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Hicks' District Attorney Role Changed as County Changed

August 13, 1989|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | Times Urban Affairs Writer

The 23-year career of Orange County Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks, who earlier this month said he will not seek reelection, is a saga of growth, controversy and political intrigue. It is, in a way, Orange County's own story.

When Hicks became district attorney in 1966, the county was still being portrayed nationally as a quiet, law-abiding suburb of freeway refugees--people who fled not in boats from Indochina, but in moving vans from Los Angeles.

But Orange County was the fastest-growing place in the nation. And with spectacular growth came urban problems. In the 1960s, the cases making headlines for Hicks' office involved campus protests and arrests of militant Black Panthers, and there was a crackdown on bottomless dancing and pornography. In the 1970s the focus shifted to organized crime and political corruption. By the 1980s, the emphasis was on serial killers, brutal violence committed by ever younger and younger offenders, sexual abuse and domestic violence, and, to a lesser degree, environmental polluters.

In 1966, there were only 13 lawyers and five investigators on the district attorney's staff. Today, Hicks' staff now includes 185 lawyers and 135 investigators. What's more, the staff is specialized.

For example, the 63-year-old Hicks, a Republican, was one of the first district attorneys in the state to establish a special organized crime and grand jury unit, with its own team of investigators. He was among the first district attorneys in the state to set up separate units to detect and prosecute welfare fraud, consumer fraud, career criminals, gang members, sexual abuse and polluters.

"All those things came from innovations within the D.A.'s office," said Supervisor Roger R. Stanton. "And they have been very, very effective."

Hicks' law-and-order image was helped in 1974 when he became the only district attorney in the United States to put LSD guru Timothy Leary behind bars on a drug conviction.

Hicks' prominence, however, was built on the prosecution of public officials in corruption cases. During the 1970s, Hicks' staff won the convictions of more than 44 officials and associates, including Supervisors Ralph A. Diedrich, Robert W. Battin, Philip Anthony, Republican Rep. Andrew J. Hinshaw and Assessor Jack Vallerga.

"Everything that Cecil did down there became very well known and set an example," said state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, who has served with Hicks on various state and federal law enforcement committees. "One distinguishing feature of his career was his decision to take on public officials for wrongdoing, and that always takes a lot of courage."

"Never once in all those years did he ever try to influence an investigation," said John Gier, a private eye who once commanded the investigators assigned to Hicks' organized crime and grand jury unit. "Cecil's philosophy was, 'I don't care if you happen to be investigating my mother, but please let me know, because I might be having dinner with her tonight.' "

Hicks' mother worked part time in a dress shop when Hicks was born in Los Angeles during the summer of 1926. His father was a truck driver.

Undaunted by a bout with polio when he was 8 or 9, Hicks was determined to excel. He went to UCLA, and tried out for the football team as an inexperienced, 140-pound senior. After his discharge from the Navy in 1948, Hicks enrolled at the USC Law School and, while a student there, married Jo Sturm, then a coffee shop waitress. They are still married and have five children, ages 26 to 39.

Hicks first worked as a travel secretary for Gov. Earl Warren, spent five months in the Los Angeles city attorney's office, and then three years in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. He became a deputy district attorney in Orange County in 1958. During the next eight years, Hicks racked up a near-perfect conviction rate while handling some of the district attorney's toughest criminal cases. He also tried sky-diving but gave it up after landing in the hospital with several broken bones.

In 1966, the Board of Supervisors appointed Hicks to fill the unexpired term of Kenneth Williams, who was named to the bench by Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown.

Since then, Hicks has never attracted serious opposition, despite a long chain of controversies.

For instance, after his office successfully prosecuted two Westminster officials, Derek McWhinney and Tad Fujita, for grand theft and launched other political corruption investigations, several county supervisors attacked Hicks and tried to dismantle various parts of his operation.

As part of this effort, the Board of Supervisors in 1974 disbanded the Orange County Intelligence Unit, housed in Hicks' office, and later tried unsuccessfully to transfer 22 of Hicks' investigators to Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates.

Later, Supervisor Battin, one of Hicks' strongest critics, was himself convicted of misappropriating public funds for an ill-fated 1974 campaign for lieutenant governor.

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