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The Redemption and Fall of a Local Attorney 

Court documents shine new light on the arrest of a local lawyer with a troubled past and a seemingly promising future

When the Humboldt County Drug Task Force served search warrants simultaneously on four Eureka addresses Feb. 4 and announced it had arrested local attorney Michael Acosta while seizing dozens of firearms and various narcotics, the news spread quickly throughout the Humboldt County Courthouse.

Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming had not made a charging decision in the case as of late last week but Acosta — who posted bail shortly after the arrest — appeared in court within days of the arrest to represent clients. He is scheduled to be arraigned next month. Task force agents are recommending he be charged with possessing a controlled substance for sales and owning, operating and maintaining a known drug house. If charged and convicted, he would likely face a maximum sentence of up to four years in county jail.

Attempts to reach Acosta for this story were unsuccessful.

A number of local lawyers contacted by the Journal expressed some surprise and sadness that Acosta was arrested with a former client amid a firearm and drug trafficking investigation. While Acosta has some issues in his past, they said he seemed to have overcome them and had shown glimpses of a very promising legal career. While all requested anonymity speaking about a colleague's potential criminal prosecution, one added that — based on the information they'd seen — the case against Acosta doesn't seem particularly strong.

According to a statement of probable cause filed by task force agents to support a search warrant, the investigation began in September of 2019, when a Humboldt County supervisor contacted the task force about multiple complaints from neighbors of Acosta's home in the 4000 block of Cedar Street. They reportedly described "non-stop short-term traffic coming and going from the residence, as well as suspected drug dealing from the house and a trailer parked in front of the residence."

A couple of months later, according to the document, agents began a surveillance operation and "immediately saw traffic consistent with the neighbor complaints." Agents allegedly observed Acosta and his "long-time girlfriend" Sarah Carroll consistently meeting briefly with people inside and outside the residence. They saw a known "heroin trafficker" enter and leave the residence within a few minutes and pulled him over a few blocks away. But they didn't find any drugs, according to the document, just that he was driving on a suspended license with "drug paraphernalia."

The surveillance ultimately confirmed there was a lot of short-term traffic at the residence and suspicious activity but a pair of related traffic stops didn't find narcotics.

But agents found nine confidential informants who — enticed by cash payouts, the prospect of leniency in a criminal case or just a desire for the "betterment of the community" — came forward to make allegations about drug activity. Several of the summaries of these interviews were filed confidentially with the search warrant and aren't available for public view, but the other six largely focus on Kevin Haberman, a former client of Acosta's who goes by "Listo" and two informants identified as one of the largest suppliers of heroin in the Eureka area. (Haberman remains wanted in the case.)

One informant seeking leniency in another criminal case told agents Haberman had a number of firearms, including AR-15s and multiple pistols — which he would have been legally prohibited from possessing as a felon — and he stored some of them at Acosta's home, according to the document. This was echoed by another source and a third allegedly "provided information into "the gun trafficking involvement of Acosta." (That "information" is filed in a separate, confidential document.)

Because Acosta represented Haberman in at least one case in which he was convicted of a felony, the attorney should have known his former client was legally prohibited from possessing guns, according to the statement.

The only source who the public portion of the document indicates provided first-hand information implicating Acosta told investigators they were at the Cedar Street residence when they observed Acosta with a "teener bag" of methamphetamine — about one-sixteenth of an ounce — and a handgun.

According to the picture painted by the statement in support of a search warrant, it appears Haberman became the center of the task force's investigation and the extent of Acosta's alleged involvement is unclear. However, because the task force isn't recommending he be charged with firearms possession, it seems they were unable to substantiate the drug trafficking allegation, though a press release on the case notes the investigation is ongoing.

When agents raided the four properties Feb. 4, they seized nearly a half pound of suspected heroin and dozens of firearms — including assault rifles and a bump-stock — from the Home Drive residence of Richard Lee Haberman, Kevin Haberman's father. Neither the press release nor the search warrant return indicate specifically what agents reported finding at Acosta's home but drug force supervisor Sgt. Jesse Taylor told the Journal that "there were drugs both on Mr. Acosta's person and inside of his residence."

That included suspected methamphetamine, a small amount of heroin and DMT, a hallucinogenic drug, according to Taylor.

Acosta, who graduated from Stanford Law School — regarded as one of the nation's best — and passed the state bar exam in 1999, was suspended by the bar in 2010 for failing to keep up with continuing education requirements. He was reinstated less than a year later, on June 27, 2011, but tragedy would strike just a handful of months later.

On Nov. 21, 2011, Acosta's 6-week-old son — Michael Acosta III — was found not breathing and rushed to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A subsequent toxicology report found Michael had a lethal dose of methamphetamine in his system and prosecutors charged his mom, Acosta's former girlfriend, Maggie Jean Wortman with murder. The theory of the case was that Wortman — who court records indicate had a childhood rife with instability and trauma — regularly smoked methamphetamine while she was breastfeeding the infant and that the lethal dose was passed to the child via her breast milk. Because Wortman had failed a drug test during pregnancy and been counseled on the dangers of pre- and post-natal drug use, they alleged the infant's death was a murder.

The theory never made it to a jury as Wortman pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to serve six years in prison in the case.

While it's unclear exactly how involved Acosta was in Wortman's life at the time of his son's death, there were indications methamphetamine was being used in the household prior. According to court records, Humboldt County Sheriff's Office deputies reported responding to the residence amid a domestic dispute between Acosta and Wortman in February of 2010 and finding a glass methamphetamine pipe on the kitchen table. Wortman was arrested and charged with battering Acosta and committing immoral acts before a child.

Acosta seemed to have rebounded from this chapter of his life in recent years and was making waves in the Humboldt County Courthouse for promising legal work. He managed to get murder charges dismissed against Nicholas Leigl stemming from the gang-related slaying of a 14-year-old three separate times in 2017, as prosecutors stubbornly continued to refile the case. Two years earlier, he successfully argued a murder charge should be dismissed against Benjamin Carter in a 2014 Garberville shooting. Acosta's work on both cases was praised as exemplary by local attorneys and legal experts consulted by the Journal, saying it is rare to see a judge agree to dismiss murder charges outright in any case.

The ramifications of Acosta's recent arrest on his legal career could be devastating, according to a Journal interview with University of California Hastings College of Law professor David Levine, who spoke generally about the issues involved and not specifically about Acosta's case.

Levine said the State Bar of California can suspend the licenses of attorneys under felony investigation until their legal matters are resolved. A felony conviction can result in disbarment. Even if charged and acquitted, there could be complications in Acosta's practice moving forward.

For example, Levine said, he may have to disqualify any judge who potentially hears his criminal case from presiding over cases he is involved with in the future. Even an acquittal could also impact judges' willingness to appoint Acosta to represent indigent clients in the future, Levine said, and there would also be potential issues with any officers involved in his arrest and prosecution.

"If he encountered police officers in subsequent cases, it could be very difficult to properly represent clients," Levine said. "Imagine a cross-examination before a jury that says, in effect, 'Officer, aren't you prejudiced against my client because you arrested me?'"

If Acosta is charged, Levine said this may be the rare case that warrants a change of venue.

"If I were the guy's lawyer, the first thing I would do would be to try to get the prosecution changed to another county," he said. "This seems like the type of situation where it would be very difficult for him to get a fair trial locally."

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About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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