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Norman Vroman, 69; D.A. Once Jailed for Tax Evasion

October 01, 2006|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Norman Vroman, the unconventional district attorney of Mendocino County who defended the rights of gun owners and medical marijuana advocates and was elected despite having gone to prison for failing to pay income tax, has died. He was 69.

A Los Angeles native who spent the early part of his legal career in Southern California, Vroman died Sept. 21 at a hospital in Santa Rosa, Calif. He had suffered a heart attack at his home in Hopland, 100 miles north of San Francisco, three days earlier.

In 1991, Vroman was charged with felony tax evasion and failure to file tax returns -- including some years when he was employed as a prosecutor for the Mendocino County district attorney's office. He was convicted of the lesser misdemeanor charges and served nine months in federal prison. Because he was acquitted of the felony, he was allowed to continue to practice law and run for office.

He became a candidate in 1998, taking on the incumbent district attorney, conservative Republican Susan Massini. A registered Libertarian, Vroman appealed to voters dissatisfied with Massini's handling of a high-profile murder case and was endorsed by such disparate groups as the National Rifle Assn. and the Green Party.

Vroman said before the election that his experiences as a convict gave him "a perspective that no other district attorney in the state has -- how the laws are applied and what happens after incarceration, what it feels like to walk through Los Angeles airport with belly chain and handcuffs."

His victory, by a 52%-48% margin, was cited as evidence of the vagaries of politics in a mostly rural county populated by environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, loggers, hunters and those who smoke pot for medicinal and recreational purposes.

Once he took office, it wasn't long before Vroman started making headlines again. He worked to implement a liberal medical marijuana policy, and he filed murder charges against two men accused of starting a brush fire outside a methamphetamine lab that resulted in the deaths of two pilots fighting the fire. (The defendants were later convicted on lesser charges.)

Reelected in 2002, he was running for a third term in the November election.

Born Dec. 14, 1936, and adopted soon after, Vroman was raised in San Dimas. After earning a bachelor's degree at what is now the University of La Verne and a law degree at the University of Colorado, he returned to the San Gabriel Valley in 1961.

Vroman worked as a lawyer at a firm in La Verne and at the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and served on the La Verne City Council in the 1960s. He was appointed to the Pomona Municipal Court by former Gov. Ronald Reagan but lost his seat on the bench in the 1972 election. He became involved in a brass manufacturing business to supplement his legal work.

In 1976 Vroman sold everything and moved to Northern California, living simply on a remote ranch in Willits. After a few years, he returned to the legal world as a public defender, a judge pro tem and an assistant district attorney in Mendocino County.

Among his survivors are his wife, Raleigh Page-Russell; three children from his marriage to Marian Brandt, which ended in divorce, Kathryn Vroman Benner of Santa Paula, Melissa Vroman of Glendale and Brandt Vroman of West Linn, Ore.; six grandchildren; sister Claudia Vickers of Redwood City; and half-sister Denise Cook of Lima, Ohio.

Late in life he searched for his birth mother, found her in Ohio and embraced his newly discovered Irish ancestry. Consequently, an Irish wake was held Saturday in Hopland.

claire.noland@latimes.com

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