own time, outside the courthouse.
There's a photo of Abraham Lincoln in Gallegos' office and a bust of the president on his bookshelf. "He's a hero," Gallegos says. He may also be someone Gallegos can relate to. The 16th president came to power and the country divided; Gallegos comes to power and Humboldt County divides.
That's not to say Gallegos has any illusions about his own importance. He doesn't even have illusions about Lincoln. "One of the things we revere about Lincoln is he made slavery a moral issue. But to Native Americans he was a nightmare, someone who gave away their land [to settlers]." In addition to the proximity of his family home to Bull Run, there's another Civil War connection -- his great grandfather, William T. Prosser, of Pennsylvania, was wounded at Antietam and held prisoner at Andersonville, the South's hellish prisoner of war camp.
Referring to the staggering carnage of the conflict, Gallegos says, "[Both sides were] using Napoleonic tactics in a post-Napoleonic time. And the North ended up going beyond that and succeeded because of that. It was the beginning of modern warfare."
Gallegos is like that. Discussions of relatively mundane matters -- sour relations with Terry Farmer -- can rapidly morph into more lofty topics, like Lincoln and Napoleon. According to his wife, and Stoen, Gallegos is extremely well-read. When asked, the DA shies away from the subject, saying only that he "always" has more than one book going and that he has "hundreds" of favorite books and authors. Stoen, a book lover himself, as evidenced by an impressive library of classics in his office, says he and Gallegos have "wonderful chats together" about literature and history. A recent subject of discussion was the English revolution. At the moment, Gallegos is reading a book dating from Roman times on the rules of etiquette, a book George Washington read. "That's the type of primary source material he reads," Stoen says, "that's the level of zest for life he has." Later, in between court appearances, Gallegos would make a reference to Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Throw one more stereotype in the trash. The surfing DA is an intellectual.
One on one. Gallegos comes from around his desk and sits in front of a striking, abstract, mostly blue painting of an urban skyline. It seems to explode with energy. Showing his combative side, he takes a poke at a nemesis, Sgt. Dave Morey of the Humboldt Deputy Sheriff's Organization, an early supporter of the recall. "Dave Morey comes out and says it's 100 plants," Gallegos says, referring to his now defunct medical marijuana guidelines. "It's just a lie. Why would you lie? You're a law enforcement officer. If you look at my guidelines, they're actually more conservative than Terry's. That's the joke." Gallegos explains that while his guidelines allowed 99 seedlings, they only permitted seven full-grown plants. Under Farmer's rules, 10 full-grown plants were acceptable.
How does he feel being under a microscope? "I know the purpose of it. The purpose of it is to create division." He goes on to say that since few in the community understand the complexities of prosecuting a criminal case, it's relatively easy for his opponents to seize on one case and claim it shows Gallegos is soft on crime. "You take one case, which is an exception, maybe, and portray that as the norm, and since the community doesn't know what the norm is, they view that as the norm. No one would write a story about the fact that every day 20 to 40 people are out in the ocean surfing. But if someone gets bit tomorrow, that will be in paper. That's the exception. But what happens is people think if they get in the water they'll get bit by a shark. It creates false apprehensions."
The phone rings. "Tom, amigo." A pause. "Like a knife fight in a phone booth." Another pause. "Life is good is what I'm telling you."
He returns, starts talking about the PL suit, how it has slowed him down in terms of achieving other goals. Does he regret filing it? "I cannot because if I hadn't filed it the reason [would have been] because of the personal political consequences to me. Are there times when I think it would have been great if I didn't have to? Of course, there wouldn't be a recall right now. If the case had not surfaced, my life would have been a lot easier in the past year."
Is he anti-logging? "Not even remotely. Many of my friends and past clients are loggers and in the logging industry. So are many of wife's current clients. How can filing one case against one logging company be an indication I'm against logging, anymore than filing one case against one white person is an indication that I hate whites?" He pauses and looks off. "Let's be honest. Timber is Humboldt County iconography. Why would I set about attacking an icon? When I was a private businessperson in this community, I never did environmental stuff. Maybe shame on me. But I was making a living."
Did he foresee that filing the suit would provoke a recall? "We do our investigation and I'm sitting there with the complaint on my desk [before making the decision to file] and I'm thinking I'm on the edge of a cliff. Do I stay on land because I don't want to fall? Or do I step off because that's my duty? I've been falling ever since. Actually, I've been banging ever since," he adds with a laugh, sardonic once again. "Ouch, another outcropping!" he says, mimicking a falling rock climber.
We switch gears, but don't lose much speed. He says he hired Tim Stoen, a political conservative, to counter his progressivism. "I wanted this community to know that this office represents both sides." He also hoped Stoen, a prosecutor, would serve as a bridge to the deputy DAs, since his own background is largely as a defense attorney.
On the Pedro Martinez-Hernandez case, the Ferndale man who molested his daughter for years, we don't break much new ground. Gallegos says what he's said before, that Martinez-Hernandez, who was charged with one continuous count of molestation, did not get off -- he got 16 years. As for last week's revelation that a "felony filing evaluation" suggested filing multiple charges so Martinez-Hernandez could be put away for 100 years or more, an option that Gallegos, who handled the case, either was unaware of or ignored, according to his critics, the DA again repeats what he's told other reporters: He doesn't make filing decisions. That, he says, is the job of Chief Deputy District Attorney Wes Keat.
But he doesn't criticize Keat, so evidently, in the district attorney's view, nothing went wrong. He mentions something else: Filing multiple charges would have entailed putting the girl on the stand and forcing her to relive the abuse. And that's assuming that the daughter and her mother, illegal aliens, would not flee the country before the trial. (Word on the street is they've already fled.)
A side issue is the question of who in the DA's office leaked the filing evaluation, a confidential report. "Someone in our office leaked confidential information for political gain. There's no getting around it," Gallegos says. Interestingly, he doesn't seem angry, more like, "What else is new?"
We break for coffee. Gallegos goes into Stoen's office to bum some money.
Out and about. At a coffee house across the street from the courthouse, the subject turns to Dikeman -- and for the first time all day Gallegos' glibness deserts him. He starts and stops, looks off into the distance, jokes that the caffeine hasn't kicked in yet, then finally settles down and tells how he learned that Terry Farmer's longtime lieutenant was going to run as a replacement candidate.
"He came into my office and said, `I really hate this. I don't like [the recall]. I want to be working for you in March. I hope it doesn't pass. But if it does succeed, I have to do what's best for the office.' I was like, `OK, that makes sense.' But a lot of my friends were like, `Holy cow, how can he do that? You have to fire him.' So I called Worth and I said, `I want you to know what my friends are saying to me. They're freakin' losing their minds over this. They're saying I should fire you. And I'm not going to do that. I understand why you're doing it. The office knows about Gloria [Albin Sheets, one of the three replacement candidates, along with Arcata attorney Steve Schectman]. Gloria's not someone the office wants as DA. It's just going to be interesting, that's all I can say.'" Gallegos stops, throws back his head and lets out a big laugh. "Wow!" he says, as if to underscore the intensity and awkwardness of the situation with Dikeman.
Does he feel Dikeman has strongly defended his record during the campaign? "Have you heard the term damning with faint praise?" Gallegos retorts. But he refuses to say Dikeman is being disloyal. "I think it's best for people to draw their own conclusions."
We hook up later for lunch, sitting in the sunshine outside the Eureka Co-op. People seem to recognize Gallegos wherever he goes. A commercial fisherman from Monterey who recently relocated here comes up and applauds Gallegos for "fighting the corporations."
"I'll be voting for you. Keep it up," he says.
Larry Killoran, a local attorney, sits with us for a bit. He says the recall has been "tainted from the beginning" because of the slipshod, possibly illegal way in which the signatures to get the recall on the ballot were collected. "Paul Gallegos said he would make changes and he came in and did exactly that," Killoran says, sounding indignant. "Fifty-one percent voted for him. The recall is an attempt to nullify the 51 percent of the voters who voted for Paul's idea for change."
In court. An hour or so later. The cramped, under construction fifth-floor courtroom. Gallegos, sitting at a desk before Judge Christopher Wilson, is writing, left-handed, in a notebook. Next to him is Deputy District Attorney Rob Wade, like Dikeman an 18-year veteran of the Humboldt County DA's office -- and, like Dikeman, not exactly a Gallegos man. In the dock, a half-dozen or so men, most of them young, in orange jumpsuits. They're handcuffed to each other. The one nearest the spectators, a blond man barely in his 20s, is struggling to maintain his composure. Red swollen eyes. Weepy. Somebody moves their chair, and the noise literally makes a woman in the audience yelp. She's got some sort of nervous disorder, her body jerks periodically.
The cases are pretty routine -- drunk driving, a probation violation. A meth addict who failed recovery gets 180 days in jail. A depressing rhythm gets set up as one by one the men in orange stand up and take the next step in their journey through the penal system. Wade and Gallegos are just basically sitting there, and even Wilson isn't saying much. The whole procedure seems to operate on its own, pilotless. Maybe it's the close air but a drowsiness steals up -- nodding off would be easy were it not for the twitching woman and the sense of troubled lives pressing in from all sides.
The trance gets broken when a decidedly different sort of defendant emerges from the audience, sans jumpsuit: Penne O'Gara, a local educator whose car struck and killed 17-year-old Ross Joseph Glidden, an Arcata High School student, on Highway 101 during a hailstorm last April. Again, the issue at hand is seemingly routine: A confirmation hearing to determine whether a jury trial should be held. Gallegos buttonholes one of the spectators, Francine Glidden, mother of the victim, and the two leave the courtroom to confer in the hallway. We try to eavesdrop, but Gallegos shoos us away. After the two are finished, Gallegos is quizzed on the particulars. He doesn't say much, except that it is the prosecution's contention that O'Gara, who is being charged with a misdemeanor, was driving at a speed unsafe under the conditions.
We chat briefly in a dimly lit narrow area outside an elevator. In response to a remark about the pervasive sense in the courtroom of downward spiraling lives, Gallegos says, "This is the world of pain. Either their lives are a catastrophe or they're making a catastrophe out of other lives."
Next stop is a more spacious and well-kept courtroom on the second floor, where Gallegos gets entangled in a confusing exchange over paperwork with Judge Marilyn Miles and Shawn Lee Perrot, an articulate young man accused of having unlawful sexual intercourse with underage girls. Afterward, Gallegos explains that Perrot, who is representing himself, is "papering over" the case with motions. "He's sitting in jail, he doesn't have anything else to do."
Reflections. Back in his office, Gallegos starts to relax. The light is failing outside, the workday is done. The conversation turns to surfing. Gallegos shares an experience he had recently. He was out on the water, paddling, when he suddenly got an overwhelming premonition that a great white was in the neighborhood. He was ready to turn back when he reminded himself of a lesson surfing has taught him: "Sometimes, when you get afraid and you try to paddle out of danger, you paddle into worse danger. So you can't let fear dictate your conduct." He continued to head out and instead of a killer shark he got a killer day. "It was so awesome it was sublime. The way the light broke through, the water was green, the water was so clear. You couldn't believe it. And I came back and Tim's talking about something and I said, `Tim, we cannot be motivated by fear.' It was one of the greatest days of my life and I was prepared to paddle away and I would have missed that."
What's most striking about Gallegos right now, as he takes the full brunt of outrage from Humboldt's old guard, as his own people -- Dikeman, Wade and the other deputy DAs -- not so secretly yearn for his ouster, is that he is so obviously calm in his core. It's undoubtedly his family who gives him such a deep-seated sense of security, but self-assurance also seems to be embedded in his DNA. Others in his position would be furious and bitter, or simply just shaken, but Gallegos seems to have a healthy air of detachment. He's dealing with it.
It's dark out now, the shop is closing. As we head out, Gallegos is asked for the time. One more chance for a jest, this time in relation to the upcoming D-day. "I don't know, but I know it's not March 2."
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.