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Happy Trails for Bradbury

Longtime D.A. has retired from post, but ranch, family and new job will keep him busy.

November 03, 2002|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

For a tough-talking cowboy lawman, Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury turned soft as worn saddle leather in the days before retirement.

Kicking around his Ojai Valley ranch last week, the 60-year-old lawyer known for his political power and hard-nosed crime-fighting style talked about his memorable ride as the county's longest-serving district attorney.

"It's one emotional layer on top of another," said Bradbury, who struggled to hold back tears in the days before hanging up his spurs.

"It gets hard," he said. "But you kind of put on your game face, your trial face."

Bradbury, who handed over the reins Friday to prosecutor Greg Totten, begins work this week as a highly paid partner at a Los Angeles law firm after an unprecedented six terms as Ventura County district attorney.

During those 24 years, he built a reputation as the most influential politician in a county routinely ranked as the safest in the western United States.

He reigned over a golden age in local law enforcement, a time when Ventura County went further than any other in California to shield public safety agencies from budget cuts.

As the county evolved from a farm region to a mushrooming suburb of Los Angeles, Bradbury tripled the size of the district attorney's office. His deputies prosecuted cases big and small, sending 14 killers to death row and also suing a candy manufacturer for skimping on the number of sweets per box.

Bradbury went after law enforcement colleagues with the same verve when he felt they had done wrong. He infuriated a Los Angeles sheriff and a Santa Barbara prosecutor by questioning their handling of cases.

And throughout his years, Bradbury held firm to a stubborn policy of no plea bargaining that continues to force between 9% and 13% of cases to trial--more than twice the state average.

"We're known as a tough no-nonsense office, and it is in large measure to the practices and policies that he established," Totten said. "You do a crime, you'll do the time in this county."

A rural police chief's son raised in Northern California, Bradbury graduated from the University of Oregon and earned a law degree from Hastings Law School in San Francisco.

Before his graduation in 1967, he was recruited to the Ventura County district attorney's office and, aside from a stint in private practice, spent his career as a prosecutor.

Bradbury was first elected district attorney in 1978.

From the start, he refused to deal down misdemeanor drunk-driving cases. Defense attorneys argued that borderline cases were being unnecessarily charged. Bradbury would not budge.

"It was common practice to reduce those to reckless driving, and that offended Mike," said George C. Eskin, a former prosecutor and retired criminal defense attorney.

Bradbury's distaste for plea bargains was perhaps most visible in the prosecution of Diane Mannes, a drunk driver who struck five teens on the Conejo Grade in 1989, killing three.

Mannes repeatedly offered to plead guilty to manslaughter. Bradbury insisted on prosecuting her for second-degree murder--even after a jury failed to convict her and a judge dismissed the case.

Prosecutors unsuccessfully appealed. After a four-year legal battle, Mannes pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter.

"There is kind of a long battle of fighting cases that we think are overcharged," said Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman, whose office represented Mannes.

Bradbury took on his most politically perilous investigation a decade ago, when he questioned the motives of Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies who shot and killed Malibu millionaire Don Scott in a bungled drug raid.

Bradbury, who investigated the shooting because Scott's ranch is in Ventura County, concluded that Deputy Gary Spencer shot the gun-wielding rancher in an early-morning raid in self-defense.

But he also found that the deputy should not have been on the property in the first place and called the raid "a land grab."

The report set off a political firestorm.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block cleared his deputies of wrongdoing and recommended public censure of Bradbury for "willful distortions of fact" to grab publicity.

State Atty. Gen. Daniel Lungren also disputed Bradbury's conclusions that the deputies raided Scott's $5-million ranch to seize it as government property, and chastised the prosecutor.

Bradbury stands by his report.

"You just don't criticize other law enforcement agencies, that's sort of an unwritten rule," he said. "I just couldn't walk away from it."

Bradbury couldn't walk away from a Santa Barbara case, either.

Two years ago, Ventura County investigators uncovered evidence that Santa Barbara County prosecutors put away the wrong man, Efren Cruz, for a 1997 slaying.

After Santa Barbara prosecutors refused to reopen the case, Bradbury's deputies secured a taped confession from an Oxnard gang member who admitted to the killing.

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