November-December 2015

On becoming a small-town prosecutor

Staley Heatly

District Attorney in Wilbarger, Hardeman, and Foard Counties

My jurisdiction is big. I mean, really big. In fact, when you add my three counties together, the area is bigger than Rhode Island. Granted, Rhode Island is pretty small, but it is a state after all.
    The population of my district, on the other hand, is pretty small. Well, it’s very small. How small? You could easily fit the entire population of my three counties into the American Airlines Center to watch a Dallas Mavericks game. That’s small for square mileage the size of Rhode Island.
    As a rural prosecutor, I encounter a number of interesting issues that prosecutors in bigger jurisdictions generally do not have to deal with. For example, a couple of years ago I coached my son’s soccer team. When I reviewed the team roster, I discovered that I had previously sent two of the eight players’ fathers to prison. That made player drop-off and pick-up a little awkward. And last season, I coached my son’s baseball team while there was an outstanding motion to revoke one player’s father through the whole season. The father was on the lam and never showed up for a game. And eating in restaurants is always a treat for a rural prosecutor. It’s hard to explain the feeling you get when the cook comes out of the back and says, “How’d that taste?”—and you recognize him from putting him on felony probation the previous week. Ack!
    But being a rural prosecutor has its perks. The commute is great. My office is a mile and a half from my front door and the drive never takes more than five minutes. My wife, Meg, and I also have plenty of room for four kids, a big garden, and over a dozen hens in our two-acre yard. And rural prosecutors get to handle some unusual cases. (Despite the sparse population in my district, there is always something interesting going on.) Over the last few years I have prosecuted oil theft, cattle theft, theft of copper rolls from the power plant, taking of wildlife resources (e.g., illegal deer hunting), tractor theft, antique tractor theft, theft of hay, and theft of anhydrous ammonia tanks. The people who stole the anhydrous were Aryan Circle members from Fort Worth, and they were hoping to have enough chemical to manufacture meth for a couple of years. Instead, they all went to prison.
    Whenever I give a presentation at a conference, I enjoy telling the audience that I am the top prosecutor in my office. I also tell them that I am the head of grand jury intake, the appellate section, the trial section, and the special crimes unit … before finally revealing that I am the only lawyer in the office. That almost always gets a chuckle.
    I never planned on being a small-town prosecutor, but fortunately everything worked out just right. It involves a few twists and turns that include Mardi Gras, the Old Ebbitt Grill, the Peace Corps, an Achuar Indian, and a fruit bat, and it concludes with Chuck Norris.

The first break
After my second year of law school at Tulane in New Orleans, I worked at a summer job in Houston. The firm was top-notch and I liked the people, enough so that I accepted a job there at the start of my third year to work in corporate finance after law school. (And if that had actually happened, I would never have risen to the glorious heights of rural prosecution.) Fortunately, I had a change of heart during Mardi Gras that March. My roommate’s brother, a lawyer at a big firm in Washington D.C., came down for a few days of rest and relaxation. As we hung out at Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar, he extolled the virtues of life in D.C. He was on the recruiting committee of his firm and wanted to know if I would be interested in flying up for an interview. Within a month I had a new job in our nation’s capital.
    After I had been in D.C. for a few months, a colleague arranged a happy hour meet-and-greet with some of her law school friends at the Old Ebbitt Grill. That is where I met Meg—we were engaged five months later and married a year later in Charlottesville, Virginia.
    After a couple of years in “big law,” I decided that I was ready for a change. Corporate finance, mergers, and acquisitions just aren’t as exciting as it seems. (I guess they don’t even seem exciting, do they?) My job involved a lot of desk time reviewing and preparing documents like SEC filings, confidentiality agreements, and merger agreements. I also did due diligence on merger targets, which involves spending a lot of time reviewing corporate documents in small rooms. If you are getting bored just reading about it, imagine what it was like to do for three years.
    In 2002, Meg and I decided to do something completely different. We left our jobs in Washington, D.C., and joined the Peace Corps. We asked to be placed in Latin America, but our first offer was to serve in Bulgaria. Fortunately, that offer fell through and a couple of weeks later we received an offer to serve in Ecuador. As soon as the offer popped up, we started seeing Ecuador all over the place. For example, the day we received the offer we went for a walk in a park in Northern Virginia and stumbled upon an Ecuadorian festival in the park. What a coincidence! A couple of weeks later we signed up for a continuing education Spanish class at Georgetown University. And our teacher—yep, she was from Ecuador.
    In February of 2003, we set off for Ecuador. After three months of training in the coastal region, we moved up to the mountains of southern Ecuador for our two-year stint. We lived in a beautiful little village in the mountains at 8,800 feet. The weather was cool, the scenery was amazing, and the people were awesome. Of course there were some slight drawbacks. We had a couple of holes in the ceiling, and you could see the sky if you stood in the right spot. There were occasional mice. And our water went on the fritz every few days and would stay off for up to a day or two, depending on the rain. We had to boil the water from the tap. It had an oily sheen on top and red flakes in the bottom. Strain it through a coffee sock and voila, the reddish, cloudy water tasted just like you think it would. And of course there were the bucket baths. Nothing like taking a “shower” by using a Nalgene bottle to scoop water out of a big bucket to pour over your head. Refreshing!
    But I digress. I am sure you are wondering what this has to do with becoming a rural prosecutor—and where Chuck Norris fits in. Trust me, we’ll get there soon.

An Achuar and a bat
At the end of our two-year stint in Ecuador, Meg and I decided to extend our Peace Corps service for another year in the Galapagos Islands. Before we started that third year, we traveled around Ecuador. In April of 2005, my brother and his wife came to visit us. We took a special vacation to the Amazon and stayed at an eco-lodge that is only reachable by jungle airstrip and boat. It was run by the local Achuar Indians. On our second day we went for a visit to a nearby village and then for a hike in the jungle. As we were walking through the jungle with our guide, Cristobal, he suddenly stopped the group and told us that he had encountered a very powerful sign. A bat had eaten some fruit and left the seeds on the trail. Crisobal told us that this important “sign” meant that someone in our group was pregnant. The same thing happened the next day, and according to Cristobal, encountering seeds on the trail twice in two days was irrefutable proof that someone was pregnant.
    Turns out, Meg was indeed pregnant—which we confirmed with a non-fruit-bat test upon our return from the jungle. The pregnancy forced us to separate from our Peace Corps service prior to our move to the Galapagos. We had not been looking for jobs and decided to just return stateside while we did some searching. The most convenient location was my hometown, Vernon, where I could work at my father’s law firm doing general practice and criminal defense while I looked for jobs elsewhere. I never thought I would return to Vernon for good—it was supposed to be temporary. And my poor wife, she wasn’t even from Vernon. But after living in rural Ecuador for two years, she was really impressed with Vernon’s paved roads, readily available tap water, hot showers, and grocery store.
    And I enjoyed working with my father. He had been district attorney in Vernon during the ’70s and ’80s, and being a prosecutor was always something I had considered. Late that summer, the then-district attorney resigned to run for judge. After discussing it with my wife, I decided to take the plunge, and I announced my candidacy for office.

What’s up, Chuck?
Because of the timing of the prior DA’s resignation, a special election was called in 2006 to fill what remained of the unexpired term. A few weeks after I announced my candidacy, another attorney filed his paperwork and announced. Shortly thereafter, the governor appointed him to the position. I went from running for an open seat to running against an incumbent in a matter of weeks.
    That wasn’t the worst of it. During the heat of the campaign, my opponent was endorsed by the one, the only, The Chuck Norris. Mr. Norris did a radio spot where he referenced his past as a television Texas Ranger and said that he supported my opponent. Devastating. My opponent was endorsed by the man who can give poison ivy a rash. Undeterred, I continued with my campaign, and when all of the votes were counted, I came out on top. I defeated Chuck Norris.
    A couple of weeks after assuming the office, my staff bought me a gift to commemorate the victory. It is a toy gerbil dressed in a karate outfit with nunchuks. When you push the button on the gerbil’s hand, it twirls the nunchuks and sings “Kung-Fu Fighting” in a chipmunk voice. Priceless. It still sits on the shelf behind my desk today.
    The last nine years as a rural prosecutor have been incredible. As the only attorney in the office, I handle every case from intake to trial to appeal. I have no one else to push the cases onto. Unfortunately, that means that I get stuck trying the occasional state jail felony possession case, but on the bright side, I am responsible for each and every case, and if I obtain an indictment, I am the one trying it. As my own appellate lawyer, I have to read my transcripts and prepare my arguments for the court of appeals. I’ve argued several cases at the court of appeals, and it really causes me to focus on getting things right at trial because I know I’ll have three sharp appellate judges putting my actions under the microscope.
    So there you have it. Now you know how Mardi Gras, the Old Ebbitt Grill, the Peace Corps, an Achuar Indian, a fruit bat, and Chuck Norris all led me to a life as a rural prosecutor. I wouldn’t trade it—or the story—for anything.