I had arranged to meet with David at his recently purchased home in the Ukiah suburbs but with construction under way there it was decided we move to his office downtown. He was elected as District Attorney in November and at that time he immediately moved into a smaller office and out of “my predecessor’s huge office” which then became a conference room. This is where we sat down to chat…
David was born in the Detroit suburb of Livonia in 1957 to parents Charles ‘Chuck’ Eyster and Carolyn Rice. He is the family’s genealogist and so was able to go into some detail about his forefathers, the Eyster side of the family in particular… They were Lutherans who, as a result of religious repression, came to the States from Wurttemberg (now in Germany) in 1717 and settled in York County, Pennsylvania. There were lots of Eysters/Aisters/Oysters in the region but by the 1800’s the name was settled as Eyster. The family worked mainly in agriculture but they were successful blacksmiths too so that by the time of the Civil War they had become well-to-do merchants and were the outfitters for the Union army – providing horses, uniforms and food.
As the West opened up, the family spread to Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. “By that time we were in a church called The Brethren, a sort of Mennonite Christian group. I have researched all this after getting a book that was 32 pages long on the Eysters from my mother following the birth of my son in 1993. I continue to check weekly obituaries and the Internet has opened up a treasure chest of information so that there now are a further four to five thousand pages that I have added.”
David’s great Grandfather, Peter, was in the Ohio Volunteers who fought on the Union side in the Civil War, and he had a son, Charles Centennial Eyster, who was born on July 4th, 1876 – hence the name. Charles later became a Minister and missionary working in and around Ohio’s low hill country. He had a son, David’s father, the youngest of four, who was born in Mineral Springs, Ohio in 1921 and the Reverend went on to become the local Director of the Red Cross and a ministered to Prisoners. He died in 1936 and so David never knew him.
As for the Rice side of the family, they were of Scottish descent and had also come to the States in the 1700’s. They were Sons of the American Revolution and had fought in the War of Independence, one of them being a piper who had led troops into battle. “My great grandfather was a merchant in Dansville, Michigan and when he died unexpectedly my great Grandmother moved with the children to Ann Arbor where she ran a boarding house that paid for the boys to go to the University of Michigan Dental School. My grandfather and his brothers all became dentists in Detroit and his daughter, my mother Carolyn, went to the University of Michigan too, studying to become a dental hygienist. One day my father, who was a traveling salesman for the Indiana Safety and Supply Company, was in the chair at the dentist’s office and my mother was assisting the dentist as his hygienist. That is how they met and they were married in Detroit in 1953.”
David has an older brother and sister, Tim and Nancy, with a younger sister Amy. They grew up for a few years in Livonia but when his father became the Mid-west sales manager he moved to the main office in Coshocton, Ohio, east of Columbus, south of Cleveland. “I attended kindergarten in Livonia but then entered 1st grade in Coshocton, a town about the size of Ukiah. I used to bicycle all over town and yet my Mom always knew where I was – mothers would talk to each other throughout the day and they knew every kid’s whereabouts – and what you were doing wrong. We would explore the old strip mines in the coalfields on the outskirts of town. We lived in a part of town that was known as ‘Heated Hill’ – it was at the top of hill that was too steep to drive up in the winter ice so they put in electrical heating lines under the road to melt the ice. It was a nice, middle-class neighborhood and my parents belonged to the country club where there was a swimming pool and snack bar I spent lots of time at. It was seen as important for my Dad to be there for his business and he and I played in ‘father and son’ golf tournaments and I had tennis and ballroom dancing lessons too.”
“I guess overall I had a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ sort of upbringing. I was not spoilt but was certainly loved and had what I needed. My father was strict and we had to listen and anytime I was spanked I have no doubt that I deserved it. Then when my father was away on business, as he often was for two or three weeks at a time, my mother was almost as strict and not averse to giving us a whack too, although I never really felt it was arbitrary. We knew that if ever my parents made a request with a warning or threat attached, it would have to be obeyed because that would become a reality if we didn’t… We had our chores to do and my parents volunteered us to shovel the snow off our elderly neighbor’s drive – that was Grace and Clarence Miller and sometimes Mrs. Miller gave us a quarter for doing it – which was like a $100 bill to us in those days! It was a small-town mentality of helping and taking care of others…At school I was the Captain of the Safety Patrol and that gave me a sort of special status – a big deal back then. Then in 5th grade I started to play basketball and that became a big part of my life in the next few years. The whole town would watch the games it seemed and Coshocton High School had a good team for many years.”
In 6th grade, when David was twelve years old, his father was offered the job as Western Sales Manager and his parents made the decision to move. “In many ways my parents did not like the fishbowl aspect of living in a small town so they were fine with the move, although coming from very conservative, stable, small-town Ohio and moving to northern California in 1969 was a very brave move on their part. We settled in the East Bay in the town of San Ramon by Dublin, before moving to nearby Danville a year later. It was a cool place to live, an area where various celebrities and sports figures lived although they were on top of the hill why we lived down in the Valley. It was still quite rural at that time with walnut groves in Crow Canyon where the big corporate offices are now. I attended Charlotte Wood Junior High and once again rode my bike everywhere – it was safe to go far and wide in those days, we had no fear.”
At the age of thirteen David joined the Boy Scouts, a pursuit that he considers was invaluable in terms of building his character and providing him with many of the skills and experiences from which he has benefited on may occasions since. “My father told my older brother and me that if we were to do anything that he wanted us to do, it would be for us to become Eagle Scouts. We both eventually did… Scouting gave us many skills and a structure to our young lives. By the time I was fifteen I was a camp counselor at summer camp and teaching younger scouts all the skills of rowing, canoeing, camping, hiking etc, and I was a member of the national Rifle team, in which nothing less than bulls-eyes would do. Overall I was in the scouts for five years and I believe it’s something you have to get done before sports and girls take over, otherwise those other two activities will take over and you’ll never get it done.”
Sure enough, by the time he was a senior in high school, David had moved on to both girls and, particularly, sports – he was the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team at San Ramon H.S. “I was 6’1” and 170 pounds and we were given honorable mention in the preseason Top Ten East Bay poll that year. We lost to the number one team but then won the rest of our preseason games. It looked good. Then we lost every regular season game by five points or less! Incredible. It was certainly character building but very frustrating obviously – my claim to fame was that I led the team in technical fouls! We had a good team, no stars, and it was a good experience. Lots of discipline and values were instilled that season – life skills, if you like.”
David was a B+ student and found high school generally quite easy. “I probably could have done better at school but it was important to have fun and I probably did things on the weekends that I shouldn’t have, but we were always discrete – unlike a lot of the kids these days… Meanwhile, I was accepted at U.C. Santa Barbara – it was just expected that I’d go to college, my family had all gone and it was not a case of ‘are you going to college?’ but ‘where are you going?’ “ He graduated high school in June 1975 and began his pre-Dental studies that fall. “I loved chemistry and, as I mentioned earlier, my mother’s side had all been in the dentistry profession – it was the Rice legacy! However, once at college I found that I really didn’t like the subject at all. I spoke to a counselor and he advised that I try out other subjects. I did some Political Science classes and not only enjoyed them but got all A’s. I told my parents that I wanted to switch to law and they were fine with it. My father had graduated from Kent State at sixteen and I remember vividly walking around the U.C.S.B. campus with him during my freshman year and the conversation we had. He told me there were more opportunities to learn from at college than just those in the classroom. His expectation was that I was to take advantage of them all – to have fun; there were social experiences to be enjoyed too. He told me to not miss out on the ‘life education’ available. I followed his advice.”
David lived in dormitories all four years at college. In his sophomore year he was the co-Chair of his dorm and in his junior year he became the President of the Residents Hall Association, responsible for scheduling multi-dorm events, speakers, entertainment, dances, movie nights, etc. “I ran for Student Body President but lost – probably a good thing, besides we had a great ‘defeat party.’ Then in my senior year I was the Resident Assistant for my hallway in the dorm… I continued to play basketball but it was clear I’d be a bench player on the college team at most so I concentrated on intra-mural ball instead. We had a great team, probably competitive with most junior colleges and I averaged 24 points a game over my final three years… I had lots of fun at college but not enough credits as a result. I was therefore planning to do a fifth year when the registrar informed that I had actually achieved enough to graduate – that was a great disappointment to me! I hadn’t applied to graduate school or anything so when I graduated in June 1979 a month later I took a clerk position at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. I car pooled to work from the East Bay with Richard Dean (the Clerk of the Court), Marcie Green, and David Schmitt – three high level court people. That didn’t hurt as it turned out…”
When the employee in charge of the court’s computer records quit, Richard Dean asked David to step in and learn the very unique system that was in place. He was soon in charge of the programs and over-seeing the data input of the 9th Circuit’s computer system. “I was living with my parents in Danville and commuting in each day to the court building at 7th and Mission. I also traveled to wherever the appellate panels were held in the 9th Circuit – to both Portland and Los Angeles. I was responsible for taking the briefs, setting the court up, and keeping track of the minutes and time, etc – I was kind of a gopher and it was all about business, although it was a lot of fun. However, my parents had instilled in me the desire to meet or exceed the achievements of the previous generation and they wanted me to go to Law School. Plus, with my new experiences in court, I had decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer… I had met two senior judges at work – Alfred Goodwin and Otto Skopil, and they had taken an interest in me, recommending I apply for Williamette University College of Law in Oregon. I took some tests and applied. It is the oldest university west of the Mississippi, an Ivy League-looking school, and I was accepted to join their 100th centennial class and headed for Salem, Oregon in August 1980.”
David was kept on as a consultant by the Court in San Francisco to answer any questions they may have had and he checked in every week. Williamette has a reputation for producing courtroom trial lawyers and offers a very rigorous three-year course. At the end of his second year, David took on a temporary job as an environmental law clerk in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Portland. “I was selected out of a group of clerks by the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Tom Lee, which was an honor. He is an extremely capable attorney, not flamboyant, kind of quirky.”
David graduated in May 1983 and decided to return to California where he took a job as law clerk with the law firm Kiernan and Finnegan in their Marina District office in San Francisco. “I was offered a job there because the big attorney there was David Schmitt – from the car pool I had been in, and so I returned to the city and moved back in with my parents.”
In October 1983, David was socializing in San Francisco’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’ section of the Marina District with friends from his high school days. There was an altercation with some drunken rugby players from the University of Southern California, up in the Bay Area for the Cal/U.S.C. football game. At one point David was trying to settle a dispute outside a bar when he was suddenly blindsided with a tremendous punch to the face. He went down but chased after the perpetrator, down alleyways, in a taxi ride when both of them got in the same cab, across the City to Union Square, and eventually getting two cops’ attention by grabbing the guy in the street and shouting ‘Help, police!’ After explaining what had happened to the cops, they found cocaine in the guy’s pockets and arrested him. Meanwhile David’s mouth had been continually filling up with blood throughout this whole sequence of events.
“The cop who saw me first said ‘Oh my God’ and immediately called the ambulance and I was rushed to hospital. That one punch had broken my jaw in four places – it had basically shattered my face. It turned out he was the President of the U.S.C. Rugby Club. One of my friends who had tracked me down to the hospital had to finally pluck up enough courage to call my Dad. Apparently he phoned and, when my Dad picked up, my buddy Mike said, ‘Hi, Mr. Eyster’. My Dad knew right away something was up and said ‘Cut the shit, Mike, what’s going on?’… I was in hospital for a week and had to have jaw reconstruction surgery. The guy was convicted of felony battery and sentenced to 180 days and restitution for hospital bills.”
With his jaw wired shut, David was on liquid foods and lost a lot of weight. He could hardly talk and had to leave his job as a result. However, in 1984 he passed the Bar exam and started to apply for jobs from Orange County in southern California up to Mendocino County. The Mendocino D.A., Vivian Rackaukas, interviewed him and although he had never been to the County before, when she offered him the job he accepted. On October 26th, 1984 he started as the Deputy D.A. in the then-underachieving Family Support Division of the DA’s Office.
“As I tried to revitalize the County’s child support enforcement effort it meant lots of civil work, not much criminal, but I threw myself into it and got a lot done, getting the Family Support division out of disarray. We had an office in the courthouse annex and had a staff of women who were sensational. One of them Carmen Macias runs my office here today. I found myself working seven days a week – there hadn’t been an attorney in the department for several months. I lived on West Perkins St and walked to and from work. We had a huge caseload to catch up with but we both worked and played hard so it was a lot of fun… Also, the D.A. let me cherry-pick some criminal cases so that I could continue to work on my trial skills. Emily Valentine, a legal secretary, taught me the ropes at the D.A. office – she was my surrogate ‘butler.’ I am very appreciative of her efforts and will be a friend of hers until the day I die – ‘it’s good to have a guide in a foreign land’”.
In 1986, Susan Massini became the new D.A. and she transferred David to the Felony Trial Team. Meredith Lintott, who would later precede him as D.A, replaced him at Family Support. During his tenure as a prosecutor, David rose through the ranks to become the office’s senior supervisor and the County’s lead criminal trial attorney. Many articles have been written of his courtroom successes over the year, as he personally handled Mendocino County’s serious and violent crimes. He is known for being an innovator; an attorney always on the cutting edge of law and technology. He was the first prosecutor in the state to obtain a conviction that resulted in a large- scale commercial abalone poacher being sent to prison. Using the Three Strikes law, he personally prosecuted the serial arsonist who had been setting random fires that endangered the town of Mendocino, obtaining convictions at trial that resulted in the arsonist being sent to prison for 105 years to life. On a less successful note, in 1992, David ran for judge against Henry Nelson. “He blew me out of the water.”
“I did very well as a prosecutor and went two years without losing a case. I became pretty cocky and forgot the adage that ‘if you haven’t lost, you haven’t tried enough cases’. It hit me one day. I then lost three in succession, two because of poor jury selection by me. It brought me down to earth and helped me refine my trial skills. In 1990 I was promoted to the county’s first ever Deputy D.A. 4 – a super-level manager. We have eight of those now.”
In 1990, David married Gail and their son Dylan was born in 1993. “Ultimately things did not work out and we went through an acrimonious divorce – unfortunately Dylan was a victim of that. It was finally settled in 2006 and I remain friends with some of my former wife’s family.”
During his time in the D.A.’s office, David was responsible for reviving the Fort Bragg “cold case” that involved the brutal murders of a family of four by two Hell’s Angels, both now serving life sentences in prison. “That was a big success for me. I managed to put together a very difficult and complex case in the context of the Hell’s Angels code of silence. However, other attorneys finished the case as Susan Massini had fired me before it was concluded. I had complained publicly that I was not getting the necessary resources from her and I was the most visible and vocal attorney in the office on that issue. Meanwhile she was running for Judge against Ron Brown and I had a ‘Ron Brown for Judge’ sticker on my car. It was a matter of principal. On the day of the vote in her race, she came into my office at 1.30pm with an investigator, demanded my badge, and gave me two hours to get out. She was firing me after eleven and a half years. She left and told the investigator to stay at my door. He was wearing a gun and she instructed him to make sure I did not take any files or the hard drives from the computer. After she left, I told him I was leaving with my floppy discs as they were my private and personal files and if he tried to stop me he’d have to shoot me. When I left a little later he was no longer around. It was traumatic experience – I thought I had been doing the work of three attorneys and doing it well.”
“Massini and I had been at loggerheads from the fall of 1995 until the day I was fired – March 26th, 1996. I had been the number one applicant as a prosecutor for a job in Sacramento and she influenced the decision to not hire me. I really thought she’d let me go and get another job, but no. Then she fired me on the day of her possible election to Judge. It was on the local news that afternoon that the Deputy D.A. had been fired and yet the people were still going to the polls. It was a very poor emotional decision by her – somebody who was normally a very smart and a good politician, and Ron Brown won. It a miscue by her and turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
“I had been fired with two hours notice and had no career plan. I was offered and accepted a job with the Lake County D.A. for a few months that summer and it allowed me to ‘get back in the saddle’ again, and also time to reflect on whom my real friends were. Henry Nelson, who had been my opponent in the judicial race of 1992, was very supportive. The whole event changed my world view quite a lot.”
David continued his career growth by working from late 1996 through 1998 as an attorney for the prestigious Sacramento law firm of Burger & Plavan. “The firm had a reputation for excellence and a track record of winning. I went from being in a rural D.A.’s office to an elite law firm – and without help from anyone in the car pool this time!… There were about eighteen to twenty lawyers, a big staff, and big money – but we worked really, really hard. The partners were husband and wife – Frank Plavan and Trena Burger. She is now a judge in Sacramento and actually swore me in as D.A. last year. Because of my criminal law background, I played a major role in the California Department of Corrections’ successful multi-million dollar information technology lawsuit against a national defense contractor – TRW. I was the Second Chair Trial Attorney and briefed the government and its representatives. This was a big time case and TRW settled, paying significant funds to the State, in what was the first win for the State in such a case.”
In November 1998, with Frank Plavan in poor health, the firm was gradually closed down and David, one of the last to leave, found a job working for Miller and Associates, a Santa Monica criminal defense law firm, at its office in Roseville, near Sacramento. “I appeared in courts everywhere from Merced to Oregon and into Nevada – overall I have worked in thirty two of the State’s fifty eight counties. Such experience, seeing how other counties do it, has given me many interesting insights.” After nearly four years at Miller and Associates, in 2002 he went to work for a competing firm, the Chase Law Group for another four years before returning to Ukiah in 2006 and becoming the Northern California supervisor for two nationally known criminal defense law firms, one of which was the law office of Duncan James in Ukiah.
In December 2009, David decided to run for District Attorney. “I had Duncan’s blessing despite the fact that he would be losing someone who did lots of work for the firm. After a run-off with Meredith Lintott, the incumbent, David won the election by a significant margin, 53.5 to 46 – “It was the largest victory in a D.A. election for twenty five years, normally these elections are won by four points or less. I appreciate the work put in by so many people for that. The campaign was enjoyable, if at times tedious. I was still working at the law firm and it was tough to do both. I am not a very good politician and we did not have a strong campaign apparatus so we relied on word of mouth, reputation, lots of work at the grass roots level, and I shook lots of hands and I won the debates heard on radio. Our Facebook page was a success too, as was the ‘Eyster4DA.com website.”
Looking ahead, David is clear of the need to hit the ground running and leading by example. “I believe it is very important that the residents of Mendocino County be proud and supportive of their DA’s Office, a support that must be earned however. It is difficult to support an office that is wasting resources by prosecuting the wrong people and cases, and not acting in the interests of justice. I hope to change that.” He also believes low employee morale is negatively impacting the overall performance of the DA’s Office. “It is important that any staff believe that their boss has the right experience to know what he or she is talking about.” Moreover, he believes in what he calls “old school” priorities, meaning the main focus of prosecution efforts should be on the “thugs” who victimize others. “We live in a time of limited resources. As a result, the DA’s limited resources need to be first allocated to prosecuting crimes with direct victims. If you hurt or steal from your neighbor, you will see me in court and I will be firm and focused on seeking justice. I seek to be both a cost-effective manager and a courtroom advocate. I am not interested in pushing paper in my office while others are doing the important work, especially when that work involves standing up for victims of crime. I intend to lead by example, which may be a new experience for many of the staff at the DA’s Office.”
I next asked my guest for his opinions on a few of the issues that concern the residents of the Valley and beyond in the County… The Wineries and their impact? – “They are a promoter of tourism that is necessary in this county, keeping dollars in the coffers. Along with the ranchers and timber people they are the stewards of our land, and they are keeping it from being developed into housing”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “It has been a nemesis and a friend at different times and for different reasons. It is entertaining and not as mean-spirited as it used to be. It continues to provide a valuable service and do some good investigative work”… Law and Order in Anderson Valley? – “The Valley is blessed with having resident deputies who are generally taking care of business without bringing it over the hill. I believe it is imperative that the quality of life afforded by having them be continued. The Supervisors have to make very difficult decisions but we must maintain the core facilities – the Sheriff’s department and the D.A.’s office, the Fire department, and the roads and infrastructure. They are the core businesses of the County and need our support first and foremost.”
Finally, marijuana? – “I’m trying to take it off the front page. I believe the previous DA allowed her office and the courts to become bogged down by marijuana.” He blames this on poor charging decisions, which flow from ill-advised policies and priorities. “The philosophical fight is over. The voters have made medicinal marijuana the law. It is legally and morally wrong to prosecute patients who are trying to comply with the letter and spirit of the law. If I am going to direct the prosecution of anybody for marijuana, let it be the able-bodied, illegal profiteers and trespassers who trash our lands, kill wildlife, divert water resources and make parts of Mendocino County a dangerous place to live.”
Turning from talk of his career, I asked David for a strong image he has of his father. “A funny guy; somebody you would want to have as a friend. He had a stroke in 1994 and didn’t talk much after that. His quality of life was not good after that until he died in 2004. Dr Kevorkian would have pulled the switch much earlier”… And a reflection on his mother? “She is still in the family home in the East Bay. She had a stroke in 2001 but it was not as debilitating as my Dad’s. We have a care provider, Lotta, who does a wonderful job. She was a good mother, there for everything you needed. The stroke robbed her of her initiative and independence though.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and the rest I came up with myself. Hopefully you will find David’s answers interesting and illuminating…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Nice people; good weather; a wonderful glass of red wine.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “People who don’t listen; mean-spirited people; bad red wine.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “All types of music.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Finger nails on a blackboard.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “A really good steak or turkey dinner.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “My father – I’d love to sit down to dinner with my Dad once more.”
7. If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? – “A framed picture of my son; an external hard-drive with all of my music; the ashes of my dog Murphy – a very special dog indeed.”
8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The movie would be ‘The Sound of Music’ and the song would be from that film – ‘Edelweiss’… I listen to lots of books on tape and one that I have enjoyed immensely of late is the autobiography of Mark Twain – recently released, one hundred years after his death.”
9. What is your favorite hobby? – “Genealogy and wine collecting.”
10. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? – “An international airline pilot.”
11. What profession would you not like to do? – “Sewer cleaner or perhaps someone who takes care of snakes.”
12. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “Well it’s not so much feeling proud, more humbled, by the number of friends I have.”
13. What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The birth of my son, Dylan.”
14. What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “My father’s passing?
15. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “That I have a good laugh and smile, and hopefully some people think I have a good sense of humor.”
16. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well that is to be seen of course, but what I’d like to hear him say is “Thank you for helping others’…”