Like a lot of district attorneys in California these days, Del Norte County's Jon Alexander is in a battle against methamphetamine. But unlike the others, the newly elected Alexander knows the enemy firsthand: Meth almost killed him.
Eight years ago, Alexander found himself strung out on methamphetamine in Orange County, holding the barrel of a .32-caliber pistol in his mouth, fully prepared to blow his brains out. He was sick of using, sick of chasing after the next bag, sick of being sick. Meth had taken from him almost everything in the world he valued--his oceanfront home in Dana Point, his cars, his boat, his girlfriend, and his law practice. The fact that the drug didn't take his life as well is something of a miracle, a gift Alexander has dedicated his life to repaying. Jon Alexander is on a crusade to rid his district of the very thing that nearly did him in.
"With meth, it's personal to me," the 62-year-old Alexander says. "I've been there, I know it's a horrendously powerful drug. You will find no one who is more willing to put out a hand to help an addict who's trying to help himself. That's not only out of compassion, it's because someone who's in recovery isn't ripping off your car or beating up his wife. On the other hand, if you're selling that poison on my streets, you'll find no one who wants to punish you more than me."
Del Norte County, located in the far northwest corner of California, has a population of roughly 29,000--including the 3,000-some inmates kept at Pelican Bay State Prison. Crescent City is the county seat--a Pacific Coast town that's as close to Portland, Oregon, as it is to San Francisco. The area is rural, isolated, and economically depressed, with about 20 percent of its residents below the federal poverty line and an official jobless rate of 13.6 percent. Which makes it a perfect place for a meth epidemic.
"This county is dying from addiction," says Sandra Morrison, owner of Jordan Recovery Centers, a network of local in- and out-patient services for drug and alcohol treatment. "Meth is pervasive. I'd say 80 percent of the people who come to us have used meth. And by the time someone gets that much into meth [to seek help], they've lost everything."
Meth also drives a lot of crime. Alexander estimates that 80 percent of the felonies committed in the county are meth-related, and about 90 percent of the abused or neglected children removed from their homes have parents involved with the drug.
That's why Alexander finds himself camped outside the house of a suspected meth dealer one recent morning at the first light of dawn. When he ran for DA last year, Alexander promised voters an all-out war on meth, and now, barely two weeks into his term, he's out to make good on his vow.
Alexander has assembled a dozen police and parole officers and sheriff's deputies into an ad hoc Meth Elimination Team. Today, the squad is making raids on nine parole violators believed to be dealing meth. Jon Alexander's very personal war on meth is officially on.
A deputy and a parole officer quietly approach the front door of the first house, a low-slung rancher nestled in the woods just outside Redwood National Park. The man they're looking for has a long history of meth-related arrests, in addition to burglary and weapons charges, and he has violated his parole by failing to show up for mandatory drug tests. Moreover, according to neighbors and confidential informants, the suspect has continued dealing meth. Alexander's squad immediately makes it clear that this isn't a social call.
"Sheriff's Department, open up or we'll bust in the door!"
After some muffled commotion inside the house, the door slowly opens and the man's wife appears. She looks very tired, and not at all surprised. The squad pushes past her and quickly finds the suspect crouched in a hole cut in the wall next to the fireplace. It's not a very clever hiding spot, but probably as good as a chronic meth user can manage.
The house is a mess. The floor is so cluttered with papers and debris that it's hard to see the rug, and the kitchen sink and counters overflow with dirty dishes. The living room is a battlefield of children's toys, and the Cartoon Network blares from the TV. The couple's four-year-old daughter had just left for school, barely missing her father's arrest.
"He's a sweetheart of a guy when he's clean," says Alexander, who has known the parolee for several years and even tried unsuccessfully to get him to attend twelve-step recovery meetings. "He's aged a lot in a few years, I'll tell you that."
After cuffing the man and placing him in a patrol car, deputies lead the county's "meth dog" through the house to sniff for traces of the drug. (Del Norte also has a "green dog" that can sniff out marijuana.) A quick sweep turns up nothing, but the team does find several suspicious pieces of electronic gear befitting a drug dealer. A state-of-the-art video camera is perched on the roof, streaming views of the driveway and front door to a monitor inside the house. Meth users are often paranoid, but the dealers have good reason to be fearful: If it's not the cops busting down the door, it's another meth dealer. In the living room, a deputy discovers two radio scanners set to police frequencies, along with a three-page list of radio codes used by county law enforcement.
The Meth Elimination Team rolls on, pounding on the doors of a series of mostly ramshackle homes. In the ironically named Shangri La Trailer Park, a sign outside one suspect's trailer reads, "Never mind the dog, beware of the human."
As the squad announces its presence, a neighbor emerges from her trailer in a bathrobe to watch the commotion.
"Get the crazy people out of here, please," she tells the squad. "Every night at two in the morning, they've got all of these people coming in and out of that trailer."
Another suspected dealer's house is guarded by three
video cameras--a security system that's probably worth more than the non-drug contents of the entire house. At a later stop, a parolee bolts out the back door when deputies come knocking. After a chase through the woods (and in redwood-thick Del Norte County, almost every foot pursuit turns into a chase through the woods), the suspect is collared and delivered to the county jail.
By noon, the Meth Elimination Team has taken out seven alleged players in the meth trade, sending a message to those still on the loose: We're coming to get you. It may be only a few arrests, but around here it doesn't take a lot of busts to make a dent.
"If you can knock out maybe 20 people, you can probably reduce crime about 50 percent because it's the same small group of people doing all the damage," says attorney George M. Mavris, a general practitioner and longtime county resident. "No one's really tried to get rid of meth in our town, so it'll be interesting to see what happens."
Alexander follows the raids with a curious mix of emotions. On the one hand, he prosecutes meth-heads with the swagger of a Wild West sheriff. But there's also a hint of sadness for Alexander as well: At every bust, he witnesses another life ruined by meth, and sees a glimpse of his former self.
"I know what meth can do," Alexander says softly. "It takes away everything you care about."
Jon Alexander didn't set out
to become a meth-fighting DA. In fact, the road that brought him to this point in his life is as twisted as the old logging roads that snake through the rain-soaked hills of Del Norte County.
Alexander grew up outside of Newark, New Jersey, and he still has the disarmingly straightforward, no-BS personal style that's emblematic of a Jersey boy. He's mostly level-headed, with the occasional flash of temper when, as Alexander puts it, "a little of the Jersey comes out." A huge fan of the Garden State's favorite son, Bruce Springsteen, he is doubtless the only DA in California with 27 Spring-steen posters plastered around his office. Like his hero, Jon Alexander was Born to Run--but in his case, for district attorney.
"I always wanted to be a lawyer," Alexander says. "My uncle had been a judge in New Jersey and he was one of my heroes. We used to love to sit on his porch and talk about the issues of the day."
Alexander came to California to earn his law degree at Western State University College of Law in Orange County. After graduating in 1987, Alexander worked as a defense lawyer at Pohlson & Moorhead in Laguna Hills, and then as a public defender in Orange County. He excelled at that job and quickly gained a reputation as an up-and-coming criminal defense attorney.
"Jon's a hell of a lawyer," says Justice William Beds-worth, a Fourth District Court of Appeal justice in Santa Ana who later became friends with Alexander. "He gave the DA's office fits in Orange County. He got results that they never saw coming. The guy can talk the birds out of the trees."
Alexander left the public defender gig to start his own firm in Southern California, quickly building a lucrative private practice. And before long, he was making enough money to buy the house overlooking the beach and a 27-foot boat, and he had a nice girlfriend too. Life was sweet.
"I was on a fast track," recalls Alexander. "I had a lot of clients. I was doing great."
But things started going wrong in 1995, when his father died of cancer. Soon afterward his mother, whom Alexander calls "my best friend," suffered a stroke and then developed Alzheimer's Disease. In 1996, he moved his mother into his home to care for her, only to look on helplessly as her mental condition deteriorated.
"I'd hear the shower running at four in the morning and she'd be in there wearing a beautiful dress with lipstick smeared all over her face," Alexander remembers. "She thought she was going to a dance with my father that night, and he'd been dead for awhile."
Under the emotional strain of his mother's decline and the stress of keeping up with his practice, Alexander began snorting methamphetamine. Previously, Alexander had done the occasional line of coke, but he'd never mixed drugs or alcohol with work. Once meth entered the picture, however, the old rules fell away.
"I was doing meth to keep my practice going," Alexander says. "I'd do meth to crank out a bunch of work, do some more to stay up the next day, and then after a couple of days straight, take Ambien to go to sleep. Of course, then you start getting hooked on Ambien."
Alexander still did relatively well in court--when he made it to court. More often, though, he showed up late and continued cases whenever possible. Things went from bad to worse.
"Around 2000," he recalls, "I graduated to smoking meth. And that's when everything turned to shit. If you think snorting meth gets its claws in you, smoking it completely puts your head in the dragon's throat."
Once Alexander picked up the pipe, he stepped aboard a runaway train headed straight for the gutter. His sister moved their mother to be near her in southern Oregon, leaving Alexander to his vices. He pushed away friends, went on three-day meth binges, and began trading his possessions to finance his habit.
One day in 2002 he came home from work and was shocked to find a notice on his front door informing him that the house had been sold in foreclosure-after he failed to pay homeowners' association fees. For the next year and a half, Alexander lived in his car, a series of homeless shelters, and finally in a musty crawl space beneath a friend's house in Laguna Beach. He slept on a filthy mattress beside his mother's Shih Tzu dog and a Fender Stratocaster guitar he'd managed to hang onto. For court appearances, he also kept a dozen expensive Italian suits, wrapped in garbage bags and hanging from a rusty pipe.
But the State Bar was onto him, and in February 2003 his license to practice law was rendered inactive. (Over the course of his addiction, Alexander had racked up multiple State Bar sanctions, for which he remained on probation until just last September.) Alexander was charged with incompetence, failing to communicate with clients, and hanging on to client files and unearned fees.
In one case cited by the State Bar Court, his client learned from the district attorney the day before her scheduled arraignment that she would not be charged. Alexander never communicated with the DA or the police about the allegations, and he didn't return the client's subsequent phone calls or her $4,500 advance fee. In another case, Alexander missed two court hearings after his license was suspended, then failed to return the client's $6,500 retainer fee.
It was all crashing down. Which brought him to that night in March 2003 when he reached for the pistol that he kept under his pillow for protection and curled his finger around the trigger. "I can still remember the metallic taste of the gun in my mouth," he says. "I couldn't decide which would leave less of a mess for the people who found me, shooting myself in the mouth or the side of the head."
Just then, Alexander heard some distant scurrying and saw a blurry figure come into focus--it was Prince, the dog he had promised his mother he would look after. Staying alive long enough to fulfill that pledge was enough to make Alexander put the gun down.
But the next day only brought another near-death experience. At a seedy motel in South Orange County where he went to score some more meth, someone hit him from behind with a baseball bat, causing him to fall down a flight of stairs. He remembers lying on the pavement with blood pouring out of his mouth. He also remembers that, before he blacked out, people around him were talking in Spanish and rifling through his pockets. Hours later he woke up in a hospital with a four-inch steel rod, twelve screws, and a transplanted disc holding his neck together.
"I was broken," he says. "I didn't even have the good sense to die."
During his hospital stay, several friends came to visit him, including criminal defense lawyer Lloyd Freeberg and Justice Bedsworth.
"I remember telling Jon, 'If you don't get your act together, our friendship is over, because I can't take you breaking my heart anymore,' " Bedsworth recalls.
After leaving the hospital, Alexander checked into a residential treatment center run by the Salvation Army in Anaheim. His days of meth abuse were over, but his recovery had only begun.
Hoping a change in scenery might help
him adjust to a new lifestyle, Alexander moved north to Del Norte in 2004 to be near his ailing mother. Eventually he settled in Crescent City, taking jobs in a lumber mill and as a dishwasher. Meanwhile, he attended twelve-step meetings and worked to get his law license reinstated: He joined the State Bar's Lawyer Assistance Program for attorneys with substance abuse or mental health problems and began to gradually reimburse one of the former clients he had wronged.
He got involved in the local community too. He sponsored a Little League team, led a weekly twelve-step meeting at a local treatment center for juveniles, and served for three years as keynote speaker at the county's drug-education summit. Eventually, the State Bar Court lifted his suspension, and Alexander resumed practicing law in December 2004.
For a time, Alexander scraped by on whatever legal work he could find, defending the odd petty theft or drunk-and-disorderly case. Then in 2005, he applied for an opening as a deputy district attorney in Del Norte County, hoping that his solid defense experience would outweigh his checkered past.
"When a new lawyer rolls into town, I always look them up online," says local attorney George Mavris. "When I looked Jon up I thought, 'Jesus Christ!' I went and talked to the DA and said, 'Man, what are you doing hiring this guy, have you looked at his record?' I couldn't believe it. But the more I got to work against him, I found out he's a really, really good attorney."
Alexander worked in the DA's office for six months. Then, after a falling out with his boss, Mike Riese, he decided to go back to private practice, setting up shop just across the street from the courthouse. There was plenty of contract work, and soon he was handling public defender and juvenile and adult dependency cases for the county, as well as representing Pelican Bay inmates for the state. By 2010, he'd built it into a nearly $150,000-a-year practice.
Still, after his experience in the DA's office, Alexander had a notion to try for the top job himself. He ran against Riese in 2006 and lost badly, but he regrouped and tried again in 2010. The four-way campaign was hard-fought and quickly got personal, with opponents making a major issue of Alexander's meth use. Letters to the local paper--which were also circulated to every church and senior center in the county--warned voters about his sordid history, and even provided the address of the State Bar Court website so voters could view a detailed account of his transgressions.
Alexander didn't try to hide any of it from voters, and in fact he tried to turn his past into an asset. He said he was the only candidate who knew what it would take to battle the county's chronic meth problem. And to promote that message, he sank more than $90,000 of his own money into the campaign-virtually his entire savings, and about as much as the job pays in a year.
"[Alexander] was working on being DA for four years," says Robert J. Drossel, a local lawyer who preceded Riese as county district attorney from 1999 to 2002 and sought the post again in 2010. "I'm sure that every client that came through his door as public defender was a potential voter, and I'm sure he had that person registered. That's politics."
Still, the race came down to the wire, and when the votes were finally counted in November, Alexander won by a scant 196 votes.
In Crescent City, everyone seems to know
everyone else's business without even trying, Alexander acknowledges. So, of course, the people he prosecutes aren't just names on a complaint form. They're the guy who lives down the street, the woman he saw last week at Safeway, the kid from the Little League team. And during the meth squad sweeps in January, Alexander brought charges against more than one parolee whom he had previously represented as a public defender. Another suspect's mother and grandmother had even contributed money to his election campaign.
Yet, paradoxically, Del Norte County may be the only kind of place where a former meth addict with a well-documented disciplinary record could be elected district attorney. Because only in a place this small can people really get to know their public officials. "Small towns can either hurt you or make you," says Alexander. "And this town has been good to me."
Of course, those small-town interconnections can also lead to conflicts of interest. Since becoming DA, Alexander has had to send more than 200 cases that involve former clients--roughly 2 percent of the office's annual caseload--to the state Attorney General to prosecute. But that won't entirely solve the problem.
"A time is going to come when he's going to have to prosecute someone he likes, a friend or neighbor," says Justice Bedsworth. "I think Jon will do that well, but I don't think he will do it easily. Plus, he has very strong ideas about what he wants to do. And while he's been [in Del Norte] for a long time, he hasn't been there as long as everyone else. There will be people who regard him as the outsider who's telling them how to operate."
People always ask, 'Isn't prosecuting people diametrically opposed to what you did as a defense attorney?'" Alexander says. "I tell them, 'No, it's not.' I think it's about justice at the end of the day. I'll never apologize for being a defense attorney."
Already, Alexander has won recognition for his war on meth. In February he was appointed co-chairman of the Narcotics Enforcement Committee for the California District Attorneys Association.
A lot of Del Norte residents are rooting for Jon Alexander to succeed as DA, hoping he can help halt the meth trade that's eating away at the community like a slow cancer. But nearly as many people voted against the meth-addict-turned-meth-fighter as voted for him.
"It'll be interesting to see how he handles being district attorney," says Drossel, Alexander's opponent on the November ballot. "He has no administrative skills in the public sector. He's going to have a lot of catch-up time. The county needs someone who can handle that job, and he's got four years to prove he can do it."
Drossel, meanwhile, has taken over Alexander's old job, securing a contract from the county to be a public defender.
If Alexander fails as district attorney, it won't be for lack of trying. He knows the local judges, the lawyers, and the town's major players. And from painful personal experience, he knows the enemy.
Every Friday night for the past six years,
Alexander has led a twelve-step meeting at Jordan Recovery Centers' residential treatment facility in Crescent City. It's his way of helping addicts who are suffering as he once did. At the same time, it's a way of cementing his own sobriety, a weekly reminder of the way things used to be--and could be again if he picks up a pipe.
The residents beam when Alexander walks into the meeting, and there are hugs and back slaps all around. Some of the residents have been off drugs--usually meth--for months, and flash clear-eyed smiles. Others with only a few weeks of sobriety under their belts are more subdued. One man, just a day and a half after his last binge, sits silent and blank-faced.
"When these guys come to Jon, no matter how beat down they are, he always finds a way to build them up," says Jordan's administrator, Sandra Morrison. "I've never seen him turn anyone away because he's too busy."
As the meeting begins, one of the residents reads a passage from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous about the promises of recovery. It might well have been written just for Jon Alexander:
No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
Jon Alexander had everything a successful lawyer is supposed to possess--the nice house, the luxury cars, the thriving practice. And then he saw it all disappear in a puff of meth smoke. Watching Alexander sit contentedly in a room full of fellow recovering addicts, though, it's hard not to think that few things in life are sweeter than a second chance.
Tom McNichol is a San Francisco–based freelance writer.