As recently memorialized in these pages, particularly in an excellent portrait by Ruth Rhodes (Come to the Edge: William Follett, Dec. 27), Del Norte County Superior Court’s presiding judge is retiring this Friday. In that 13-page article, Rhodes and Follett give special insight into this special man, whose dedication and love of his profession and community echoes far beyond the two small courtrooms at 450 H St.
As related, years ago, before his life in the law, Follett was a VISTA Volunteer in the Virgin Islands. His significant contributions to our community through his membership in the Wild Rivers Foundation, Rotary, Relay For Life and our educational system are well known. At present, he oversees Drug Court and more recently helped create and introduce the Integrated Treatment Court for people suffering from mental illness.
His dedication and compassion to and for those who have entered the criminal justice system initiated by their addiction to drugs and/or alcohol is well known in the Del Norte Superior Court. You can add to that a work ethic that is indefatigable. As any head, director or individual appointed or elected to oversee a county office, you know that it’s not a 40-hour gig — not if it’s done right. I can tell you, as a former DA who spent some part of every weekend in the office I was blessed to serve, Follett’s vehicle would be parked outside as we worked down the hallway from each other. You will never find another public servant who worked harder or came to the bench more prepared than Follett. Ironically, the respect it garnered in me brought my penchant, when not in session, for calling the man Boss (high praise from a Jersey guy, especially to a well known Parrot Head whose hero is Jimmy Buffett.)
At this point, I beg the reader to know this isn’t a puff piece. As District Attorney, Follett and my philosophies on certain areas of criminal law varied at times, particularly in how stiff sentencing should be in the area of certain narcotic cases, which continue to be one of the festering wounds and scars of this beautiful community. As the Great Seal of the State of California rattled upon the wall, I can still hear, “Mr. Alexander, you DO understand that the province of sentencing resides in the judge, not counsel.” And my usual reply, “I’m sorry, your honor, but I’m in a different branch of this democracy and I have to uphold the promises I made on the campaign trail.”
And so it would go… until hours later, when I’d find myself in his chambers and the heat of the moment would have passed and it would be just Jon and Boss again.
Yes, at times infrequent, we could strenuously disagree. But at no time did my respect for the man ever depreciate, especially as it regarded the strength and conviction of his character and integrity. You may have disagreed with him, as many vehemently and viciously did in a prominent rape case in 2017, but if you know the man, you could never disagree with the motivation for his sentencing in the matter — a thread that seems to wend its way throughout most of the life of William H. Follett — simply that most people have some good in them and if you try hard enough, you can bring it out.
All that said, I’d like to part with my favorite Follett story.
It was late winter of 2004. I’d recently left a six-month stay at the Salvation Army’s residential rehab in Anaheim and come to some place called Crescent City. I’d played my string out in the OC and headed north to be by my mother, dying of Alzheimer’s in Brookings. I didn’t have a pot to expectorate in and was having difficulty adjusting to a clean life. As any addict can tell you, you can take the dope out of you, but the hole in your life you used that poison to fill it with was still there.
Relatively destitute and — but for my Mom’s little Shih Tzu I’d sworn to care for before she’d slipped into the insanity of the disease — friendless, I sat on the edge of the bed at the Royal Roman Motel on Front Street, wiping tears off my face, trying to find some courage, some vestige of my old self to find a place in this new land where I knew no one.
First, I had to find a way to support myself with enough gas money to visit my Mom every day in North Brookings. To that end, I inquired of a local lawyer who might have some “overflow” work, hopefully in criminal law, but I’d take any scut work that was available. I was given a name and so, went to the courthouse library and put together my resume which was significant as to trial experience, from DUI’s to murder cases.
I called and made an appointment. Encouraged, I went to his office the following day. After waiting a while in his office, I was finally directed upstairs to a bar where I was interviewed by his office manager. Upon being told that she appreciated all of my experience, I told her she should know that I was a recovering drug addict, but was now clean and sober after a residential rehabilitation program. She told me she’d discuss it with the attorney and they’d get back to me.
Three days later, I put on my best suit again and hiked up the street for an interview with the presiding judge of the Del Norte Superior Court to see if there was any appointment work available. His judicial assistant took my resume and 20 minutes later I was ushered into the chambers of the Honorable William H. Follett.
Noticeably nervous, not having heard anything from the other law office, this seemed like my only shot at surviving and seeing my Mom every day. Soft-spoken and kind, as is his nature (when not discussing the finer points of sentencing), Follett asked about my experience and then asked who the people I respected the most in this world were. I think I said Dr. King and my mother.
As the conversation began to end, I told him I was a recovering addict, recently out of residential rehab and that he should know that if considering me for appointment on any cases,
As I told him about my addiction and rehab, I noticed a smile creeping upon his face. I stopped and asked if I was missing anything because it wasn’t the best of times in my life. He paused and then told me he couldn’t help smiling because it was the second time that day he’d been told about my drug problems.
Bewildered, I asked how anyone could possibly have told him about my past when I’d only been in town less than a week. He told me that it was the attorney from down the street. As the color began to rise in my neck, he smiled and said, forget about him, come see my clerk tomorrow and we’ll have a case for you, probably out of Pelican Bay.
And so, began a relationship and a foot in the door, in a new place I would eventually call home, which led to my getting county and state contracts in the Family Law Court, public defender and Pelican Bay cases, Pelican Bay death penalty prosecutor and District Attorney.
There’s a story told that there’s a sleepy little seacoast town in Mexico, somewhere between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo. The tides are vast, and upon their retreat, the beaches are strewn with thousands of starfish, drying and dying in the sun.
As it were, the receding tides often witnessed an old man, an elder of the town, walking upon the shoreline, his crisp, clean white trousers rolled to the knee. Every few steps, the old man would bend, slowly with the forlorn weight of age, gently pick up one of the starfish and toss it back into the sea where it would live to make another day upon the ocean floor.
On one particular day, a group of young boys was playing at the beach where they happened upon the old man. The oldest and most brazen of them watched quizzically before asking with the bravado of youth, “Hey old man, what are you doing?”
Slowly, the old man looked up and smiled as he replied, “I’m saving these starfish.” Haughtily, the boy shot back, “Old man, there’s thousands of them, rotting up this stinking beach, you’ll never make a difference.”
Just then, the old man bent, gently grasped the soft, pink leg of another starfish and tossed it back into the sea, then looking to the boy and responding, “I did for that one.”
And so, thank you, Boss.
Jon Alexander lives in Crescent City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org