Election for District Attorney: Prosecutor Terri Wyatt departed DA’s office to run for former boss’s seat
La Jollan endorsements for Terri Wyatt
■ Bird Rock residents Wendy Wong (vice-president of marketing, Ken Blanchard Leadership Skills) and husband, Dr. Han Chu; former Deputy DA Greg Kimmel (president, Wireless Telematics). Wyatt’s campaign consultant is Bob Schuman of La Jolla-based The Schuman Group.
■ Website: TerriWyattforDA.com
■ An article featuring La Jolla Light’s interviews with incumbent Bonnie Dumanis and challenger Robert Brewer can be found here.
■ La Jolla Town Council will host a forum with the DA candidates during its next meeting, 5 p.m. Thursday, April 10 at La Jolla Rec Center, 615 Prospect St. The candidates will field questions from attendees.
By Pat Sherman
The third and final candidate in the district attorney’s race, Pacific Beach resident Terri Wyatt, met with La Jolla Light last week to talk about her more than 26-year career as a deputy district attorney in San Diego County, and why she believes she would be a better “top cop” than her former boss, three-term incumbent district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, or fellow challenger, Robert “Bob” Brewer (a private-practice attorney).
A graduate of the University of San Diego School of Law, Wyatt touts her experience working everything in the DA’s office from ground-floor traffic ticket prosecutions to high-level rape, murder and gang violence cases. The daughter of a California Highway Patrol officer and a registered nurse, Wyatt spent six years as a division chief (the highest level management job in the DA’s office), overseeing felony case issuing and extraditions.
Wyatt also noted her role prosecuting 19 people currently serving life sentences for crimes such as first-degree murder, sexual assaults and a freeway shooting. She was head of the DA’s Lifer Hearing unit when former La Jolla socialite Betty Broderick first became eligible for parole in 2010.
Broderick, currently serving a life sentence for the 1989 murders of her ex-husband and his second wife, was denied parole for the next 15 years. Robert Doyle, who was then commissioner of the Board of Prison Terms and delivered the decision to Broderick, has endorsed Wyatt.
Hired in 1986 by now deceased district attorney Ed Miller, Wyatt said she worked her way up the ranks by following Miller’s creed to “always do the right thing.” She likens her career trajectory to that of newly appointed Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.
“She’s 54; I’m 54,” Wyatt said. “She’s spent her entire law enforcement career in that department; I’ve spent my entire prosecution and legal career in the district attorney’s office. … Shelley’s very no-nonsense, open and genuine and I’m the same way.”
Though compared to her rivals, Wyatt may appear the dark horse — garnering far less money and high-level endorsements in the race — she said she has more experience as a prosecutor than Brewer (also campaigning on his prosecutorial experience).
Brewer, who also graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law, went on to spend seven years as a prosecutor in Los Angeles (including stints as a deputy DA and as an assistant U.S. attorney).
However, Wyatt noted, after that time Brewer returned to San Diego to enter private practice, where he defended white-collar criminals such as Nancy Hoover, girlfriend and convicted co-conspirator of J. David Dominelli, whose La Jolla-based company, J. David & Co., bilked investors out of more than $80 million.
Dominelli spent a decade in prison for his Ponzi scheme. Hoover served just two and half years of a 10-year sentence for tax evasion by cooperating with prosecutors.
(U-T San Diego reported last week that Hoover — now known as Nancy Louise Fletcher — donated $700 to Brewer’s campaign, a contribution Dumanis’ campaign has said Brewer should return.)
“(Brewer) spent over 30 years in this county, in this community, representing high-level, very sophisticated fraud defendants,” Wyatt said. “I don’t think that’s the mindset people in the community want as their district attorney.”
Wyatt — who retired from the DA’s office last fall to run for Dumanis’ job — notes that she “worked really hard” to help get Dumanis elected when she first ran for DA in 2002.
“When Bonnie first came in, the office was in a very divisive way,” Wyatt recalled. “Bonnie came in and did a really good job at bringing people together, smoothing out kind of the ruffled feelings and brought in some very good leadership models.”
However, Wyatt said she watched the district attorney’s office become increasingly politicized under Dumanis’s leadership (a criticism Brewer is also campaigning on), pointing to what she considers inequitable treatment by her office in the South Bay, particularly when it comes to investigations of political figures.
Wyatt also points to Dumanis’ decision to prosecute San Diego Police officer Frank White for the off-duty shooting and wounding of a woman and her young son during a 2008 road-rage incident. It was the first time in 13 years that a law enforcement officer had been charged with a crime for shooting someone while acting under police authority. (White was eventually acquitted).
“The Oceanside driver was under the influence of drugs and alcohol,” Wyatt recalled. “It was very controversial within the district attorney’s office as to whether criminal acts occurred, and whether there was enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to charge this police officer with using deadly force.”
At the time, Wyatt recalled, division chief of the Special Operations unit, Richard Monroy, vocally opposed the decision to file a criminal case against White.
“The feeling was that the decision was made for political reasons, that the DA wanted to appear to the public that she’s even tough on police officers, tough on crimes,” Wyatt said.
Within months of opposing White’s prosecution, Monroy was transferred to a low-profile job as liaison for the narcotics task force. Wyatt claims other division chiefs who’ve spoken up in similar meetings have faced retaliation and relocation by Dumanis and her deputy DA.
“So the message becomes, just keep your mouth shut, go along with the program,” Wyatt said. “All the lawyers feel that they have to be very careful what they say all the time, and that impacts public safety, because you want deputy district attorneys not worrying about politics. You want them concentrating on prosecuting their cases and doing it in the right way.”
Wyatt said she was also disappointed when Dumanis ran for mayor in 2011.
“I thought highly of Bonnie … (but) I don’t think our district attorney should be drawing down a big salary countywide, from tax dollars, and be spending time out running around in city politics. … The district attorney’s job is supposed to be about seeking and obtaining justice. We are responsible for the most serious criminal activity in this county.”
If elected, Wyatt said she wants to shift resources away from trying to rehabilitate adult prison parolees to add additional investigators to the DA’s Elder Abuse unit and Juvenile Branch (where there is currently only one investigator apiece).
“Once somebody’s already an adult and they’re in and out of the prison system, it’s very difficult to rehabilitate them,” Wyatt said. “Gang conduct starts in junior high and high school. … You don’t want them turning into hardcore gang members. You don’t want them to end up on (a list) of people who are in prison for life.”
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