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A Would-Be Lawyer's Past and Character Go on Trial

Law: A heroin addict 23 years ago, he killed his sister. He's changed, but must prove his rehabilitation to the state.

September 15, 1998|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

Polite and self-effacing, he is a slender man with graying blond hair brushed to the side, gleaming teeth and blue eyes. In every new business or personal relationship, he has recounted his troubled past and has never been rejected because of it, Gossage said.

"I have been very lucky," he said, wearing a stylish sport jacket and tie as he sipped herbal tea in a small restaurant in an industrial San Francisco neighborhood. "People have been very kind."

Transcripts of Gossage's bar trial show a parade of witnesses, with former professors, current business investors, state Senate Democratic leader John Burton, San Francisco Supervisor Sue Bierman and Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan all testifying on his behalf.

The theme of rehabilitation permeated the three-week proceeding. Burton himself has overcome a drug problem: cocaine addiction that torpedoed his previous congressional career. And Hallinan had to go to the Supreme Court to obtain a law license after the bar rejected him because of scrapes with the law and arrests in civil rights demonstrations.

Gossage "had emotional problems, drug and alcohol problems," the district attorney said in an interview. "The things that he did are not things that would make you believe he is a person not to be trusted. . . . It wasn't theft and it wasn't cheating and lying."

Gossage knows city officials through his real estate and environmental efforts. He works in a small trailer on a lot where he and an investor are developing lofts. He has a long-term relationship with a woman, but has not married. Running 40 minutes a day has kept him fit and sober and turned him into an activist for clean air. He would like to practice environmental law.

Tormented by addictions until he was 29, Gossage said he was to blame for all his problems. "I did not develop any inner strength," he said, describing his childhood as good and his parents as caring and loving. "I didn't learn how to cope with pain, with disappointment, with setbacks."

Gossage said that he has been sober for 16 years and that drugs and alcohol no longer hold any allure for him, even in times of stress.

When he killed his sister during a struggle, he said, he was trying to defend himself but lost control. "I criminally overreacted," he said.

Remorse Over Past Transgressions

If it weren't for the notoriety of his family, Gossage's manslaughter case probably would have attracted little attention. He came from the top tier of San Francisco society and descended to making his bed under parked cars.

His father, the late Howard Luck Gossage, was a nationally renowned advertising genius who revolutionized the business on the West Coast. Once described as the "cultural captain of San Francisco's creative circles," the senior Gossage palled around with journalists and literary types, and his name appeared regularly in local newspaper columns.

When he married the former Mary Baty, a member of a wealthy Midwest banking family, the event was covered in the society pages. The couple separated when Eben was 5 and his sister, Amelia, called Amy, was 4. The parents formed separate households in wealthy Pacific Heights, the children living with their mother.

Although financially secure, the family struggled with private demons. Mary Gossage, a liberal social activist, drank so much that it eventually killed her. Howard Gossage, consumed by his career, did not truly bond with his son until Eben was 14 and working in his offices. Shortly afterward, the elder Gossage died of leukemia.

By the time he was 16, Eben was drinking heavily, using drugs and stealing to support his addictions. He forged checks he stole from his mother and grandmother, and went to jail.

"His addiction was a desperate addiction," remembers San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown.

Eben was in jail when his mother was found dead in her home on Mother's Day in 1974. Prison authorities refused to let Eben attend her funeral.

After his release, he moved to expensive Telegraph Hill, only a couple of blocks from the apartment of his sister, a strong-willed, physically striking artist who was often described as his best friend. The pair lived on trust funds they had inherited from their family and saw each other often. On Feb. 12, 1975, Eben was waiting in his sister's apartment when she returned home with a friend. He was drunk, and she became so furious that she tried to hit him with a hammer, a witness later told police.

He returned the next day and argued with his sister over who was to blame for their mother's alcoholism. He said she grabbed a hammer and scissors and threatened to poke out his eyes. He wrestled the hammer away and "hit her until I was free," he told the bar. "And now I know that I hit her many times and it caused her death."

After he realized she was dead, he pummeled her back with his fists, one of which held the scissors. "I was blaming her for causing her own death," he testified at his trial.

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