San Diego Union-Tribune - July 7, 2017

DA Dumanis looks back on 14 years in office, prepares to step down

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By Dana Littlefield

Looking back on more than 14 years as the county’s top prosecutor, Bonnie Dumanis remembered what it was like at the very beginning, when after a contentious election, she walked into the executive offices at the downtown Hall of Justice.

There was a gathering on the 13th floor to celebrate her victory, and the staff members lined up to say hello and take pictures.

Today, Dumanis walks out of the office for the last time as San Diego County district attorney. She expects a scene that in some ways mirrors that first one — this time with colleagues, friends and members of the local public safety community looking on.

The “walk-out” ceremony is a ritual usually reserved for police chiefs and other top law enforcement brass, but Dumanis thought it fitting as she steps down from the post she’s held since January 2003.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be like, to walk out for good,” she said, noting both the emotion of the event and the fact that she’s recovering from knee replacement surgery. (She said she practiced the walk last weekend to make sure she could do it)

Earlier this week, Dumanis visited branches of her office in Juvenile Court, as well as North, South and East counties, and made herself available to as many staffers and lawyers as possible before making her exit.

“It’s important for me to say goodbye to staff because I came from staff,” she said.

Dumanis, 65, started in the office as a clerk typist before becoming a prosecutor, a judge and then leading the District Attorney’s Office. And it’s been a long journey, marked by many ups and downs.

“I’ve had to fight hard for everything I’ve ever gotten,” Dumanis said in an interview this week on the patio of a downtown dessert shop, with her dog Abby in tow. Years ago, she said, she wanted to be appointed to the bench, but that didn’t happen for her.

So she ran in an election for judge instead.

Later, she ran against incumbent District Attorney Paul Pfingst, in one of the most contentious local races in recent memory.

“When I ran for D.A., it was because of things happening in the office and people asking me to, but that was not an easy race,” she said.

Dumanis ran for re-election twice, each time unopposed, and then the last time, facing two challengers. Her campaign slogan was “Tested. Trusted. Tough.”

Although Dumanis announced in January that she would not seek a fifth term as district attorney, she didn’t publicly confirm until April that she would leave office before her current term was up. A chief deputy from her office, Summer Stephan, has been appointed to serve as interim district attorney for the next 18 months.

“I think it is the right time to go for a number of reasons,” Dumanis said. “One is, I feel like the office is in such good shape. The people in the office are so competent, excel at so much. I feel comfortable leaving knowing that they will do a fabulous job.”

During her time at the helm, Dumanis unified an office that had been sharply divided after the 2002 election, increased diversity in the office, maintained high conviction rates in felony and misdemeanor cases, and helped to draft state law aimed at tightening penalties for sex offenders.

She is the first woman to serve as district attorney in San Diego County and the first openly gay person to hold that office in the United States.

Her tenure has not been without controversy.

Dumanis, a Republican, has been criticized for being too political, and for letting her aspirations toward other political posts interfere with the business at hand. (Dumanis has said she is considering a run for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors.)

After a failed run for San Diego mayor in 2012, Dumanis was called as a witness in a federal court trial involving a wealthy Mexican businessman named José Susumo Azano Matsura, who was charged and ultimately convicted of making illegal donations to several candidates, including Dumanis.

She testified that she met Azano on two occasions and believed he was a U.S. citizen. It is illegal for foreign nationals to contribute to political campaigns in the United States.

“It was a hard loss, but the ramifications of what happened in that race were even harder,” she said, referring to the Azano case and the speculation that has continued to dog her.

“What I learned in that mayor’s race is what a political job really is,” she said. “There are landmines that I could have never… expected because I’m used to a D.A. race or a judge race.”

Dumanis acknowledged the controversies during her career, but said they did not factor prominently in her decision to step down. Instead, it was mostly a long-held belief that a person shouldn’t stay in one position too long.

There was also the emotional drain. Years of heartfelt interactions with families who had suffered great tragedy had begun to weigh heavily on her.

“With victims, in the moment, I am right there with you, listening to you, hearing you, feeling you,” Dumanis said. “Seeing the pain of someone who loses a child or a spouse, or is injured by a child or a spouse is really hard and it begins to take its toll on you.”

Especially difficult were the disappearances of 14-year-old Amber Dubois of Escondido in 2009 and 17-year-old Chelsea King of Poway in 2010, whom authorities learned later were killed by the same man, a convicted sex offender who had served time in prison and was living in North County.

Dumanis recalled sitting around a table with top attorneys in her office, being briefed on the case and discussing what charges they could file against the defendant. At that point, law enforcement officers and volunteers were still searching for Chelsea. When pagers began going off around the room, they knew the news wasn’t good.

Chelsea’s body had been found, dashing any remaining hope that she was still alive.

“It was the most emotional, empty feeling for all of us at that table,” Dumanis said.

Later, John Albert Gardner III pleaded guilty to the murders and, with the help of the deputy public defenders who represented him, led authorities to Amber’s buried remains. The deal meant Gardner would avoid the death penalty, if he agreed to spend the rest of his life in prison, and that prosecutors could link him to Amber’s death.

“The biggest thing was to find Amber,” Dumanis said.

She said she learned from that experience how important it was to maintain relationships not only within the District Attorney’s Office but with the other agencies she had to work with, including the Public Defender’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department and the local police departments.

“I think that she has been a pretty innovative district attorney,” said Randy Mize, who took over this year as the county’s Public Defender.

He said Dumanis has had a good working relationship with his office, balancing the need for public safety with the rehabilitation of many defendants.

“She’s got basically an open-door policy to the defense bar,” Mize said.

As district attorney, Dumanis is described as a strong advocate for victims, and a leading proponent of community outreach, prisoner reform programs and other efforts to keep offenders who suffer from homelessness, drug addiction or mental illness from returning to custody.

Assistant District Attorney Jesse Rodriguez, who is also a former Superior Court judge, credited Dumanis with getting him on board with concepts like Drug Court and other collaborative courts aimed at giving offenders a second chance.

“Thinking out of the box, that’s what she’s been able to do,” Rodriguez said, adding that Dumanis has helped change the culture of the District Attorney’s Office. “She looks at a person in terms of ‘What can I do?’ instead of just locking a person up and throwing away the key.”

As for what’s next, Dumanis said she will spend time with her wife, Denise Nelesen, and her 87-year-old mother, who lives in San Diego. And she will take her time to figure what’s next.

“Frankly I’ve only cared about my knees for the past six weeks,” she quipped.