Story by Jason Frye
Photography By Kristin Goode
In November 2011 the people of Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties elected Jon David to serve as their district attorney. Jon promised his district that he would bring innovation to an office that had not seen a change in nearly two decades. He pledged that this innovation would center on the rights of victims, focus on working as a team with law enforcement, seek maximum justice in the most serious cases, and let the community decide tough cases. Almost three years later, North Brunswick Magazine asked writer Jason Frye to take a look at what that pledge of innovation looks like now.
I’ll admit it, when I received this story assignment, I was nervous. I know little more about the district attorney’s office than what shows like Law & Order, NYPD Blue and LA Law taught me, and I have little experience with attorneys, unless you count watching a handful of episodes of Ally McBeal. As for court, I’ve only been inside a courtroom for a traffic ticket and jury duty, neither of which was much fun. I expected to show up for my interview and sit at a long table, alone on my side, facing a battalion of stern, stone-faced attorneys in bow ties and seersucker suits.
What I find is not that at all. Only one man, James MacCallum, clerk of superior court, has on a bow tie, and only one man, Jon David himself, has on seersucker. Everyone else is dressed for work, and the office looks much like what Jon promised — the largest law firm in Brunswick County.
When David took office, he had a challenge. As DA, he bears the responsibility for the successful prosecution of criminal activity in his district. That means being fair and just in the way you research, present and prosecute a case. It’s a lot of responsibility for one person, but, as David says, “I must rely on a team of prosecutors and legal assistants to hold criminals accountable for their actions.” To that end, of the 33 employees in the DA’s office, 22 were hired by David.
“I firmly believe that the most important role of the district attorney is to recruit, retain and train the best talent available,” says David. “We’re making serious and life-changing decisions every day, and I have a solemn obligation to ensure that I have the best people in place to make these decisions.”
With close to two decades of researching and trying cases behind him, he knows what kind of people make great prosecutors and a cohesive office; hence, the turnover of two-thirds of the office in the first two years of his first term.
The initial staffing changes posed difficulties from a management perspective. “I analogize it to trying to fix an airplane as you are flying,” says David. “You don’t get to start from scratch the day after the election. Many serious cases had been pending for years, and new cases come into the office every day.”
David says that the first two years of his administration required a huge adjustment as new team members learned the case load and adapted to his approach to prosecutions. He believes the team is now realizing its full potential. “Our strength comes from our diversity,” says David, “I want my office to look like the community we serve.”
That desire for different perspectives is why his office is staffed with people from 20-somethings to seasoned crime fighters. They come from different walks of life and bring unique viewpoints to their craft. They are mothers and fathers, singles and veterans, locals and transplants to the area.
Military service speaks volumes to David, as it “demonstrates a love of their country, discipline, honor, integrity, courage and fidelity.”
“These qualities translate well from military life into the job of assistant district attorney,” he says. “My team-building approach is simple: You start with great people and make them great prosecutors. Prior military service speeds up this process.”
One of his four veterans is Fred Gore, a Supply native and captain in the Army Reserves. As a member of the JAG (Judge Advocate General) Corps, he carries his legal background into his military service, much in the same way he carries his Army discipline and work ethic into the courtroom. From 2011 to 2012 Gore served in Kuwait, but before that he did a 16-month tour in Iraq starting in 2006.
“I was stationed in Tikrit when Saddam Hussein was captured and executed,” Gore says. “As someone who’d just graduated law school, it was an interesting time to be in Iraq and see how they handled his trial and carrying out his sentence.”
After Gore returned home from Iraq, he passed the North Carolina State Bar and began practicing law in Durham, but he always knew he wanted to come home. When he heard David was looking for prosecutors, he threw his hat in the ring. Now, just a couple of years later, he and his twin sons are back home, and he has recently won two first-degree murder convictions in cases involving criminal street gangs. He feels he is contributing not only to his sons’ quality of life but also to the improving quality of life across the county. Through this hard work, Gore states, “I hope my efforts and my story will serve as a reminder that America is still a land of opportunity.”
Daniel Thurston, a veteran of the Marine Corps who saw active combat in Somalia after the famed Black Hawk Down episode in the 1990s, was in private legal practice for a decade before joining the DA’s office here. His specialty is violent crime, which he says keeps him “on the front lines of protecting American citizens.” This is exactly what David was looking for.
For the office drug czar, Chris Thomas, his service came in the Navy. His sailing days are behind him, though, and now he sticks to state and federal drug cases. That means he can take on anything from minor possession cases in state court to heavyweight traffickers. A fast talker and a smart guy, he’s witty, and it’s easy to see why he’s at times the center of a joke and at times the central jokester. But everyone agrees that when it comes to court and his cases, Thomas is cool and calm, thinking around all the corners and building near airtight cases.
When the DA’s staff needs someone with extensive legal knowledge and experience to weigh in on a case they’re working on, they often turn to the elder statesman in the office — Lee Bollinger, age 50. Bollinger has an iron grip and piercing eyes. He’s quiet, taking in the conversation before turning it over in his head and joining in. When he speaks, everyone listens.
“Lee’s the one we come to when we’re having trouble with a case or when we need to see it from a different perspective,” says Thomas.
“He’s an encyclopedia and one of the best assets of this office,” Thurston adds.
The whole time, Bollinger’s quiet. When he speaks, his Southern accent rings out through the room: “Yeah, I guess they think of me that way because I’ve been here for so long.”
He’s been in the DA’s office for 23 years and the fact that he’s one of 11 who survived the turnover speaks to his ability to interpret the law, build a case and work as part of a team.
“Jon made a lot of changes and we really had about a two-year adjustment period,” says Bollinger. “Yet, Jon has a keen eye for legal talent and a knack for motivating his staff. Jon makes everyone believe that they have a vested interest in the office. He rarely misses an opportunity to give credit for a job well done and to express his thanks on behalf of the people of the district.”
Another holdover from the prior administration is Cathi Radford, the sex crimes prosecutor. With more than 10 years of experience behind her, she’s built solid relationships with attorneys, judges, police departments and other agencies. Her experience and expertise are invaluable assets to the young lawyers in the office.
“Coming in, Jon had a clear vision of what he could change and what could be built upon,” says Radford. “I believe we have struck the right balance between the new prosecutors and those with experience.”
One of the young prosecutors has deep ties to the area. Megan Milliken comes from a family that has lived in Brunswick County for five generations. After passing the State Bar, she moved home and now leads prosecution for domestic violence cases. Like her co-workers, she says that some cases can get difficult because you know the families or people involved. Seeing them in the midst of an investigation or trial can take an emotional toll, but, she says, you learn quickly how to compartmentalize, how to separate work and life.
Quintin McGee is on the front lines in District Court, where he handles the bulk of misdemeanor cases that come into the courthouse on a daily basis.
“Quintin is really the face of the office for most folks who come into court on traffic violations or as victims of crime,” says David. “He is the first contact for law enforcement as they work to move cases through court. Every case in District Court, and there are hundreds every day, must go through Quintin.”
David notes that the District Court prosecutor must have a high energy level, a tolerance for stress, and be quick with cases analysis. “Prosecuting in District Court is much like conducting an orchestra,” David says. “The prosecutor must be able to work well with the judges, law enforcement, the defense bar and the public. It’s the prosecutor’s job to see that all of these competing interests are directed at doing substantial justice.”
Doing right by the public is a large part of many of their cases, and while murder trials may be flashy and grab headlines, that doesn’t take away from the contributions that don’t garner media attention. Take Jamie Turnage, for example. She works late, all hours, actually, on call to investigate traffic-related deaths and DWIs. She, and others in the office, go on ride-alongs with police, staff DWI checkpoints and put in time on their particular area of expertise.
“Watching the officers work in the real world gives me a new appreciation for the stresses and dangers that they encounter as they seek to protect us,” says Turnage. “I am fortunate to work with a great group of people who are willing to make such a sacrifice for us all.”
Although the late-night crime scene calls may pull her form her slumber, that’s something she’s ok with, because, as she says, “If our efforts save lives, then we’ve made a real difference.” And that’s what they’re all after.
David empowers his staff members to make decisions and will back them up if and when they’re questioned. The assistant district attorneys say his support of them is critical to successful completion of their duties on any given day. Bollinger, the office veteran, says this is a rare but welcome trait and the sign of a good leader.
They’re a jovial bunch, full of laughs, and I find that sitting at that feared long conference table (I sit at the head and they sit to either side, which makes me feel less like I am being interrogated), we have a lot in common. Thurston brews his own beer, Thomas and I share a love for Survivor, Gore’s a sports fan (to the point where he once considered becoming an agent) and outdoorsman, Turnage plays volleyball against friends of mine (and has quite a collection of trophies to prove her mettle on the court), and everyone strikes me as genuine and deeply concerned for the welfare of the people of Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties.
Before I leave I tell David I had expected a room full of seersucker, bow ties and stern looks. He laughs. “We’re not that, but we are a great group of lawyers and a tight prosecutorial team,” he says.
Standing with him in a small conference room, he directs my attention to a map. Thick black lines trace the outlines of the 44 prosecutorial districts in North Carolina. His area of responsibility is huge, the size of the state of Delaware.
“These are the people I’m responsible for, that we’re responsible for,” he says. “We have to serve them justice as best we can and we try, we try hard.”
David is pleased with the way the office has evolved.
“The people of this district hired me to make some hard decisions,” he says. “In the final analysis, I’ve tried to make decisions that I believed would make our team better. My goal was to build on what was working by adding new talent. I am very proud of our team here in Brunswick County and believe the citizens of our county deserve nothing less.”